If you close your eyes and imagine Provence, you might well think of a landscape of rolling hills, sleepy villages with ancient stone houses, long sunny days and lavender fields. In fact, a place very much like Crillon le Brave.
Co-owned by a Canadian (Peter Chittick) and his British business partner (Craig Miller), the hotel started out as a single house (Maison Roche) which was converted in 1989. Over the last 22 years, the pair have purchased and renovated a further six houses, each almost touching the next, to create an exclusive hotel complex.
I have been to the south of France a couple of times, but could never understand what the fuss was about from my trips in Nice and Cannes. The stunning scenery and landscapes of Provence are, of course, not to be found in the cities, but the rural areas around the Ventoux have some of the best, as I discovered on this trip. This being the start of a fairly lengthy wine tasting and purchasing trip, Dr G and I made our way from London by car, arriving in a respectable 11 hours door to door.
Our suite was huge, and tastefully decorated in Provençal style. With a Bose radio in each room, as well as flat screen TV and a power shower, the facilities were excellent. These paled almost into insignificance however, compared with the stunning views from the windows - I don't recall ever switching the TV on!
The village is tiny, and you can walk around the whole place in 20 minutes. However, it is surrounded by some of the great wine regions of the south, including Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras. Dr G and I had plans to visit some of these during our stay, as well as markets and some cycling in the region, but in the end, the heated swimming pool was a bigger draw, and that is where we spent most of the next two days, with an endless supply of chilled Provençal rosé. We also had a delicious burger with goats cheese at the poolside.
The hotel has a brasserie, and also a more formal restaurant where we dined on our first night. Headed by Irish chef John Ellis, it uses local seasonal ingredients cooked simply to produce food which is unfussy but deliciously flavoursome.
On our visit, Dr G and I kicked off with John's duck liver foie gras, dried apricot jam and walnut bread @ €24 and regional cured ham with pine kernels @ €17. The foie gras was sweet and creamy, and stuffed with apricot. Despite my fondness for the fruit, I thought that serving this with apricot jam overpowered the delicate flavour of the foie gras.
The Camargue bull fillet served with fondant potato, onion confit and a deliciously concentrated red wine jus @ €35 was rich and tender. The meat was perfectly cooked, and went very nicely with the 2005 Vacqueyras from Seigneur de Lauris recommended by the head sommelier Cedric.
The outstanding main course however was the roasted monkfish tail with red peppers @ €28. This was an exemplary Provençal dish, with firm flesh soaking up the delicious flavours of local olive oil and red peppers. The flavours and texture were reminiscent of delicate baccalá, perfectly accompanied by a floral 2009 Viognier, with refreshing acidity, from Domaine du Tix, Vaucluse.
For dessert, we had wafer thin apple tart and caramel sauce @ €13, and passion fruit parfait with strawberry and champagne consommé @ €13. These were light, beautifully presented and well worth the calories!
Breakfast at Hotel Crillon le Brave is also quite an event. A very generous buffet of crusty breads, local cheeses, hams and fruit is available with freshly squeezed juices, fine coffee and a huge stock of British and international newspapers each day.
Breakfast is served, except during winter, on the terrace overlooking stunning views of the swimming pool and Mont Ventoux. The views were so exquisite that when I twitted an image of it, I was messaged then unfollowed by a disgruntled reader!
The hotel runs a number of special events throughout the year. For 2011, these include "Vendages" (29th September to 2nd October) - a three-night trip including the grape harvest and wine tasting at nearby renowned vineyard Chateau Pesquié. At €1,300 for 2 people full-board, this is very good value for a hotel of this standard.
If Bacchanalian pleasures are not your thing, other tempting options include the "truffle and wine weekends" (3 nights, starting on 10th or 24th November @ €1,130 full board for two people) and the week-long "cooking in Provence" trips (6 nights, starting on 9th or 23rd October @ €2,900 per person). You can read more about these special events here, or see Gourmet Chick or Greedy Diva's accounts of their stay and truffle hunting experiences here and here.
The hotel is a popular venue for weddings, with a picturesque village church just a few metres away. Wedding parties are required to book the entire hotel for the occasion (with a capacity of around 70 people, @€50,000 for accommodation and food from Friday to Sunday). It would be hard to think of a more stunning place to tie the knot.
After two lovely days at the Hotel Crillon le Brave, we were sorry to leave, but looked forward to joining the Dulwich Wine Society for their wine trip 100 miles further north at Tain L'Hermitage in the Northern Rhone. En-route, we stopped off in Vacqueyras to visit a wine producer (we chose L'Oustau des Lecques) and buy a few bottles of wine. We arrived unannounced, and although the owner's wife didn't speak much English, she was very welcoming and opened a few bottles for us to try.
Bedrooms at Hotel Crillon le Brave range in price from €250 to €510 per room per night (depending on the size, view and time of year) and suites go from €360 to €780 per room per night. These are clearly not budget prices, but having stayed there, I think they represent good value for money for such an exceptional experience. I cannot wait to return!
The London Foodie was a guest of Crillon le Brave