What does a loyal rive gauche gal do when she is transported to the delightfully swank, right bank hotel of her (of anyone’s) dreams? Does she retain her bourgeois disdain of the posh rive droit, or does she embrace every single second of her weekend stay at the fabulous Le Bristol. Most certainly the latter…naturalement!
As a resident of Paris for seven magical years I had always walked by (and walked into) the grand hotels on the right bank with a feeling that surely they don’t live up to their hype -- especially in a city which is so dense with beauty that every constructed luxury must pale in comparison. However, the Bristol proved me wrong. It is the very definition of what a fine hotel with a rich history and a personal touch should be. It feels small and intimate, steeped in a long storied past and is oh-so-French while being oh-so-magical and the opposite of intimidating -- as some of these grand dame institutions can be.
Located a few doors down from the Élysée Palace, the residence of the French president and at the moment the handsome Monsieur Macron, it sits on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which apart from being what some may consider the quintessential shopping address in Paris, is also within walking distance to all the major sights like the Place de la Concorde, the Tulleries, the Louvre, and the Place de la Madeleine. While some may come to Paris to shop, I come for the cafes, the architecture, the gardens and the people….
The wonderful people…. Walking into the Bristol and being welcomed, as a long awaited friend, was my first taste of the hospitality that imbues this hotel from tip to toe. Since 1925, the Bristol has been greeting its famous guests -- royalty, film stars, magnates and world leaders -- and while they may have their warmth down pat, it was one of the few times I felt like the aforementioned royalty without the pomp, a feeling that stayed with me throughout my wonderful stay.
It’s an unassuming lobby, small by almost any hotel standards and yet it felt just right. Rich tapestries against warm wood, heavy silver keys, polished to a starry shine bannisters, twinkling chandeliers, gilded mirrors, a lively chatter with guests and staff and my personal favorite: the resident cat, an uppity platinum beauty named Fa-raon. He stalks the hallways and pads around the concierge desk and settles wherever he fancies. He has his own room decorated by a French graffiti artist but for the most part is out and about and not exactly greeting the guests but gracing us with his presence.
Enroute to our room with a view we pass the gardens, which are the largest in any hotel in Paris (13,000 square feet). Surrounded by the grand building -- the Bristol has expanded over the years and now has three parts: The old chateau (the main building), the residences, and an old bank building acquired in 2007 named the Matignon residence -- these gardens are a haven in the city famed for its parks, not an easy task to achieve. Enclosed and laid out in a classic French mode, it is the place for a morning coffee, an afternoon lunch, an evening cocktail and most romantically, a postprandial digestive. These are the little moments that distinguish a grand hotel from a grand hotel with a heart. Designed not to show off, but instead to think of how a guest might spend their day, and to create spaces for them to create their own personal moments.
There are many such moments that one could gather into one's memory bank, and close to the top of that list are the views from the rooms. Walking into my suite was one of those jaw dropping moments. There laid out before me, like a veritable feast, were the rooftops of Paris, the Eiffel tower in the distance and (to me) the most beautiful part, the scuttling clouds in a golden sky framing the whole scene. Paris is human scale, and the light brings its own drama to the décor of the rooms, all of which are enormous, and having been recently redone – a delightful study in Louis XV /XVI furniture along with elegant florals in cool modern tones, each room unique and each one stunning.
Another moment is the pool on the sixth floor. It is a stunning sight: retro-chic and surrounded by wooden ocean liner-esque paneling; flanked on two sides by floor-to-ceiling windows offering view of the Paris skyline. It feels like one is on a boat, which is no surprise considering it was created by the same designer who designed the Onassis' yacht. Surrounded by sunny terraces and abutting the plush spa, it is a place to unwind. I find it interesting that each element of this hotel has a history or a story; it is steeped into the very essence of the place.
After spending an inordinate amount of time gazing out of my window at the lights of Paris, I head down for cocktail hour at the sumptuous bar. Plush sofas, glam lighting, rich paintings and wood paneled walls lull me into almost missing my dinner at the famed Epicure Restaurant. Helmed by Chef Eric Frechon (20 years at the Bristol) and recipient of three Michelin stars, it is the gastronomical delight one expects. However, what was unexpected was the lack of stiffness and formality one expects from much lauded French restaurants. Each dish was absolute perfection, the service was impeccable and like all of this hotel, it was imbued with an air of warmth and conviviality. Gone are the clichéd days of intimidating waiters, haughty chefs and the terrifying pressure of not knowing what was put in front of one and how to react to it. Instead I got a yummy array of modern French food, a chat with the headwaiter about the history of the restaurant and the provenance of the dishes and most wonderful of all, a private tour of their kitchens, bakery, and …wait for this…their own in house wheat mill tucked a few levels beneath us.
Winding our way through the kitchens and then descending into the sous sol level (basement for many of us) I noticed classic illustrations of wheat and its history on the walls leading towards the mill. They take their bread seriously. This is the only chateau in Paris with its own mill. Ancient seeds are procured and ground using age old traditional methods for their daily bread. I had the good fortune of watching the whole process in action, from grinding to baking to finally a delicious warm loaf of bread. Hundreds of loaves are made daily, fulfilling the needs of the entire hotel all day. Another wonderful personal touch that confirms for me the thought behind every detail.
I ended my weekend on a note of wonder. After a few laps in the pool, I sat on the terrace looking out over Paris and noticed a mother and her five year old stepping into the water. They had just spent a few hours together at the Bon Point spa -- the first in France that serves children and their mothers -- and as the daughter prepared to jump in, she declared…”maman, cette moment est mon favourite ajourdhoui and cette hotel tojours”
(mama, this moment is my favourite today and this hotel always).
I couldn’t have agreed more!
Text Rymn Massand