Fairy tale vacation: The best chateaus to visit in the Loire Valley

Lifestyle

There are many reasons to visit a French chateau. You could pretend you’re a character in a fairy tale for a day, part of a cast of knights-in-armor and ladies-in-waiting or retrace the steps and lay your head where nobility once did.

You could have lunch, learn about French medieval architecture and tour a wine estate or play a round of golf on castle grounds. You can even go truffle hunting, then dine in the chateau’s Michelin-starred restaurant or take a dip in France’s top-rated indoor pool before turning in for the night in your 900-year-old bedroom with a vaulted and timber ceiling.

These are just a few reasons to discover a French chateau. If your travels are subject to time constraints, the following options offer the choice of a day’s investment to several days’ worth of R&R. The easiest – and by far most delightful – way to visit these first three chateaus is to book through City Wonders Tours.

They offer a day package that departs from Paris at 7:15 a.m. and returns by 7:30 p.m. It’s all-inclusive, the luxury bus is air-conditioned and your tour guide is both knowledgeable and witty. Lunch at one of the chateaus is included, plus wine tastings.

Château de Chambord

41250 Chambord

The breathtaking exterior of the Château de ChambordThe breathtaking exterior of the Château de Chambord — Photo courtesy of Paige Donner

Easily the French chateau that leaps to mind when one thinks of French chateaus, Chambord is a sprawling monolith, built originally as a hunting lodge that seems to dwarf (almost) even Versailles. It celebrates its 500th anniversary in 2019.

The land this Renaissance castle stands on was bought by Louis d’Orléans in 1392. Later, when he became King Louis XII, the property came under ownership of the crown. It wasn’t until King Louis XII’s successor, Francis I, son of Louise de Savoy, that this fabulous edifice was constructed.

That was in 1519. Louis XIV stayed here nine times, and Molière and Lully wrote “Monsieur de Pourceaugnac and performed it for their king here in 1669.

Château de Chenonceau

37150 Chenonceaux

Château de Chenenceau traverses the Cher river in the Loire Valley — Photo courtesy of Paige Donner

This remarkable structure, also built in the Renaissance style, stretches across the Cher river; it’s a chateau built to bridge a river. Its gardens were laid by Diane de Poitiers, mistress to Henry II. It was the site of frequent soirées and days of festivities that involved hunts on horseback, suppers intellectual pursuits and royal balls.

Later when King Henry II was married to Catherine de Medici, he donated Château de Chenonceau to Diane de Poitiers, still his ‘favorite’ even though she was 19 years his senior.

During the French Revolution, the castle was lived in throughout the year and, remarkably, was spared from destruction. The ‘common good’ of its bridge across the Cher river is credited for that. During WWI, it was used as an infirmary for the war-wounded. Fresh flower arrangements grace each room throughout the chateau and are part of the living culture of this breathtaking piece of French heritage. Don’t miss visiting the Apothecary, housed in one of the annexes.

If you can spend a day here, at this most welcoming of Loire Valley chateaus, there are little rental row boats that you can navigate underneath the chateau’s famous arches which span the river. You can pack a picnic to enjoy on the river’s edge, or dine in any one of several on-site options on the chateau grounds, including their fine dining restaurant, L’Orangerie.

Château de Nitray

37270 Athée-sur-Cher

The <em>pigeonnier</em> (pigeon house) at the Château de Nitray”><span class=The pigeonnier (pigeon house) at the Château de Nitray — Photo courtesy of Paige Donner

Easily accessible from Paris is this working vineyard and medieval chateau, set in the heart of the Loire Valley region known as Touraine. At this chateau, you can taste the wines made from the estate-grown grapes, mostly chenin blanc, sauvignon and cabernet franc. The vineyards have existed since the 18th century.

Nitray greets you with its famous white stone (known as tuffeau stone) and white mullioned windows and roof chimneys peeking out from the facade. The visit includes a stop into the pigeonnier, the old stone pigeon house.

Château de Vault-de-Lugny

11 Rue du Chateau, 89200 Vault-de-Lugny

Authentic knight's armor is décor in Château de Vault-de-LugnyAuthentic knight’s armor is décor in Château de Vault-de-Lugny — Photo courtesy of Paige Donner

If tasting history and living in its hallowed halls is more your style, look no further than this exquisite moat-enclosed and gated corner of paradise, the Château de Vault-de-Lugny. Finding it is like finding a big, buried black truffle.

Nestled between the famous wine regions of Sancerre and Chablis, near the UNESCO heritage site of Vézelay, this 900-year-old chateau, replete with its very own moat, dungeon and stables, stands ready to welcome you. Get ready for idyllic days of what the French so accurately call ‘farniente’ or ‘complete relaxation.’

This chateau hotel, whose front lawn proudly nurtures the 3rd oldest living tree in France (planted in 1614), sits up against the forest of Morvan. Technically, you’re in Burgundy here, but because you’re so close to the border of the Loire, it maintains its feel of the playground of royalty.

No detail has been overlooked, no creature comfort ignored by owners Pascal and Elisabeth Bourzeix. King-size beds under 20-foot vaulted, timbered ceilings welcome you to a restful sleep. The sing-song of fluttering birds awakens you to a dewy, tranquil morning, improved upon only by the fresh-brewed coffee and warm croissants.

Lunch at Louis XIII, the 1-star Michelin restaurant at the Château de Vault-de-LugnyLunch at Louis XIII, the 1-star Michelin restaurant at the Château de Vault-de-Lugny — Photo courtesy of Paige Donner

The entire chateau, all 19 rooms, is air-conditioned, something of a rarity in France. The Louis XIII, the chateau’s restaurant, is distinguished by a Michelin star, an honor that its chef, Franco Bowanee, has proudly earned. He and his wife, Karina, the chef patissière, originally come from Mauritius, and it’s a heritage the chef infuses in his cuisine.

For lunch or dinner, you’ll find yourself dining on a touch of the exotic, with fragrant spices complementing traditional French cooking.

What could be better? Well, three things. A band of six wild peacocks roam the property, including an all-white one whose soft caws can be heard throughout the day. The indoor, heated pool has been voted the best in France (for good reason). And this is truffle terroir, so if truffle hunting is something you’ve always dreamed of, the team here will guide you to their favorite secret places where you are wont to find a truffle or two!

Alexandra Palace

Le Petit Chêne, 79310 Mazières-en-Gâtine

Golf in the Loire Valley at a chateauGolf in the Loire Valley at a chateau — Photo courtesy of Paige Donner

France has its share of golf courses and it has more than its share of chateaus – a total of 1,000 in the Loire alone. But try to find those two in combination and that’s where you’ll be challenged.

Enter the owner of Alexandra Palace. He’s an American businessman who fell in love with the French chateau lifestyle a decade ago. and set out to acquire and revovate chateaus in the Loire Valley.

Alexandra Palace offers eight spacious and resplendently decorated rooms, each with its own crystal chandelier. But it’s the adjacent golf course, run by Bluegreen Golf, fully integrated into this chateau experience, that really sets this property apart.

Their 18-hole golf course has you circling the chateau grounds between each picturesque hole. It also offers a practice range, a club house and a putting green. The chateau itself features an on-site bar, restaurant and a wine cellar/tasting room.

The closest town is Niort, famous for its dungeon and dragons. It’s also just next to the village of Echiré where the best butter in France is made.

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