In the heart of the world’s most fashionable city, The Peninsula Paris is a magnificently restored neo-classical palace with walls that could tell a thousand tales – of Proust and Picasso, war heroes and villains, international peace treaties and romantic rendezvous. DAWN GIBSON finds out how the Grande Dame of La Belle Époque is setting new standards for top-tier luxury.
Less than ten minutes’ walk from the Arc de Triomphe and fronting one of the grand avenues which radiate from the iconic monument, The Peninsula Paris is the essence of French style set in stone. Opened in August 2014 by the high-end hospitality group Peninsula, as its first foray into the European market, the hotel and The Cultured Traveller both celebrate their third anniversaries this year. The building had lain dormant for years before a painstaking, multi-million-Euro restoration simultaneously revitalised the truly magnificent edifice while discretely installing the array of 21st century facilities expected by the most demanding of cosmopolitan travellers.
In a city where space has always been at a premium, The Peninsula Paris proudly fills an entire block fronting gracious, tree-lined Avenue Kléber, a short stroll from the designer boutiques of the Champs-Élysées and many of the city’s most famous landmarks. Even the most well-travelled guest would be hard-pressed not to feel a mild thrill watching the sun go down over the Eiffel Tower while enjoying the 360-degree vistas from L’Oiseau Blanc restaurant on the hotel’s rooftop.
Originally named the Majestic when it opened in 1908 – during the heady days of La Belle Époque – the hotel’s connections to high society and royalty date back more than 150 years. A wealthy Russian nobleman built a palace on the site in 1864, which he sold to a representative of Queen Isabella II of Spain in 1868, when revolution forced her to seek exile in Paris. The Queen abdicated two years later and continued to live in her Paris home, then called the Palais de Castille, until her death in 1904. Hotel mogul Leonard Tauber became the new owner and constructed the Majestic, retaining some of the vestiges of the old Spanish palace, including Queen Isabella’s marble bath.
The landmark hotel, a classic French building featuring Haussman and neo-classical detailing, swiftly became a favourite with the crème de la crème of Paris. Its reputation as the place to be seen was given a stellar boost by a legendary dinner party in 1922, held in a private room after the premiere of Stravinsky’s newest work, Renard, at the Opéra Garnier. Joining the famous composer at the after-party were some of the leading lights of the 20th century art world, including Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Ballets Russes’ founder Sergei Diaghilev. The conversation must have fizzed with as much sparkle as the champagne. The Majestic’s elite reputation was further cemented when George Gershwin composed An American in Paris while staying in a suite at the hotel in 1928.
On an equally fascinating but more sober note, the building’s past is intimately entwined with some of the 20th century’s greatest conflicts. It served as a military hospital in WWI, and was used as the headquarters of the German high command during the occupation of Paris in WWII – a failed plot to assassinate Hitler was concocted by a rebel officer from his rooms on the second floor. The building was the first headquarters of UNESCO from 1946 until 1958, and provided the setting for the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. If you have a tipple in Le Bar Kléber you will be standing in the salon where the Vietnam War was officially brought to a close.
After such an eventful past, it is only fitting that the building has been reincarnated as one of Paris’ most opulent hotels. The four-year restoration project employed more than 900 talented artisans, many from traditional French family firms. The badly damaged exterior façade required the work of 40 stonemasons, with each individual stone flower and bow taking days to complete. A wealth of fine marble, mosaics, gold leafing, mouldings, wood carvings and fine paintings were preserved and restored using the same techniques and finishes as the originals, under the watchful eyes of some of France’s best heritage experts. For example, two paintings on the ceiling of Le Lounge Kléber were restored by Cinzia Pasquali, who has restored paintings by da Vinci at the Louvre and Versailles.
The attention to detail is staggering – a total of 1,000 pieces of woodwork were restored, while 20,000 pieces of gold leaf were used. Throughout the aim was to preserve the authenticity and opulent beauty of the hospitality grande dame, while leading her gracefully into the 21st century. The result is an extraordinary 200-room hotel which thoroughly deserves the accolade of ‘Palace’, bestowed upon it a year ago by Atout France, the French tourism development agency. The award is an official recognition given only to a select number of five-star hotels that meet stringent criteria, as well as boasting elements such as an exceptional location or history.
The opulence of the décor is abundantly apparent from the moment you enter Le Lobby, which skilfully treads the fine line between lavish and ostentatious. Highly polished marble floors are matched by high gilded and painted curved ceilings. The walls are a palatial combination of cream and gold. The furniture is modern and sophisticated in a matching palette. A glass room divider brilliantly scatters the light from the bespoke chandeliers in a dozen different directions. The message of the hotel’s principal interior designer Henry Leung is clear: harmony and contrast in everything, both old and new.
Visible through the vast windows is one of the biggest al fresco dining terraces in Paris, where guests contentedly sip their café au lait whilst choosing between Continental, American or Chinese breakfasts, the latter including the likes of caramelised pork bun and congee with beef, one of the many nods to Peninsula’s Asian heritage.
The most striking feature of a second grand (though slightly less extravagant) entrance off a side avenue, is a magnificent installation of 800 hand-blown glass leaves by Czech workshop Lasvit, inspired by the plane trees which are a ubiquitous feature of the Parisian streetscape. Surrounded by cool marble, the leaves appear to be dancing in the air before falling into a symbolic pond – a Bhutanese rock sculpture at the installation’s base. It is one of two Lasvit installations in the hotel – the other is ‘Pearl Necklace’ in the Rotunda, a 300kg crystal light sculpture inspired by 19th century Czech jewellery. Observant guests will notice a striking range of contemporary works around every corner, by artists including Ben Jakober, Xavier Corbero, Nathalie Decoster, José Pedro Croft, Michel Alexis and Ran Hwang.
As one would expect when rates start at EUR950 per night, the guest rooms at The Peninsula Paris are sumptuous even by luxury standards. All are exceptionally large, with superior and deluxe rooms ranging from 30m2 to 50m2, while the suites are some of the most spacious in Paris. A deluxe room is akin to a sophisticated, well-designed city centre pad, decorated in a calming palette of neutrals. A petite balcony overlooks a quiet street. There is a well-appointed desk and sitting area as well as a spacious dressing room with generous luggage and wardrobe space. And a large, exquisite all-marble bathroom boasts a deep soaking bathtub, separate rain shower and double basins.
Throughout, the décor deftly blends Asian and European influences. A contemporary abstract painting may add a splash of crimson to one wall, whilst a single white orchid standing in a simple black vase accessorises another, and a dainty porcelain Chinese tea service sits next to the coffee machine. All of this exquisite attention to detail sits side-by-side with state-of-the-art technology. Customised, interactive bedside and desk tablets control everything from the lighting to the room temperature, as well as the ubiquitous concealed large screen TV. And there are a number of thoughtful little touches designed to elevate the guest experience, including a valet box so guests can receive their freshly laundered clothes without being disturbed, and a nail polish drying station.
While there is not space here to detail the hotel’s six divine bars and restaurants, two are particularly notable. Cantonese fine dining restaurant LiLi is exceptional for both its ambience and cuisine – the décor taking its cue from Chinese and Western opera, with backdrops of traditional costumes and headdresses, Chinese wood carvings and towering red drapes adding a dramatic flair amplified by the theatrical approach to service. Also not to be missed is the rooftop terrace on the sixth floor, where you can drink in the outstanding views whilst sipping a cocktail or two.
One final recommendation: make time for a treatment at the beautifully appointed day spa. One of the city’s largest, it’s worth heeding the advice to arrive an hour before your treatment time to take full advantage of the facilities. The thermal suite includes one of the most relaxing steam rooms I have ever experienced – a warm cocoon of curved tiled benches and soothing ceiling lights. A Cha Ling massage in the hands of therapist Berenice will round off your stay in an advanced state of euphoria.
It is understandably difficult to leave The Peninsula Paris, even if only after a short stay. The very best hotels can imbue a truly unique feeling in a guest: the sense of finding a sumptuous haven; a hotel whose staff are so good at their jobs that one feels that everything is effortlessly attended to with genuine warmth, and, finally, a place where elegance and style blend seamlessly. The restoration was indeed a massive and hugely expensive undertaking, but cultured travellers will undoubtedly be thankful for decades to come.