Meet the gay hoteliers of Le 1500 in Saussignac, France

Welcome to Le 1500, an independent boutique hotel run by international artist, Michael F. Rumsby and his husband, Lee McNeal-Rumsby, in the heart of French wine country. Together – combining their artistry, love of people and expertise in hospitality – the pair build bespoke stays for visitors to South-West France, offering eight lodgings across from the Chateau de Saussignac, a historic estate perched in the hills above the southerly bank of the River Dordogne. Today the site maintains its prestige with contemporary design courtesy of Michael while Lee heads up the guest experience, the pair tailoring each stay to meet guests’ ultimate satisfaction. We interview the lovely Lee to uncover the secrets of the couple’s success and how the hotel came to be.

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1. Tell us a little bit about the history of your hotel? 

Le 1500 is a collection of historic buildings belonging to the Chateau de Saussignac. The original tower was, at the time, the main lodging of the Chateau Master himself, and was used as the welcome point for many prominent visitors to the chatelain and his family.

The street-facing walls of the buildings tell stories spanning 700 years of evolution – from original doorways and windows to gargoyles and sculpted heads in the stonework. Inside, you’ll find ‘modern’ extensions dating back to the 16th century, including gothic pillars and secluded attics that have been uncovered to make room for accommodation. The histories of the building and its inhabitants are rich and varied; from nobility and mayors to resistance fighters and refuge seekers, the property has been an active part of the local community for centuries.

We purchased the property as a vacation home back in 2010, but, when we returned to France from Dubai in 2016, we began a long seven-year journey to turn the estate into the bespoke guest accommodation that you see today. With tremendous attention to detail, we have created a home away from home for our guests with a tranquil and private garden where they have complete privacy, while still being in the heart of Saussignac, the popular wine country village on the southern slopes of the Dordogne Valley.

Photo: Lee McNeal-Rumsby and Michael F. Rumsby

Photo: Le 1500

2. What are your establishment’s core values?

Our tagline, ‘where time behaves’ sums up our business’s premise as well as the experience we want our guests to enjoy. We value time, space and the importance of enjoying the moment. Because of this, Le 1500 is a haven where our guests can enjoy privacy and discretion. At the same time, we value inclusivity and uniqueness.

3. What makes your accommodation special?

Le 1500 is an artist’s home. In many ways, it is this that makes it such a special place to stay. It’s a wonderful mix of calm and creativity that inspires and offers a unique experience for our guests. They at once feel at home in our home, at once relaxed and free to be themselves. Our beautiful food and living spaces, not to mention the abundance of beautiful winery chateaux that sit on our doorstep, all serve to provide our guests with such a special experience.

4. What experience can guests expect on your different type of retreats?

We have a rolling calendar of retreats throughout the year – some weekly, some daily – all intending to create unique, bespoke experiences for our guests. We offer a range of retreats and experiences that focus on painting and the arts, plus those that deal in wine and food or sometimes all three together! For 2022 we have also added other retreat experiences aimed at improving wellbeing – these include yoga, nutrition, energy healing, meditation and massage. We’re currently in talks with a London-based jewellery designer about developing a series of bespoke jewellery design workshop retreats too.

All of our retreats provide a highly personalised experience for guests. The groups are small – no more than six people; intimate but never intimidating. We take care of everything from the moment our guests step onto the property to the moment they leave. Our aim stay one step ahead of our guests’ expectations and needs, ensuring they never have to think about a thing or lift a finger if they don’t wish to!

Photo: Le 1500

5. Many folks come to this part of the world for food: how do you approach this?

Food and wine are our DNA. They are the glue that bind together our guests’ experiences at Le 1500. For us, excellent hospitality manifests itself through food and drink – providing moments in time for guests to sit and enjoy something sensory and surprising whilst socialising with no constraint on their time or behaviours.

Our location plays a huge part in what we have to offer, as we are situated in the heart of France’s wine country in the southwest. We’re on the border of the Bergerac and Bordeaux wine regions, meaning that we have access to incredible and affordable wines that our guests may never have heard of.

Our restaurant is becoming increasingly popular with the foodie crowd, but remains intimate and fully dedicated to pouring passion and time into each dish. We also prioritise the freshness of our produce, sourcing the majority from local growers and growing our own herbs and edible flowers ourselves so that everything is as fresh as possible. We also have an abundance of markets in the region where guests can buy a wonderful range of seasonal vegetables and specialities and bring them back to the outdoor kitchen for their personal cooking use, should they so wish.

We are known for our readiness to cater for a range of diets with a particularly good reputation for preparing excellent vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free dishes.  Chef Yotam Ottolenghi is also a huge inspiration for our cooking style and our weekly program of foodie-focused events is often influenced by his extraordinary recipes and complex flavour combinations.

Photo: Le 1500

Photo: Theme Photos

6. What makes a property like yours appealing to gay travelers?

We are a gay-owned and operated property and have welcomed many gay guests to stay with us and celebrate special occasions (birthdays, anniversaries, and weddings) over the years. Our friends in the gay community enjoy a special haven at Le 1500 where the principles of discretion, privacy and calm are equally balanced by our ability to dial up the fun factor and throw an excellent party where our guests always feel free to let their hair down. They also appreciate the beauty of our property – the creativity and styling of our interiors as well as the strong artistic presence that exists through the living gallery of Michael’s paintings that adorn many of the interior walls.

7. How do you keep up with changing customer expectations?

With my decades of experience working in hospitality management and Michael’s sensitivity to art and luxury, we have a pretty good feel for the industry and for guest expectations. We continue to travel the world, staying in beautiful, unique accommodations where we talk to other guests and the owners about what’s on offer and what experiences particularly stand out.

But above all, we talk to and listen to our own guests. This, married with our inherent sensitivity to hospitality, gives us an edge that we use to always push ourselves further and, in some way, we like to think this helps set the standard for others.

Photo: Le 1500

8. Tell us a bit about how Le 1500 came to be

My husband and I have owned and operated Le 1500 since marrying and buying the property as a vacation home in Saussignac back in 2016. Today, having turned the property into a bespoke hotel in the years since, we continue to build on what we wanted to establish together; bringing a unique combination of experience and passion to the heart of this beautiful French wine village.

Michael’s journey to Saussignac saw him working for over two decades in the corporate world; 12 of those years spent in Paris as Director of Global Communications for the L’Oreal Group which handles a large number of well-known international luxury and fashion brands. In this role, Michael travelled the world extensively, developing an exceptional sensitivity to luxury. His infectious passion for people is a quality shared by me, who myself spent more than two decades managing some of the world’s finest luxury hotels, primarily in the US and the Middle East.

Michael and I met in Dubai when Michael was exhibiting his polo paintings at the Emirate’s annual British Polo Day event – an exclusive corporate event catering to high-net-worth individuals and showcasing a very select range of luxury brands.

Photo: Le 1500

9. What is most enjoyable about being a hotelier?

The team at Le 1500 are fundamentally passionate about people and hospitality. Our aim is always to exceed our guests’ expectations and continuously surprise them with our attention to detail and forward planning.

We love sharing the spaces we have developed in our property – both indoors and outdoors – and the feeling of reward we have when our guests check out with a head full of wonderful memories and big smiles plastered on their faces. If we don’t get a big hug on their departure, we feel we may have missed the mark somewhat!

10. Do you have plans for another project in the future?

We have expanded our business significantly in the past two years and constantly work to improve the guest experience. Our only specific projects in the near future are to add a further master suite with a delightful valley-facing ensuite bathroom to the main house and to increase our range of luxury retreat packages on offer.

11. What makes Saussignac and the South of France unique as a destination?

The scent of nature here is overwhelming. The taste of the produce; exquisite. The markets are authentic, the food is organic, the villages remain original, the people smile, the wine is delicious and affordable and the sky is blue!

A small village with nearby amenities, Saussignac is beautifully perched on top of a hill overlooking miles upon miles of vineyards. Surrounded by thousands of hectares of vineyards, the village looks out across the undulating countryside of the southwest in an area where guests can uncover a rich array of culture, history, chateaux, customs and events that entertain and surprise at every turn.

Wine has been grown here since at least the 9th century when vines were planted by monks – and the site of the imposing Chateau de Saussignac that sits directly opposite Le 1500 dates from that period, back when Saussignac was Celsinius, a Roman-Gallo estate.

When we were looking for the perfect vacation home in 2010, with a view to ultimately creating a beautiful guest house and hotel, we scoured the southern half of France from Limoges to Lyon, Montpellier to Pau and Toulouse to Bordeaux. Then, completely by chance, we stumbled across Saussignac. We were drawn to its beauty but also to the peace and quiet that you no longer find on the Côte d’Azur. The roads are clear of traffic, the air is clean and the local people are friendly. Tourism in the area is developed enough that English is widely spoken by many wine growers and restaurant operators, yet there remains an authentic local spirit which can be extremely appealing for the discerning traveller. Here you’ll find the France of your childhood memories!

Photo: Le 1500

Photo: Le 1500

12. What are some of your favourite places in the area that people need to know about?

With extremely high-quality organic food and wine in abundance in the immediate region, it will come as no surprise that we have a little black book of some incredible wine tasting and foodie experiences to share with our discerning guests. We love going to the wonderful night markets in the summer where guests can fill their plates from one of several food trucks, pairing their meal with fabulous wines sold by growers on the next stand, and eating at one of the 20-metre long trestle tables with friends and new acquaintances. We equally enjoy guaranteeing them a reservation at one of our favourite Michelin-star restaurants nearby.

The Sunday market in the beautiful medieval village of Issigeac is a must before heading back to Le 1500 for the Sunday afternoon ‘Lunch With The Boys’ event. Then there’s a day trip heading up the Vezere Valley passing UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the Lascaux Caves and back down the Dordogne Valley via Sarlat, Domme, La Roque Gageac and a visit to the Chateau des Milandes, once owned by the fabulous Josephine Baker – a non-negotiable use of time!

For wine lovers, a 35-minute car ride to the world-famous Saint-Emilion wine region and to its lesser-known namesake town is worth at least a half-day journey. We always send our guests along the scenic roads where the views are to die for and if you blink, you’ll miss spying yet another extraordinary chateau. From Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux is just another half an hour away, as one of France’s fastest-growing, most fashionable and engaging cities. A day in Bordeaux – easily reachable in less than an hour by train from Saussignac – will entertain and astound guests with its majestic beauty, chic streets and café-terraces.

The west coast of Arcachon and beyond is also entirely doable from Le 1500, either for just a day or more. An overnight in Arcachon with a boat ride across the bay to Cap Ferret to eat oysters in one of the traditional oyster huts is a once in a lifetime experience that, despite its popularity, remains completely authentic.

Photo: Le 1500

13. Anything else you'd like to share?

We work to tailor stays to individual preferences and tastes, providing a one-off experience. Our attention to detail and insistence on creating a unique programme of activities for our longer-stay guests ensures that you will leave us with the most vivid and happiest of vacation memories.

We can privatise any of our group experiences to provide private painting classes, private dinners, a dedicated private chef or yoga teacher. We also partner with like-minded local businesses that understand the needs of the discerning traveller in order to organise highly specialised wine tours of the region. Le 1500 also operates in collaboration with two other gay-run luxury guest houses in the region – one in Saint-Emilion; the other in Beaumont-du-Périgord – to offer a nicely choreographed tour of the region from Bordeaux all the way to the bastide towns of Lot.

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