HOSTS WITH THE MOST

Would you like to leave a hec­tic life­style be­hind to cre­ate your own niche busi­ness in France? An­nal­iza Davis ex­plains how Claire and Andrew Bernard have done ex­actly that

Living France - - Contents - french­berry.com

Find out how one cou­ple filled a gap in the mar­ket in Brit­tany with their lux­ury holiday ac­com­mo­da­tion

On the western tip of Brit­tany, just out­side the his­toric city of Quim­per, a long gravel drive leads through stun­ning grounds to re­veal a pic­turesque prop­erty com­plete with tur­ret. This is Kis­tinic, home to the Bernard fam­ily. On this sunny after­noon, they are tak­ing time to talk about their life in France, but as soon as the tourist sea­son is in full swing, they will be on-call for guests in four prop­er­ties, thanks to their busi­ness rent­ing out stylish holiday homes in Brit­tany. “I wouldn’t say this was our plan,

ex­actly,” ad­mits Claire, “but each step seemed to make sense and here we are, 11 years later.”

The cou­ple met in 1991 at King’s Col­lege Lon­don, where Andrew stud­ied me­chan­i­cal engi­neer­ing and Claire stud­ied ge­og­ra­phy. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, Andrew took a job trad­ing pack­ag­ing and later be­came an oil trader with To­tal, while Claire de­vel­oped her ca­reer as a tele­vi­sion pro­ducer. They set­tled in Lon­don, of­ten spend­ing week­ends in Corn­wall, where Claire had grown up.

“Then came a cou­ple of life-chang­ing events,” re­mem­bers Claire. “In 1999, our el­dest daugh­ter was born and next, To­tal merged with Elf, trans­fer­ring

Andrew’s job to Geneva. I was on ma­ter­nity leave, so it seemed like a good op­por­tu­nity to try some­thing new.”

Claire and Andrew moved to Geneva in Au­gust 2000, when their daugh­ter Jas­min was 18 months old. Claire didn’t have a work per­mit, but spent her time ren­o­vat­ing their Geneva mai­son de maître as well as a chalet in the Alps that they’d pur­chased around the same time. It was a com­pletely dif­fer­ent life­style and a new ex­pe­ri­ence liv­ing in an­other coun­try, but it was far from ideal.

“My job was un­re­lent­ing, high pres­sure, and very stress­ful,” ad­mits Andrew. “I was on the phone all week­ends and hol­i­days, and there wasn’t re­ally much plea­sure in the work any more, so we knew some­thing had to change. The money kept com­ing in but it had no real value when it was tak­ing such a high toll.”

When the cou­ple’s se­cond daugh­ter, Lily, ar­rived, it be­came vi­tal for them to think care­fully about their next move. The de­ci­sion to leave Lon­don had come through Andrew’s job, but the de­ci­sion to leave Geneva re­quired a lot of thought. How­ever, in March 2004, Andrew handed in his no­tice at work and they put their house on the mar­ket.

WHERE TO LIVE?

“We thought, if we sold all three prop­er­ties, we would have a big enough fund to start again, but we weren’t sure where to go,” Claire re­mem­bers. “Be­cause we’d left the UK four years be­fore, we’d al­ready cut our ties and re­alised we could go any­where in the world.

“We con­sid­ered Lon­don, but be­cause the girls had started learn­ing French, we thought it’d be a shame for them to lose that. We briefly con­sid­ered Van­cou­ver, and also Biar­ritz, but felt there was too much traf­fic for us. Fi­nally, my un­cle sug­gested Brit­tany so we came to ex­plore, stay­ing in Mor­bi­han then head­ing west to Fin­istère. We found Kis­tinic on a glo­ri­ous day in May and both thought we should go for it, if only for a year.”

Fall­ing in love with Kis­tinic sealed their choice: their of­fer was ac­cepted and the mo­ment they got back to Geneva, some­one bought their house. The Lon­don home sold soon af­ter and a work col­league bought their chalet. Ev­ery­thing was in place for a move to France.

EARN­ING A LIV­ING

Af­ter they ar­rived in France in Au­gust 2005, Andrew ini­tially tried con­tin­u­ing as an oil trader,

“If you’re go­ing to move to an­other coun­try, you can’t just come with a res­o­lutely Bri­tish at­ti­tude, as it will only end in dis­ap­point­ment; you have to be pre­pared to adapt”

com­mut­ing to Lon­don and to Geneva, but he soon re­alised that he was hap­pier out of this ca­reer than in it.

“I felt I’d done what I needed to do ca­reer­wise; I didn’t need to prove my­self,” says Andrew, who spent more and more time on their own house, land­scap­ing and chain-saw­ing, happy to be out­side an of­fice but un­sure what to do next. Three fac­tors made their de­ci­sion.

Firstly, when they bought Kis­tinic Château, its gate­house was al­ready be­ing rented out as a holiday home, so it felt nat­u­ral to con­tinue this and con­sider ex­pand­ing it into a busi­ness.

Se­condly, Claire recog­nised that she en­joyed ‘res­cu­ing’ ne­glected prop­er­ties. “Our pre­vi­ous homes had sold re­ally eas­ily, with peo­ple com­ment­ing on the dé­cor and want­ing to buy all the fur­ni­ture and fit­tings, so I seemed to have a flair for that sort of thing,” she says.

Thirdly, the Bernards had re­alised from their own ex­pe­ri­ences that there was a short­age of qual­ity holiday homes in Brit­tany and the French ap­proach to rent­ing holiday homes re­mains very dif­fer­ent from that in the UK. Guests of­ten have to com­plete an in­ven­tory on ar­rival, per­haps pay separately for elec­tric­ity and are usu­ally ex­pected to clean the prop­erty them­selves at the end of their stay – or pay a clean­ing charge.

“At the time, France was flooded with in­ex­pen­sive but not very pleas­ant gîtes,” ex­plains Claire. “We felt there was a mar­ket for well-fur­nished, well-pre­sented prop­er­ties with no ex­tra charges, so peo­ple could just come on holiday and re­lax.”

SET­TING UP THE BUSI­NESS

“We cer­tainly didn’t move to France think­ing ‘we’ll run a holiday-rental busi­ness’, but as there was no clear path, we fol­lowed the one that emerged. In 2005 I feel in love with a sea­side house in Primelin need­ing to­tal ren­o­va­tion, which took a lot of time and project man­age­ment. We also bought a new-build rental on the French is­land of Cor­sica but it was too hard to over­see house­keep­ing and gar­den­ing from so far away, which taught us a tough les­son. We sold it within a year.”

The cou­ple fin­ished ren­o­vat­ing the Primelin house, then bought two more houses in the next two years, spend­ing au­tumn and win­ter on ren­o­va­tions and main­te­nance, then spring and sum­mer greet­ing guests and manag­ing changeovers, main­tain­ing the grounds and clean­ing the prop­er­ties.

Un­der the busi­ness name of French­berry, the Bernards now rent out four holiday homes: The Gate­house, Ty Traez and Ty Bili in Primelin, and a cot­tage called Lost­marc’h in the Cro­zon Penin­sula. They also oc­ca­sion­ally rent out their own home, Kis­tinic Château.

“What we of­fer isn’t ex­ces­sively lux­u­ri­ous, but it is dif­fer­ent from the rest of the mar­ket,” ex­plains Claire. “We aim to of­fer guests an ex­pe­ri­ence that’s a step up, so when they come on holiday they feel pam­pered and com­fort­able.”

Of course, run­ning this num­ber of prop­er­ties re­quires staff, and that is far from sim­ple. “Any­one will tell you it’s hard to find house­keep­ing staff who’ll clean and present a house to the same stan­dard as you would your­self,” ad­mits Claire. “When you’ve got guests ar­riv­ing the same day in four dif­fer­ent prop­er­ties, you have to be able to rely on your team and thank­fully, we now have great staff, but it took ages to find them and we look af­ter them.

“Andrew does all the land­scap­ing work at Kis­tinic, that’s 37 acres, and I’m al­ways in­volved in the changeovers and clean­ing. Plus, we’re on­call for any guest queries that might come up at any time – and it re­ally can be at any time!”

When they’re not work­ing or answering emails, Claire makes the most of her art room over­look­ing the gar­dens, while Andrew plays the

pi­ano or ex­plores the Bre­ton coun­try­side on his bike: a keen cy­clist, he’ll hap­pily cy­cle 400km a month, given the chance!

SET­TLING IN THE CHIL­DREN

As for the girls, they are at school in nearby Quim­per, and are both bilin­gual.

“Look­ing back, the girls did well set­tling in, but as we spoke only English at home, it took longer than I an­tic­i­pated for them to get used to the French en­vi­ron­ment. School is far more aca­demic here, with long days and reg­u­lar eval­u­a­tions, but stan­dards are high, there’s more re­spect for teach­ers and I like that ev­ery­one sits down to a three-course lunch.

“There are of­ten sub­sidised ac­tiv­i­ties like cin­ema trips, ski­ing and sports, and it’s great hear­ing them talk French, recit­ing po­etry or chat­ting with friends. Only now that Jas­min is 17 and Lily is 13, do they re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate the ad­van­tage of be­ing bilin­gual, although they both talk about try­ing life in the UK later.”

WAS IT THE RIGHT MOVE?

“While there have been some tough mo­ments, I love do­ing what we do; pre­par­ing the houses, im­prov­ing them each year, and wel­com­ing back guests,” says Claire. “I’ve even thought about a ho­tel, but maybe not the day-to-day run­ning of one. I feel we’ve learned some­thing from the French at­ti­tude that it is pos­si­ble to slow down; you don’t have to run full speed all the time. And it’s still a joy to eat break­fast and see deer on the lawn, or pop to the sea – you never tire of ex­plor­ing this part of the world.”

Visit­ing their prop­er­ties, you’d have to ad­mit that Claire and Andrew have achieved their goal, un­doubt­edly through hard work, impeccable taste and a gen­uine de­sire to pro­vide the best pos­si­ble ser­vice. Each house feels ut­terly invit­ing, more than a home from home; a place you can un­pack, un­wind and feel pam­pered. No won­der so many of their guests re­turn year af­ter year: this re­ally is the best of Brit­tany.

home of their château Lily on the steps Bernard with daugh­ter Claire and Andrew

This page: A view of Kis­tinic’s tur­ret and serene pool Fac­ing page: The stylish in­te­rior of Kis­tinic in­clud­ing the hall­way, bed­room and din­ing room

Claire and Andrew re­lax­ing at home

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.