The pop of a Champagne cork signals celebration and promises pleasure. The world’s most joyous drink was born around 350 years ago on the wind-swept chalk plains of eastern France. Just 45 minutes east of Paris by high-speed train, the Champagne region has long been popular with travelers fascinated by the history and taste of this elegant wine with its signature effervescence. Endowed with a constellation of great restaurants and several of the country’s best hotels — including a superb new one — Champagne today is a more alluring destination for oenophiles, gourmets and history buffs than ever before.
The region first acquired its winemaking vocation when the Romans planted vineyards on the rolling slopes between Durocortorum — the city now known as Reims — and Épernay. Their pale-pink wine was highly acidic, so they softened it by adding honey. It wasn’t until the Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon began working with the wines of Champagne in 1668 that the drink so prized today was invented. He was the first winemaker to understand that grapes grown on different plots of land could have very different characters, a seminal idea that led to the cuvée, or the carefully studied blending of grapes. He also perfected the best technique for the méthode champenoise, the second fermentation that occurs inside the bottle on the addition of yeast.
We were in the mood for a flute of bubbly by the time we arrived at the 12-room Château de Sacy in the charming village of Sacy, which is a five-minute drive from the Champagne-Ardenne train station. This handsome four-story limestone villa with a steep slate roof and fretted wooden eaves is set on a hillside and surrounded by vineyards. It was built in 1850 for the wealthy Monnesson family, textile merchants in Reims, and after extensive renovations, it opened as a hotel in June 2017.
The château is part of the Bordeaux-based Millésime Collection, a new hotel and restaurant group that specializes in small, distinctive properties catering to independent travelers. Like many of the company’s hotels, this one was decorated by Marie-Christine Meloen, an interior designer based in southwestern France. Her approach is to study the history of a building and then use it for inspiration. At the Château de Sacy, Meloen reinvented the plush Napoleon III style in the restaurant-lounge on the first floor, where the high-ceilinged space is furnished with plum velvet armchairs, bronze overstuffed sofas, potted palms, antique étagères and crystal sconces.
All rooms at the Château de Sacy are individually decorated. Our spacious Sun King Suite came with a chandelier, parquet floors, a mirrored writing desk, armchairs, an antique armoire and a canopy bed. The bath provided a large round tub with a hand-held shower attachment and two sinks set into basalt-topped wooden cabinets. (Some other accommodations have walk-in showers.)
The hotel’s restaurant, Les Vignes, has become popular with locals, which is invariably a good sign. There, we enjoyed an excellent chicken-and-foie-gras pâté en croûte with cabbage-and-lentil salad in white miso sauce, followed by yellow pollock with caramelized endives with orange essence and Champagne sauce, and veal with celery root gratin and Romanesco (green cauliflower) purée. Other amenities at the château include a small gym, a spa cabin and two wine-barrel hot tubs on a terrace overlooking the vineyards. Electric bicycles are available to rent for anyone wanting to visit some of the local Champagne producers on two wheels.
Overall, we enjoyed our brief stay. A stylish country-house hotel rather than a true luxury property, the Château de Sacy is a quiet, friendly and intimate place in which to relax. Our only misgiving is that while the young staff members are friendly and eager to please, their service can be lacking in polish.
The intimate atmosphere; the beautiful vineyard setting.
The service is well-meaning but can be a little amateurish.
Request a room in the front of the hotel, with a view of the village, vineyards and the skyline of Reims on the horizon.
Following an excellent breakfast, we drove to Reims, a charming and walkable city that lies 20 minutes to the northeast. Its cathedral, Notre-Dame de Reims, one of the great gothic masterpieces of France, is often known as the royal cathedral, as more than 30 French kings were crowned there. Having visited the cathedral and admired its magnificent stained glass, we walked to the adjacent Palais du Tau, the former home of the archbishops of Reims, which has a rich collection of medieval art and tapestries. We then headed to Racine. The city’s most talked-about restaurant holds one Michelin star and has an open kitchen where Japanese chef Kazuyuki Tanaka prepares wonderfully inventive contemporary French dishes with a Japanese sensibility.
After lunch, we made our way to Domaine Les Crayères, set in a 17-acre park on the city’s southern outskirts. An elegant limestone mansion, it was the home of the Polignac family until becoming a 20-room hotel in 1983. Having stayed at the property many times before, it was a pleasure to pull up once again at the head of the long lawn framed by cedars of Lebanon. Oddly, however, there was no bellhop on duty, so we unloaded our bags and then parked our car ourselves.
Inside, we received a theatrical greeting from the woman at the front desk, who then propelled us upstairs to our Deluxe Room. This came with a separate sitting room with wall-to-wall cream carpeting, an area rug, a writing desk and a sofa. The bedroom contained a baldachin bed and a built-in wardrobe. A spacious, well-lit bath provided a separate tub and walk-in shower, double vanities and Hermès products. As we settled in, I couldn’t help but reflect that Domaine Les Crayères is like a genteel time capsule, since it has changed so little from our first visit 30 years ago. In many ways, this sense of continuity is refreshing in a world driven by evanescent trends. Here, the old-school codes still prevail, including a cordial but formal style of hospitality.
However, there can be a downside to this. The rigidity of the service we experienced during our stay made it hard to actually relax and enjoy the place at times. And the black-and-white photographs in the elevator of famous chefs in 1980s France were also rather telling, as several of these luminaries are deceased and many are now of retirement age. The hotel has stood still in other ways, too, with amenities that have come to be standard elsewhere being nowhere to be found (an in-room espresso machine, for example). The hotel also has no pool, spa or gym. The last major innovation at Les Crayères was the opening of Brasserie Le Jardin, the hotel’s second restaurant, in an outbuilding on the property in 2009.
On our way to dinner downstairs at chef Philippe Mille’s Michelin two-star Le Parc restaurant, we also noticed that in the long corridor leading to the elevator the Brussels carpet was worn. We had a very good meal at Le Parc, but it lacked the creativity and freshness of our lunch at Racine, and aside from the charming sommelier, Martin Jean, formerly of three-star Maison Troisgros near Roanne in the Loire, the staff members were not always as attentive as one would expect at a restaurant of this caliber.
Les Crayères is a lovely hotel that offers an increasingly rare dose of traditional French luxury, but the property needs some fine-tuning and updating, both in terms of its hospitality style and the interior of the hotel itself.
The very comfortable, traditionally furnished rooms; the sweeping lawns and well-tended gardens.
Service can be haughty; the lack of a pool, spa or gym.
Only book a room in the main château itself, and request a view of the park, not the driveway. Restaurant reservations should be made in advance.
From Les Crayères it was a five-minute drive to Ruinart, which was founded in 1729 and today offers one of the best cellar tours in Reims. Everything about this experience (which must be booked in advance online) was elegant and gracious, from the refreshments served while we waited for everyone in our group of 10 to arrive to the well-spoken young guide who began the tour with an excellent primer on the history of Champagne, including an explanation of how its popularity at the French court in Versailles first made it fashionable.
From Reims it was a 30-minute drive to Champillon, a village on a hillside overlooking Épernay and the location of the Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa, which was once a coaching inn where the kings of France would stay en route to their coronation in Reims.
The breathtaking views over the vineyards surrounding Épernay were what convinced an American couple, Denise Dupré and her husband, Mark Nunnelly, founders of the Boston-based Champagne Hospitality Group, to acquire the 49-room Royal Champagne in 2014. The couple already had a deep knowledge of the region as owners of the Leclerc Briant Champagne house, and they saw that this historic property could become truly spectacular with investment and a total renovation. They hired Reims-based architect Giovanni Pace, who had recently designed a much-praised new winery for Moët & Chandon in the nearby village of Oiry, to re-create the Royal Champagne. Pace’s design has retained only part of the existing hotel and added a limestone-faced crescent-shaped building. It was a bold move in a place that reveres tradition, but it has worked beautifully.
Our arrival was seamless. The valet immediately dealt with our car and a bellman escorted us to the dramatic lobby. This is dominated by an equally striking glass-and-gold-leaf sculpture suspended in an atrium between the first and second floors. A huge glass wall allows views of the vineyards.
Paris-based designer Sybille de Margerie’s look for the accommodations is contemporary but cozy, with lots of blond oak and a mostly taupe and Champagne color scheme punctuated by a few splashes of color. All rooms come with built-in oak wardrobes. Baths are limestone- and oak-paneled, with double vanities sculpted from a single block of limestone, and provide soaking tubs, separate showers and Hermès products. We felt immediately at home, noting with pleasure the high ceiling, the raw oak parquet floor, the perfect wall-mounted reading lights and the high-quality cotton sheets. A glass wall with sliding doors led to a spacious balcony with two upholstered tub chairs and a table.
Perhaps the hotel’s most distinctive amenity is its Champagne bar with more than 200 vintages on offer. In good weather, drinks are also served on a huge outdoor terrace with overstuffed loungers and sofas. Chef Jean-Denis Rieubland, who formerly worked at the Michelin two-star Le Chantecler in Nice, oversees the hotel’s two restaurants. Le Bellevue, a contemporary bistro with a seasonal menu, offers dishes like roasted asparagus and Parmesan-crusted sea bream with artichokes. At the Michelin one-star Le Royal, the gastronomic table, we opted for the five-course Signature Menu, which began with crabmeat dressed with makrut lime and garnished with caviar, followed by turbot with seaweed butter, artichokes and baby carrots, and veal sweetbreads with chorizo and a fricassee of girolle mushrooms. Our meal was delicious, and we very much enjoyed the wine suggestions of the amiable sommelier, Daniel Pires, especially a white 2016 Domaine de Trévallon from the Alpilles in Provence.
The next day we availed ourselves of the hotel’s electric bicycles and went for a spin through the surrounding vineyards. Afterward, we enjoyed a leisurely afternoon at the hotel’s excellent spa, which has nine treatment rooms, a hammam, a sauna, a fitness room, a yoga studio and a juice bar. Facials use Biologique Recherche products.
Throughout our stay the service was thoughtful, friendly and professional, and we left with real regret. This superb hotel is now the best address in Champagne and is also a fascinating example of how French hospitality is reinventing itself in the 21st century, with less formality and more of the creature comforts that modern travelers now require.
Exceptionally stylish and comfortable rooms; excellent service; beautiful setting; terrific spa; very good restaurants.
Make spa and restaurant reservations when you book your room.
After several days spent visiting Champagne caves, including a private tour of Hautvillers, where Dom Pérignon is buried, we drove an hour and a half south to Troyes, an unspoiled medieval city of magnificent churches and half-timbered houses that remains one of the best-kept secrets in France. At the end of the ninth century, the counts of Champagne chose Troyes as their capital, and it remained the capital of the province of Champagne until the Revolution.
We reached the 11-room La Maison de Rhodes on a cobbled back street late on a sunny afternoon. With its sister property, the four-star 12-room Le Champ des Oiseaux, La Maison de Rhodes occupies several half-timbered 12th-century houses that once belonged to the Knights Templar and that were meticulously renovated to preserve their huge oak beams, wooden staircases, original stone floors and red-clay tile roofs.
A friendly receptionist escorted us to our spacious Suite, where we found chintz-upholstered armchairs, a large (nonworking) brick fireplace, a beamed ceiling and a limestone floor with a sisal area rug edged with canvas. Large windows overlooked both the street and an immaculately tended courtyard garden. The bath came with double vanities set into a white-tile counter, and the tub included a hand-held shower. Perhaps the best feature of the room was its palpable aura of history, both of the medieval house itself and the atmospheric city of Troyes.
Returning to the hotel later in the afternoon after some sightseeing, we enjoyed the outdoor plunge pool in a second courtyard garden and then headed to the sauna. La Maison de Rhodes also has a whirlpool tub and a spa cabin, where ayurvedic massages are available by reservation.
Since it was a warm night, we ate dinner outside in a garden listening to the cooing of doves. At the hotel’s La Commanderie restaurant, we sat at a table dressed with a starched white cloth to enjoy a tart filled with Chaource (a local soft cow’s milk cheese) and white asparagus, followed by oven-roasted cod with Provençale vegetables, and a beef fillet grilled with herbs. For dessert, the homemade tarte Tatin was exceptional.
La Maison de Rhodes is not a luxury hotel but a unique and intimate hideaway, with comfortable accommodations and an abundance of character in a relatively little-known destination.
The meticulously restored historic building; the timeless atmosphere; the charming small restaurant.
The hotel deserves a proper bar serving a good selection of Champagnes by the glass.
The restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday nights; tables should be reserved when booking your room, because it is very popular with locals.
Back in Paris, after a one-and-a-half-hour train ride from Troyes, we ordered two flutes of Champagne and raised our glasses to a magical 10-day tour and the indelible memories that we would carry with us back to the United States.