There was something disarming about Rich.
From the second we landed at Country Kids, slightly strung out from an early flight, adjusting to driving in France, and driving up a strange hill on winding roads, when I first met Rich, there was this vibe.
He came to collect the luggage from the car, and said: “I’m Rich. Just leave everything here and I’ll get it.” And something about his demeanour just relaxed you instantly.
I discovered on the blackboard inside that Rich was actually the assistant manager. But as the week went on, I would discover he was so much more than that. Rich made the best barbecue you ever ate, he always knew what the perfect drink was for any occasion, and he would offer you one at any opportune moment without judgment. He also threw a great afternoon tea party involving the nicest cup of Darjeeling you ever drank.
Rich also throws the best raclette party you’ve ever been to, and makes a great caipirinha. And to top it all he made one of the nicest beers you ever tasted – as in, brewed it himself!
If Rich was central to making Country Kids magical, so was Alice. In the way that Rich is technically the assistant manager, Alice is technically the concierge. In reality that involved being psychologist, family counsellor and holiday fixer. It also stretched to long chats with my elder, who would wander off occasionally saying; “I’m just going up for a chat with Alice,” and then you’d see the two of them deep in conversation.
And then of course there are Sylvain and Laure, who turned their backs on hospitality careers in Bangkok and Paris to buy this magical place. Laure’s speciality was wanting to look after everyone all the time and solving any problem before it occurred, or answering questions before you asked them.
And Sylvain hosted. For example, once he had ascertained what coffee I wanted in the morning, and that I liked to start the day with a swim, he made sure the cover was off the pool and the barista-quality coffee machine was revved up at eight every morning.
He was also Farmer Syl, who drove the little tractor that pulled the trailer that all the kids went down to the farm on every morning. He showed them how to feed the pigs, the horses, the donkeys and the chickens and then he showed them how to get the eggs for breakfast from the henhouse. He always knew how to chat just enough but not too much, and he always made you feel he wasn’t working, that he wanted to be here chatting to you, and looking after you. The last night, when he guides the men through the niceties of boules, you feel like you’re just there having fun with a guy you met on holidays.
I can’t go through everyone, but they are all gems.
From stern with a heart of gold Annie, who runs the kids club, from which the kids can pretty much come and go as they please, to chef Antoine, everyone there sets a perfect tone. And they are mainly what makes Country Kids magic. And it is magic.
I should explain what it is. So it’s a cluster of old farm buildings, done up beautifully, with giant flat-screen TVs and L’Occitane toiletries in the wet rooms for your rain showers.
It’s all set in a most idyllic location on the side of a hill near a lake near a tiny village called Octon in the South of France. It’s about half an hour from Montpelier, but we flew into Carcassone so it was more like an hour and a half drive.
In one way Country Kids is in the middle of nowhere, and the silence and the birdsong there are like something you’d get in the depths of Kerry. But there are plenty of little outings to be done too, always returning to the cocoon of Country Kids.
The deal is there is this compound with a pool, an adult pool, a bar, mini golf, a trampoline, a couple of playgrounds, tennis courts, a treehouse, a zip-line and a spa, where you can also do yoga classes.
There were four families staying when we were there. The most you’ll get is seven families.
In high season it’s all-inclusive but when we went it was self-catering so you wrote down all your drinks, any of the delicious prepared meals you took from the fridge, or any bottles of wine you took from the cellar.
If you’re like me the idea of something so intimate will make you run a mile, but somehow it works.
There is the right blend of privacy and a bit of sociability. You have your own nice house to go and chill in, everyone has their own terrace for hanging out in the sun, everyone has their own Bali bed at the pool, so there’s no rushing down to get a spot.
There’s a communal lunch on the Sunday, your second day there, which was good fun. There’s the raclette and cocktails evening, and there’s the barbecue on Friday lunchtime.
You obviously don’t need to get involved in these, but they were good fun as it happened. There was an Austrian economist who explained to me how the blockchain was going to put us all out of work, a Canadian media lawyer and his wife a teacher, a Swiss voice actor, who was married to the economist, and a teacher and a banker, from England.
At times it felt like a reality show where we all got to know each other a bit and shared our stories slightly. But mainly, what I took away from Country Kids was magical family moments.
Luxury as a term has become demeaned, but Country Kids is true luxury, bespoke luxury, in the sense that your family gets a magical holiday tailored especially for you, and whatever you want to do, they will endeavour to make it happen, whether that is chill out all day while your kids come and go from the kids club, or indeed activities from tennis lessons to horse riding.
My kids were unrecognisable at the end of it. I knew there was something special going on the first morning at animal feeding when my Mary sat up on Apache the horse. Before the week was out the two of them would have ridden little ponies around the place.
The pool was such a calm and nice environment that one day Mary announced she was going swimming without her buoyancy jacket and off she went, down the slide into the water, came up laughing and swam to the steps. A small step for mankind but a huge moment in our family.
A lot of what I will remember are little stolen moments. Like heading off to the market at Clermont L’Herault with the older one while the younger happily hung around back at the ranch. The elder was thrilled to get away from her kid sister for a while, nibble her way around the market and then have a lunch of galettes and steak frites.
And then swimming in the nearby Lac du Salagou followed by lunch thrown together from the supermarket (Laure was obviously insistent she would make us a picnic but we explained that daft Irish people like to go the supermarket when we are abroad).
One evening when the pool had been covered up, Rich intuited me looking in its direction. “Do you want a swim?” No you’re grand, I say Irishly. But of course he opened it and I had a glorious evening hour in the pool with the elder as the sun went down over the verdant hills.
And then simple things like sitting down in tiny Octon having a coffee watching French village life pass by.
I should tell you that you also get two nights out. This is two nights when they insist you go out and babysitters come to the house.
We didn’t feel like driving, so Alice said we should try the restaurant down the hill, La Palombe. She said it was quite gourmet so I wasn’t keen. Tricksy food in the middle of nowhere couldn’t be good could it?
Boy was I wrong. If it was in Ireland, La Palombe, in a converted old stone building, would be booked out for months in advance. The food was local, and simple but incredibly sophisticated too. And the tasting menu on Tuesday was 50 quid – including wine.
And then the beauty of Country Kids. I said to Alice I’d love to bring the elder back down to La Palombe just for a dessert on Friday. Just to give her a little experience of fine dining in France. Of course Alice made it happen, and the elder and I had our little dessert date. Pressed pineapple infused in tarragon, with a pineapple foam in cylinders of hard biscuity chocolate with a deep, deep chocolate parfait.
What I need to tell you is I’m not doing any of this justice.
I couldn’t conceptualise Country Kids properly until I went there. Because you can’t explain magic in a website or in an article. But Magic is the word. This is a beautiful, peaceful place, in a beautiful setting, run by people who are instinctively brilliant hoteliers and hosts who have assembled a really cool team of people, all dedicated to making you relax and enjoy, and to spiriting your kids away all the time.
It’s a bit special really.