|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