The Brenne na­tional park in the heart of ru­ral France has proven to be the per­fect place for ex­pats Lee and Sam Thomas to cre­ate a fit­ness haven and raise their fam­ily, says Gil­lian Har­vey

Living France - - CONTENTS - tri-topia.com

Cover story Meet the fam­ily who run a fit­ness re­treat in the Brenne na­tional park in In­dre

In the quiet, ru­ral set­ting of the Parc Na­turel Ré­gional de la Brenne in In­dre, a tra­di­tional stone build­ing basks in the early morn­ing sun­light. Next to the prop­erty is a swim­ming pool – its glis­ten­ing sur­face rip­pling in the light breeze, ready to be bro­ken with a jump or a dive.

This scene could be the ex­te­rior of many cham­bres d’hôtes and tra­di­tional prop­er­ties in the region, ex­cept for one thing. The swim­ming pool is a long, thin rec­tan­gle, 25m in length, and only two lanes wide.

Wel­come to Tri-Topia, where ev­ery­thing is de­signed to help triathlon fans, fit­ness en­thu­si­asts and fam­i­lies alike run, swim and cy­cle, while en­joy­ing the gor­geous French coun­try­side.

The re­treat is the brain­child of Lee Thomas (44) and wife Sam (39), who pur­chased a di­lap­i­dated group of barns in 2006 with the aim of cre­at­ing a haven for ath­letes in their cho­sen idyll of ru­ral France. “We’d spent years trav­el­ling around Europe,” ex­plains Sam, “and we’d both done a lot of host­ing work in the past. So when we wanted to cre­ate a fam­ily home and busi­ness, France seemed a nat­u­ral choice.”

While part of the rea­son for their pre­cise choice of lo­ca­tion was the fact that Lee’s par­ents had pur­chased a re­tire­ment home near Poitiers al­most a decade ear­lier, the couple, who hail from ru­ral Corn­wall, were also drawn to the un­spoilt coun­try­side, quiet roads and out­door op­por­tu­ni­ties of­fered by the area. “We’d both grown up in the coun­try­side,” ex­plains Lee, “so we wanted to live some­where ru­ral.”

Af­ter a few years of hard graft, with the help of Lee’s fa­ther, David, the couple’s vi­sion of fam­ily-friendly gîtes be­gan to take shape. “It was hard work for a while – we lived in a car­a­van and, at the time, Meadow (now 10) was a young baby, so it wasn’t easy,” re­mem­bers Sam. “But work­ing on the prop­erty our­selves made it a real labour of love – and I think we ap­pre­ci­ate our home much more as a re­sult.” Now the prop­erty caters for up to 17 guests in high-qual­ity, beau­ti­fully fur­nished ac­com­mo­da­tion. “We have ev­ery­thing from four-poster beds to sin­gles, de­pend­ing on clients’ needs,” ex­plains Sam. “And the free wifi and TV means guests can re­lax af­ter a hard day’s train­ing or even keep up with work if they need to.”

The couple’s el­dest daugh­ter, Meadow, was fol­lowed by Sol (now eight) and Sen­nen (now three) and all three children are thriv­ing in the ru­ral utopia that they call home. “Of course, they’ve never lived in the UK, so they’ve never known any other way of life,” says Sam. “Meadow and Sol are flu­ent in French, and even Sen­nen is start­ing to ut­ter a few words. I feel that this is a great place for fam­ily – the kids are al­ways out­doors, the schools are great and ev­ery­one is so friendly.”

The couple them­selves are no strangers to the triathlon cir­cuit, and the rig­or­ous and chal­leng­ing dis­ci­pline which sees con­tes­tants swim 1,500m, cy­cle 24km and run 10km is grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity both sides of the Chan­nel. “Lee’s al­ways been into sport,” ex­plains Sam. “And I caught the bug from him, re­ally. It was a great way to re­gain my fit­ness af­ter hav­ing children.”

How­ever, Sam ad­mits it is Lee who is the driv­ing force in terms of sport­ing chal­lenge.

“Lee’s got the mo­ti­va­tion and am­bi­tion,” she ad­mits. “He’s taken part in Iron­man con­tests, and is re­ally fit. He also un­der­stands the rig­or­ous train­ing sched­ules that some of our guests ad­here to, and works hard to meet all their needs.”

Since the re­treat opened in 2010, it has evolved to cater for a range of dif­fer­ent guests, with dis­parate needs and de­sires. “Some peo­ple come to kick-start a fit­ness regime,” ex­plains Lee. “Oth­ers just want a ru­ral hol­i­day with fam­ily.

“Ath­letes come on their own, or with part­ners, friends or fam­ily. We get a lot of fe­male ath­letes: they of­ten com­ment on the safe and fam­ily-friendly en­vi­ron­ment here. Some­times triathlon en­thu­si­asts come with less en­thu­si­as­tic part­ners, and this is fine. One party can dis­ap­pear for an en­durance run, while the other suns them­selves at the pool. It’s a way of hol­i­day­ing to­gether where ev­ery­one can en­joy the pace they pre­fer.”

In­deed, no mat­ter what your goals, Lee and Sam are happy to cater for your needs. “Some guests just dis­ap­pear off on bikes for days at a time, while oth­ers want to run or train with us,” says Lee. “We’re happy to help in any way we can.”

As well as ex­cel­lent fa­cil­i­ties on their site, which of­fers ev­ery­thing from so­phis­ti­cated equip­ment to test me­tab­o­lism and oxy­gen lev­els when ex­er­cis­ing, to the more re­lax­ing sauna, mas­sage and Jacuzzi fa­cil­i­ties – the fam­ily and their guests en­joy ex­plor­ing and swim­ming in the many in­land lakes the area has to of­fer, as well as cy­cling or run­ning on un­spoilt and vir­tu­ally traf­fic-free roads.

Those af­ter a more tra­di­tional French break can also take ad­van­tage of the lo­cal area. “There are lots of tra­di­tional tourist at­trac­tions lo­cally,” ex­plains Sam. “We’re happy to take cus­tomers to visit lo­cal châteaux, or browse in the French mar­kets, if they wish. Oth­ers pre­fer to have a more in­di­vid­ual hol­i­day – dis­ap­pear­ing to ex­plore the area and com­ing back to a healthy, home-cooked meal, washed down with French wine.”

And those who feel less than triathlon-

ready, needn’t be put off by the ath­letic fo­cus of the re­sort. “Some­times it’s the be­gin­ners who give the great­est feel­ing of re­ward,” ex­plains Sam. “We’ve had guests come who can barely swim at all – it’s won­der­ful to see the dif­fer­ence that a week can make.”

Orig­i­nally, the gîte opened with four rooms and an ‘end­less pool’. “This is a small pool with a jet to swim in – a bit like a wa­ter-based tread­mill,” ex­plains Lee. “Then, as we got busier, we de­cided to put in a full-sized pool in 2012. We wanted it to be 25m be­cause that’s the dis­tance that ath­letes need to work on their tim­ings, but we kept it two lanes wide so that it would still be man­age­able. At first, it seemed to take up the whole gar­den!”

While in­stalling a pool is an ex­pen­sive job, the couple were again lucky to have ex­pe­ri­enced builder, David, on hand. “It was a chal­lenge for him,” laughs Sam. “He’d never built a pool be­fore, and while we planned ev­ery­thing care­fully, it was quite an ex­pe­ri­ence. Dur­ing that win­ter we had tem­per­a­tures of -25°C – the dig­ger froze! I was preg­nant with our third child, and it was very stress­ful to look out at the gar­den and see it look­ing like a mud pit. It felt as if we’d never get it done. “How­ever, things grad­u­ally took shape and by the time our first guests ar­rived dur­ing the Easter break, it all looked amaz­ing.” Of course, the sport­ing ac­tiv­i­ties at TriTopia aren’t lim­ited to adult guests. “Our children reg­u­larly take part, and en­cour­age the other children stay­ing with us to have a go at triathlon. They can take part in arm­bands and on scoot­ers if they wish! We also get more ‘se­ri­ous’ children, too. We have a leader­board for times and our ‘mini-triathlon’ which we run at the end of the week. It’s all good, healthy com­pe­ti­tion! “We’ve de­lib­er­ately kept our re­treat small, and have no plans to ex­pand. I think the charm comes from the fact that we’re quite niche – we re­mem­ber ev­ery­one’s names and of­fer them a very per­sonal ser­vice with their hol­i­day com­pletely tai­lored to them,” ex­plains Lee.

“We look for­ward to the sum­mers when we can so­cialise”

The fam­ily has also re­ceived a warm wel­come from the lo­cal com­mu­nity. “The mairie has been help­ful from day one,” ex­plains Sam. “We only had ba­sic French, but they helped us to com­plete the forms to ob­tain plan­ning per­mis­sion. I think there are a lot of di­lap­i­dated barns and build­ings in the lo­cal area, so they are very keen for peo­ple to come and ren­o­vate them. Plus, with the pop­u­la­tion a lit­tle on the low side, they’re also very keen for fam­i­lies to be­come part of the lo­cal com­mu­nity.”

With win­ters in the Brenne of­ten rather bleak, the fam­ily has cho­sen to set their ‘sea­son’ from April to Septem­ber. “We take ad­van­tage of the good weather,” ex­plains Sam. “In the win­ter, the area is so quiet – it’s as if ev­ery­one hi­ber­nates. We en­joy our fam­ily win­ters, how­ever, and it’s a good op­por­tu­nity to make im­prove­ments to our fa­cil­i­ties. But we do look for­ward to the sum­mers when we can so­cialise.”

While the name of the re­treat, com­bin­ing the words ‘triathlon’ and ‘utopia’, con­jures an im­age of a par­adise for ath­letes, TriTopia is also a hol­i­day haven for fam­i­lies and sin­gle­tons alike, no mat­ter their level of fit­ness. The re­treat re­mains first and fore­most a fam­ily home, where the children mix hap­pily with guests and the at­mos­phere is friendly and re­laxed. And for the Thomases, the ru­ral lo­ca­tion and friendly com­mu­nity have be­come a part of a life that many would de­scribe as akin to ‘liv­ing in par­adise’.

Above: Cy­clists pass through An­g­lessur-l’Anglin, a plus beau vil­lage on the edge of the Brenne na­tional park Top right: Ca­noe­ing on one of the nat­u­ral lakes in the area

This page, clock­wise from top left: Guests can train in the long nar­row swim­ming pool; one of the serene lakes in the Brenne na­tional park; Lee and Sam dine out­side with their guests

Guests make them­selves at home in the kitchen

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