It is 10am on a Tuesday and 10 glasses of champagne are splayed out before me, each with its own galaxy of tiny pinpoint bubbles. Champagne, the universal beverage of celebration, brings with it a mystique and glamour. "I only have one regret," said the legendary economist John Maynard Keynes on his deathbed. "That I didn't drink more champagne."
For that reason – and a few others – I've come to the birthplace of bubbly to ensure I don't make the same mistake as Keynes.
Although it is located just 45 minutes from Paris by train, this province in north-eastern France remains unknown territory to many travellers, often overlooked as a wine destination with many favouring the more famous Burgundy or Bordeaux regions. In recent years, Champagne has strived to change all that, with the addition of new hotels, a cooking school, Michelin-star restaurants and new wineries.
Royal Champagne Hotel is perhaps the most spectacular new offering. While the hotel by name and location has stood on the same site for decades, it is not as many would remember it. The new owners knocked down the entire structure, leaving a single wall for historical significance, and erected the region's first luxury contemporary hotel, which opened only last year.
The 47-room hotel has already collected a loyal following of visitors, enticed by its stand-out service, modern rooms and incredible views. It has two restaurants, a champagne tasting room, and a 16,000-square-metre spa and wellness centre, which has treatment rooms and an indoor lap pool and spa.
The magnificent views, which can be enjoyed from numerous vantage points, not least the large terrace bar, are a gateway to the region's picturesque landscape. Rolling hillsides, carpets of vineyards and historical caves make the region a tranquil yet sophisticated escape – and earned it a UNESCO World Heritage site listing in 2015.
To experience Champagne fully, hiring a car once you arrive in Reims, or before you leave Paris, is worthwhile, especially if you plan to stay a few days. A car provides the freedom to explore local wineries and villages over a couple of days as ride sharing services are not available and taxis are infrequent and expensive.
With champagne tastings forming a big part of most people's trip to the region, it's important to know there are two main towns: Reims and Epernay. Reims, the unofficial capital of Champagne, has many of the big-name houses including Taittinger, Ruinart and Pol Roger. Their stately headquarters, where they welcome tourists by the busload, are on Avenue de Champagne, which Winston Churchill famously dubbed "the world's most drinkable address". The charming Epernay, Champagne's second city, is about 30 minute's drive south of Reims, and more centrally located for those who want to focus on tasting chardonnay-based or blanc de blancs champagne.
As a first-time visitor, I had planned on sticking to the familiar champagne houses including Veuve Clicquot and Moet & Chandon, but a chance recommendation led me to two "grower" producers, Bereche and Leclerc Briant. In recent years, these smaller farmer producers have started to open their cellars to tourists, not to sell (most of them don't) but to proudly offer tastings and explain the intricacies of the winemaking process.
Visits, which should be booked at least four weeks in advance unless you have a good concierge, are much more personalised than the big champagne houses. Meeting the winemaker who made the bubbly you are sipping takes the experience to a new level, giving you a glimpse into the patience, passion and resilience of producing the drop.
Of the villages to visit, the best known is Hautvilliers, home to the tomb of the father of champagne, Dom Perignon. The French monk who famously said of champagne: "Come quick. I'm tasting the stars", is buried in the Abbey of Saint Pierre d'Hautvillier, reached through a maze of cobblestone streets and past wrought-iron street signs. Apart from its history, the pretty village of Hautvilliers has an array of outdoor cafes, restaurants and an interesting antique shop, where you can browse – and buy – champagne buckets, glasses and ashtrays, some dating back to the 1920s. Beyond Hautvilliers are a host of small vineyards, which can be explored on a bicycle tour – an electric bike no less.
It's hilly territory and the luxury of pressing the "assist" button resurrected my love of cycling. For an hour, a private tour took our group through intimate villages, zig-zagging through vineyards where workers tended to vines, and local children excitedly waved. When thirst overcame us and we had drained our water bottles, there was a leisurely break to enjoy a wine tasting. In the city of Reims, there is the magnificent Cathedrale Notre-Dame de Reims, a 13th-century cathedral where the kings of France were crowned.
Nearby is a new cooking school with Eric Geoffrey from Au Piano des Chefs, a pleasant reprieve from days of wine tasting. The class began with a visit to Saturday morning's local market in Reims where we met local farmers and stocked up ingredients such as raspberries, white asparagus, organic chicken and an array of cheeses. Afterward we drove to a unique champagne experience, Perching Bar. Surrounded by lush forest and with birds chirping in the trees, it is an ideal spot to enjoy a bottle of champagne and say "Sante".
Many airlines fly one-stop from Australia to Paris. The TGV train from Paris Gare de L'Est to Reims takes 45-minutes. Trains also run from Charles de Gaulle airport to Reims. The local train to Epernay from Paris takes about 90-minutes. See en.oui.sncf
Rooms at the Royal Champagne hotel start at €510 ($820) a night. See royalchampagne.com
RESTAURANT RACINE, REIMS
When you have had your fix of steak frites and cassoulet, and are craving more delicate flavours, Racine could be the answer. Tokyo-trained chef Kazuyuki Tanaka is at the helm of the Michelin-star restaurant, creating a menu inspired by the French culture but with inspiration from his native Japan. With only 20 seats, local foodies including chefs flock to this intimate spot, which the Michelin guide described as "lively, tasty, beautifully done, and all the better for the first-rate ingredients used". If you prefer a more casual meal, head to Tanaka's sister restaurant, Doko Koko Bistro. See racine.re
Opened only a year ago, Le Royal has already earned a Michelin star – judges describing the menu as "fine and delicate preparations, distinct flavours and careful presentation". Chef Jean-Denis Rieubiand who held two Michelin stars at Le Negresco in Nice, was lured to the picturesque region to take the helm at the Royal Champagne Hotel and Spa's gastronomique restaurant. With a strong focus on sourcing from local producers, diners can indulge in sublimely curated dishes such as a crab flavoured with kaffir lime, caviar and mango; pigeon cooked with black ham; and veal sweetbread stuffed with chorizo, caramelised pearl onions and xeres juice. See royalchampagne.com
ROTISSERIE HENRI IV
This is the ideal spot for a relaxed no-frills yet delicious meal. Renowned for its rotisserie meats, including chicken and lamb, this large restaurant is a haven for locals and tourists alike. Dishes are unfussy and simple, making it great for children, and come served with chips, salad or vegetables. Reserve in advance and request a table outside under the treetops. Extensive wine menu with reasonably priced champagne. 62 boulevard Charles de Gaulle, Ay. Phone + 33 3 26 54 77 40.
C COMME, EPERNAY
For a light meal, as well as an introduction into the different styles and flavours of the region's champagne producers, C Comme could be the answer. The menu showcases more than 30 local producers, many of them smaller operations but just as superb as their big-name neighbours. Grab a seat in the arched stone cellars and enjoy a champagne flight of six or order by the glass. Pair the beverages with charcuterie, foie gras and an array of local cheeses. See c-comme.fr
Ellen Connolly travelled with the assistance of Champagne-Ardenne Tourism.