A French getaway that parents and teens will love? Victoria Lambert gives Narbonne the thumbs up

 Relaxing beside the pool overlooking the fantastic French landscape 

They warn you about the extraordinary lagoon at Le Salin l’ile Saint Martin de Gruissan in Languedoc long before you get there. But nothing can really prepare one for the sight of a bright pink lake stretching off towards the horizon, dotted around the edges with colourful wooden boats and shacks on stilts. It’s so otherworldly, so unusual, it’s hard to remember you are in the south of France – and not on a corner of Mars.

Sometimes, the fuchsia-tinted waters also play host to – what else? – pink flamingos, but in early June when we visited, the young birds are yet to develop their full colour. And anyway they were keeping clear of the small flock of human Instagrammers who thronged the wooden jetties, jostling for the perfect selfies, like ducks gathering for bread at an English pond. 

It would be a miserable parent indeed who stopped their 17-year-old daughter and her friend (Rowena and Maddie) from joining in the photoshoot for a moment or two, but we had come to the lagoon – its rose tint prosaically due to salt-loving algae called dunaliella salina which love its shallow depths – for more active pleasures. Specifically, lunch at the seafood restaurant; the catch is so local, the distance from ‘field to fork’ is about 10 metres. Then, we had an hour’s guided e-scooter tour of the lagoons and marshes, as far as the wide sandy beaches of the Mediterranean, just out of view.

This is an eco-friendly dream of an activity, a chance to whizz along wide paths, sometimes sandy, occasionally stony, with the wild beauty of the regional national park La Clape Massif to the east and the long lazy slopes of the Pyrenees in the west. The area is home to more than just flamingos and prawns; the diverse landscape harbours bats, woodlarks, Dartford warblers, Bonelli’s eagles, and ocellated lizards.

But before you can enjoy flora and fauna, learning to ride the e-scooter – la trottinette – takes up all your concentration. Don’t expect the scooters you find to hire in some cities – or the ones an avocado-munching Millennial might ride to work. These are sturdy beasts, with a wider foot plate and fat wheels that have more in common with a Segway than a child’s toy. There are five gears, two brakes and an accelerator switch to master as well as how to balance and learning to put one foot almost down on a tight bend as though in a motorbike race. You also have to wear a helmet and carry the battery in a backpack; solid but you adjust fast to its weight.

Chateau Capitoul in all its glory

 Then with local guide Philippe, our party of 10 comprising several French families with highly competitive dads, plus the three of us, set off. The first 15 minutes were hairy; wobbling along next to a narrow canal is not great for the nerves but I think the teens gave up worrying about me after a while. And then we progressed into wider pathways, shared with cyclists and walkers, and occasional horse riders. The key – as you gain confidence with the speed – is to watch for loose stones with one eye while absorbing the landscape with the other.

After 30 minutes or so, Philippe stopped us to explain how the lagoon was so naturally saline that deposits formed and could be harvested as the water evaporated in the local micro-climate of hot sun and strong winds. Much of the salt goes for construction but Gruissan is noted for its production of fleur de sel – flower of salt – which is very delicate salt, harvested in a traditional method annually, using rakes and shovels. 

A renewable resource indeed. Not long after as we reached the edge of the marsh where it met the sea, we found our baby flamingos – white as promised – and then headed inland towards a fishing hut and several wooden lodges on stilts, gradually abandoned as the lagoon levels have sunk over time.

By this point confidence was high, so in the last stage of the hour-long journey, we all hit the top speed of 25km/h. It was surprisingly exhilarating.

We reluctantly handed back our trottinettes, and visited the salt museum and shop where you can choose flavoured and coloured versions of salt to eat and to bathe in. If you should become truly fascinated, there is a selection of tools used formerly to gather the salt, plus an educational video.

What made the afternoon so special was how well it suited me – a 50-something parent – as well as two 17-year-old girls. This is the hardest age to manage a family holiday; kids clubs are all very well when you’re travelling with under 10s or you just get a villa with a pool and resign yourself to a week of wet towels. Skiing works – but that’s one or two weeks accounted for. So what to do for the other holiday you still want to share as a family? How can you avoid them mooching and moping, while working on your own tan and catching up on novels?

This conundrum was what had brought us to Languedoc in the first place. Here, in the south-westernmost corner of France, I’d been told of a chateau where you could manage the impossible: a holiday for all generations which suited everyone equally.

Flamingos flying above the marsh

This Holy Grail is the brainchild of hoteliers Karl and Anita O’Hanlon of Domaine and Demeure, who were inspired to create just such a project in 2007 – luxe hotels that could offer more than just a room and a pool – as their own children got older. Now, with two converted châteaux under their belt, the third – Chateau Capitoul – has just opened tucked into the centre of a 120-hectare estate which is home to the vineyards of celebrated winemaker Bonfils.

Barely eight kilometres outside the Roman city of Narbonne – and within striking distance of the airports at Beziers, Montpellier and Toulouse – Capitoul offers a sophisticated range of accommodation from eight glamorous rooms in the main building to 44 luxury villas nestled into the hillside, many with their own pools or hot tubs. These are independently owned and then managed and rented through Domaine and Demeure to families like us.

Our villa – Les Vignes – had two bedrooms and bathrooms upstairs and a stunning living room with double height ceiling plus open plan kitchen below. A master bedroom and bathroom to one side completes the accommodation. 

The kitchen is perfectly equipped, including Nespresso machine, an easy-to-use bluetooth sound system, and through the huge picture windows, a large heated pool with electronically operated cover and an instant barbecue. And beyond that, well, the views again, of course.

Among the luscious vineyards 

So what can the generations get up to? On the first day, we had lunch at the hotel’s infinity pool which is served by an excellent cafe-bar. Thoughtfully placed olive trees have been grown among the paving to provide natural shade for the large comfortable sun loungers. It was almost a wrench to leave for our own pool after a couple of hours. 

Then I tried the hotel spa with its Parisian Cinq Monde products and therapies. Based in the cellars of the hotel, the spa features steam and sauna, hot tub and pool. From an interesting menu of treatments, I chose a Moroccan Hamman ritual comprising steam, scrub, detox wrap and massage (80 mins; €130). But younger holidaymakers (over-16s only) might enjoy mani-pedis or a facial. Through the spa, you can also book a place at a morning yoga class.

That evening, we had cocktails on the hotel terrace that sits outside its main restaurant and bar, Asado. The food is excellent and attracts plenty of local French families too, always a good sign. We ate monkfish, octopus and salad, and crunched long slivers of toasted sourdough sprinkled with olive oil and salt.

Thanks to that vineyard location – the Languedoc Roussillon was the first French region to be introduced to vine-growing and wine-making by the Romans and the chateau produces 250,000 bottles a year – you can organise formal tasting in the chateau’s official Cave. 

But the Asado’s waiters are all very knowledgeable and happy to recommend wines by the glass in the restaurant. The staff, it must be said, are magnificent all round: as polished as the most Parisian sommelier yet with a modern warmth that encourages you to linger and talk.

The following evening, we dressed up to try Méditerranéo, the hotel’s fine dining restaurant, where chef Valère Diochet delivers a confident cuisine with a distinct pan-Mediterranean accent. This was a showstopper of a meal. Five courses with mise en bouche at every turn, our plates were carefully explained before we ate, with delicate flavours of local herbs enhancing every mouthful. Savouries included monkfish tartare and red mullet with artichokes. Puddings featured roasted apricot with rosemary, with almond and hazelnut cream, and oat ice cream.

Rowena and Maddie on e-scooters

I couldn’t fault the girls for wanting to photograph the food; it was exquisite in every sense.

Our last day was planned around an excursion to the Roman city of Narbonne but we could have stayed at the chateau for tennis lessons or a game of boules; there is also the chance to book mountain biking, hikes up the Massif, and windsurfing back at the beach. Although you could also just find a sunny corner overlooking the vineyard and enjoy a book.

However, Narbonne is not to be missed. Our trip coincided with a public holiday which means the Narbo Via – a new museum of Roman antiquities designed by architect Norman Foster – was closed, as were the vintage clothes shops we had hoped to tour. Instead, after a wander through the Halles to look at the mountains of goats cheese and local pastries, we had lunch at Le 89 – which serves Poke bowls and Mexican food as well as steak frites – beside the historic Pont de Marchand bridge and Canal de la Robine.

Then continuing our eco transport theme, we rented one of the e-boats to self-drive up the canal. At 18 euros for 30 minutes it was great value and good fun. Even though my steering was at times dangerously but comically erratic. And then there was time for large ice-creams in the town’s sunny square and a last trip back to the chateau to re-energise by the pool before an early flight home the next morning.

If the mission was a holiday for all ages, then it was achieved with added bonding to boot. The owners say that they often get three generations together at the chateau: the parents book, the grandparents pay, and the young ones? Well, they make the most of every inch. Which is all we can ask anyway.

Book The Holiday

A seven night stay at Château Capitoul in a two bedroom villa with pool (sleeping four) costs from €6,440 in July/August. 

For further information, visit the website www.chateaucapitoul.com or call +33 (0) 448 22 07 24 (UK). For the other two chateaux: www.domainedemeure.com

A two hour eScooting session with Trott Up is €40 per person and can be arranged every Tuesday throughout the summer season (with a wine tasting included at the end): Balades nature et randonnées sportives TROTTUP à Gruissan 

A two-hour guided eBike tour and wine tasting with Languedoc VTT Evasion is from €50 with Hugo Blanquier as your guide: + 33 (0) 6 74 89 75 98; www.languedoc-vtt-evasion.com


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