It’s a wonder more accidents do not occur around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. From the spinning vortex circling the iconic monument at the top of the Champs-Élysées, cars almost magically shoot in and out of the avenues extending like sun beams in all directions, without causing a 10-car pile up. Among the handsome, gleaming, mansard-roof neighborhoods also orbiting the arc are many of Paris’s elite hotels making use of the prime location and pristine architecture. Two blocks into Avenue Kléber, to the southwest, is one of the most storied: The Peninsula Paris.
Built in heavily ornamented Beaux-Arts style of the day; to replace a palace of the Spanish Queen-in-exile, Isabella II; the grand hotel opened in 1908 as The Majestic, keeping only the Queen’s marble bath and other accoutrements (now in the Historic Suite). The new structure quickly earned its own fame—as host of “soiree of the century” in 1922 attended by James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Pablo Picasso, and Igor Stravinsky; and home to George Gershwin while writing An American in Paris—and infamy as the headquarters of Nazi high command during World War II. Add to that several decades as a conference building for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, headquarters of UNESCO, and even a hospital, and it’s easy to understand how the glamor displayed at the century’s beginning was nearly lost by the end.
Rescue came from the Hong Kong-based Peninsula Hotels, who spent three years and $575 million on a head-to-toe renovation of the property that sought both a return to the splendor of yore and a 21-century statement. It starts in the vast horizontal lobby with soaring ceilings trimmed with historical stucco and pilasters. However most everything has been white-washed (like a Google page), with the reception and concierge desks divided by an impressive glass sculpture called “Dancing Leaves,” which dangles 800 hand-blown glass sycamore leaves at various lengths to create a falling affect, not unlike traditional Asian prints.
The five-star service begins the moment your shoe touches the marble floors (re-discovered during the renovation), with doormen, porters, and receptionists flocking quickly to your beck and call, even if you’ve done neither. No doubt it’s par for the course for the average Peninsula guest (Kardashians and Biebers included), but to those unused to entourages (like a travel writer), the fawning might seem a bit much. But I give them lots of props for not distinguishing between the means, as can happen at places like the Epic Kimpton in Miami.
From the lobby, the hotel splits off into three main sections. On the ground floor extends two palatial corridors to the back lined with boutique clothing shops, hair dresser, and more original art. The Kléber side also includes the hotel’s main breakfast room (and afternoon café), a handsome historic bar paneled in oak and giant mirrors (where the Paris Peace Accords, which ended the Vietnam War, were signed) and the Cantonese restaurant, Lili.
However, the hotel’s top restaurant can be found covered in glass on the Peninsula’s top floor. The aviation-themed L’Oiseau Blanc (which comes with its own biplane) can indeed make you feel like flying above the Paris rooftops with romantic views in all directions, just the sort that inspire marriage proposals, particularly against the sparkling Eiffel Tower (every hour on the hour). The cuisine aims to match the view and nearly succeeds, particularly with the three-course lobster menu that moves from bisque to claws seasoned with blood orange juice, to tail roasted in browned butter atop white asparagus, golden yellow turnip, and saffron-beetroot juice.
More corporeal ecstasy can be found below ground in the spa. Despite the intense allure of Paris outside, it’s worth resisting for an hour’s spin in the extensive facilities, including sauna, steam room, relaxation room (with massaging chairs), fitness center, and 65-foot indoor pool. Dim lighting and a bevy of eastern design elements—primarily in wood, granite, and marble—work hard to “sooth the soul,” as the literature claims, and largely succeeds. Additional help achieving nirvana can be found in the long menu of treatments, so long as you don’t mind nearly doubling your hotel bill.
Barring that, the black marble bathtub in any of the 200 rooms and 34 suites (starting at $1,134 per night) offers a secondary option for pampering, made all the more enticing by Oscar de la Renta bath products, an in-wall TV, and mood lighting. However, if honest, even that can’t top the nearly miraculous Toto Washlet Toilet (first met at the Sofitel Amsterdam), which, in addition to providing a heated seat for your bum, adds a preparatory mist of electrolyzed water, power deodorizer, and built-in bidet with his-and-her water streams that can be adjusted for pressure, temperature, and even oscillation.
Technology also features predominantly in the digital bedside tablets (in 11 languages) that control just about everything in the room, from mood lighting to curtains, as well as including a compendium of restaurant menus, hotel services, virtual city guide, streaming TV, and Internet. Business travelers no doubt also appreciate the in-room fax/scanner/printer/photocopier and multiple, dual-voltage (110v/240v) electrical power sockets.
But it may be that very analog view of the Eiffel Tower from the small balconies of room 520 that remains the most memorable aspect of the room (well, that and the toilet). As for the hotel overall, I class it among the most dangerous of hotels, that are so nice, they keep you from leaving to enjoy the destination. Luckily, the view reminds you what’s really important.
Mike Dunphy stayed as a guest of the Peninsula Paris
Historical, lobby, bar, and restaurant photos by Peninsula Paris. All others by Mike Dunphy