What did Napoleon and the Queen Mother have in common? Quite a bit it seems. They were both rarely photographed sans suitably eye-catching headgear. They both had an affinity for something beginning with ‘C’, Cologne and Corgis respectively; and they both stayed at the Royal Champagne in France. Google will no doubt throw up a few more factoids, but it’s the last one that interests me the most, for it’s one I too can tick off my list.
The hotel, by far the nicest one within spyglass viewing distance, has not unsurprisingly undergone a spot of modernisation here and there since they visited; ma’am stopped by in 1983. Under the ownership of the Polito family (yes they are Italians doing French, but don’t let that be a deterrent) and their Baglioni Hotels group since 2002, and part of the Relais & Chateaux umbrella of luxury properties since 1975, plus a brief stint with LVMH somewhere in between, it has been in the hands of companies known for doing things rather well. As a result it projects a well balanced display of contemporary grandeur whilst staying true to local tradition.
Sat just off the official Champagne Route, a 40 minute drive south of Reims, on a hill overlooking Hautvillers and Epernay, its well manicured garden ending where the Premier Cru vineyards of Dom Perignon and Moet & Chandon meet, the location alone is enough to justify its four stars. Photographs just don’t do it justice, you need to stand on one of the terraces, take in the clean air, expansive views and blissful quiet to truly appreciate its charm, preferably accompanied by blue skies and Bollinger.
A warm welcome in the form of a smile, Madeleine sponge and glass of champagne (naturally) greets us, before we’re led outside and round to the separate block of modern rooms. Ours, a circa €500 a night Terrace Suite, and ‘the best of them all’ as our porter informs us, is down some steps and through a suitably plush entranceway. A glance over the room checks off everything one would expect from the nightly tariff: marble-floored dressing room area, crisp white bathroom with roll top and dinner plate shower, an abundance of herbal Damana toiletries; bedroom / living room decorated with antique furniture, a bureau complete with stationary to presumably write home to loved ones, and dottings of art to appreciate while you lounge on the plump velvet couch. A glass wall slides open onto a balcony / terrace, and the pièce de résistance, a breathtaking panoramic view of the gardens, vineyards and Marne valley below, framed by boxes of blood red geraniums.
The room too would be perfect, if only they hadn’t opted for the far too modern for these surroundings big black LCD TV, perched on a chest of drawers beside the bed, almost as an afterthought. And the awful Premier Inn-esque, thick striped wallpaper, sticking out like Katie Price in a library against the muted tones of the luxury bed coverings, antique furniture, rich wooden floorboards and snowy orchids; a complete contrast to the beautiful weaved wall coverings in the main building. Nevertheless, these little negatives are a mere smudge on an otherwise exceptional hotel.
Back in the main building, quirky nods to Napoleon are displayed through the countless painted plates of him in battle, the pistol lamp in the entranceway, and fading portrait adorning the external wall; his love of the finer things in life are played out through the Pierre Frey fabric wall coverings, velvet Louis XV armchairs and sofas, open fireplaces laying dormant until the winter requires them, and a king-size chess board set up and waiting for a late night cognac-fuelled check mate in the upstairs mezzanine and library. Dining is fine; damn fine in fact, the request for smart dress rather loose if the denim clad couple to our right are anything to go by.
Windows look out onto the aforementioned vineyards, a 180 degree view that accentuates every champagne bubble and bite, heightening the taste buds to make each edible element sublime, for, much like when you taste salt and malt vinegary fish ‘n’ chips in a cold, blustery seaside setting, or the cold frothy lager served in a paper cup at a summer festival, supping a flute of Grande Cru Canard Duchenne Champagne, whilst overlooking the lush green vines from which the grapes that made it were plucked, nothing tastes quite so good at that moment in time. This is partly the reason why I left it a few weeks before writing up the review; not wanting my rosé-tinted spectacles to inflate my opinions of the place.
As the sun set over to the right, shading the land below in a blanket of pink, the boy and I worked our way through the five-course Menu Royal – there’s also a great looking a la carte menu and larger Menu Napoleon – laughing at the surprising snap, crackle and pop from the foie gras terrine, the secret ingredient we are later informed of by chef Franck Fuchs. We shared a smile in enjoyment at the beautifully soft flakes of hake and a nut crust which tasted remarkably like Werther’s Original; and as darkness fell and the restaurant descended into the quiet buzz of relaxed diners and a candle lit romantic hue, we were warmed by the passion fruit and Thai chilli foam accompanying our duck, ever so slightly strange with the nugget of beetroot, but wonderfully complemented by the fennel.
As fullness approached, by this time approximately 2 litres of Champagne and Evian added to the mix, as did the welcoming squeak of the cheese trolley heading our way. With delights such as the creamy Tomme de Savoie – a favourite from my stint in Val d’Isere – Roquefort, Brie de Melun and the chalky Neufchatel on display, we filed thoughts of fullness to the back of our minds, along with work and reality, and selected a few slivers. A wash of freshness followed from the summer berries and nougat glace dessert, before the whole feast was rounded off with espresso and petit fours. Just enough caffeine to carry our now-much-heavier-selves back to the room where we fell into an almost immediate slumber, not at all tempted by the tin of chocolate covered almonds placed on our pillow by the turn-down fairy. Now I know why the Queen Mum and Mr Bonaparte were so drawn to the place.