If ever there was a hotel built to live up to the impossibly high style standards of the city it is in, this is it.
Residents of the smart 16th arrondissement in Paris might justifiably have been alarmed when a vintage biplane appeared over the skyline of their neighbourhood, heading directly for the Eiffel Tower.
Complete with pilot in goggles, the plane came to its resting place on the mansard roof of the sparkling new Peninsula Paris, which opened on August 1 to a flurry of curiosity. The plane stayed there, a dramatic feature of the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, L’Oiseau Blanc, which is named in honour of the original L’Oiseau Blanc, the French aircraft that went missing over the Atlantic in 1927 after an attempted crossing. The rooftop plane is an expensive prototype of the 1927 one.
Why there’s a biplane on the roof of an opulent Parisian hotel can be explained by the passion of Peninsula owner and Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Limited chairman Sir Michael Kadoorie for all things aviation-related. A helicopter pilot himself, his hotels frequently feature an aviation-related themed bar or lounge.
The Peninsula is certainly flying high with the new hotel. The four-year long, $596 million renovation of the 1908 Majestic Hotel, in recent decades used as government offices, has captivated Paris at a time when two of its grand palace hotels, The Ritz and The Crillon, are closed for renovations.
The wait has been enticing and few who enter the dazzling lobby on Avenue Portugeis, with its hanging sculpture of 800 Czech crystal leaves, could fail to be entranced by the beautiful DNA of the building and the way the hotel’s architects and designers have liberated it from the weight of history. As lead architect Richard Martinet says succinctly, “It’s not a museum.”
A year and a half over schedule because of the painstaking nature of the restoration, the hotel’s stakes were high. It is the first European hotel in the Peninsula group, which has nine other hotels in Asia and the United States, including the landmark Peninsula Hong Kong, long the benchmark in excellence in luxury hotels. It’s also the latest hotel in the “Asian Invasion” of Paris, after the opening of the Shangri-la Paris and the Mandarin Oriental, both flagship hotels that pulled out all the stops.
The Peninsula has taken the challenge deeply seriously. Project manager James Mercer, who has managed several large hotel projects, says this is the biggest he has worked on “in terms of time and money – unfortunately.” A team of about 20 different consultants, structural and mechanical engineers, architects and designers was employed to turn the rundown government offices back into a hotel. (In 1973 Henry Kissinger signed the Paris Accord ending the Vietnam War in the panelled room of what is now the Bar Kleber.)
The challenge was not only to restore a heritage building with the co-operation of various historical committees and modernise it, reinstating rooftop terraces and creating inner courtyards, but also to dig three levels below the original foundations to create a subterranean car park and spa. “You can’t just jump in and start digging holes,” James Mercer says. Even if you do the costs and planning perfectly, he adds wryly, “You have a 60 per cent chance of getting it right”.
The most impressive aspect of the project is the detailed restoration work, employing teams of French artisans, many of them from family-run businesses that have been practising their craft for centuries.
Twenty specialist stonemasons restored the elaborately ornamental 10,000-square-metre facade. It took about three weeks to restore a single floral cascade. Specialist gilders used 20,000 pieces of gold leaf. Restorers worked on the mosaic floors and frescoes and artisan roofers replaced the traditional slate roofing and zinc guttering. Master glassmakers restored stained-glass ceiling panels, fabric weavers from Lyon created bespoke silk fabrics, experts in woodwork removed the wood panelling from the Bar Kleber, stored it for four years and repaired it, and ornamental metalworkers reproduced historical items such as the light fittings used throughout the hotel.
For the signature Cantonese restaurant, LiLi, a theatrical take on 1920s Shanghai, four dramatic silk tassels, taking 600 man hours each, were created by venerable cord-making company Declercq Passementiers to embellish the heavy curtains draping the room. Outside the restaurant hangs an arresting wall-sized portrait of the fictional LiLi, made entirely of fibre optic trimmings.
Baccarat crystal is featured throughout the hotel, including the chandeliers in the Lobby Lounge, where English and French afternoon tea is served. The silverware is by Christofle, the tableware specially created by Bernardaud. As James Mercer says, “It’s French through and through.” Luckily, the Peninsula’s partner, Katari Hospitality, has deep pockets.
For the company, a great hotel is not just a matter of bricks, Baccarat crystal and gilding. I visited the hotel a scant 24 days after the opening and found it operating remarkably smoothly. Partly this is due to the hotel’s Ambassador program, which made it possible for eight young staff members in key roles to be sent to Hong Kong for a month ahead of the opening on a team-building mission, to understand the code of a company that has been operating luxury hotels since 1866.
This may seem a redundant exercise in Paris, where service in palace hotels is famously professional, if sometimes a little frosty. The Asian approach to service is different, humbler and guest-oriented. Front-of-house manager Maud Obrist, who is in charge of 70 concierges, doormen and bellmen, explains, “We all come from the best hotels in Paris. But there is the issue of snobbism here. We’re not very welcoming.” At the Peninsula, with 530 staff already onboard, “we’re lucky to start out with brand-new teams, all happy, all crazy about the hotel. The product is amazing.” This youthful enthusiasm is reflected in a young management team, whose average age is 32.
Months before the hotel was unveiled, a fully functional mock-up of a suite was built in a parking lot near the Avenue Kleber, and was tested by all company directors, including Sir Michael Kadoorie. This may also seem a superfluous exercise, given the Peninsula has perfected the comfort of its rooms and suites over time, introducing seamless state-of-the-art in-room technology across its hotels from 2012. But, again, this tremendous focus on improving the excellent goes to the heart of the Peninsula’s philosophy. General manager Nicolas Beliard elaborates: “We try harder. As soon as you say you’re number one, you’ve lost it.”
Entry level rooms are large, with walk-in dressing rooms, deep baths that can be turned into a spa, with mood lighting and calming music at the touch of a button, heated Japanese toilet seats (surprising how welcome these are), sumptuous furnishings and plush sofas, Chinese tea pots and Nespresso coffee-making machines, free mini bar, free wireless internet and complimentary international calls using the VOIP telephone system.
The suites are something else again. The original 1908 hotel was the first in Paris to introduce rooftop terraces and the Peninsula has reinstated them as gardens atop five luxury suites. Each has a flower and vegetable garden and a small patch of lawn where privileged guests can lounge and take in the Paris vistas. The hotel’s 360-degree views encompass everything from the domes of Sacre Coeur to the Eiffel Tower, which is framed in a corner window of L’Oiseau Blanc, making that a hot new contender for most romantic restaurant table in Paris.
Other outdoor spaces have been reclaimed or created. The rooftop bar that joins L’Oiseau Blanc was buzzing with chic Right Bank types when I dined in the restaurant one mild night. This long terrace bar with killer views has already established itself as a popular upscale watering hole judging by the crowd.
But the piece-de-resistance is the expansive outdoor terrace on Avenue Kleber, the only hotel terrace in Paris to open up onto a main avenue. (Lots of cafes do, but the hotel terraces tend to be enclosed.) The pearl-grey chairs and pink tablecloths are graced by bouquets of pink roses arranged by Denis Martel, the hotel’s florist, who creates the flowers in a subterranean workshop. Over-arching the terrace is a cantilevered canopy of brushed steel and tempered glass that keeps the rain off and extends the space’s usability into the cooler months.
Guests who are checking in enter the hotel through the reception on Avenue Portugeis, but those coming for lunch or the Peninsula’s traditional afternoon teas will enter at 19 Avenue Kleber and pass through two enormous limestone door dogs to the Lobby Lounge adjoining the terrace.
One of the few glitches in the hotel’s fairly seamless opening is a slight confusion about where the hotel’s entrance actually lies. It in fact has four, if you count accessing it from the carpark. The original covered entrance was too small for modern use, and it is being converted into a high-end shop, with a cigar lounge next door. But from its inception, the concept was that the hotel would be welcoming to the outside. “The Peninsula does want to interact with locals,” says James Mercer. “The hotel isn’t just for exclusive guests.”
The hotel won’t be eligible for a palace certification for two years. Meanwhile the “try harder” philosophy still applies. This is the exciting phase, says GM Beliard, “where we change, tweak, get to know the building, listen to guests”.
It has already had quite a take-off.
Review by Lee Tulloch
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