Arriving at the Ritz Paris is like turning up at a private mansion for a soirée you've spent weeks anticipating: a high-wattage welcome, a spritz of joie de vivre, a sense of no expense spared, of let the party begin.
The hotel has picked up where it left off in the northern summer of 2012, when it closed for a four year, $590 million makeover that had one key imperative: not to change too much. The Ritz is, after all, a Paris institution, a historic building steeped in the romance evoked by its fabulous guest list - Proust, Hemingway, Chanel and Callas among them - and their gilded lives. But, as Tancredi remarks in the grand ballroom scene in Visconti's The Leopard, "If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change".
New York-based architect Thierry Despont, responsible for makeovers at Claridge's in London and the Carlyle in New York, was briefed to create a residential feel, reflecting the fact it's one of the few such hotels that remain in private hands. Objets d'art from the collection of billionaire Egyptian hotelier Mohamed Al-Fayed, who bought the hotel in 1979, feature in interiors based on the original elegant 18th-century French décor.
The entrance on Place Vendôme.
The palette of Ritz blue, cream and gold remains. There's the familiar, reassuring heft of brocade curtains with ornate tasselled edges and ties. Generously stuffed cushions. Some of the original gold swan-shaped faucets and recreations of the crystal taps. In fact, about 80 per cent of the existing furnishings were restored. Then there's the return appearance of peach-coloured robes and towels that the hotel's founder, César Ritz, thought best flattered a woman's complexion. And wafting on the rarefied air is the hotel's signature amber scent.
The changes are in scale rather than style. Everything is larger, brighter, fresher - optimising space and light. Generous dimensions, says the project's design manager, Nassim Yaghmaei, are the new luxury. The hotel's refurbished guestrooms have reduced in number and expanded in size, from 159 to 142, half of them suites. Several are named for notable guests: Coco Chanel, F Scott Fitzgerald, Chopin, and Marcel Proust. Maids' quarters on the top floor have become the new Mansart Suite, with crushed blue velvet upholstery and a terrace with 360-degree views. The 44 rooms still closed after a fire in January gutted the seventh floor of the rue Cambon section are due to open by the northern spring.
The Windsor Suite.
There's a full armoury of tech features: free WiFi, Bluetooth connectivity, and charging ports artfully hidden beneath a leather lid on the desk. Choose between touch-screen and antique-style block controls for adjusting lights. And there's no expense spared on luxurious details: the cotton sheets are spun to a fine-count silkiness, the bureau drawers leather-lined. Bathrooms have heated floors, separate bath and shower and three shower-heads to suit a guest's preference for where the water falls (women, we're told, prefer using a hand-held shower-head to avoid disturbing a new hairdo).
The hotel's new public spaces are designed for maximum impact. There's a new all-day Ritz Bar where tiny hot dogs and baby burgers make the cocktails behave, and stellar afternoon tea is served in Salon Proust, where big gold hourglasses time the tea infusions. Also new is the Grand Jardin, a Versailles-inspired park of 1,600 square metres planted with linden trees, magnolias and white roses. A courtyard is covered by a new retractable roof, which will allow outdoor dining in winter. A tunnel connects the hotel to a car park to ensure privacy and protection during inclement weather, and also new is a subterranean ballroom.
The Grand Jardin.
Since reopening in June, and changing its name from The Hotel Ritz to Ritz Paris, the hotel has been revisited by many of its most loyal guests - a rollcall of stylists, perfectionists and fashionistas, the latter including Anna Wintour, Kate Moss and Stefano Tonchi. Moss told the New York Times, "Before, I wanted to stay there. Now I want to live there".
There's a new team in the kitchen led by executive chef Nicolas Sale, whose two restaurants in Courchevel share four stars, and star pastry chef François Perret. In the hotel's three bars and three eateries Sale's team has created an ambience more 11th-arrondissement enthusiasm than first-arrondissement formality. Key culinary moments include tea in Salon Proust, steak tartare at Bar Vendôme (inside, or outside on the stunning terrace), the So British cocktail at Ritz Bar, and fine dining at L'Espadon.
Drinks are served at L'Espadon.
Asked to nominate a Ritz guest he would most like to have met, Sale suggests Ernest Hemingway and Charles Ritz, son of founder César; with both men he would have discussed a mutual passion for fishing. "I'd have prepared for them a very simple, generous dish to share among friends," says Sale. "Either a beautiful wild game torte or a warm duck pâté."
Perret's afternoon tea in the elegant drawing room-style Salon Proust is centred on biscuits rather than cakes and finger sandwiches, and the results are inspired. Sweetness is delivered by fruit rather than sugar, and his use of eggwhite keeps things light. The salon's signature thé vert is perfumed with wild flowers and chamomile.
Pastry chef François Perret serves tea in Salon Proust.
The Ritz was built by legendary Swiss hotelier César Ritz in 1898 in a townhouse originally designed in the late 17th century by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, architect to Louis XIV. The hotel, comprising the Vendôme and the Cambon buildings with rooms overlooking the Place Vendôme and, on the opposite side, the hotel's garden, quickly set a new benchmark in elegance and luxury and became famous for its clientele - an exotic mix of royalty, artists and the resolutely rich.
In 1890, Ritz and his chef Auguste Escoffier had introduced French haute cuisine to London society at the Savoy, and a decade later they launched a culinary revolution at the Ritz. L'École Ritz Escoffier in the new hotel comprises three teaching kitchens open to guests who learn how to prepare the likes of lobster ravioli with shellfish juice and braised sole à la Coquelin, both from the Ritz Escoffier archive.
To work off Escoffier's butter, guests and members head to the theatrical Ritz Club in the basement. Its centrepiece is a shapely 17-metre pool, newly lined with 800,000 mosaic tiles of celadon and azure. There is a state-of-the-art gym, steam rooms, saunas, a team of fitness and health professionals on hand, and a salon, opened last month, headed by Australian-born hairstylist David Mallett.
New and notable within the Ritz Club is a little Chanel boutique featuring the house's Les Exclusifs fragrances and its latest lip and nail colours. It's hard to resist sampling the new Boy fragrance, named for Chanel's early lover Boy Capel, on the way out.
The pool at the Ritz club.
The official opening of the Chanel Spa in the hotel's Ritz Club last month continues the fashion house's long association with the Ritz. Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was one of the hotel's most famous habitués, a regular guest from 1919 and a resident from 1937. Her third-floor suite overlooked Place Vendôme, said to have inspired the lines of the stopper on the No 5 perfume bottle. During the war years she moved into an apartment on the sixth floor fronting rue Cambon, and lived there off and on until her death in 1971. The Coco Chanel suite is on the second floor now, its features evocative of her taste and talent.
Bearing Chanel's trademark beige and black, each of the spa's five treatment suites has a wall featuring the signature Chanel Coromandel screen - a Chinese wooden folding screen lacquered black, then painted gold. Guests are ushered into a suite for a consultation to assess the state of body and mind, and an "apéritif" of apple juice infused with cinnamon.
The Chanel spa.
Each treatment is preceded by a choreography of warm towels, pressure-point foot massage and the application of a cooling, care-banishing face mask. The menu comprises four facials for women and two for men, lasting 75 to 90 minutes and using products from Chanel's Sublimage, Hydra Beauty, Le Lift or Le Blanc beauty ranges, and an Allure massage (allow from 90 minutes to two and a half hours for the massage). Each treatment is accompanied by a matching soundtrack; my Sublimage facial proceeds with one that brings to mind the sound of big, fat raindrops falling.
Guests depart with the application of light make-up to ensure they're ready for a stylish entrée at Bar Hemingway, where head barman Colin Peter Field mixes the signature Mach 2 (two parts Scotch to one part green Chartreuse with a splash of ginger syrup, on the rocks) and other classics. The cocktail shaker is the background accompaniment to conversations in this masculine, wood-panelled rendezvous.
Ritz head barman Colin Peter Field pours a drink in Bar Hemingway.
While the opulence of the Ritz's salons dazzles, it's often the small gestures that linger in the memory. Guests return to their rooms in the afternoon to find fresh madeleines under a bedside bell jar. Check-in and check-out times are entirely flexible to suit individual travel plans. Each space in the hotel has its own soundtrack, from classics in Salon Proust to '80s pop in the Ritz Bar.
And on the way out, a Ritz Paris shopping gallery features a collection of favoured luxury brands, the likes of Maison Ullens, Colombo, Tasaki, Serge Lutens - the epitome of chic, like the building that houses them.