Paris is back in business. Getting there and back means jumping through all the usual Covid hoops, but boy, it’s worth it.
The restaurants and bars are open – hurrah! – the shops, ditto, and the museums are not just open, but less busy than peak pre-pandemic – with a pre-booked ticket you breeze into the Louvre in five or ten minutes. Overseas visitors are returning. The Eurostar is up and running – the civilised way to get to Paris - and the morning train arrives just in time for lunch. Strolling along the Rue de Rivoli, it felt like life is back to the way it should be.
What’s more, returning to Paris this time meant returning to Le Meurice, not just my favourite luxury hotel in Paris, but possibly anywhere.
It’s the perfection of a Paris palace hotel. It’s grand building from 1835, with eighteenth century salons installed in 1907, and a chic mix of antique and modern style – Philippe Starck design next to the Madame de Pompadour salon. The concierges belong to that rare breed who combine the skills of a diplomat with a sense that really, nothing is too much trouble.
Then there’s the location. Across the road, there’s the Tuilleries Garden; behind is the Rue St Honore, an elegant shopping street; ten minutes up the road is the Louvre; next door is Angelina’s, the café with the thickest hot chocolate. At night I could see the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides, all lit up.
This hotel has seen umpteen famous visitors – Queen Victoria was one of any number of crowned heads to stay here. But it’s best known for writers, artists and actors, from Zola to Warhol. Salvador Dali would stay here for three months of the year, once ordering a flock of sheep to his room – you can stay in his very suite, with the pictures of him in it, on his motorbike. Picasso celebrated one of his weddings here. Ernest Hemingway used to drink here before he got stuck in the Ritz.
But it’s the association with Britain that marked the place. The original Meurice used to ferry British passengers from Calais to Paris and had the genius idea of setting up a hotel to accommodate them; the present hotel was built in 1835. Thackeray recommended that British travellers who didn’t know their way around Paris should simply bellow “Meurice!” at a cab driver, safe in the knowledge that they’d be looked after. Charles Scott Moncrieff, the Proust translator, would, in the middle of the First World war, write to his mother that he was off to Meurice to unwind.
The rooms – 49 recreated during lockdown - are fabulously relaxing. There’s a unifying elegant light aesthetic to all of them, and beautiful fabrics, but there’s also an interesting individuality. There are proper books – often on art connected to the area – and proper antiques and good pictures and old pieces. Some are positioned, curiously, behind mirrors, which gives them a ghostly aspect. The beds are wondrously comfortable: I want that mattress at home. As for the bathroom, the baths are deep, with relaxed lighting if you want, and – a nice touch – mirrors heated so there’s no condensation. And you may want to know that the toiletries are Maison Kurkdjian.
There’s no pool, but a lovely spa, with excellent products by Valmont.
The Michelin starred restaurant here is under the aegis of the legendary Alain Ducasse, who deserves his reputation, though obviously it comes at a price (cheeringly, you get some of his chocolates in your room when you arrive). The olive oil from Provence was green as grass, and I could have eaten it with the excellent bread all by itself for dinner.
You expect the sommelier to be knowledgeable about the wine list, but ours did water too – we had a bottle from Versailles followed by a feistier spring water from Corsica – my dears, quite Napoleonic. The lamb was sensational – meltingly tender then blitzed under a grill; as for my daughter’s beef fillet, it didn’t look prepossessing, but it was, she declared triumphantly, the best thing she had ever eaten. My pollock was baked in fig leaves… the smell! The pastry chef is the celebrated Cedric Grolet, whose speciality is replica fruits made of white chocolate, with mousse and intense fruit inside the shell. (Usefully, he also has a patisserie on the Rue Castiglione: take a tart home (25 euros is enough for two).
He also does the croissants and breads for breakfast. For my Eggs Benedict, the ham came folded round the egg orbs like the petals of a flower. Yum.
An hotel that is just antique can be staid; here the grand décor from the 1907 refit is cut with contemporary style. Philip Stark decorated the ground floor and his daughter did the dining room ceiling, like a two-tone circus tent. The cushions are pieces of modern art, and there’s a collaboration with Hermes in the furnishing with their discreet H shapes. But really, it’s the people who make Le Meurice; they’re the difference between hospitality that’s very good, and great.
Like I say, pretty well the perfect fabulously expensive Paris hotel.
Le Meurice offers at present include a superior room from €750-830 euros a night or a suite from €1,500. dorchestercollection.com
Eurostar return fares to Paris start at £39; all fares are now fully flexible. eurostar.com