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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.

"This is no coincidence," says Valentini. "It's never been about growing the organization. We've never said we need a bigger number. In the last few years we've added an emphasis on standards. Over the 49 years, our standards have increased dramatically, as they've done in the entire hospitality industry, as travelers become more sophisticated. Our current way of looking at existing members is, if they applied today, under the more stringent standards, would they be accepted?"

To this end, the organization conducts announced and anonymous visits regularly. Thomas and Theresa Henkelmann discovered this in their recent bid for membership with Homestead Inn, home of Thomas Henkelmann's namesake restaurant in Greenwich, Connecticut. Thomas had left France after a succession of jobs in high-profile kitchens to take the helm at Maurice, the eatery in New York's Parker Meridien Hotel, but like most chefs, yearned for his own restaurant and kept his eyes on the real estate market. Five and a half years ago, Homestead, which had endured several years of decline, became available, and the couple snatched it up. When it reopened, one of their first goals was Relais & Châteaux membership. Thomas was familiar with the group from his days in France, and his American wife from her earlier travels.

"I'd been fortunate enough to visit a number of Relais & Châteaux properties around the world, and I've never been disappointed," says Theresa. "The standards are so high. When we bought the inn, I wrote a letter to Relais & Châteaux expressing interest in applying for membership. Six or eight months went by, and then I got a letter suggesting that I apply the next year, after making several recommended improvements and changes."

From the level of detail in the suggestions, including specific staffing issues and room fixtures, it immediately became apparent that inspectors from Relais & Châteaux had made repeated, secret visits. The biggest change required redoing all the bathrooms, which now feature large, walk-in showers and deluxe fixtures and amenities. In 2002, Homestead was welcomed into the group.

As the Henkelmanns are proving, the almost mythical organization is no longer limited to the French, although the largest concentration of its members is still found in the French countryside and Central Europe. In the five decades since its humble beginnings as a group of eight country hotels, Relais & Châteaux has become the most discriminating and reliable association of independent hotels and restaurants in the world. While the number of properties in the United States has grown dramatically over the years, so too have the establishments throughout Europe, from Slovenia to Spain, Iceland to Ireland, as well as in remote locales like Bolivia, Namibia, the Seychelles and Indonesia. Today, Relais & Châteaux members are found in 50 countries -- with more locations than Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons or Peninsula -- and their standards of quality are as high -- or higher -- than those of the top chains. For the traveler venturing into the countryside who still wants the charm and comfort of the best city hotels (only two of the more than 300 lodging members are in cities), the little white Relais & Châteaux guidebook is a prerequisite.

So Relais & Châteaux members are of consistently high quality and offer excellent food with deep wine lists. What does this mean to you? It means that wherever you travel, you can rely on the group's distinctive fleur-de-lis shield symbol as an indication of what to expect. The group is built around country properties, so do not look for a Four Seasons/Ritz Carlton experience with uniformed doormen and high-tech gyms. Almost all the establishments are small and family-owned, and guests arriving after midnight may well find a key, a map and a note to welcome them rather than a check-in clerk.

The organization's motto is "Five C's": courtesy, charm, character, calm and cuisine. The lodging is focused on charm, not luxury, and five stars or not, these are country inns, where overstuffed down comforters and floral print curtains are the norm and high-speed Internet jacks the exception. Unlike every other major hotel group, the clientele is almost exclusively a leisure audience, with few business travelers. Some members do not even have phones in the rooms.

For a measure of what you might expect, properties are rated by three color-coded shields. A Blue Shield designates "a high level of [country] comfort"; these properties are the most like bed-and-breakfasts and the least luxurious, but are full-service inns with a full gourmet restaurant. Rooms are simple but comfortable, often equipped with a fireplace and overstuffed furniture. The Old Drovers Inn in Dover Plains, New York, a colonial inn that began as a stage stop in 1750, is a Blue Shield member. With just four guest rooms, it is the smallest of any Relais & Châteaux member.

The second designation is a Yellow Shield, which indicates "the refined comfort of a magnificent residence." These properties are often set in former châteaux and manor homes. La Posta Vecchia in Ladispole, Italy, for example, is the former palatial residence of Jean-Paul Getty.

The third and ultimate designation is a Purple Shield, which signifies "an exceptional property featuring the highest levels of service, amenities and furnishings." These members are the closest to the ideal of a full-service, world-class luxury hotel, with top-shelf furnishings and amenities, concierges and additional facilities such as spas and private pools. Of the 300-plus lodging members, just 17 have Purple Shields. No U.S. member has ever received the designation, and chef Raymond Blanc's sensational Le Manoir au Quat Saisons in Oxford, England, remains the only member outside of France to achieve both a Purple Shield and Relais Gourmands designation.

Since Relais & Châteaux holds so much interest for food lovers, it is only natural that it offers an elaborate cooking school, known as L'Ecole des Chefs Relais Gourmands. In light of the intimate nature of the properties, the school offers one-on-one internships with nearly 100 Michelin-starred chefs in 17 countries. No mere demonstrations, these are hands-on immersions, where students don chef's whites and face 10-hour days in the kitchen, working the different stations, participating in daily staff meetings and observing the food deliveries. Aimed at home cooks who want to learn cooking and better understand the behind-the-scenes operations of the world's top restaurants, the school offers two- and five-day programs with top chefs such as Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Guy Savoy, Alain Passard and others. A five-day program in a Michelin three-star restaurant costs $2,600.

While Relais & Châteaux may be shrinking in terms of members, it is growing in terms of ambition, forming a recent affiliation with The Luxury Alliance, which includes The Leading Hotels of the World, cruise lines Crystal and Silversea, luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, and Orient Express Trains. Previously, the hotel and restaurant group had formed a separate alliance with Silversea, which is still ongoing. The Leading Hotels association might seem odd, but since most of the group's lodgings are in urban areas, Relais & Châteaux felt that it would complement its primarily country offerings.

The cruise lines are easier to understand: Relais & Châteaux customers take cruises, and in some ports of call, combine them with stays. On Silversea, about 10 themed cruises each year feature a celebrity Relais Gourmands chef conducting cooking demonstrations and preparing a special menu of his or her establishment on board. A frequent guest loyalty program is in the works, which should tie together these partners, and Relais & Châteaux recently introduced gift certificates, good at all its members, which surprisingly no other luxury chain offers on a nationwide basis. It is the perfect gift for the perfectionist on your list.

The 460 members of Relais & Châteaux inhabit six continents. Here is a sampling of the best:

 

UNITED STATES

The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Virginia

Yellow Shield, Relais Gourmands; (540) 675-3800

Chef/owner Patrick O'Connell and partner Reinhardt Lynch show no shame in winning accolades for their exquisite retreat 50 miles outside of Washington, D.C. These include two Mobil five-star marks for the lodging and dining, one of only two places so honored; the nation's highest hotel dining rating from the Zagat Survey; and a Grand Award from Wine Spectator. It is one of four U.S. properties with both Relais & Châteaux lodging and Relais Gourmands designations.

 

White Barn Inn, Kennebunkport, Maine

Yellow Shield, Relais Gourmands; (207) 967-2321

It seems that every other Relais & Châteaux owner refers to this nineteenth-century seaside inn as the group's benchmark. Another dual winner for food and lodging, the inn features a dining room that is an epic New England feast for the senses, in an old barn showcasing exposed beams and the highest standards of regional cuisine, plus a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.

Meadowood, St. Helena, California

Yellow Shield; (707) 963-3646


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