Paris: Two Banks, Three Hotels, One Incredible Experience

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Paris: Two Banks, Three Hotels, One Incredible Experience

When you tell a friend you have been to Paris, they will invariably ask, "Did you stay on the Right Bank or Left Bank?"After my recent trip the answer was, "Both!" My friend and I stayed three nights on the Right Bank and three nights on the Left Bank. I would do it again and I recommend it to anyone. You not only get a more diversified exposure to Paris, but you can experience some distinctly different hotels. The hotels we stayed in all epitomize the essence of their location – the elegant luxury of the Plaza Athenee is a reflection of its sophisticated Right Bank location on the tres haute couture street of the world; the artistic refinement of the Hotel Lutetia expresses the creative heart of St. Germain-des-Pres; and the bohemian luxe and near-secret exclusivity of L'Hotel near Ecole des Beaux Arts makes you feel as though you have joined an "A" list of insiders.

I hope I have captured the essence of these three hotels, and possibly inspired you to take a trip that celebrates both sides of Paris.

The Right Bank – Timeless Elegance at the Plaza Athenee

There is no better expression of the timeless elegance of the Right Bank than the Hotel Plaza Athenee. Established in 1911, this hotel and its stellar reputation drew the fashion designer Christian Dior to the Avenue de la Montaigne in 1946. Monsieur Dior used the Plaza Athenee as the backdrop for fashion shoots and as the inspiration for many of his designs and collections. He chose the Plaza for his most important business events and meetings, and relied on it as his personal, private respite. In fact, my experience leads me to concur with Monsieur Dior. On the one hand, the Plaza Athenee is the best place in Paris to conduct business, against a hushed backdrop of discreet professionalism and exceptional service. On the other hand, I cannot think of a better place in the world to disappear into a cozy cocoon of personal pampering and luxurious restoration.

When you become a guest of the Hotel Plaza Athenee, you enter a world of unparalleled personal service. From the white-gloved attendant who turns the revolving lobby door to the concierge who can make anything appear in mere minutes, your life at the Plaza Athenee is transformed into a state of elegant ease.

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Every room at the Plaza Athenee offers a retreat into luxury and calm. How do you choose between a room with a view of the tree-lined Avenue and the Eiffel Tower, or a room that overlooks the peaceful interior courtyard and its walls of deep green ivy and bright red geraniums? Our room faced the courtyard, and its quiet tranquility was interrupted only by the cheerful chirpings of the little birds who shared this exclusive address!

The newest suites at the Plaza Athenee transport you to a place you thought only existed in your imagination. Two Eiffel Tower suites capture a view of this timeless symbol of romance in large, over-sized windows so perfectly, that you feel as though you have it all to yourself. As you are enveloped by the pearl grey and rich raspberry tones of the luxury fabrics, staring at the Eiffel Tower, you will know you are in one of the most iconic, extraordinary places on earth!

Whether you are a hotel guest or staying elsewhere in Paris, you must come to the Plaza Athenee to sample some of their amenities and services. I have four suggestions – take one or all of them, and you will experience the best of Right Bank elegance and luxury.

Breakfast at the Restaurant Alain Ducasse: Whether you are meeting here for business or pleasure, allow yourself time to deeply savor your breakfast experience in this 3-Michelin star restaurant. The room is gorgeously decorated in Louis XV style, with a modern twist found in the palette of orange, taupe and white. Huge chandeliers extend their glittering beauty further with hundreds of individual crystals hanging from the ceiling. Not one, but two world champion pastry chefs work behind the scenes to create the cavalcade of French pastries that come to your table. The line-up includes croissants, chocolatines (milk chocolate and hazelnut chip pastry), tartes au sucre (Belgian brown sugar and sour cream tart), Kughelof (brioche scented with lemon and orange blossom), feuilletes framboise (puff pastry crescent filled with raspberry jam)... and many more! If the pastries alone are not sweet enough, you may add a dab of the house special chocolate and hazelnut spread. In addition to American and continental breakfasts, there is the chef's special "oeuf du jour." We had two soft-boiled eggs topped with smoked salmon, set on a bed of softly wilted spinach leaves, and ringed with a nut-browned butter emulsion. Extraordinaire!

Cocktails in the Plaza Athenee Bar: Head Bartender Thierry Hernandez is the creative genius behind the innovative concoctions that underpin the reputation of this hotel bar. The "classic" cocktail is their Rose Royale, a blend of champagne and crushed raspberry that is as delicious as it is beautiful. When you want to go to the creative edge, try the "Plaza Colada" – a sushi cocktail that you eat and drink! Six melt-in-the-mouth marshmallows are infused with rum, pineapple juice and coconut milk and topped with wafer-thin slices of pineapple. Use your chopsticks (or your fingers!) to dip the pieces in Pina Colada syrup and roll them in crisp coconut. Intense flavors and a surprising combination of soft and crisp textures will surprise your taste buds!

Lunch or Dinner at Le Relais: Since 1936, Le Relais Plaza has been one of the most popular Parisian bistros. With its Art deco environment and reputation as a favorite haunt for celebrities, Le Relais combines an air of excitement with a relaxed, modern mood. Follow my recipe and you can't go wrong: Start with a glass of pink champagne, and soak in the atmosphere as you listen to jazz piano. Enjoy a light green salad, and follow that with their beautiful steak and signature spicy frites. Take the advice of the excellent sommelier and you will be guaranteed a wine that is the perfect complement to your meal. Just as we were finishing our excellent dinner, we heard a wave of applause building from the front door toward the back. I looked up to see the world-famous conductor, Seiji Ozawa, make his way into the restaurant after a triumphant concert with the Orchestre National de France next door at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Just like most of the patrons in the restaurant, he was coming to enjoy a well-earned dinner after a big day at work!

A Visit to the Dior Institut: For a haven of intense luxury, visit the new Dior Institute at the Plaza Athenee – the first of its kind in France. Because of the close historical relationship between the two houses it was only natural that they come together to create the most Parisian of all beauty institutes. From the main level of the hotel you will descend an historical staircase into a broad vaulted gallery, with a central pool and arched arcades leading to private treatment rooms. You can choose from an extensive menu of treatments that have been custom-designed to revive the youthful beauty of the face and the body. When you emerge from the Dior Institut, you will be pleased with your new look of well-rested radiance and vibrancy.

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When you stay at the Plaza Athenee, you will inhabit the most elegant and luxurious residence that Paris can offer. It is well worth a visit, and I guarantee you will cherish your memories for the rest of your life!

Left Bank – Steeped in Artistic History at Hotel Lutetia

Sitting in the lobby of the Hotel Lutetia, with its black and white tile floor and an art collection spanning a century, you instantly feel immersed into the artistic and literary life of Paris. Indeed, this hotel is famous for being a second home to artists and writers such as Matisse, Picasso, Andre Gide, Antoine de Saint-Exupery and many more. Today, it remains a favorite place for actors, designers and artists to stay and to gather. Both elegant and warm, it is a welcoming place to reside in the heart of the fashionable St. Germain-des-Pres.

The Lutetia was built in 1910 and was the first Art Deco building of stature in Paris. Founded by the creator of the nearby department store Bon Marche (also considered the first of its kind in its day), the Hotel Lutetia has always been on the artistic forefront of Paris. Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau styles meet Art Deco throughout the hotel – from the famous sculpted façade to the Lalique crystal chandeliers in the ballroom to the historically protected, floral designed stained glass windows in the stairways. From the original wrought ironwork on banisters and balconies, to the vast collection of original furniture and fixtures – the Hotel is a living example of Parisian art and design through the last century.

Back to the hotel lobby, I cast my gaze across the expansive Bar Lutetia, which offers a reassuring hum of activity in a relaxed and sophisticated setting. Small groups cluster in private conversations, pulling their deep red velvet semicircular chairs together. Jazz piano provides a musical backdrop to a scene that could just as easily come from 1939 as from 2009.

We go to our room, which is a wonderfully spacious Junior Suite, decorated in modern, Art deco style. Airy and bright, this suite is completely state-of-the-art, with wireless technology and beautiful bathroom amenities. A small balcony provides a view up and down the classic Boulevard Raspail. It is one of 230 rooms and suites, each one decorated with the modern flair of Hotel Lutetia.

I saw a few of the specially-themed suites, including the Parisienne, which was the home of Monsieur Pierre Berge, business manager and friend to Yves St. Laurent. When Monsieur Berge lived in the hotel, he had a living room, bedroom and small dining room with a galley kitchen. Today, the living room and bedroom are part of the gracious suite, decorated in rich greens and wood paneling. The former dining room has been turned into an optional, adjoining second bedroom to this elegant suite.

Breakfast at Hotel Lutetia can be taken in a variety of ways. I recommend the generous breakfast buffet. Many different stations are available – one with lovely hot entrees, another with an array of cold meats, cheeses, yogurts, fresh fruit and juices. There is the inevitable pastry station with a mouth-watering selection of French delicacies. Waiters bring hot coffee and milk to your table. The room is a global tapestry of travelers and languages.

When you are hungry for lunch, consider the local favorite and long-time Paris tradition, the Brasserie Lutetia. Known especially for its seafood, this lively brasserie has been decorated by Sonia Rykiel and is an energetic, bustling place to enjoy great food and watch Left Bank regulars come and go.

After a stay in the Hotel Lutetia, it is easy to understand why generation after generation returns to the hotel. The Head Concierge has been with the hotel for 38 years, and is one of many loyal staff members who make guests feel at home. The staff is always helpful but never intrusive. The Hotel strikes that elusive balance between warmth and sophistication, relaxation and elegance. With its prime location in the heart of the artistic Left Bank, it becomes a great choice for a home base on this side of Paris.

The Left Bank – Hidden Away in L'Hotel

In a part of the Left Bank where the streets narrow and twist and turn, you'll find L'Hotel tucked among small galleries on the Rue des Beaux Arts. A tiny jewel box full of discoveries, this hotel has been rated as one of the most romantic hotels in the world. A compact lobby leads into the dramatic, circular atrium rising six stories. The decadent, Jacques Garcia design truly begins to reveal itself when you enter the tiny, perfect bar with several alcoves furnished in rich velveteen, sumptuous cushions and soft lighting. Venture further, and you'll enter the Michelin-star Le Restaurant, where chef Philippe Belissent serves superb French cuisine in a setting of deeply bohemian luxury. You may eat in the cozy dining room or on the terrace complete with antiquated fountain.

The front desk staff is young and friendly. They escorted us to our room and we were thrilled to learn we were in the Oscar Wilde Suite! He lived in the hotel until his death in 1900. The room is inspired by his dining room in London and is decorated with deep wood paneling and emerald green wallpaper featuring gold peacocks strutting, preening and kissing. There are several framed notes, letters, bills and photographs – all fascinating ephemera from his life.

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When we stayed at L'Hotel the Restaurant was unfortunately closed for the Sunday evening. However, it was a beautiful night in Paris and the suite came with a gorgeous garden-filled terrace and lovely wrought iron furniture. It did not take us long to sprint through the streets and find the necessary supplies for a terrace picnic, including champagne!

We had a chance to take a tour of some of the other rooms and suites in the hotel – each one a distinctive design statement. It seems that all the walls are covered in heavy silks or hand-painted in jewel tones and gold. Another celebrity suite is named the "Mistinguett" after the popular French entertainer known for her risqué routines in the famous Parisian dance halls. The suite is furnished with her amazing mirrored Art Deco furniture.

The largest suite in L'Hotel, and a favorite of Johnny Depp, Hugh Laurie, Cameron Diaz and many more, is called the "Cardinal." The smallest room is called the "Napoleon."

The bathrooms are invitingly decadent and appointed with astounding old fixtures, rich fabrics, wood paneling and more. And then there is the piece de resistance – reached by a stone stairwell that curls down to the vaulted stone cellars, where a romantic candle-lit small pool and steam room await those who make their private reservation. Sitting in your personal spa, in the 17th century foundation of this quietly historic hotel, you realize that luxury comes in all sizes. At L'Hotel, luxury is tiny and perfect and exclusive.

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