Luxury hotels set my teeth on edge – I’m more of an upmarket B&B kind of person. My idea of pure hell is one of those sterile, soulless palace hotels which on rare and dismal occasions I’ve strayed into. But I have to admit to a fondness for Relais & Châteaux hotels. They do luxury, for sure, but the tone is always understated, more English country house than (heaven forbid) Trump Tower.
In the past, the PR blurb of this French-based collection of hotels used to invoke the five C’s, a kind of mantra that summed up what they were about: Caractère, Courtoisie, Calme, Charme et Cuisine. (In many people’s minds, the other C that springs to mind is ‘chain’ – R & C is not a chain but rather, pursuing the C theme, a collection of classy places with like-minded aims.)
So what’s special about them and what sets them apart from other luxury hotels? Several things are key. First, they are owned – and often run by – individuals or several members of a family, which gives each place a personal feel. To reinforce this idea the organisation refers to them as maisons (houses) rather than hotels, each one headed by a maitre de maison (though many are in fact maitresses). A brilliant example is Hotel Bareiss, set in a green and pleasant valley in the Black Forest, where Hermann Bareiss and his son Hannes are much in evidence, meeting, greeting and making you feel like long-lost friends of the family.
The second plus is that R & Cs are often housed in beautifully restored historic buildings, which are loaded with character. I love the bugambilia-clad Mas de Torrent near Palafrugell on Spain’s Costa Brava, where the Figueras family has transformed what was once a traditional Catalan farmhouse-with-outbuildings into a place of quiet charm and discreet, laidback luxury.
Another small Spanish treasure is A Quinta da Auga in Santiago de Compostela, owned by the Lorenzo Garcia family and located in a former paper mill built in the 18th-century. It has discreetly creaky, beeswaxed floors, polished antique furniture, family portraits and one of the comfiest beds known to (this) woman.
Then there’s the all-important calme element. You find it in spades at places like Michel and Sébastien Bras’ uncompromisingly modern hotel (and significant restaurant) high up on the Aubrac plateau in central France, whose meadows are carpeted in springtime with jonquils and pulsatilla and confined by dry-stone walls that take me straight back to the Yorkshire Dales. The Chateau de Germigney in the Jura (below) is another calm-inducing place, like an English country house with gorgeous gardens hidden away in la France profonde, perfectly placed for a raid on the neighbouring Jura vineyards (see here for my article on the wines of this distinct region) .
Finally, if you dread the idea of ‘hotel cooking’, think again: food is a central element in the R&C mix. Some of the world’s leading Michelin-starred chefs are members, including Fina Puigdevall in Olot in the foothills of the Catalan Pyrenees (a selection of dishes are pictured below – plus she also oversees the food at Mas de Torrent), Michel and Sébastien Bras in Laguiole, Claus-Peter Lumpp at Restaurant Bareiss, Jean-Georges Klein at the Villa Lalique in Alsace and many more. Most are worth a detour; many of them merit a special journey.
My Relais & Châteaux bucket list: