Channel your inner calm in southern France
How a Finnish-French couple came to start a most unusual retreat in Toulouse.
Their story does not have a happy beginning. Nearly three years ago, Suska Karjalainen and Nicolas Prevot were a true long-distance couple – she working in marketing in New York and he in the travel business in the African country of Djibouti, when they got some bad news. Prevot’s ex-wife, the mother of his teenage daughter, had passed away in France. He and Karjalainen had only one choice.
So, the couple packed up their lives and relocated to France, but it took a moment to figure out what to do. Karjalainen, who is half-Finnish and half-Czech, was only just learning to speak French while Prevot had not been back to his home country in more than 25 years.
“We had started a small guest house in Djibouti and we loved the process of renovating the place and running the business together,” says Karjalainen. “The trouble is that the French countryside is full of charming bed-and-breakfasts so that just wasn’t a viable option for us. We needed something more substantial.”
It was the couple’s friends who proved the best inspiration.
“We realised that we know so many people who have incredible talents,” says Karjalainen. “What if there was a place where they could pass on their expertise to others in an inspiring surrounding? Painting, cooking, writing?”
The idea of a different kind of retreat started to take shape.
Pilates meets business-coaching
Two years later, a centuries-old farm in the southern French countryside is basking in evening sunshine as the residents and guests gather on the veranda for dinner. Smoked fish, local vegetables, and wine from the neighbouring vineyard form the delicious core of the meal and everybody tucks in with gusto. The first pilates retreat of the summer has started and the participants have just finished their evening workout by the pool.
While wellness is at the nucleus of The Happy Hamlet’s philosophy, not all the retreats cater to physical wellbeing. Alongside pilates and yoga retreats there is a reading group, a wine-tasting week, and courses on business-coaching and entrepreneurship, all lead by visiting experts.
“It would have been easier to focus on just yoga or pilates, but it’s more interesting to keep the offering diverse and slightly unexpected,” says Karjalainen. Being good to yourself, loving what you do, and being kind to everybody around are the cornerstones of Happy Hamlet.
The name does not, as many assume, have a Shakespeare connection but rather refers to a small settlement of people, a happy village. The couple wants to preserve the home-like feeling of the place. The retreats are all-inclusive, and guests can help themselves to coffee, snacks, or a glass of wine whenever they feel like it. Schedules are flexible, and the hosts and their friends join in for meals and a chat about the local history or future plans for the farm.
Finding the perfect place for their new home and business wasn’t easy. It took three months, 25,000 kilometres, and 86 viewings to find the perfect spot.
“We wanted somewhere rural but not too excluded, close to interesting villages and a property with a certain charm,” says Karjalainen.
They also had a deadline since Prevot’s daughter could not move in with them before they had a permanent residence. The right dwelling was found in southern France, an hour’s drive from the Toulouse Blagnac Airport and amidst rolling hills of sunflower fields.
Today, The Happy Hamlet’s philosophy is intertwined with the surrounding countryside and its many small businesses. The retreat guests have a chance to visit local vineyards, a lavender farm, a soap maker, and attend village feasts. Every place welcomes guests like old friends.
The estate itself has gone through a thorough renovation. But while the farm today is neat and cosy, the place still projects a cottage-like feel of endless tasks.
“We like it that way,” says Karjalainen. “It’s part of our identity that things aren’t too finished. There’s always something waiting to be done around the corner.
Text Amanda Soila
Photos Heli Sorjonen and Amanda Soila