Courchevel 1850

Last week I discovered the most chic winter destination in France. Courchevel is a ski resort in the French Alps. Part of Les Trois Vallées, it’s the largest in the world. Courchevel alone is made of up of three levels, the highest being 1850 meters up in the mountains. This was where we were headed. Having only skied in the U.S. and Italy, I was looking forward to the adventure.

Just over three hours after leaving Paris I arrived to hotel Le Strato, set high up in the mountains. This five-star alpine hideaway revealed stunning views of the Alps, with skiers passing by on the paths just outside my window. I was in snow-capped heaven! I breathed in the fresh mountain air as I settled into my luxurious room.

This family run hotel is one-of-a-kind. Opened in 2009 by “a young lady of over 80,” it was the realization of a dream for Jeannine Boix-Vives. It’s named for the Strato skis that had contributed so much to the Rossignol brand’s fame, a company once owned by Jeannine and her family. As she so wisely states “dreaming alone will not determine your destiny.” Every detail in the 25 suites is taken into consideration, from the elegant modern decor to the unique comforts (catching up on the news from the bathtub, for one). The unrivaled spa uses Sothys products and features two saunas, a steam-room, jacuzzi, gym and indoor pool. (My signature massage was heavenly!) I was thrilled too, to take an invigorating yoga class, adding to the bliss I already felt.

Symbolic of the three generations running Le Strato, family paintings hang in the library, dining room and along the corridors, complimented by wooden sculptures and artwork collected from around the world.

What makes Le Strato even more of a haute destination is its Michelin-starred gastronomy.  Restaurant Baumanière 1850 is run by Jean-André Charial (owner of the famous Michelin 2-star restaurant l’Oustau de Baumanière in Baux-de-Provence). With executive chef Lowell Mesnier working closely with chef Glenn Viel and Jean-André Charial, the food alone is worth the trip. Having already tasted Glenn’s cuisine on my visit to Baumanière, I knew I would dine like a queen. Every evening I looked forward to the gourmet feast following a cocktail at the cozy bar, live music filling the space. Breakfast in the same regal setting was an introduction into local tastes.

Ready to discover the mountains, I headed to the ski room for my gear, booked a teacher to guide me through the slopes and headed down the hill directly from the hotel. With many blue pistes to choose from, as well as a handful of red for those more advanced, I felt completely at ease. This was paradise!

Guided by the sun, we skied the smooth snow all the way down to the village and took the chair lift back up, with views of Mont Blanc in the distance. It took a few years, but finally I was feeling that ski high unique to those dedicated to the sport. I was elated and couldn’t wait to return with my expert Italian skier!

I even encountered art in the mountains during my first ever racket walk, a healthy alternative to skiing. “Doggy John” by painter and sculptor Julien Marinetti stands 175 cm at 2238 meters high.

Before the return to Paris I took a petit pause on the terrace, filled with gratitude at having experienced this tasteful family chalet that honored one woman’s life, while providing happiness to so many others.

Faena District

Having been to Miami over a dozen times for both work and play (namely Art Basel for the latter), I usually found myself nestled into a hotel in South Beach, along with everyone else who escaped to this sunny enclave. This time however, I explored a new area, removed from the crowds and with a charm and distinction all its own. Ten minutes north of South Beach in Mid-Beach sits the recently coined Faena district, Miami’s latest It spot. Having experienced the Faena Hotel in Buenos Aires, I could already envision the artful grandeur. Making a name for itself in late 2014 thanks to Argentian entrepreneur Alan Faena and his NY based business partner, this district includes two hotels and a performing arts theater.  I was eager to discover the historic boutique hotel Casa Claridge’s, or Casa Faena, once an apartment building built in 1926.

Upon entering you feel transported to another world, one in Spain or even Morocco. The luminous library in the hotel’s inner courtyard is well-equipped with literature and design books. I could easily have spent the afternoon here, or reading on the roof deck, but there was a beach umbrella calling my name. We quickly settled into our room, a spacious King with balcony and views to the beach, the next stop.

Little makes me happier than a shady spot in front of the sea. With so many festivals and activities going on during Miami’s high-season, we were still able to avoid the crowds and revel in what felt like a private beach. Once the sun set we headed to the laid-back Broken Shaker, a stellar bar nearby that opened in 2012, and dined at their new 27 restaurant. The next morning we were back on the beach, with just a quick walk to the Faena family’s latest addition, Hotel Faena, opened a year ago.


This modern hotel, a contrast to complement its historic predecessor, was just the place I’d like to check-in to for a few more days. Complete with gym, spa, pool and two gourmet restaurants, there was much to discover. And let’s not forget the neighboring Faena Theater, reminiscent of Old Hollywood. A destination unto itself, was there really any reason to ever leave the Faena District?

Weekend in the 8th

I’m of the opinion that in order to truly appreciate where you live, and not take it for granted or let it wear you down (yes, even Paris) you must once in a while play tourist.  So every year I plan a local weekend escape for my Italian and I. This year it was across town to Hôtel Daniel in the 8th arrondissement. This Relais & Châteaux haven hidden just behind the Champs-Élysées and steps away from rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoréis a four-star gem. We were looking forward to moving in!

Upon entering I felt as though I had been invited to a private home. The vibrant living room was filled with travel artifacts collected by the hotel’s owners during their journeys around the world, which I would soon discover ornamented all 26 of the unique rooms and suites. The decor revealed a unique combination of Toile de Jouy materials with chinoiserie-style motifs. Even the basket for my tea kettle looked like an artifact from the Silk Road.

Once my handsome date arrived we settled into our room on the top floor, overlooking the Parisian rooftops. We both favored the cozy loveseat with a view and knew that would be where we’d sunbathe while reading the morning paper.

On Friday night we happily caroused the quartier, feeling like we were indeed visiting from faraway. At the hotel’s recommendation we dined at 110 de Taillevent, where 110 wines are available by the glass. Impressive! It was a perfect meal on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, a nice change from our usual right bank eateries. For breakfast we opted not to part with the views, ordered room service and dined with the sun.

That day we went window shopping on the Champs-Élysées and explored the annual Christmas Market, vin chaud in hand. My Italian went running in new territory and I stopped by neighboring Gagosian Gallery, one of my favorites for stellar art exhibits. After tea time at our new home, we headed out once more for dinner, with no clear plan in mind, only to get lost in our new neighborhood.

Morocco in Paris

These days as Paris temperatures decrease and the sun sets early, I’ve taken to hiding out in hammams as often as possible. All in the name of research of course, as I seek to discover the best hammans in Paris for a feature in Bonjour Paris. What have I found thus far? A little taste of Morocco.

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Hidden behind a door and down a courtyard on bustling rue Montorgueil in Paris’ 2nd arrondissement, sits a portal into Morocco. There is no outward sign of its presence, and rightly so. For decades, Aux Bains Montorgueil was a hammam designed exclusively for Moroccan royalty. It was not until 2004 that this clandestine hammam and spa opened to the public. It was discovered solely through word of mouth until their recent creation of a website.

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Entering Aux Bains Montorgueil you have the sensation of arriving to a hammam in the heart of Marrakesh. Warmly welcomed by Moroccan women Souad and Wafa with traditional music playing in the background, I was led downstairs to begin this centuries old cleansing ritual. The actual hammam is filled with heavenly scents of eucalyptus and orange blossom. After detoxing in the luxurious heat, Souad lathered me with homemade green clay in preparation for the scrubbing, or gommage. Followed by a thorough cleansing and a return to the hammam, my facial began. My exfoliation was a concoction of cinnamon, honey and sugar, followed by a sesame and honey mask, both all natural and made by Souad and Wafa. Curious if these sweet mixtures were edible, I was told that often in Morocco only natural foods are used to cleanse the skin. (Admittedly, I did taste my mask and it was delicious!) Feeling completely relaxed, I was led upstairs to the massage room where fleur d’oranger, orange blossom, was gently rubbed into my rejuvenated skin. I ended my Moroccan experience in the relaxation room with a glass of mint tea. Now I understood why this was such a well kept secret for so long.

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Discover Aux Bains Montorgeuil for yourself at 55 rue Montorgeuil from Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 9pm.

Le Negresco

My last trip to the Côte d’Azur was in March. I spent a little time in Nice but was eager to become better acquainted with this, the region’s capital. Aside from its Mediterranean climate, it’s a city of art and culture, another reason to fall in love with it. To properly immerse myself in the world of French art, where better to stay than at the historic hotel Le Negresco. Centrally located between Cannes and Monaco, it sits on the famous Promenade de Anglais. It is here in this National Historic Monument, that the French works of art from Louis XIII to modern art, have a home. I knew I would be in good company.

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Upon entering, the grandeur of this hotel is hard to describe. I’ve stayed in many beautiful hotels around the world, but Le Negresco is in a class of its own. The Versailles Lounge alone takes your breath away, with Louis XIV’s portrait, marble floors, hand-painted ceiling, and elegant furnishings. The fireplace too, is original. I could imagine the decadent events having taken place in this salon since Henri Negresco opened the hotel in 1913, now over 100 years old.

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Next I entered the Royal Lounge, centrally situated beneath a large glass dome. This is Negresco’s soul, and you can certainly feel it. Once an elegant ballroom, it’s now an elaborate event space, displaying portraits of French royalty, including Napoleon III. A stunning Baccarat chandelier provides the centerpiece. Fittingly, the hotel’s 93 year old owner Jeanne Augier’s portrait also has a place on the wall. After all, it is she who welcomes each guest to her home, which she has taken great pride in decorating. She lives on the top floor with her cat, and ensures that this private, family run hotel remains at the highest 5-star level in comfort and cuisine.

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A good friend from Nice had often spoken about the restaurants at Le Negresco, particularly the vibrant and colorful La Rotonde. It’s in fact an 18th century carousel with wooden horses circling the restaurant. My eyes opened wide in amazement as I entered this space and understood immediately why it’s such a warm and welcoming place dedicated to families. The terrace opens up to the sea and this is where I chose to have lunch, accompanied by the sun. Breakfast would be enjoyed in the carousel.

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Le Negresco is also known for its haute cuisine. Le Chantecler is Nice’s finest restaurant, with two stars in the Michelin Guide under the culinary expertise of chef Jean-Denis Rieubland. He defines his cuisine and style as “inspired by Provence, with the respect of its products and traditions”. This is THE place for French gastronomy, boasting a wine cellar of over 15,000 bottles, with woodwork dating back to 1751. After dinner you can unwind at the neighboring bar with live music and a good digestif.

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With each of the 96 rooms and 21 suites uniquely decorated with period furniture, I was eager to take a closer look. Mrs Augier being an art connoisseur and collector, walking through the hotel and up the four floors feels much like being in a museum, with artwork from Salvador Dali and Sonia Delaunay, tapestries from Raymond Moratti and sculptures from Niki de Saint Phalle, to name a few. And the rooms? Timeless perfection.

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I felt very much at home in my room overlooking the Bay of Angels and knew I would return to this Art Hotel called Le Negresco.

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Île de Ré

Is it possible to find the tranquility of the Mediterranean hidden in the Atlantic Ocean? Just west of La Rochelle sits the island of Île de Ré. Having heard much about this natural landscape boasting sandy beaches and 10 charming villages connected by cycling paths, I decided it was time to explore. This French summer hideaway seemed like the ideal weekend away. As is often our preference, we chose to visit off season.

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In just over three hours we arrived via train to La Rochelle. Since 1988 the city is linked to Île de Ré by bridge, providing easy access by car or shuttle bus. We chose the latter, since the main mode of island transport is by bicyle. No car is needed. The afternoon was cloudy and windy, with hints of blue setting the scene for the next few days. We chose to stay in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the island’s capital and what is considered one of the most picturesque of the villages. We arrived easily by bus and settled into our elegant hotel on the harbor. As it was the weekend, the village was bustling with locals and second home owners taking advantage of the Indian summer. Nineteen miles long and two to three miles long, this small island with a population of 18,000, grows to 130,000 during the summer months. Soon, I would discover its appeal.

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The following day we rented bicycles and began our journey along the coast. Passing marshes and salt farms we made our way to the smallest of the villages, Loix. Thus began our love affair with the island. From there we rode south to Ars-en-Ré, a larger village with an active port. After lunch we met a few friends from Paris (fortunate are those with family homes in such a beautiful natural setting), and joined them at the beach near La Couarde-sur-Mer. On the path home, we rode through countless vineyards, the season’s harvest ripe for picking. The landscapes all so beautifully preserved. As the sun hung low in the sky, we had just enough time to get lost in the tangle of Saint-Martin’s streets.

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The next day we hopped back on the bikes, first stop: oysters. I was in heaven. We sat along the coast during low tide and feasted on tender shrimp and the freshest oysters I’d eaten since our trip to Cap Ferret. A glass of local white wine to compliment. Our next stop was La Flotte, another inviting port village. We were completely smitten by these picture-perfect villages; streets filled with shuttered homes in pastel shades of green, gray and blue; ivy creeping up walls and flowers growing around every corner. The charm was immeasurable. Our journey continued to a long sandy beach close to the village of Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré. I could imagine the surfing and kite-boarding during the summer months. But now it was just us, along with a handful of couples and young families, enjoying the off-season serenity. Perfect timing, if you ask me.

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When evening fell and it was time to return to Paris, we were not eager to leave the island and vowed to return. There were more villages to explore, more local pineau to taste and oysters to savor. I could now understand why Île de Ré was considered such an island paradise. A secret the French keep well, and now one I share with you. Here are my recommendations for island life in Saint-Martin-de-Ré.

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SLEEP: Hôtel de Toiras is a five-star Relais & Châteaux property located on the port of Saint-Martin-de-Ré, providing a luxurious setting for a weekend away, or longer. The rooms are spacious and tastefully decorated with old French charm. The entire setting is regal and elegant. Five years ago, the hotel acquired a beautiful old mansion and created its sister hotel, Villa Clarisse. Set father back in the village, this four-star hotel offers 9 rooms set in a lush garden with a pool. Either location makes a perfect home in the heart of the island.

EAT LOCAL: Le Bistro du Marin is THE local spot, located on the port. They don’t take reservations so prepare to wait by the bar, especially if you’d like to dine outside, or en terrace. Their hearty meat dishes served with delicious home fries and fresh fish specials are certainly worth waiting for! Not to mention their homemade profiteroles. Both lunch and dinner are served daily, closed Thursdays.

EAT GOURMET: Les Embruns is just behind the port and well worth a dinner reservation (you must book ahead as they get full very quickly). This is the place for seafood, with lobster salad worth ordering, and a variety of fish dishes on the menu. For 30€ you can try the tasting menu. It’s hard to go wrong in this charmingly kitschy restaurant. Open only for dinner during the high season, closed Tuesdays.

EAT OYSTERSRé Ostréa is a casual lunch spot along the bike path from Saint-Martin-de-Ré heading west. It’s hard to miss with its colorful chairs, always full in the high season. Here you can dine on an assortment of seafood, including of course, local oysters. The fresh shrimps too, are heavenly! All dishes are accompanied by a glass of local wine. This is a must stop while on the island.

EAT SWEETSLa Martinière is a family run ice-cream and pastry shop. It’s a MUST stop while on the island, though we missed out on this sweet experience since it was closed for renovations. Next time!

DRINK: Ile de Ré is not so much known for their wines as for the French apéritif Pineau, a blend of wine and cognac. As it’s a sweet drink, I quickly became a fan. You can taste it at any bar or wine shop.

CYCLE: With quite a few bike rental companies to choose from, I found Cycland to be one of the best, with a great assortment of bikes and locations in 9 of the 10 villages. Definitely use bicycles to get around the island!

VISIT: Ernest Cognacq Museum is a Renaissance style mansion highlighting the historical, artistic and military heritages of the island. Worth a stop for a quick history lesson!

 

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