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The World's Greatest Inns

From country manors to luxury hotels, Relais & Châteaux sets the standard for international lodging and cuisine
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Models, May/June 03

When the Mobil Travel Guide recently announced its recipients of the coveted five-star awards for 2003, the list included members of the world's top hotel chains. Mandarin Oriental, Peninsula and Ritz-Carlton all fared well, and Four Seasons was the second best represented chain, with seven five-star properties on the list. But all these vaunted names in the luxury hospitality industry paled before Relais & Châteaux, a little-known association of small hotels and restaurants, which captured 11 five-star awards, a quarter of the hotels and restaurants so honored in the United States. The Mobil Guide was no anomaly. In the 2003 edition of the Zagat Survey, which reflects public opinion, Relais & Châteaux members took six of


the top ten spots for small hotels nationwide, including first for the Inn at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee. In Zagat's Hotel Dining category, in which Relais & Châteaux competed against all size contenders, the group did even better. The restaurants at The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia, and Blackberry Farm took first and second respectively, beating out the likes of New York's Lespinasse in the St. Regis Hotel and LeCirque 2000 in the New York Palace.

Relais & Châteaux fared equally well abroad, taking home a staggering 233 Michelin stars, Europe's highest hospitality honor. In its first year of operation, the Lodge at Kauri Cliffs was rated the best resort in New Zealand by the critical and respected Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report. Relais & Châteaux also took 13 of the 95 worldwide Grand Awards, the highest honor bestowed by Wine Spectator, a sister publication of Cigar Aficionado; the association also garnered innumerable Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence and Award of Excellence designations. With all of these accolades and awards, some frequent travelers are asking a simple question: who are these guys?

In 1954, eight properties along the route from Paris to Nice in France banded together for marketing purposes and called themselves Relais de Campagne, or inns of the country (derived from stage or coach inns). In 1962, a competing group of discriminating French inn owners formed Châteaux Hotels, or Castle Hotels, to describe the types of buildings their members were in, which today include castles, abbeys, mills, manor homes, estates and former private residences. In 1972, famed chef and restaurateur Pierre Troisgros and Relais de Campagne president Joseph Olivereau formed Relais Gourmands, a group of restaurants and hotels with exceptional cuisine whose unifying theme was food, not lodging. Three years later, the three groups merged to form Relais & Châteaux, which today includes both lodging members and a subset of independently owned restaurants called Relais Gourmands. Only a handful of properties, including some of the world's finest, attain both the lodging and dining designations.

In France and other parts of Europe, the white Relais & Châteaux membership directory is an indispensable bible to many upscale travelers, especially those with gourmet tastes. In the United States, however, the Relais & Châteaux name hasn't received the same kind of recognition. One reason is that many Relais & Châteaux members in America are already so well known that their own names eclipse that of the organization. These include top restaurants like Daniel and Jean-Georges in New York, Tru and Charlie Trotter in Chicago, and French Laundry in California, plus well-known and highly regarded lodgings such as The Inn at Little Washington in Washington, Virginia, and Meadowood Napa Valley in St. Helena, California. Slowly but surely, though, as the awards continue to roll in, Relais & Châteaux is making a name for itself among American travelers seeking the charm of unique, individually owned properties, while at the same time desiring consistent quality and excellent cuisine.

So what should these travelers expect? Given Relais & Châteaux's French roots, the themes that it stresses are understandable. In France, some of the nation's finest restaurants, including many Michelin-starred establishments, traditionally have been in hotels and often located in the countryside. Patrons visit first to eat and then to sleep, whereas in the United States, hotel dining has never dominated the culinary landscape. All members of Relais & Châteaux, however, are required to have an excellent restaurant, even those that are not part of Relais Gourmands. For the latter, the standard is exceptional, not merely excellent.

"We represent about seventy-five percent of the world's most famous master chefs," says Rosann Valentini, Relais & Châteaux's director for North America. "This year is the 31th anniversary of our introduction of Relais Gourmands, and when you look at all the chefs who started this, they were the ones who twenty years ago were shaping the future of fine cuisine." Theresa Henkelmann, who along with her chef husband Thomas owns Connecticut's Homestead Inn, agrees. "With the absence of Michelin stars," she says, "Relais Gourmands is the only real standard for a French restaurant in America."

Prospective members of Relais & Châteaux must attain an equivalent of four to five Mobil stars or AAA Diamonds or one to three Michelin stars in Europe, may have no more than 100 rooms (they average 28), and cannot be part of a chain property. Arduous application and inspection procedures apply, and unlike many of the well-known hotel associations promising quality, Relais & Châteaux's standards must be met meticulously. If a member of the group fails to meet these standards, it may be placed on probation or have its membership suspended for the next year. Even an "infraction" like changing general managers earns a property a year of probation to ensure that standards do not slip.

Along with its rules for membership, Relais & Châteaux pays serious attention to preserving its reputation for excellence. Several years ago, the group updated membership criteria based on the evolution of hospitality standards and sophistication worldwide. When a number of members fell short of the new standards, it issued warnings to them, offered recommendations, and gave them time to comply. Then, this year, after decades of steady growth and the recent addition of 25 to 30 new members a year, the group dismissed more properties than it accepted. It marked the first net decline in the recent history of Relais & Châteaux.

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