The First Hotel in Versailles Is as Insane as You Hoped
It’s a small hotel with huge ambitions. But with excellent decor, great food, and a truly special array of experiences, Le Grand Contrôle meets its very high bar.
Thump, thump, thump…
I waited, confused as to why the part of me controlled by second-hand embarrassment wasn’t cringing over this burly 20-something bellowing in a deep voice something in French about a king and his food.
Perhaps it was because I was a few glasses deep that I didn’t mind, but I suspect the real culprit was where I happened to be—the sumptuous dining room of the first-ever hotel in the complex of Versailles.
It is fitting, then, that this hotel which just opened this summer, Le Grand Contrôle, is the latest selection for our series on exciting new hotels, Room Key. Le Grand Contrôle is housed in the mansion designed in 1681 by Mansart and last occupied before the Revolution as a home by First Minister Jacques Necker. It is located next to the Orangery—which you can find by standing overlooking the Grand Canal in front of the palace, turning left and going down the steps.
If the location is what grabs you (it’s really the only true luxury hotel in the area), the décor will reel you in. The hotel is an Airelles property (the group also has properties in Courchevel, St. Tropez, and Gordes), and so the design was overseen in house by Christophe Tollemer. It is, thankfully, more Louis XVI than XIV and so while still opulent, it is far from garish.
In fact, despite working within historicist constraints and in an era where so many luxury hotels all look the same, the decoration is imaginative, transportive, and, somehow, comfortable. The underground pool, part of a spa run by Valmont, is a particular gem.
Each of the 14 rooms and suites (which start around $2,000 a night) is done differently. I was in the Foucquet Suite, which had the original gilt mirror frames from the 18th century and a spectacular polonaise canopy bed. But details throughout the hotel are worth noting—textiles recreated from historical patterns by Maison Pierre Frey, tech hidden inside leather boxes, Saint Maximin Limestone countertops, wicker side tables—that made the place, well, chef’s kiss.
Most of the year, but especially during the summer peak tourist season, Versailles is extremely crowded. This means not only long lines but also shuffling through state rooms, apartments, and the Hall of Mirrors with throngs of people. Sure, if you go on a weekday first thing or stay right until closing you might snag some breathing room. But, included with your stay at Le Grand Contrôle is an after-hours tour of the palace where the only other visitors are the other guests, meaning you won’t have to download an app to edit people out of your Hall of Mirrors picture. (Or, if you’re next level like one woman staying while I was there, you can come prepared in a fairy tale dress for your quick photoshoot in the empty Hall.)
You also get a private tour of the Petit Trianon, the miniature palace complex built by Madame du Barry and occupied by Marie Antoinette.
Add-on experiences not included in the rate vary from having the Hall of Mirrors lit up for you at night to dressing up as Marie Antoinette for the day and having macaron tastings and a dinner in the French Pavilion.
While not one of the “experiences” the hotels talks about, one of the most magical things I did while there was go for a run in the park right when the palace grounds opened. There was something truly surreal about panting up and down the manicured paths in 21st century athletic gear in a place that was once the global pinnacle of fashion and prestige. (It also joins the Exorcist Steps and the Rocky Steps as one of the coolest places to do stairs.)
While staying at the hotel, though, it’s impossible to forget the history of where you’re staying. Not only because of what is right out the window, but also because the staff (a very attractive one, at that) is dressed up in period costumes.
Which brings me back to that young man in costume thumping a big stick in imitation of the announcements made at the king’s ceremonial dinners. The food experience at the hotel is overseen by none other than Alain Ducasse, a man drowning in Michelin stars. Everything is as fabulous as you’d expect (and breakfast, curated by him, is included), but the dinner is done with some of the historical re-enacting. Normally, I would hate such stuff, but I can’t help feeling that if there’s one place in the world you’re going to be extra with all the pomp and theatrics—it’s Versailles. It gives you a small taste of the absurdity that was court life. (I did not, however, take the hotel up on its offer to do a royal wake up call for guests.)
If Airelles does as well with Le Grand Contrôle as I think it will, it’s likely it will be a new addition for American luxury travelers who often spend a few days at the palace hotels of Paris before heading south. Now, they might just swing up to Versailles for a night or two for a little taste of that royal life.