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An NYC native, journalist Mara Hoberman lives in Paris with her husband and adorable toddler, already an experienced world traveler. Mara is also expecting her second child soon, so for a final family adventure, she and her brood skipped down to Country Kids, a picturesque French farm resort near Montpellier in the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Read on to see why the Passported team is now pining for some clean country living.
What We Wanted
Having lived in France for nearly five years, I had heard from friends and colleagues about “agritourisme” (farm-stays), where you can holiday at a working farm. Although I do not personally find the concept of being woken at dawn by roosters or learning how to milk a cow particularly appealing or relaxing, it all sounded like heaven for my animal-obsessed two-and-a-half-year old son. So, with spring break coming up, I decided to look at possibilities in this vacation sub-genre that just might please us all. At seven months pregnant, I was not willing to even attempt roughing it, so I wishfully Googled: “luxury-farm-stay-France.” The first hit that came up, Country Kids, seemed almost too good to be true.
Had I stumbled upon the Club Med of farms? My fantasy morphed into reality as I read more about this all-inclusive resort-style country farm claiming to be “a paradise for kids, a holiday for you.” On its website, Country Kids describes an on-site daycare for the wee ones (3 months–4 years,) a kid’s club for ages 5–12, a spa, a private chef, daily housekeeping, and acres of farmland to explore. Miracle of miracles, this renovated 19th century Roquefort dairy in the south of France (bonjour, wine country!) seemed to tick all the boxes for our ideal family getaway.
Before We Arrived
As soon as I contacted Country Kids, I knew my family would be in good hands. Sylvain, who bought the property in 2015 and runs it with his wife, Laure, answered all of my questions promptly and in perfect English. (English, in fact, is the official language of Country Kids, and most of the front-of-house staff are Brits, as were the original owners.) “Farmer Syl,” as we came to call him, described the accommodations and the amenities and promised a relaxing time for all. As he put it, “You will not have to lift a finger.”
With four 3-bedroom apartments and one 2-bedroom apartment in the Old Dairy, a 5-bedroom Farm House (perfect for a family reunion or friends traveling together), and a 2-bedroom cottage, Country Kids is the size of a boutique hotel and can accommodate 16–18 adults and 18–20 children. On-site activities for kiddos include mini-golf, a heated pool with waterslide, tennis, a mini soccer field, a zip line, a trampoline, and of course the farm animals (goats, pigs, sheep, chickens, bunnies, donkeys, and a horse, are just a 5 minute tractor ride away and the kids go with Sylvain to feed them every morning.) For the adults, there is an on-site wine cellar that hosts wine tastings from local vineyards, yoga, a spa, an adults-only pool, and excellent childcare at the crèche or kids club from 10am-5pm. We booked the 2-bedroom apartment in the “Old Dairy” and started to count down the days till our vacation.
Thanks to a simple pre-arrival form, I was able to let Country Kid’s private chef know about our family’s various diet restrictions (mostly my own pregnancy-related ones) and was assured that substitutions would not be a problem. Given that we would be arriving in the late afternoon, Sylvain proposed stocking our fridge and freezer with gourmet foods, so we wouldn’t have to run to the supermarket.
Meandering over to the side of the windy road as we made our way up into the beautiful hills of Languedoc region, a friendly and inquisitive heard of donkeys were first to welcome us to Country Kids. Five minutes further down the road, past the barn and a picture perfect blue and orange tractor, the farmer and his wife greeted us at the entry gate. My husband and I took in the beautiful landscape of olive trees and fragrant jasmine while enjoying refreshments while Julian, our son, immediately ran off to play on the pétanque court with Laure and Sylvain’s children, under supervision of their English-speaking nanny.
Right from the start, everyone was warm, welcoming, and relaxed. Unlike other upscale resorts in France, the vibe at Country Kids is refreshingly casual. There is no “Madame” and “Monsieur” pretentiousness and, in fact, all of the guests’ first names were written on a chalkboard next to the bar/general store, which serves as a hub where guests can always get hot and cold drinks, snacks, frozen meals, and information from staff. We toasted the start of our vacation with some of the other arriving guests and then checked into our spacious two-bedroom apartment. My husband and I were excited to see the large Jacuzzi bathtub with a view over a blossoming chestnut tree, while Julian immediately got to work inventorying the chest of toys in his room.
The next morning we were visited by Country Kids’ concierge, Alice, who had great suggestions for activities to keep us entertained, well-fed, pampered, and relaxed on- and off-site. We booked a pony ride for Julian, a spa treatment for mama, and chose two restaurants for date nights (during which Country Kids provides complimentary babysitters.) Then, it was off to the crèche to introduce Julian to the staff and other kids. I must say, I was skeptical whether he would be willing to leave us much during the vacation, but once he saw the soft play area and child-size tractor, he could barely be bothered to wave good-bye. “Go enjoy lunch by the farm house,” said one of the crèche staffers, “We’ll play, feed him here, and then have a nice nap.” I winced, thinking about how my husband and I struggle to get Julian to sleep—especially in a new place, filled with new faces and excitement—but decided to go with the flow. Later, as we were tucking into a delicious cassoulet prepared by chef David and served en plein air in front of the Old Farmhouse overlooking the swimming pool and verdant grounds, an envoy from the crèche came by to discretely let us know that Julian had eaten well and fallen fast asleep. I felt myself relax deeply. This just might work!
And work it did. For me, our week at Country Kids was the most relaxing vacation I’ve experienced as a mother. The childcare staff and facilities are top rate and Julian was happy going off to crèche everyday from about 10–4:30, when a happy hour/snack is served to all guests. Each time I dropped him off, I told him he could always ask for Mama and Papa to come get him. He never did. Between BBQ picnic lunches, bike (er, trike) riding, the sandbox, the jungle gym, animal grooming, the soft-play ball pit, and small “hikes,” he was having the time of his life. The added bonus: my husband and I had time to read, swim, spa, relax, and reconnect. When it was time to get Julian after crèche we were refreshed and excited to hear what fun activities he had been up to that day.
A week at Country Kids can include as much or as little activity as you like. Most guests stay one week, though the lucky ones book for two. In the low season (April–June and September–October), everything is à la carte from activities to meals (childcare is always included.) Lunch can be ordered from the chef and served anywhere on the property and at dinner you can order chef-prepared frozen meals or self-cater using food from the small, but well-stocked on-site market. For those who enjoy cooking, I highly recommend going to the weekly marché in nearby Clermont-l'Hérault (Wednesday mornings.) We came back with delicious produce, cheeses, and meats that lasted us for most of our stay.
For those who have never visited this region of France before, a trip to Country Kids during the low season has the advantage of leaving you feeling free to take some excursions off the farm. (During the high season the package is truly all-inclusive and you may not want to venture off-site since you are paying for all meals and activities.) Within easy driving distance you will find charming villages, like medieval town (and UNESCO world heritage site) Saint-Guilhem le Désert, and many natural attractions (Lac du Salagou for swimming, paddle boats, sailing, etc; the Hérault river for summing and boating; and Mediterranean beaches where Country Kids can book you access to a private beach club, if so desired.) There are more than a few Michelin-starred restaurants in the region and oyster lovers won’t want to miss a meal in the picturesque port of Meze. One of the best meals we had was at the unassuming restaurant La Palombe, which happens to be within walking distance of the farm, in the tiny town of Octon.
During the busy and coveted summer season, Country Kids, kicks into high gear and becomes an all-inclusive resort with all food, wine, spa treatments, and more built into a week-long package. High season (July and August) rates are about twice as expensive as during the low season, but for those who don’t want to budge during vacation, this period is best. Wine-lovers, for example, won’t have to venture off site in order to sample the region’s vintages. Sylvain’s cave, stocked with local wines (except for champagne, mais bien sûr), is open 24/7 and one evening per week, Country Kids hosts a wine tasting and tapas party.
Pros and Cons
Here’s what made Country Kids a great family vacation for us:
- The talented, friendly, and knowledgeable staff was attuned to the needs and desires of guests of all ages.
- Finally, we were able to travel light! Country Kids’ baby-proofed apartments come ready with whatever gear you might need. Check in with Laure in advance and everything from a baby bath, crib, and high chair to a shelf full of English books and an age/gender appropriate toy chest will be ready for you at check-in.
- The pool house is stocked with swimmies, kickboards, hula-hoops, beach balls, swim diapers and (shhhh) ice cream!
- The kids pajama party on the Friday before we left meant that crèche staff came to pick up Julian at 7am, while we enjoyed a leisurely morning. (This was the first time I slept past 9am in over two-years!)
- Julian absolutely loved “driving” Famer Syl’s tractor down to feed the animals each morning. He proudly took a bucket of our food scraps (each apartment is equipped with such a bucket) to feed to the pigs, sheep, and goats. Another exciting morning ritual for the kids was collecting fresh eggs from the chicken coop—we had the best omelets ever during our week at Country Kids.
Some food for thought:
- With so many return guests, Country Kids books up far in advance. Many families book a year in advance, or more, to be sure to they get a spot in the high season. Sylvain is already taking bookings for 2018, so don’t delay!
- Coming from Paris, Brussels, or the UK, travel to Country Kids is relatively easy by air or train to Montpellier or Carcassonne where you will want to rent a car for the week. Those coming from the US may find that connecting flights and trains, make for a more complicated arrival and departure. Think about combining a week at Country Kids with some time in London or Paris on either end of the trip.
- Country Kids encourages socializing among guests (adults and kids alike) with group activities and meals planned throughout the week. Though it is possible to keep to yourself if you wish (there’s always a quiet nook to read a book or catch a nap), families who definitely do not want to mix and mingle while on vacation may not enjoy the tous ensemble ambiance.
- Country Kids may be the size of a boutique hotel, but the décor inside the apartments and houses is not super chic. If interior design is an important factor in your vacation happiness, think twice before booking as the furnishings are comfortable, but certainly not the main focus of the resort. The vibe is country cute and comfy, not shabby chic or chateau luxe.
Favorite Finds Nearby
DINNER: La Palombe
We were surprised and delighted by the sophisticated menu at this quiet, beautiful spot with indoor and outdoor seating. Leave the kiddos at home and book this romantic restaurant for one of Country Kids’ babysitter nights (two are included as part of your one week stay.)
DAYTRIP: Saint-Guilhem le Désert
This well-preserved medieval village is along the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain and is classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Kids will love exploring the car-free cobble stone streets and racing France’s largest plane tree, which graces the central square (a charming spot to enjoy a crêpe or ice cream.) New Yorkers will be interested to know that part of the cloister from Saint-Guilhem le Désert’s gorgeous monastery was moved to the Cloisters Museum in 2009.
SHOPPING: Weekly Markets
The weekly local markets in Lodève (Saturdays) and Clermont-l'Hérault (Wednesdays) are great places to stock up on farm-fresh produce and regional delicacies as well as souvenirs like woven baskets, local pottery, herbs de Provence, lavender soaps, and Camargue salts.
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“Pizza al taglio (pizza by the slice) is Rome's ubiquitous street food. It's baked in long, oblong slabs or rectangular sheet pans, sold by weight, and eaten on the fly. Locals love it because it's quick and cheap and while many examples are fairly delicious, rarely does Roman pizza al taglio enter into superlative territory. At Gabriele Bonci's Pizzarium, however, pizza by the slice has been elevate to an art form. The dough, which is made from stone ground heirloom wheats, is fermented slowly for up to 72 hours, rendering it a light and aromatic vehicle for delivering gourmet toppings like burrata and Cantabrian anchovies or simple classics like potato and mozzarella.While there is on seating nor table service, there's a fun selection of Champagne, which is a terrific pairing with Bonci's pizzas.”
“Venice isn’t pizza famous like Rome or Naples, but I would say Antico Forno is among the best. It’s an institution in the Rialto market and has really good pizza, both thin crust and deep dish. You can order by the slice, too. Really good calzones as well!”
Ondine Cohane is a Contributing Editor for Conde Nast Traveler and writes for the New York Times, GQ, Bon Appetit and more. She lives in Tuscany with her husband and son, where they own two of the area’s best hotels, La Bandita Countryhouse and La Bandita Townhouse.
“One of our favorite spots for pizza is a very famous restaurant called Sorbillo, right on Via dei Tribunali, the main street in the city centre. I believe they actually claim that they invented pizza, and they are constantly busy—to the point that a member of staff is always standing outside with a megaphone calling out people who have put their names down once their table is ready! It obviously attracts tourists but you will be struck by how the vast majority of clientele is actually Italian.
The funny story is that there is another pizzeria called Sorbillo on the same street! The first time we visited Naples we thought we were actually going to the original place I mentioned above, as the pizzas were also great here, too. I don't know what the story is with them having the same name etc, but I would also really recommend visiting the “sister” restaurant if you have time.”
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“Villaverde Restaurant makes the best traditional pizza. Aurora Restaurant makes the lighter and most successful pizza on the island. They call it "water pizza" because is very thin, light and crispy, made with very little yeast so the pizza is easy to digest. The family has actually patented it so the name can only be used at Aurora Restaurant. In Italian, it’s called “pizza all’acqua.”
Martino Acampora is the General Manager of JK Place Capri, the hotel that inspires Passported’s Pinterest dreams, and our favorite place to stay on the island.
“Although Tuscany isn't known for its pizza, you can still find some great options if you know where to go. One of my favorites in Pienza is Pummaro, which has delicious freshly made pizzas to go, whole or by the slice.”
John Voigtmann is the owner of La Bandita Countryhouse and La Bandita Townhouse, two of Tuscany’s best hotels. John co-owns the properties with his wife, writer Ondine Cohane, and their adorable son Jacabo.
“Tre Sorelle in Positano makes a lovely pizza, but it’s not of the same standing as Naples, which is epic! In Naples, Ciro a Mergellina is fantastic! It is a no frills restaurant, but the location in Posillipo is spectacular, and it has large windows looking over the sea. Their mozzarella is excellent, too, yet what stands out the most is the pizza.”
Antonio Sersale is the owner and manager of Le Sirenuse, the Positano hotel that is consistently rated one of the world’s best.
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