News & Reviews Europe France Review: Airelles Château de Versailles, Le Grand Contrôle

Le Grand Contrôle, Versailles 
Room type: Loménie De Brienne Suite
Duration: 25 > 27th June, 2021

Let me get a disclaimer out of the way: this is the first hotel I have ever been invited to.  I don’t mean I’m a vampire and I can’t go in otherwise, I mean the CEO of Airelles group actually invited me here; the room was provided for free and I covered everything else (food, spa, transfers etc).  Yes, you read that right: someone has such massive testicles that they read my blog and thought “this is the guy we want to come and give his views”.  In return for free accommodation, I was asked for absolutely nothing in return, so here I am doing my annual charity work by writing this review.  They offered a night, I then requested two and to pay for the second, only for them to come back and offer both nights free.

Now where does that leave us, fellow reader?  My blog has been as neutral as Switzerland and that is its appeal – it allows me to be extremely, brutally, honest at times.  I realised how rare this objectivity is, when I struggled to find reputable reviews of hotels for our recent Italian trip.  Now I have joined the Dark Side.

I appreciate that even when not trying to be biased, I will be.  Maybe I’ll try a bit harder to find fault, to appear less biased, or not enough. Maybe I’ll even not throw in a racist French joke, like I normally would.  So how will you now ever trust me?  Well how can you not, with my suave British accent?  Did James Bond ever lie?  Of course not, he was too busy banging your wife.  Anyway, where was I…

Symbolic of me writing this review

Out of all the hotel openings this year, this is easily the most hyped, unique and anticipated.  Topping my list of other top properties: Reschio, Aman New York, Kisawa Sanctuary, Cheval Blanc Paris and Bulgari Paris.  I’m sure they’ll all be absolutely wonderful, or crushingly disappointing (Kisawa), but they don’t hold a 16th century candle to the appeal of Le Grand Controle.

The appeal here is exclusive access to the Palace of Versailles.  And they really do mean exclusive.  I’m talking go in once it’s closed and take a selfie with Marianne Antoinette’s ghost in the Hall of Mirrors exclusive.  Hotels are trying to offer quirky perks like a bath bubble butler or the GM following you around all day shouting “Memento Mori” in your face, but to offer something as unique and actually special as this, is a real rarity.  That is why people are so excited about this opportunity; it isn’t just about a good hotel, in a good location, it’s about a great hotel in the perfect location.  The hotel is part of Versailles; you are meters from The Orangery Garden and if you’re as rich as someone that used to own Versailles, your room may even overlook it too.

Not this fella, he’s broke

This is Airelles, the owners of Bastide de Gordes, where service seems to be bred into them.  So as a little taster I figured I wouldn’t bother sending my stay list, in the expectation that they had it from previous stays and would take care of it all.  Now I understand why I’m the guy that keeps thinking the world is going to get back to normal every 5 seconds: blinded optimism.  Let’s just say that didn’t end up exactly as I expected.  The pre-arrival experience was more in line with my expectations, with a personalised welcome from the butler which outlined the activities, but it was already at this point that requests came back wrong or were ignored and I just brushed them off.

After navigating the horrendous Friday evening Paris traffic from Charles de Gaulle, we arrived 90 minutes later to a warm welcome from the impeccably dressed staff and the GM, although that was the last time we were to see him.  In a place like this, that probably sounds like he was beheaded, I just mean we didn’t see him again during our stay, but I’m sure his skull is still attached.

Proof that some of the staff, at some point in time, had skulls

There is a very Lanesborough style with the design, just not quite as overwhelming.  The Lanesborough is in my Top 5 hotels in London, but the design is definitely not the reason.  However, after coming from Reschio, where the rooms are so dark I had to develop echolocation to get around, I was rather fond of the bright colours.  The detailing is amazing, with all the curtains, sheets and wallpaper designed to matched, and all 14 rooms and suites are uniquely decorated.  Would I design my house this way?  Definitely not and when I saw the pictures my expectations where that I’d hate the rooms, but the reality was very different, and I’m not just saying that because it was €3990/n, I pinky swear.  It feels very classy and brand new, whilst remaining classic.

The suite was hugely spacious, with a dedicated bath room, separate shower room, two Toto-like toilets, a living room and a lot of wardrobe space.  They seem to have thought of everything, with so many amenities included and beautifully presented in boxes in different rooms; everything from a Dyson drier to plug adapters to shaving kits and dental kits – you don’t need to ask for anything.  As you would hope from a hotel that has only been open three weeks, the towels and robes were so soft that they could comfortably fit in our luggage.  The minibar is free, the snacks are restocked daily and they have their own soap that smells so good I’m sure it’ll kill covid and taste good on your toast.

They have taken a novel approach to their TV: they don’t have one.  Nor do they have phones scattered around the room.  Instead you have an iPad, mobile phone and portable speaker.  I get the marketing around the lack of TV, but in actuality we had almost no view to look at, so I don’t really follow the logic.

Yet for the praise, there are also some significant failings which felt at times like we were doing a snag list for them.  Some light switches did not work; there was no light in the shower; there’s a lump in the floor near the bed that we kept tripping on, and most annoyingly the AC had a mind of its own.  It was warm in the living room, but freezing in the bedroom, so we had to keep phoning reception as it kept fluctuating from blasting hot air to being so cold a snowball fight was inevitable.  There is a thermostat in the room, but it looked like its purpose was just to entertain us due to the lack of TV.  The front door was also so hard to open that along with your key they should hand you a battering ram on arrival.

When we tried to use their provided phone it would either result in a hang up or the line going randomly silent for 5-10 seconds; when we used the iPad to order room service we heard nothing, so phoned and they told us the order never came through.  These are all minor inconveniences, but they are the type of thing that should be resolved prior to opening.  They’re like software bugs which can easily be patched, but it doesn’t remove the frustrations of dealing with them.

If the style feels like The Lanesborough, the facilities feel like La Reserve Paris – a boutique hotel that punches well above its weight.  Supremely fast Internet, a beautiful library/games room, a decent sized gym, a great terrace and a small 4-seater bar.  The nice touches apply around the hotel, as they have regular stations with food and drink.  Yet where it surpasses La Reserve is with the spa, as whilst they both offer swimming pools, Le Grand Controle is on another scale.  There is maybe one and only one positive from covid: you have to book the pool in advance, so it is a entirely yours for those 45 minutes.  With a sauna and steam room (the latter not currently open, as covid giveth and covid taketh away) and this ambience of being in an old tomb, it’s really special and not in any way creepy like I just made it sound.  There are two treatment rooms; a couple and a single, and the massage I received was amongst the best I’ve ever had.  Lucie loved the spa products so much that I ended up buying such a quantity that it will probably even last her until the end of the week.

So the hard product is, bugs withstanding, a beautiful achievement, particularly when you consider it’s only 14 rooms.  Perfect setting; facilities; rooms.

Uh oh, where’s this going?

Let’s come onto the service.  After only being open for 3 weeks, I am not expecting Aman service levels; but conversely, we departed Reschio to come here, which whilst suffering service lapses after being open only 6 weeks, was nothing like what we experienced here.

It was not a single thing that makes you think “this place sucks”, there’s just a sense of death by a thousand cuts, where a lot of things go wrong around a lack of forward planning.  Repeated, silly mistakes, that don’t rely on great hospitality experience.  Asking questions and not hearing back; being told incorrect information; food orders needing chasing; cutlery taken away and not replaced (there we were getting worried about the dress code, but we found ourselves eating by hand).  Asking for baby changing facilities, and being told to use the floor; housekeeping not showing up until 12, then ignoring requests to come back; multiple people asking for drinks orders over and over again; a butler coming in a 6 seater car to collect over 10 guests from an event.

I found it common to ask for something, someone acknowledging it, but clearly not understanding it and either choosing to ignore it or offer something completely wrong rather than asking us to clarify.

The shame is that the person who had the most consideration for us being there with a baby was a Palace tour guide, who was desperate to make the experience seamless and achieved it.  Now should you go there with a baby?  Experience has now taught me it’s probably not the wisest decision, but it does bill itself as a family friendly hotel and there were other guests with babies and children.

I do not want to be completely dismissive.  This was not an entirely negative experience, and there were some real decency from the team, but it was mixed amongst too many mistakes; staff were calling me by my name (by actual name, not something horrible they’ve devised about me behind my back), some came rushing over to provide an umbrella to move across the courtyard; they took note of some preferences for food to see if we wanted the same drinks again; there is no need to ever sign a bill for food or drink (although strangely you do need to at the spa).

I don’t know what you could point the issues down to, as the issues are mostly common sense and whenever I enquired where someone worked previously it was another luxury hotel.

The best receptionist

The dining room is ran by Alain Ducasse and offers a fine dining menu that varies between lunch, brunch and dinner.  The only alternative is a very limited lounge/room service menu resulting in Caesar salad or a Club Sandwich being just about the only options. Breakfast is also restrictive, with everything brought to you on the table, and the only a la carte offering being eggs. The highlight was brunch; at Bastide it was the best brunch I’ve ever seen and it’s clearly a Airelles philosophy as it was pretty spectacular here too. There is nothing wrong with the quality of the food, in fact I rather enjoyed it, it’s just the selection, and whilst I appreciate most guests will only stay a few nights and therefore the idea of fine dining the entire time appeals, it’s not for everyone, i.e. me.  Breakfast is so limited that I’d rather go somewhere else, and it’s even more limited when my eggs order never showed up, even after I put up missing posters around the hotel.

But once again the service issues crept in.  I informed them of my shellfish allergy, only for lobster to show up a matter of minutes in an amuse-bouche, then the next day I repeated my allergy, only for lobster to show up again moments later. The waitress was visibility upset and deeply, deeply apologetic about it, which was nice as it’s normally my dentist and doctor that get this upset about what I eat.  And then, as part of their own itinerary they created for us, we went for dinner at Alain Ducasse with our baby daughter, only for them to look panicked, mention they need to get their manager, and then the manager tell us we cannot take our daughter in there, even though we were in there for lunch.  I have no issue in their policy of no children, but it doesn’t make sense why they would then book us to go there, knowing we had a baby with us.  Twice.  When we checked out they removed some items from our bill, but the receptionist wasn’t even sure why they had done it; my guess was due to the repeated lobster mistake, but no one ever came to speak to us about it and I think that summarised the service: no one really knew what was going on.

As we arrived so late on the Friday, we missed out on the best opportunity that Le Grand Controle has to offer: exclusive access to Versailles after it closes.  Instead we went on Saturday evening, when the public can still access it, albeit in limited numbers.  You’re best coming on a weekday, where you would be the only guests.  I did get to experience the 11pm fireworks on the Saturday, but the enjoyment is not in the fireworks – you can see those anywhere – it’s being in the atmospheric grounds so late.

I will do a huge injustice to talk about Versailles, as I’m sure many, many, many others have spoken in immense detail about how astonishing it is.  Instead, I’ll focus on the hotel.   It may sound strange, but Le Grand Controle has the same feeling of a safari lodge. I will pay to avoid group activities, but in this case it actually created a wonderful camaraderie with other guests; I spent more time talking to other residents than at any hotel I’ve ever stayed in.  The hotel is small enough that once you’ve been on an activity together, you’ll see each other around and start to engage in conversation, which would never normally happen.  As the activities are the same time, you’ll definitely bump into each other whilst waiting around.

The waiting around was a missed opportunity for guests to mingle, for management to chat to us and for some drinks or canapés to be offered, once again very much like a safari.  There is a very similar vibe to being on safari, just instead you’re hunting history and it’s much easier to photograph as it doesn’t bloody move all the time just as you’re about to get the perfect shot.  And luckily you don’t need to wake-up at 5am.

We were with a baby stroller and there was a real lack of foresight and planning regarding it.  I know there’s a decline in births, so maybe this part of France is like the Children of Men edition and they haven’t seen one in a while.  On one tour we had to walk up The Hundred Steps, which unsurprisingly is somewhere between 99 and 101 steps, give or take.  Rather than offer to drive us there, I had to carry the stroller whilst my wife carried our daughter, all whilst a member of staff just watched us.  3 staff were just stood around as we were waiting to start the tour, because whilst they’re called private tours, they mean they’re private for you as a group of Le Grand. So when it says it starts at 6pm, it actually starts closer to 6:30 – maybe there aren’t enough clocks in the rooms.  So there we are, stood around waiting for half an hour for everyone to get ready, but then we have to race around to catch-up with the rest of the group as it’s such a struggle for us with a stroller.  When you then arrive, they split the groups into French and English speakers, whereas it makes more sense to do that at the hotel, so the groups can leave earlier.

Still, the experience is majestic, but Le Grand Controle misses the opportunity to make it luxurious.

The Good

  • The amount spent here would make a dictator blush
  • Spa/pool.  In fact, all the facilities
  • Rooms
  • Brunch

The Bad

  • Service
  • Limited food selection

The Luxurious

  • There is absolutely nothing else like this out there.  The location, the exclusivity and the luxury is breathtaking

Conclusion

Upon arriving to Le Grand Controle, blog readers immediately started requesting feedback – give a guy a minute here….you don’t see movie reviews written after the opening credits.  “Eurgh, Alien is the worst movie ever, there’s not even an alien in the first 5 minutes, so I’m off to get dinner and beat up my wife”.

The problem with wanting to be first to review somewhere is the risk that comes with it; not only from our end, but the hotels too.  I often repeat: I’ll go for the hard product and return for the soft.  You can’t accurately describe the service or quality of food from a picture, so you have to go there to experience it, but you’re not going to go stay in a luxury hotel that’s themed on Belmarsh prison.  You need to offer something that looks appealing to get people there.  Le Grand Controle is an amazing product.  I feel bad that I blagged my way into a stay 3 weeks after opening, as every complaint I have is easily fixed, but it still surprises me that such a brilliant group would have allowed it in the first place.

Anyone with money can create an amazing hard product, but no one ever goes to a hotel, sits in their room, watches TV and stares at the building.  Ok, maybe I’ve done that once or twice, so maybe most people don’t do that.  They care about the service, the food, the setting, the way you feel, but the key is the service.  It’s why anyone that knows what they’re talking about would never say Dubai or New York offers the best hotels – it’s not just about money, it’s more than just looks.

What’s so disappointing is that everything started so well; the emails from the butlers, the lovely welcome.  It didn’t rapidly deteriorate, it just gradually fell off the cliff in slow motion.  But what is comforting is how the feedback has been received.  You have several ways of taking criticism: Il Sereno, where the customer is wrong, or here, where they accept they must improve. Remember kids, if it’s always someone else’s fault, you can never do anything about it.

So should you go?  Absolutely.  Just not for a few months.  When it comes to opening a new attraction that’s never done before, there are no better words than Jeff Goldblum, Lord of Jurassic Park: “Yeah, but if The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists”. 

It could have been worse.

If I go back, this is definitely going to be poisoned

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 29th Jun '21

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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