[Published in the Toronto Star.]
When you go to Paris and say you’re staying at the Athénée, expect eyes to balloon and voices to “ooooooh” with excitement and, perhaps, a tinge of jealousy. The Plaza Athénée is the super-luxury residence of choice for celebrities when they’re in Paris, a hotel made even more famous when it had a starring role in the final season of “Sex and the City.” The Hôtel Maison Athénée, on the other hand, is a recently refurbished and renamed boutique hotel with only 20 rooms on a narrow street in the 9th Arrondisement. It doesn’t have an Alain Ducasse restaurant or 250-euro airport shuttle service or an outrageous spa experience like the Dior Institut. What it does have, though, is beautifully appointed rooms with comfortable beds, room-darkening curtains, large bathrooms and a cheerful, welcoming staff.
So while your friends may not be so impressed with this less well-known and unrelated property, you’ll have no worries about enjoying your stay in the French capital.
A nightly room rate is above 200 euros — not cheap, but not the 1,000-euro rate you’re likely to pay at the Plaza — and includes a simple breakfast of breads, pastries, cereal, fruit and yogurt. The décor is Paris sexy, evocative of opera and roses, and sultry pleasures. Red is everywhere, from the velvet chairs and couches in the hotel’s small foyer and salon to the wallpaper and Pierre Frey drapery in the rooms.
The property, previously called Hôtel de l’Athénée, was gutted during its renovation, which was completed last fall. Designer Jacques Garcia, best known for the exquisite La Mamoumia in Marrakech, replaced unattractive furniture and flooring with designer fabrics, plush bedding and a lavish amount of elegance.
A three-minute walk to the opulent Opera Garnier (which features a wonderful Marc Chagall fresco inside its theatre), the Hôtel Maison Athénée emulates Carmen and La Traviata and other great productions with its colour scheme and its portraits of stage performers in its salon, or Red Bar. The hotel is actually named after a nearby theatre that’s been declared a historic monument.
The rooms are tiny, but it’s Paris; you’re not likely to find a lot of space at any hotel. At Hôtel Maison Athénée, the rooms have ample closet and drawer space, a mini-bar that’s decently stocked, flat-screen TVs (including one above the tub in some suites), complimentary WiFi and a desk. It’s tight, but if you keep your luggage to one large suitcase and a couple of smaller bags you won’t be tripping over anything.
The Hôtel Maison Athénée is at 19 Rue de Caumartin, across the street from the artists’ entrance to L’Olympia concert hall, where the Beatles and Grateful Dead played historic Parisian shows. Big names still show up at the venue that opened in 1889 and holds about 2,500 people.
It’s Paris, so every other storefront on the street is a restaurant, café, bakery or bar. I tried four on Rue de Caumartin and all of them were very good, with the best by far being Les Bacchantes, a terrific little bistro next door to the hotel that served a perfectly grilled, salty haddock fillet with buttery vegetables for 16 euros (about $22). Unlike a lot of meals in Paris, it wasn’t loaded with heavy cream or rich sauces. A couple of storefronts down, La Taverne de l’Olympia, an Irish bar, served a surprisingly good steak for a reasonable 12 euros and kept its kitchen open past midnight.
The 9th Arrondisement (or District) isn’t the most popular spot for tourists, although it has upscale shopping, the ornate opera house, theatres, the gorgeous Galeries Lafayette mall and lots of eateries. It’s not next door to one of Paris’ major historic attractions, though, and doesn’t have the cache of Montmartre or the Left Bank for nightlife and food. Yet, it’s one of the cleanest parts of the city and is close to many sites: a five-minute walk to ritzy Place Vendôme, 15 minutes to the Louvre, 20 to the Arc de Triomphe, 25 to the Eiffel Tower, and a half hour to either Notre Dame Cathedral or the Musée d’Orsay. And there are four Metro stops (Auber, Opera, Madeleine and Havre Caumartin) within a short walk of Hôtel Maison Athénée to take you to those attractions or anywhere else you want to go in the city.
The hotel should catch on. The customer service is exceptional, especially for Paris, and the location is terrific. Next time you’re in Paris, say you’ll stay at the Athénée and when you add, “No, not that Athénée,” there may not be that much drop off in enthusiasm from your listener. The Hôtel Maison Athénée, after all, is the Athénée for the rest of us.
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[Thanks to Julia Pelish for the photos]