From an inn in Pennsylvania to a castle in France, Relais & Châteaux properties promise character and haute cuisine
With that long, hot summer now behind us, there’s no time like the present to get up and get going under the bright skies and crisp, clear air of autumn. The chillier weather and friendlier off-season rates are an invitation to hit the open road for an overnighter or cozy weekend somewhere lovely. Pack a small bag, jump in the car and head for the hills — or the coast, or simply the nearest countryside.
If you like your comforts — eating well, sleeping well and being surrounded by beauty (and who doesn’t?) — then the gracious spaces of the nearest Relais & Châteaux small hotel or restaurant would be a logical destination. I forget all about urban big-box hotels and trendy hotspots whenever I check into one. Each property is different and has its own individual allure. They are the polar opposite of gimmicky or flashy. Think local flavour with a transatlantic accent.
Relais & Châteaux, a global association of independently owned and operated hotels and restaurants, dates back to 1954. It was the brainchild of Marcel and Nelly Tilloy, a French music-hall couple who owned a 17th-century farmhouse hotel in the Rhône Valley. The Tilloys decided to link together eight entirely different, out-of-the-way historical properties from Paris to the Côte d’Azur. They named it La Route du Bonheur, “the road to happiness.” It was a hit with travellers, so the group of eight combined forces and began to market themselves under the Relais & Châteaux fleur-de-lis.
On the road to happiness
One of the most memorable places I visited last spring (or ever, for that matter) was the glorious Château de la Chèvre d’Or (chevredor.com; from a €310 night), one of the original Route du Bonheur locations, dramatically perched on a sheer rock mountaintop in the ancient walled village of Èze in southeastern France. I had a spectacular lunch at the Michelin two-starred main restaurant, served against a magnificent view of the Mediterranean stretching to Cap Ferrat, Nice and beyond. After lunch, I strolled through a fanciful sculpture garden and past an Iron Age battlement, both part of the hotel. Seriously. It was entirely enchanting. I came away with a handsome little book that informed me that there are now more than 500 Relais & Châteaux properties all over the world, including more than a dozen in Canada and many more within driving distance of the US border.
This inspired me to add a night at a Relais & Châteaux to an otherwise boring road trip from Toronto to New England last summer. The Hotel Fauchère (hotelfauchere.com; from US$245 a night), a small, historic hotel tucked into the Pocono Mountains in picturesque Milford, Pennsylvania, delivered the joie de vivre I was hankering for. What makes a Relais & Châteaux worth checking into?
“At a Relais & Châteaux there’s a better chance of everything falling into place,” said Michael Gantz, executive chef at the Fauchère. “Service is key.” Rightly so. I was greeted like a friend, dined on Chef Michael’s sushi pizza (hands-down the best ever), perused the collection of Hudson River paintings in the hallways, had a long, hot shower in the Pennsylvania blue stone-and-marble bathroom, and slept like a baby. Boring-trip problem solved.
Built in 1852 by Swiss-born chef Louis Fauchère, the hotel was restored a decade ago by its current owner, Sean Strub, to be as faithful as possible to the original. It is luxuriously and elegantly understated. Guests have included President Roosevelt to Iggy Pop. I had the sense I was staying somewhere noteworthy. “The hotel was the cornerstone of the town,” explained maître d’hôtel Xavier Morales. “And it still is.”
The five C's
My stay was a classic taste of the Relais & Châteaux experience, which is about more than hospitality, style and a great kitchen. Every establishment must reflect its owner’s dedication to the art — and joy — of living, or else it’s out. The soul of the proprietor is central to a member’s status because “each property beats to the innkeeper’s heart.”
The membership process is long and exacting, requiring candidates to meet hundreds of different criteria before they pass muster. Then, to make sure the membership criteria are rigorously upheld, Relais & Châteaux properties are visited regularly by one of the association’s inspectors on a 10-member “mystery shopper” audit team. The overarching criteria for membership are five principal attributes that differentiate properties from chain hotels. Known as the “five Cs,” they are: character, courtesy, calm, charm and cuisine. Properties must be four-stars or equivalent with no more than a hundred rooms plus a high-quality restaurant. Relais & Châteaux members have a total of more than 300 Michelin stars.
Here’s a stellar sampling of Relais & Châteaux hotel/restaurant locations in Canada:
Kingsbrae Arms, St. Andrews, NB Built in 1897, a romantic country house hotel overlooking the harbour, right next door to the famous Kingsbrae Garden. kingsbrae.com.
Manoir Hovey, North Hatley, QC A turn-of-the-century manor house modelled on George Washington’s home on Mount Vernon located on scenic Lake Massawippi in the Eastern Townships. manoirhovey.com.
Langdon Hall, Cambridge ON A stately country house hotel in a turn-of-the-century Federal Revival mansion outside Cambridge, ON. langdonhall.ca.
Wickaninnish Inn, Tofino, BC An artistic inn on a rocky outcrop on Vancouver Island’s west coast that’s surrounded by the Pacific, the beach and the rainforest. wickinn.com.
If you simply can’t get away, you can still have a very Relais & Châteaux kind of time in city hotels and restaurants. City hotels include Auberge St-Antoine in Quebec City, Calgary’s Kensington Riverside Inn and Vancouver’s Wedgewood Hotel & Spa.
You can also dine out at a Relais & Châteaux restaurant owned and operated by Grand Chefs in Montreal and Quebec. In Montreal, there’s Normand Laprise’s Restaurant Toqué! and Jérôme Ferrer’s Restaurant Europea. In Quebec, try Yvan Lebrun’s Restaurant Initiale.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.