Take a charming country house, mix with a striking architecture and artistic aesthetic; add an award-winning Michelin-star restaurant; designer guest suites and then allow to rest with the best views of Bordeaux – now that’s a recipe for short break success, writes Andrew Forbes.
The Le Saint James Hotel, a Relais & Chateaux property, offers guests the opportunity to be immersed in the best of Aquitaine – fine local cuisine and tranquil village life with Bordeaux, the regional capital and one of France’s most beautiful and creative cities right on the door step.
The gourmet hotel El Saint James is found in the small Aquitaine village of Bouliac, about 10-15 minutes from Bordeaux and about 25 minutes from the airport. It’s ideal for a short break, as your holiday starts almost immediately. Bordeaux is one of those wonderful regional airports that allows you to get in and out in no time, and the drive to the hotel is swift, thanks to the motorway.
There’s something magical about the countryside of South West France; those wild unspoilt Atlantic beaches; the rolling vineyards; and the golden sandstone villages and towns. Arriving in autumn I was greeted by the glorious autumnal colours of the famous Bordeaux vineyards.
Once the taxi drew up outside the hotel I caught sight of the polished brass of the Relais & Chateaux seal confirming that this is going to be a quality short break; yet as soon as I stepped into reception and was greeted by the smiling front desk team, I also realised that it was going to be a relaxed and friendly experience.
El Saint James, with its charming private vineyard, panoramic city views, striking architect-designed spaces and modern art exhibits, captures the flavour of both classic and contemporary Bordeaux. This may well be a temple to good food and fine wine, but it’s not a stuffy place – in fact it’s most definitely an unpretentious property.
This is the place to come to indulge one’s love of good food & wine. As well as eating in the gourmet Michelin-star restaurant, you can also brush up on your kitchen techniques at the Le Saint James ‘Côté Cours’ cooking school; and fine-tune your palate with a wine tasting with the Le Saint James’ award-wining Sommelier, Richard Bernard.
The property feels very creative – as the owners’ collection of art is found throughout the hotel, from classic and contemporary sculptures in the garden, to seasonally changing art exhibits in the public spaces. It creates a dynamic, modern ambiance.
Guests come here to enjoy the food, but that doesn’t mean that the rooms are an afterthought – far from it, as they are architect-designed spaces that all have huge windows and doors looking out over the grounds, the vineyard and onto the skyline of Bordeaux. Architect Jean Nouvel added to the original Bouliac village house with contemporary spaces for the restaurant and guest rooms. Barn like structures, in earthy tones of oxidised steel sit comfortably against the property’s small vineyard.
I enjoyed the ‘Harley Davidson Suite’ and yes there was a vintage Harley in the room! The large double bed is elevated to maximise those garden and city views; and the rest of the space is pared back and contemporary.
The bathroom has a tub and large walk-in shower and the amenities are my favourite, Hermes.
A coffee making machine and kettle with gourmet teas means that one can kick back and relax. The turndown service includes chocolates and homemade ‘canelés’ cakes, typical of Bordeaux.
Of course, the Michelin star restaurant ‘Le Saint James’ by award-winning Chef Nicolas Magie is the big draw, but that doesn’t mean it is fine dining every night.
Café de l’Espérance
That’s because the hotel has its very own village bistro. Just steps away from the property, near the village church is Café de l’Espérance, a classic French eatery with wooden chairs and tables, tiled floor and menus on blackboards. It’s a relaxed restaurant well-known for its generous buffet starters, hearty mains and varied puddings.
I chose a local goat’s cheese salad, dressed with a delicious vinaigrette and then a juicy entrecote with fries; oh and of course a couple of glasses of the local red – and in Bordeaux of course, the local wines are world-class.
To enjoy the local wine you don’t have to indulge in a rare vintage Bordeaux. I suggest you try the hotel’s very own ‘Vin de Jardin’ Bordeaux wine, from the hotel’s mini-vineyard that produces just 500 bottles a year.
Le Saint James
Yes, undeniably the highlight of any stay at the hotel is a meal at their fine-dining restaurant. Expect exquisite Aquitaine flavours from Chef Nicolas Magie. Born in nearby Cenon, Nicolas is understandably proud of the region’s food. He explains to me that although his style is contemporary, and his combinations sometimes unusual, his approach respects the traditions and ingredients of France South West. This is the second restaurant where Magie has achieved Michelin star recognition; and where the unique and rich terroir of France’s south west are his inspiration.
Richard Bernard, the hotel’s helpful sommelier (and restaurant manager) has curated the restaurant’s wine list, featuring over 2,000 different wines.
Even before I savoured a mouthful I was wowed by the Jean Nouvel architect-designed dining room – a understated modern space, surrounded by gardens and the vineyard, where they even turn off the lights at one point in the evening so you can relish the sparkling lights of that city view.
There is a tasting menu and a la carte. I enjoyed a selection of the restaurant’s most popular seasonal dishes, accompanied with glasses of reds and whites from the exceptional wine list.
My meal was an event – something I’ll always remember. Here are some highlights from the 7-course meal:
The remarkable amuse bouches:
One of the starters – Ormers with roasted garlic and textures of beetroot:
The fish course – sea bass with local prawn and squid:
The meat course – wild venison roasted over chestnuts, fragranced with juniper berries:
The cheese board – wow!
The pudding – Belle Hélène style bear:
The petits fours to end the meal, with coffee:
With such gastronomic temptations and comfortable hotel one might be tempted to stay put and relax by the pool…
but I really recommend you make the most a break at Le Saint James by enjoying the city of Bordeaux and the surrounding vineyards. A UNESCO world treasure, the city has glorious architecture, fascinating streets filled with lovely independent stores and boutiques; as well as a very trendy and creative district, Chartrons. Here the former wine warehouses are art galleries, performance spaces and cool places to eat and enjoy a drink. What’s more the nearby vineyards offer tours and tastings – the hotel can make the arrangements for you.
So it’s understandably why The City of Wine is now one of France’s top destinations.