One of the joys of a self-catering holiday is being free to come and go and feast as you please. But unless you’re prepared to splash out a mountain of cash, you’re unlikely to have access to all the luxuries afforded by a top-end hotel.
That’s what we thought, anyway, before visiting Chateau les Carrasses, a Disneyesque castle surrounded by vineyards in the Languedoc region of southern France.
Because the chateau doesn’t fit into an existing hotel model, it doesn’t have any stars, but it has a distinctly five-star feel – without the price tag. There’s an infinity pool (many of the “houses” on the property, sleeping six, have private pools), a tennis court, barbecue area, bikes to rent (the area is brilliant for cycling) and a children’s activity area. There’s also a pretty glass orangery that may well have been designed by Gustave Eiffel (there’s no proof he designed this one but there is one like it nearby that was definitely his handiwork).
The chateau used to be a working winery. The grape grown here – on the same vine stock that prospered in the 18th century – is processed off-site and the farm buildings have been converted into 28 suites, apartments and villas of varying sizes. They all have exquisitely tasteful French décor, Farrow & Ball pale blue and grey hues and high-end details.
Our apartment had a Smeg cooker, a Bose iPod dock and an Eames lounge chair – and we weren’t even in one of the fancier suites. We did have a peek at the most pricey suite and it was quite special – vast windows, high ceilings and a handsome bath tub in the sitting room.
If you’d rather have a break from preparing your own food there’s a smart, though pricey, restaurant in the chateau, which also does breakfast for an extra charge; or you can order your morning baked goods from there.
The staff will also advise you about the best places to eat nearby, but the main pleasure of visiting France is being able to pick out your own fresh, market produce (and letting the children practise their baguette-purchasing language).
We visited the huge covered food market at nearby Narbonne (open Monday to Saturday until 2pm) whose colourful characters include former rugby star Giles Belzons (egg chasing is a big deal in this area), who runs a Chez Bebelle (bar-chez-bebelle.com). After taking your order, he shouts his meat request on a megaphone to the nearby butcher, who hurls a slab of meat – horse if you want – over diners’ heads for cooking.
Driving is very easy in this area and the chateau – a five-minute drive from the pretty, plane tree-lined Canal du Midi and the small town of Capestang, and half an hour from Béziers airport – is a good base.
Seafood fans absolutely must try La Cambuse du Saunier (www.lesalindegruissan.fr/restaurant) in the nearby seaside village of Gruissan. It’s a pretty shack beside some traditional salt flats, with a limited menu of fresh, simple, exquisite fare.
The town of Bouzigues also has plenty of options for a leisurely lunch in the sun. There’s a long line of bustling cafes and restaurants facing an inland sea where oysters are farmed. But be warned: restaurateurs in the region are very strict about dining hours and most places stop serving before 2:30pm.
Languedoc produces more wine each year than Australia and is studded with unstuffy wineries that welcome tourists. Chateau les Carrasses can organise a trip to wineries that don’t normally have tours in, so you get a more intimate explanation of the whole, complicated process, which blends centuries of tradition with science, art and weather-related luck.
We were lucky enough to spend some time at Domaine Cibadies, which is owned by the large company Bonfils Vignobles, and which transforms the chateau’s grapes into the seriously moreish Les Carrasses.
Dotted about the landscape are some unprepossessing looking buildings called Cave Co-operatives, where anyone can pop in and taste and buy most of the wines in the immediate area.
While the region isn’t quite as beautiful as neighbouring Provence (there are some truly ugly retail warehouses), the rural areas are comely and everything is about 30 per cent cheaper so it’s definitely worth a visit, particularly before or after the hot high season.
Do make time to see the fortified town of Carcassonne – less than an hour’s drive from the chateau – and the village of Minerve, both rich in Cathar history.
The chateau also organises visits to olive oil and honey producers, or you could just hang around the pool and gaze out at the vineyards, contemplating the complexities of their produce while sipping a glass of what the French do best.
Chateau les Carrasses (www.lescarrasses.com, 0845 686 8067 or 00 33 4 67 00 00 67). Suites start at E152 per night (including linen, pool towels and electricity).
Flights with Ryanair (ryanair.com), which flies from Edinburgh to Béziers and back on Wednesdays and Sundays, start from £23 one way.