Report card for luxury hotels in France, Italy

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Europe editor Dinah A. Spritzer tested the limits of luxury at hotels in France and Italy. Her findings follow:

"luxury: (2) a condition of abundance or great ease and comfort: sumptuous environment." -- Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition.

PARIS -- Even clients with a moderate budget like to splurge for a night or two at a luxury hotel, and it is no secret France and Italy boast some of the Continent's most extravagant splurges.

But whether these properties will fulfill the lodging fantasies of your clients depends on clients' definition of luxury: Does it include marble bathrooms; individually decorated rooms with antiques; an Olympic-size swimming pool, or all of the above? Then there is the personal touch -- luxury defined by service -- which often has a greater impact on a vacation than do the external trappings of luxury. In fact, hotel tales recounted to me by travelers, decades after their visits, typically revolved around a kindness, or lack thereof, shown by a staff member.

The following hotel evaluations reflect this emphasis, as well as a personal penchant for dazzling views, sparkling lobbies and rooms fit for royalty. (The order of the properties reflects the driving route of my journey. Prices listed are rack rates and vary according to the dollar's exchange value.)

Hotel Le Bristol, 112 Rue du Faubourg St.-Honore, Paris: 180 rooms, 42 suites.
Rates: $570 to $590, double, including VAT but not breakfast.
Owner: August Oetker, proprietor of several European luxury hotels.
Reservations: The Leading Hotels of the World, (800) 223-6800 or Utell, (800) 44-UTELL.

"We are not the Plaza Athenee or the Crillon," a spokeswoman here said when trying to define the property's market position. "We are independent of hotel chains, so standing on our own is a strength, but it is also a weakness, because those other properties are better known," she said.

The low-key luxury of the Bristol is what makes it appealing compared with hotels where guests might feel intimidated by rules such as "No jogging suits may be worn for entering or exiting the front door." In other words, sometimes the less obvious choice puts self-conscious guests at ease.

Located on the Right Bank near the presidential palace, the hotel is a bastion of antique furnishings and plush chintz fabrics. Le Bristol began as an 18th century palace and maintains many decorating flourishes of that era, including Gobelin tapestries, paintings acquired from the Louvre and a stunning elevator encased in gold and black Spanish lattice. The hotel gardens, at more than 35,000 square feet, are the most extensive of any property in the city.

The Restaurant le Bristol boasts a Michelin star. Restaurant d'Ete, where breakfast is served, is entered through a sweeping Greco-Roman marble hall. Both take in the tranquil garden courtyard. Most rooms overlook the gardens.

On a service note, this is the only hotel I stayed at where the general manager, whom I did not meet, sent his card to the next hotel I was to visit in case I needed assistance.

Cour des Loges, 2468 Rue du Boeuf, Lyon, France: 52 rooms, 10 suites.
Rates: $206, double, including VAT but not breakfast.
Owner: Jean-Luc Mathias.
Reservations: E&M Associates, (800) 223-9832.

In the heart of Vieux Lyon's pedestrian district, Cour des Loges comprises 14th to 17th century buildings with the original walls left intact, much to the amazement of admiring guests.

As if to offset its history, the hotel, which opened in 1987, has been decorated in sleek, modern furnishings that are the hallmark of ultracontemporary properties recently opened in New York and London. Equally astonishing to this writer was the chilliness of the staff, who seemed perplexed that I would want to engage them in more than a one-word conversation. When pushed, however, reticent front desk employees warmed up to a hospitality standard that one would expect at any well-regarded hotel.

High, beamed ceilings and modern art enhance the cloisterlike interiors. Bold colors and uniquely shaped furnishings contribute to Cour de Loges' chic aura. There are a small indoor swimming pool, sauna and inviting piano bar. The spacious rooms are innovative in their postmodern decor.

L'Albereta, Via Vittorio Emanuele II, Erbusco, Italy: 30 rooms, eight suites, four apartments
Rates: Rooms start at about $116, double, excluding 10% VAT, breakfast and parking.
Owner: The Moretti family.
Reservations: (011) 39-30 776-0550; fax (011) 39-30 776-0573.

For travelers driving to Milan without wishing to stay there, or for those wanting to sightsee in nearby Brescia, this is the place to be. But first they have to find it.

Erbusco, about 40 minutes west of Milan in the countryside of the Po plain, is a medieval town that has not yet appeared on the tourist maps. It hasn't appeared on some of the driving maps, either. However, the town is known to some for the Franciacorta Bellavista vineyards, out of which some very fine wines have come. After driving around town here for at least 30 minutes, my traveling companion and I finally found the secluded L'Albereta, a restored 19th century red-roofed villa hotel with a Michelin-starred restaurant.

L'Albereta is the ultimate country getaway: The palatial rooms have poster beds with diaphanous canopies, overstuffed sofas and armchairs covered in rich silks, antique bureaus and bathrooms the size of some hotels' bedrooms. Evocative of the board game Clue, the hotel offers a billiard room, a library and a parlor, where guests drink sambuca, play chess and the piano or simply stay up chatting into the wee hours.

The piece de resistance is the restaurant, run by one of the country's most revered chefs, Gualtiero Marchesi. Guests can expect haute cuisine of the finest order. I was wowed by the restaurant service and the attention to the food's presentation. An anteroom gives guests a less formal place to sip coffee and discuss the higher points of continental cooking with the chef after meals.

Front-desk service was adequate but not extraordinary.

Hotel Europa & Regina, San Marco, 2159, Venice: 148 double rooms, 20 singles and 17 suites.
Rates: $460, double, including VAT but not breakfast.
Owner: Starwood.
Reservations: Sheraton, (800) 325-3589, or Utell, (800) 44-UTELL.
Hotel Europa & Regina wins my award for best European renovation in 1997 (that I have seen, of course).

I had wanted to stay at the famous Danieli or the exclusive Gritti Palace (host to Woody Allen's recent honeymoon), but I can now say that I prefer the Europa & Regina to both of those better-known Sheratons.

After a $20 million renovation in July 1997, the five 18th and 19th century palaces that make up the hotel showcase the best of modern technology in concert with original furnishings, chandeliers, carpets and paintings. The result is superb: Rooms feel brand new, but exposed ceiling beams with Renaissance period carvings and antiques remind guests of the hotel's history without beating them over the head with it. I found this preferable to the museum-quality atmosphere of the Danieli or the somewhat elitist feel of the Gritti Palace.

The staff at the Europa & Regina passed my five-star service test, which gauges the response of a concierge when he or she is asked about a selection of good, inexpensive restaurants. The staff enthusiastically searched for cheap eats at local spots -- and their finds were exactly what I was looking for.

One employee told me that in the days of Ciga, the hotel's previous owner, front desk staff would turn away "clients in jeans" and those who didn't fit the hotel's upscale profile. "Sheraton spent a lot of money here and they want it back, so we have to be nice to all the guests," he said.

Trianon Palace, 1 Boulevard de la Reine, Versailles, France: 192 rooms, 25 suites.
Rates: $293, double, including VAT but not breakfast.
Owner: MDI Corp.
Reservations: Westin, (800) Westin-1.

At Westin's Trianon, I was the recipient of the warmest service I have experienced in nearly any French hotel. After some awkward moments at hotels where my "American-ness" was alternatively amusing and puzzling to European staff, it was wonderful to be at a property where smiling and speaking loudly were considered virtues. From the bellboy to the marketing manager, everyone here seemed to be having a good time -- and staff wanted guests to have a good time too.

The Trianon, opened in 1910, is on a seven-acre park bordering Louis XIV's Versailles Palace. In 1919, the signers of the Versailles Treaty held a key meeting in the hotel's ballroom before signing the final agreement at the palace. Many kings, queens, heads of state and celebrities have graced the halls of the Trianon, including Marlene Dietrich, who caused a scandal in 1947 when she showed up at the restaurant in pants.

A $75 million renovation of the hotel was completed in 1991. Westin took over the hotel in 1997 and renovated the Pavillon Trianon, which houses four-star accommodations and a conference center. The two-Michelin-starred restaurant, Les Trois Marches, is run by Gerard Viei, a member of the board of Foundation Escoffier and president of A. Guillot, a prestigious gastronomic association.

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