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!

 

Escape to Chantilly

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It rarely becomes extremely hot in Paris. But when it does, little relief can be found. Last weekend we experienced such a heatwave, called a canicule. That was reason enough to leave the heat and flee to the countryside. But who needs a reason. So we jumped on the train and in 30 minutes arrived to Chantilly. We first visited the château with my mom a few years ago, and knew one day we’d return. Now was as perfect a time as any. After a quick lunch stop we headed directly for our luxurious haven in the shade, Auberge du Jeu de Paume.

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This stunning five-star Relais & Chateaux property sits overlooking the majestic Château de Chantilly, bringing new meaning to the term ‘room with a view’. Our suite overlooked the English gardens. Immediately the late summer heat faded into the distance as I relaxed to the calming sounds of the fountains down below, and watched as the swan made her laps in the pond. A perfect weekend getaway.

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This four-year old hotel’s spacious rooms are fashioned with classic toile de Jouy fabrics and handcrafted woodwork, no details spared. The Hermès bath products in the marble bathrooms were a treat. Not to mention the decadence of the plush bed! We both slept very soundly, with the help of a little air-conditioning.

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After a morning of yoga on the terrace and a visit to the full-service spa and fitness room, we splurged on breakfast on our terrace. Heavenly! Not a soul in sight aside from an occasional triathlete running by in the gardens. Little did we know, it was the weekend of the Castle Triathlon Series. What a gorgeous setting! It almost inspired me to join for next year. (I’ll stick to yoga!)

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For dinner we opted for Le Jardin d’Hiver, the chic bistro featuring seasonal fare created by Arnaud Faye, 2* Michelin Chef at La Table du Connétable, their more elegant and gourmet dining option. What a decadent feast! We ended the night with a glass of wine on our terrace, beneath a starry sky. Ah, romance…

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What’s a trip to Chantilly without a visit to the château, a five minute walk from the hotel, and a stop for the very thing the town is known for, aside from lace that is. The BEST and original Chantilly cream is found at Le Hameau on the grounds of the château. (I could write an entire blog post about it, heaven on a plate!)

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The rest of our afternoon was spent watching the triathlon and cheering them on, picnicking in the garden, and admiring the history surrounding us.

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Before returning to Paris we made one final stop to the Grandes Écuries for a horse show and visit to the museum. Also known as the Living Museum of the Horse, here can be found the largest stables in Europe. It was constructed in the 18th century as an actual horses’ palace, how fancy! Growing up horseback riding and with a love for these gentle creatures, this was quite a highlight for me. I would gladly have galloped back to Paris.

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Paris by Thierry Marx

A morning discovering favorite local haunts of one of Paris’ star chefs and bakers? Mais oui! Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of doing exactly that, with two star Michelin chef Thierry Marx. Our day began at his new bakery and cafe in the 8th arrondissement, La Boulangerie. After tasting a few of Marx’ many sweet specialties, I had a tour of the kitchen where I met the crew and watched them at work, learning a few tricks along the way.

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I then hopped into my vintage Citroën 2CV and my beret clad driver navigated his way to our next stop Cafés Verlet, where Marx often drinks (and buys) his coffee. It was there where I tasted various intoxicating brews, both hot and cold, and learned exactly how specialized this family business, originating in the 20th century, really is. It was in 1965 that grandson Pierre Verlet began roasting coffees from all over the world. I even caught a glimpse of his son’s roasting method in their nearby coffee mill.

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The next stop was a hidden gallery in Saint-Germain, another of Marx’ favorite haunts. Pause for a little visual stimulation. The last discovery before lunch was gastronomic bouquiniste Alain Suchet, his bookstand on display along the banks of the Seine. It is here where Thierry Marx acquires vintage cookbooks to add to his collection. With so many to choose from, I could have spent all afternoon browsing!

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For lunch I dined haute couture style at the Mandarin Oriental’s Sur Measure. It is here at Thierry Marx’ two Michelin star restaurant, where he “blends the technical and emotional aspects of cooking with sight, sound and taste.” What an experience, from the amuse bouche to the dessert. Emotional to say the least!

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To find out more about Thierry Marx’ favorite spots to shop, dine and explore in the French capital, pick up a copy of Paris Marx Saveurs Capitale (in French). If you’re planning a trip to Paris, you can experience ‘Paris by Marx’ with a stay at the Mandarin Oriental. Find out more in my feature in France Today.

Coquillade Village

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Arriving to Coquillade Village feels like arriving to a majestic Tuscan villa, welcomed by cypress trees, only this 100 acre Relais & Châteaux property is located in the heart of the Luberon in Provence, with views of the Vaucluse Mountains and Mont Ventoux. It’s location was historically the site for migrating birds, including the crested lark (Couquihado in Provençal), hence the name. Surrounded by vineyards and fields of lavender, this complex of 63 rooms and suites dates back to the 11th century, with most of it augmented and restored in recent years. Very eagerly we settled into our new home, ready to take in the views and its many luxuries.

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It was hard to leave our Luxury Suite as we relaxed on the terrace, tasting the local rosé grown in their 89 acres of vineyards. I made a mental note to take a tour and arrange a tasting session during our stay. Back to the room… did I mention we had our own jacuzzi and sauna? More reason not to leave. No attention to detail or comfort was spared! While my Italian went for a run through the vines, I made sure to visit the Coquillade SPA, 1500m2 of serenity for both mind and body, created in 2015. It was hard to leave the eucalyptus hammam! But I was eager to explore the premises and discover exactly what lay within the walls of this “village”.

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What I discovered were charming Provençal villas discreetly scattered throughout the property, all revealing private rooms with terraces. There were three restaurants on the premises, Gourmet run by two Gault & Millau head chefs, Ristorante, an Italian establishment, and Bistro with a Mediterranean inspired menu. The latter of these is where we opted to dine al fresco, our backdrop a pastel colored sunset beyond the vineyards. Chef Christophe Renaud certainly left an impression, not to mention pastry Chef René Solnon with his masterful desserts. I’ve always had a weakness for sweets.

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Following a visit to nearby Roussillon (more on that later), we spent a sunny afternoon lounging by one of the two heated swimming pools. I envisioned a game of tennis or perhaps the beloved French game of pétanque, but time was limited. We eagerly visited the “BMC Cycling Center” with ambitious goals to ride to a neighboring town, I planned to test out an electric bike, but we chose instead to relax within the charm of Coquillade, followed by a driving tour. We were on holiday after all.

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It was certainly hard to bid farewell to Coquillade Village with its friendly staff and luxurious amenities. But we were in the Luberon after all and had come to explore. Where to next? Stay tuned…

 

high tea time

As the days turn shorter and winter begins to make its presence known, I turn towards the sweet side of life in Paris. Having sipped chai in nearly all of the five star tea salons, each one is an experience in itself. France does excel in its pastries after all, and having a sweet tooth, I’ll try any sugary concoction whipped up by a respected pâtissier. My most recent experience in l’heure du goûter, as the French call snack time, was by the skillful hand of Pastry Chef Cédric Grolet at Le Meurice, with world renowned Alain Ducasse at the helm.

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Joined by two gourmand friends, we sat in the elegant restaurant Le Dalí, and started our high tea with a glass of bubbly, French style. What I immediately noticed were Christophe Robin’s Little Indulgences, warm finger sandwiches prepared to order. How divine! And I hadn’t even brought my attention to the sweet portion yet.

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The trays were stacked high with homemade sweets and scones with cream, each more delicious than the next.

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As an unexpected bonus, the most delicious madeleines were served to us, fresh out of the oven. But what took the cake was the Hazelnut, a rich and chocolaty dessert that must be tasted to be truly understood.

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The afternoon was long and luxurious! Leah Walker, fellow traveler, donned her new rive droite tote in high style. Along with writer Mary Winston Nicklin, we indulged in a tea time to remember. Until next time, ladies!