When visiting Paris, lots of people take a day trip to Versailles, and if they're not in any hurry they may even spend the night. There are good reasons for adopting that more leisurely approach: First, it really does take more than an afternoon to see the château, its allied buildings, its vast gardens and a little of the town itself. Secondly, spending the night gives you the chance to attend a concert, opera or other performance either in the royal chapel or -- even better -- in the beautifully restored eighteenth-century royal opera house, as Jackie and I have done a couple of times. I reported on our first outing, two years ago; as you see, we spent the night in a good hotel in Versailles, and that was very convenient.
When we saw another opera at Versailles the other week, we tried something that was only marginally less convenient but that was so unexpected and relaxing and such fun that I hope any Versailles overnighter will consider it. We stayed at a hotel-spa overlooking the big pond that Corot painted so many times, Les Etangs de Corot in Ville d'Avray, a little more than two thirds of the way from central Paris to Versailles. In practical terms: It was a 20-odd minute /25-euro ($34) taxi ride from our Paris hotel (the wonderful Shangri-La, near the Palais de Chaillot); to get to or from Versailles, it was a quick ten-minute cab ride costing about €13 ($18).
Ville d'Avray is by no means in the deep countryside -- it is a prosperous-looking commuter town -- and the front door of the hotel is smack on the street. But this is deceptive: The place is built on a rise above the water, which in turn is populated by fish and ducks and is ringed by trees and walking paths. With extensive public woodland beyond, there's barely a hint of city life and certainly not a shred of evidence that you're so close to Paris.
The public areas and ample guest rooms (with bucolic views) are tastefully decorated and very comfortable, with a wonderful touch of sophisticated whimsy: Corridors are hung with lithographs by Walton Ford; at first glance these look like excellent zoological watercolors or prints -- think Audubon -- but on closer examination they turn out to be fantastical, witty and sometimes macabre. On a rainy day, they'd afford hours of pleasure. Staff are unfailingly friendly, prompt and helpful.
The hotel is operated by members of the Bordeaux-based family that owns the Smith Haut Lafitte vineyards and the Caudalie spa group, and sure enough there is a charming Caudalie spa one flight down, with calming treatment rooms and a big hydrotherapy pool (but remember: we're on a hill, so the lower level is light and airy, and there are pretty views out its windows). I like the fact that there is little new-age hocus-pocus about the spa, though a tiny dose of this is inevitable. No harm done, though: it's all relaxing and beneficial.
There are two main restaurants and a bar, plus a café offering plenty of picturesque outdoor seating from April to October; we ate in the informal Café des Artistes, which offers a nice menu (two courses for €29/$40; three for €35/$48). The food was not inherently bad, but at least on a Sunday night was carelessly assembled for service (a tepid gnocchi dish; dry, over-reheated, under-sauced braised beef); the wine list is short but very good, drawing in part on the family's Bordeaux holdings, including the delicious Les Hauts de Smith white, which is what we drank.
Breakfast was terrific, with perfect, fresh, buttery pastries and impeccable dairy products including my new favorite butter, from Beillevaire , which I'd just tasted for the first time in London. A full breakfast menu is also available for those who need their eggs of a morning.
While we used Les Etangs de Corot as a way-station between Paris and Versailles, nothing is stopping you from enjoying a bit of villeggiatura even if the château isn't on your itinerary: It is a delightful and surprising destination in itself.
Les Etangs de Corot. 55 rue de Versailles, 92410 Ville d'Avray, France; +33 (0)1 41 15 37 00; email@example.com; http://www.etangs-corot.com/en/. Doubles from around $190 depending on date and availability; massages and other spa treatments from €65 to around €200 ($90-$275), with half- full- and multi-day packages available.