Monday, December 04, 2006


If there is a heaven, it might be in Epernay in France, or at the very least a short 15 minute ride north, outside the city limits, just a train ride one and a half hours east of Paris. This little bit of paradise named Royal Champagne sits above the village of Champillon, tucked away on a perfect hillside. In season, travelers come here to visit the nearby champagne houses and to fill their cars with cases of bubbly, or to indulge in a Lucculan odyssey, eating and drinking their way from château to château, opulent meal to opulent meal. They grow giddy on poached foie gras and truffled delicacies, washing it down with any of the 4000 varieties of the signature sparkling white wine to be sampled in the region. But if you travel out of season, after the harvest, when the vineyards are all purple and ochre and the tourists have gone, you will find another place altogether, where the hour is irrelevant, the roads empty, the restaurants deserted, the vineyards serene, the pressures of reality long subsided. For such a pilgrimage, this is a time and place to surely visit.

Dusk had fallen. The sun had disappeared over the horizon, and a crescent moon rose lazily over the valley of the Marne on the cool November night I arrived. A tiny Mercedes taxi swept me gently up a winding road into the foothills, while behind us the lights of Epernay twinkled, and a million stars came out overhead. At the crest of the rise Royal Champagne appeared, an historic coach inn now converted to a luxury property of 25 rooms, with a world-class restaurant ever-ready to indulge one’s gustatory fantasies. In the moonlight the inn evoked visions of two centuries past, when the court of Napoleon would stop here to rest and revive. The spirit of those times is present today and ghosts of a benevolent kind hover in the shadows. That night, silence surrounded the place, save for the occasional call of a chouette in the underbrush.

From the moment of check-in it was apparent I had come to a unique lodging. A personal welcome awaited me, extended in a small windowed reception area, a corner of the original building, cream walls, gold gilt chairs, period furniture. Soon a glass of Le Cellier Aquarelle champagne in a crystal flute, from the Cooperative de Champillon, was offered from a silver tray, to be accompanied by a Madeleine or cannelé, how perfectly appropriate, poetic even. And then a leisurely stroll to my accommodation along crunchy gravel paths in the fading light imparted the unreal sensation of a waking dream.

Royal Champagne’s comfortable lodging comes in a multitude of configurations, and there is something to please every demographic and taste, attractively priced from €180-350. Rooms 18-23 boast private terraces with unimpeded views of the Marne valley; these are the best suites on offer and should be requested. Rooms 16 and 17 feature balconies. There’s a strange, kitschy 2-level duplex with double terraces (#26), which Austin Powers might like. While all rooms face Epernay, the inner building overlooks the terraced suites, so rooftops figure in their view. The hotel does not yet have a swimming pool or spa (planned for 2008 expansion), yet the property’s wonderful situation, restaurant, seclusion and distance from the city center make it an ideal getaway. Though the hotel is in the process of a gradual renovation, my room #21, furnished in vintage 70s wood panels in a trapezoidal floorplan -complete with its private terrace- was cozy and spacious, with a modern bath which faced picture windows, while utterly private. I immediately plopped down on my king-size bed in total contentment, and took a nap.

If ever there was an ideal place to breakfast, it is on your terrace at Royal Champagne- petit-déjuner arrives on an elegant tray, with local croissants and pain au chocolat served on Limoges china, paired with a fresh fruit cup, charcuterie, coffee and hot milk, a vision of near perfection. Another pleasure this particular property affords out-of-season is the opportunity to walk undisturbed, through the adjacent vineyards. One need only stroll down the hill from Royal Champagne on a deserted road, past fields of vines, eventually arriving into the narrow, winding streets of Champillon. There you discover many of the smaller houses ready to offer a glass, or make the amiable effort to insure that you do not leave empty-handed. Three exceptional (and lesser known) houses worth a visit and a taste are Champagne Autreau, whose low-production Brut Rose, 1er Cru NV is crisp, clean and refreshing, characterized by an appealing pink to orange color, with plenty of cherries and minerals and hints of raspberries and cranberries, long lasting bubbles and a generous mousse; Champagne Devavry, renowned for their 1999 vintage (drink it now, as these are not meant for long cellaring), who offer a personalized labeling service for discriminating customers; or Champagne Roualet on the rue Pasteur, recognized for elegant, moderate weight champagnes with a long, rich, lemony finish. All three producers are within walking distance of each other. It is impossible to get lost on such an expedition, and backtracking is the best return route to the hotel, avoiding the main highway.

No visit to Royal Champagne would be complete without a meal at the hotel’s extraordinary restaurant, where Chef Philippe Augé creates seasonal menus of true distinction. He has certainly earned his Michelin star, and surely deserves another. You might first opt for another glass of Le Cellier Aquarelle champagne in the agreeable bar area, as you relax in a soft armchair and consider your culinary options. Among the delicacies sampled in November were a savory dumpling of game (croquette de gibier) and a splendid baby pumpkin stuffed with wild mushrooms and scallops, perfectly paired with a 1995 Laurent Perrier champagne of velvety smoothness. Since the menu changes seasonally, the sommelier is your best bet in choosing an appropriate accompaniment to your meal. The restaurant’s wine list of over 350 names affords one a dizzying array of choice among bruts, rosés and exceptional vintages. Pace yourself (meaning try your best to save some room) so that you sample a featured dessert, another worthy endeavor.

Another night I rode back into town for the final seating at Le Théâtre, a superb restaurant, dining in a tranquil and lofty room, where three waiters attended to me, since there was nobody else around. Later, I shared after-dinner drinks with the owner, an additional experience not often available in season, when the city is mobbed.

The hotel can arrange memorable activities ranging from helicopter flights, tours of manors and cellars, boat cruises, ballooning, golf and tennis, or a visit to the cathedral of Reims -where Marc Chagall’s celebrated 1985 stained glass windows can be found- only 20km away. Management emphasizes personalized service, governed by the motto “we never say no.” To this you can only respond, “Then I will have just one more glass of that excellent champagne, please, before I must be on my way.”