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:
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
A bastion of Napa Valley indulgence, Meadowood is one of two members in the heart of wine country (Auberge du Soleil is the other). More of a resort compound than other members, Meadowood has a nine-hole golf course, croquet greensward and tennis courts set on 250 acres. Owned by Bill Harlan of the cult Harlan winery, Meadowood offers a wine institute with classes for guests, and a restaurant that strives to offer at least one wine offering from every California producer.
The Inn at Sawmill Farm, West Dover, Vermont
Blue Shield; (802) 464-8131
Minutes from the large Mount Snow/Haystack ski resort, this charming Vermont inn was converted from a barn and farmhouse by its architect owners and offers the perfect ski escape for urban East Coasters. Lodging consists of 10 inn rooms and 11 outside rooms, including three freestanding deluxe cottages. The Inn's four wine cellars, totaling 30,000 bottles, have earned it a Grand Award from Wine Spectator. Dinner by Design allows guests to craft five-course tasting menus with chef Brill Williams, and a wine pairing to match.
Canoe Bay, Chetek, Wisconsin
Blue Shield; (715) 924-4594
This romantic escape lies halfway between Minneapolis and Milwaukee. An adult-only lakeside compound, it features impressive stone and wood buildings with huge fireplaces, whirlpool baths and other creature comforts. Two ultra-deluxe private cottages are architectural homages to Wisconsin's native son, Frank Lloyd Wright. The 10,000-bottle cellar has won an Award of Excellence, and the 280-acre property is perfect for canoeing in summer and cross-country skiing in winter.
La Maison Troisgros, Roanne
Yellow Shield, Relais Gourmands; (33) 04 77 71 66 97
The family of Pierre Troisgros, founder of Relais Gourmands, keeps his legacy alive in Burgundy. Although a dual member for lodging and dining, the 19 rooms take a backseat here to the Michelin three-star restaurant and Grand Award wine list. A unique, more casual take-away eatery is also available for those in search of a picnic between winery visits.
Boyer Les Crayéres, Reims
Purple Shield, Relais Gourmands; (33) 03 26 82 80 80
This opulent English-style manor house lies in the heart of the Champagne district on pristine parkland. One of the few Relais & Châteaux properties to receive the Purple Shield for lodging and the Relais Gourmands, it also boasts three Michelin stars. The Champagne-centric wine list includes 217 varieties of bubbly, and the 19 rooms are equal to any luxury lodging on earth.
Auberge de l'Eridan/Marc Veyrat, Veyrier-du-Lac
Purple Shield, Relais Gourmands; (33) 04 50 60 24 00
In the foothills of the Alps, near the Swiss border south of Geneva and Lake Geneva, lies another Michelin three-star and dual Purple Shield/Relais Gourmands establishment. The Auberge sits on the shores of Lake Annecy, and here chef Veyrat showcases the local produce of the alpine region, within distance of the slopes at Chamonix.
Chateau de la Chevre d'Or, Eve
Purple Shield, Relais Gourmands; (33) 04 92 10 66 66
On the Côte d'Azur outside Monaco lies the tiny medieval hilltop town of Eve. Terraced into the cliff is the Chateau de la Chevre d'Or, featuring pools, terraces and room balconies that boast panoramic views of the Mediterranean. Living up to its name, the hotel rises as a castle from a rocky promontory and offers four restaurants -- unique for a 32-room property -- including the Michelin two-star Chevre d'Or.
Le Manoir au Quat Saisons, Oxford, England
Purple Shield, Relais Gourmands; (44) (01844) 278881
Expatriate Frenchman Raymond Blanc is one of England's most beloved chefs, and many rate his restaurant -- where elaborate wine pairing dinners and lunches are the norm -- as the best in the United Kingdom. A recent $10 million expansion created a total of 32 rooms, each spacious, luxurious and personally decorated in a specific theme by Blanc. In a dedicated facility removed from the kitchen, Le Manoir operates cooking schools for guests. It is the only Relais & Châteaux member outside of France with both the Purple Shield and the Relais Gourmands designation, and it garners two Michelin stars.
Kauri Cliffs, Kerikeri, New Zealand
Blue Shield; (64) (09) 405 1905
The pet project of financier Julian Robertson, the founder of Tiger Funds, Kauri Cliffs is the only true golf resort member of Relais & Châteaux. Sitting on 5,000 stunning coastal acres overlooking the Bay of Islands National Park, Kauri has three private beaches, two waterfalls, miles of hiking trails and the best golf course in New Zealand -- all for just 16 rooms in freestanding cottages. Robertson's private home is also for rent, and the fine dining room showcases fresh seafood, game, produce and wines of the region.
Horizons and Cottages/Waterloo House, Bermuda
Yellow Shield/Blue Shield; (441) 236-0048/(441) 295-4480
A rare example of two Relais & Châteaux properties owned by a single family, and many guests enjoy shared use of facilities. Horizons and Cottages exemplifies the unique Bermudan "cottage colony," with freestanding cottages surrounding an eighteenth-century plantation estate home. The grounds include a nine-hole golf course, tennis courts and a beach club. Waterloo House is in the heart of Hamilton, a respite from the nearby city hotels; behind the townhouse faÁade on the city's main street are four acres of hidden formal seaside gardens.
The Post Hotel, Lake Louise, Canada
Blue Shield; (405) 522-3889
The exquisite Post Hotel is in one of Mother Nature's most beautiful playgrounds. Marrying the rustic charm of the Canadian Rockies with first-rate service, comforts and cuisine, the Post Hotel also has a Wine Spectator Grand Award wine list, with nearly 30,000 bottles. It is one of several Relais & Châteaux properties near a major ski area, and Canada's largest is just minutes away. In summer, the area is equally appealing, as the Post is located in Banff National Park.
Sheen Falls Lodge, Kenmare, Ireland
Yellow Shield; (353) (064) 41600
All 61 rooms, including five luxury rental homes, somehow manage panoramic views of Sheen Falls and Kenmare Bay. One of the larger and best-equipped members of the group, Sheen Falls has a modern, full-service spa, indoor heated pool, gym and billiards room, all housed in a classic, country home at the edge of the sea. The 300-acre grounds include walking paths, exclusive fishing rights on the Sheen River, and an equestrian center for guests. Sheen Falls recently won an award for Best Hotel Bar in Ireland.
Gôra Kadan, Hakone-Machi, Japan
Purple Shield; (81) (0460) 2 3331
Located 60 miles outside of Tokyo, the Gôra Kadan is the only Relais & Châteaux Purple-rated property in Asia. A former country retreat of the imperial family, Gôra Kadan, which is within the boundaries of the Hakone National Park, offers guests traditional tatami rooms, each with a choice of cypress baths, whirlpool or open air baths. The grounds are immaculately landscaped and the restaurant features painstakingly prepared kaiseki cuisine.
Hotel Tugu Bali, Bali, Indonesia
Yellow Shield; (62) (0361) 731 701
What began as a labor of love (an extensive international art collection of the lawyer owner) has become a welcome change from the international chains that dominate Bali. Each room/villa has a unique theme and houses a museum's worth of art. Built with romance in mind, Tugu Bali features private dining nooks throughout the restaurant, plunge pools in most rooms, in-room massage areas, silver-lined bathtubs and rose petals scattered nightly across king-sized beds. It is in the Balinese countryside, just 50 yards from beautiful Canggu beach.
Hôtel Rosalp, Verbier, Switzerland
Yellow Shield, Relais Gourmands; (41) (027) 771 63 23
Located at the famous Verbier ski resort, Rosalp is another top Relais & Châteaux ski venue and occupies a picture-perfect alpine chalet. Restaurant Pierroz holds a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, with a stunning 60,000 bottles, and Roland Pierroz was named Switzerland's Chef of the Year in 1992.
La Posta Vecchia, Ladispole, Italy
Yellow Shield; (39) 06 994 95 01
In the suburbs of Rome sits one of the greatest residences ever to be turned into a hotel, the former estate of oil tycoon Jean-Paul Getty. The huge Palazzo sits at the water's edge, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, and the interior resembles a museum, full of Getty's significant art collection. Walled gardens along the coast, 19 luxurious bedrooms with marble baths, and open-air terraces make this an especially memorable place to stay.
Singita Private Game Reserve, Benmore, South Africa
Purple Shield; (27) (11) 234 0990
Consistently rated the world's top safari lodge by nearly every major travel publication, Singita was elevated this year to Purple status. With its own 45,000-acre nature reserve, which abuts the huge Kruger National Park, Singita gives endless options for game sightings. Eighteen suites, each a thatched villa with its own swimming pool, sit along the Sand River. The restaurant showcases South Africa's wines, with more than 12,000 bottles.
A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, Larry Olmsted is a freelance writer living in Vermont.