Spotlight - THE PENINSULA PARIS

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. 

Spotlight - Atlanta

For the past few years, the capital of Georgia has been hell-bent on proving that it’s also the capital of the South-eastern United States. Its place carved into fiction and folklore, DILRAZ KUNNUMMAL visits the city where Martin Luther King Jr. grew up and where Margaret Mitchell wrote and based her timeless award-winning literary classic Gone With The Wind.

Atlanta’s magnetic historically rooted charisma has been noticeably enhanced of late by new charms and modern amenities, making now the perfect time to visit the beating heart of the American South. Originally a railroad town that served as a gateway to more far-flung corners of the Southeast, recent years have seen the opening of major new attractions, the unveiling of sprawling food halls, a new pedestrian trail snaking its way beneath the skyline and a brand-new streetcar system routed directly through Atlanta’s downtown hub, reinvigorating the bustling financial and commercial centre and drawing more people into the city.

The largest city in Georgia, whilst Atlanta is now a vibrant metropolis boasting a thriving and varied cultural community it also remains a crucial countrywide transportation hub. Super-easily accessible via one of the world’s busiest airports, the city has attracted a new influx of entrepreneurs, media moguls and world-renowned chefs, the latter giving rise to a burgeoning and diverse culinary scene.

Atlanta’s hospitality offerings range from deluxe full-service properties and well known 5* brands to boutique hotels and antique-adorned bed and breakfasts. There’s literally somewhere for everyone to rest their head in Atlanta, from celebs and high-flying CEOs to vacationing families and backpackers. For those who like to be in the thick of it all, the 414-room Loews Atlanta Hotel is well located in the epicentre of Midtown’s hustle and bustle – close to the famous Fox Theatre, Piedmont Park and the Margaret Mitchell House – and puts a lot more sights within easy walking distance; walking is indeed a pleasure in Atlanta.

Rooms are serene and modern with floor-to-ceiling windows, and walls are hung with colourful works by local artists and big flat-screen TVs. Try to bag a room towards the top of the hotel’s 26 storeys (www.loewshotels.com/atlanta). The hotel’s street-level Saltwood Charcuterie & Bar is renowned for its exceptionally good handcrafted cocktails, micro-brews and Southern-accented tapas-style plates and most definitely worth a look-in (www.saltwoodatlanta.com).

The Cultured Traveller August-September 2017
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At the top end is the stately St. Regis Atlanta, which comes laden with the kind of luxuries and decadent touches one expects from Starwood’s premium hotel brand. Located in the heart of Buckhead, the St. Regis is Southern luxury personified, complete with a bevy of doting, immaculately turned-out butlers, whizzing around and fulfilling guests’ every request. Bedrooms are large, airy and well, pricey. Complete with floor-to-ceiling windows, handcrafted chandeliers, original artworks and probably the largest hotel bathrooms in the city, lined with marble and equipped with deep soaking tubs, double vanities, rain-showers and a television set in the bathroom mirror (www.stregisatlanta.com).

The Cultured Traveller August-September 2017
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Completely Victorian inside and out and one of the first structures built in Midtown Atlanta (started in 1891 and finished in 1892), architecture buffs will love the stunning Shellmont Inn. Built by Walter T. Downing, one of Atlanta’s premier architects, the property is now a designated city landmark and 5-room B&B retaining oodles of charming details. Guest rooms are decorated in period splendour complete with Oriental rugs, wallpaper that replicates patterns in London’s V&A Museum and large antique carved-wood bedsteads (+1 404 872-9290).

Once you’re settled and unpacked it’s time to do some exploring! Atlanta is so buzzing with energy and enthusiasm it’s virtually impossible not to rise early. A good place to start is the CNN Centre, the world headquarters of the media mammoth, founded by Ted Turner. There’s a palpable sense of anticipation in the air as one enters the building. The voluminous lobby is lined with an array of flags and features the vehicle used for CNN’s conflict reporting. The vast complex wholeheartedly embodies the essence of the company that calls it home. A 50-minute insider tour includes riding the world’s longest freestanding escalator and peeking into various stops over 8 floors, including an active newsroom, live studios and the weather room. The USD33 “VIP Tour” is a must for all budding young news anchors! (http://tours.cnn.com)

The Cultured Traveller August-September 2017
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Atlanta’s deep-rooted sporting connections are undeniable. Home of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the American city where beach volleyball and mountain biking made their Olympic debuts, Atlanta has always been an active and energetic city, its residents vocal and dedicated supporters. Nothing feeds an ardent fan more than the College Football Hall of Fame, a short stroll across Centennial Olympic Park, which pays homage to the revered game and unofficial religion of the South. Here visitors can search flat-screen digital displays for stats on their favourite players. Even entry tickets are interactive; tailoring your experience through the building to the people and games you care most about after naming your home team on arrival (www.cfbhall.com).

The Cultured Traveller August-September 2017
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Since Atlanta was a touchpoint during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, it’s worth dropping into the intensely interesting Center for Civil and Human Rights to learn a little about the era. Comprising two very different sites, which quite honestly look as though they’ve landed from different galaxies, the USD68 million facility opened just over three years ago and is cutting edge to say the least (www.civilandhumanrights.org).

The Cultured Traveller August-September 2017
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Meanwhile, a visit to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change (it may be a bit of a mouthful but it’s worth seeing!), includes admittance to the house in which the civil rights leader grew up and the church at which he was a pastor, and access to a digital archive where more than 10,000 documents from Martin Luther King’s personal collection can be viewed (www.thekingcenter.org).

The Cultured Traveller August-September 2017
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Just across from these museums are the World of Coca-Cola Museum and the immense Georgia Aquarium (set on a 9-acre plot, to give you some idea of how massive it is), both of which have become international destinations.

The World of Coca-Cola stands in Atlanta’s once-blighted downtown, on a 22-acre plot that the company purchased in the early 1990s. You enter by walking under a 27-foot bottle of Coke that hovers in a 90-foot-high glass pillar, the walls of which glisten like crushed ice and are bracingly cold to the touch, even when it’s sweltering outside. Guests of every age are catered for in this mammoth homage to the most famous fizzy drink on the planet by way of a variety of attractions, including a “Vault of Secret Formula”, a 10-gallery “Milestones of Refreshment” exhibit, a loft space which showcases vintage advertising and other Coca-Cola memorabilia, a 4D movie experience and the inevitable taste room where more than 100 different beverages are on offer. If there wasn’t so much else to see and do in Atlanta it would be easy (and perhaps a little addictive) to lose half a day in the caffeine-fuelled world of this mass-marketing phenomenon (www.worldofcoca-cola.com).

The Cultured Traveller August-September 2017
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Moving around Atlanta is a doddle thanks to the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority public transport system (MARTA). A fascinating stop is Peachtree Center station, built 120ft underground and a veritable modern architectural marvel.

In the heart of downtown Atlanta, Underground Atlanta opened in 1969 as a “city beneath the streets.” Here visitors can explore six city blocks, 12 acres and three levels of shopping, restaurants and entertainment in one destination with more than 100 years of history. Guided 50-minute walking tours are offered daily to take visitors through the history of Atlanta from its early beginnings to the present day. The Georgia Railroad Freight Depot, which stands at the entrance to Underground Atlanta, is the city’s oldest building (www.underground-atlanta.com).

The Cultured Traveller August-September 2017
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Culture vultures won’t want to miss Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, which was the first in the world to display works on loan from the Louvre in Paris. Here art aficionados can view paintings by van Gogh, Cézanne and Manet, not to mention an expansive and very well curated permanent collection. www.high.org

Sightseeing and touring is a draining business, and frequent pit stops are needed to rehydrate and maintain energy levels. Luckily Atlanta is awash with all manner of dynamic new culinary offerings, vibrant bars, happening cafés and celebrated restaurants. Since you’re in Southern America anytime is a good time for fried chicken! Founded in July 1997 by chef Erica Palmer-Dobb, Erica’s Sidewalk Café may be unassuming and tiny but the food is hearty and delicious (134 Baker St NE). Famous names like chef Kevin Gillespie have breathed new gastronomic life into a number of neighbourhoods and encouraged other eateries to move in alongside. Gillespie’s award-winning restaurant in the Glenwood park neighbourhood of Atlanta is a veritable treat for one’s taste buds (www.gunshowatl.com).

The Cultured Traveller August-September 2017
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A meal at Angus Brown and Nhan Le’s Asian restaurant, Octopus Bar in South Buckhead, will not disappoint. Very sadly Brown passed away prematurely a few months ago at the age of 35, but the restaurant he co-founded lives on and reservations are essential (www.octopusbaratl.com). Meanwhile, for a prime cut steak in upscale yet relaxed surroundings, not to mention superb sushi and wonderfully fresh seafood, Ray’s In The City is hard to beat, impeccable service and tasty wholesome food its hallmarks (www.raysrestaurants.com).

The Cultured Traveller August-September 2017
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Before calling it a night, be sure to hitch a ride on the 200ft SkyView Ferris wheel, located downtown and offering breathtaking panoramic views across the city. If you’re still flush after a whole day out, USD50/person will buy you an extended ride in a VIP gondola complete with glass floor and five Ferrari style seats (www.skyviewatlanta.com).

With a myriad of museums, outdoor activities, culinary adventures and shopping areas in the cosmopolitan capital of the South, there’s always something fun or happening in Atlanta which appeals to Americans and tourists alike. And Southern folk are ever so warm and friendly! With so many new attractions and such a diverse and thriving cultural scene, now is most certainly the time to visit the vibrant capital of the Southeastern United States (www.exploregeorgia.org/city/atlanta).