Image: Chateau de Brissac, Brissac, France
Freda Katritzky  /  Chateaux Prives
The Chateau de Brissac is reportedly the tallest castle in France, with seven floors and 204 rooms. Brissac is in the Anjou section of the Loire Valley, and has served as the seat of the Dukes of Brissac since 1502, where the 13th Duke and his family live today.
updated 7/3/2008 10:28:46 AM ET 2008-07-03T14:28:46

If you’ve read the "King Arthur"legends more times than you can count and your family is worried that you attend too many medieval fairs, it's probably time for a vacation at an honest-to-goodness castle. Though many medieval castles have been renovated and brought into the 21st century as modern-day hotels, a handful still retain their Middle Age roots and are open to overnight stays, public tours and private and corporate events.

“A castle embodies luxury, romance and chivalry and is laden with history and tradition,” says Freda Katritzky, publisher of "Chateaux Prives," a guide to private castles, palaces and estates around the world. “They are the ultimate status symbol, and they were built to impress the beholder and to serve as the seat of ultimate power in the region.”

King Arthur didn’t have Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs, so living the life of a 17th-century duke or king—even for a day—may be rather spartan. But that's part of the charm. “Many castles feature an attentive and helpful staff, but don’t expect to receive the level or variety of services you would in a five-star hotel,” says Patricia Blanche, owner of LCF Custom Travel & Tours in La Canada Flintridge, Calif. “Castles tend to be in more remote or rural areas, so fine dining and other entertainment options can be limited."

If you’re planning a corporate retreat or family event at a castle, Blanche advises, it’s best to plan well in advance "since it’s somewhat difficult to improvise when it comes to last-minute changes in entertainment or activities.” As with hotels and resorts, rates can change throughout the year. In the off-season, a deluxe room can cost as little as $300 per night; at peak times, minimum stays may be required—and prices may run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

Castles aren't just a European phenomenon. They've been so important through the ages that they still turn up in some unusual places. Zhang Yuchen, a Chinese entrepreneur, inherited a passion for all things French from his father, who secretly devoured books by Dumas, Flaubert and Voltaire during the Cultural Revolution. His Chateau Beijing Laffitte opened in 2004, ten miles north of the Chinese capital, and is probably the only castle in the world with ten karaoke studios on the premises.

As one of the world's newer castles, Chateau Beijing is, of course, in top condition. For older estates, you’ll typically come across the phrase “fallen into a state of disrepair” at some point during its history. Indeed, the Oheka Castle in Long Island, New York, has numerous before-and-after pictures on its web site to demonstrate just what “disrepair” can mean. When developer Gary Melius bought the 115-room, 23-acre estate in 1984, the castle had been abandoned for six years—during which time vandals had set more than 100 fires. Even today, after spending $30 million on its restoration, the castle is only 70 percent completed.

Image: Chateau de Canisy, Canisy, Normandy, France
Freda Katritzky  /  Chateaux Prives
Despite their centuries-long heritage, not many castles stay in the same family for more than a thousand years, but Chateau de Canisy has. Count Denis de Kergorlay is the latest to helm the estate, which has 24 rooms available for overnight guests, some furnished with beds and furniture that date to the 18th century.
Unlike castles that have been converted into hotels, these more traditional properties offer a limited variety of lodging accommodations. Often, your choice is between a small building with one bedroom and a “small” guesthouse that sleeps 30. Though again, there are exceptions.

But just because they were once stately old castles doesn’t mean they’re immune from engaging in a bit of modern-day marketing. Even castles have to set themselves apart from the competition. The Chateau de Villette, for instance, makes no secret that several scenes from "The Da Vinci Code"movie were filmed there; Chateau de Brissac bills itself as the tallest castle in France. At Culzean Castle in Ayrshire, Scotland, guests are invited to adopt a deer from the herd at the Deer Park at Culzean Castle & Country Park: "All monies from your adoption go towards the upkeep of your chosen animal."

Slideshow: Royal rests Staying in a castle is not for everyone. But if you’d like to channel your inner Lancelot or Morgan le Fay, it’s one of life's un-missable experiences. Says Blanche, "For those who have a sense of history, a bit of an adventurous streak, and can swing with the unexpected, a castle experience can be memorable and most rewarding."


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