More than Tokyo, Rome, or even New York, Paris is a place to fantasize about. It is the Marilyn Monroe of city breaks, the double chocolate cake of destinations; a town that’s dreamed about from bedrooms and office blocks around the globe by millions of people who have never even been there.
Nothing encapsulates fantasy-laden Paris better than the city’s 11 palace hotels. This isn’t just a description, it’s a designation introduced by the French government 10 years ago for five-star establishments that have “exceptional qualities that embody French standards of excellence.” In other words, they are better than your average luxury hotel.
And with multi-Michelin starred restaurants, ornate interiors, and extraordinarily glamorous histories attached, they really are. (They have a price tag to match—an entry level double room in most of them starts at $1,300 a night.)
But what happens when 80 percent of their usual clientele are banned from entering the country? Without visitors from the Middle East, China, Russia, and the U.S., things have been tough for French luxury travel, and when the U.K. introduced its two-week quarantine for all arrivals from France in August, it got even harder. This already comes on the back of a difficult five years. Visits faltered after the 2015 terrorist attacks, and over the past two winters, mass “gilet jaunes” protests have led to violence in the areas where most of these hotels are congregated.
Closed over the summer for the first time since World War II, Paris’ palaces reopened in a burst over the last few weeks: the Crillon and the Ritz first, followed by the Bristol, Plaza Athenée, and the Georges V. Only the smallest of the delightful dozen–La Reserve with its 40 rooms–has been open since May.
A week ago, sitting on the rooftop balcony of the most expensive suite in the Crillon, I found out what happens to romantic hotels in dreamed-about cities when nobody is allowed to visit them. They try to lure in the locals instead.
The Crillon is the establishment Marie Antoinette would have chosen had she been alive in 2020 and going on vacation. In fact, back in 1774, she took music lessons in the building it is housed in. Sitting slap bang in the middle of Place de la Concorde, the Crillon is absurdly glamorous both inside and out. Unlike most of their other guests, I arrived on public transport, walking out of Concorde metro station and staring, awe-struck, for a few seconds at the building above me. Next to me was a vintage ice cream truck serving Crillon-made ice cream in chic navy blue bowls, and a queue of masked Parisians hoping for something sugary to eat in the Tuileries.
Inside the hotel are Michelin-starred restaurants, an underground pool, bedrooms designed by Karl Lagerfeld and a butler assigned to every guest. But my sights were set on the wrap-around balcony of the Bernstein Suite, which is usually occupied by film stars and royalty thanks to its $24,000 a night price tag, but which was transformed into a sleek bar with a full-frontal view of the Eiffel Tower. It is the sort of place one dreams of getting engaged in, but unusually for anywhere in this landmark-heavy part of Paris, absolutely everyone was speaking French.
The words ‘Bonjour Paris’ were strung up in neon against the back wall, and a blond barman with a topknot was making a series of cocktails based on famous people and places in the city. All were insider references, and at €28 a pop, drinks were noticeably cheap for an establishment where a continental breakfast costs more than double that.
Next to me were four young Parisian women in little black dresses and red lipstick. When the Eiffel Tower lit up for its hourly light show they crowded over the balcony to take videos and upload them directly to Instagram. “We never get to see this version of our city,” one of them explained. “It’s for rich tourists, not people like us.”
It is a similar story in all the palace hotels around the city, which are opening their spas to outside visitors and throwing birthday and anniversary parties in their ornate dining rooms for ordinary Parisians–I saw groups of bejewelled locals dashing in and out of the Marie Antoinette suite in the Crillon the day I was there, celebrating a 50th. But are measures such as these enough to save the Ritz, the Bristol, and the George V? What about recent Asian imports such as Le Mandarin Oriental and the Peninsula?
François Delahaye, general director of the prestigious Plaza Athénée, believes there is a saturation of palace hotels in Paris and that while the old guard will survive by using their reputation and prestige, new arrivals may not–particularly without the loyal Asian clientele they rely on.
“It’s worse than wartime,” Delahaye said in an interview with Challenges earlier this summer. “When you come to the Plaza, it’s not for the marble-covered bathroom. It’s for the atmosphere and the people you mingle with.”
Yes, Parisians are using these hotels more than they once did, but the gold-leaf lobbies and baroque dining rooms are still noticeably empty. Some of this is on purpose–hotels are promising deep disinfection of rooms between guests and so have to leave rooms empty for 24 hours to ensure distancing. But mostly it is because there simply aren’t enough French people willing to pay the exorbitant price tag.
At the Ritz, the famous Hemingway Bar has finally reopened, but with social distancing measures in place and half the usual clientele. It is night spots like this—which have been written about extensively in literature and captured on film—that are the lifeblood of these establishments, and the reason why people spend four figures on one night away; without their usual raucous atmosphere something is undoubtedly lost.
But as coronavirus cases rise once again in France, these hotels are unlikely to be full any time soon, which means their survival will be down to the generosity of their owners. The refurbishment of the Crillon is said to have cost its owner Prince Mitab bin Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud up to €440 million, after he bought the property in 2010 for a reported €250m—a similar amount to what Mohamed Al-Fayed spent on the Ritz when he refurbished it a year later. These foreign-born multi-millionaires have pockets deep enough to bail out their hotels for years to come, but will they want to?
Luckily, the city also needs its palace hotels to stay alive. For working Parisians, the fantasy Paris foreigners dream about bears as many similarities to the real deal as romantic comedies do to normal relationships. But Parisians have made a lot of money from curating a dream-filled vision of their home and the French government is unlikely to let the jewels in its crown go dim.
In the meantime, locals are taking advantage of all the treasures their city has to offer without the 70 million visitors a year the French capital is usually inundated by. The Mona Lisa smiles in a deserted Louvre, the Eiffel Tower looms over the occasional Parsian couple holding hands, and the Seine is free of its usual hulking tourist boats.
From the rooftop of Crillon hotel—the sky pink with an Indian summer haze and the Place de la Concorde emptied of its usual traffic—the city had never looked more beautiful. As I relished the gloss and glamour of the hotel, the hot streets rumbling under my feet, I felt convinced these landmark palaces would survive this strange, difficult year. It is the City of Light after all, and hotels this dazzling don’t get extinguished so easily.