One Saturday morning in mid-May, I was sipping my first coffee of the day and flicking through Stylist magazine – a weekly ritual – when my gaze fell upon a little box in the bottom right corner of the page that I was reading. How would you like to join us at Château de Stylist? Erm…a lot. 10 lucky readers…48 hours of indulgence…Chambord…la vie française…goodie bag…Clarins…literature…Givenchy…French life lessons…cocktail masterclass… Eagerly scanning the text, I found myself unable to digest complete sentences. This experience had my name written all over it. I continued scanning the text, looking for my way in. To be in with a chance, visit our website and upload a photo that shows how you add French luxury to your life by 11.59pm on Sunday 5 June. Bonne chance! Et voilà ! My entire life is basically one big French pretence. I own striped t-shits into the double figures and Coco Mademoiselle is my signature. I studied French and for god’s sake I lived in Paris. Then, as I’m plotting my competitive domination with the bottle of Chambord from my kitchen, I realised: I already had the photo.
No longer than 24 hours later, the competition was already out of my mind. We enter these things in a brief haze of fantasy without truly expecting them to be real, let alone that we might be in with a chance… I continued in this ignorance until 8th June when I received (and ignored) a phone call from an unknown London number. The phone hadn’t stopped ringing but I was already googling the number. Who are you? What do you want? Shortlist Media? Oh god I’ve entered some competition and now marketing…oh look Stylist maga… STYLIST. Oh my god. My phone buzzed; I had a voicemail. I thought I knew what was happening before I swiped across to listen to the message but I could hardly believe it until I heard the words. Hi Heather, this is Danielle calling from Stylist magazine. I was just calling to inform you that you have been invited to join Stylist and Chambord for our three-day trip in France. You should’ve received an email today…this morning… If you could please RSVP that you’re available to attend, that would be much appreciated. Thank you. Bye! I was shaking. My jaw had dropped. I felt like a spring pressed down and at any moment I would let go and BOING. I managed to compose myself just enough to accept the invitation and to set about choosing and inviting my plus-one.
No less than two weeks later I found myself whizzing down to London first-class, enjoying a complimentary breakfast and flicking through Stylist (of course). I met Amber (my plus one) and the other guests at London City Airport after we’d all identified each other by our matching monogrammed Aspinal of London passport covers, before being greeted by a team from Shortlist Media clad in Breton stripes and dungarees. Fast forward a few hours and we were stepping off the plane and onto an air-conditioned bus where the tone for the stay had been suggested with a mini Sass & Belle case-cum-lunchbox on each seat. As we wove our way through the Loire Valley, we munched our England-meets-France brie and pickle sandwiches while watching those, shall we say, now infamous final episodes of Sex and the City.
Pulling through the gates on that Wednesday afternoon was almost a spiritual experience – we were arriving in nirvana and I was ready to find peace! The view that greeted us was like nothing we’d seen before in our lives – OK I exaggerate… I’ve lived in France; I’ve been to Versailles! As we pulled through the balloon-clad iron gates, Château de Jalesnes rose out of trees bidding us bienvenue (welcome) in giant white lettering. As we stepped off the bus, more of what can only be described as Stylist magazine’s Breton Minions relieved us of our luggage and ushered us through the trees towards our castle of dreams. Resisting the urge to run in Phoebe Buffay-esque fashion, we tiptoed down the driveway in 30-degree heat, taking in the view in awe. We ascended the stone steps, giddy at the sight of the balloons, and edged towards the grand front doors before us. As we stepped through the doorway the sights were almost too much to bear. French martinis were thrust into our hands and we found ourselves let loose in a plush paradise sponsored by my favourite liqueur, Chambord.
Simply being invited to Château de Stylist was enough to make anyone feel like royalty, but being there was next level amazing. We were supplied with endless Chambord cocktails – French Martini, Chambord Royale, Bramble – you name it, we drank it. On (slightly tipsy) arrival in our
rooms suites we were greeted by heavenly furnishings including chaise longues and wardrobes that resembled the one from Disney’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and, as Amber and I had been placed in the bridal suite (insert sassy emoji here), we found ourselves furnished with twin bath tubs!(?) There was a kitchen stocked with coffee, fruit and macarons, and the windows along the length of the suite looked out over the château’s grounds and the vast countryside beyond. The mere sight of a basket loaded with products by Bioderma, Clarins and Givenchy (among others) was enough to release a scream from my lungs as Stylist’s camera crew watched on, filming us burrowing through the box of treats. After composing ourselves, sobering up, and showering off any evidence of the Loire’s oppressive humidity, we headed downstairs for dinner, the largest tower of profiteroles you’ve ever seen (not even an exaggeration) and, you guessed it, more cocktails! But none of this a moment before we’d made use of the photo machine and accompanying props provided for our somewhat tropical entertainment…
Day 2 (or should I say jour deux) took us back to school and set us to work. After breakfast we were whisked up to the rafters to enjoy the Life Lessons of Freddie Harrel (AKA my new favourite person) and Audrey Diwan (my idol and Editor in Chief at Stylist France), who taught us that gratitude and resilience were two of the most important qualities to carry with us and to never give up on our hopes and aspirations, no matter who tries to stand in our way. Education complete, we were then invited to participate in a features meeting to give our ideas and suggestions for the then upcoming French life edition of Stylist magazine. We discussed love and relationships, beauty, food, and the all important work-life balance, all the while contrasting the British way and the French way in order to figure out how we too could become un peu plus française.
Once our work there was done, we were set free into the woods next to the castle for a French picnic with (yes) more cocktails and some mingling with the Stylist team along with social media influencers such as Emma Gannon (author of Ctrl Alt Delete: How I Grew Up Online) and Laura Jane Williams (blogger at Superlatively Rude and author of Becoming). French bread, French ham, asparagus, juices in jam jars, cakes, balloons, bunting, lampshades in trees…it was a kooky little paradise in the very welcome shade which offered some temporary respite from the scorching sun above.
After some free time relaxing poolside, we showered and headed down to dinner, only to find ourselves, en route, taking part in an impromptu piano recital, singing along to the tinkling tunes of ‘Let It Go’ and ‘Make You Feel Me My Love’. Dinner offered possibly the greatest desserts I’ve ever had the pleasure to let grace my mouth and I recall affirming that the day couldn’t possibly get any better. FAUX. After dinner we were led through into the chapel, only it was no longer a mere chapel. Candles all around, pop corn machine in the corner, screen at the front; it had been filled with leather sofas and arm chairs and transformed into the most beautiful cinema you could ever imagine. As we kicked off our sandals and snuggled into our seats, the Breton Minions returned to take our drinks orders and this time there was alcoholic hot chocolate! I had been wrong. The day had just got better and watching Populaire in a chapel by candlelight had immediately become my highlight of the stay.
When the time came to depart we were still battling the same awe that had struck us on arrival and, as we passed out of the gates and the château shrank into the distance, not even the morning’s Brexit result could dampen our spirits. Bravo Stylist. This might just be the greatest thing you have ever created.
To see more about Château de Stylist, including interviews with me and Amber in the behind-the-scenes video, visit: http://www.stylist.co.uk/travel/this-french-life