Maison Sweet Maison
Words by Nita Breibish » Photos by Nita Breibish » Friday, November 30th, 2012
It was getting harder and harder to get out of bed. We’d been off the bikes for much longer than anticipated and the sun had been shrouded in fog and mist for days. It was getting down right cold, cold to the bone. The thick knitted camping sweater and seven-dollar turtleneck I bought the week before was no longer doing the job. The thought of packing up and moving on, which is normally on the forefront daily, was now fleeting. Unforeseen circumstances had us bikeless and the news of Sandy reeking havoc on our friends and loved ones on the East Coast was taking the stage.
We had left New York only two weeks prior and were now watching on in shock from across the other side of the Atlantic, from the comfort of a home that had welcomed us whole-heartedly in Fareham. And although we felt lucky to have gone before the storm, in such times, all we could think about were the friends we had left behind. Somehow I believe this played into the difficulty of saying goodbye yet again, to the warmth and kindness that was offered to us by Kathy, Ian and their families.
By the time we had the bikes back we were still a week away from entering France from the North. The wintery chill and chime from my 8 am alarm had both our bodies and minds feeling a touch out of sorts. By this time last year, our bikes would have been in full stabilization and hibernation mode and we’d most likely be revving up to hit the hills at our favourite ski resort. It was becoming evident that we had to get moving before the stillness of Father Christmas set in completely.
We had our hearts set on an authentic France experience, which for us meant smaller tucked away countryside villages, old refurbished Gites and family run farmland chambre d’hotes or camping sites. Surrounded of course by an additionally unfamiliar language and the unpredictable situations that would surely arise from our lack of comprehension – all things that were an essential part of the discovery process we were truly hoping for.
We searched for a place to stay close to the port for our first couple of nights in France. Giving us some time to settle back into the groove of moving and more importantly to brush up on some key phrases en Français, knowing this would only help us get better acquainted with the people and places we would soon be visiting.
Maison de Plumes is set in a small village called Heuchin, approximately 30 minutes south on the A26 from the Eurotunnel terminal in Calais. A dot on the map that is easily missed unless you look closer. At first glance the venue was much more than we were expecting and with our budget, seemed like the type of French mansion turned guest house that we could only dream of experiencing once or twice during our France tour, or so we thought. Still our appreciation for proper design had us at hello and so did the little English flag affixed to the top right-hand corner of this French website. This opened up the opportunity to have a dual language experience on arrival, which couldn’t be entirely bad at this early stage of our French introduction. Holding our breath we continued through to check out the room rates.
At a surprising base cost of 99 Euros a night during peak season, we both jumped on the opportunity to experience this boutique retreat. In fact we couldn’t quite believe our eyes. There was no question that for the cost of your standard Best Western or Super 8 type hotels/motels, we were used to frequenting across Canada, we would have the opportunity to experience the beauty that the northern countryside had to offer and then some.
It was grand, it was white, it was gated and had a hefty collection of gorgeous floor to ceiling divided-light windows that reflected the tree lined driveway. We were in absolute awe as we sat there breezing back and forth through the website’s photo gallery, one that read more like the editorial pages of a Vogue magazine, than the quintessential travel brochure of a destination that was somewhere other than Paris.
Still, as lucky as we were feeling, we always find ourselves faced with a question that typically plaques us when surrounded with a certain upscale style dwelling. More in regards to making others feel uncomfortable rather than any discomfort of our own.
Is a place like this really for us? This is a question we often ask ourselves when travelling by two-wheels. Arriving by motorcycle goes hand in hand with weather worn bags and dusty boots or worse yet, dripping wet and muddy, where any chance of blending into our surroundings becomes next to impossible. History has proven that our appearance alone, in certain places, can induce a sense of shock and inconvenience rather than welcome.
Upon booking we inquired about motorcycle parking as we often do and mention that we are on our round the world adventure. We find this always helps alleviate the pain of any surprise first impressions when strolling in with our houses strapped to our backs. The response we received was nothing short of inviting.
How amazing that you are on a round the world trip! Dinner is reserved for you on Wednesday and breakfast is already included in the room price. Would you like to add some wine to your stay? There is a lot to do in this region depending on what you are interested in. We can talk in more detail when you are here. If you want some ideas of places to visit before you arrive with us you could check out,
Arras – The capital of Pas de Calais
Le Touquet – A glamorous seaside town where the Parisians holiday
Hesdin – A small market town
Azincourt – Where the famous battle took place, 10 minutes from us
If you need any more info please do not hesitate to ask. Warmest regards,
Vanessa & Richard”
They were completely unfazed at the idea of us and were possibly fluent in English. With the worldwide web out there and the trusty google translate available for use, you still never know what to expect. I myself have used this wonderful tool a few times during booking inquiries and have to say, its really quite accurate. I digress. Their kind response helped Issa and I immediately ease into the experience that was being offered at Maison de Plumes.
As we made our second U-turn, blame fell immediately on our GPS units which can, and have at times, attempted to direct us through a cornfield or onto a railway track. Still how did we manage to pass right by this place…twice? This monumental sized mansion, this larger than life beacon of white light, perched atop some 20 acres of perfectly groomed rolling French pasture and surrounded by nothing less than a collection of unicorn carved topiaries or peacock water fountains no doubt.
After piquing the interest of the elderly French locals who stood on in curiosity and confusion as we managed a third pass through the once quiet village, Issa spots the sign for Maison de Plumes, just at the last minute.
With the front door set back from the gates between the tree-lined property, it’s hard to spot the chateau until you’re already upon it and entering the circular driveway. And yes, keeping an eye out for the imaginary unicorn topiaries and peacock water fountains doesn’t help either. The truth quickly came to light once we were there. This was in fact a house, a beautiful old French house, in an even older town, one that had been lived in for hundreds of years and wears its time proudly. It’s age still remaining apparent, even with the more recent coats of black and white paint that set the tone for the brilliantly designed interior. The grounds were inviting and alive, well groomed but not the least bit artificial, much like the husband and wife team that established this boutique retreat experience.
Upon arrival Richard asked that we immediately drop our bags in the foyer as he whisked us away into the lounge. “Let’s get you two something to drink. We can help you with your bags later. Can I offer you a glass of wine, something stronger perhaps?”
We were all smiles from the inside out as we glanced over at one another in amazement. Mostly due to the hospitality offered but also in part for the very words he spoke, the very English words. It was plain as day the relief on our faces, as an English accent and eloquent vocabulary poured from Richard’s lips. Oh too bad I joked, “I had been hoping to practice my French, wink, wink.” Of course any real eagerness I had to clumsily mutter through any words I knew, fled quickly as he managed right there before us to switch ever so gracefully between the two. “No, English is good, great, thank you”, I blurted. A friendly and innocent reminder that I had some work to do managed to draw some early giggles from the three of us.
“Tell us all about your travels, where have you been, where are you off to?” Vanessa quickly joined in as I was still trying to wrap my thoughts around the gorgeous detailing in the surrounding decor. But once we were assured that the pretty white settee would survive our fresh off the saddle tooshies, laughter and cozy banter seemed to quickly fill the air of the front room lounge. With a healthy dose of red wine in hand, we spent a good 30 – 40 minutes chatting about everything from the town and the chateau to what brought a husband and wife team from the UK to France in the first place.
Vanessa, a London fashion designer and Richard, who served in the British Military and later went on to work as an account manager for Jaguar/Land Rover, were living comfortably in the UK. After having enough of the London grind they knew it was time for a change, a life change. Being Francophiles, they always loved France and decided one day, in their words, to just go for it! Both being well travelled they knew they could offer others the same things they had expected (with Richard’s more rugged, fireside camping style aside) when staying in hotels or guesthouses during their travels. This idea together with Vanessa’s flair for design was a winning formula.
When asking about the chateau itself, we are told that the house chose them as opposed to them choosing the house. “Heuchin in itself isn’t the most charming village in France, but it is a true French village and is close enough to many larger more desirable towns like La Touquet and Arras, not to mention the stunning landscape here. It just happened to be the chateau itself that spoke to us.”
The one thing they did choose was the area, called the Seven Valleys and besides being known for it beauty, was a perfect proximity from the Channel ports for traffic into and out of France. The chateau itself was built in 1790 and the couple spent 14 months getting the ground floor, gardens and 2 bedrooms ready for the opening in 2009. Then carried on renovating until the Swan suite was ready in June of 2011.
With our wine glasses finally on empty and introductions to our hosts made, we respectfully headed back through the foyer. We were met by a centrally located, floor to ceiling spiral staircase, that for me revealed the true age old beauty that remains an essential part of the chateau. An honesty that anyone can appreciate when surrounded by the more refined, updated Parisian decor. Years that are well beyond anything we could comprehend sang out with each creek of each stair we rounded. Up and down with our bags we went, reminded of the history that still lives and breathes within it’s sturdy walls. Where my size 8 boot managed to seem too big for its planks and Issa with his 6 foot 3 stature had to go ducking and shimmying sideways, very slowly.
“Please take some time to get comfortable and feel free to meet us back in the lounge, say around 7pm for some pre-dinner wine?” Wow, so wine before pre-dinner wine, then pre-dinner wine, then wine with dinner and then after dinner? Welcome to France! On that note, it was time to get out of our gear and take a moment to ourselves to settle in.
The chateau has seven spacious bedrooms all with vaulted ceilings and double high doors, five of those now open to guests, each with their own theme and full ensuite bathroom. The rooms are bright, colorful and luxurious. The Flamingo Room, which we were in, was nothing short of plush, playful and tastefully done, with warm gray tones and added pops of rich fuscia. We had two large south facing windows that overlooked the sprawling lush green countryside and full length backyard patio.
Peak season at Maison de Plumes is generally between April and November, but weekends are normally busier due to their location and proximity to London, Paris and Brussels. There are a number of very good restaurants in the area. Everything from Chateau de Beaulieu or Le Jardin d’Alice, both with 2 Michelin Stars and modern French inspired cooking or the more up scale fine dining experience at La Maison, if you’re willing to dish out a little extra. If you are looking for something more economical, there is also the Village Brasserie, only open weekends, but simply put has quality steak & frites!
We had been lucky enough to book one night in for dinner at the maison. A five course experience that is created, plated and presented by none other than Richard himself, with help from his right-hand lady and sous chef Vanessa of course. Dinners of this nature are only available three nights a week, since you can imagine this type of plating can be a bit much for any hands-on, multi-tasking duo.
With our second bottle of wine and run away chatter well underway in the lounge with our hosts, Swan Suite guests Phillipa and Maggie, two life long friends from the UK who have stayed here once before, made their appearance; adding additional flavor and color to an already vibrant pre-dinner chat. Richard realizes the time and gets us moving along. We are asked to follow him into the dining room that had been quietly tucked away beyond the 10 foot high, gloss black double doors of the lounge, tempting me throughout the evening for a peak.
Issa, myself, Maggie and Phillipa take our seats as a third bottle of red and basket of fresh bread greets us. As each plate arrives throughout the night, I immediately forget about my photographic duties and quickly tuck in. Each plate more gorgeous than the next, well proportioned and rich in style and colour.
Our menu for the evening, a Chèvre Chaud with Maple Syrup and Cracked Jamaican Peppercorn appetizer, Terrine de Saumon et Noix St Jacques Roquette salad, Roquefort Chicken, Paysanne Potatoes & Broccoli entree, a fab French cheeseboard made up of Cabecou du Perigord, Camembert, Maroilles, Morbier and Roquefort and finally a rich Creme Brûlée.
A fantastic dining experience made even more amazing by the great company, lively hosts, a historic chateau and well, France.
The morning after is spent back in the dining room, delighting in a basket of fresh croissants and pain au chocolat, accompanied by a cold ham and cheese platter, choice of cereal or fruit, juice, coffee and tea. “Will you be having eggs this morning?” Maggie asks excitedly and adds,”You have to try Richard’s scrambled eggs! It has to be done.” A seasoned, creamy, rich scrambled spread atop a crunchy pan-fried slice of buttery heaven.” Um, is there sugar in syrup? Then yes!
With the dining room closed for the evening we decided on an early dinner / late lunch at La Cour de Remi in Bermicourt, on Vanessa’s recommendation. We decide to go after a much-anticipated, mid-afternoon, back-road gallivant on the bikes. This was to be our first full French experience since the Eurotunnel crossing.
We entered the grounds of yet another stunning chateau, this one at least four times the size of Maison de Plumes and more likely the type of place with actual carved unicorn topiaries and peacock fountains. Smiles. The first thing we noticed was how quiet the grounds were, like closed for the season kind of quiet. Our bikes roll up and disturb the stillness of the gravel in the driveway and after a quick detour up to the front door of the house for a photo, we park the bikes near the restaurant entrance and wonder if somehow we’ve managed to show up between hours. Vanessa had warned earlier in the day that many eateries in France close around 2pm or earlier for lunch and won’t reopen until after 7pm for dinner, which in November means after dark on the bikes, which for us means no dinner.
We enter the courtyard leading up to the restaurant and spot another late lunch partaker seated at the window. Relieved that we’ll have a solid meal that can sustain us through the day, we make our entrance. We’re still feeling a bit sheepish as we pull open the door, but we’re hungry enough to push right past any apprehension. “Parlay voo anglay see voo play?” The hostess and only server shakes her head no. “Um, oon tablow por doo see voo play?” We do our best to muddle through and make our way to a window seat. “Bonjour, bonsoir” from the two kind French gentlemen seated across the way. We smile politely and settle into our menu gazing, like two deer in the headlights no doubt. Hmm, that definitely means beef stew, yes, beef stew see voo play, for two as we point to the text on the french chalkboard menu next to us. Merci beaucoup.
A basket of homemade bread lands on the table, along with a bowl of mini dill pickles and a healthy slab of pork pate. Our shoulders drop and we become quickly distracted by the nonchalant pup strolling through the autumn kissed courtyard. “Seybouet”, I hear in a whispers as the pup unknowingly poses for a photo. After stumbling through our lunch order, our hostess seems to feel a little less shy about her inability to help us in English.
I begin to recognize some soft-spoken words between her dominating French phrasing. The universal sign for motorcycle comes up, rev rev goes the throttle hand. “Oui, yes, motorcycles” I say. “Nous allon dans le monde entiere”, I slowly present. A phrase I’ve had tucked up my sleeve from the night before. Translation: we are going around the world. Eyes bright she says, “oh, sur les moto’s (on motorcycle)? “Oui!” Suddenly I realize I’m having my first sort of French conversation and it’s feeling very awkward and exciting! I mention Maison de Plumes and her eyes light up again. “Oui, Richard, he is good man”. We smile a lot as single words seem to get stuck between awkward silences. Saved by the bell, our beef stew arrives, actual translation, steak. At least we got the beef part right. “Voila, bon appetite.”
It wasn’t stewed but it was stunning and definitely worth a mention as a place to stop and eat if you are travelling through Northern France. The space is peaceful and the food is top shelf for the likes of a quiet town like this. Not what we were expecting at all. As we walked the grounds after lunch we were left imagining what the chambre’s of the chateau must have been like, surely incredible. We were feeling both physically and emotionally satisfied with our day, and with many mercis and auvoirs we made our way back through the twisty narrow farmland roads to Heuchin.
Tucked back in at Maison de Plumes we pick up a bottle of wine from Richard and retreat upstairs to spend a quiet evening in our cozy Flamingo oasis, while we listened to the footsteps of new guests settling in. By candlelight Issa spends the evening writing the next daily post and I run through the photos from our afternoon jaunt. We finalize the route for the next day and fall fast asleep, satisfied well beyond the perks of the ensuite towel warmer and pillow top bed.
I’m feeling a great shift these days. In the way I perceive just what it means to be a world traveller. At the end of this journey, what people have to say about us is equally as important as what the land has to offer, even more so I believe. As brilliant as the earth is, the terrain on this vast planet only changes so much over a certain distance and only in so many ways. Without the invisible borders reminding us we’d left, at times we’d never believe it. Eventually even as diverse as our planets landscape can be, there are countless chances to feel like we’ve been here before on some other coast or some other prairie.
Much like its people, at times the terrain is sharp and comes without warning, but more often, opens up without hesitation and shows its true beauty. Seeing the world for me, also means looking at it through the eyes and hearts of the people who inhabit the places we visit. Listening to their stories, hopes and fears. Because it is the countless generations of lives and stories within each of those lives that we encounter and connect with, that truly diversifies the masses of land we cross. Each touching us in different ways and travelling with us as we move along. Reminding us that stopping at times is in fact more important than moving on and that even while lost in cultural translation, travel and exploration is a universal language that we all know and speak in our own way.
Saying goodbye is something that Issa and I have been getting used to doing on this journey, to friends we’ve had for years and to new friends we’ve made. What we appreciate and will remember most, above any plush or pampered perk we have experienced during our stay at Maison de Plumes, is how our lovely hosts took the time to join in and take an interest in our lives and in turn shared with us a journey through theirs. New faces that seemed more like old friends, welcoming us home for the weekend and opening themselves and their doors to us, with a smile.
In addition, don’t forget to visit Richard and Vanessa’s latest venture Parfums MDP, born from their personal fascination for the art of perfume making. They offer ready made niche market scents launched by more historic perfume houses and upcoming scent creators.