The gorgeous redhead who escorted me here from reception, a flame-haired Hepburn look-alike in trim uniform and pert ponytail, is studying my face and looking faintly concerned. "Do you like ze suite, monsieur?" she inquires, her beautiful head tilted to one side. I blink at her, nod like a drunk and manage a polite "oui!" in place of the whoop that's straining to escape. The second the door closes behind her, I skip across the cream and gold laurel-leaf carpet and fling open the doors of my two balconies to poetic views of mansard roofs, chimneypots and the Eiffel Tower. The Tricolore of the Grand Palais flashes against the sky a few blocks south.
Paris is mine, all mine.
Le Bristol is one of the French capital's four so-called palace hotels, along with the Park Hyatt and the Dorchester Group's Le Meurice and Plaza Athénée. The palace designation is an official rating - higher than five stars - awarded by French tourism authorities. Palace hotels occupy a rarefied space in the world of high-end hostelry, addresses fit for presidents, plutocrats and royalty of every stripe. While each has its impeccable charms, Le Bristol is the only one of the four that shares a streetfront with the Élysée Palace, home to the president of the French Republic and Mme Bruni. It's a prestigious distinction that makes the Bristol a prized staging post for the world's elite, though it must be said the chronic security detail makes it impossible to hail a cab.
Like many of its counterparts, Le Bristol has been busily applying new levels of luxury and indulgence of late to compete with the local debut of opulent Asian chains such as Peninsula, Shangri-La and Mandarin Oriental. Since joining the hotel from the George V in March last year, CEO Didier Le Calvez has launched a substantial upgrade of rooms and services - doubling the spa space, building two new super suites and renovating the hotel's 161 rooms.
There is also a new wing of 21 bedrooms and five suites that occupies seven floors at the corner of Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré and Avenue Matignon. Each room in the new wing is at least 40 square metres, and mine features a light-filled entrance hall lined with wardrobes and cupboards, a small sitting area beside balcony number one and an airy bedroom. The bed, surely custom-made, is as wide as it is long, so on a greyish morning I find myself lounging on it every which way until I can confidently declare that it is as comfortable lengthwise as breadth-wise.
Naturally the décor involves considerable gilt but the finishes speak of sophisticated Paris salon rather than gaudy Dubai glitz. The gold ceiling plates and crystal chandeliers perhaps do stray into OTT territory but the chandeliers are on dimmers so guests can choose between subtle lighting and the full Versailles Palace.
A massive Loewe flat-screen can be angled for viewing in bed, on the armchair, or sprawled on the sofa beneath the ormolu mirror while savouring a juicy peach or nectarine from the fruit bowl. There is a small, ornate secretaire in the living area at which one can pen postcards, or perhaps a memoir.
The bathroom, clad floor-to-ceiling in pink Portuguese marble, is equipped with enough towels to stem a flood. The soaps are by Hermès and come in individual emerald cases emblazoned with "Le Bristol, Paris". They make attractive souvenirs and supplies are replenished daily, so loot all you like.
Le Bristol is owned by the Oetkers, a German family that made its fortune from puddings and frozen pizzas and, more recently, from a suite of haute hotels including the celebrity-studded Hôtel Du Cap-Eden-Roc on the French Riviera. At Le Bristol I see no celebrities but I do spy a cartel of Russian magnates and, in the lobby and restaurants, ample evidence that the French bourgeoisie is alive and well. Even when I'm doing my chicest impersonation of a minor European royal, the Bristol's habitués make me feel decidedly déclassé, so I do not loiter in its public spaces, visit the on-site spa or dine at the Michelin three-star restaurant with its unique extravagance of separate summer and winter dining rooms.
I do, however, make a discreet reconnaissance of the rooftop pool, designed by Onassis's yachtmaker Cäsar Pinnau to mimic a sailboat's interior, briefly sprawl on the sundeck with its views to the Sacré Coeur basilica, and dine in 114 Faubourg, a streetfront bistro where breakfast costs a throttling $74. And, despite sometimes feeling like a sparrow among peacocks, when alone in my suite or sipping evening cocktails with friends in the hotel's fairy-lit French garden, I find it easy to appreciate the gilded privilege of Le Bristol and marvel at such exalted living.
The hotel's expense and polish is perfectly in keeping with its position on Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré, home to embassies, ministries and flagship luxury stores. Most guests will be content to wander its length, picking up pieces from the likes of Lanvin and Hermès, but I take a more inspired detour to Drouot, France's premier auction house and repository of some of its most exquisite yet unsung shopping.
My guide is Nicolas Blandin, an avid furniture collector and designer who also acts as a facilitator for visitors wishing to purchase a significant memento of their visit from Paris's antiques and flea markets, its art galleries or, most desirably, from Drouot.
"Tourists go to Louis Vuitton, to Christian Dior, but this is the real France. This is our culture," Blandin explains as we enter Drouot's showrooms in the 9th arrondissement. Inside, connoisseurs file upstairs and down between the 16 rooms to preview everything from Empire époque furniture to Ming Dynasty ceramics.
Blandin, suave in striped trousers and suede jacket, comes here regularly seeking inspiration for his own furniture and, no doubt, for the sheer theatre of this most French institution. The big sales - the contents of a notable château, perhaps - are like a rendezvous of Parisian society, he says. "You have to be seen here."
Prospective buyers will need to set aside at least two days, one to preview the sales and the other for the auction proper. There are myriad items to inspect; more than 600,000 objets d'art are sold here each year. In one room we discover two Picasso lithographs, a suite of Matisses and works by Vlaminck and Renoir. In other salons we admire theatre costumes, 19th-century fabrics and wallpapers, and a hunt sale featuring a stuffed tiger, a rhino horn, and a lion sickeningly reconfigured as a rug.
In the final room we visit, a famous auction house called Piasa is selling original photography by such renowned artists as Mapplethorpe, Hubertus Hierl and Helmut Newton. "Come!" Blandin demands as he strides across the room. "I am going to introduce you to the First Lady of France."
I follow him to the far end of the salon and look up to see Carla Bruni, nude as a stocking, in a 1993 shot by Michel Comte, valued at between $8000 and $12,000. It seems almost treasonous but also thrilling to witness President Sarkozy's wife in the buff.
After a fascinating few hours in Blandin's company I wander back to Le Bristol and pass a throng of excited onlookers gathered outside the Élysée Palace, hoping for a glimpse of the first couple. I've already had an eyeful of La Bruni so I don't bother to join them.