Au Chicot, a farmhouse in Southern France
For this month's profile we talked to Jane Bennett, owner of Au Chicot, a vacation rental house (sleeps 8) in Gascony, in southwest France.
Becoming a Vacation Home Owner
Jane and Ron Bennett
Jane and her husband Ron were searching for a vacation haven and eventual retirement home when they discovered the Gascony area in south-west France, almost by accident. "Initially we searched in Provence before concluding that our modest budget would never be reconciled there!" A few years prior, when the Bennett's had first started making contacts with agents, an acquaintance with a holiday home in the Vienne made a comment Jane never forgot: "If I were house-hunting now, I would focus on the Gers."
Jane says that despite being equidistant from Bordeaux, Toulouse and Biarritz, and being an important part of Gascony, they had never heard of the Gers region. "The agent described it as a very unspoiled region with a gently rolling landscape and crumbling little castles with the Pyrenees in the background," she said.
"We headed there and it was love at first sight. We viewed many houses but fell for something over budget so the decision to share it with holidaymakers was rather made for us!" Jane delved into the world of vacation rentals, actively seeking insights and tips to make it a top-notch rental with abundant amenities. She discovered a website called Lay My Hat, which was set up for owners and by owners, where she made herself a regular.
"We started renting in June 2005. I was so lucky to chance upon Lay My Hat, which really taught me all I know about vacation rentals, from managing enquiries and converting them to bookings, to pool care and how to create an effective website to showcase our home. I can go there and get help and support; they address issues which are universal as well as country-specific, such as taxes, employment and pool safety laws."
Au Chicot – A Vacation Rental with the Seal of Approval
Jane and Ron currently split their time between Au Chicot and Cambridge, England, where their house is a "lock and leave," making it easier to take off to enjoy their peaceful farmhouse and French lifestyle while maintaining close family ties back in England. Drawn to the rolling hills dotted with ancient villages and abundant outdoors activities, they found Au Chicot, an 18th century farmhouse that had been beautifully restored by its former owner, an architect. The renovation combined the stone house and barn into a spacious L-shaped home filled with historic touches while adding modern conveniences and abundant light.
The home has four bedrooms and four baths, separated into two guest zones, which makes it ideal for friends traveling together or a large family group, giving everyone their own space. Rustic beams, exposed stone walls, and wood and terra cotta flooring give it a country-chic feel.
Outside is a sunny terrace along with a swimming pool and three acres of gardens. An orchard gives guests their choice of fresh fruits, and wildlife such as owls, hummingbirds and deer sometimes pay a visit.
But it is the thoughtful abundance of amenities that give Au Chicot an upper hand in hospitality: wireless internet, a spacious dining table that seats ten, a kitchen loaded with goodies and gadgets such as a microwave oven, dishwasher, full-sized refrigerator and freezer - and even a second fridge located in the utility room, just in case guests want to have a party! "You'd be hard pressed to find a gadget missing the kitchen drawers - oyster knife, foie gras cutter ... they're all there, plus an abundance of casseroles and cookware and those all-important glasses," she said. "One brave lady successfully cooked foie gras during her stay, which is something even we haven't attempted yet!"
Jane says that they try to make Au Chicot a real 'home away from home' by providing all the details they could think of. There are books, games CDs and DVDs along with guidebooks, cookbooks, and a listing of the area's markets for food shopping. "We have tried to make Au Chicot as much the guests' second home as it is ours. People comment regularly about how comfortable they are there."
A welcome pack plies guests with local specialties like wine, cheese and jam, along with basic necessities like bread, butter, coffee and tea bags. Returning guests receive special champagne, and Jane says that she has recently found some new regional products in pretty little tins and jars. "I believe it is worth spending a few euros more to offer better quality products, and have found a truly wonderful local sparkling wine to include."
As an owner who cares, Jane responds promptly to inquiries and questions, has an English-speaking representative locally to meet and assist guests, and provides abundant information on the area's sights and shopping. The house is non-smoking, as most guests prefer it that way. She also has set the arrival day as Thursday, allowing guests to take advantage of the lower-cost mid-week flights and ferries. This also lets guests get settled into the house before the weekend, so they can enjoy the fun-filled festivals and events that take place.
"On guests' return I send them a feedback form to try to identify what they like and what areas we could improve on. We really want to give guests the best possible holiday experience".
Since she's the local expert, we asked Jane to give us some insider knowledge on her favorite spots.
For cafes, she tells that any outdoor table on market day affords the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere, but her favorite is La Librairie Gourmande. "It is tucked behind the cathedral in Condom and is owned by the charming Veronique, who bought it as a neglected wreck five years ago. The dainty staircase has been returned to its former glory, each of the three floors has a couple of book-lined rooms with two or three little tables each, and there is even a room for kids."
While there are many fantastic restaurants in the area, Jane lists Le Moulin du Petit Gascon on the River Baise just off the road to Condom, and La Table des Cordeliers in the center of Condom as her favorites.
Au Chicot is rented only from April through October, and though June, July and August fill up quickly, Jane tells us that September and October are beautiful months in the Gers, but travelers just haven't realized it yet.
The area is popular with outdoors enthusiasts. "A middle-aged pair of adrenaline-chasers from across the pond stayed the whole of last September. They shared images of themselves paragliding, parachuting, microlighting and hot-air ballooning from a base close by!" While that may be more adrenaline that most guests want, Jane says the average Joe will enjoy the nearby golf courses, as well as walking and cycling opportunities - for which Jane provides maps and recommended routes.
Of course, any other activities or recommendations that guests may want are easily obtained for the asking. Jane enjoys the interaction and assistance she can provide, just another trait that makes her an owner who cares.
Thank you Jane for taking the time to tell us about your vacation rental in France!
Photos provided by Jane Bennett. See more photos on Jane's Flickr account: Gascony Magic.