Boutique Hotels Reveal the Intimate Side of Life in Paris

By Dinah A. Spritzer

Reed Travel Features

PARIS -- How many times have you heard the following? "We want to stay in a small, charming hotel in Paris. We want a picturesque neighborhood, and we don't want to spend too much money -- you know, some romantic hideaway." For agents who don't have infinite knowledge of Paris' lesser-known lodgings, a company that specializes in boutique properties might be a job saver.

Enter Escapades, a New York-based firm that describes itself as an "invitation to the French art de vivre" and partner of Group Hotels Unis de Paris, which claims to be the largest group of small, independently owned properties in the French capital. Escapades represents 60 three- and four-star hotels in Paris, Alsace, Burgundy, Provence and the Basque region. Commission is 12% for phone bookings and 10% for bookings made through CRSs.

Escapades' 29 hotels in Paris have 50 rooms or fewer and are in centuries-old buildings that retain their original architectural details. Despite the emphasis on authenticity, modern amenities such as private baths, color televisions, telephones and air- conditioning are mandatory for Escapade properties. The hotels also have at least one English-speaking employee at the front desk.

I recently had the opportunity to experience the hospitality of two Escapade hotels on Paris' Left Bank. My previous time in Paris, I stayed in a famous five-star hotel where you couldn't enter the front door in a jogging suit, the guests were an advertisement for Chanel and the swank neighborhood felt about as intimate as Times Square. This may be fine for the terminally chic, but last spring, I was hoping for something cozy, casual and unique.

No three adjectives could better describe Hotel Dauphine Saint-Germain, located a block from the Seine and St.-Germain des Pres, in the Latin Quarter, near the Place du l'Odeon. In addition to being a five-minute walk from Notre-Dame, the outdoor markets on the Rue Mouffetard and the Pantheon, the tiny hotel is on a residential street, Rue Dauphine. Rue Dauphine is lined with cute shops and restaurants that make the Latin Quarter so busy at night with tourists, but mornings are peaceful and give guests the sense that they are not just visiting Paris, they are living there.

The small rooms vary in shape and decor, which is typical of many of these properties. Particular attention has been paid to curtains, wallpaper and bed coverings, which are done in bright floral prints that brighten up even the most petite rooms. Exposed ceiling beams and a few pieces of antique furniture are nice touches. But it is the lobby and breakfast room with their hand-cut stone walls, ornamental French decor and views of streetlife that give Dauphine its je ne sais quoi.

Around the corner, on the bit of a street called Gregoire-de-Tours, the wooden beams and arches of Grand Hotel de L'Univers, another Escapade property, reflect its former life as a 15th century abbey. The vaulted ceiling of the breakfast room in the basement evokes the feel of a cloister, and the morning meal of bread and cheese is sometimes observed silently by spiritually inspired guests. Here, it is important not to display too much eagerness to dine -- as the waitress/pantry chief was exasperated by my American habit of asking for breakfast instead of waiting to be served.

On the plus side of service, when my toilet overflowed, the maid arrived quickly to fix the situation. She also performed an entertaining pantomime indicating that too much toilet paper in the plumbing of a medieval building was not advisable. Again, rooms are elegant, tiny and decorated with floral prints.

Both the properties have elevators and offer in-room hair dryers, minibars and bathtubs. The hotels manage to offer that rare combination of casual refinement that enables both Francophiles and guests who can't even manage "bon jour" to be comfortable. Prices, including breakfast, range from $121, double, low season, to $150, double, high season.

Escapades publishes a brochure featuring pictures of all of the properties it represents, with detailed descriptions and prices. The firm can be contacted at (800) 725-7557 or (212) 797-9570; fax (212) 797-9517; e-mail [email protected] The Escapades Web site is at http://www.webscapades.com.

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