Set on 1,012 hectares in a small village, the fairytale-like Domaine des Etangs offers the chance to forget the stresses of the modern world in the largest five-star hotel in mainland France
In 2019, as Vincenzo Iaconis closed the door on his time working for Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, he bid farewell to three whirlwind years spent flitting among royal properties in the Middle East, Europe, and the U.S. as Ambassador of the Palaces of the King.
He had arrived in Saudi Arabia fresh from running Relais & Chateaux properties in Paris and Provence and was eyeing a return to either location. But the first call he picked up from an industry recruiter was an opportunity on the other side of France as general manager of the newly reimagined, five-star Domaine des Etangs in the small southwestern village of Massignac.
The romantic 13th-century chateau became Auberge Resorts‘ first property in France in April; it’s also the hotelier’s second property in Europe after Santorini’s Grace Hotel (the debut of its new Tuscan property Collegio alla Querce has been pushed to 2024). A boutique resort of just 17 rooms, suites, and cottages on 1,012 hectares of woodland, Domaine des Etangs emphasises the outdoors with activities like mushroom foraging, angling, hiking, riding, rowing, and tennis on its unique “floating” court.
But Iaconis was quick to decline the job. “It was in the Charente,” he says by way of explanation.
It’s not that the Charente is a dirty word; it’s just a little-known one. One of France’s most rural départements (administrative regions), the Charente typifies the country’s pastoral idyll: a gentle sun-blushed landscape where prised Limousin cows graze roadside pastures alongside handwritten posters plugging rustic village fêtes.
But the area, best known for Cognac and cattle, isn’t a luxury tourism hub—no matter how revered both local delicacies are.
Iaconis agreed to visit the property and, not long after, flew to Switzerland for a breakfast meeting with the property’s owner, Garance Primat, the daughter of late billionaire French oil tycoon Didier Primat. He was quickly converted.
“You cannot say no to Garance,” he smiles. “She is an exceptional woman.”
Garance Primat and her seven siblings grew up playing ball games on the castle lawns and rowing wooden boats across the glassy étangs (ponds) that give the estate its name, which are both activities hotel guests can enjoy today. The family—who also own Primland Resort in Virginia—opened up their holiday home as a hotel in 2015.
Iaconis knows his first reaction to the luxury property’s low-key address is a common one. But, he says that as soon as guests take in that first fairytale glimpse of the turreted château, they don’t want to leave. Fortunately, during their stay, there’s no need to. The flip side to a rural location is space, something Domaine des Etangs, the largest five-star hotel in mainland France, has oodles of. Even when the property, three times the size of New York’s Central Park, is at full occupancy, people are always impressively outnumbered by the property’s 600-strong herd of ginger-coated Limousin cows.
Guest accommodation is spread out across the château and nearby longère longhouse, or in métairies, six restored barns scattered throughout the estate that come with a zippy electric Citröens built into the room rate.
The Primat family’s presence can be felt everywhere: the outdoor sculptures from Garance Primat’s personal art collection, the well-thumbed books in the cosy library, the telescopes positioned toward the starry night sky, the old travel cases stuffed with much-loved kids’ dress-up costumes in the enormous games room occupying almost the entire top floor of the château. “You really sense that someone lives here,” says Iaconis.
The laid-back, unpretentious vibe extends to the people who work here, too. Many grew up with the history of this grand estate for bedtime stories. It’s never a problem to push out dinner reservations at Dyades, the domain’s gastronomic restaurant, by an hour to pedal off on a sunset loop of the estate by bike or to finish a high-stakes tie-break on the tennis court. Depending on guests’ fancy, meals can be served surrounded by twisted vines of juicy tomatoes in the spiral produce garden or in a picnic basket to unpack on the banks of the ponds.
Iaconis is ever-present, laying tables at breakfast, chatting to guests over coffee in the exposed-stone bar, his pup (and guest favourite), Leon, always by his side. He is now so at home in the region that he has purchased a house in a nearby village. Long gone are the stress and 24/7 nature of his previous life, although there is a different type of pressure here.
“I want to see all the guests happy so that when they leave they say ‘See you next year, Vincenzo,’” he says.
This story was first published on Robb Report USA