I’ve always gone the budget route in Paris, booking a three-star hotel with air conditioning and nearby metro access. After a day of shops, museums and landmarks, I didn’t need anything fancy. Recently, I tagged along for my dear Scottish friend’s surprise birthday bash. We were spending two nights at the Ritz, our goal to relax and partake in the Parisian icon’s amenities.
Place Vendôme is a square of palaces and royal apartments built in the 18th century for French aristocracy. In 1898, César Ritz opened the former palace as the Hôtel Ritz, a luxury destination claiming to be the first in Europe to offer attached bathrooms, electricity and phone service in every room. Coco Chanel and Ernest Hemingway maintained residences at the Ritz, and the hotel served as barracks for high-ranking Luftwaffe officers during World War II. Over the past century, Ingrid Bergman, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and other celebrities, politicians, artists and royalty from around the globe walked through the doors of this grand establishment.
The Ritz’s doors were closed for four years during a $450 million renovation under the supervision of current owner, Mohamed Al Fayed. The Ritz re-opened in June 2016, just weeks before our arrival.
I expected a gilded exterior, iron gates, perhaps some gargoyles or giant lion statues, but the subdued exterior of the Ritz was distinguished only by a slew of doormen and awnings bearing the famous name. The interior exudes Victorian elegance with a dash of Louis XVI grandeur. The lobby extended into the distance, illuminated by sunlight cascading through the massive floor-to-ceiling windows, reminiscent of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Greeters guided us around the corner to the inconspicuous reception area. We checked in and took a short tour of the ground floor, including the “hall of temptation,” a gallery of jewels, handbags, stilettos and evening gowns worth millions.
The lobby extended into the distance, illuminated by sunlight cascading through the massive floor-to-ceiling windows, reminiscent of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Greeters guided us around the corner to the inconspicuous reception area. We checked in and took a short tour of the ground floor, including the “hall of temptation,” a gallery of jewels, handbags, stilettos and evening gowns worth millions.
In the narrow entryway was a small antique sideboard with fresh fruit, miniature madeleines and a welcome note from management. The bedroom was the same size as an average Parisian hotel room, a bit cramped with luggage, twin beds, bedside tables and a desk. But it was an inviting, cozy space painted a bright off-white, accented with floral fabric curtains and headboards; a hint of the new paint smell lingered. French doors let in the warm August sunshine and opened onto a tiny balcony, five levels about the restaurant patio, which offered views of the Eiffel Tower.
Because we requested twin beds, we had been given the “kids’ room” next to the birthday girl’s king room. We, therefore, didn’t have full-length closets for our long dresses, a cute but impractical idea. A modern mirror with a built-in television hung above the original fireplace mantle. The old-fashioned service remote was left on the nightstand with buttons for extending the terrace shade, adjusting the air conditioning, dimming the lights and calling room service. The same options were available on the touch-screen phone.
Square footage was gained in the elaborate bathroom, where double sinks were decorated with golden swan faucets, the knobs for hot and cold water denoted with blue and red jewels. If someone monopolized the bedroom TV, there was another, smaller one in the mirror. For bathing, we had an alcove tub and separate rain shower. Next to the deep tub were call chains for the valet and maid, supposedly installed because King Edward VII was once unable to get out of his tub at the Ritz.
Cocktails from 24 euros were forgettable, but we were entertained by the cute tapas. Priced at 10 to 15 euros each, we shared sliders with tiny tomato and pickle slices and caramelized onions, vegetarian spring rolls, and panko-battered chicken pieces with cilantro-avocado mayo. The sliders were so delicious and adorable that we ordered mini hot dogs so we could see them. Apparently, hot dogs taste better at the Ritz.
Reminiscent of a turn-of-the-century gentlemen’s smoking parlor, the Hemingway Bar is packed every evening with patrons eager to have a drink made by Colin Peter Field, named the best bartender in the world by Forbes. To balance the masculine surroundings, each lady’s drink was adorned with a pink rose stem. I can’t remember what I ordered — it was sweet, tangy and strong. I can confirm, however, that it was not the Ritz Sidecar, a 1500-euro cognac-based cocktail touted as one of the most famous and most expensive in the world.
The birthday soirée was held in an intimate private dining space at L’Espadon, where 10 guests from three countries gathered for dinner. Five waiters wearing tuxes with tails attended to us, ensuring that all 10 cloches were lifted simultaneously.
The set menu consisted of five courses, but 10 dishes. The first was foie gras two ways, then lobster tail and claws, each prepared differently. The milk-fed lamb was more tender and flavorful than delicate pork belly and served with stuffed eggplant and peppers. A tasting of French cheeses followed, and we finished with a sorbet in a crunchy meringue dome and a hollow dark chocolate candy bar with mousse and gold flakes. Our petite, vivacious female sommelier guided us through a pairing with each. The service was impeccable, the course pacing perfect and the time with friends … priceless. We couldn’t believe it was 1:30 a.m. when we retired to our rooms.
Even breakfast at the Ritz was special. We sat in the atrium, under a glass roof that is retracted at lunch. We started with pastries prepared in house and assorted Ritz-branded jellies. After was our choice of fruit: salad, sliced and more. Then, we picked from various egg options and sweets; I had eggs Benedict the first morning.
The second morning, my friend and I started at a separate table, unaware that the rest of our group was already at another. When we joined our friends, the waiters did not transfer our coffee cups and juice glasses. We were issued new, full drinks. My 5-euro clutch from Primark wouldn’t fit on the table and was placed on a stool next to my chair. I took two bites of my waffle but excused myself; I was queasy from the rich food and alcohol consumed the night prior. The waiter offered to bring it up for me to finish at my leisure. Back in the room, I was presented with bread, jams, juice and a fresh waffle on a table with linens, fine china and a floral arrangement.
Our schedule did not allow for time to swim in the indoor pool, have treatments at the Chanel spa or take afternoon tea in the library. But the Ritz lived up to its reputation as a world-class hotel that spares no expense to ensure guests have fairy-tale experiences. We left the land where no detail was overlooked feeling like Cinderella after the ball. We were now just ordinary travelers dragging our luggage through the train station with memories from our stay at a castle.