“Paris is always a good idea,” Audrey Hepburn famously quipped. Maybe that’s what Norwegian Airlines thought when it decided to institute a direct flight from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to the City of Light’s busy Charles De Gaulle airport, commencing May 2020. With the airline now accepting reservations, it’s time to start planning a trip to glitzy, glamorous Paris and its environs.
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Hotel Le Bristol
Paris astonishes and bewitches. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your first visit or your 100th, you’ll be moved. Your pupils will dilate and your heart will thump like a student in love. You’ll want to gobble up the whole eye-catching metropolis up in one greedy bite.
But Paris isn’t meant to be devoured mindlessly. It begs to be treated like its famed, multi-course, epicurean meals — to be scrupulously chewed, pondered and digested. With that method in mind, there’s no better way to consciously nibble on the essence of Paris than at historic Le Bristol, the City of Light’s first palace hotel.
Steps from Macron’s lair in one direction and the world’s swankiest luxury shops in the other, this family-owned hotel embodies the Paris of your imagination. Gobelin tapestries, balconies overlooking icons such as the Eiffel Tower, Michelin-starred restaurants, a bird cage-style elevator and a courtyard filled with the scent of oranges and magnolias are hotel attributes only surpassed by Le Bristol’s coup de grāce — a fluffy Burmese house cat called Fa-raon. Don’t hesitate to ask him to join for you tea in the velvet and damask-swathed Cafe Antonia, which serves as the heart of the hotel.
Named for a British bon vivant and once a hiding place for Jews from the Gestapo, today the hotel is a sanctum for fashionistas, politicos, world-renowned artists and celebrities.
Le Bristol is also synonymous with its 20-year-at-the-helm Michelin-starred chef, Eric Frechon. While famous dishes, such as truffle artichoke stuffed macaroni, draw traveling gourmets, three-starred Epicure and one-starred 114 Faubourg serve more local clientele than visitors — a sure sign of respect in Paris.
Part of Frechon’s lasting appeal stems from his curiosity, reverence for craftsmanship and passion. Not content to follow trends, he adheres to his instincts. Case in point, his quest to bring living bread back to the table at his restaurants. In an effort to create the more wholesome bread of his grandparents, Frechon has instituted an innovative bread program at Le Bristol. He’s gone deep into the countryside to source heirloom grains, from emmer to spelt to Khorasan.
To complete his living bread task, Frechon convinced management to buy him a mill (the only one in a five-star hotel in the world), now located in the hotel’s basement. Each morning the chefs grind grain to produce daily bread worthy of Frechon’s childhood memories, bread that honors France’s terroir and history.
“I don’t know how to eat without bread,” says Frechon, who sometimes skips lunch, slathers some butter on a nutritious, artisanal slice, and — well sated — lords over his kitchen. I expect Fa-raon sometimes wanders in for a nibble, too.
Oenophile’s Field Trip to Southern England
Bookend your Hepburn (or Hemingway) infused ramble through the City of Light with an exploration of southern England’s burgeoning wine lands, easy accessible on the Eurostar train, which whisks you from Paris to London across the English Channel in no time. Spend a few days in London, a zippy, matter-of-fact contrast to Paris in mood and culture.
Hotels, such as the Conrad St. James, have developed relationships with culinary-focused purveyors to complement the UK’s ever expanding food culture, and to answer the mushrooming interest in food and cookery-concentrated explorations abroad. They offer “Stay Inspired” experiences (theatrical cocktail tutorials or gallery discoveries, for example), but also direct travelers to such gastronomic amusements as the Mayfair Chocolate Tour, International Food Tour of Soho, Eating in London Tour (East End), and English Tea Dessert Tour.
In addition, a canny tour company run for oenophiles by oenophiles, English Wine Tasting Tours, picks guests up at their hotel and takes them to the countryside for daylong, VIP expeditions in counties from Kent to Surrey.
For the more intrepid intent on doing it themselves, it could take days to test out some of the 500 wineries and vineyards operating in England. Touring these gems, which are wedged into abundant nooks and crannies, begs a slow, dedicated, ruminative pace.
Note that the hype over southern England’s terroir is based on reality. With experts comparing Kent (and other) soil to that of France’s Champagne, with conditions aided by warmer recent temperatures, an unprecedented wine region rises from areas once known for their fields of hop. Several UK sparkling wines, in fact, have beat out vintages from France (and elsewhere) in blind tastings. Even the venerable Taittinger family has begun growing grapes in Kent, and will produce quaffable wine by 2023.
To discover these new wine lands, rent a car — if you dare attempt the other side of the road. Alternatively, use trains, then hire day drivers to convey you to and from various wineries, eateries and monuments. Many towns also offer wine tours by bus.
Where to start? How about Kent? Begin regally settled into a royal room at Leeds Castle, one of the UK’s best known fortresses. From this historic site and hotel, you can access award-winning vineyards such as Chapel Down, Biddenden Vineyards and Simpsons Wine Estate with ease.
Plan a long day in picturesque seaside Whitstable, renowned for its oysters. Wander the ancient streets of Canterbury, dominated by its legendary cathedral and characteristic shops and buildings. End at least one adventure with a gastronomic finale at Michelin-starred Fordwich Arms, stylishly occupying an Arts & Crafts-era pub in England’s smallest town. Anything by Chef Daniel Smith wows, but don’t miss the 14-day, dry-aged Aylesbury duck if it’s offered.
Next up: Sussex, which comprises 93 miles of coastline and vast acres of bucolic countryside. Go antiquing in Arundel; be gobsmacked by castles and stately homes in South Downs National Park and wander through myriad formal gardens. Whatever you do, don’t miss the opportunity to stay in the Spread Eagle, one of England’s oldest coaching inns, located in Midhurst.
At night, ensconce in the Queen’s Suite, where Elizabeth I herself enjoyed bedding down. (It even sports an extant 15th-century wig closet.) Let the hotel prepare a customized itinerary for you under their “Flavours of Sussex” program, a VIP tour of the best. Expect to sip wine at top locations, such as Bolney Wine Estate, take a bread baking course in a centuries-old cottage with Artisan Bakehouse or board the Bluebell Railway, a preserved steam engine-style heritage train line.
In Hampshire, a short drive away, tarry in stunning Winchester to survey this diverse region, home to two national parks and one of the world’s most famous cathedrals. After lunch at Chesil Rectory, a farm-to-table restaurant nestled within a medieval house, you can set off to sip wine at Hambledon Vineyard or knock back gin at stylish and informative Bombay Sapphire’s distillery (retrofitted with modern elan within a restored paper mill).
Heading back to London, stop in Surrey, near Gatwick, but a world away from London’s hustle and bustle. Check out any number of picturesque villages and their pubs (try The Carpenter’s Arm or the Merry Harriers), wineries such as Albury Vineyards (which provides self-guided tours) and farm shops galore. At Denbies Wine Estate, possibly England’s best known and most oft-visited winery, guests sip wine on board a sightseeing train around the property. Rest up in their newly Vineyard Hotel, a sleek haven with jaw dropping views of the grape-brimming hills.