Overseas travel? Did I hear you correctly? At long last it does seem to be becoming a reality as opposed to a pipe dream. At least for UK travellers, the possibility of travel to Europe without the need for overpriced Covid tests and annoyingly incomprehensible government forms to fill in, is now very much on the cards. It’s still a bit trickier from North America, but hopefully that will change soon.
And what better region to visit after all the lockdown woes than Champagne, where not only can you see spectacular sites, but also indulge in a reviving glass or two of the world’s most prestigious sparkling wine? The two principal towns in northern Champagne, which is the Marne département, are Reims and Épernay, both of which have their own special charms. Reims, with its majestic Gothic cathedral, is home to an array of top champagne houses such as Ruinart, Pommery and Taittinger.
Completely surrounded by vines, the smaller Épernay, however, is often considered the wine capital of the region, with prestigious champagne houses cheek by jowl along the grand Avenue de Champagne. Moët et Chandon, Perrier-Jouët, Pol Roger, Boizel, Mercier… the list goes on, and many of them offer visits of the cellars and a taste or two.
In order to absorb the culture and magic of Champagne, I have chosen five first-class places to stay, each very different one from the other, but all guaranteed to provide an unforgettable experience.
The five-star Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa sits high on a vine-covered hillside overlooking Épernay. Recently refurbished, each room has a terrace oriented so that it overlooks the rolling sea of vines. There are 47 luxurious rooms with sleek, modern interior décor, providing an oasis of tranquillity in which to absorb the magical surroundings. After a pampering in the fabulous spa – again overlooking the vines – sip a glass of the local champagne, Leclerc Briant, on the expansive terrace, before heading for one of the two restaurants. Le Bellevue is true to its name, decorated with a thousand crystal pendants and flowing onto the terrace, whereas the cosy and intimate Michelin-starred Le Royal has a statue of Napoleon for its centrepiece, watching intently as the contemporary local gastronomic menu is served.
Villa Signolle is a prestigious mansion at No 37 on the famous Avenue de Champagne in the very heart of Épernay. Owned by the Grand Cru champagne Michel Gonet and impeccably run by Sophie Signolle, who also runs the champagne house, five large rooms are available for guests to experience life as if you were part of the family of a champagne producer. Tastings aplenty of the excellent Michel Gonet champagne, either in the shady garden at the back, the front terrace or inside the drawing room. A very superior B&B in a unique position.
With views of Reims in the far distance, the four-star Château de Sacy Hotel sits amongst the vines, with its wellness centre and restaurant in a glass-covered veranda. Part of the Millésime Hotel group, Château de Sacy is a place of pure magic, a stately home in the heart of Champagne’s vineyards, a unique and original location only a few miles from the city of Reims. With its beautifully appointed rooms overlooking the vines, a gourmet restaurant focused on delicious regional specialities and a list of over 50 different champagnes, this is the ultimate environment for a discovery of champagne in all its sparkling glory.
On the outskirts of Reims lies the incomparable Domaine les Crayères, a luxury five-star hotel and gourmet restaurant in a classic French château. Set in its own 15-acre park, it rubs shoulders with the champagne houses of Ruinart and Pommery. The wonderfully appointed rooms combine French classicism with a décor which has distinct English characteristics, particularly noticeable in the elegant bar, with its tartan armchairs and wood panels. The two Michelin-starred restaurant Le Parc combines elegance with refined French cuisine of the highest quality. Additionally, the Brasserie le Jardin, set in the gardens of the château, offers a simpler yet equally delicious selection of dishes in a lively, convivial setting. A glass of Taittinger served from a magnum is the ideal way to contemplate the menu.
To experience the buzz of the city of Reims, the four-starred Hotel Continental is located on the edge of the pedestrianised area, 10 minutes from the magnificent cathedral. Ideally situated to explore the treasures of the city, with its wealth of restaurants and street-side cafés, the hotel has its own modern cocktail and champagne bar, together with a restaurant serving local and classical dishes – washed down by a glass or two of very reasonably priced champagnes, again served from magnums. For the wine tourist who prefers to be in the thick of things, the Continental provides a comfortable base from which to explore the city or Reims, the grand champagne houses and the surrounding vineyards.
Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is a wine journalist, writer, educator and consultant. With experience in the wines and spirits industry spanning several decades, he is a member of the prestigious Circle of Wine Writers and an International Wine Judge.