Many cities in the world have what are known as 'palace hotels,' very grand, luxe, expensive, famous hotels that are often also historic (and in some cases were really palaces at one time). Palace hotels have typically been host to the world's most noteworthy and wealthy guests; some have restaurants that have earned Michelin stars; and some have played major roles in the history of a place, which is why I seek them out. While some seasoned travelers value the service and amenities of palace hotels -- which are perfectly legitimate requests and which are sometimes not as good as they should be -- my first approach to a palace hotel has far more to do with its history, how closely it's integrated into the destination, and if it exudes a true sense of place.
Paris has a handful of palace hotels, including the Four Seasons Hotel George V pictured above (31 avenue George-V, 8th arrondissement / www.fourseasons.com/paris). As I note in my Paris book, the original George V hotel opened in 1928 and served as General Eisenhower's headquarters during the liberation of Paris in 1944. Aside from the Four Seasons legendary customer service, its spa, Rolls-Royce Phantom for airport transfers and guests' use, Michelin-starred Le Cinq, kids' programs, and famous concierge Adrian Moore (referred to by Women's Wear Daily as "Paris's hottest food blogger" and whose blog, http://www.adrianmoore.blogspot.com/ is a great resource), I tell visitors to Paris to stop by and see the George V even if they have no intention of ever staying there because of its Art Deco facade and the flower creations by Jeff Leatham -- he and his staff created the holiday theme in the marble courtyard in the photos above, which were taken in December of 2009 (see terrific photos of the George V lobby on Jeff's site, http://www.jeffleatham.com/).
According to the French Minister of Tourism, in 2010, there are only four other hotels in Paris that qualify for the Distinction Palace recognition: Le Plaza Athenee, Le Bristol, Le Park Hyatt Paris Vendome, and Le Meurice (it's hard to beat the Meurice for history: it's the oldest palace hotel in Paris, opening in 1835, and, though it's not often noted, it was Nazi headquarters during the Second World War). These five have "exceptional qualities that embody French standards of excellence and contribute to enhancing the image of France throughout the world." With all due respect to this new ranking, it would be hard to deny similar standards of excellence at the Ritz, the Crillon, Fouquet's Barriere, Royal Monceau, the Mandarin Oriental, and the Shangri-La.
There are two terrific articles in the current issue of wonderful France Magazine (one of my most favorite publications) that I recommend anyone interested in Paris hotels to read: "Palace Revolution" and "The P-Listers," both by Tina Isaac. In her first piece Isaac writes that the top hotel managers she spoke with agree that "the palace touch is more an art than a science." Francisco Garcia, marketing director of the Four Seasons George V, notes that "few cities in the world have the historical heritage that Paris does; it still has to shine like it did 100 years ago, it still has to have magic...Anyone with means can buy expensive stuff. The culture of going above and beyond is what is priceless, and that can't be taught. You either have it or you don't." Isaac concludes by saying that "now more than ever, palaces are in the business of dream fulfillment, whether through gastronomy, art or fashion. Indeed, so much is happening within the new palace walls these days that making it out the door into the city beyond is practically a footnote to a Paris vacation."
By any measure, staying at one of Paris's Palace hotels is very expensive, but the hotels' bars, cafes, and restaurants welcome everyone, not just guests staying there, and even a short visit is a memorable Paris experience.