Sainte-Hélène is an award-winning luxury B&B and apartment in the heart of Olonzac village

Kay and Mark Williams did their homework when they came to buy in France, but it was when things went pear-shaped that they discovered their dream home in Hérault

 

FRENCHENTRÉE MAGAZINE: What attracted you to France?

KAY AND MARK WILLIAMS: It was more a case of “why not?”. We were both Francophiles, had lived 11 years in Australia, one year in the UK, and we wanted to stay in Europe. House prices in France were very attractive at the time.

 

FE: How long did it take to find the right property?

KMW: We were looking for a house with a large garden and en-suite rooms so we could open a B&B. But from our experience of buying property in New Zealand and Australia we also knew that the house had to ‘feel’ right. We did months of research from the UK, so when it came to viewing houses we were only looking at real contenders. We actually went to Olonzac to meet an estate agent in order to view a house in another village. When we got there, he told us that it had been taken off the market that same morning! As we had flown from England, we were somewhat annoyed, but he offered to show us a property that hadn’t been listed online. Olonzac was a little bit more expensive than other villages in the area, but we decided to look  anyway since we were there – and thank goodness we did. We walked in the front door and looked at each other with glances that said, “Wow, this could be it!”. It just had the right feel – that was before we had even got past the hallway. The house only had one en-suite, but we saw that we could change the configuration to convert the rest of the rooms. We thought we wanted a large garden, but instead we have a lovely courtyard on the ground level that our guests enjoy immensely, and a large private terrace on the top floor just for us. We’re glad we don’t have a large garden to look after!

 

FE: Tell us about Sainte-Hélène…

KMW: The property is located in the village of Olonzac, halfway between Narbonne and Carcassonne, and offers four en-suite bedrooms, plus a one-bedroom rental apartment. There’s a large storeroom, a laundry, lounge, dining room, kitchen and courtyard. We named it Sainte-Hélène as a reference to geographical regions with ‘Helen’ in their name on both sides of our families – we wanted some reflection of our past. Finally, the whole of the top floor is our private residence, a contemporary New York-style apartment that Mark always wanted.

the entrance hall and elegant guest sitting room offer a warm welcome

 

FE: You undertook a major renovation. How long did it take?

KMW: We started the week after we moved in and kept on solidly renovating the B&B part for six months. Being on hand to project-manage the builders, plumbers etc made a huge difference. We were able to see if anything needed revising as we went along, and we also saved money by doing all the donkey work. The first two floors of the house were habitable when we moved in, but the top floor was bare stone walls in rough condition and we could see the roof tiles. A couple of years later, we replaced the roof and renovated the top floor, which became our private quarters. We did all the decorating throughout the house. We might not have been experts when we started, but we certainly were by the time we finished!

 

FE: Did you stick to your original budget?

KMW: We stuck to our budget initially, but when we renovated our space on the top floor we overstretched a little bit. It was worth it. It’s our favourite part of the house – our sanctuary.

The honey-hued buildings of Minerve

 

FE: How did you go about launching the business?

KMW: We deliberately started from scratch rather than taking over an existing business. That way, it was all down to us whether it worked or not. We are in a great area; it is the ‘real’ south of France, with a long history and proud Occitane culture influenced by neighbouring Catalonia.

We both had very specific ideas and could visualise exactly how we wanted our B&B to be; right down to the products in the bathrooms – L’Occitane, of course, being in this area. We worked extremely hard in the first year to get ourselves known, and even built our own website. We were lucky to have some amazing reviews which, of course, encouraged more people to come. We even made the Top 25 B&Bs in France!

 

FE: Did you need financing?

KMW: We didn’t need financing and think it is a risk for someone wanting to start a B&B to rely on a loan, as the hospitality industry can be fickle. However, many of our friends have financed a holiday home here while they were still in the UK, Australia and New Zealand. The house prices in France enabled them to do this without stretching themselves too much.

guests breakfast in the airy dining room

 

FE: What was your experience of French bureaucracy?

KMW: There is a lot of paperwork, but it was not as bad as we expected. It is slowly getting easier, as more services are online now. There was a bit of immigrant-averse sentiment from some of the government staff when sorting out visas, but most of them were really pleasant and helpful. We are now applying for French nationality.

 

FE: Was the language barrier an issue?

KMW: The language is a challenge, but we found that, contrary to popular belief, the French are very forgiving of anyone making an attempt to speak their language.

Olonzac is only a stone’s throw from the delights of the Canal du Midi

FE: What would you say to someone looking to buy a property in France?

KMW: Research, research, research! Also, try to narrow down the ‘types’ of locations that you might consider: countryside, hamlet, village, town, city. Do you want to be within easy driving distance of a beach, river, lake? What about airports, train stations, etc? Define what facilities are a must and what would be nice to have. Consider the weather too. It’s worth noting the statistics, which say that over 90 percent of house-hunters that have stayed here while they were searching for a property have found their dream home. One lady had been looking for seven years. When she came to stay with us, she found a place in one week.

 

HÉRAULT
Hérault has a diverse landscape – from the Mediterranean coastline to the south, the Cévennes mountains to the north, vibrant cities and towns such as Montpellier, plus lush agricultural land. Food lovers can tuck into fish and fresh seafood, spiced mince tarts and asparagus, with wines including  Muscat, a fortified sweet white. Transport links are good, with international fl ights to Montpellier and Béziers, and TGV services from Paris.

 

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