The world has rediscovered travel and the cities it has been missing – Paris chief among them.
It’s been far too long between drinks, and even though we’ve just stepped off the plane we’re ready to feast on the City of Light and all her glorious sensations.
The first thing we do seems prosaic – sit at a Parisian brasserie and order a salad with warm goats cheese and frites, served by a good-looking waiter with an accent that oozes sex appeal – but it’s a pinch me moment. Paris never fails to make ladies swoon with her inimitable charm.
Chic Parisians in their spring blouson jackets and knee-high boots sit chatting with friends at an outside table, tucking into croque monsieurs and sipping rose without a care in the world.
How the hell do they remain so composed and slim-wasted? It must be a Gallic secret of some sort, though you’d think if they were aware of it they would have bottled it by now and sold it through one of their amazing fashion brands.
I do get an inkling of the magic. It is what the French call “flâner” – the art of dawdling or lingering over lunch or coffee, which they all take incredibly seriously. It’s an intrinsic part of French culture inculcated from a very young age.
Unlike New Yorkers, who often work 24-7, Parisians are very earnest about work-life balance. They insist on at least an hour’s lunch break and refuse to work at weekends. They have a mandated 35-hour work.
Our urbane French guide from Viking Cruises Jean Louis puts it: “Parisians love to sleep in on Saturday mornings. As you can see the streets of Champs Elysees are pretty empty right now because they are sleeping in. It’s what we call faire la grasse matinée or fat Saturday. They wake up late and the streets only become busy after 11am when Parisians pop over to their local cafe for croissant and coffee.”
This is surely something that Australians should emulate, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, which has caused so many to re-think their priorities and re-examine their work-life balance.
That same pandemic has meant a lack of visitors to the City of Lights over the last two years that has given Paris the time to invest in and build a new crop of boutique hotels, ready for the return onslaught of more than 30 million tourists a year. So where should you stay?
Stepping into my luxurious Paris hotel
We checked into the luxury, five-star Hotel Lutetia at 45 Boulevard Raspail on the Left Bank, a delightful and ultra-cool hotel housed in an Art Nouveau-meets-Art Deco building with stunning rooms, an amazing spa and impeccable service.
Lutetia, originally opened in 1910 by the Boucicaut family, founders of the upmarket Le Bon Marché department store, which is a three-minute walk from the hotel. To the uninitiated, Le Bon Marché is the equivalent of Selfridges in London’s Oxford Street and David Jones in Sydney’s Elizabeth Street.
Around the 1920s, both Picasso and Matisse called it home, and writer James Joyce used to play Irish ballads on the piano bar. Today, impeccably dressed Parisians often stop at Bar Josephine for pre-dinner cocktails and high-profile celebrities like Catherine Deneuve and Charlotte Gainsbourg can be spotted sipping a flute of bubbles.
The first thing I notice when I enter my oversized deluxe room on the fifth floor, is my name, delicately sewn onto the top left corner of pillowcase on the king-sized bed. Wow! It beats a Lindt chocolate by a mile.
On the table next to the window leading to a Juliette balcony is a chocolate Viking ship with a mallet, elegantly encased in a glass cloche, a decadent Parisian tiramisu cake, a bowl of fruits and a bottle of Taittinger with two champagne flutes – all too beautifully presented to be eaten or drunk.
Lutetia has 184 rooms spread over seven floors, including 47 suites. One of the top suites, St Germain Penthouse by Coppola, has been designed in collaboration with legendary film director and Parisian habitué, Francis Ford Coppola. He and his daughter Sofia are regular guests at Lutetia, alongside celebrities such as Samuel Beckett, Yves Saint Laurent and Sonia Rykiel. Another celebrated guest, the late American entertainer Josephine Baker, also has a suite named after her.
But the grand prize is the Presidential Carré Rive Gauche suite, which is almost like a private museum adorned with two sapphire-blue Kangxi vases, 17th century sculptures and contemporary oil paintings. It also has a 74-square-metre rooftop terrace with panoramic views of the city.
On Sunday mornings, there’s an organic market nearby on Boulevard Raspail where actress Kristin Scott Thomas gets her vegetables, at least so I’m told.
Across the Seine, on the Right Bank, a few minutes away from the Bourse du Commerce and the Samaritaine department store, is the smaller, five-star Madame Rêve Hotel housed in the 19th century Louvre post office building.
The hotel has 82 rooms and suites, and 53 balconies, each with marvellous views over the glittering city from the Eiffel Tower to Montmartre. It has the stunning Madame Reve Café, decorated lavishly in the splendour of a bygone era, with eight-metre-high ceilings, amber-coloured velvet curtains, ornate chandeliers and a long, wooden-panelled bar.
On the third floor, there’s La Plume restaurant where Chef Benjamin Six serves a Japanese culinary experience with French flavours, and you can enjoy a pre-dinner martini at Le Bar.
My delightful deluxe room features a king-sized bed and expansive sloping windows with fabulous views. Madame Rêve is so cool that only those who know, know to buzz at the tiny entrance for access to the tiny lobby.
A few steps from the Louvre and the Marais is LVMH’s contemporary Cheval Blanc Hotel designed by New York based Peter Marino as a tribute to French savoir-faire. The much talked about hotel located on the Right Bank overlooking the Seine, has only 72 rooms and suites. The elegant Eiffel suite, at 100 square metres has a terrace with panoramic views of Paris and the Eiffel Tower, as well as a separate living, lounge and dining room with a spacious bathroom and a walk-in hammam shower. It also has a private bar and wine cellar. Scented amenities are based on signature fragrances created by Francois Demachy, Dior’s perfumer.
Like all haute couture hotels, if you have to ask the price of a room, you probably can’t afford it. But to give you an idea, prices for a deluxe room of 45 square metres with breakfast start from €1550 ($2275) per night. A deluxe junior suite of 65 square metres with breakfast and complimentary one-way private transfer will set you back €3100 per night. And the Eiffel Suite? Prices are only available on request.
My favourite Parisian dishes
Nothing beats the taste of my first escargot swimming in delicious, hot garlic butter followed by the rich, comfort dish of coq au vin.
This is my favourite meal at Le Procope, the oldest cafe in Paris in the heart of Saint Germain. Established in 1686, Le Procope is steeped in history; great writers and intellectuals including Rousseau, Diderot and Verlaine have met here for a lingering meal.
Decked out in vintage décor, Le Procope offers traditional and bourgeois French cuisine such as onion soup – so thick my spoon is able to stand on its own – and it is packed with local families lunching. You can have a three-course lunch for $44 or a Philisopher’s meal for $59.
My favourite shops in Paris
No self-respecting tourist in Paris will miss the chance of ambling down some of the finest haute couture streets.
On Rue St- Honoré, old-world elegance meets contemporary chic, from the French House of Valentino to Italian designer Prada, Mui Mui, Gucci and Max Mara.
Window shopping in Paris offers seemingly unending choice.
You can spend hours just looking, touching and trying on a French top or a pair of cool boots at La Samaritaine; take the escalator to the roof terrace of Galleries Lafayette for spectacular views of Paris; or just take in the ambience of strolling down Rue Cambon, home of the flagship Chanel store.
You don’t need to join the expansive queues to experience the joys of Paris shopping.