Hotels in France

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Belle Isle Hotel

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Entirely surrounded by water, on its own river island, the 'Belle Isle' was built in 1856 for a local mill-owner and his large family. The red-brick mansion stands tall and majestic, a 'Relais du Silence' in five acres of peaceful gardens, with the sun-speckled river Risle swirling past. The current owner, Marcelle Yazbeck, has recreated the elegance of the Second Empire by filling the villa with paintings, mirrors, rugs and swagged curtains. The antiques are reproductions, but the result is effective. In salons and bedrooms, chairs and side-tables gleam with gilded figures, lions' claws and other ormulu designs. However Napoleon III would be puzzled by the cable TV, minibar, deep pile carpets and the many other modern luxuries. All first and second floor rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows, but room 3 is probably the best, with French windows facing both south (across the river to open country) and west (over the island and downstream). Room 3 also has its own gravelled balcony with table and chairs, and a large marble bathroom.

Chef Loic Rapart produces superb food, which is served in the dining room and in a pretty Victorian conservatory. Each plate arrives under a silver dome, which is removed with a flourish to reveal many elaborate garnishes.

The tranquil, lozenge-shaped island has mature trees, rose beds, orchards and open parkland. At the tip of the island, water crashes noisily through sluice gates. The tennis court is surrounded by espalier fruit trees, and a ping-pong table is set up under the cedars. The hotel's indoor pool, sauna and gym are at garden level, next to the outdoor swimming pool and a sun deck overlooking the river.

You can borrow a wooden rowing boat and navigate the shallow eddies of the river Risle. But beware - rowing upstream again is much harder. The swift current is fierce, and oarsmen have been known to moor the boat and walk back.

Pont-Audemer, a mile downstream, has lively cafes, medieval half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, canals and a church with vibrant 16th century stained glass windows. Honfleur, 12 miles away, is a delightful picture-postcard fishing port, with a thriving artistic community. The impressive Normandy suspension bridge crosses the Seine near Honfleur and provides easy access to Le Havre.

First published by Travel Intelligence Ltd

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