There’s nothing like a private en suite jacuzzi to make you fall in love with a bathroom. At the Villa Aimée in the French spa town of Vals-les-Bains, it was love at first sight.
Vals-les-Bains is a small town in the Ardèche, in the heart of a hilly regional park. It’s wild and rugged and has a history intertwined with its dozens of springs, some of which are still bottled today.
Most people who visit Vals do so to ‘take the waters’, whether for a day’s spa treatment or for the full three weeks mandated by France’s health practitioners (and paid for by socialized medicine). The area is dotted with hotels for visitors to the thermal baths and if you’re here to spa, you’ll have to stay somewhere.
My idea of a cozy place to retire at night is definitely a 19th century manor house filled with lovingly handpicked possessions ranging from original art to crystals and stones from the Sahara Desert.
“I visited every brocante in the region,” said Leila-Joy Garzon-Rigby, who owns the Villa Aimée with her husband Christophe. He’s often at sea on a container ship so the guest house is left up to her.
“I didn’t speak French when I moved here a few years ago,” Leila said, “but I somehow managed. I still mix it up but it’s getting a lot better.”
She and her husband were living in Australia for a time, but that was a bit of a commute for his French-based shipping company, so they decided to move to France and give their two sons a truly bilingual upbringing.
“I fell in love with this house immediately,” Leila said. “I just knew it was for me.”
It’s not a huge house but the rooms are spacious and well thought through, with a pinch of whimsy and romance thrown in, books everywhere, and small personal touches here and there. The Villa Aimee has been awarded the maximum of four ‘stars’ by the Gîtes de France, France’s prestigious network of rural homes and bed and breakfasts.
With ceilings that reach to the sky and wooden floors and modern bathrooms, it’s a mix that brings out both the convenience of the new and the romance of the old.
I was fortunate to stay for both dinner and breakfast. The evening meal involved possibly one of the best chestnut soups I’ve ever tasted and breakfast was quintessentially French: warm, fresh croissants, creamy butter, homemade jam and jelly and crusty local bread.
If I’m going to hike in the mountains or get pummeled all day, when night falls there’s only one thing I want: that jacuzzi.
What every Woman on the Road should know
- If you’re driving (and in my opinion this is the best way to see the region) be warned that the villa is at the top of a series of hairpin bends – not high or dangerous, just narrow. A small car will be fine. A larger one will take a few extra turns of the steering wheel.
- Let Leila know if you plan to eat in. The town of Vals has plenty of excellent restaurants worth trying, but she’ll be happy to cook for you if you’d rather stay in.
- There are some regional wines, but Vals is known for its sparkling water, called… Vals.
- If you’re only staying a day or two, ask her to organize some spa treatments for you. I didn’t do this and I wish I had.
- Visit the Villa Aimée’s website, which is also in English, to see the rates and get Leila’s phone and email contacts. Tell her Leyla sent you – it’s not often we get two Leyla/Leilas under one roof!