Talk about timing. In a serendipitous conspiracy with the millennium, Paris is lifting the veil on four new design-driven hotels, located in key pockets of both the Right and Left Banks. Styles swing from Second Empire to updated traditional, from Neoclassical to snugly provincial. And did we mention intimate?The city's fresh crop of hotels plays the personal card in ways that will remind you of home--except you don't have to make the bed, and the world's most romantic city is at your feet.
Hôtel le Lavoisier
Two Left Bank hotels, Le Tourville and Le St.-Grégoire, have figured for years on sophisticated insiders' lists of places to stay. So when word started circulating that their owner, Michel Bouvier, was readying a Right Bank property in the same mold, Paris pulse-takers wasted no time in checking it out. Before you could say "fashionista," the new Hôtel Le Lavoisier was crawling with Vogue editors covering the couture collections and Prada's design team on a trend-gathering mission.
Folded into a mid-19th-century town house in the Eighth Arrondissement, near the imposing Église St.-Augustin, Le Lavoisier also appeals to Japanese travelers, who like to be near the Opéra and the Madeleine (it's the shopping, stupid). Being neighbors with a wonderful branch of Monoprix, the well-priced mini department store so loved by Parisians, doesn't hurt, either.
No sane hotelier tempts fate by announcing success before all the kinks have been worked out. But if ever a place had "hit" written all over it, Le Lavoisier is it. To decorate the hotel in a manner consistent with Tourville's and St.-Grégoire's traditionalism-with-a-twist, Bouvier turned to Jean-Philippe Nuel, a French designer in his late thirties. Nuel's clean, fresh style confidently straddles past and present. Snowy white pilasters and crisp dentil molding set the lobby's classical tone. Halls with taupe wainscoting below deep coral toile are lit with huge plaster sconces in the shape of stylized oak leaves. The 30 rooms and one suite have nine-foot ceilings, interior shutters that cancel the need for blackout curtains, and a judicious sprinkling of antiques. Mahogany doors, each weighing almost 200 pounds, put a blessedly soundproof barrier between you and early-to-work housekeepers. Bizarrely, however, showers come sans shower curtains. Après une douche, le déluge!
An unwritten hiring policy keeps most of Le Lavoisier's staff at 35 or under--Bouvier's way of ensuring a young, energetic vibe. Still, a few more bodies would go a long way toward relieving morning bottlenecks, when check-ins collide with checkouts.
Staying in a well-imagined, newly minted hotel in a pedigreed old building produces a peculiar rush, especially in Paris. At Le Lavoisier, the rush is nonstop.
21 Rue Lavoisier; 33-1/53-30-06-06, fax 33-1/53-30-23-00; doubles from $141.
Trocadéro Dokhan's Hôtel
When, in an 11th-hour name change, the Mercure Kléber became the Trocadéro Dokhan's Hôtel, owners Georges and Anne Dokhan assumed they would have to take a loss on the porcelain ordered with a monogram for the old name. It took the hotel's designer, the Merlin-like Frédéric Méchiche, to explain how the change actually played into their hands. "Since the hotel was intended to feel like a family pied-À-terre, it was no stretch to think of the china as an heirloom," says Méchiche, one of Europe's most influential design talents.
With its giddy references to the 18th-century British architect Robert Adam, the Dokhan's style might be called early Neoclassical bonbonnière. "There were no constraints; no one ever told me to hold back because this was a public place where porters would be charging through with luggage," notes Méchiche. The lobby's ecru toile curtains were hand-sewn, he says, with "the care of a couture dress." Lacquered Regency armchairs fill the awning-striped hall off the reception area. A bronze Empire chandelier lights the entrance rotunda, designed as a winter garden with a checkerboard marble floor and emerald silk Roman shades. "The rotunda's calm makes guests understand right away that this is no place for cell phones," says Méchiche.
Located in a handsome Hausmann-style stone building in the 16th Arrondissement, the hotel's 41 rooms and four suites are a magnet for businessmen, gastronomes, and shoppers: nearby are the Champs-Élysées, international law offices, Alain Ducasse's namesake restaurant, and the boutiques of Avenue Victor-Hugo. Triple-glazed windows, washcloths sealed in plastic pouches, and antifogging bathroom mirrors almost make you forget the flabby, scrambled service.
The day starts with buttery viennoiserie from Dalloyau, one of the finest bakeries in Paris, brought to your room on Swiss hotel silver. On the ground floor, the city's only champagne bar was created from scratch with 18th-century boiserie painted a chic pistachio and tipped with gold. Its lunch menu is devoted to three noble French products: foie gras from the Landes, smoked salmon from Brittany, and the little-known caviar from the Aquitaine. Drawing on a changing list of more than 25 champagnes, the bar turns a nightly spotlight on one brut vintage, one brut nonvintage, and one rosé. And even brut vintages can be ordered by the glass, a rare opportunity.
Guests looking for signs to the elevator, which is covered in panels from an antique Vuitton trunk, look in vain. "There are no signs in a private house," says Méchiche, "and there are no signs at the Dokhan's."
117 Rue de Lauriston; 33-1/53-65-66-99, fax 33-1/53-65-66-88; doubles from $332.
Hôtel de Vendôme
This is Paris's newest guilty pleasure, on a par with Voici magazine and steak frites served in blue-collar cafés. Why guilty?Filled to its 18th-century rafters with Versailles-worthy quantities of marble, crystal, and silk damask, the Vendôme is what the French (wrinkling their noses) call tape-À-l'oeil, meaning "flashy." But the hotel is so absurdly opulent, so outrageously cushy, that it gives flash a good name.
The Vendôme occupies one of the choicest swatches of real estate in Paris--the southwest corner of Place Vendôme. Mansart's square is home to the Ritz and fantasy shops like Buccellati, selling $12,000 silver tureens in the shape of cauliflowers. Patrons of the Vendôme are the kind of people who own five-figure tureens.
The hotel fills what management calls a "neglected niche." "Paris has hôtels de charme like the Duc de St.-Simon," says Véronique Glineur, the Vendôme's former sales director. "And it has grands hôtels de grand luxe like the Bristol. But it was missing a petit hôtel de grand luxe."
The Vendôme's proprietors know luxe. They are the Mouawad family of Lebanon, whose businesses run from fine jewelry to the mythic Grand Hôtel du Cap Ferrat on the Côte d'Azur. Needing someone to supervise the Vendôme's decoration, Mouawad père, Robert, president of the Gemological Institute of America, appointed himself, adopting an exuberant Second Empire style for which he makes no apologies. If there is a tassel the man doesn't like, he has yet to meet it.
As lineage goes, the hotel's couldn't be grander. It was built in 1723 as the residence of the secretary to Louis XIV. In 1842 the building became the Texas embassy (France was the first country to recognize Texas as a republic). The Mouawads' reconstruction erased every trace of the weedy hotel that had claimed the site since 1858. When the last of 10 coats of polyurethane had dried on the hand-carved burlwood doors, there were 19 rooms and 11 suites, attended by a well-oiled staff of 70. For once, arrival goodies are the opposite of boilerplate: Guerlain toiletries and pound cake from the hotel's Café de Vendôme. Chef Gérard Sallé has a reassuring respect for the classics--his asparagus vinaigrette and sole meunière are exemplary. But the café is the one place in the hotel where the flamboyant decoration is indigestible, as are the prices. Instead, order room service. When the doorbell sounds you can verify the identity of the ringer on your videophone. Bedside control panels let you open and close the lavish curtains and operate the Do Not Disturb light. And what about those cute little brass flaps everywhere?Just as the Vendôme anticipated, I have zero tolerance for exposed electrical outlets.
1 Place Vendôme; 33-1/55-04-55-00, fax 33-1/49-27-97-89; doubles from $507.
"Where shall I put your bags, monsieur?"
Not that it mattered. Until they were slid under the bed, they would have been in the way almost anywhere. With my luggage still unpacked, I had to do a jig to get from one end of the room to the other. Or walk on my knees across the mattress.
And yet Hôtel Verneuil makes a virtue of being small, its humble scale conspiring to make guests feel not merely looked after but also protected. "We don't pretend to be anything we're not," says Sylvie de Lattre, the Verneuil's new owner, who trailed her banker husband around Asia before surprising even herself and becoming a midlife hotelier. De Lattre is a handsome woman of the kind Giorgio Armani must envision when he sits down to design his collections (she disdains frills and makeup). To a large degree, the makeover of the Verneuil is in her image.
"This is an unpretentious, familial place," she notes. "There are dozens of Paris hotels that offer sprawling rooms and extravagant service, but some things are more important than size and ten people holding the door for you. Things like charm. And location."
The location is indeed as good as it gets. Two blocks from the Seine in the Seventh Arrondissement, the 26-room hotel occupies a 17th-century building where merchants once stayed on selling trips to the Louvre, when it was a royal palace. Today you fall out of bed into some of the most extraordinary antiques shops on the Continent. The humming café life of St.-Germain-des-Prés--always imitated, never duplicated--is a short promenade away. The Musée d'Orsay and its 19th-century splendors are down the street.
To "re-look" (as the French say) the Verneuil, de Lattre enlisted Michelle Halard, a designer with both Modernist sympathies and nostalgia for la vieille France. The organic-seeming accumulation of books, objects, and furniture in the salon, including toile de Jouy upholstery and metal cube tables, suggests a house lived in for generations by the same well-bred family. Rooms have trompe l'oeil moldings and glossy painted beams, some the color of crème fraîche. Beds are made up with the crunchy Provençal quilts known as boutis. Though Halard finished the hotel two years ago, she cannot resist treating it as a work in progress. Just the other day she called de Lattre, exclaiming, "I found the perfect lamp for room 212!"
8 Rue de Verneuil; 33-1/42-60-82-14, fax 33-1/42-61-40-38; doubles from $114.