WORDS IAN BELCHER / ILLUSTRATION MARK WEAVER
With three-course gourmet meals on the menu and a serious serving of daily ab workouts and hill hikes on the side, a French spa is rewriting the boot camp rule book
There’s nothing like a colleague’s fatal coronary to inspire a health kick. And, if two stressed fellow financiers
die of heart attacks in a short space of time – the second in mid-sentence during a conversation with you on the phone – it can really focus the mind.
For Craig Resnick it was a game changer. The San Francisco trader, previously too busy to make his own honeymoon, reacted by taking a rare holiday with his wife Libby in rural France, revelling in the food, wine and earthy sanity.
It tasted sweet. Very sweet. The couple bought a farm with walnut orchard and mill, and, while it took Craig a while to swap the Pacific coast for the Midi-Pyrénées, Libby stayed in Europe, honing their formula for a more balanced life.
The result was Camp Biche – one of the planet’s more unusual boot camps. Rejecting the usual pinched puritanism of many health retreats, the week-long course occupies a casually luxurious 13th-century mansion in the hilltop village of Lauzerte, joyfully embracing the finer elements of Gallic life: serious wine, memorable food and elegy-inducing country walks. Sensory excess rather than calorie deprivation.
‘It can be fun. Diets don’t work long term. You have to exercise. So why cut out food? Along with sex it’s one of life’s pleasures.’
‘You don’t need to suffer to get fit,’ says Libby, a trim, passionate hiker. ‘It can be fun. Diets don’t work long term. You have to exercise. So why cut out food? Along with sex, it’s one of life’s pleasures.’
That would explain the opening supper at Camp Biche: grilled artichokes with Caesar dressing; followed by leek, garlic and smoked potato soup; then falafel galettes with tomatoes, red onion and cucumber, laced with spicy tahini sauce; and a dessert of chocolate mousse and orange sorbet bathed in vodka – all washed down with a sensational Château Lamartine. Is this really a boot camp?
The answer is yes – providing you also swallow a side dish of restraint and discipline. Grazing is out. Servings
of vegetarian food are satisfying but not supersized. ‘It’s not complex,’ stresses Libby. ‘The French – the Western world’s skinniest nation – eat three times a day and regard it as uncouth to snack between meals. They’re hungry when they sit down at the table, take smaller portions and are more active. I’m simply giving guests a taste of local life.’
Camp Biche also serves up a generous dollop of fitness. On my first morning, I’m in the workout studio at 6.30am for 450 ab exercises – a gut-shaking aperitif for 40 minutes of circuit training. And that’s just the start. Afternoon brings an hour’s aqua aerobics in the medieval courtyard pool,
90 minutes Pilates and yoga and an hour’s massage before we tuck into a gourmet candlelit supper, smug in the knowledge that we’ve burnt off several thousand calories.
These, however, are the more predictable elements of boot camp. The highlight – the inspiration through perspiration – is each morning’s glorious foray into the fecund Tarn-et-Garonne countryside. The first hike departs directly from Gandilhonne, Camp Biche’s historic base, following 15km of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim trail towards Montcuq. It’s suitably divine. We drop down past weathered medieval masonry, before passing fruit orchards, chestnut forests and swathes of sunflowers rippling into a green and yellow ocean swell.
Next day, under another impossibly blue sky, we tackle a different spur of the blessed hiking trail near St Martin de Durfort. It’s another heaven-sent route, crossing rolling valleys and providing a chance to chat to devout hikers heading south towards salvation in Spain, before climaxing with a hellish climb back to our hilltop base. Effort reaps rich reward, however: a lunch of palate-tickling cantaloupe soup, creamy mushroom tart and a trilogy of raspberry fruit, yoghurt and sorbet.
By day four, the early-morning ab exercises have reached 810 – lunacy I associate with supermodel workout videos – and our walks have moved north into the department of the Lot. The scenery follows an ever more dramatic script. From petite but perfectly formed Albas, clinging to a cleft in forested cliffs, we push through vineyards spawning the world’s healthiest wine, before following an epic ridge with widescreen views of the muscular Lot river flanked by the snoozy villages of Caix, Parnac and Les Fosses, which have started their daily siesta well before lunch.
Today’s supper – miniature purple potatoes stuffed with cashew cream and topped with walnuts and sage, followed by mushroom and pecan burgers with hoisin barbecue sauce and a dessert of brownies with hot cherries cooked in Cahors wine – underlines how Camp Biche has rewritten the boot-camp rule book. It feels like an intimate house party with vibrant conversation between well-heeled international clients. This week’s group – maximum five people – includes Americans, Brits and an Australian.
But while it’s fabulously low on deprivation and high on style, does the French fitness regime yield results? ‘Men usually lose seven pounds,’ claims Libby. ‘Women four or five. More importantly, your clothes feel looser. If we get two inches off your waist and an inch off each thigh, that’s quite something in seven days.’
It is, particularly as I’m continuing to trough the likes of mascarpone, strawberries and mint chocolate ice cream. I’m also feeling significantly stronger and fitter. Before the last day’s walk, through the Domaine de la Banière vineyard, and the Lot valley, past the home of post-Impressionist Henri Martin and finishing near a spectacular hang-gliding point, I manage 1,200 ab exercises.
And, despite one of the more extraordinary week-long scoffs of my life, I discover I’ve lost eight pounds and taken in my belt two notches. I’m in good company. Jeff, an Essex businessman on his third visit of the year, is 21 pounds lighter than when he started his first course. ‘I don’t snack,’ he says. ‘I walk more, I’ve kept it off.’ Inspiring news.
Yes, I may have done 4,810 ab exercises and walked 90km, but if this is the civilised way the French keep workplace coronaries at bay, count me in.
A Camp Biche kick-start week, including full-board accommodation with wine and all activities, is priced
from €3,500pp. 020 7617 7253; campbiche.com.
Travel to Cahors from London with Rail Europe, from £91 return. 844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk
Fit for purpose
Alladale Reserve aims to restore a corner of the Highlands to its natural glory – and, during its fitness retreats, to do the same to your body.Staying in a converted Victorian lodge surrounded by 23,000 acres of prime Scottish wilderness an hour from Inverness, you’ll mix hiking in the glens, mountain biking and gym workouts with yoga and low-fat meals.There are 4x4 safaris and optional add-ons, including clay pigeon shooting.Seven nights all-inclusive (excluding flights), from £1,249pp. alladale.com
PORTUGUESE MEN OF WAR
Short, sharp military shocks and boutique comfort are rare bedfellows. But the New You Boot Camp has exported its successful UK formula of army fitness and fat-burning diets to a plush Algarve resort near Carvoeira. So, along with the usual suspects – boxing, circuit training, hikes – you can expect wake-up PE
at 5.30am, log runs, commando-style leopard crawls and obstacle courses. The army influence extends to the Nutrition Squad, but possibly not the spa treatments. Seven nights all-inclusive (excluding flights), from £1,495pp. newyoubootcamp.com