When is a palace hotel not a palace hotel? According to the French government, when it doesn't deliver your bags to the room within 10 minutes of your arrival. This spring, it ordained eight of the nation's hotels as "Palaces" – hotels considered five star-plus that meet such varied criteria as luggage delivery and historic significance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, half were in Paris.
Athletic bellboys and supersonic lifts notwithstanding, these hotels also possess that innately Parisian grandeur. The interiors transcend the requirements of their guests, brimming with whimsy and artistic flair. Much is made of their history, with only the most subtle concessions to the modern world – flat-screen TVs concealed in Louis XV-style cabinets and directories stashed in antique dressers.
Absent from this year's list was Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris, where a uniform expanse of sandstone, curlicues and elegant balconies fits the exterior mould of the palace hotel perfectly. Its absence isn't surprising, given that it only reopened in October after a two-year renovation. But should it make the cut next year, the concept of the palace hotel will be redefined.
Opened during the Roaring Twenties, Le Royal Monceau was the hangout of choice for intellectuals and bons vivants, from Ernest Hemingway to Coco Chanel. However, two years ago, the doors closed and work began in earnest inside what had become a very weary grande dame.
The style in which it got under way hints at the hotel's renaissance. Workers were invited to a "demolition party", involving revelry and wrecking in equal measure. Next, Philippe Starck got to work on reinventing a Parisian palace for the future. His last hotel project in the city was the budget-chic Mama Shelter, way out in the banlieues but bursting with affordable style. That, he says, was for the kids; Le Royal Monceau is for their parents.
The parents he had in mind must have been somewhat more prosperous than their budget-conscious offspring, but connoisseurs of style nonetheless. Starck maintains that he doesn't want Le Royal Monceau to be fashionable; instead the hotel makes a play for art. There's a library stocked with expensive art/design books, an art concierge and a curator who will organise four shows a year. A prize for young photographers is also being introduced.
The hub of the action is the Grand Salon, where exquisite Parisians chatter over tea or a long lunch amid objets d'art. By contrast, to one side is a boudoir-like cigar room entirely rendered in red; to the other, antique chandeliers appear to dangle from the ceiling on ribbons; up the central staircase, a stained glass window is set next to a rough grey brick wall and an installation of wood-carved deer and antelope. There are surprises at every turn.
The entire wall leading up to the Italian restaurant, Il Carpaccio, is covered with thousands of tiny black and white seashells while a mussel shell chandelier centrepiece dominates inside. In La Cuisine, the main restaurant, Pierre Hermé oversees the pastry creations. Here, I was surrounded by at least half a dozen lunching fur-wrapped ladies, barely able to open their taut mouths to taste the delicate scallops with endive or heavenly lemon mascarpone and wild strawberry mille-feuille with caramel pastry.
The only shortcoming I experienced was the service – an overly present staff seemed to follow palace etiquette, but it felt overbearing and too formal for this "palace-of-today".
The 8th arrondissement location belies the hotel's centrality. Turn left from the entrance and facing you is the might of the Arc de Triomphe (and Charles de Gaulle-Etoile station, at the crux of four Metro lines). To the right is Parc Monceau, a sanctuary of green that bursts with sun-seeking locals in summer. The Champs-Elysées is within the limits of reasonable shopping bag-carrying distance.
I was in a Studio Room, the smallest of the categories that rise through 10 levels of deluxe and executive rooms, suites and signature suites. The dreamy décor that unites them is at once classically romantic and timelessly modern. The palette is dusky pink or putty grey, with 1940s-inspired accents of cream and café-au-lait leather furniture, oak, mirrors and luminescent champagne-hued silk eiderdowns. Two large windows overlooking a courtyard add a feeling of space to the moderately-sized room. A map of Paris spans the top of the desk, although this was set under glass at such an angle as to make it impossible to fit an adaptor in the socket.
Minor design faults aside, the detailing is what impresses, giving the impression you've walked into an artist's studio. The lampshades beside the bed are scrawled with notes: "brunch at 11am, 75001"; doodles and letters signed "Jean" are framed by the bed, the water tumblers etched with "beau jour" and "belle nuit" and the pillowcases and chair embroidered with Cocteau-esque faces.
A monogrammed "RM" acoustic guitar leans against the wall, while the art concierge's weekly recommendations are pinned to the wall (artforbreakfast.com) – on my visit, an eclectic list including Space Invader and Art Paris at the Grand Palais.
Glittering behind a door is the show-stopping bathroom – a narcissist's dream, covered entirely in mirrors. Palatial indeed.
Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris, 37 Avenue Hoche, Paris, France (00 33 1 42 99 88 00; leroyalmonceau.com)
Double rooms start at €650, including breakfast.Reuse content