We’ll always have Paris (hotels)

There can be few hotels as grand as InterContinental Paris Le Grand, one of the most historic hotels in the world, which is celebrating its 160th birthday this year. Inaugurated in 1862 by the charismatic wife of Napoleon III, Empress Eugénie de Montijo, the hotel has hosted kings, emperors, shahs and maharajahs, along with their significant others. Their significant entourages, too:  Once upon a time an entire floor of the original four-story, 800 room-hotel was given over to guests’ personal staffs, valets and ladies’ maids. In more recent times, American presidents along with stars of space and screen – Harry Truman, Buzz Aldrin and John Travolta among them – have enjoyed Le Grand’s hospitality.

The hotel sits at right-angles to Palais Garnier – better known as the Paris Opera – and with its lashings of gilt, marble, stone and lavish statuary, Le Grand can seem hardly less grand than the opulent opera house itself. Take its Opera Ballroom for instance, with its 40-foot ceiling, monumental chandelier and hall of mirrors. “You can rent the room for a gala reception for 450 people, a cocktail reception for 1,200 – or, if you please, dinner for two,” Diane-Laure Dudoué, the hotel’s charming public relations director, informed me on a recent tour of the property.

The hotel boasts a vast number of room categories and styles, as well as junior, full and presidential suites, including one dedicated to Sarah Bernhardt. From the balcony of my third-floor junior suite, I could almost touch Charles Gumery’s celebrated gilded sculptures that adorn the roof of the opera house, and it gave me a thrill to imagine Charles Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, from his 1910 novel of the same name, stalking the catacombs below.

But you don’t stay at Le Grand just for history, although history is palpably all around you. You come for the enduring beauty of the place, the centrality of the location and the overall experience of a fabulous big city hotel. Almost a city in itself, despite its great age, Le Grand is no dinosaur – far from it. It boasts the most luxurious creature comforts, the latest technology and all the excitement of a marvelously well-oiled enterprise.

At street level is Café de la Paix, one of the great dining rooms of Paris. It has been stunningly restored so that it looks exactly as it did when the hotel first opened. At lunch, teatime or at dinner, Café de la Paix takes you back to an age of almost unimaginable refinement. The menu is bang up to date, even if the service can be a little patchy at times, when the line for tables extends along the Place de l’Opéra sidewalk.

Then, there’s La Verrière, or the winter garden – the original entrance of the hotel, before carriages gave way to cars – with its magnificent glass conservatory roof. And you’ll swoon at the lobby with its vast marble columns, it’s polka-dot marble floor and flower arrangements the height of small mountains. There is nowhere quite like Le Grand.

Then again, there are alternatives. Across the street from InterContinental Paris Le Grand – in the former La Samaritaine department store, which dates from 1917 – InterContinental Hotel Group has recently launched Kimpton St. Honoré Paris, the Kimpton brand having been bought by IHG back in 2015.

While Le Grand is all about, well, grandeur, Kimpton is all about contemporary style and lightness of touch. Of course, like grandeur, “lightness” must be designed and made to shine, but it is more exposed with nowhere to hide the seams. The elevator, a literal gilded cage operated with an elaborate maze of pulleys, no longer runs, at least not for guests every day. Yet it sits there in the lobby, the gate wide open, reminding present-day guests that aesthetic beauty and supreme functionality need not be mutually exclusive.

Paying homage to Kimpton’s Californian heritage – the hotel group was founded in San Francisco – is the bright, informal Montecito Café, which overlooks the courtyard garden, with its superb “living walls.” While there is no shortage of chia seeds, kale and avocado toast on the on-trend menu, there is also scrumptious fried chicken and a hamburger made from the finest Aubrac beef. The French fries, as you have every right to expect, are excellent.

Bedrooms are light and airy. I upgraded to a small suite, with a beautiful, cream fabric, semicircular sofa and two deep armchairs sitting on the pale wood floor. A gleaming red Nespresso coffee machine practically called out to me to make coffee, (whether I drank it or not) and there were drinks and goodies galore to enjoy, like Negronis and ginger Cosmos, artisanal chips, sea salt chocolate and chocolate truffles.  Gin and vodka along with other spirits come in decent-sized bottles, a good accompaniment no doubt to the contents of a box tantalizingly labeled “Pleasure Game.”

In the hotel’s basement, a lovely pool is heated between 80 and 84 degrees, and both male and female massage therapists are available to pummel you in the on-site hammam.

For yet another wonderful Kimpton experience, head up to the 10th floor (this hotel is tall for Paris), where the almost wraparound view extends from the Palais Garnier all the way to the Eiffel Tower and beyond. It’s a glorious cityscape and, to add to the fun, a seasonal bar is open late for drinks and cocktails.

With the Church of the Madeleine down the block, Cartier directly across the street and the Opéra Metro stop a mere 50 yards away, it’s hard to think of a single, solitary box that this enchanting new Paris hotel doesn’t tick.

For more, visit parislegrand.intercontinental.com and kimptonshonoreparis.com.

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