In the beating heart of Paris, stands a statuesque hotel bedecked with signature bright red awnings and tumbling geraniums that’s as haute couture as the boutiques lining the streets surrounding it, discovers Paula Lester.
Close to the Champs-Élysées and the glittering la tour Eiffel, the classic stone façade of the eight-storey Hôtel Plaza Athénée — and its ornate wrought iron balconies — has stood out as a symbol of style and elegance, as well as a tribute to the distinctive Parisian Haussmann style of architecture, since 1913.
Designed by Charles Lefebvre and Louis Duhayon, Plaza Athénée is in a five-star class of its own, even by the French capital’s high standards. From the moment you step off the pavement, you know that you are in the lap of luxury and utmost care. There is something about the way that the French take such pride in service that, ultimately, transports you to another world. And, as we enjoyed a light al fresco lunch — toasted crab croques, gazpacho, simmered John Dory with fennel, basil and artichoke, then frozen tiramisu — in the creeper-clad oasis of La Cour Jardin, it was easy to see why Alfred Hitchcock and The Rolling Stones spent so much time here.
If you’re wondering why the Plaza is so fond of magenta accents — its key cards are a cherry rouge and more than 13,000 of Le Bar’s (frequented by U2 and Coldplay) signature rose-red royale cocktails are sipped every year — blame Marlene Dietrich. In the 1940s, Dietrich and Jean Gabin regularly stayed at the hotel. When she moved across the road, Gabin asked the hotel to decorate his balcony with 100 red roses so that his lover could see the blooms from her apartment. Vangelis composed his 1982 Oscar-winning soundtrack for Chariots of Fire when staying here and, more recently, David Bowie — a massive Dietrich fan — insisted on taking her favourite suite (209 and 210) whenever he stayed.
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As is befitting of a hotel that has featured in countless films — Sex and the City, The Devil Wears Prada and Netflix’s Emily in Paris — the 194 rooms and suites are more like apartments than the diminutive shoe boxes usually found in the city of light. Mine — no 363 and 364 — which has its own entrance hall, a double aspect sitting room with a marble fireplace, two sofas and a writing desk, opened into a vast bedroom that lead into a marble bathroom with a double sink, a huge bath, a walk-in shower and two loos — one off the drawing room and one off the bathroom.
However, even this majestic space is not a patch on the Haute Couture Eiffel Suite (above), which, as its name implies, affords a picture-postcard view of the tower (don’t miss its nightly illumination, for five minutes on the hour, from 8pm to 1am), high moulded ceilings, silver leaf detail and a grand piano. In terms of sheer expanse, however, the fifth-floor Royal Suite takes the biscuit — covering nearly 5,000 sq ft.
Eating and drinking
With five restaurants and a bar to choose from, the Plaza has long been known for exceptional dining. The hotel and its sister Paris establishment, Le Meurice, began its long relationship with Alain Ducasse in 1999, with the world-renowned chef gaining three Michelin stars for his eponymous restaurant Alain Ducasse au Plaza Athénée in 2001.
Nowadays, the food offering at the Plaza is overseen by Jean Imbert, who pays homage to ancient recipes (some 250 years old), through dishes such as ‘the brioche Marie-Antoinette caviar’ and ‘lobster à l’Americaine’ served with theatrical flair in the gilded salon. I also enjoyed the Le Relais Plaza restaurant, which opened in 1936 — its tastefully understated Art Deco style (the design on the menus is exquisite) was inspired by the first-class dining hall of the great ocean liner SS Normandie — where we shared entrées of foie gras, escargots, artichoke and mimosa vinaigrette, plus sea bass tartare and delicately presented cucumber, cream and herbs with edible flowers.
There was more Champagne, of course, followed by lightly poached langoustine, with mayonnaise and thermidor sauce.
How they’ll keep you busy
Relax in the recently refurbished Dior spa, where everything is hushed and polished white and there’s an innovative ‘light suite’ designed to replicate the benefits of the sun’s rays.
Alternatively, pay homage to the great designer Christian Dior himself — who opened his first boutique just down the road on avenue Montaigne in 1946 — by visiting the mesmerising exhibition at the Galerie Dior a few streets away, which offers an arresting insight into his story and the fashion house’s six successors: Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano, Raf Simons and Maria Grazia Chuiri.
What else to do while you’re there
Situated in the Triangle d’Or, which comprises some of Paris’s smartest streets (Chanel, Louis Vitton and Prada are all here), there is much shopping and sight-seeing to be enjoyed, as well as a myriad of restaurants and bars to explore.
Who is it for?
The Plaza, which joined the Brunei Investment Agency-owned Dorchester Collection of hotels in 2001, is a Mecca for the fashion cognoscenti that flock here for the Paris Fashion week shows. It’s also a favourite with Middle Eastern, American and European guests, who appreciate its central location and opulent glamour.
What gives it the ‘wow’ factor
The Plaza’s appeal lies not only in its sophistication and grandeur, but also in the smaller details, too, such as the signature amber fragrance that scents the entire hotel and the way events are tailored to the season. For instance, over the festive period (from November 23 to January 7), La Cour Jardin is transformed into a twinkling winter wonderland, with cascades of lights and an ice-skating rink.
The one thing we’d change
This might seem a little trifling when nothing — and I mean nothing, not even crêpes and coffee delivered on a table wheeled into your room — is too much, but I would have welcomed a bigger dressing table with a larger mirror and more space to take time to do my hair and make-up in the bedroom. Don’t get me wrong, there was plenty of space and a gargantuan mirror in the bathroom. However, in a suite of this magnitude, I felt as though it would have been easier — and, let’s face it, more Parisian — to have been able to get ready for a Michelin-starred dinner in the boudoir.
Rooms at Hôtel Plaza Athénée start from £1,300 a night, including breakfast. Visit www.dorchestercollection.com/paris/hotel-plaza-athenee or call 00 33 153 676 665 to book