Airelles Château de Versailles, Le Grand Contrôle: Of pomp and privacy
Set to open on June 1st, the Airelles Château de Versailles, Le Grand Contrôle overlooks the stupendous gardens of the world’s largest royal domain from its privileged position. Though that’s not its biggest trump card: in true Marie Antoinette style, the exclusive 14-key hotel promises to offer a level of luxury that would’ve elicited a meek ‘Mon Dieu!’ from the most flamboyant of 18th-century aristocrats.
Some days in everyone’s life inexplicably burn themselves into one’s memory forever – and boy, oh boy, that one time we visited Versailles in 2018 has certainly stayed with us. It started with the arrival of what felt like some twenty (we counted) busloads of tourists descending upon the legendary seat of French royalty the moment gates swung open. A few hours of squashing from one state room into the next ensued, followed by a sardines-in-a-tin-style experience of the world-famous hall of mirrors that makes a point for social distancing even in a post-pandemic world. Frankly, there was more bustle than a 1995 episode of The Nanny would have you believe a Todd Oldham sale in Flushing, Queens will bring about. By the time we were out in the adjoining gardens, we felt rather relieved.
It’s hard to say exactly where one part of the jardins royaux ends and another begins. Despite the French fondness of manicured grounds, the gardens are simply on a scale that would transfix even the most organised pair of eyes. In fact, from some viewpoints, the enormous park appears to stretch beyond what the earth’s curvature allows you to see without moving – we don’t know about you, but the tomatoes in our own backyard haven’t disappeared beyond the horizon last time we checked. Our favourite bit by far was the Queen’s Hamlet, a rustic quasi-village built for Marie Antoinette, who had fallen in love with scenes of rural life in England and insisted on a replica near her beloved Petit Trianon, itself a ‘château away from château’ on the palace grounds (let them eat cake, right?). When we heard there’s a new way to experience it in a more private setting, we were all ears.
Guests booked into the Airelles Château de Versailles, Le Grand Contrôle will be able to benefit from a complimentary, private tour of the Trianon and the hamlet each morning before the throngs of tourists arrive, with guides opening up different parts of the area each day. And because Versailles is all about superlatives, there’ll be more deluxe experiences on offer, still: how about a string quartet-accompanied dinner for two, created by Alain Ducasse and served among the 1,200 trees of the castle’s famous Orangerie? Though, if you’re more hands-on, you’ll prefer stepping into the footsteps of the former head gardener of Louis XIV, André Le Nôtre. The horticultural tour encompasses a private visit to the palace gardens, including a regal picnic in the exact spot where France’s blue-blooded would’ve once savoured petit fours and macarons, as well as a court-approved cooking class using vegetables foraged from the Queen’s personal patch (that’s the actual Queen of Versailles, not Jackie Siegel).
When they’re not exploring the vast grounds, guests checking into the Airelles will also have a lot to look forward to within the hotel itself. The five-star property, housed within three historic buildings dating back to 1681, has been entirely restored under the careful direction of interior designer of the hour, Christophe Tollemer. Original features have been meticulously recreated by French artisans across all fourteen rooms and suites, each decorated individually to pay homage to the most illustrious of Versailles’ once residents, from Jacques Necker to Madame de Staël – needless to say, the 120 square-metre signature suite quite literally takes the crown. There’ll be plenty to keep you busy, as well. From in-room fittings using exact replicas of Marie Antoinette’s most lavish garments (sign us up) to private access to the palace after-hours and nightly five-course dinners, which waiters in period-costume announce with the ring of a bell, just because.
The thing about Versailles is that there are only so many times you can rub your eyes in awe without them getting irritated. It’s easy, perhaps even unpreventable, to feel overwhelmed by the complex’ sheer dimensions, and the level of va-va-voom on display. So when the time comes to call it a day, retreating to the adjoining Airelles (and especially its spa) will truly feel like a blessing. Those looking to make the most out of their stay are well-advised to spend more than one day on the grounds, though if you’ve only got some 24 hours before it’s back to Paree, base yourself at the Airelles and you’ll get a pretty good sense of what life at court is all about.