Paris has long been considered one of the world's great arbiters of romance and chic, something not always easy to find in its plethora of hotel choices. So it was with a certain sense of triumph that I found not one, but two quintessentially Parisian boutique properties that fit the bill and fed my dichotomous love for both the Left and Right banks.
The two distinct five-star experiences before and after a glorious weeklong Seine cruise on Uniworld's Joie de Vivre promised to be the all-around perfect package. Both the Relais Christine, a member of Small Luxury Hotels, and its sister property, the Saint James Paris, part of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux, are privately owned by the Bertrand family, making coordination and logistics between the two seamless.
Despite their disparate locations and settings, both hotels are Parisian to their core, their success the result of an irresistible combination: impeccable service offered by a gracious team and newly restored structures that are drenched with history but void of pretension or a stuffy ambience.Relais Christine
Just steps from the Seine in Saint-Germain-des-Pres and housed in a 17th-century "hotel particulier," the intimate Relais Christine takes its name from the quiet Rue Christine in the heart of the much loved Latin Quarter. A stroll away from museums, attractions and too many cafes and bistros to count, the intimate hotel feels like a veritable cocoon of refinement — a hidden oasis.
In a two-year, multimillion-dollar renovation, the French designer Laura Gonzalez transformed each of the 48 rooms and suites and spacious common areas with her bright and fresh imprint while still evoking the era of French Romanticism. Showcasing French craftsmanship and her keen eye, Gonzalez mixed decor and styles from different periods, from luxurious traditional furniture to contemporary lighting fixtures and richly colored fabrics and wallpapers from renowned French brands. Bathrooms are clad in classic Carrara marble with polished brass fixtures and large walk-in showers.
Most guestrooms in the front overlook the entrance's quiet, stone courtyard, while those in the back overlook a private interior garden — something almost unheard of in the center of Paris. Two handsome suites and two double rooms access it directly. The noontime bells of Notre Dame remind you just how much you are in the middle of things while blissfully feeling light-years away.
The main sitting and lounge area offers an inviting retreat with a well-stocked honor bar and groupings of comfortable armchairs and sofas in jewel-toned fabrics and a mantled fireplace. An ample corner is given over to breakfast service in the morning, while a staircase leads down to the Spa Guerlain. Set under medieval vaulted ceilings, the setting harks back to its earlier tenants, the friars of the 13th-century Grand-Augustins Abbey.
A suite at the Relais Christine’s sister hotel, the Saint James Paris, which is home to a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Saint James Paris
Across the Seine and nestled in the leafy and fashionable 16th arrondissement, the Saint James Paris is a sibling of a different kind: It is the only chateau-hotel in Paris, and it is as splendid as one would expect. Housed in a neoclassical mansion built in 1892 by the former first lady in honor of her late husband, Adolphe Thiers, first president of the French Third Republic, it is located on the site where some of the world's first hot air balloons were launched. It began life as a dormitory for young scholars who could not afford to pay university board and later became an exclusive private gentleman's club. Purchased by the Bertrand family in 1991, it underwent a total transformation under the unerring direction of the American-French designer Bambi Sloan that was completed in 2014.
Sloan's singular and highly personal design sense is as eccentric as it is chic, tasteful in its combination of bold colors and textures. It is flamboyant but comfortable — never over the top and never too-too. The hotel's common areas and 49 rooms and suites were reimagined with the use of various clever trompe l'oeil tricks, such as carpeting that resembles herringbone parquet, inviting you to expect the unexpected. Sumptuous velvet drapes and faux stuffed zebra heads in the lobby (Pilou, the jet-black house cat is real) keep things playful, as does the hot air balloon motif that pops up everywhere, from wallpaper and lighting fixtures to the appearance of balloon-shaped tents in the garden terrace where guests can enjoy tea or meals in warmer months.
The hotel's acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant is an important draw, with chef Jean-Luc Rocha at the helm since early 2017. The handsome but relaxed portrait-lined dining room is also the location for the excellent buffet breakfast. Guests can linger over tea or a whole roster of cocktails in the cozy library/bar, where more than 10,000 leatherbound books join the leather armchairs and big windows overlooking the garden.
Arriving through heavy wrought-iron gates and around a circular gravel driveway with a large dancing fountain at its center creates an almost country-estate feeling. But the tony residential address is 20-minute stroll away from the Arc de Triomphe, from where the Champs-Elysees begins. Not far away is the Bois de Boulogne, Paris's second-largest park, perfect for a morning jog or an afternoon visit to the Louis Vuitton Foundation museum housed in a striking building designed by Frank Gehry.
The sibling rivalry between the two boutique options is mutually friendly. I would not hesitate to admit to either that I love them both. To be completely frank, I have one complaint for them both: Why do you make it so difficult to leave?
Nightly rates for both properties begin at about $430; see www.relais-christine.com and www.saint-james-paris.com.