This review is taken from our guidebook, Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection: France.
‘Oooh!’ say Mrs Smith and I, simultaneously, involuntarily and somewhat ridiculously, as our cab crunches up Domaine de Verchant’s serpentine drive. Some 17 hectares of vine-striped fields, now looking rusty and golden in the weak autumn sun, with a cluster of sandy-stoned farm buildings in the lawned and leafy centre – it looks like the perfect setting for a weekend of wine-splashed rural escapism. Which is handy, because that’s what we have planned.
Verchant has been here since 1582, when a dying bishop handed the estate to a Montpellier family (the date of the transaction has lent a name to the domaine’s wines), but it took another 420 years before owners Pierre and Chantal arrived on the scene and turned the working winery into a working winery with a deluxe hotel and spa in the middle. Upgraded to a terrace room, we not only have a bathroom the approximate size of Montpellier airport, but there’s also a wraparound balcony that overlooks the lagoon-like pool and the majestic grassy sweep down to the vines. Mrs Smith clocks the aesthetics (bright white with scarlet pops, floor-to-ceiling windows, gigantic snaking desk lamp, creamy stone arches) while I conduct the functionality overview: how the shower works (middle knob for temperature, top for intensity); what channels on TV (BBC World, French soft porn). A Star Trek button panel has me a little stumped beyond light-dimming and blind-closing. I’m sure with more application I could have got it to summon an android chambermaid.
We follow stairs down to the courtyard, past buildings and barns and men carrying ladders purposefully. This doesn’t feel like a boutique hotel – it’s more like a farm stay, only with incredibly luxurious bedrooms and some of the sharpest decor in the South of France.
Not an environment in which you’d expect to find one of Montpellier’s most celebrated spas, but there it is, looking out through glass walls, over row upon row of grapevines. While my wife is plastered with various Anne Semonin unguents, I head straight to what has been intriguingly dubbed the ‘experience shower’, ie: disco-lighting equipment attached to the ceiling, and three curiously labelled buttons attached to the wall. Hmm. Now, am I in the mood for Cool Fog, Atlantic Ocean or African Storm? I opt for all three in turn. First, a blue spotlight, a chilly trickle and a puff of minty air. It’s like being trapped inside a damp packet of Polos. Atlantic Ocean ups the trickle to a torrent, glows red, then cues up a soundtrack of squawking seagulls. African Storm is green, warm and, yes, minty, but the seagulls are still here (or possibly they’re parrots, it’s hard to tell).
‘How was the experience-shower experience?’ asks a newly radiant Mrs Smith. ‘Like a foggy Atlantic storm off the coast of Guinea-Bissau. With added spearmint.’ Mrs Smith leads me to the sauna and hammam, where we steam and bake ourselves before being ushered to the sink full of ice and the bucket on a rope. ‘What happens if I pull the rope?’ I ask. ‘You’re transported to a magical land of fairies and unicorns.’ Turns out she was lying. Now, that’s an experience shower. Once the screaming stops, I realise that a gallon of icy water to the face is actually quite refreshing. Our appetites are suitably worked up for the hotel’s other boast: fine dining.
Verchant’s restaurant is run by the Pourcel twins, possibly the best chef team to ever share womb-space. Laurent and Jacques are the brains behind the much-fêted Le Jardin des Sens, so by the time we’re seated in the little eatery, glugging on the hotel’s own glorious red, we’re quietly confident that the food won’t disappoint. A bien-être menu caters to the detox crowd – normally something I’d avoid like a busy gym, but the brine-boiled guinea fowl and asparagus (thank you, pocket dictionary, for deciphering that one) proves too tempting, especially when paired with a starter of three types of foie gras from the less health-orientated menu. The waiter arrives to tell us that if we want the hot chocolate biscuit, we need to order it soon, since it takes a while to prepare. We’re sold. It’s a steamy, thick, liquidy paradise of a dessert, which Mrs Smith declares ‘better than sex’. I could feel offended, but in this instance, she’s right.
The next day, we take the 15-minute trip into Montpellier old town, and spend the afternoon strolling along stately boulevards and narrow side streets, cursing the fact that we’ve chosen to turn up on a Monday, when the art-stuffed MuséeFabre is closed, berating the fact that I forgot to pack socks and speculating as to why Montpellier needs quite so many photocopying shops per capita, yet has so few sock outlets. Eventually, chaussettes sorted, we bar-hop through the twilight, before settling at surely the best bistro ever. We find Bistrot d’Alco entirely by accident, but this is one we’ll be raving about until we’ve no friends left to listen. A three-course meal for less than you’d pay for a cocktail. A lady in the middle of the restaurant manning a stove exclusively for crêpes suzette. Duck breast carpaccio as tender as jelly, and a perfect hunk of beef served with curried chickpeas and a jacket potato. Everything about the place is excellent (although someone could tell them they don’t need topless women on their business cards).
Satisfied and sluggish with all that we’ve eaten and drunk, we take a cab back to Verchant for our final night (I only hope the ever-polite waiting staff didn’t notice Mrs Smith launching head-first into the plate-glass door). The hotel has been a fabulous opportunity to relax in a beautiful landscape immersed in fine wine and wonder. And, like the mint-spraying shower, it’s been entirely refreshing.