Thank goodness I had my sunglasses close at hand when I checked out of Le Royal Monceau because I don't ever recall a time when a hotel stay has brought me to tears – for all the right reasons.
If you were to ask me to describe my dream cosmopolitan hotel (we'll leave resorts for another article), I'd say one that combines imagination and irreverence, culture and comfort, grand and intimate spaces, artistic inspiration and a good location. I found all this and more (see: midnight macarons) at Le Royal Monceau.
The property, which dates to 1928 and reopened in October, has a rich and storied past. The original building at 37 avenue Hoche housed a retirement home belonging to nuns before hoteliers Pierre Bermond and André Jugnot opened Le Royal Monceau, instantly attracting the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Maurice Chevalier, Josephine Baker and a revolving door of artists and intellectuals. After the Second World War, when the hotel was temporarily requisitioned, it became a destination for world leaders including Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ho Chi Minh. David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir declared the State of Israel there in 1948. Pop royalty Michael Jackson and Madonna have rested their heads on Royal Monceau pillows.
Today, Le Royal Monceau is owned by a Qatar investment company and managed by Raffles, the hotel group that epitomizes luxury hospitality throughout Asia. For the two-year renovation (it changed hands and closed in 2008), they enlisted design guru Philippe Starck, who approached the project as a challenge that would engage the emotions beyond indulging the senses. What they conceived is equal parts palace and playground, a cerebral and contemplative nod back in time, infused with a feisty, sexy spirit. Sounds utterly French, non?
But the magic at the heart of the hotel is indescribable until experienced. I will do my best. I suspect, though, that not even the words of French authors Marcel Proust or André Malraux (both recurring players in the hotel's narrative) could capture the je ne sais quoi, the preciousness, of this Parisian treasure.
The Starck stamp
Yes, there are Starck's signature trappings – whimsical furniture juxtapositions, an Alice in Wonderland approach to furniture (either too big or too small), bold injections of colour, boyish inside jokes – but the unapologetic mad hatter takes a more nuanced, daresay mature, approach to the Monceau's design. Some highlights: Carpets double as art (one with an artichoke and horse looks like a surrealist painting). Books are everywhere, propped up in unreachable ledges below the ceiling and in eye-level alcoves throughout the public spaces. The hotel's original chandeliers have been preserved and hang together over the main staircase like a cluster of elegant jellyfish. A family of life-size wood deer seems to have lost its way and ended up on the second-floor landing. In Le Carpaccio, the more casual of two restaurants, the entryway is lined in oyster shells, and mussel shells adorn a chandelier (très cool recycling). All the beds sit in the centre of the room, apparently in homage to artists who take liberties moving furniture to best inspire them. The bedside lampshades are covered in writing from Malraux, as if he has woken up and recorded his dreams in a fit of panic. Artificial sugar packets that read " Ceci n'est pas du sucre" are a shout-out to Belgian artist René Magritte (of bowler hat fame) and his iconic work The Treachery of Images.
Rooms that rock
IPod docking station? So passé. Each of Le Royal Monceau's 149 soundproof rooms comes with a Lâg guitar designed exclusively for the hotel by craftsman Michel Lâg-Chavarria. Needless to say, lessons are available. Serious musicians can request the "mobile sound studio" which can be set up ensuite. I strummed once or twice (no Slash solos), but my favourite novelty was the closet, lighted and mirrored to evoke a haute couture salon. Oh, and the bed was a carte blanche for beautiful dreams; if I didn't have places to go, I would have remained cocooned until noon.
It seems fitting to say you can expect nothing but royal treatment at this 16,145-square-foot subterranean spa (opening in September), where the pièce de résistance is a 28-metre pool (the largest of its kind in Paris) with skylights that jut up into the courtyard. A hammam with carved-stone seating, a laconium sweat room, customizable skin-care treatments and products from Clarins's new My Blend line, and showers with sound effects (thunder, birds) might make you forget to hit the Paris streets. But for those who have enjoyed one too many croissants, the Ciclotte uni-wheeled exercise bike is one of several state-of-the-art workout options.
Fauvist painter Kees Van Dongen, whose prime years coincided with the hotel's opening in 1928, would find his "Cocktail Era" theme (a well-heeled scene, contentedly lingering) alive and kicking at the new Monceau. It's a pleasure to engage with the bartender, who will gladly climb a stepladder affixed to the massive triptych shelving system to fetch a rare Japanese or 90-proof whisky. More fun is to settle into a deep leather lounger, drink up the effortlessly hip ambience while snacking on an oozy cheesy croque-monsieur washed down with champagne.
Art: in three parts
Would you like an after-hours walk-through of a gallery? Or someone to arrange a meeting with a local artist? Le Royal Monceau has set up an art concierge desk independent of the folks who make your dinner reservations. Art auctions from the four most important Paris houses get live-streamed at the hotel and the concierges can bid directly on your behalf.
Because Le Royal Monceau's raison d'être is "live with art," photographic prints in the rooms are available for purchase. But for those only looking, a weekly newsletter titled Art for Breakfast hangs conveniently beside the hotel room door and lists a selection of can't-miss local shows (a blog, artforbreakfast.com, is updated daily). There's also an oversized quarterly magazine (think W crossed with Wallpaper), cheekily titled Royal Stiletto.
Not your garden-variety gift shop, La Librarie des Arts is a refined gathering space in the guise of a bookstore. Beyond the 700 titles (mostly contemporary art), the shop offers limited edition objets d'art and tchotchkes that a design aficionado would be proud to carry home. Located one building down is Art District, the hotel's stand-alone gallery. Four shows are mounted each year (there's currently a retrospective on American photographer Melvin Sokolsky) with artists representing different countries.
In gastronomy circles, head chefs Laurent André and Gabriel Grapin are savoury studs whose approach to plating and to fresh-yet-subtle flavours had me swooning the night I treated myself to dinner in the main dining room, La Cuisine. The real star, however, works entirely with sweets. Dubbed "the Picasso of pastry," Pierre Hermé oversees the dessert menu, which includes at least two dozen varieties of mille-feuille (a delicate multilayered cake) and macarons in flavours ranging from chocolate passion fruit to olive oil mandarin.
Five-star screening room
Presumably, the hotel hopes to attract plenty of special film screenings – the 100-room Le Cinéma des Lumières theatre is worthy of studio execs and starlets alike. Leather seating is generously sized and there are even a few loveseat options. But the best seat in the house is a single lounger in deep orange. If that one is taken, three others, spaced randomly through the theatre, bear quotes stitched in silver from Abel Gance, the French cinema pioneer. All the movie treats are conceived by Hermé and André.
Move right in
Like more and more hotels today, Le Royal Monceau will have five permanent residences via a separate entrance at 41 avenue Hoche, ready by September, for those with pockets deep enough to settle into the hotel's cushy way of life. The difference is these apartments are fully furnished according to Monceau standards.
They appear to be a theme at Le Royal Monceau. The desk chairs in every room are printed with a pair (plus " yeux," as if to clarify). Saucers boast a surrealist eye that appears reflected in the silver-plated teacup. Illustrations of faces peer out from the bottles of Starck-designed toiletries. It was Proust who once said, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." I suspect I shed a tear because every element of the hotel (including the efficient and personal service) came together to produce such an enriching experience that was less about being seen than being inspired. For four days, I lived a fantasy that I will not soon forget.
Basic rooms at Le Royal Monceau start at €780 ($1,064) and go as high as €10,000 ($13,644) for a suite.