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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.

Hôtel Verneuil

"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.


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