The art of French hosting hits the Yukon

The Takhini River Lodge looks like a modern French estate. Sitting at the centre of a 40-hectare property, the two-floor chalet stands alone in the soft summer rain.

The Takhini River Lodge looks like a modern French estate.

Sitting at the centre of a 40-hectare property, the two-floor chalet stands alone in the soft summer rain.

In the grass-covered field surrounding the lodge, several horses munch quietly, barely bothered by the car driving along the fence.

Much like the “chambre d’hotes” found virtually everywhere in France, the lodge is meant to be a luxurious getaway. A fortification against civilization. A high-end house sit, except with no chores.

“We don’t like the words bed and breakfast,” said Jean-Marc Champeval, who opened the lodge this summer with his wife, Christiane.

A bed and breakfast doesn’t quite sum up the French way of hosting guests.

A chambre d’hote is meant to give people a little more space and a little more service than the North American home-away-from-home.

Traditionally, they’re meant to host people mid-journey for a few days at a time.

The Champevals’ target audience is travellers who need to decompress after a rafting adventure on the Tatshenshini River or a canoe trip in the Peel Watershed.

“Or it could be people in Whitehorse who need a weekend to relax and be with nature,” said Christiane.

The Champevals experienced their own journey while trying to open the lodge, a quest that took them from Sweden, to Quebec, and finally to Canada’s north west.

Living in the small Alsatian city of Colmar, France, Christiane was a pharmacist and Jean-Marc ran two bakeries, each pumping out 1,000 baguettes a day.

“It was very traditional baking,” he said, describing early morning arrivals at the office with nothing but flour, water, salt, oil and yeast at the ready.

Despite his success in Colmar, the couple took one fateful trip to northern Finland in 2004.

“I fell in love with it,” said Jean-Marc. “And I knew I wanted to run a business in the Arctic.”

So the search began.

The first stop was Sweden, where Jean-Marc spent 15 days acquainting himself with rural towns and testing the waters for a new business.

At first, he wanted to open a new bakery.

He met with various chambers of commerce, all of which thought a bakery would be a bad idea.

So the Champevals changed continents.

“When you’re French you think of Quebec,” said Christiane.

Quebec didn’t present any big openings either. It has a heavy share of its own chambre d’hotes.

Despite their dimming chances, the Champevals mustered on. Jean-Marc had already sold his two bakeries by the time he headed west across Canada.

“I loved British Columbia,” he said, but touristically-speaking, it was already staked.

“And very expensive for land,” he said.

With nowhere else to go but up, Jean-Marc travelled to the Yukon.

“I must have taken over 400 photographs,” he said, which were a hit with Christiane upon his return to France.

Instead of applying for visas through the Canadian Embassy, they applied for the Yukon Nominee Program, which allows foreigners to be nominated for entry into Canada as long they have a good business plan in hand.

In 15 days, the Champevals had visas that gave them two years to get the lodge up and running.

They spent six months living in Porter Creek, where they began setting up contractors and finalizing the details of their future livelihood.

The Champevals took English lessons and began networking with other tourism companies.

Finally, in June, the Takhini River Lodge opened.

Ceiling-high windows and a deck grace the front of the 3,200-square-metre house.

The kitchen is filled with modern appliances and a long counter opens toward the dining space.

The lodge has five bedrooms, each one with its own regal bathroom.

The Aurora Room features ceiling windows for a bedtime gander at the northern lights.

The Yukon Room is filled with art by Jim Robb and Dennis Shorty.

One of the first floor rooms is specially designed for people with disabilities or in wheelchairs. The power outlets are placed higher and the light switches are lowered.

The chambre d’hote experience includes breakfast and a gourmet dinner.

Before leaving Colmar, Christiane took cooking lessons from a high-end French chef to hone her culinary skills.

The entrees range from mushroom-stuffed chicken breast in a creamy herb sauce to halibut and prawns in a coconut and coriander sauce.

Christiane even learned to cure her own gravlax, a Swedish way to prepare salmon that uses salt and dill to cure the fish.

For dessert, Christiane offers the option of an apple and pear crumble or Marco Pierre White’s lemon tar, named after the well-known English-born chef, the youngest to ever be awarded Michelin’s three stars.

While the Yukon’s tourism season has taken a hit this year, the Champevals have found a strategy in business partnerships.

They’ve teamed up with a tour operator who specializes in bringing Japanese tourists through the territory.

“The eight to 10 person tour suits our business,” said Jean-Marc.

Whether it’s returning from a drive to Inuvik or hardier treks through the Yukon wilds, the lodge is a landing pad that will definitely take the edge off after being in a crowded bus or float plane.

The horses are also the result of team-work in the tourism industry.

Spirited Adventures owns the horses and offers horse rides on and around the lodge property.

The Champevals are currently offering a Discovery Package. For $149, you can spend a night at the lodge, enjoy one dinner, get breakfast in the morning, and go for a two-hour horse back ride near the Takhini River.

The Champevals are looking to expand their packages by teaming up with canoe and rafting operators.

And while they miss friends and family, they’ve found the Yukon welcoming.

“People have been very helpful,” said Jean-Marc, adding that it has been hard to adjust at times.

“It’s been a huge challenge,” said Christiane.

“But it’s a renaissance for us; we’re learning life lessons,” she said.

Anyone interested in making reservations at the Takhini River Lodge can phone at 867-393-3060 or e-mail info@takhiniriverlodge.com.

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com.

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