Charcoal clouds hung over Paris like canopy of funeral umbrellas. It felt like the plane’s entire descent occurred within the gloomy miasma, and when the fields and light sprawl surrounding Charles de Gaulle Airport eventually materialized, it was right underneath, gray and wet as a hippopotamus. Springtime in Paris — a legendary, magical season immortalized in poem and song. The weather said rain all day. I really didn’t mind, though. I was checking into the Ritz, a legendary, magical hotel immortalized in novels and Netflix.
“I come to rescue the great Ritz,” says Salim Daw, the actor who plays Mohammed Al Fayed in the fifth season of The Crown, during Al Fayed’s pitch to buy the hotel in 1979. “Because she is magnificent. And I love her. I want to make her once again the greatest hotel in the world.” Al Fayed still owns the palatial 142-key property on the Place Vendôme, where both colossal renovations and subtle nip-tucks have paid the promise made to Monique Ritz, whose husband, César, founded Hôtel Ritz Paris in June 1898 with chef Auguste Escoffier. The hotel turns 125 this month with rates around 2,400 euros a night.
I deplaned at a remote gate, walked down the mist-slicked jet steps and boarded a dreary shuttle bus to immigration. Just inside the arrival terminal, where a long line zigzagged from the customs agents nearly all the way back to the doors, Lorenzo Aliaga, one of the Ritz’s smartly suited airport escorts, held up a sign with my name. As part of the hotel’s VIP airport pick-up (complimentary when booking through a Virtuoso travel advisor), Lorenzo walked me to the front of the immigration line. There were looks, curious and glowering, as I butted in front of my fellow passengers. I averted my eyes, feeling dickish. But then with the speedy tha–wonk of the agent’s stamp hitting my passport, I waved those peasants goodbye and followed Lorenzo to my awaiting Mercedes.
The E-Class sedan soared through the outskirts and into the city, coasting across the Place Vendôme cobblestones to the topiary-lined entrance of the Ritz. Less than hour from meeting Lorenzo, I was checking into a 624-square-foot deluxe junior suite on the second floor. The door swung open into a hallway with a cozy powder room; walk-in dressing area with floor-to-ceiling wardrobe closets and a built-in vanity and luggage rack; and the main bathroom, all peachy-beige marble surfaces and gold hardware, including faucets shaped like swans — turn one wing for hot, the other for cold.
At the end of the hall, the suite unfolded into a huge living room and bedroom. The wall-to-wall carpet — sky-blue flowers and bronzy leaves vining across an ivory field — hushed the wheels of my suitcase and leaden steps of my jet-legged feet. The opulence hushed my mouth. Thick mantle of rose marble framing the fireplace. Chandeliers the size of cellos hanging from 12-foot ceilings. King bed swagged out in tasseled Champagne fabric, a watermelon still-life set above the blue-and-white-pinstriped headboard with a spotlight making its gold frame gleam.
How to Eat Your Way Through Paris in a DayIt starts with a stay at the Grand Pigalle Hotel
You know the feeling of visiting one of those European palace museums, where velvet ropes and reprimanding docents forbid you from touching all the lavish fabric and woodworks and baubles, the very things designed to light up the tips of the fingers and lines of the palm? Staying at the Ritz is like that, your own personal little palace museum, where no one will tell you you’re too close to the elusive portraits or to keep your mitts off the antiques. I think I spent 15 minutes just studying the intricate gilded knobs on the suite’s twin sets of French doors, which open onto Juliet balconies overlooking an interior courtyard.
Just outside my suite, a grand staircase covered in a waterfall of scarlet carpet wound down to the lobby and beyond, where the Ritz’s panoply of diversions awaited — high tea in the afternoon and Champagne in the evening at Salon Proust, a glowing library with grand arched book cases recessed into the cerused oak wainscoting; cocktails modern (at the new, astrologically inspired Ritz Bar) and classic (in the leather cocoon of the mythical Hemingway Bar); a plunge into the 56-foot-long indoor pool, a space out of an Art Deco fairytale. A mezzanine level hovers above the turquoise grotto, scalloped with wrought iron-framed balconies that made me think of opera boxes at a theater. A single swimmer crossed the pool in resolute laps, the repetitive splish-splash echoing off the white limestone stucco walls of this wondrous cave of leisure.
Moments and vignettes like this honeycomb the hallowed hotel. A gaggle of bellmen guard the entrance, blue suits in symmetrical archways like a Wes Anderson tableau. A family seemingly too numerous for the Ritz’s tiny elevator cars inexplicably pours into one, all umbrellas and shopping bags. A couple kisses in semiprivate alcove. Another argues in full view of everyone at Le Comptoir, the minimalist new patisserie helmed by Ritz’s executive pastry chef, Francois Perret. Seeing no tables open in the snug boutique, they complain to the unshakable staff, who explain the first-come, first-served policy. The couple is a guy and girl, early 20s, slick and petite like salamanders in matching jean jackets. He wants to leave. Likely needing Instagram content, she peels off, undeterred, to a table where two friends have just finished coffee and madeleines but haven’t yet finished their conversation.
“It looks like you’re finished eating,” she says with intimidating sweetness. The friends appear a little stunned but agree they can have the table. Meanwhile, the staff member who just explained the seating policy catches wind of what’s happening; she is not in the mood to play. She approaches the table, tells the friends they should not feel pressured to leave, to please stay and relax, what is their favorite madeleine flavor: Classique? Framboise? Fraise? She’d love to bring them more. She just looks at the offending couple, doesn’t say a word to them. Point made. They slink out the door onto Rue Cambon, the alley running along the backside of the Ritz, and into the Paris afternoon, where the clouds have broken like a dropped dinner plate, letting the sun through.
I watched this three-act play from the next table over, covered in flyaway shards from Perret’s unstoppably crispy bar-shaped croissant as if they were popcorn kernels at the movies. Many guests come to the Ritz to be the stars of their own film. I’d argue being a spectator is an even better aim, a fly on one very, very polished wall.
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