On the seashore

With the sea within walking distance of Emma and Phillip Hutchinson’s chambres d’h�tes it’s no wonder that the interiors reflect the maritime surroundings

One of the first things that strikes you about Emma and Phillip Hutchinson’s chambres d’h�tes is the light. Streaming through the vast windows and casting a serene glow it’s easy to see why the couple fell for this stunning seaside property on the Atlantic coast. Emma and Phillip, who are originally from Harrogate, moved to France eight years ago and were immediately drawn to the 1920s property in the pretty seaside resort of Saint-Palais-sur-Mer near Royan. The couple’s plan was to set up a bed and breakfast so when they discovered that the property was the first hotel in Saint-Palais it made it even more of a perfect fit for their French dream. Emma recalls the moment they first visited the house: “When we walked in the door it was just like coming home. We knew it was meant to be.” The Hutchinsons already had family living in Charente-Maritime so it was natural that they focused their search for a French bolt-hole in the department, with the added bonus of golden sandy beaches on the C�te de la Beaut� to meet their criteria of living by the sea. The interior of the property, which hadn’t been altered for 80 years, needed extensive renovation work, and Emma and Phillip worked tirelessly to restore the hotel to its former glory while staying true to the original architecture. “It was built by a French architect but it has a very English feel inside the house – even the French who visit say that – because the style of the windows is very English” says Emma. The pair did the renovation work themselves, gutting the property from top to bottom, installing a new roof, plumbing, electrics and bringing the bathrooms up to date. Phillip, who worked for GE Capital prior to moving to France, originally trained as a stonemason so he drew on his building experience during the renovation project and although the work was tiring he enjoyed getting his hands dirty again: “Building has a certain level of satisfaction. It’s rewarding when you do something and then stand at the entrance to the room and feel that you’ve created something really nice.” Although Phillip project-managed the building work he says he couldn’t have done it without the guidance of his wife: “She’s the director of operations. If it was down to me it wouldn’t have turned out half as nice.” When designing the interior decor, Emma’s main aim was to create a light and airy ambience that reflected the natural surroundings of the property and its proximity to the beach. Emma set out to give the house a French feel but she says guests describe the style as English cottage, Scandinavian or even New England American. Whether it’s French or English in style what’s clear is that Emma has successfully created a calm and inviting look that blends seamlessly from room to room thanks to the predominance of simple colours and minimal design touches without feeling clinical and overly modern. White features heavily throughout the property from painted wooden furniture to crisp linens on the sumptuous looking beds, with artwork adding a burst of colour to the simple guest bedrooms. The muted colour palette was a conscious design decision as both Emma and Phillip prefer lighter shades. “When we visit friends they often say that our clothes are colour-coordinated with the house” laughs Emma. The overall look is far from lacklustre though as Emma has added interesting accessories, brought from their home in the UK and collected since they moved to France, to bring the interiors to life. Many of the accessories have a maritime theme which Emma says was unintentional but works well: “We didn’t say we must have lots of boats and seashells, it was more a case of this looks nice and is in a neutral colour.” Like many couples moving to France to set up a business, Emma and Phillip visited the Maison & Objets exhibition in Paris and found it to be a great source of inspiration for the interiors of their chambres d’h�tes but also very tempting: “You could shop there forever but you have to control yourself if possible,” says Emma. Ma Maison de Mer offers guests evening meals from Monday to Friday which Emma, a former restaurant owner, cooks sourcing ingredients from the local market and their own vegetable and herb garden. Emma’s approach to food is much like her take on interiors – using good quality ingredients to create simple but fresh meals. And with the sea only 200 metres from the property, it’s natural that seafood is one of the main ingredients featured in Emma’s dishes. Cooking for guests is something Emma enjoys: “It’s very nice and because it’s on a small scale we find that after being here for many years and seeing customers come back each year, it’s like having friends round for dinner. We cook for them and then at the end of the evening we’ll all sit down and have a drink.”   There are five ensuite guest bedrooms in the chambres d’h�tes and the Hutchinsons have a separate family home inside the main house; Emma thinks it’s important for them to have their own space to be with their two children Joseph, nine and Jack, three. Emma says the boys have adapted well to their new life in France: “I don’t think it’s a hardship growing up by the sea and as it’s mainly mild and sunny here they live an outdoor lifestyle which is very nice.” Inspite of working long hours (their days typically start at 7am and finish at 11pm) the Hutchinsons have found time to settle into their French life and become part of the community but Emma says it takes a long time to become fully integrated. Like many families who move to France, the Hutchinsons found having young children helped with meeting local people: “As we have children who go to school, they make friends and then you make friends, but because of what we do for a living it’s very difficult for us to socialise but then it’s also a sociable job.” Although Emma is now fluent in French and Phillip speaks “enough to get by”, the pair didn’t speak the language when they first arrived which Emma says was difficult, especially when they were trying to navigate their way through the ins and outs of French bureaucracy. But they managed and even when disaster struck and Phillip had a nasty accident on the last day of renovating, it didn’t stop them from opening the business on schedule: “Phillip fell off the balcony and broke his pelvis and was in a wheelchair for three months. We had guests arriving so we had to work flat out with a little baby and we didn’t speak much French so that was interesting. But we got by. “We’ve had lots of things like that over the years and you become stronger as a couple for it. Life’s not perfect but we make it the best we can. If you can do that, you can do most things.” LFwww.mamaisondemer.com