Hotel Domestique: (Almost) Cycling Paradise
TRAVELERS REST, S.C. – Most of my bike trips have been like bohemian adventures: piling in a car with some friends, stops for fast food, a cooler of beer and accommodations just a step above a hostel. So looking at pictures of George Hincapie's place "Hotel Domestique" in South Carolina was something that didn't seem real. A luxury hotel that caters to cyclists? I didn't think such a place existed.
"Pictures don't do this place justice," my friend and regular traveling cycling partner Alex said as we drove up from Greenville through Travelers Rest and into the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. "Incredible," Phil Foreman the owner of Champion Cycling said as we rounded the corner off Highway 25 and got a glimpse of the hotel perched on a hill.
Both are right, the Hotel Domestique is something unique, different, incredible -- pictures don't do it justice. As you see the hotel for the first time it's as if you left the States all together. Surrounded by rolling hills and sweeping vistas, you're in Italy. Or Spain. Maybe parts of Croatia. The stone walls, the cinder paths and the architecture of the hotel itself have a distinctly European feel. With thirteen rooms, Hotel Domestique isn't in line with most small, boutique, luxury hotels when it comes to the common spaces or the rooms. Large sitting areas, fireplaces and comfortable chairs abound inviting you to just sit, relax and enjoy. The back patio overlooks a ridge and is nicely appointed with a reflecting pool complete with fountains for a calming, ambient sound.
The rooms are spacious and well appointed. Available with a king bed or two queens, there's a nice touch with each room named after a classic European cycling climb. The thirteen rooms cover two floors, with a unique "pantry" on each floor. Hotel guests are welcome to freshly ground coffee, red or white wine, sodas, waters and snacks. There's even a supply of water bottle additives in multiple flavors. A nice touch.
Bike stands line either side of the front door and the entrance to the cafe as your bike waits whenever you're ready to ride.
The cycling focus extends to ride planning with the staff drawing on their established base of rides or just mapping a ride out for you and downloading it into your Garmin. You can rent a bike if you like ($50 a day for a full carbon BMC) and it comes equipped with a Garmin with your daily ride loaded and ready to go.
We did rides over four days ranging from 30 to just over 70 miles. Two were into the Greenville Watershed, a protected park setting that involved plenty of climbing and descents with some switchbacks that rivaled just about anything short of Mt. Ventoux.
Two other rides headed into the city of Greenville through farmland and neighborhoods, taking advantage of the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a Rails to Trails project that gets plenty of use on the weekends. One of the "city" rides included a trip over Paris Mountain, one of the climbs in the US Pro Championship when it was contested there.
While the riding is great and the hotel is beautiful, the crown jewel of the facility is the restaurant, 17. Named after the number of Tour de France appearances Hincape made, 17 has 164 seats, quite a lot compared to the number of guests possible in the hotel. It's a destination for people in the Greenville/Ashville/Spartanburg area and is considered perhaps the best restaurant within the tri-city area. From the peach risotto to the fried pork rinds, the menu is varied and each dish prepared daily based on what's locally available. Desserts are equally sumptuous. I even had a chance to spend a few minutes with George Hincape our first night there as he was dining with his family in the main dining room. True to his reputation, he couldn't be a nicer guy and as often happens in my job, I chuckled to myself standing there speaking with him thinking he couldn't walk down the street in Paris without being mobbed but here we were left alone to chat about non-stop flights from New York to Greenville.
While Hotel Domestique and "17" are a welcome addition to the cycling scene, they're not perfect. Being outside of any major metropolitan area and 30 or so miles from Greenville, finding, keeping and training a staff for a new luxury hotel is a bit of a challenge.
When we arrived, we stood at the front desk for about 5 minutes while a staff member lounged on a chair and chatted on the phone. Actually I wasn't sure he was a staff member by his conversation and body language but eventually figured it out. I know there's a debate in that industry about nametags. But, if they don't want to formalize the name tag process, a pin or some other kind of identifying mark would be helpful.
Speaking of helpful, I'm sure it's somebody's job to show guests to their room, help with luggage and explain how the hotel "works" but that person wasn't around during our check in process. I wandered up to my room (Courchevel) dragging my luggage and found it to be very nice and spacious with a very comfortable bed. The bathroom was fabulous. Although listed as a "vineyard view" room, my view was actually more of the parking lot. Alex's room, by comparison, had sweeping mountain views that exceeded the pictures by any measure.
One of the "promotable" items at Hotel Domestique is "iPads in every room." The tablets are a replacement for a phone in your room, placed there to connect you to the staff for any issues you might have as well as bike schedules, restaurant reservations etc. It's a great idea but since a) no staff member explained how it worked and b) the one in my room was dead for two days, I don't know if it's an idea that can be executed well or not. I waited for a staff member to recharge my iPad but when that didn't happen, I took it to the front desk myself. (Same thing for shampoo in my shower that was never replaced)
I know these are little things and perhaps a bit nit-picky but charging luxury hotel prices ($350-$475) per night raises the level of expectation as it lightens your wallet. There's talk of expanding the facility to include some cottages and a full bike shop. That'll be a welcome addition. A bike-centric hotel needs somebody in the bike room 7 days a week. Alas, our last two days there we were told were "his days off."
I'll definitely go back and my riding buddies said the same. I'm sure the fall and the spring will be prime times for riding and rooms will be at a premium.
We'll book in advance.
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