Richard Hammond takes the TGV train to Nice and bus to Cagnes-sur-Mere to visit Orion Tree Houses and finds they're hidden in a peaceful spot by a wonderful natural swimming pool - a perfect arboreal B&B eco-escape on the Cote d'Azur.
In a nutshell:
A collection of wonderfully crafted treehouses and beautiful natural swimming pool close to Saint-Paul de Vence along from Nice on the Côte d'Azur.
Rooms: 4 beautiful treehouses, ranging in size from '2 adults only' to '2 adults + 3 kids'. Groups up to 12 adults and families up to 14 persons
Price: Self-catering from €200/night Spring and Autumn (min 2 nights); €795 for 3 nights in the Summer
Meals: Breakfast included; several excellent restaurants close by
Open: April to October
Facilities: Cots available & babies stay for free; Sauna, Yoga & Massage available.
Good for Green: Vegetarian, organic breakfast; Outdoor Natural Swimming Pool; Biodiverse garden; Reachable by public transport.
Our Review of Orion Treehouses:
The Setting: The 4 treehouses are clustered around the natural swimming pool on a gentle hill opposite the medieval walls of St Paul de Vence.
The Rooms: The treehouses are actually stand-alone, solid structures, made of red cedar and built between the trees rather than attached to their trunks. You climb up to them via an outer wooden staircase rather than swinging over on a vine with a monkey on your back, yodelling. The rooms are furnished with the kind of trappings you'd expect in this part of the world - huge double beds and large fluffy pillows, and a wooden-barrel shower. Bagheera, was the first treehouse constructed, it has a sunny terrace surrounding it and is slightly more minimalistic in style than the others. Shere Khan is great for couples, with more extravagant decor and a teak bathtub. King Louie has a four-poster bed and is close to the pool and the sauna – it’s also great for families thanks to its connection via a bridge with the smaller Mowgli where you will find two bunk beds - it's perfect for the kids if they prefer to be slightly separate and live their own adventure (a little) independently (NB. Orion is very family friendly). Colonel Hathi is a two-story treehouse and offers the best view vantage point; it is tucked away between the trees and is the furthest away from the centre, but if you’re one for heights this is the eerie one for you.
The Food: Breakfast includes fresh watermelon smoothies, fruit salads, a special granola recipe (Aina can tell you all about it!), yogurts, croissants, and coffee; served on the terrace overlooking the lovely natural swimming pool. The treehouses also have access to the shared kitchen with its large refrigerator and microwave oven. If you can stir yourself away from the tranquility, a short walk up the hill behind Orion is La Brouette, a wonderfully intimate, Danish-owned restaurant, overlooking the medieval, fortified village of Saint-Paul de Vence (see top tip below). Plus there are also lots of lovely locally owned restaurants in nearby St Paul de Vence, including Le Tilleul and La Colombe d'Or as well as Pause Nature in La Colle sur Loup, and Dame Nature - an organic restaurant in Saint-Laurent du Var harbour. - reservations advised, especially in summer.
Activities: The treehouses are really the main attraction - and they are very comfortable so you can easily relax up in the boughs listening to the sounds of birdsong and the leaves rustling in the breeze. Back on terra firma, you can chill out on a sun lounger by a swimming pond that is designed to integrate into the garden, surrounded by pebbles, plants and dragonflies it gives the impression "of a mountain lake". It is cleaned not with chemicals but through a sophisticated natural system of gravel and aquatic plant filtration: compared with your average chlorinated pool, it feels like you're swimming in Evian. There is also a Barrel Sauna for you to enjoy. Beautifully designed and eco-friendly, cut from deliciously scented red cedar wood and heated by a low-consumption electric stove, enabling a "Turkish Bath" effect at a lower temperature. The roundness improves an even distribution of the heat, and provides optimum insulation. You can book yourself massage sessions and yoga lessons. Orion is a quirky, comfortable place to stay: you could spend your entire time just hanging about in the trees and lounging by the swimming pool, but if you can actually stir yourself from the tranquility, a short walk up the hill, is Saint-Paul de Vence - once home to many renaissance painters and there are plenty of local museums (one specifically for Chagal). You could easily spend a whole day just mooching around the village. And of course, you have the Cote d'Azur on your doorstep...there’s the Cannes Film Festival in May or Jazz a Juan festival in July and outdoor concerts in the summer.
Eco-friendly Initiatives: Orion is set up to be in harmony with the trees not causing them any anguish or hampering them in any way. The whole set-up is pitched as very soft green tourism, getting back to nature, and while the tree houses are really unusual and amazing, they are really well fitted out inside. You may be up a tree but you don’t leave any of the home comforts you would expect to indulge in on the ground. Here are some of the eco initiatives at Orion:
Breakfast is 100% vegetarian (vegan option is also available)
Swimming pool is chemical free
Orion Hub is a low emission house with green roof
Cleaning and laundry is done using natural cleaning products and detergents
Reusable shopping bags guests can borrow during their stay
Fruit and veg composted and returned to the garden
Getting to Orion the low carbon way: It's possible to reach Orion Treehouses by public transport from the UK. See our guide to How to take the train from London to Nice. Once you've arrive in Nice, you can either take take bus 400 direct to Saint-Paul de Vence in 1 hour (from where it's a 20-minute walk to Orion), or take the train to Cagnes-sur-Mer from where you can get a taxi to Orion - you can pre-book a transfer from the railway station with local taxi company Taxi Patrice +33 (0)685 57 13 10 / firstname.lastname@example.org
Top Tip: As well as the lovely village of Saint-Paul de Vence, the most outstanding thing is the wonderful restaurant behind Orion, called La Brouette. The proprietor - Michel - smokes delicious trout in an oven in front of you as you sit on a terrace over looking Saint-Paul de Vence with the sun setting. It's a pretty simple affair (reflected in the very reasonable prices and simple wines) and it is really for the courageous as it is quite a hike uphill through the woods behind the treehouses - make sure you wear good shoes, and charge your mobile (or bring a light) so you can find your way back down. Alternatively, there are some wonderful restaurants in St Paul de Vence.
Verdict: "You get the best of both worlds," said Diane Van Den Berge, Orion's owner (now retired, her daughter Aina now runs the show admirably); guests come to fulfill their childhood dreams of living in a treehouse "like Tarzan and Jane", yet while there's "a feeling of isolation, there's also a degree of comfort in nature". And if you go with children, they will be in Den Heaven.
Or call Aina on: +33 675 45 18 64.
Mention 'Green Traveller' to Aina when you book and receive some home made Bees Wrap during your stay!