Not bad, considering that half an hour before I had never seen a polo mallet, knew nothing at all about the sport, and had not sat on a horse for fifteen years.
I had been invited to take part in the launch of ‘Trails of Discovery’, organised by the Dolce Chantilly resort hotel, situated just 35km outside Paris. A stunning converted former Chateau set in the heart of horse country, Dolce Chantilly is an exceptional hotel, offering many attractions, especially for sports enthusiasts.
As my taxi from Charles de Gaul airport, 25 minutes away, swept up the drive, it was evident that horses were the central theme flowing through this spectacular resort. From the bronze statue in the driveway to the art on the walls, horses are everywhere. I loved the artistic black and white photographs, but nothing came close to the life-size black horse with a lamp on its head in the lobby.
I was to learn that Chantilly’s connection with horses began in the 18th century when the lords of Chantilly bred them for both war and hunting.
Chantilly was primarily a hunting estate, where the kings of France would come to ride to hounds. Equestrian passions continued into the 19th century when horse racing grew in popularity, and Chantilly became the European racehorse capital.
These days, it remains a focus for all things equestrian, with around 4,500 thoroughbreds kept in and around the area. Europe’s only horse museum is in the Grandes Éuries, an extraordinary equestrian complex built as an architectural homage to the horse. The museum attracts visitors from around the world, and stages regular horse shows in its magnificent indoor arena.
Polo players from all over Europe are increasingly attracted to Chantilly where matches are played throughout the year.
The Polo Club de Chantilly is the largest in Europe, with nine pitches, and is home to around nine hundred polo horses. It hosted the world polo championship in 2004 and is the venue for the Coupe de France every year.
Although polo is regarded traditionally as an elitist sport for the super rich and aristocracy, the Chantilly Polo club is encouraging novices and children to participate, giving visitors free access to the Club so they can watch the matches (five hundred a year).
Back to Dolce and the ‘Trails of Discovery’. The Dolce hotels are located in the countryside outside major cities, providing the setting for guests to enjoy inspiring and exciting activities. The ‘Trails of Discovery’ an innovative idea for small groups of friends or families to take part in.
Supplied with maps and instructions, and having nominated a team leader, groups of participants visit various locations where they engage in activities, whether it be a walk, or a sport. There is something for everyone.
Our ‘trail’ began at the Polo Club, a short drive from the hotel, where the stable manager gave us a brief introduction to polo.
Each of us was given a mallet and we learnt how it was used in the sport – we discovered that wielding it correctly requires great skill. It was a surprise when we were invited to have a go on horseback. It was the most fun I’ve had in ages – I absolutely loved it.
Participants would ordinarily practice on wooden horses. However, Dolce guests can pre-book a playing session on horseback, as the horses are so well trained that even novice riders can have a go.
After that, we enjoyed a picnic lunch, provided by the hotel, then on to another part of the trail which led us through a delightful country walk.
Finally we visited Le Hameau restaurant, where we sampled some famous Chantilly whipped cream, though there are many stories which cast doubt on whether it did actually originate from there.
By now, those of you who are not remotely interested in horses may be wondering what else this resort has got to offer?
Well, for golfers it is utopia, with a superb 6,201 metre, PAR 72, 18-hole golf course. There is an original water practice range where golfers have the unusual opportunity to drive balls over a vast lake where targets are marked by white buoys, and with no penalties.
This French- style golf course is constructed on sandy soil (guaranteeing excellent drainage) in a stunning pastoral countryside setting. At first sight it appears relatively flat with apparently easy holes.
However, the course designers have created well defended greens, which challenge the over-confident golfer. There is a well-stocked golfing shop, restaurant and bar in the clubhouse to ensure players are well catered for.
Aside from the horse and golf activities, Dolce has indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a Hamman, sauna and state of the art fitness centre. Bikes are available to hire for exploring the surrounding areas, and there are jogging circuits, beach volley ball courts, and, for those who simply want to relax, a beautiful terrace with sunbeds and parasols – what more could you want?
The contemporary-style bedrooms are spacious with stunning views over the golf course, river and countryside. The hotel has three restaurants. We ate in the Donatello.
Described as bistro-chic cuisine, the food was deliciously French. Afterwards, sinking into the deep sofas in the bar, listening to the live jazz band, we reflected on what had been an exhilarating day’s activities.
With Paris and all its attractions just a 45 minute drive away, there is no doubt Dolce Chantilly offers an exceptional short break or weekend away for those looking for something different – it would make a great Christmas present for horse lovers or golf enthusiasts – the recipient would certainly not be disappointed.