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“It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it,” I told my friends when they learned I was traveling to London and the English countryside to taste English sparkling wines versus French champagne. “But really, English “fizz” is making a splash in the market!”

While the French are known for producing fine champagne, the English are known for drinking it, representing the largest export market for French champagne. About ten years ago, a few innovative producers started making English sparkling wine, which many say has come to rival the French. It is clear to see why: the prime sparkling wine regions of Kent and Sussex are located just 90 miles north of Champagne in France and have chalky soils well-suited to growing the champagne varietals – chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. In fact, French champagne house Taittinger recently announced it would be buying land in Kent for the production of English sparkling wine.

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Our quest was to taste English sparkling wine and French champagne in a variety of settings. With this in mind, we set out for Coworth Park, an elegant country mansion hotel located near the famous town of Ascot known for horseraces and hats, and Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world. Coworth Park dates back centuries, having been constructed in 1776 by a prosperous East India trader and merchant. Through the years, it has hosted horseracing aficionados, international royalty, and polo players from around the world. In 2010, the Dorchester Group opened Coworth Park as the luxury country hotel estate and spa it is today.

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To reach Coworth Park, my friend and I took a short train ride train from London and a cab from the station. As we drove slowly through the beautiful grounds, we were impressed by the tranquility of the gardens and elegance of the buildings. We were warmly greeted in the grand foyer of the main building and led to our room, which was graced with floor to ceiling French windows overlooking the remarkable meadow. We were lucky to be at Coworth Park when the cosmos were in bloom, filling the vista with a veritable sea of delicate pinks, purples and whites moving gently with the breeze. Inside, our room was a study in elegance, with beautiful furnishings, the best linens, and an exquisite marble bathroom with a huge copper bathtub.

Aware of my interest in sparkling wine, the Head Sommelier Jonathan Ellson invited us to taste a few of his favourite English sparkling wines.

“When it comes to the quality and pure taste, there is no doubt in my mind that good English sparkling wine competes head-on with French champagne,” he said as he poured the wine with care.

We started with the “Leander Pink Rosé” made by Digby Wines of London. Rather than own the vineyards, Digby has long term relationships with some of the best vineyards across English wine country. Named for the Leander Club, the oldest rowing club in the world, this light and breezy rosé is an approachable, easy-to-drink fizz made for parties and fun. Proceeds from the sale of the wine go back to support the rowing club. At Coworth Park, you can enjoy a glass of Digby Rosé with afternoon tea. “What better combination?” I thought.

Next, we sampled a wine from Nyetimber, the most established of all the English producers of sparkling wine. We noted the pale golden colour and gentle bubbles as Jonathan poured the Classic Cuvee. We tasted a lovely complexity, with flavours that balanced light freshness with hints of spice.

The third and final entrant in our tasting was the Digby 2009 Reserve Brut. In contrast to the sweet peachiness of the Digby Rosé and fresh apple flavour of the Nyetimber Classic Cuvee, the Digby Reserve Brut evoked the creamy richness of a golden roasted apple.

This enlightening review of three excellent examples of sparkling wine whetted our appetites for dinner. We moved to the “The Barn,” which is the casual dining room at Coworth Park. Anchored by a huge stone fireplace and bordered along one side by the open kitchen, The Barn is a great place to enjoy the talents of Coworth Park chefs in a relaxed, rustic setting. For starters we shared two salads: a bright and beautiful heritage beet salad with goat cheese curds, drizzled with truffle honey, and a rich salad of mushrooms and baby truffles dusted with pecorino cheese. Our main courses were classic English country fare: on one plate were Berkshire lamb cutlets, silky mashed potatoes and buttered kale, and on the other a perfectly cooked ribeye steak with fat chips and green salad. For dessert we splurged on the treacle tart with clotted cream as well as an array of British cheeses. It was a perfect ending to a lovely day in the countryside!

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We started the next morning with a brisk walk around the grounds of Coworth Park. We were greeted by horses in the paddocks and we watched exotic green parrots circle in the sky above us. After circumnavigating the two polo fields and zigzagging through formal and informal gardens to appreciate the view from all angles, we were ready for breakfast. We entered the warm and mellow main dining room, elegantly furnished with soft caramel leather chairs, smoky mirror panels and an impressive copper leaf chandelier. Our breakfast - comprised of fresh berries, scrambled eggs served in a ring of Scottish smoked salmon, poached eggs on tiered toast slices, plump sausages, fresh juice, pastries, and steaming hot coffee - was deliciously satisfying.

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The next day, completely rested and refreshed, we departed Coworth Park with the firm intention to return.

Back in London, the next stop in our quest for sparkling experiences took us to the elegant Hotel Café Royal on Regent Street. We were excited about the prospect of experiencing an authentic English High Tea in the Oscar Wilde Bar. Escorting us to our seats, our host and server Bartlomiej Czaja informed us that this particular room was a favourite place of respite for the likes of Winston Churchill, Princess Diana and indeed Oscar Wilde. “You are at Princess Diana’s table,” he said as he seated us at the far end of the room, offering long views across this gorgeous hideaway. Decorated in a Baroque style with soft lighting, the mirror-lined room was resplendent with art featuring golden goddesses, cherubs and more. Soft jazz came from the piano in the corner. Our host reappeared and filled our delicate champagne flutes with Laurent-Perrier Cuvée Brut Rosé Champagne from France. Soft bubbles and the flavours of raspberry, citrus and flint tickled our palates in preparation for the delicacies that were to follow. The hotel’s pastry chef Sarah Barber recently reinvented the tea menu to update the classics and add a modern twist. This was evident in the menu of sandwiches – tiny gruyere cheese muffins were infused with fresh house made tomato juice served in tiny pipettes. The classics – cucumber, Coronation chicken salad and shrimp – were fresh and delicate. Other innovative items included caramelised onion on a Wellington pastry tart, and smoked wild salmon on a parmesan biscuit. In addition to champagne, we enjoyed steaming hot Celestine black tea infused with vanilla. Following the sandwiches, we enjoyed a basket of warm, flaky scones served with clotted cream, strawberry jam and lemon curd. Comfort food indeed!

After a palate-cleansing berry and hibiscus iced tea, we were ready for the next course. A small tower of pastries appeared, along with a refill of both champagne and tea. Inventive and pretty, the six different pastries were a feast for the eyes and the taste buds. Peach Melba lollipop looked like a creamsicle, with its a pale orange coating and light peach filling. Mini Jaffa cake offered a rich combination of dark chocolate and mandarin orange. The tiny, perfect raspberry tart layered raspberry jam and almond cream in a crisp shortbread crust. Strawberry gateaux, Battenberg cakes and checkerboard sweets in marzipan filled the remaining tiers.

When three more cakes were offered – lemon, carrot and fruitcake – we demurred and asked to take them home. The feast would continue later! As we sat back and lingered in this warm and elegant room, it became clear why both celebrities and people like us wanted to sink into the comfort of this beautiful bar, hidden just off one of London’s busiest streets. The visual beauty of the room, the sound of hushed voices mingled with piano jazz, the rich aroma of exotic teas, and the procession of flavours made afternoon tea in the Oscar Wilde Bar a celebration of the senses.

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Thus far in my sparkling quest, I had tasted English and French champagnes. I loved them – the English leaning slightly bright and fresh, the classic French a bit drier and toastier. Next, I felt a need to go to the source, which is why I made the trip to visit Gusbourne Estate in Kent. I took a high speed train from London to Ashford International, and was picked up by Laura Rhys, Master Sommelier.

Established by founder Andrew Weeber with first plantings in 2004, Gusbourne strives to create English sparkling wines that can stand on their own merit among the best offerings in the world. Its debut 2006 vintages were released in 2010 to critical acclaim. Situated on gentle slopes of clay and sandy soil in southern England, only six miles from the coast, Gusbourne’s distinct terroir and exceptionally mild microclimate is perfectly suited to sparkling wine. Recent awards include a record six gold medals in 2015 including two ‘gold outstanding’ medals awarded by the International Wine and Spirits Association.

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After touring the beautiful vineyards, we tasted a selection of Gusbourne sparkling wines. The 2012 Blanc de Blanc sparkling was first on deck. Comprised of 100% chardonnay grapes, this golden sparkling wine balanced liveliness with the full fruit flavour of tart apples and lively citrus. Extended aging deepened the flavour and added a hint of toastiness. Sommelier Laura Rhys suggested that the light acidity and salinity made the Blanc de Blanc a perfect match for oysters and other seafood.

Next we tried the 2013 Rosé, which offered a pronounced fruit-forward yet delicate flavour of strawberries and apricots. Rounding out the Gusbourne trio of sparkling wine is the Brut Reserve, which blends all three varietals (pinot meunier, chardonnay and pinot noir) for a well-structured balance of fruit and floral, with significant body and depth.

These wines, and the excellent examples I had already tasted, convinced me that the English sparkling wines had truly come into their own and could readily challenge French champagne for flavour, balance and in certain cases, that deeper, toasty aspect we love in the best champagnes.

As to the exceptional quality of Gusbourne sparkling wines, Laura Rhys said, “We mainly plant the best Burgundian clones which produce lower yields with significantly more flavour. We let nature do most of the work and interfere as little as possible. We feel that by producing vintage wines from our own vineyards we can ensure the highest quality for our customers.”

After once again sampling the best of the English countryside, I returned to busy London. The next day, I made the second last stop on my sparkling tour – to the sophisticated Connaught Bar in the Mayfair hotel of the same name. Ranked among the best cocktail bars in the world, the Connaught Bar sets a high standard. With Director of Mixology Agostino Perrone at the helm, the creativity and quality of the cocktails are unparalleled.

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Asking to sample “sparkling” cocktails, we were served two extraordinary drinks. The “Fleurissimo,” a twist on the classic champagne cocktail recipe, combined Remy Martin VSOP cognac with French champagne and added a delightful floral note with violet liqueur. The “Gentlemen’s Spritz” brought champagne, calvados, and Galliano together with a red-hued rhubarb cordial. These two drinks were not only refreshing in a wonderfully heady way, they were an absolute pleasure to behold!

While we sipped our cocktails we enjoyed the ambience of the bar. The remains of the day’s light crept in from behind heavy drapes. An array of different seating options at banquettes and tables created a perfect blend of privacy and conviviality. We felt as though we were very welcome guests in an elegant, comfortable club. Reluctant to leave such beautiful surroundings, we opted for another cocktail. We asked the staff to surprise us, and they did with incredibly innovative concoctions. The “Hidden Park” was a blend of gin, gruner wine, clarified pink grapefruit juice and essence of sage. And, what looked like an olive was actually a rare Japanese plum called a momo. And finally, the “Mulata Daisy” was a delicious combination of rum, lime, fennel, Galliano and crème de cacao in a flute rimmed with cocoa powder.

On our final night in London, we stopped into one of the city’s best wine bars and restaurants – Noble Rot. We enjoyed a bottle of Gaston Chiquet, 1er Cru Brut, French champagne, while sampling an array of favorites from Noble Rot’s inventive menu: homemade soda and focaccia breads, delicate slip sole in smoked butter, roast mallard duck, roast cod with fennel, warm chocolate mousse and more. Meanwhile, I perused an earlier edition of the excellent Noble Rot magazine. In it, editor Mark Andrew said, “English sparkling wine has come of age and, while the Champenois and their drinking public might not yet know it, they could soon have a serious fight on their hands.” The magazine reported on the results of a blind tasting of English versus French, where the top two spots were taken by English sparkling wine. Mark Andrew added, “It is clear to us that English sparkling is on the cusp of something special.”

At the end of my quest, what did I conclude? If you were to take away all the labels and simply taste the ‘liquid in the glass” I would say that high quality entrants from both countries compare very favourably. Whether it originates from a sprawling vineyard in Champagne or on a sunny slope in the south of England – a glass of bubbly elevates a special occasion, tingles the taste buds and makes almost everything better.

Wednesday, 06 September 2017 15:01

On a recent trip through France, friends and I made the fortunate decision to rest for a few days in the small, scenic village of St. Hilaire-en-Brens. Located just 40 minutes from the Saint Exupery Airport in Lyon, in the heart of the Hautes-Rhone region, this hilltop village was a perfect last stop in our own tour de France. From here we were able to take short, easy side trips to the medieval town of Cremieu, the elegant city of Annecy, and historic Vieux Lyon.

Not that it was easy to leave the comfortable surroundings of our B&B, aptly named Le St.-Hilaire. From the moment of arrival, we felt an easy comfort with the warm hospitality provided by our hosts, a charming English-French couple named Stephanie and Thierry.

“Let us know if you’d like to join us for dinner,” Stephanie said, as she showed us to our room. “We love it when our B&B guests eat with us. It makes it more fun for everybody.”

On weekdays, Stephanie and Thierry serve dinner in their large dining room overlooking the town square, with long views to Mont Blanc. For a very reasonable price, guests can enjoy Stephanie’s cooking, featuring simple, regional favourites.

“We will join you for sure!” I said. This left just enough time for a swim in their gorgeous swimming pool. After a quick dip, I reclined in one of the elegant deck chairs and… z-z-z-z!

Later, a small handful of guests drifted downstairs. Thierry handed each of us a glass of cool, crisp sparkling wine as we nibbled on hors d’oeuvres. Before long, Stephanie called us to the table where we enjoyed a leisurely meal comprised of green salad, cassoulet, local cheeses and a homemade apple tart with caramel sauce and ice cream. The food, almost all made in house, was delicious and plentiful, and the conversation flowed as readily as the local wine.

After a deep sleep in our lovely quiet room overlooking the pool, we rose early and went down for continental breakfast and steaming bowls of café au lait. Thus fortified, we headed off on the short ten-minute drive to Cremieu.

IMG 6958 copyCremieu dates back to the 13th century, when it was built around a Benedictine priory and a castle, the remains of which can be seen today. Known also for the high ramparts that still protect the town, Cremieu is a perfect consolidation of ancient history with a fascinating, lively town of today. People inhabit medieval houses with ornately carved windows and doors. I loved the criss-cross of old streets and the 15th-century covered market where an antique fair was held on the day of our visit.

The day still young, we decided to continue to Lyon, France’s second largest city. Our focus was small however, as we were especially interested in the old quarter. We found Vieux Lyon and explored its labyrinthine streets. Eventually, the throngs of people packed into these narrow streets inspired us to seek open space, and so it was on the Place Bellecour at the L’Espace Brasserie where we sat to people-watch while enjoying a glass of rosé and a Salade Lyonnaise. (When in Lyon…!) I loved the combination of bright frisee, crisp bacon, soft poached eggs and one of the loveliest warm dressings I have tasted. Was it because the dressing was made by softening shallots in bacon fat before adding dijon and a splash of vinegar? Whatever the reason, I reveled in the blend of warm and cool, rich and fresh… with a bustling French square as the backdrop.

Back at Le St. Hilaire that evening, we were content to sit poolside, sip rosé and nibble on the remains of a baguette from earlier in the day.

On our last day in the region, we ventured a little further to Annecy, an elegant resort town nestled between Lake Annecy and the French Alps, 35 kilometers south of Geneva. Sometimes called the “Pearl of the Alps,” Annecy is famous for its serene beauty. We walked around the lake, strolled beside beautiful canals, and explored passageways in the Old Town. Were we in France, Venice or Switzerland? All these histories and cultures seemed to converge in this special place.   

After one last night at Le St. Hilaire enjoying the wonderful hospitality of Stephanie and Thierry, we made the quick and easy trip to the airport and headed for home, fully refreshed and deeply satisfied with the last leg of our personal tour de France. 

Tuesday, 30 August 2016 20:13

You know there’s something special about a place when you find yourself returning again and again. That’s the case with me and the Languedoc, a large swath of southern France stretching from the Mediterranean to the Pyrenees. There’s something unapologetically authentic about this traditionally French world with its working villages, local markets, long beaches, and incredible landscapes dominated by vineyards.

On my most recent trip to Languedoc, home base was Chateau St. Pierre de Serjac - an authentic 19th century winery and chateau sitting amidst 200 acres of vines and scenic countryside. The property includes a hotel, restaurant, spa and self-catering units that range from two-bedroom flats to three and four-bedroom townhouses, many with private pools.

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From the moment we arrived, my friend and I were warmly welcomed into an elegant yet relaxed country club atmosphere. We were shown to our apartment - a two-bedroom flat on the second floor of the converted, original winery. We entered an open concept great room with exposed beams, cathedral ceiling, and contemporary décor in soothing shades of dove grey, pale blue and soft sand.

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This spacious room contained the living and dining areas as well as a brand new, fully equipped kitchen. Beyond were two large bedrooms, each with a king-sized bed and ensuite bathroom. One bathroom had a walk-in shower and the other had a long, deep bath tub with shower. We exhaled and settled easily into our comfortable surroundings.

A few hours later, we strolled over to the main chateau for dinner. The elegant, original 19th century dining room looked out across a beautiful terrace and an infinity pool to vineyards and mountains. Under the helpful guidance of the sommelier, we opted for a local Domaine Bassac red blend made of Languedoc grenache and syrah grapes, balanced with cabernet franc. The wine delivered deep red berry fruit with a lingering sensation of roasted flavors. It was a perfect complement to our well-crafted meals: one a rare beef entrecote with roasted red pepper coulis, gratin potatoes, tiny artichokes and a homemade ‘ketchup’ reduction, and the other a slow-braised beef estouffade nestled against a colorful array of baby vegetables. I learned that ‘estouffade’ is a traditional French stew where the meat is marinated in wine before being browned and slowly cooked in a tightly covered pan. For dessert, we shared the decadently delicious ‘autour de la fraise,’ a delicate chocolate dome filled with saffron cream and local, fresh strawberries.

The next day, refreshed by an amazing sleep in the superb comfort of the luxurious beds and linens, we were ready to explore. In mere minutes by car, we found ourselves in the village of Magalas – a working, wine-making town evidenced by the ‘vignerons’ or grape growers we passed as they made their way around the vicinity on their tractors. At the heart of town, we explored the medieval village featuring the remains of ramparts and porches as well as an 11th century church. The old streets of Magalas reflected a beautiful, unselfconscious decay. It felt like a timeless place where life today blends seamlessly with life through the ages.

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On returning to Chateau St. Pierre de Serjac, we headed for the 30m outdoor infinity pool. Wide chaise lounges beckoned, making an afternoon nap in the afternoon Languedoc sun utterly irresistible.

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After, we walked the property to discover both tennis courts and boules courts, as well as bikes and trails for cycling and walking. We ended the afternoon with a visit to the Cinq Mondes Spa, where we entered into an even deeper state of relaxation enjoying the steam room, sauna, pool and hot tub inside an open pavilion overlooking the vineyards.

Next day’s outing went a little further afield, to the beach town of Bouzigues, a mecca for lovers of fresh seafood. In essence, Languedoc offers two coastlines – one on the Mediterranean itself and another further inland along the shores of the area’s many inland salt water lagoons also known as ‘etangs.’ A center for oyster and mussel production as far back as the Greeks, Bouzigues offers a wide range of cafes, bars and restaurants along its beachfront on the famous Etang de Thau.

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I prefer the casual spots and we found a table at ‘Chez Francine.’ Under the shade of a large awning, we scarfed raw oysters with lemon and hunks of crusty fresh bread, washing it all down with local Picpoul de Pinet wine. Sitting back satisfied and relaxed, we looked out over the oyster beds where our lunch had originated earlier that same day. Not a place in the world could match this experience for fresh, local fare in an authentic setting!

Later, I took a stroll around the Chateau St. Pierre de Serjac property with my host Kerry. She brought me to a delightful little cottage in a secluded, wooded corner.

“It’s a perfect choice for romantic getaways,” said Kerry. This two-bedroom ‘Gardener’s Cottage’ has a ground floor living and kitchen area with a separate TV lounge overlooking the private garden, pool and Jacuzzi.

On the way back we looked into several of the elegant houses and villas, ranging in size from two-bedroom to four-bedroom and each having a distinctive layout. All the houses and villas are virtually new, with high-end furnishings and fixtures. Most have private gardens and pools and exceptional views of the surrounding vineyards.

“Couples, families, friends and even business groups come from all over the world to stay here,” Kerry said. “There really is something for everyone.”

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The main chateau building has eight hotel rooms. On the top floor, in a unique room called ‘La Chappelle,’ the hand painted wallpapers and friezes of the original Art Nouveau chapel have been fully restored. This whimsically beautiful room is furnished with a king-sized bed and features a large bateaux bath as well as a separate shower room.

Our tour ended in the space that is being renovated as the new state-of-the-art winery. From long established and newly cultivated vineyards, the in-house winery will bottle its first vintage in 2016. Meanwhile the gorgeous vat room, barrel store and tasting room are being readied and used as event spaces.

On our final evening at Chateau St. Pierre de Serjac, my friend and I sat on the terrace and sipped on outstanding cocktails concocted with exceptional enthusiasm by the creative bartender. Of special note was the signature house drink, the “Serjac.” Made with Hendrick’s Gin, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, amaretto, basil, lime, pink peppercorns and juniper berries, the Serjac balanced bright citrus flavours with a lingering, warm glow.

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For my friend, who asked for ‘anything but vermouth,’ the bartender whipped up a vodka martini made of Bison Grass Vodka, elderflower liqueur, Lillet Blanc (which is a distinctive fortified wine not quite considered a traditional vermouth) and freshly-pressed cucumber juice. The result was astoundingly fresh and aromatic.

As the sun set on our visit to this exquisite property, I found myself reflecting on the trip. I could literally feel the memories. From the sweet-salty taste of fresh oysters to the fruit-forward bouquet of local wines, from the cool-crisp quality of the French bed linens to the glorious views from every vantage point, the trip had been a veritable feast for the senses. It’s no wonder I heard myself say, “So, when we come back...”

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Monday, 13 June 2016 13:23

In the middle of a terraced hillside vineyard, with statuesque Mont Ventoux in the background, Hugo Levingston kneels down to grab a handful of dry, rocky soil.

“This is what makes Domaine de Mourchon wines distinctive,” he tells our small assembled group as he lets the soil fall through his fingers. “The combination of clay and limestone, together with our microclimate, creates our unique terroir.” Hugo explains that terroir encompasses all the conditions – soil, climate, setting – that give a wine its particular character.

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On a road trip through the south of France, my friend and I stayed for several days at the picturesque winery Domaine de Mourchon. This sunny afternoon, Hugo was taking us through the vineyards. He continued: “Our high altitude magnifies the impact of the sun. This gives our grapes their intense fruit flavour. During the dry summer, our vines send their roots deep into the soil for moisture, which is where they pick up the mineral freshness of the limestone.”

Back in the tasting ‘caveau,’ Hugo told us that his parents-in-law Walter and Ronnie McKinlay acquired the vineyards in 1998 and built the winery to capitalize on the outstanding terroir and exceptional vines. Soon after, they were joined by Hugo and their daughter Kate. Winemaker Sébastien Magnouac arrived in 2000. Since the outset, this team has refined the vineyard cultivation techniques and winemaking methods to capture the gifts of nature and coax the best features of the grapes into Mourchon wines. Rave reviews suggest the formula has been a great success!

There’s so much to experience at this beautiful family-owned winery in the heart of the southern Rhone region. If you stay at the winery as we did, you’ll be able to watch the activity in the vineyards, see first-hand how the wine is made, taste the wines, and visit the surrounding area. Perched on a hill with breathtaking views, the Winemaker’s House is available to rent year-round. With five bedrooms, three bathrooms, two kitchens, and a terrace, it can be used in its entirety to accommodate large groups or can be divided into separate apartments for couples and smaller groups.

“We want people to come for the full experience,” Hugo told us. “The wine is even more memorable when people see where it’s grown, how it’s made, and who’s had a hand in it.” The winery welcomes visitors for longer stays and short visits. “We love it when people drop by,” Hugo adds. “We get lots of cyclists, locals, hikers, travellers... and they are so excited when they discover us. Then, they tell their friends. We want to be a widely shared secret!”

Robert Mondavi said, “Wine is passion. It's family and friends, warmth of heart, and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living.”

Domaine de Mourchon brings this philosophy to life. To celebrate wine and the art of living, the family and staff throw open the doors for special events throughout the year. Hundreds of visitors come to the annual Domaine de Mourchon picnic in midsummer. They gather to eat, listen to jazz, wander in the vineyards and drink good wine. At other times, you might find guests enjoying wine while they listen to a chamber concert in the cellar, or a group having a catered lunch in the vineyard. At Domaine de Mourchon, it’s all about the fullness of the experience and the many connections between wine and the good life.

Living the good life is easy in the region surrounding Domaine de Mourchon, where opportunities abound for recreation-lovers, history buffs, culture hounds, and those who appreciate good food and great wine!

Early one morning, we took a short drive to Vaison-la-Romaine, an ancient town that sits along the Ouvèze river. We parked in a convenient lot beneath the watchful eye of a 13th century chateau, and admired the rare, single-arched Roman bridge that joins the old and newer parts of town.

We made it just in time for the Tuesday market: Street after winding street was lined with stalls selling everything from clothing to crafts, linens to soaps, and miles of incredible food – olives, cheeses, meats, vegetables, fruit, prepared meals and more. We sampled paper-thin slices of fresh garlic, crumbled shards of aged cheese, sweet red radishes, and raw stalks of just-picked asparagus. After stocking up on supplies to take home, we were ready for a break in the shade. On the perimeter of the town square, a perfect table came free on the patio at Le Monfort Café. Sipping on cold drinks, we lazily engaged in the art of watching people browse the nearby stalls.

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I noticed chefs procuring their daily supplies, hungry cyclists on a break, and townspeople who knew their favourite vendors by name. Our little respite was made even more enjoyable when an impromptu jazz quintet sprung up on the corner and started to play fantastic music on an array of instruments – alto sax, guitars, stand-up bass and percussion comprised of a washboard, wooden boxes and cymbals...!

Later at Mourchon, we set the table on the stone patio outside our apartment and laid out our market purchases – yeasty goat cheese, fat green olives, bright red radishes, and a crusty baguette. We opened a bottle of the Mourchon Loubié Rosé and noted the warm pink hue as we poured two glasses. We were greeted with the aroma of strawberries and citrus, and the wine’s full fruity flavor and great acid balance was a fantastic complement to our Provençal picnic.

The next day we asked Hugo to suggest an excursion. In his typically generous fashion, he encouraged us to visit other wineries in the area. “We’re not competitors as much as we are collaborators,” he explained. “By working together, all the local wineries hope to attract more people to this quiet corner of Haute Provence, to experience first-hand what makes us special.”

Following Hugo’s directions, we made our way through the tiny hamlet of Crestet and up the narrow, winding road to a secluded, elegant winery called Chêne Bleu. There, we were met by Bryan Houde, who explained Chêne Bleu’s raison d'être: “We do everything to bring people to the site – so they have a chance to take in the entirety of what we have created.” The Chêne Bleu motto, “Non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis” means “Not mine, not yours, but ours.” It reflects their desire to share the experience with the world. The property offers accommodation at an ancient, restored priory which also serves as an exceptional facility for meetings, retreats and exclusive events.

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We tasted Chêne Bleu’s distinctive wines: Their flagship reds, Abelard and Héloïse, are named for a famous pair of French lovers from the middle ages. Abelard is a full-bodied grenache blend, while Héloïse is a softer, more restrained syrah blend. We also tasted the Rosé - a complex grenache-syrah blend aged in oak, which adds to the complexity of texture and taste.

On our second last day at Mourchon, we took a left turn from the property’s front gate, and in minutes we arrived at the hilltop village of Séguret. Sitting at a height of 850 feet, the village has sweeping views over the Rhône valley. We entered the ancient town through gates in well-preserved ramparts, which led us to narrow village streets lined with traditional stone houses. The tiny town square hosts a 14th century bell tower with a distinctive single needle clock, topped by a 17th century belfry.

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Better wineries near Séguret are permitted to use the “Séguret Côtes du Rhône Villages” appellation, because this small area has been identified as producing higher quality wines with a regional distinctiveness. This is the appellation to which Domaine de Mourchon belongs. After our excursion to Séguret, we returned to Mourchon to taste the wines and identify these uniquely local characteristics.

We joined a group of visitors from around the world, and Hugo took us through a full tasting.

He suggested we start with the white wine, because “it launches the acidity reaction and wakes up the palate.” This crisp white did that, and more. We could taste peaches and apricots, with a hint of honey and citrus on the finish.

Next, as I tasted the Rosé, I closed my eyes and recalled how its fruit-forward taste had enhanced our little picnic.

Hugo then poured Mourchon’s proprietary red blend. “Tradition” is a classic Côtes du Rhône Villages, blending grenache, syrah and carignan grapes. It felt surprisingly velvety in the mouth, and a bold berry flavor opened up against a peppery, spicy background.

“See if you can taste the rock,” said Hugo. We all looked a little confused, but he went on to help us. “There’s a tingle in the jaw, along the sides and back of the mouth where the minerality can come out. It’s almost salty, and this is what lifts the flavor up and brings it alive.”

I swished the wine to the sides and back of my mouth. I wasn’t sure if I could taste the rock, but I was sure I could appreciate the bright, bold flavor of Mourchon Tradition.

The next red blend was the Grande Réserve, comprised of old-vine grenache and syrah. With intense fruit flavor and licorice spice, the Grande Réserve struck me as a full-bodied, well-structured wine.

Last, we tasted the single varietal Family Reserve Grenache, which is produced in very limited quantity from the oldest vines. Garnering rave reviews, this wine is highlighted for its full-bodied elegance. I was struck by the deep plum color, followed by aromas of ripe fruit and exotic spices. The taste took me to my grandfather’s den, reminiscent of leather and cherry liqueur and fruitcake. Hugo rather humbly explained, “It’s a lovely, opulent wine and much craft goes in the making.”

Tasting across the range of Domaine de Mourchon wines was the crowning experience in our visit. Because we had stayed at the vineyard and roamed around the vicinity, we’d acquired an appreciation of everything that went into these wines. The vineyards, the landscape and most of all the talent, care and creativity of the people – came together in a wonderful experience called Domaine de Mourchon.

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Monday, 13 June 2016 12:41

I’m always happy to stroll along Lamb’s Conduit, a block-long pedestrian street in the heart of London’s Bloomsbury. For over two hundred years this passage has been been lined with one-of-a-kind shops, a tradition that lends a persistent air of classic charm. As I wandered down the street recently, I made my usual quick stop into Persephone Books, a quirky shop selling its own list of nearly forgotten female authors. Shelves and tables, nooks and crannies overflowed with Persephone’s distinctive dove grey books. Resisting the urge to linger, I headed next door to meet my son at London’s newest and possibly most innovative wine bar.

In a location that has been a wine bar since 1973, Noble Rot has resisted the temptation to make major changes. A log fireplace warms the front room, which is furnished simply and decorated with artwork from the covers of the magazine Noble Rot. Partners Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling started the magazine in 2013, and have now completed their vision by launching the companion wine bar and restaurant.

Magazine and wine bar share the same goal – to offer wine as an accessible product, worth exploring through all the senses.

“With the magazine, we set out to reframe the wine conversation. We’re not afraid to be a bit irreverent. But that doesn’t mean we don’t think the wine is fantastic,” said Mark Andrew. “Now we can do the same thing with food. We love great food, prepared in an unfinicky way and served in an unstuffy place.”

Lighthearted without being lightweight

With a special emphasis on smaller producers, Noble Rot takes enormous pleasure in bringing fantastic wines to the fore. The opportunity to sample from a long list by the glass or bottle, paired with an inventive food menu, makes it all the better.

We settled into our table in the dining room at the back of the establishment and sipped on glasses of Hambledon Classic Cuvee sparkling wine from Hampshire. This bright and toasty bubbly recently bested French champagnes and others in a blind taste test. It offers a winning combination, balancing fruity freshness against a touch of creaminess.

For the first course, my glass of 2013 “Bas de Chapelot” Chablis from France was a perfect complement to the plump piece of slipsole – a small whole fish served bone-in with brown butter and a courageous dash of paprika.

IMG 6316 copyMy son started with duck hearts served with soft ribs of romaine and dressed with a bright aioli. To support his starter and take us through the rest of the meal, we had a bottle of Bugey Montagnieu Mondeuse from the southern slopes of the Jura mountain range overlooking the Rhone river. The cherry-pepper balance of this varietal made from the distinctive Mondeuse Noire grape took us beautifully through the mains as well: roasted mallard duck with soft wedges of sweet roasted pumpkin and turnip tops for me, and classic roast lamb with potatoes, kale and mint sauce for my son.

At dessert we splurged on the warm chocolate mousse – warm and runny with a pinch of salt. The perfect partner for the mousse was a glass of sweet red ‘Elysium’ with heady tones of berries and tea.

Noble Rot offers a string of pleasant contrasts: classic English food made modern... a decades-old wine bar made relevant to changing tastes... and a menu that educates the palate and the mind – without getting too serious!

 

Monday, 11 January 2016 18:08

I had planned to come to Languedoc for a three-week creative retreat, but once I learned about the unique beauty, history and charm of this lesser known part of France, I decided to stay longer and explore even further. In the process, I discovered the small pleasures of Languedoc and its unhurried approach to life.

Languedoc is in the south of France, extending west from the Rhone along the coast of the Mediterranean to Spain, and inland through sun-drenched plains to rugged mountains. Compared to its gentrified neighbor Provence, Languedoc seems more rustic and unselfconsciously authentic. In fact, due to its lower profile, Languedoc has been dubbed the "secret south of France."

To say Languedoc has something for everyone is not an exaggeration. It is steeped in history with an abundance of medieval towns, castles and ancient ruins. Outdoor types can hike through the rocky, hilly terrain and walk along pebbled seashores. Foodies come for the incredible variety of local specialties, from fresh oysters in the Thau lagoon to heady cassoulet stew in the Carcassonne region. And given that Languedoc is the largest producing wine region in the world, wine enthusiasts can sample a broad range of products from both large and emerging producers.

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Retreat to La Muse

I started my Languedoc adventure in a rambling stone building called La Muse, situated at the top of a steep hill in the tiny mountain town of Labastide-Esparbairenque, about forty minutes outside Carcassonne. La Muse is a retreat center for creative types, run by John and Kerry Fanning. She's an American textile artist and he's an Irish writer. They live with their three kids in a house adjacent to La Muse. At La Muse, John and Kerry provide an exceptional space for guests to engage in a process of creative discovery.

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I shared La Muse with two painters, one musician, and two other writers. We cooked our own meals in a communal kitchen. In the evenings we sat around the table sampling wine, sharing food, talking about our work and books we love and experiences we've had. In the late afternoon, we ended up in pairs or clusters, hiking along trails and gravel roads and pathways through the stunning small mountains. But during the day, we worked. Conversations were brief, privacy was respected, and personal creative space was preserved.

Every day, I wrote at the marble-topped desk tucked into a window nook in my room. Like everywhere at La Muse, my room had a shabby elegance that was oddly comforting. Two deep nooks encased tall windows overlooking the valley to the small mountain on the other side. In the morning, I sat at my desk and tracked the sun as it grazed the top of the mountain across the valley, then slowly descended to bathe the entire scene in light. The fireplace behind me wore a crooked mantle made from the signature grey marble of the Minervois. Flanking that was an oak wardrobe on one side and a large dresser with carved drawers and a few missing handles on the other side. The bed was sturdy and I loved sleeping in the softly worn antique French linens, under the heavy sheepskin cover.

As days rolled into weeks, I fell into a wonderful creative rhythm at La Muse. Time didn't seem to exist, which is why I was caught by surprise when my three weeks came to an end. But I was buoyed by the fact that I had a complete first draft of my next book in my knapsack!

Staying in a Secret Garden

After the retreat, I met up with friends and family to explore the Languedoc together. Our next stop was the town of Pezenas, known for its antiques and markets.

If Languedoc is the secret south of France then 'Le Couvent,' a 17th century convent converted into apartments, is a secret within a secret. We entered the property through a large metal door in a high stucco wall and found ourselves in a huge, magical garden edged by the three-storey, elegant convent building. Soft light and dappled shade played under tall trees set in a lawn of smooth gravel in the French style. Weathered teak chairs and small kettle shaped barbeques were arrayed in seating areas near raised herb gardens. A series of tall French doors spanned the front of the lovely building, each set of three denoting a single apartment. Inside, the open concept main floor had a large living and dining area with a galley kitchen and two-piece bathroom. Up the spiral staircase was the mezzanine, which was set up as a library with extra sleeping space. The top floor had two huge, elegant bedrooms, each with a large en suite bathroom.

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The next day we walked two blocks to the town's famous Saturday market. Consuming the wide main street from end to end, the market features fruit and vegetable vendors at one end, a clothing bazaar in the middle and prepared food vendors at the far end. We loaded up on produce from the first harvest of asparagus, radishes and strawberries! We bought homemade tapenades – made of sun-dried tomato and herb, garlic and white bean and of course, olives both green and black. Back on the private patio in front of our apartment, we made a picnic lunch from our market wares. (In the heart of summer, this same street is host to "Estival" on Wednesday and Friday nights, with stalls featuring food, wine and other wares.)

Sunday we wandered aimlessly in the Old Town section of Pezenas. We found ourselves in Aparte, a crammed second-hand bookshop with coffee tables tucked into alcoves and corners. The café crème was excellent and we lingered in the book-lined space. Later, we opted for late lunch at Belle Epoque, where an amiable waiter served a delicious 3-course, prix fixe lunch of goat cheese salad, followed by beef au jus with hand cut fries and spring vegetables and ending with house-made ice cream. And local wine of course!

Pezenas sits within easy reach of the sea on a route filled with vineyards and wineries. What could be better? We decided to make an expedition to Bouzigues, a seaside town famous for the oyster beds that fill its bay.

On the way, we stopped at Mas du Novi, a small winery overlooking the stunning Abbey Valmagne. The new tasting room takes full advantage of the beautiful views in all directions, and the hosts are generous in their invitations to sample. We purchased their 'Lou Rosat' rose, a perfect casual wine for summer BBQs.

We carried on to Bouzigues and strolled the colourful waterfront street, lined with seafood restaurants. But they were all closed for the typically French mid-afternoon break! About to give up, we came upon a patio crammed with people enjoying late lunch. We learned that this restaurant, La Tchepe is the only establishment that stays open all day. It's part retailer and part restaurant, which is why its surroundings are simple and its prices are reasonable. It turned out to be the perfect place to sit outside and feast on raw oysters, washed down with the perfectly astringent local white wine, Picpoul-de-Pinet.

From Convent to Chateau

After a week at Le Couvent, we had adapted completely to the pace of life in the south of France. Mornings were spent wandering the markets, choosing from a wonderful array of fresh local foods. Mid-days were made for a bit of cooking before lunch on the shady patio, followed by a snooze in one of the hammocks under the tall trees in the secret garden. Late afternoons were spent reading or exploring the surrounding countryside. Early evenings we played the French ball game of 'patanques' on the sandy court. And evenings were made for long lazy meals, taken in local restaurants or at home...

So a tiny bit of regret mixed with our excitement as we left Pezenas for our final destination in Languedoc. The drive was beautiful and as we wound our way up a long and narrow lane, the white turrets of a chateau emerged from behind the trees. Upon entering the courtyard, we were struck by the elegant beauty of "Les Carrasses."

Les Carrasses is an authentic 1800s French country chateau that has been renovated to the highest standards. Every building on the property is an original part of a working winery community. Now these buildings provide the suites, apartments and villas that guests of the chateau live in relaxed luxury. Each suite has a fully-equipped kitchen and is furnished with everything you need to be self-sufficient. Many guests combine a degree of self-catering while enjoying the hotel's facilities and services as well.

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We were led to our apartment, which was called the "Grand Salon." It was a huge and supremely elegant apartment, decorated in a modern yet classic French style. Massive windows overlooked the terraces and infinity pool to the vineyards beyond. Our fully equipped kitchen could be completely hidden behind over-sized pocket doors. Two large bedroom suites were beautifully appointed and each en suite bathroom had all the features and amenities one could ever want.

We started our experience with lunch on the terrace, protected from the sun by wide white sails stretched from one end to the other. To accompany the three-course prix fixe lunch that featured asparagus, goat cheese, grilled fish and a dessert of mint-enhanced fresh local strawberries, we enjoyed a bottle of Les Carrasses' own light and fruity rose wine.

While my son and his friends spent the afternoon lounging by the heated infinity pool, I elected to sit and read in 'La Serre,' the glass-walled conservatory sitting room said to be designed by Monsieur Eiffel himself!

Dinner that night was a tapas style meal comprised of generously laden platters of seafood, cheeses, olives, breads and meat, later followed by dessert platter.

Life was beautiful at Les Carrasses, which made it difficult to leave, even for brief excursions. But one day we managed a trip to the small winery Chateau Capitoul. Built in the late nineteenth century, the Château Capitoul is nestled in a grove of tall pine trees, offering a magnificent view over a landscape of vineyards and lakes, with the Pyrenees in the background.

We tasted an array of their wines. Stand-outs among the reds include Rocaille, a warm, spicy Languedoc blend of syrah, grenache and carignan; and Maelma, a refined and polished wine with flavors of cherries and berries, balanced with spice and minerality. We also had a chance to try their late-harvest sweet wine called "Les Oubliees" which means "forgotten," as the grapes are left long on the vines to concentrate the sugars.

As we left the "secret south of France" we were filled with happy memories of long, tranquil days offering an incredible variety of sensory experiences to soothe body, mind and spirit.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

La Muse Creative Retreat

Le Couvent / The Secret Garden

Secret South of France Accommodation

Les Carrasses Chateau

Chateau Capitoul Winery

Friday, 12 June 2015 20:29

"Your room should be ready in about fifteen minutes," said the lovely young lady who greeted me at the front desk of the Dorchester Hotel. I had arrived into town from Oxford a bit early. "Would you like to have a cup of tea while you are waiting?"

"I'd love it," I answered and I followed her into the gorgeous central area of the hotel known as The Promenade. This central space from which all the hotel's bars and restaurants flow, offers possibly the best people-watching perch in the world! While it is grand, it is separated into intimate alcoves where tables, couches and soft chairs beckon to travel weary guests like me.

The waiter brought Earl Grey tea and the manager of the Promenade insisted I have a scone. I convinced him to bring only one, and when he did, he deftly cut it and slathered it with Devon cream and homemade strawberry jam. Layers of scone broke off in soft, warm shards and the yeasty taste mingled with the rich cream and sweet jam. This one perfect small pleasure helped me to appreciate why the Dorchester has won the most awards for the Best Afternoon Tea in the UK.

I finished my treat and went to my hotel room. Most of the rooms at The Dorchester have been recently remodeled and the result is impressive. Mine was elegant and classic. The wood-paneled sitting area was furnished with deep-seated couches upholstered in leather, velvet and tweed. The bedroom was warm and welcoming in shades of taupe and gold, accented by beautiful linens. The bathroom came from a dream – it was beautiful in grey and white marble with a deep soaking tub, strong hot shower, and all the Dorchester amenities.

Exploring Mayfair's Nooks and Corners

Finding myself in the heart of Mayfair, I set off to explore this neighbourhood that was named back in the 1600s after the annual two-week long 'May Fayre' held here. Most of the area was built during the 18th century as a fashionable residential district. Today a great majority of these townhouses are home to embassies, investment funds and professional firms. Mayfair is also a popular shopping and dining area.

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From The Dorchester, I turned north onto Park Lane and soon hit Mount Street, a high fashion shopping avenue lined with top tier houses such as Lanvin, Marc Jacobs and Celine. Ladies of the leisure set shop here, leaving chauffeur to wait curbside in the Bentley while they peruse the shops and take breaks in elegant tea salons and champagne bars. There are many chi-chi spots to stop for refreshment along Mount Street, but I like Mount Street Deli for its more casual ambience, delicious baked goods and wonderful coffee. I sat at one of their sidewalk tables and had lots of fun watching fashionistas stroll by with their designer finds.

I walked back to Park Lane and went south to Curzon Street, which led me to a completely different corner of Mayfair called Shepherds Market. It was developed in the mid 1700s by architect Edward Shepherd, became run down in the twenties, and was home to dodgy characters and scandals in the seventies. The enclave has now been brought back to life and has a lively variety of art galleries, cool shops and casual restaurants.

Feeling at Home in The Dorchester

After hoofing it around Mayfair, I was ready to come "home" again to The Dorchester. I was excited because dinner that night was to be in the newly refurbished Grill Room. I was told that the room had been updated to create a more relaxed and inviting interior, appealing to local regulars, discerning diners and hotels guests seeking exceptional food in a less formal setting.

I invited a friend to join me, and we started with pink champagne – the Duval Leroy Rose Prestige 1er Cru. The champagne was served in the most beautiful hollow-stemmed glasses, custom made for the hotel by Marie-Dominique Crystal in France.

Pink champagne in this exquisite glass fit perfectly with the refreshed décor of The Grill. Dominating the middle of the room is a huge hand-blown Murano glass chandelier. It reminded me of an explosion of pink champagne, frozen in time. What a wonderful theme for such a place!

The décor features natural materials including zinc, copper and marble, set against butterscotch leather and oak parquet flooring. Shades of blush, grey and copper blend together to create a sophisticated and serene palette. The walls feature pivoting panels that shift from a light sycamore side during the day to a black lacquer façade in the evening. During the day the effect is warm and welcoming, and at night the ambience is enchanting and elegant.

Our dinner was served by the most spectacular dining room personnel I have ever encountered. Our server Julie spoke about the food with confidence and shifted with ease through several languages, as did the Head Sommelier Ruben. Together they suggested a fantastic selection of food and wine pairings!

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For starters, we sampled grilled scallops with a spring vegetable salad. The scallops offered a hint of smoke and the paper-thin raw vegetables composed an artful side salad. Ruben suggested the Gruner Veltliner from Lamm Schloss Gobelsburg, which sent up notes of lichee fruit to mingle beautifully with the smoky scallops.
For our other starter we were presented with four small slabs of Hansen & Lydersen smoked salmon, cut in precise order from the head to the tail of a single fish. Under expert guidance, we were able to detect subtle differences in the intensity of flavors and saltiness as we moved across the pieces. With this, we took small sips of cold premium sake, providing a clean complement to the natural oils of the raw salmon.

The extraordinary cuisine continued through the main course. Organic Welsh lamb was rich and tender, falling apart under gentle nudgings from the fork, into its warm bed of spelt risotto brightly seasoned with lemon and coriander. The lamb was served with a 2012 Crozes-Hermitage from A. Graillot. The delicate flavour of Dover sole was enhanced by a 2010 Mercurey from Chateau Genot-Boulanger. A rainbow of spring vegetables came alongside in a heavy silver serving dish.

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For dessert we tasted three items: a lemongrass grenache served inside the lightest meringue, strewn with lemon marmalade croutons and accompanied by lemon sorbet; a dark chocolate tart on a caramel chocolate crust, accompanied by espresso granitee; and the "Paris-London Our Way" treat, comprised of three pastry bouchees filled with chocolate chantilly and mint sorbet served alongside chocolate mint stracciatelle ice cream.
The chocolate side of the table was supported with Maury Grenet Mudigliza, a rich sweet red wine produced in the Rouisson region of France, and offering prune, mocha and caramel flavors as a perfect blend. The citrus side was beautifully teamed with a Baumard Coteaux du Layon, a moderately sweet Chablis with citrus/apple balance.

To say this was a meal to remember is an understatement. The extraordinary dishes, exceptional wines and sublime service make The Grill a perfect choice for any occasion. One could come alone and sit at the beautiful bar for lunch, bring a friend for a relaxing dinner, or meet colleagues for breakfast in the warm and private surroundings. Whatever the choice, the experience is bound to be a multi-sensory delight.

One reason The Dorchester wins so many awards on the international hotel scene is the unparalleled quality of its staff. From the front desk to the rooms, from restaurants to the spa, all the staff members have a unique capacity to strike the finest balance between the utmost professionalism and the warmest welcome. One feels absolutely cared for in the best sense of the word.

Next time I return to London, I hope to find myself once again in this magical corner of Mayfair. I can't imagine a better 'small pleasure.'

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FOR MORE INFORMATION:

The Dorchester

The Grill at The Dorchester

The Mount Street Deli

Friday, 12 June 2015 20:21

Recently, I had the chance to experience a small slice of life in Geneva, a stately city in a spectacular setting, where the River Rhone meets the lake at the foot of Mont Blanc.

After a long drive through the mountains in the rain, I arrived late and tired into the heart of Geneva. Pulling up to Le Richemond hotel, I was greeted by an extremely helpful team who immediately took charge of evertything. What a relief!

Given it was a short stay, I was fortunate to be ensconced in an iconic property in the heart of town. Prestigious and refined, Le Richemond is located on the picturesque shores of Lake Geneva. Founded in 1875 by the Armleder family, the hotel is celebrating its 140th anniversary as an icon of peerless comfort and elegance. For more than a century, it has been the choice of dignitaries and celebrities, welcoming guests that have included Charlie Chaplin, Sophia Loren, Marc Chagall and many more.

My spacious room was decorated in a contemporary style. French doors opened onto a compact balcony with views to the lake and mountains. To be in the heart of a city and surrounded by such natural beauty was a wonderful combination. I sat on the balcony and enjoyed the view, then went in to fill the fantastically deep marble bath and soak away the stresses of the day.

The next morning, fully refreshed by a wonderful sleep, I went to the hotel's dining room, Le Jardin, for breakfast. Clearly, Le Richemond is a favorite place for business meetings. It seemed people had come from all parts of the globe to conclude important negotiations or enter into serious agreements. Seated among the other guests, I listened to the hushed sounds of commerce mingled with classical music. I enjoyed the typically Swiss buffet – dark grainy breads, plump slices of smoked salmon, a robust meusli with fruits and nuts, and fantastic coffee with steamed milk.

Fortified by a hearty breakfast, I struck out on foot to explore the immediate neighborhood. Just a few blocks from the hotel, I came into Geneva 's Old Town, an ancient maze of narrow and sloped cobblestone streets. In this picturesque section of town I found lovely cafes, boutiques, chocolate shops and historic sites. Rising above the Old Town is the spire of St. Pierre Cathedral, once the adopted home of John Calvin, a leader of the Protestant Reformation movement. Bourg-de-Four, located on the site of an ancient Roman marketplace, is Geneva's oldest public square and still a popular meeting place.

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I returned in time for my appointment at the Sisley Spa, located in the lower level of Le Richemond. Upon entering the spa, I was greeted by Arunya, who would be my guide to the facility as well as my massage therapist. Le Spa is designed to help you relax in every way. Low lights, warm bamboo-lined walls, quiet music, and the most beautiful smells create a luxurious oasis of calm.

After changing into a spa robe, I rested in the gorgeous lounge and then entered the steam room – known as a "hammam." I sat against the wall and leaned my sore back against the warm tiles, breathing deeply of the humid air. I felt the relaxing effects of the steam and heat on my muscles and thought there could be no better way to prepare for a massage.

Arunya retrieved me from the hammam and we went into one of the beautiful treatment rooms. From a choice of aromas I selected the scent of lavender mixed with essential oils. Sisley's renowned face and body treatments are based onaromacology - the science of relaxing the body and mind through the use of fragrance – and I felt the benefits immediately. Arunya's relaxation massage lived up to its name. Her expert hands relieved travel-tired muscles, loosened knots in the upper back and released tension throughout the body. After the massage I returned to the lounge to sip lemon water, nibble on fresh berries and revel in the deep state of relaxation.

The remainder of my brief time in Geneva was spent strolling beautiful streets and enjoying this sophisticated and cultured European city, with its splendid blend of natural beauty, historic significance and modern elegance.

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FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Le Richemond

Le Spa by Sisley

Friday, 12 June 2015 20:09

"In the 1600s, this is where the goatherds would stop for the night," said our host and winery manager Sandra Sandrelli. My friend and I were standing on a high point overlooking a patchwork of olive groves, vineyards and fields in the beautiful valley below.

"They sought shelter here, and paid for their accommodation with milk from the goats," she added. Shading my eyes from the midday sun, I could see why a young goatherd would choose this location, nestled against the side of the hill, safe from the elements.

Thursday, 05 March 2015 21:59

"Unbelievable," I said to my host, as I sank my fork into an exquisite pastry, fashioned to resemble a golden-hued hazelnut with chocolate tendrils.

I was tucked into a quiet table in the bar at Hotel Le Meurice on a rainy fall day in Paris, and had stumbled on a strategy for enjoying this wonderful city: Find the coziest corners in the grandest places and experience the ultimate in both luxury and intimacy!

Wednesday, 04 March 2015 15:18
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