Lavishly designed and brimming with gadgets, a new generation of boutique hotels has arrived in Paris. Nick Redman explores the hi-tech and high glamour of the stylish new 'urban resorts'.In Paris, it's time to say au revoir to beige, greige and generally grim business accommodation. This autumn, a clutch of imaginatively designed boutique and design hotels ? otherwise known as ?urban resorts? and ?new-generation palaces? ? have embraced the fact that ?corporate? and ?style? are not mutually exclusive.
Light is big this season in Paris, judging by the way the owners have chosen to illuminate the new Murano Urban Resort on the eastern edge of the modish Marais district. ?When you come back at night, it looks like a magic lantern from the outside, because all the guests are in their rooms playing with their light switches,? managing director Jerome Foucaud tells me. We're sitting on a long white-leather Chesterfield in the Murano's bleached-out Central Lounge, below a glass roof through which the daylight is flooding.
This is a far cry from Foucaud's last post as development director of the more sedate Byblos hotels in Courchevel and Saint-Tropez. Behind us, an eye-level hearth like a long letterbox in the wall crackles with gas flames through a bed of pale-marble pebbles. Stylistically we're somewhere between Austin Powers and an Andy Williams Christmas Special.
Foucaud is right about the lights; each bedroom and suite in the 52-room hotel is equipped with a personal lighting system. Punch the buttons and the filters whirr in search of the right colour for your mood ? rose, lilac, sky blue, solar yellow, emerald green, turquoise, white.... the choice is yours. If you can't decide, you could instead hit the ?random? button and then while you enjoy the disco, run yourself a hot bath in the Japanese-style bathroom, all dark slate and wall-embedded black pebbles.
Predictably, the temptation to experiment with illuminating your workspace proves stronger than the will to plug in your laptop and work. In fact, within five minutes of checking in, it becomes obvious what Murano is ? a futuristic fantasy toy box for adults. Where else would you find ?welcome wine? chilling in blue bottles, keyless doors opened by fingerprint recognition, and a technicolour dream lift lined in psychedelic faux-ostrich gossamer?
Arriving at the Murano, everything looks surprisingly traditional as you pull up in front of the 19th century facade on boulevard du Temple, 10 minutes' drive south of the Eurostar terminal at Gare du Nord. But swing through the sliding glass doors into the white-marble gallery and you realise that all is not what it first seems: stuccoed walls swathed in flowing pale drapes vie for prominence with totemic mirrored entrance sculptures and silver-vinyl armchairs, which look for all the world like huge upturned baseball gloves.
?Enter into the wonders of Paris's first urban resort,? urges the hotel literature. If you're unsure as to what an ?urban resort? actually is, Foucaud can explain: ?We tried to make a place in which you could spend three days without going out: spa, pool, very trendy bar, restaurant. Think of it as an island, like Venice's Murano, in Paris.?
Despite all the theatricals, the hotel is clearly striving for a serious business crowd. Says Foucaud: ?The raison d'etre of this new-generation palace is to have all at your disposal, at any moment, in one central location.?
Thus all rooms have wifi, broadband internet connection, plasma-screen TVs, hi-fis and Bang & Olufsen DVDs. Clients can hold a conference via the net from their room, order breakfast at midday and request a massage at midnight.
It comes as no surprise to learn that, since soft opening in July, the place is filling with an art- and fashion-trade clientele. Many are in town for the galleries, model agencies, fashion boutiques and showrooms (Azzedine Alaïa, Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto) that occupy the labyrinthine old streets of the Marais, in the third arrondissement. And many like to convene by night in the Murano's bar, on the tulip stools that line the slinky black-slate bar. Above this, screen projections oscillate in digital cascades of shades. Fluid wall art certainly makes a change from a bowl of peanuts and a Noilly Prat on a chintzy sofa at the Four Seasons George V.
As might be expected this early in the game, my September visit unearthed a few teething problems. The novelty of the fingerprint-recognition locks wore off rapidly when the device took forever to respond to my constant prodding. And the presence of a jazz trio in the Central Lounge during Sunday brunch seemed misplaced in the ?avant-garde? context. The chanteuse squinted gauchely at a scribbled-out song sheet while she warbled away like Edith Piaf lost in space.
Still, the presence of two industrious chefs ? Pierre Auge, formerly of London's Sketch (where Madonna held her birthday party) and Julien Chicoisne, from Megeve's boutique ski hideaway Les Fermes de Marie ? lends a degree of credibility to the restaurant, billed understatedly as a ?spacious location to discuss business matters over lunch?. It serves a variety of interestingly spelt dishes, including ?three quinoas organic salad, tomatoe and carrot mousse? and ?noddles prima vera?, to guests, who dine beneath a forest of stalactitic tubes descending from the ceiling like some gargantuan wind chime.
Meanwhile, across town at the Hilton Arc de Triomphe, you know that the days of the trouser press are numbered when Hilton asks architect and interior design giant Jacques Garcia to create such a jazzy, Art
Deco-informed outpost. It is resplendent, with a sweeping wrought-iron staircase, ballroom, and marquetry in homage to interwar cabinet-maker Emile Jacques Ruhlmann.
Just three months old, the hotel's 463 rooms, with their bathrooms of green jade, feel too new for a stylistic period that calls for a patina of decades. But there is no denying the drama of the place, with its thirties-style brasserie, faithfully Art Deco bar, and eight conference rooms set around an Andalusian patio, all with superb acoustics and plenty of daylight.
If Murano Urban Resort and Hilton Arc de Triomphe sound a little over the top, the 52-room Hotel de Sers may be more your overnight bag. Off the Champs-Elysees and just around the corner from the Four Seasons George V, this brand-spanking-new hotel (formerly the tired old Queen Elizabeth) has just opened its opaque sliding doors after a 20-month renovation.
Admittedly there are outré flourishes: the atrium and its ever-changing palette of paint-box light (déjà vu?); the first-floor conference room, with its Philippe Starck clear polycarbonate Louis Ghost chairs; and the bibliotheque ? so barely-there that the shelves held only a stash of hotel directories, which were upstaged by the Pucci-esque print chairs.
However, the sense of modernity is muted carefully with historical touches, like the procession of identical splayed-legged 1950s armchairs which disappears down the lobby as if mirrored infinitely, while
on the walls hang gilt-framed antique paintings of aristocrats.
Rooms in all categories, from superior to apartment, have wifi and internet connections ? the best is the Suite Panoramique, furnished with the hotel's signature light-wood floors, plain, white-dressed beds and cherry-fabric sofas. There's even a clawfoot tub-with-a-view. Outside, seen from the vertiginous terrace, the Eiffel Tower commands the skyline, glittering for 10 minutes every hour after dark. You can even watch the show from the suite's raised desk ? work-displacement activities don't get more scintillating than this.
On the other side of the Champs-Elysees, down a discreet side street, the hip 25-room Hotel Le A reinforces the ?light entertainment? trend. Here, the ceiling of the lift changes colour as it passes each storey ? a pleasure that sadly eludes those staying on the first floor. Still, the lobby compensates, being an airy, homely affair (you could call it warm minimalism) with spotlights on white columns, scattered chocolate-leather upholstery and a pared-down library. (?Uniquement contemporain,? says the owner, Madame Sorman, solemnly. ?Vous ne trouverez pas Dickens.?)
The Hotel Le A is quiet and relaxed ? perfect for meetings. Black-clad staff swan about delivering champagne; trumpet lilies stand pompously in tall conical vases. This is like Schrager but suaver ? the white-on-white bedrooms are spotless, with their seagrass matting, mirrored walls and cool-as-milk percale sheets.
A couple of streets away, the newly unveiled Hotel Daniel forsakes such stark simplicity in favour of a look that might be termed ?haute Ottoman?, or ?Orient Success?. Owned by a Lebanese businessman with a Relais & Chateaux property in Beirut, this tucked-away townhouse has 26 wifi'd rooms lined sumptuously in eastern wall fabrics by the likes of Nina Campbell. There are mother-of-pearl inlaid desks from Damascus and beds clad in gold and browns. Pick the 04 series of rooms for bathrooms tiled in iridescent Moroccan zelige (mosaic), with beautiful round beaten-zinc sinks and Syrian soaps and bath salts.
There are no changing lights; there are, however, classic glass gilding panels of glittery peacocks, which animate beautifully the little dining space colonially informed by Lloyd Loom chairs, and a whole back wall of coloured glasses. All in all, a slice of bygone glamour.
Stylistically different but with just as much character, Le Marquis, which opened in February 2004, presents a fine facade of yellow burgundy stone to the understatedly wealthy École Militaire neighbourhood, minutes from the jogging circuits of the Champs de Mars near the Eiffel Tower. Microsoft, Morgan and Louis Vuitton like the hotel for its fashionable but informal home-from-home ambience (the only other four-star in the vicinity is a Hilton), which is expressed in contemporary and curvaceous Italian furniture in shades of claret and tan.
The look in the 36 rooms is autumnal, with burnished copper taffeta and silk drapes, Louis-Seize chairs in sycamore wood and brown velour wall abstracts by local artists, and superbly comfortable beds by Simmons, as favoured at Le Bristol. ?We invested a lot in beds, says Pamela Chauve, who owns the hotel with her husband, George. ?We're in the business of sleeping.? For corporate travellers there is a basement boardroom for up to 12, with slick Italian black leather and chrome chairs around a darkwood table, an electric screen, broadband access, and a special menu.
If the Marquis is full, there's always the Chauves' sister property, Le Walt, five minutes away, name-checked in the Louis Vuitton city guides. Bedrooms come with headboards of Old Masters, and floors are distinguished by the animal trim on the edge of the bedspreads (reptile, pony, tiger). The smallest is perhaps the most atmospheric, up in the mansard roof with sloping walls and a toilet with an uncluttered view, through full-length windows, of the Eiffel Tower. There's no business centre, but that didn't deter Microsoft ? they simply repaired to the hotel's patio, using the back wall as a projection screen.
In perhaps the most classic quarter of Paris, Saint Germain des Prés, you'll find one of the city's best-looking new boutique hotels. The 31 rooms of the L'Esprit Saint-Germain, which opened in July, bring an Armani-style sobriety to a vibrant neighbourhood ? check out the mansard suite with its wonky old ceiling beams, chocolate and cream organza drapes, calm, cubic grey upholstery and dark-slate bathroom with a whole-wall mirror.
There's no reception ? only a low banquette and two stools. And the business centre, in the glass-roofed jardin d'hiver, is still to be sorted. But attention to detail here is marvellous: even the smallest room is smartly done, in African colours ? savannah, claret and brown ? and the leopard-print expanse of carpet is surprisingly subtle.
Subtle too, in the lobby, is that sine qua non of any fashionable hotel in the French capital this season. High above the Spanish marble floors, the big basket of designer-trimmed lavender, recessed ceiling illumination washes gently but constantly, in a beautiful rainbow of colours. Bienvenue à Paris ? city of lights.