September 8, 2008

You Get a Real Bird’s-Eye View of Normandy From This Hotel Room

By Rebecca Ford

Enjoy this beautiful landscape in an eco-friendly treehouse, says Rebecca Ford

Most of us, on buying 25 acres of unspoilt land in rural France, would determine to keep it to ourselves. Especially when said land is in a corner of Normandy that's still off the tourist trail.

Not so Englishwoman Claire Stickland and her French husband Ivan Payonne. When they realised that their tranquil estate in the Perche region sustained a rich variety of wildlife, they decided that they wanted to share it with others.

Given that their ancient pasture is home to everything from orchids to owls, any accommodation had to be eco-friendly. Their solution was to build a wooden tree house in a 200-year-old chestnut tree.

But don't think you have to be a hardcore eco-bunny to come here. The tree house is a good-sized cabin. And its location, in the Regional Natural Park of the Perche, makes it a great base for exploring a part of France that simply oozes rural charm; bypassed by major roads and railways, the Perche largely escaped industrialisation and the landscape is one of forests, hedgerows and pastures.

The bedroom

The main room is bright with a comfortable double bed (crisp white sheets), a little kitchen complete with microwave, fridge and sink, and a seating corner with a caravan-style cushioned bench. If the birdsong isn't enough entertainment, there's an integrated hi- fi and wireless internet access: electricity comes from Claire and Ivan's farmhouse, a couple of minutes' walk across the meadow.

The separate bathroom has a flush toilet and small shower (we were pleased to find plenty of hot water), and you're encouraged to use the honey-based soaps and shampoos, which are biodegradable. Grey water from the cabin is purified through rocks and reed beds, then channelled into a wetland area.

Steps from the main room lead down into another bedroom, separated by a thick curtain, where there's another double bed and a bunk. Outside is a terrace where you can eat on fine days.

The food and drink

Claire brings breakfast each morning. You'll get a Thermos of coffee, fresh bread, butter, eggs, homemade jams, yoghurts and cereals. Everything is organic and/or locally sourced. At night, Claire can make you a delicious picnic supper. Knowing that we were vegetarian, she brought us soup, vegetable tartlets, fresh salad, bread and a selection of local cheeses. We also had a bottle of cider, though there's wine if you prefer.

The extras

There are plenty of tracks for walking or cycling nearby, although you will need to hire a car if you want to explore the area properly. The roads are extremely quiet and you can visit gardens, cider makers, picturesque villages - Bellme is lovely - and restored manor houses.

The access

It's essentially a cabin on stilts and can be reached only by wooden stairs, so it's unsuitable for anyone with limited mobility. Children are welcome.

The bill

From $150 (122) per night, including breakfast.

The address

La Renardire, 61130 Bellou-le-Trichard, Orne, Normandy. (tel 00 33 2 33 25 57 96; perchedansle

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