To Bonaparte, with love from China

THE rich and international do not tire of Paris. Though it was hardly lacking in ultra-luxe period hotels before, the city evidently needed more. And so last year saw the opening of two major hotels, The Mandarin Oriental and the Shangri-La, signifying not only Paris’s ever-ascendant position on the global luxury circuit, but an overt French concession to Asian money.

The Shangri-La in particular attracted a good deal of controversy – the purchase by a Chinese hotel group of a palace built in 1896 for Prince Roland Bonaparte, the great-nephew of Napoleon, was bound to ruffle some feathers. As Dr Tom Stammers, a French historian at Cambridge University, puts it: “The French are often quite touchy about their patrimoine being at the mercy of outsiders.”

But the Hong Kong-based group has pulled it off, managing French cultural sensitivities (the hotel was immediately registered with heritage body Monuments Historiques) as well as delivering stylistic panache. Quite different from the sprawling resorts the brand is known for, this hotel has a fairly modest 81 rooms, of which 27 are suites styled by the renowned interior designer Pierre Yves Rochon. A former government office on the quiet, somewhat dull Avenue Iena, the building was in need of sensitive remodelling, and Rochon has managed to recoup the building’s 19th century splendour. The white exterior, frescoed lobby, grand spiral staircase leading up to the former apartments of Bonaparte and brilliant chandeliers all make you feel like an aristocrat for the night.

Stammers is also convinced by the sensitivity of the restoration: “With grand rooms once occupied by the Bonaparte family, complete with large pier glass mirrors, fine boiseries (panelling) and imposing fireplaces, the hotel is a Belle Epoque bauble. The furniture in the rooms nods back to Empire-style grandeur, creating a rich ensemble of textures.”

The hotel was full, so I was upgraded to one of the signature Eiffel Suites. The specialness of having the Tower in full view glinting in the setting sun, then sparkling with blue lights after nightfall, cannot be overstated. I sat at a little table, sipping some loose leaf Chinese tea, looking out at Paris and feeling happy. Once the tea had been drained, there was a bottle of good Bordeaux with which to see in the evening – a harmonious marriage of East and West, if ever there was one.

The only issue in the suite was the wiring: seemingly at random, the alarm clock would go off and music boom from hidden speakers; several times the lights went on and off. In the morning, the power socket I needed to charge my laptop didn’t work, nor did the power for the espresso machine (the lights worked, though). Perhaps it was Prince Bonaparte’s ghost at work – whatever it was, it was irritating.

Before setting out for the evening, we descended to Le Bar – designed after a Napoleonic post-Egyptian theme, with a bar of black granite, bronze and mahogany and a colour scheme of jade, warmed by a Tisserand bronze light fixture. The charming head barman, Christophe Leger, entertained as he mixed a selection of fragrant cocktails. Served with foie gras toasts, we were well fortified as we headed into the night.

There are three restaurants – Shang Palace is the only ultra-luxe Cantonese eatery in Paris, overseen by a fleet of top Hong Kong chefs. L’Abeille is a rarefied, plushly upholstered French fine dining restaurant, and La Bauhinia is the all-day option – we breakfasted here in Oriental luxury under an impressive glass ceiling, feasting on patisserie spirals stuffed with pistachio cream (I found space for an Eggs Benedict with truffle, too).

If you’re looking for a slice of princely Paris, the Shangri-La won’t disappoint, and if you’re interested in history, a stay here will be all the more worthwhile.

Deluxe rooms from €760 per night. For more information on the restoration and history of the hotel, and to book, go to www.shangri-la.com.