“When we first moved to France and our American friends came to visit, they’d often comment that they would lose weight despite eating three full meals a day as the French do,” says Libby Pratt, 53, founder of luxury fitness boot camp based in the mediaeval bastide of Lauzerte, Tarn and Garonne. “And that’s how we originally came up with the idea of Camp Biche. Food shouldn’t be the enemy. If you walk an hour a day, don’t eat between meals and eat sensibly-sized portions, you can stay in shape without depriving yourself.”
Weight loss without deprivation? It sounds too good to be true. I decide to give it a go.
Luxurious. Camp Biche HQ is a large stone house with a pretty courtyard complete with heated swimming pool and cushioned loungers. The ambience is very much that of staying with a (rich) friend in the countryside rather than in a hotel. The five bedrooms are all different and feature French beds and armoires set on stripped floorboards with rugs. There are no numbers on the bedroom doors and no keys in the locks – instead little blackboards with each guest’s name on are propped outside each room. The bathrooms are crammed with Caudalie bathing products, Avene sunscreen as well as fluffy white towelling robes and spa slippers. Downstairs there is a huge dining room with enormous open fire place, a well-stocked library and homely kitchen.
The daily schedule
Arduous. Fitness instructor Elsa knocks on my door every morning at 6.30am and by 6.45am, I have started my abs exercises in the exercise room overlooking the fields and rolling hills of the region. In the first class we do 218 crunches, which seems like quite a lot so I was shocked to discover that this goes up incrementally each day so that by the end of the week, we are doing nearly 1,000. The crunches are done in sets of 18 to the mantra “I love and appreciate my body for everything that it does for me” chanted by Elsa. Hundreds of abs reps sounds harder than it is (honestly!) – because we do four different types of crunch with four deep breaths in between each set, it isn’t quite as bad as I had expected. The hour-long toning class which follows is much harder – on the first day I feel slightly sick and light-headed but by the next time it is not nearly so bad. Only when the class is finished do we get to have breakfast.
At 8.45am, we leave for a 15km hike. The hikes start either directly from Lauzerte or from the pretty village of Albas in the neighbouring department of Lot, around 30 minutes’ drive away. The hikes get harder and steeper as the week progresses but take in amazing scenery including vineyards, woods, poppy-scattered wheat fields and cute hamlets. The hikes for me, while undeniably beautiful, are by far the hardest part of the day. They take place in the morning so the weather is cooler and I choose to hike with the slower of the two groups but even so, by the end of each walk, my thigh muscles are screaming. It seems almost inconceivable that I will be able to manage yet more exercise in the afternoon.
And yet, I do. After lunch, if we are lucky there is around half an hour spare to laze by the pool before aqua-aerobics starts which bizarre as it may sound, I find a real tonic for my aching legs. Even though it is very tempting to stay lying on the lounger in the sun-trap courtyard (and no-one will force me in to the pool if I decide to do so) once I am in the water my muscles start to relax and I feel better almost instantly. The exercises are fairly gentle and the coolness of the water makes them less tiring, but I still get out of the pool feeling like I have done some work. There’s about 15 minutes afterwards in which to get dry and changed before an hour of pilates followed by an hour of yoga – very welcome stretching for my exhausted and overworked muscles. It’s the perfect balance to the exertion of the morning hike and the two hours fly by.
Then follows the best bit of the day – an hour-long massage – Camp Biche has two tranquil, dedicated massage rooms. After that it’s aperitifs, dinner and bed – and then it starts all over again the next day.
The food and drink
“We like people to come to the table hungry and leave satisfied,” says Craig Resnick, 57, Libby’s husband and co-founder of Camp Biche. They follow the French ethos of three good meals a day with an aperitif or two and wine with dinner with just one difference – the Camp has recently turned vegan. However, with an abundance of creamy sauces, tasty vinaigrettes, hearty main courses and fantastic desserts, I find I don’t miss meat at all.
Breakfast is the same every day, home-made granola with soy yoghurt and fruit, with tea or coffee (the fully caffeinated version, of course.) Lunch is typically a hearty soup with a big hunk of tomato bread on the side or a veggie pasta dish followed by a fruit smoothie.
Champagne is served before dinner every night that a guest arrives which in the three days that I was there, happened to be every day. First courses included asparagus salad and grilled artichokes followed by chestnut soup. Entrées are vegan yet tasty and filling such as chickpea patties with guacamole and couscous or marinated tofu with Asian-style noodes, followed by desserts which include apple crumble, shortbread, cakes and liqueur-soaked fruit. Apart from midway through the hike on the first day, I don’t feel hungry at all.
The weight loss
The average weight loss for a man spending a full week at Camp Biche is eight pounds and for women, four pounds – but this varies greatly according build, age and level of fitness. However Libby is keen to stress that it is the fat loss and inch loss which is more important health-wise, and the camp boasts some pretty impressive statistics here. In the week I am there, one woman loses 40% of her total body fat, while another loses a full four inches from her waist.
Camp Biche has a truly international clientele. My fellow guests include an Italian who now lives in Switzerland, a German who now lives in London, a woman from Russia who speaks no English or French and two lawyers from Ireland. Apart from one couple, everyone else is female and travelling alone. Most of them have booked in to improve their fitness level or simply enjoy an active holiday rather than because they wanted to lose weight. Camp Biche is also very popular with Americans – the one nationality which doesn’t tend to book very often is the French.
Camp Biche is a brilliant way to kick start a more healthy way of life. I stay for just three days, lose nearly two pounds and two inches from my waist, and I don’t want to undo the good work as soon as I get home. So I’m trying to follow the French way of three good meals (and some wine with dinner) with nothing in between but have also cut right back on my bread intake, which I have got into the bad habit of eating too much of since we arrived in France two years ago. As Libby says: “Weight loss isn’t rocket science. Walk an hour a day and don’t eat food that comes out of a packet.” That doesn’t sound too hard, does it?
The Signature Kickstart Course at Camp Biche costs 4,375 euros for seven nights.