A SPORTING CHANCE
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
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