I first came here in 1985,” I overhear a fellow guest tell a waiter over a breakfast of Bircher muesli and freshly baked croissants at Royal Champagne Hotel & Spa’s Bellevue restaurant.
Sunlight floods in through floor-to-ceiling windows, sparkling off the deconstructed chandeliers that trail across the ceiling, while staff buzz about, replenishing glasses with fresh grapefruit juice and delivering plates of avocado on toast.
«It must have changed a lot since then», the waiter muses — something of an understatement. The property has recently reemerged from a four-year renovation (rumoured to have cost €30 million) at the hands of Bostonian hoteliers Mark Nunnelly and Denise Dupré, who hired local architect Giovanni Pace to rebuild the entire property. The only part of the original 19th-century coaching inn still standing are two walls running along its eastern edge.
The newly opened hotel began life as a 19th-century coaching inn
Opened this summer, the new Royal Champagne bears no resemblance to its predecessor; the avocado on toast and breakfast smoothies are a mark of its 21st-century transformation. Gone are the heavily swagged curtains, chintzy wallpaper, starched tablecloths and wooden beams: in their place blonde wood, parquet floors, clean lines and an elegant palette of cream, taupe and gold.
In the 49 bedrooms, satin eiderdowns and Regency striped wallpaper have been replaced by high thread-count cotton sheets, Illy espresso machines and decorative bronze mirrors. Bathrooms feature freestanding baths and Hermès toiletries, while guests are ferried about in a Tesla Model 3.
Empire-style splendour has been replaced by a calming, contemporary palette of creams, taupes and golds
The only remaining nods to the Empire-style splendour of former guest Napoleon (he reportedly stayed at the inn on his way to Reims) is the horse and rider motif of Royal Champagne’s logo, which features throughout the hotel; and the portraits of four women, Napoleon’s wives and mistresses, who oversee proceedings in the gastronomic restaurant Le Royal.
Returnees mightn’t recognise the decor, but there can be no mistaking Royal Champagne’s main attraction: the views.
Bathrooms are complete with Hermes toiletries
The modernist, horseshoe-shaped extension hugs the hilltop so that every room drinks in the vista of rolling vineyards, stretching across the Marne valley and framed by the nearby village of Hautvillers — the birthplace of Dom Perignon champagne — with the town of Epernay’s tethered hot air balloon rising above the horizon beyond.
The landscape is truly bewitching any time of the day, but especially at dusk, when the gentle whirring of tractors stops and the view transforms as gradually as the light fades. Room service, a bottle of bubbly and the two armchairs on the balcony — it doesn’t get much better.
A horse-shoe shaped extension means every room drinks in views across the vineyards
Fortunately, there’s no need to drag your eyes away from the vines. The brasserie-like Bellevue restaurant, where breakfast is served and which at dinner-time dishes up hearty, uncomplicated French fare using locally sourced ingredients, opens out onto an expansive roof terrace.
And the hotel’s most impressive new addition, a 1,500 sq m spa and wellness centre, is set against the backdrop of those rolling hills.
The spa boasts a 25m indoor pool, steam room, sauna, hammam, outdoor infinity pool and fitness room
You can watch joggers zig-zag through the vines as you pound a treadmill in the fitness room, see grape-pickers at work from the Jacuzzi, or spy birds of prey flying overhead while practising your backstroke in the 25m indoor pool. Outside, a heated infinity pool juts out over the precipice so that it feels as though you could swim right over the vines to the forest beyond.
The only time guests won’t be admiring the vista is when they’re face down being pummelled by a massage therapist, or eyes closed being gently scrubbed and smoothed during a Biologique Recherche facial.
But even away from those floor-to-ceiling windows, there are subtle reminders of the region: from the shimmering golden tiles which line the spa’s walls to the bronze baubles effervescing up the sides of the nine treatment rooms, and bubble-shaped blown-glass lampshades.
There are subtle nods to the region throughout the hotel, from shimmering golden tiles to bubble-like glass lamps
It would be easy to spend a long weekend — a week even — padding from spa to bar, via a tasting flight in the downstairs ‘Salon Fines Bulles’ (the hotel offers 200 varieties of champagne), perhaps borrowing one of the hotel’s electric bikes to help propel you the 20 minutes to Hautvillers if you’re feeling particularly energetic.
But it would be a shame to miss the region’s other attractions; namely the 19,000 champagne producers, ranging from global houses to one-man vignerons offering tastings from their cellar door. Clos19, the lifestyle arm of Moët Hennessy, is uniquely placed to offer access to the most prestigious of these: among its brands are Krug, Dom Pérignon, Veuve Clicquot and Ruinart, all set within half an hour’s drive of Royal Champagne.
The hotel’s brasserie-style Bellevue restaurant
Clos19’s ‘exceptional experiences’ are designed to bring the story behind the bubbles to life: they include a private tour of the ancient Dom Pérignon monastery, whose abbey and gardens are closed to the public, and guided tours of the vast, UNESCO Heritage-listed crayères — chalk cellars — beneath the city of Reims.
Our visit to the Ruinart estate began with an insight into the history of the house, before our guide led us 40 metres underground to the cavernous, eerie cellars, scarred with the pickaxe marks of chalk miners from generations past.
The Ruinart estate in Reims
It would be an ideal venue for a Halloween party, I mused as we passed racks upon racks of dusty magnums and Jeroboams — our guide revealed that it has in the past held weddings, the bride picking her way down a vertiginous staircase while a string quartet made the most of the cave’s acoustics.
Back up in the sunlight, we tasted the lively, fresh Ruinart Blanc de Blancs and the house’s latest vintage champagne, Dom Ruinart 2007, a more complex, aromatic cuveé. For parties of six or more, the tasting is followed by a five-course lunch with paired champagnes.
Ruinart’s crayeres — chalk cellars — are the deepest in the Champagne region, some extending 40m underground
After lunch we were whisked to the vineyards of Veuve Clicquot, where brand ambassador Tiago Sassa commenced a spirited tour of the vines, pointing out how to identify the three different grape varieties used to make champagne (chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier) and educating us on the finer points of the méthode champenoise.
We stood at the top of a hill in the aptly named town of Bouzy, the vines turning from green to golden to russet as far as the eye could see, as Tiago popped open a bottle of La Grande Dame 2006 from the boot of his Range Rover.
On vineyard tours, guests are taught how to distinguish between the three grape varieties that make up champagne
Allowing our mouths to fill with its velvety bubbles, the last of the autumn afternoon sunshine warming our faces, we decided that monk Dom Pérignon had it right when he declared, “come quickly! I am tasting the stars.”
Later that evening we’d see stars in their thousands from our balcony back at Royal Champagne, having devoured buttery-soft turbot and an almost-too-pretty-to-eat chocolate and salted caramel confection at Michelin-starred chef Jean-Denis Rieubland’s Le Royal restaurant.
Dessert at Le Royal restaurant, overseen by Michelin-starred chef Jean-Denis Rieubland
It might have been the champagne talking, but we concluded that here, four hours from London amid these almost eerily peaceful vines, we’d found mini-break nirvana. Napoleon would no doubt approve.
Double rooms at Royal Champagne start from €485 (£433). Breakfast from €33. Clos19 offers a variety of champagne experiences, including a one-day Ruinart discovery (from £1,350 per person including lunch), a three-day Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot experience (from £3,650 for two people including lunches, accommodation and transfers) and a four-day excursion including tours of Ruinart, Veuve Clicquot, Moët & Chandon and Dom Pérignon (from £5,760 for two people including lunches, accommodation and transfers).