Its Irish owners have developed this château into a sensational escape in the south of France... and the beds are as soft as a puppy’s belly
I’d been dreaming of the French countryside for well over a year.
Way back in early 2020, I was plotting a long break in France, with nothing but warm croissants and cold rosé for company. But, of course, Covid soon put a halt to that. And everything else, for that matter.
So, after months of dreaming, the moment when I arrived at Château Capitoul felt like a fantasy made flesh. The sun was just starting to dim, casting a pinkish glow on the creamy walls of the 19th-century château. On the terrace, guests were gathering for sundowners, watching the sun set over the vineyard (which was actually planted in Roman times). The vines turned a dusky pink to match the cocktail in my hand, a blushing blend of vodka, lavender and champagne with a little sprig of velvety soft lavender clipped to the glass.
Sometimes the reality doesn’t live up to the dream, but in this case, it absolutely did.
There are eight rooms inside this particular château, located near Narbonne in the Languedoc region of southern France, and mine could have been lifted directly from my French fantasies. A deep roll-top bathtub sat by the giant window (with a bouquet of herbs from the garden in which to soak). The bed was as soft as a puppy’s belly.
As well as the rooms in the château, there are 44 villas, a super swish infinity pool, and two restaurants — the fine-dining gastronomic Mediterraneo and the casual Asado, where food is cooked up on wood-fired grills and eaten family style (even the charred bread I ate, slathered in spicy olive oil and cooked over smouldering vine branches, was to die for). The Asado, which includes the main terrace, is where most people gather each evening, whether for a cocktail or a glass of the excellent wine that’s made on site (you can do a tasting in the cellars).
There’s also a nifty spa, where I received what was possibly the best massage of my life — and I can say that with conviction, as a former massage therapist.
The château itself was painstakingly restored by Karl O’Hanlon and his wife Anita Forte, a Dublin couple who started their business in 2008, just as the recession hit. Over the past 13 years, they have converted two other properties — Château Les Carrasses and Château St Pierre de Serjac — with Château Capitoul being their third, and final. Both have a passion for interiors, design and antiques, which is clear to see with the pieces dotted throughout. On my floor in the château, there was an antique chandelier designed by Hector Guimard, who also created the instantly recognisable entrance gates for the Metro in Paris. During lockdown, O’Hanlon’s daughter (a design student from Central Saint Martins) restored this and all of the other chandeliers while she was back home with the family. There are 15,000 pieces of art throughout the property, some with pages from rare nature books, framed by a local man who is an ex-rugby player.
While it was a global financial crisis they had to deal with for their first property, Château Les Carrasses, it was Covid that caused the headache with Capitoul. The property was purchased in 2011 and development started in 2014, so it’s been a long time in the making.
“We were supposed to open in March of this year, but Covid took over that last stretch,” O’Hanlon tells me. “But it is what it is. For us, the whole business isn’t about making money. Our goal was to create something that allowed us to live exactly the life we wanted to live. It’s about the life that it provides for us, but also for our whole team.”
Key to their whole ethos was timing — back when they started their business, their kids were very young, and they saw a gap in the market. “When you first go on holidays with your kids, you realise everything’s changed,” he says. “You try hotels, or renting villas, or family resorts, but nothing works. Our idea was to buy a wine estate and include the best bits of a hotel, the best bits of self-catering, the best bits of a resort, and wrap all of that up in the feeling of a five-star. It’s attentive, but relaxed and laidback. And that’s what we still do to this day.”
This is where the villas are key. While the rooms in the château are perfect for couples, the spacious villas give the best of both worlds — a dreamy, romantic setting with all the facilities of a boutique hotel, but the privacy and space for families to unwind. Each has a slightly unique charm, but with the same perks, like cute swimming pools, great outdoor dining areas and fully kitted-out kitchens. Some have dedicated office spaces, so people can come for longer breaks on a ‘workation’. But it’s not just families — the week I was there, a group of old friends had taken over one of the villas for a girls’ getaway, to make up for all the lost birthdays that Covid had stolen.
Since the very beginning, the goal was clear. “When we came up with the idea for the business, we said we wanted the properties to be in perfect integration with their environment — physical, natural, economic, cultural and social. That was our line when we started the business in 2008, and we’ve never changed it.”
A bugbear of mine is a hotel that claims to champion sustainability while disregarding the social elements of the concept. In other words, a hotel with a recycling bin in the bedroom but a complete lack of social policy. That’s not the case here, where there’s a huge emphasis placed on their people and their community. As well as finding specialised roles for those with mental health difficulties, who may struggle to find employment elsewhere (Anita is a psychologist by training and has a passion in this area), they champion community projects chosen by their staff.
“Environmental integration isn’t just about the natural environment; it’s about how you integrate into the social community. I wanted it to be the kind of business I would be proud of,” says O’Hanlon.
This corner of the south of France, the Languedoc, ticks all the boxes when it comes to a paradisiacal French destination. Château Capitoul is near the pretty town of Narbonne, home to a fairytale cathedral and an epic marketplace. Even closer is the village of Gruissan, a ramshackle combination of crumbling, medieval buildings and a wide stretch of beach. You can reach either spot from the château on a wide, traffic-free, cycle path. Grab one of the château’s free bikes, and you can pootle past rolling vineyards and tall, swaying grasses, right along the banks of the Canal de Sainte-Marie.
A swift 30-minute cycle will take you out to the beach at Gruissan, where the sands are shared by volleyball players and bodysurfers, leaping into the warm and churning waves. Oddly enough, there’s something of a Miami Beach feel to the place, particularly on the approach, when you cycle past wooden beach houses built on stilts.
But the real joy is at Le Grand Soleil (legrandsoleil.com), a beachside restaurant overlooking the surf, where families dig into giant vats of mussels and frites. They even have their own take on moules marinière, with chunks of local sausage and tomato.
After a quick cycle back in the other direction, you’ll find Le Salin de Gruissan — wide, sun-bleached salt plains, where the waters are a curious shade of pink. The colour is a result of algae that lives in the water, but the illusion is captivating. Sitting at one of the tables in the buzzy restaurant of La Cambuse du Saunier (lesalindegruissan.fr) the water perfectly matched my glass of rosé.
Giant cast iron pans were brought to the table and placed on trivets, the slippery razor clams sizzling and charred, the flesh sticking to the bottom of the pan in a sticky, gorgeous heap. I don’t know what made me happier — dunking fresh bread into the buttery juices at the bottom of the pan, or tucking into a perfect globe of their famous salted caramel ice cream afterwards.
There was something endlessly beguiling about those calm, pink waters. Maybe it was the rosé, maybe it was the distant sight of flamingos, maybe it was the joy at being anywhere other than my Dublin flat. But, suddenly, life seemed just that little bit rosier.
Details: Rooms from €196 per night, B&B; two-bed villas from €345;
see chateaucapitoul.com. Fly to Carcassone (less than an hour’s drive away) with Ryanair (ryanair.com).
When normal flights resume, you can also fly to Perpignan or Montpellier. Check Covid-related travel restrictions on reopen.europa.eu. Nicola was a guest of Château Capitoul.
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