We'll always have Paris

BRUCE GUTHRIE
Last updated 05:00 13/04/2013
Bristol-Landscape

FINE FURNISHINGS: A bedroom in Le Bristol.

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A doorman at the ready.
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A penthouse terrace.
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Palace match: the Bristol's manicured gardens.

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Woody Allen is clearly partial to a luxury hotel. Venice's Gritti Palace, New York's St Regis and London's Dorchester have graced his films.

But none of them featured quite like Paris's Le Bristol, which was more than a bit player in the writer-director's 2011 box-office hit, Midnight in Paris.

This probably explained why the lobby of the hotel was crawling with rich Americans when my wife and I checked in for a sentimental return visit. Then again, what five-star hotel in Paris isn't crawling with rich Americans?

At first glance, I wouldn't have picked most of the guests as Allen fans, but the pugnacious gentleman arguing over his bill at reception was certainly a New Yorker. "You mean," he asked, with appropriate incredulity and exasperation, "I pay over a thousand bucks for my room and then I have to pay extra for breakfast?" He hit the word extra as though he was delivering a Woody one-liner.

As it turns out, you do indeed have to pay more for breakfast - and the internet - but it comes with gold leaf.

"A lot of clients are coming because they discovered Le Bristol in the movie and they liked the hotel," communications director Marie le Vavasseur says, adding: "Some clients ask to visit the Panoramic Suite." The hotel isn't hiding from the film's fame - the movie plays continuously on its in-house movie channel and you can rent the suite that featured in the film for upwards of $10,000 a night.

I'm not averse to a bit of stargazing, but our one-night stay was more significant than that. We were returning 28 years after we first stayed at Le Bristol on our honeymoon, long before Woody discovered it and, it must be said, long before the hotel got the recognition it deserved.

Then it was, if not the ugly duckling of Parisian five-star properties, certainly the least acknowledged. It sat squarely in the shadow of the Ritz, the Plaza Athenee, George V and Hotel de Crillon. But, almost three decades on, Le Bristol, named after a former Earl of Bristol famed for his luxurious travel habits, has had the last laugh.

This is due in large part to a relatively new French policy of designating certain hotels as "palaces", those considered even better than five stars because the rooms are bigger, service is better and facilities more extensive. Before the policy, certain Paris hotels were thought of in this way, but the new designation makes it official.

Imagine the outcry then when Le Bristol was the first French hotel to get a "palace" gong and the Ritz, Crillon and George V all missed out. Sacre bleu! (The George V has since been added to the initial list of four "palaces" that also included Le Meurice, Park Hyatt and Plaza Athenee. The Ritz has shut down for renovations in the hope that, when finished, it will be included.)

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I was chuffed to hear of Le Bristol's success because I've always had a soft spot for the hotel ever since it welcomed us as newlyweds in July 1984. The travel gods had smiled on us then. We had been booked into a A$30-a-night pensione in the Pigalle district when, a fortnight before the wedding, a suave and exceedingly generous Frenchman, passing through Melbourne, persuaded us to cancel that booking and stay at the hotel he happened to run at the time.

His name was Pierre Aron and he was the managing director of Le Bristol. We ended up staying a week in a massive suite and he tore up the bill as a wedding gift. It was a good thing he did because otherwise we would have had to postpone some subsequent major events - house purchases, the births of our children, their education.

But all that was behind us now, so we thought it only fair we should return to the hotel and repay some of their generosity. Besides, I wanted to find out whether any hotel room is worth A$1000 a night. Answer: you bet it is. Our one-night booking would cost us more than we had paid in total for that honeymoon week 28 years ago; indeed, it would cost us more than the four nights we'd just spent in a small hotel in the Haut Marais district.

This made me a little anxious, but I needn't have worried. As I alighted from the roadside of our taxi onto rue du Faubourg St Honore, an elegantly liveried doorman stopped the traffic with a wave of his hand. Several lanes of cars came to a halt for my benefit on one of Paris's more desirable streets. "That alone was almost worth the price of admission," I whispered to my wife as I acknowledged the doorman.

Inside, everything had changed, yet nothing had. We searched our memories, trying to remember the geography of the place. The colour schemes looked familiar, but the property was bigger, much bigger. And the restaurant had moved. Feeling guilty about freeloading all those years ago, we had dined in-house on our last night - I'd tipped the waiters generously and then pressed 20 francs into the palm of the maitre d' as we left, thinking it terribly sophisticated of me.

These days the hotel's marble-floored restaurant, L'Epicure, enjoys three Michelin stars and looks out over the beautifully manicured courtyard garden. It will set you back €250 ($380) each to dine there, more if you want wine. Its proximity to the Elysee Palace makes it a favourite haunt of French politicians; indeed, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was a regular in the restaurant when in office. I have felt intimidated, even unwanted, walking into places such as the Ritz or the Four Seasons, in Paris and elsewhere, but have never felt that way at Le Bristol.

Maybe it's because it's only ever been family-owned and operated - the Jammets opened it in 1925 and in 1979 sold it to the Oetkers, a German food dynasty who have made billions out of frozen pizzas, puddings and cake mixes. (Dr August Oetker invented baking powder in 1891.) It's undeniably luxurious but manages to be friendly at the same time; there's almost a family atmosphere, helped in part by the presence of hotel cat Fa-raon, a two-year-old Burmese.

The family's ageing matriarch, Maja Oetker, personally supervises design and decor, and played a big role in the hotel's most recent refurbishment - more than €100 million was spent on sprucing up the hotel's rooms, restaurants and facilities, and adding a new spa and wing. The hotel now has 188 rooms, 92 of them suites, more than any other hotel in Paris.

A good number of them have a view of the Eiffel Tower and it was to one of those we were escorted. There was champagne on ice, rose petals on the bed and felicitations all round. Our suite was about the size of a tennis court, the bathroom alone bigger than the room we'd left behind that morning.

If there's a problem with five-star hotels, it's that you never want to leave them. I had most recently fallen for their siren song on a family holiday to India in 2010. Visiting Udaipur, we indulged ourselves for a couple of nights at the Lake Palace Hotel. So sumptuous was it that we barely left our rooms, let alone the hotel. As a result, Udaipur remains largely a mystery.

We were determined not to make the same mistake at Le Bristol. But even with the Champs-Elysees and the Eiffel Tower beckoning it was hard to rouse ourselves from the comforts of the suite. Eventually, we headed out, fighting the hordes on an increasingly charmless Champs-Elysees, the chaotic traffic on Place de la Concord, to the Seine and beyond. Dutifully, Eiffel's masterpiece burst into light at the appointed hour.

Returning to our room slowly along the backstreets of the 8th Arrondissement, we bought dinner as we went, stopping at assorted patisseries and grocers. We had decided we would eschew the delights of L'Epicure for a picnic in our room.

Having passed on dinner in the restaurant, we rose early for breakfast. In keeping with Michelin's three-star traditions, my wife was given a menu sans prices. She guessed it wasn't cheap when I gulped for air. Soon, juice, bircher muesli and scrambled eggs arrived at our table. Oh, and gold leaf. It was perched on the shredded apple and strawberry muesli under an edible tag that read: "Hotel Le Bristol, Paris".

Returning to our room, we realised we had time to spare before checkout, so I flicked on the in-house movie channel to catch a scene from Midnight in Paris. Picasso's former mistress and muse Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard, was explaining to the American screenwriter and time traveller, Gil, played by Owen Wilson, the enduring appeal of the French capital. "That Paris exists and anyone could choose to live anywhere else in the world will always be a mystery to me," she says dreamily.

Quite so. But, as Woody might have added, it would be even better if it came with breakfast.

FAST FACTS

Staying there Le Bristol Hotel is at 112 rue de Faubourg Saint-Honore, Paris. Rooms start about $1221.5 a night in the low season and $1588 in the high season. Suites start about $1710 in the low season and $2199 in the high season, rising to $20,000-plus a night for the Imperial Suite. See lebristolparis.com.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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