Sunday, February 6, 2011

Dreaming of Deauville


An apartment purchase over the Internet that ended happily ever after...so far...

I finally met Benjamin, an ambitious and rather serious-looking young Frenchman who sold real estate to foreigners for a living, in Paris in the winter of 2003 – a few weeks after I had bought a two-bedroom apartment in Deauville, a charming holiday town along the coast of Normandy, over the Internet.

In hindsight, it now sounds quite ludicrous to be snapping up real estate with a click of a mouse, the way one easily buys books or videos online (online shopping -- a skill I'm particularly good at, by the way...). But this was exactly what happened.

Literally, click and purchase

One day, while surfing the Net in my home in Tokyo, I chanced upon Benjamin’s website and it was love at first sight. Apartments, villas and chateaux to suit every budget were laid out so attractively that I couldn’t help wanting to own a little piece of France. I too easily imagined walking around my vineyards during grape-picking season, waking up and opening up my windows to views of my Provencal village or -- better yet -- my view of the Tour Eiffel, or sitting by a cozy fire in my chateau.

Yes, as any good salesperson will tell you, the key to a sale is helping potential customers imagine themselves owning or using the product, and beautiful photos on the Internet do that to you. By the time I was finished looking through Benjamin's website, I'd made up my mind to buy some French soil (or space, in the case of an apartment).

The French leaseback scheme

What made the idea even more irresistible was a French government real estate investment scheme that enabled buyers to just fork out a relatively modest downpayment, and then to have most of the mortgage taken care of by rental payments, as these properties are normally leased out as alternatives to hotels for 54 weeks of the year. Several emailed lay-outs and contracts later, I was the happy owner of my own place, a few minutes’ walk from the famous Deauville beach front.

It was only after I had paid up and passed that crucial point of no return that I realized a trip to France might be recommended to actually check out the goods and ensure that my euros were indeed ending up with legal developers and not just at some sleazy Internet con outfit run by techies marveling at how gullible some people can be.


The Riviera of Paris

So one June, I conveniently merged a trip for sale season in Paris with real estate inspection. I flew into Paris with my friend Keiko for our usual one-week girls' shopping trip, staying at the Park Hyatt Paris Place Vendome for easy access to everything retail. At the end of the week Benjamin picked me up at my hotel one very early morning and we drove two hours out towards Normandy.

“You won’t be sorry you bought this place,” Benjamin told me on the way there. “Deauville is the Riviera of Paris. This is where the chic people spend their weekends. Everyone wants to have a place in Deauville.”

Normandy's many charms

I'd always liked Normandy, with its rich food, moody weather, lovely coastline and half-timbered houses. The other plus was its proximity to Paris. And Parisian friends had been telling me about their weekend jaunts to Deauville for years (And recently, it's actually been in the limelight again in the last few years with the two movies on Coco Chanel, both featuring Deauville as the place where Coco vacationed and also opened her very first shop. The shop location, by the way, is only a few minutes' walk from my apartment!)

The beautiful Deauville

Deauville was even more beautiful than I imagined. My first impression of the town was one of wonder as we drove through the incredibly picturesque streets lined with half-timbered buildings that housed exactly the kind of bakeries, delis, and cafes I wanted to visit. And in the town square, local vendors were just clearing up the mess of a lively morning market that boasted of artisanal cheeses and breads, organic fruit and olive oils, and freshly caught seafood. Across the bridge, too, I could see Trouville, another lovely town with a serious seafood market and some great restaurants lining the promenade. 20 minutes away, too, was the beautiful town of Honfleur, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Then we veered right and got on the seaside road, where I spied the widest beachfront I had ever seen. It was not very inviting that rather rainy day, but I could already imagine its liveliness and color at the height of summer, when striped beach umbrellas and banners line the promenade.


A grand old hotel

However, the clincher was the beautiful and gracious, grand old Normandy Barriere Hotel, right by the beach and a mere two blocks from my place. An imposing half-timbered structure painted green and white and adorned with whimsical statues, it was the kind of historical hotel I loved staying in. It also had a Belle Epoque dining room that served very proper, old-fashioned meals. I walked around the lobby, imagining the many wondrous scenes that had taken place there, and already envisioning walking over from my apartment for leisurely Sunday brunches.

Meeting Nathalie

The “icing on the cake” was meeting Nathalie, who was about my age and who was developing my Deauville apartment complex into a residence-hotel. Her family owned a string of properties all over Normandy, and this project in Deauville was her first independent venture within the family business.

Calorie overload in Cabourg

After the formalities and a tour of the construction site, she, Benjamin and I decided to have dinner, and she took us to a local hangout in the nearby town of Cabourg, where the specialty was a cholesterol-busting beefsteak doused in a thick Camembert cheese sauce -- her father's favorite, I was told. Every other diner had ordered this as well and, of course, so did I. Well, we spent hours and hours at dinner laughing about things I can't even recall anymore, and we still had the two-hour drive back to Paris. Benjamin undertook the Herculean task of safely driving me back to my hotel after wine and a big dinner, and I staggered into my hotel room at something like 3 am. Later, he told me he'd been so exhausted that after depositing me at the Park Hyatt, he'd simply parked the car in some little alley nearby and gone to sleep, too tired to even drive the remaining few kilometers back to his apartment.

Hooked on Deauville

But that was it – I was hooked on Deauville and very glad to be a part-time resident. Since then, I’ve taken many relatives and friends there, where the highlight of each visit has been snapping up 5 euro buckets of fresh mussels and baskets of oysters at the open-air morning town market, and enjoying these on the balcony with a bottle of local wine. And afterwards, taking a walk along the promenade past my favorite hotel and Coco Chanel's former shop, towards the town center for a perfect cup of coffee to end the meal. Life hardly gets better than this, and this Internet story has ended happily ever after.

This appeared in the September-October 2008 issue of Travelife Magazine.

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