In the final part of our luxury travel views column from our Summer 2021 issue, LUX editor-in-chief Darius Sanai discovers the subtle grandeur of Domaine Les Crayères in the Champagne region of France
If the method of departure from a hotel leaves a lasting memory, so too does a welcome. The luxury hotel where the doorman ignored you, or wasn’t there in your moment of need, is likely emblazoned on your heart. And the welcome at the Domaine Les Crayères was something else. It was a five-hour drive, roof down into the sun, from Baden-Baden to the outskirts of Reims in the Champagne region of France; after some moments of interest passing through (but sadly not stopping in) the wonderful hills of Alsace, the road was relentless. Crunching down the drive and drawing up to the grand mansion, I felt like nothing more than passing out on a cool bed for half an hour before an early dinner, ahead of my day of meetings the following day.
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The doorman whisked my door open and ushered me in; reception was a brief formality; all good. And then: “We would like to invite you onto our terrace for a glass of champagne, monsieur.” Really, I thought, like this? I was wearing black jeans and a polo, not evening wear. I was assured it would be fine. Still swaying from the drive, I walked out onto a broad terrace above a long stretch of parkland garden, was shown to my table and poured a glass of their champagne. Canapés appeared. The sun was about to set but still a few centimetres above the treetops; it was warm, and the terrace was scattered with lively and appropriately spaced couples. What had seemed like a slightly bad idea on arrival – shouldn’t you have a glass of champagne before dinner? – turned out to be a stroke of genius. A blanc de blancs champagne is reviving, not soporific, and when I finally went up to my room at sunset, I felt energised.
My room, at the top corner of the château, was elegant and elaborately decorated, with a view out over the same parkland. Although it is on the edge of Reims, the feel is peaceful: you have no sense of being in a big city, but nevertheless I walked to my meetings in the centre of town the next morning (full disclosure: it was a couple of kilometres each way, and I was working on my step count after a lot of driving).
You come to Champagne to drink champagne (or in my case to meet clients who own champagne houses), and you come to the Crayères for the best possible base while doing so – and to drink champagne and most of all to dine in its two Michelin-starred restaurant.
The atmosphere here, in its intimate dining room, was surprising in a positive way: it wasn’t so grand and formal that guests felt they had to dine in a hush. And yet the chef Philippe Mille and his creativity were very much front and centre. As well as à la carte, you can choose from various menus including an ‘Escape into the Vines’ menu. This was an astonishing piece of imagination and artistry, and so far beyond a mere manifestation of its ingredients that it would do it a disservice to describe it by the ingredients of each individual course.
There were seven courses, created to work in sequence like a story and woven together by a freshness and life so often missing from formal French dining where heavy saucing is a substitute for imagination. Oh, OK, I will describe just one of them: lobster from the Iles de Chausey, grilled on vine shoots, with shells juice (no typo there) and pinot meunier.
The champagne list – encyclopaedia, really – is extensive but what is really impressive is the selection of small-grower champagnes, many of them just farmers making champagne on their smallholding, many of them cheap, unavailable elsewhere and absolutely delicious. I do not usually seek the advice of sommeliers, finding them too often beholden to their own tastes or trends, but here, stay away from the brands you know, and seek one of these out. A unique and highly repeatable experience.
Book your stay: lescrayeres.com
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue.