Considering the number of industries dominated by men, increasingly we are seeing more and more women at the top of their field in the travel arena. Tamara Heber-Percy, cofounder of the boutique hotel booking service Mr & Mrs Smith, graduated from Oxford with a degree in languages—which has proven essential in helping her take Smith all around the globe. Tamara grew up in Ibiza and the UK, worked in Brazil and then started Mr & Mr Smith in 2002 with her husband, James Lohan. They began their travel quest in a simple way, sampling hotels and small inns throughout the UK and picking a handful (under 50) for a romantic-weekend guide. The book was an immediate success (the children and the website came later). Now, with hundreds of hotels all over the world, Mr & Mrs Smith is one of the very best websites around for finding chic hotels that have all been carefully and secretly reviewed. Plus, they publish hotel guides for the UK, Austrailia and New Zealand, Europe and the globe, and now their newest: a book exclusively on France. I am very excited about the bevy of selections in this new entry. Thumbing through Mr & Mrs Smith’s Hotel Collection for France, I’m drooling over the Basque hideaway, which starts at only 110 euros; the terribly chic lodge in Brittany; and the Dutch-and-Danish-designed paradise in Burgundy—I can’t wait to hit the road. I stopped in to interview “Mrs Smith” herself.
Where did you get the travel bug?
I was born and brought up in Spain. We traveled to and from the UK regularly to visit family, and I always spoke two languages. So I guess from birth. I started traveling on my own as soon as I was allowed to, InterRailing around Europe.
How has all of your traveling changed you?
There’s no doubt that travel broadens the mind, but, other than that, it has made me very conscious that time goes so quickly and there’s still so much more traveling to do and so much of the world left to experience. It has also made me realize that traveling for work is very different from traveling for pleasure with the family, and that I must be conscious of this, try to take more time off and not work too hard.
When you travel to Paris—our readers’ favorite town—what is your ideal day?
It would begin with breakfast at one of the haute patisseries in St.-Germain, then a spot of shopping at Merci or browsing for antiques at the Porte de Clignancourt market, followed by a long lunch at Benoit. In the afternoon, I would go for the still-unbeatable tea at Mariage Frères and later, dinner at Le Grand Véfour—[with its] dazzling menu and a thoroughly deserved reputation as one of the classic Parisian dining experiences. I’d have a suite booked at Hôtel Daniel on the Champs Elysées: opulent, romantic and decked out in chic chinoiserie. It’s a true globetrotter’s hotel.
We love your rock-star loft in Paris. When you are staying somewhere for a week or more, do you choose an apartment rental or a hotel?
It depends on whether I’m traveling with the kids—with the family I prefer to rent an apartment because it’s more flexible with children and there’s no risk of annoying other guests. Some places, such as La Réserve Paris, combine the two perfectly, offering apartment-style privacy with hotel-quality services. When James and I travel as a couple, we just love staying in hotels, especially new hotels we haven’t stayed in before. That’s why we started Mr & Mrs Smith, after all.
What are your favorite destinations in the French countryside? What are the most special hotels or inns you’ve found recently?
There’s tons: our latest book is full of fantastic rural retreats we’ve come across this year. Just inland on the Côte d’Azur, not far from the famous perfumeries of Grasse, Bastide Saint Mathieu is a grand and quite imposing historic house just 10 minutes outside the town, but surrounded with that kind of classic French landscape that inspires visitors to emigrate. There’s also Chez Odette on the Belgian border, in the tiny town of Williers (38 inhabitants, at last count), which has a brilliant bistro and lots of lush green fields around it—it’s the sort of place you can just while away days sipping Picon at a little table outdoors watching village life go by.
Beyond staying at great hotels, what is your favorite activity when you travel? Are you a foodie, museum or history buff, shopaholic?
As you can probably tell from my dining-based ideal day in Paris, I’m quite a foodie. James and I love eating out, so we always try to find a great restaurant where we can try local food and wine. I also adore exploring and am always wowed by a great view, so if I’m anywhere near a natural view, I head there. One of my favorite French trips ever was a road trip through Beaujolais because it combined fabulous food with stunning scenery. I also love to shop for things for our home; over the years I’ve built up quite a collection of pieces from our travels.
We love that you sell CDs to travelers on your site. What kinds of music do you and James enjoy the most? If you are thinking France, do any particular tunes come to mind?
We have very eclectic tastes, from rock to pop, new to old, Stevie Wonder to Empire of the Sun. James used to be a DJ, so he takes music particularly seriously. As far as French favorites go, Sébastien Tellier for some laid-back euphoric grooves or Daft Punk if we’re feeling a little more up-tempo.
Found any French spas that you’d rave about?
Domaine de Verchant, near Montpellier, has a great, good-value spa with a terrace overlooking acres and acres of vineyards (although I’d maybe question the hotel’s decision to put its wine-tasting cave immediately opposite the entrance: “I went for a massage and came back with a merlot”). The most spectacular spa stay is La Réserve Ramatuelle, near St.-Tropez. The prices are typically Tropezian, but the treatments really are a cut above.
Which airlines do you prefer for travel in Europe?
BMI has great service and it flies from Heathrow, which is near my home. I try to fly with them when I can.
With all the traveling that you do, you must relish staying home. What is your favorite down-day activity?
You are absolutely right—there’s no place like home! My favorite thing to do with the kids at the moment is walking through Kew Gardens, which is on our doorstep. The park is beautiful and there’s a new playground and a great café.
What’s it like working every day alongside your husband?
We don’t actually see that much of each other at work—our roles are very different and we sit at opposite ends of the office. I still enjoy finding out what he has done during his day when we sit down for an evening meal. That said, we do of course have meetings and travel to work together, and I’m glad I have had the opportunity to see him at work and see that side to him. We both love what we do and we don’t tread on each other’s toes, so I guess we are pretty lucky.
Any tips for folks traveling with kids? We are always in search of romantic hotels that are also kid friendly.
It’s very hard for a hotel to get the balance and cater to both parents and children well. There are very few hotels that manage this. I mentioned La Réserve Paris before, and I’d also recommend Château de Saint Paterne, in Normandy. It’s not only beautiful and romantic, but also packed with child-oriented distractions: pool, trampoline, swings, tree house, Ping Pong table, football goal posts, tennis courts and bicycles. They serve a special dinner for kids every day, too. My top tip for traveling with three-year-olds and up is to get an iPhone and load it up with new kids’ apps before you go. It makes long flights and sitting in terminal buildings go by much quicker!
If you had one trip left, where would you go and where would you stay?
It’s perhaps a bit twee, but I’d go back to the hotel where James and I got married: Ca’s Xorc in Majorca. It has everything: lovely rooms and grounds, gorgeous pool, amazing views, great food, a relaxed vibe and, of course, all those wonderful memories.
Editor’s note: One apartment we really drooled over at Mr & Mrs Smith’s is their rock-star Louvre Loft. Why not find a few friends and rent this gorgeous puppy! Also, try the Girls’ Guide’s affordable, downloadable tours in Paris.
Tags: Bastide Saint Mathieu, Ca's Xorc, Château de Saint Paterne, Chez Odette, Côte d'Azur, Domaine de Verchant, France, Hôtel Daniel, hotels, La Réserve, Majorca, Mr & Mrs Smith, Paris, Tamara Heber-Percy, travel, women