Some like it haute: French ‘palaces’

The French government’s decision to grant an official “palace” status to the country’s most luxurious hotels seemed a good idea, on paper at least. It was supposed to establish a new industry ranking beyond five stars for establishments that displayed what the judges called “l’excellence à la française”.

To qualify, a hotel has to meet a number of criteria from quality of service, dining, health and spa facilities to comfort, architectural and historical significance. The selection was bound to cause a huge hullabaloo – and this is exactly what has happened with the recent release of the first list of eight “palaces”. These include four in Paris, one in Biarritz, another on the Riviera, and the last two in the smart ski resort of Courchevel.

Let’s deal with Courchevel first. Since I am no great skiing enthusiast, I really cannot judge the merits of Les Airelles, owned by a former French Endemol media tycoon, and Cheval Blanc, owned by LVMH luxury tsar Bernard Arnault. I did note, however, that both hotels had turned to multi-starred celebrity chefs – Pierre Gagnaire and Yannick Alléno – to mastermind their dining.

Now for the seaside palaces. Here I have no quarrel with the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz. It was Empress Eugénie and Napoleon III’s summer residence before it was transformed into a Belle Epoque grand hotel. Although by no means perfect, its imposing presence on the edge of the Atlantic, its spa and swimming pool all make it quite special.

The Grand-Hôtel du Cap-Ferrat is another magnificent building, steeped in history, with lovely gardens, a pool reached by a funicular and great food. What I find slightly odd is that the judges did not deem its rival – the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc – worthy of the same palatial accolade. If anything, it is even more glamorous and expensive. Ask F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The real trouble is with the Parisian selection. This includes the Plaza Athénée, Le Meurice and Le Bristol (all with three-star restaurants) and The Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme – a successful modern reinterpretation of a historical palace hotel.

But what has raised eyebrows, including mine, is the judges’ omission of two obvious contenders. The George V, run by Four Seasons, has regularly been voted among the world’s best hotels. I once stayed in its royal suite with its succession of rooms, its safe the size of a chambre de bonne and a vast bathroom that made me forget the hotel also boasts one of the finest swimming pools in town. Even more extraordinary was the decision not to include the Ritz – the palace hotel par excellence.

By excluding these two, this first set of palace rankings has lost much of its lustre. I am not alone in saying this. François Delahaye, who heads the Dorchester Group, owner of the Plaza Athénée and Le Meurice in Paris, says quite candidly: “I have a bitter taste of victory in my mouth. The fact the Ritz and especially the George V were not on the list removes all credibility for the award.” Life at the palace is not so easy, after all.

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