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Chef Raymond Blanc’s Le Manior

After my adventures in London, Paris and Vienna (which you can read about in my January column), I went in search of a fabled culinary heaven in England. I knew about the legendary French Chef Raymond Blanc; he is a TV personality and the acclaimed author of “A Taste of My Life.” But, I had never managed to visit his legendary restaurant Le Manior… even though it is only an hour and a half from London! Silly, me. This self-taught chef moved to Oxfordshire, England in 1972 and opened his own, albeit tiny, restaurant by 1977. Within a year of opening, Le Manoir had been awarded two Michelin stars, capturing the attention and respect of foodies from around the world.  Chef Blanc has maintained those two Michelin stars for 29 years, a triumph of skill and love in part, I think, due to his mantra of “Always say yes.”  Chef Blanc told me: “Everything changes. It is true that the French, more than any other nation, have exported their food culture across the world. But creatively what is happening is that both consumers and chefs are changing, and that’s an exciting moment because British gastronomy can now match the very best of France, and that is new. It is not just about cooking; it is craftsmanship, turning raw materials into something extraordinary. It’s about connecting people and reigniting the French culture for feasting and sharing, not just for special occasions, but for every day. I think this dinner you will have tonight will be very special and I’m really excited about communicating this message to my esteemed guests and also the greater public.”

Today Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, also in Oxfordshire, is both a restaurant and hotel, carved out of a charming 17th century English country house set amidst ten manicured acres. There are 11 magnificent gardens to wander through filled with whimsical sculptures and fountains.  This includes five water gardens, three flower gardens and a two-acre organic vegetable and herb garden that the restaurant uses for its critically acclaimed dishes. “90% of all our food is organic. That started about 13 years ago,” explained Blanc. There is also a Japanese teahouse and a rock garden inspired by his travels in the Far East. Le Manior and its 32 unique and truly luxurious rooms offer a romantic ambience that transports guests into a Blanc’s world of elegant tranquility and exceptional cuisine. “Le Manoir is the fulfillment of a personal vision, where guests will find perfection in food, comfort and service. Humility is so important to me. I have a lovely life. I live in a fantastic world. That’s why, when I cook for strangers, I give them my heart,” confided the genial chef.Blanc is a wonderful storyteller.

Tea with this master host is an absolute delight. He debunks the image of a chef as an eccentric control freak. “It’s nonsense that you have to be some sort of fierce, controlling chef – it’s yesterday’s cliché – those people will end up in prison because that’s where they belong. The world is changing – we need to create a modern business in which young people will be empowered and treated with respect. We have devalued food in this country. Food should connect everything. It’s connected to health, our environment, sex and consciousness. When we sit down and relax at the table it’s a time to let go. Every day people feel like they have to be someone else. We have to meet deadlines, and our bosses want more and more. At the table we can be silly; we can be ourselves. I have learned to laugh at myself, which I couldn’t do before. Never! You know a Frenchman never laughs about himself. It is always, ‘We are the best!’ And I was exactly the same.” The only issue I have with his confession is that he is, quite simply, one of the world’s most elite chefs.

London’s Café Royal

After leaving Le Manior and all its glory, I went back to London and checked into the Café Royal on Regent Street to indulge myself in one of the world’s top spas.  The Akasha Spa opened on December 9th and boasts the only Watsu pool in a London Hotel for tailored hydro-treatments and guided meditation. That is in addition to nine treatment rooms, a private Hamman and a Vichy shower for cleansing hydrotherapy rituals. I enjoyed a massage, a steam, laps in their 60-foot long swimming pool and a good night’s sleep in Café Royal’s ultimate Dome Suite, which faces Piccadilly Circus and has a stunning view of Big Ben. Afterwards, I was finally ready to go home and headed to Southampton, England. I decided to return to New York the old fashioned way by making the most iconic of all sea faring trips: a transatlantic voyage. It’s the only way, really.

Queen Mary 2: Chasing The Titanic

I decided to cross the pond on Queen Mary 2, which sails proudly as the flagship of Cunard Line. She is the longest, tallest, widest, most luxurious passenger ship ever built. With a 30-knot speed, the vessel leaves lesser ships in her wake. Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II christened this floating palace named after her grandmother in 2004, proclaiming, “I name this ship Queen Mary 2. May God bless her and all who sail on her,” before she broke a bottle of champagne over the bow. Her maiden voyage was from Southampton, England to America and it was this itinerary that I decided to retrace after the Titanic sank amidst the same waters in 1912.  The difference between a cruise and a voyage is that the latter takes you from one place to another with no stops. During these blissful days, I saw nothing but the drama of rolling waves and black nights filled with the constellations of stars, made all the more brilliant by the absence of civilization. This is the stuff of dreams, romance and memories.  Ship-side, we were greeted by a quartet of red-jacketed bellhops, their gold buttons gleaming and their traditional caps strapped on snuggly. As we embarked, White Star Service Bellmen picked up our Louis Vuitton trunks and escorted us over the gangplank, through the Grand Lobby­–where live music played, and into a glamorous stateroom ritzier than the RitzWe were in the Queens Grill Suites, which is limited to 192 guests out of the 2,620 on board. Our personal butler and steward,both on call 24/7, greeted us in our spacious suite that was comprised of sitting and dinning areas, a bar, a bedroom, two bathrooms and a walk-in closet. The Pièce de résistancewas our private balcony, which ran the length of our rooms, giving us a sea view from everywhere but the bathtub. It was all terribly POSH, which translates to Port Out Starboard Home and means our cabins were always sunny.

An extensive roster of royalty and luminaries have traveled on Samuel Cunard’s ships since he founded his legendary fleet in 1840, including H.R.H Princess Diana of Wales, Prince Charles, the Queen Mother, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Duchess of Cornwall to the Sultan of Johor, King Hussein of Jordan, Queen Marie of Romania and the Shah of Persia. Princess Grace of Monaco, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Robert F. Kennedy have also all strolled Cunard’s hallowed halls. Hollywood royalty, including Charlie Chaplin, Rita Hayworth, Walt Disney, Bob Hope, Joan Crawford, Noël Coward, Bing Crosby and Elizabeth Taylor, who spent four of her eight honeymoons on the high seas, two with Richard Burton, were also Cunarders. Silver-screen goddess Marlene Dietrich was a frequent passenger, famous for never being seen at breakfast and rarely at lunch, though she never failed to make a dramatic entrance at dinner.

The staff unpacked us while we explored the ship, which has five outdoor and indoor swimming pools, seven jacuzzis, a Canyon Ranch SpaClub, a gigantic movie theater that also houses the only planetarium at sea, a showroom that features elaborate musicals, multiple gourmet restaurants, including one by Todd English, several tea rooms, a Veuve Cliquot Champagne bar, a ballroom with a 12-piece orchestra, a disco, a gym with a killer view of the horizon and games galore including golf, shuffle board, ping pong, paddle tennis, darts, backgammon, bingo, bridge and way too many other activities to list here. Additionally, the QM2 boasts the largest library at sea with breathtaking ocean panoramas, an hourly schedule of guest lectures by famous authors, actors, poets and scientists, not to mention, classical concerts, piano and harp recitals, Shakespeare performances by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and an endless list of fitness classes including yoga, stretch and circuit training from which to choose. There is also a fully equipped casino; professional gamblers and tricksters used to be a hazard of life at sea. In 1842, the writer Charles Dickens warned a fellow passenger on Cunard’s Britannia that there was a “card shark” on board. Today, there are spotters to keep things honest.  Daily laps around the deck, three times equaling one mile, leisurely naps in a deckchair under a blue and black plaid wool blanket from Scotland and a nightcap in the Commodore Club are de rigueur.  Naturally, you can bring your four-legged best friends who can enjoy play dates with other pampered pooches on their very own poop deck; did I just write that?

 Cary Grant called the original Queen Mary “the eighth wonder of the world” and met one of his five wives at one of the ship’s black tie dinner dances. My favorite anecdotes are about cosmetics queen Helena Rubinstein, who tossed her 20-carat diamond earrings out of the porthole of her cabin because she forgot that she had hidden them in the tissue box that she was discarding, and screen queen Greta Garbo, who crisscrossed the Atlantic regularly during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s all but insisted on traveling incognito; not only did she sail under an alias, she disembarked disguised as a stewardess. The QM2 raced around the world in 81 days for the first time in 2007. Other VIPs who have been seduced by the many charms of the QM2 include President George W. Bush, Prime Minister , French President Jacques ChiracDonald Trump, Katie Couric, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Uma Thurman, George Lucas, Rod Stewart, Lenny Kravitz and Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Elizabeth in the movie “The Queen” in 2006 and inscribed a painting of the QM2 in the ship’s casino,  “From one Queen to another.”  There are three black tie nights out of seven, so bring your best bib and tucker, haute couture gowns and big jewels. Dinner at the Captain’s Table in the Britannia Restaurant is still a highly sought after honor. It was over Oysters Rockefeller, Chateaubriand, Baked Alaska and several glasses of Cristal thatCaptain Kevin Oprey regaled us with stories about life at sea. If you want to spend quality time with your family, mingle and mix or just “left alone” like Greta Garbo, I highly recommend a transatlantic voyage on board the greatest ocean liner on earth, the incomparable Queen Mary 2.

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