WHEN FOUR OF Paris's grandest hotels decided to embark on sweeping renovation projects to revamp their old-fashioned looks and outdated features, inside players in the hospitality industry reckoned it was a reaction to the “Asian invasion” that has taken the Parisian hotel scene by storm.
The first grande dame of Parisian hospitality to get a facelift was Le Bristol, soon to be followed by the Hôtel Plaza Athénée, the Hôtel de Crillon and the Ritz Paris. The first two have emerged from their refurbishments with refreshed interiors and modern amenities, while the Crillon and the Ritz are still closed for renovation.
In the meantime, a group of Asian properties has been courting new-money jet-setters and long-time aficionados of the City of Light with state-of-the-art facilities, elegant premises and that Asian blend of friendly hospitality and informal luxury that is an utterly new concept in the often-stuffy world of European grand hotels.
With outposts from three of Asia's most celebrated hotel chains opening within the past four years – the Shangri-La, Mandarin Oriental and Raffles Hotels' Le Royal Monceau – Paris has elevated its already stellar status as a worldclass destination among luxury travellers, who've never been as spoilt for choice.
The latest brand to make a foray into the Parisian scene is Hong Kong-based Peninsula Hotels, whose namesake first property is one of Hong Kong's most beloved institutions. For its European debut, the company spared no expense, acquiring a late 19th-century palace a stone's throw from the Arc de Triomphe. The imposing structure housed one of Paris' grandest hotels, the Hotel Majestic, from 1908 until 1936, when it became France's Ministry of Defence offices and then the headquarters of the German military high command in France during the Nazi occupation. After the war, the building served various functions, including as the head office of Unesco, until the French government sold it to a Qatari group in 2008, which led to its rebirth as The Peninsula Paris this past August.
It's no surprise that these hallowed grounds have housed many official institutions in the past. With its stately facade, magnificent lobby and somewhat low-key location in a prime area in the centre of Paris, the place retains an old-world grandeur – you can easily imagine delegations of foreign dignitaries or the retinues of European royal families taking up residence and feeling at home.
The four-year renovation was a major undertaking that's said to have cost €338 million. Each element in the building's public areas, from its mirror-lined corridors to its stucco columns, colourful mosaics and ornate chandeliers, was painstakingly brought back to life, after years of neglect and disrepair, by a team of French workers who have lent their skills to the restoration of some of France's most famous landmarks, including the Eiffel Tower.
In spite of the building's long history and its ornate Belle Époque architecture, The Peninsula Paris is not your typical Parisian grand hotel with requisite baroque flourishes such as chintz curtains and tapestry-covered walls. Its mostly white palette, which extends from the lavish use of marble in the lobby to the immaculate uniforms of the bellboys and even the decor of its rooftop restaurant, the aptly named L'Oiseau Blanc (the White Bird), imbues the sumptuous interiors with a sense of calm that's a far cry from the sensory overload common in many fellow luxury hotels.
This is even more evident in the rooms and suites, which at first may feel a tad too corporate-looking but are incredible feats of modern engineering and technology. Decorated in subdued tones of grey and beige, and featuring extremely large dressing areas and bathrooms that could easily be described as mini-spas, the guestrooms stand out for their remarkable blend of luxury and high tech.
When faced with all the gadgets, remote controls and keypads now de rigueur in five-star suites, you often wish you could throw all those unnecessary toys in the garbage bin and just be able to open your door with an old-fashioned and reliable key or turn off the light with a simple switch instead of spending half an hour trying to figure out how to operate all that paraphernalia before giving up in despair. This is not the case at The Peninsula Paris. Thanks to the company's well-known R&D technology lab, which also oversaw the recent renovation of the Hong Kong property, the hotel is a rare example in which technology is not a hindrance but an asset. The iPad-like devices and touchscreen pads situated everywhere in the rooms – you can even find one in your bathtub should you wish to check the outside temperature or order room service while taking a relaxing bath – are self-explanatory, easy to use and efficient, not just a publicity gimmick conjured up to create some buzz.
The seamless way the technology blends with the lavish surroundings is a lesson in modern 21st-century luxury living. It's not hard to fathom that one day all modern households will be accessorised with similar innovative amenities that are user-friendly and just do what they're supposed to do, offering convenience at the touch of a screen.
But technology without a soul is not what wins the hearts and minds of seasoned luxury travellers and, fortunately, you'll find plenty of warmth and magic at the hotel, from the stunning decor of its restaurants – the aforementioned L'Oiseau Blanc and the Cantonese eatery, LiLi, which have already become Paris hot spots – to the clubby atmosphere and traditional charm of The Kléber Bar, not to mention the five lavish suites featuring private rooftop gardens. If you're lucky enough to stay in one of these, you might never leave your slice of paradise in the heart of Paris.
It's this seamless combination of modern technology – that works – and classic splendour that makes The Peninsula Paris the definition of a 21st-century luxury hotel. As you walk by the two imposing sculptures of traditional Chinese lions that stand sentry at the entrance and then check into your super-modern suite, you feel like you're getting the best of both worlds, experiencing a modern-day palace right in the middle of the quintessential old-world metropolis.