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New Paris hotels offer surprises

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A suite atop the new Shangri-La Hotel in Paris boasts a 1,000-square-foot terrace overlooking a slice of heaven: the City of Light, from Montmartre to the Eiffel Tower. At the balustrade you can see half a dozen bridges over the Seine, the Grand and Petit Palais, Les Invalides, Tour Montparnasse, Île de la Cité, the Pantheon and Tuileries Gardens. It's like Google Earth with room service.

On a tour of the hotel, which opened in December in the historic Palais d'Iéna, I learned that rates for standard rooms start at more than $500 a night, never mind the suite.

The rich must be getting richer, because hotels keep opening in Paris, most of them as magnificent as the Shangri-La, and just as expensive. In the last year, the Mandarin Oriental and Le Royal Monceau joined the crème de la crème. Soon to come are a Peninsula hotel in the fashionable area radiating from the Étoile; a Cheval Blanc, created by the Moët Hennessy-Louis Vuitton company, to reoccupy the long-closed Samaritaine department store building; and a little Left Bank spot on the beguiling Rue du Cherche-Midi, where actor Gérard Depardieu, who already has a restaurant here, will try his hand as hotelier.

I came here to have a look at these dream palaces, although I stayed in more modest, relatively new places, which are rare. A deep gulf exists between luxury and moderately priced hotels, as anyone who seeks affordable lodging finds out.

As it turned out, this was not just a trip to Paris; it was a visit to an alternate reality against which I bumped my head when I finished touring these million-dollar babies and returned to my comparatively budget digs.

Here's a clue to why this rash of luxury hotels has recently opened in Paris: Most of them come from the Far East, reflecting that region's economic growth. Le Royal Monceau is managed by Raffles, famous for its historic Singapore flagship; the Shangri-La, Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula are the first Paris properties of those well-known hotel groups with headquarters in Hong Kong.

The Asian influence is most apparent at the Shangri-La, where guests are greeted with warm, scented towels and slender staff members in gold gowns drift up and down the marble staircase. In the glass-roofed Bauhinia restaurant, delicacies such as Thai pomelo salad are prepared with French gourmandise. Here and there the eye falls on Ming vases, silk screens and orchids.

The mansion occupied by the hotel was built in 1896 — seven years after the Eiffel Tower — by a French Mandarin. Prince Roland Bonaparte was Napoleon's grand-nephew, a passionate botanist and longtime president of the French Geographical Society who married into the rich Monte Carlo casino clan.

Gated and set back from Avenue d'Iéna by a courtyard with an elegant porte-cochere, the building retains the air of a private residence even though it was used as a French government office building from 1944 to 2006. Shangri-La hired Richard Martinet, an architect with special expertise in historic preservation, to renovate the palace, and interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon for the decoration, a seamless mélange of modern, belle époque and Oriental styles.

I wish I could say what it's like to be tucked in at the Shangri-La, but that night I slept on a padded tumbling mat that took up most of the floor of a tiny room in the new Hi Matic on the other side of Paris in the 11th arrondissement, a blue collar-gone-hip neighborhood east of the Bastille.

As much an automat as a hotel, the Hi Matic has self-check-in at computer terminals in the lobby that eject key cards accessing rooms on upper floors. Mine was painted in bright grade-school colors, with exposed tubing and wiring; it had minimal built-in furniture; no phone, TV or closet; and a plastic shower stall about a foot from the bed. When the sink faucet came off in my hand, I laughed out loud. You get what you pay for, I told myself, then remembered that for a night at the Hi Matic I'd paid the hardly trifling sum of $230, average for a midrange hotel in Paris.

Casting around for something else, I priced rooms at two new small boutique hotels, Le Konfidentiel in the delightful Marais and Le Pavillon des Lettres in the 8th arrondissement, which has 26 stylish rooms, each dedicated to a different writer, and iPads on demand. Because I was in Paris slightly before the May-June high season, I hoped to swing a deal, but I couldn't find a standard double at either place for less than $300.

I ended up at the Five Hotel, part of a small French boutique chain opening locations across town, including Le Crayon, which launches this summer in the 1st arrondissement near the Louvre. The Five is on the Left Bank but closer to the workaday Place d'Italie than the Latin Quarter; in fact, it's so far from the center that a friend who has lived in Paris for 30 years had to use GPS to find it.

The rooms are well-equipped, decorated 21st century cheap-and-cheerful with trendy leopard spots and beaded curtains that could be from Ikea. For this I paid about $250, not including breakfast.

The city is trying to attract developers of midrange establishments, Paul Roll, director-general of the city's convention and visitors bureau, told me, but it is hardly disconsolate over the arrival of upscale properties that employ as many as four people for every guest room. To help big-time spenders distinguish between the brilliant and the best, it has just added a "Palace" category to the rarefied top tier of its star rating system.

The first hotel so designated in May was Le Bristol, a Second Empire edifice on the fashionable Rue du Faubourg St.-Honoré. I toured it too because Le Bristol just finished a renovation, expanding into another wing and creating new quarters overlooking a French garden for its Michelin three-star restaurant. Le Bristol, opened in 1925, preserves the dignified grand hotel tradition; it has been owned by the same family since 1978. Its guest rooms are large, quiet and lush; old master paintings and tapestries; a small army of uniformed doormen; more floral arrangements than a funeral; and a house kitten.

Le Royal Monceau, meanwhile, occupies a building that has been a hotel since 1928 in the same distinguished neighborhood as Le Bristol but otherwise a world away. Closed for renovation for two years, it reopened in October. It was designed by French minimalist Philippe Starck, known for outré interiors at the Mondrian in Los Angeles and Royalton in New York.

At Le Royal Monceau, Starck seems to have put the brakes on his wildest inclinations, but the hotel's 21st century eclecticism still stands out in Paris. A rose-tinted Art Deco porte-cochere and entry yield to the long, narrow Grand Salon full of one-of-a-kind chairs, lampshades and plates that Starck commissioned from artist friends.

The salon is bounded on the left by a grand staircase, one of the few intact features from the old hotel, and a 100-seat screening room. To the right, the salon comes to a coda in a chic glass-lined bar with restaurants and a members-only cigar room around the corner.

Le Royal Monceau pervasively carries out its theme: the fine arts. Works from its 300-piece art photo collection are generously scattered throughout; there's an art bookstore instead of a gift shop; and an art concierge can arrange private meetings with artists and snag last-minute tickets to hot exhibitions. The emphasis shifts to literature in guest chambers, with quotes from French writers.

Such features are hardly novelties to people who frequent high-concept hotels in London and New York. But Le Royal Monceau engaged one of the most savvy and experienced general managers in the business to put it in a different league from standard-issue boutiques. Before coming to the hotel, Sylvain Ercoli managed the Ritz, George V and Crillon, to which he alludes when he says, "Five or six other places in Paris offer what everyone expects. Le Royal Monceau represents a major change in the way hotels are done."

I met Mandarin Oriental manager Philippe Leboeuf at his office near the Louvre because the hotel was a month away from opening when I was in Paris. The hotel group, which has notable properties in Hong Kong and Bangkok, spent five years looking for real estate before selecting an Art Deco building near the Place Vendôme.

The shell remains intact, but the interior was designed from scratch, enabling the hotel to incorporate cutting-edge energy conservation strategies and purpose-built spa facilities, a Mandarin Oriental trademark. I saw sketches of public spaces and generous, understated guest rooms, situated around a courtyard garden and decorated in cool neutral tones and sleek "Mad Men" modern furniture. There's nothing especially Asian about it, except for the warm and attentive service for which Mandarin Oriental is famous.

Across town on the north edge of the Marais, I met Geoffroy Sciard, who is launching another new hotel with Antoine Brault in October. The Jules & Jim, which is being billed as the first gay hotel in Paris, was under construction when I saw it, but the energy that inspired the hotel is everywhere apparent.

They have gutted an old factory building in a neighborhood known as the Haut Marais; it will house 23 rooms on eight floors around a central courtyard. Sciard describes them as cocoons, exceptionally well sound- and light-proofed, with contemporary furnishings. Breakfast will be served until noon for late sleepers.

With new properties such as the Jules & Jim, the Hi Matic, the Shangri-La and a gigantic youth hostel opening next year on the Rue Pajol in the 18th, the city still has the ability to surprise. I won't lie. I'd rather stay at the Shangri-La, but wouldn't mind the hostel. Indeed, there aren't a lot of things I wouldn't mind if it meant I could be in Paris.

travel@latimes.com

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