Mary Gostelow visits two French hotels that are full of history

Girlahead stays at Shangri-La Hotel Paris and InterContinental Lyon - Hotel Dieu

Shangri-La Hotel Paris attracts all ages, including the young upwardly mobile and the already-successful – many Australians of course already know the brand, says Guy Bertaud, GM of the 101-room hotel. This is for travellers who want to stay in a luxury hotel that is also an authentic Parisian palace. It was built in the last decade of the 19th century for Prince Roland Bonaparte, a great-nephew of Napoleon. Current owner Shangri-La Asia worked with architect Richard Martinet, and with Pierre-Yves Rochon for interiors that skilfully include just a few valuable oriental urns in a theatre that is quintessentially of the ornate lacquer and gilding style. The hotel opened in 2010 and achieved the French hotel industry’s coveted ‘palace’ status four years later.

The location is also a major draw: the seven-floor palace is at Iéna, directly across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower. Obviously not all rooms face the Tower but everyone wants one – if occupancy allows, those in other rooms may be allowed quickly into a Tower-facing room or suite to take the necessary selfies. I was in suite 606, full of light and fantastic views, across and up and down the Seine. I also had a terrace big enough for a small wedding reception. I longed to spend more time out there, savouring and identifying the 360-degree view. Next visit… Next time, too, I must return to Le Bar Botaniste, to see what the mixologists are up to. By then, three of the hotel’s duplex suites will be re-themed as Parisien suites, with yet more local antiques to photograph.

A typical guest stay is three nights, with vacationers making up an increasing percentage of total business. Interestingly, says Bertaud, Asians usually dine the first night at the hotel’s 48-seat French restaurant, L’Abeille which has two Michelin stars, and then retreat to its Cantonese, Shang Palace, which has one Michelin star. What is so sensational about Shang Palace, incidentally, is that the entire 17-strong kitchen brigade is Chinese, transferred from other Shangri-La hotels. I must admit I really enjoyed our dinner, which included mixed barbecued meats (and the Gevrey Chambertin Dme Anlaud 2016 was perfect).

Prince Roland would gaze in amazement if he could see his palace’s indoor pool, fitness centre and spa. I think he would approve. The creative people who conceived and executed the transformation of this Bonaparte palace, and those who run it have made the many salons into works of art. Ladies who lunch meet up regularly with friends. Men of a certain age seem to spend an awful lot of their days simply sitting and reading Le Figaro. Cleverly, there is a bar in one corner of a salon: this is a luxury hotel that knows that every little helps when it comes to beverage sales, and all this summer they have had a highly successful pop-up Krug Bar on a terrace.

From Paris (Gare de St-Lazere) it is under two hours by TGV to Lyon – tip, get met right on the platform or be prepared to carry the Tumi down about 50 steps to the concourse. From the station it is under 15 minutes’ drive by Uber, or hotel car, to the most stunning conversion that Europe has seen this year. Yes, I am talking about the three-month old InterContinental Lyon – Hôtel Dieu. Its only competitor in the inclusive immersion-in-locale stakes is COMO The Treasury, Perth, Adrian Fini’s revitalisation of many of the city’s public areas.

Here, in Lyon, Crédit Agricole has similarly re-imagined the 360 metre-long complex known as Grand Hôtel-Dieu, on the west bank of the Rhône. The building goes back, in parts, to the 12th century and until less than a decade ago it had been pilgrims’ relief and hospital. Now, thanks to massive investment, it is the ultimate community project. The total 2.5-hectare site includes a conference centre to seat 400: there are co-working and residences, 20 boutiques, a seriously large food hall, Les Halles, that, with its ranges of Gillardeau oysters through to just-pressed juices, make David Jones opens its eyes. There are also two other food stores, plus 12 restaurants and bars. All this, by the way, opened April 2018.

Icon of the whole is the Dome, which bisects one perimeter facet along the riverside quai Jules Courmon. Everything else was up and running before the hotel opened on 4 June 2019, and yes, it too is bisected by The Dome (you do have to make sure you get in the right bank of elevators). I was enchanted from arrival to departure. Area GM Madelijn Vervoord, who is based here, had already opened one conversion, InterContinental Marseille, by the same designer, Jean-Philippe Nuel (yes, he who has also brilliantly shown how a ship’s cabins, as on Ponant’s Lyrial, can empathetically seem larger than reality). As I have said, the Dome bisects the length of the three-floor hotel building. Both the Club Continental lounge, to one side, and the salon of the Presidential Suite, to the other, look down into the interior of the Dome, which is a magnet for the half-million who live in Lyon; apparently 50,00 locals traipsed through in the first three months, most buying at least a drink. One evening I had a lovely people-watching Dome dinner, a steak tartare paired with the house specialty, a glass shaped like a fish on one leg, stork-style, holding a wasabi and gin concoction bound with egg white.

Lyon is said to have 4,200 restaurants, including 20 with Michelin stars, and the decision was made here to eschew fancy hotel food for really great local ingredients cooked by a heart-throb of a young chef, Mathieu Charrois, who obviously loves working the floor of the 90-seat Epona restaurant, named for the Gallo-Roman goddess of fertility and travel. And what a wise decision it appears to have been. All seats were taken by the time we left after dinner. Many automatically go for sharing cocottes but I started with the signature Belle de Lyon, tomato nuggets immersed in Côtes du Rhône granita, with gazpacho poured over. We shared a magnificent smoked prime rib, brought to the table already carved, on a substantial wood tranche: requested vegetables are in small cocottes. I loved the 947 steak knives, by Percival. Daytimes and evenings, by the way, also see pop-up restaurants in the various cloister-surrounded courtyards no-space-available. Lyonnais have flocked to these restaurants, independent of the hotel – some are run by food purveyors in Les Halles.

Since one third of all adult locals were born here during the building’s role as a maternity hospital, masses want to come and stay. Nuel has tastefully blended locale and style in the 142 bedrooms. Reach them via tall and narrow corridors, flanked by centuries-old stone pillars along one side, the Nuel carpeting, with dark mushroom and champagne burst, a reflection of mediaeval chiaroscuro. There are 28 duplex suites, with bedrooms upstairs, but I was really pleased to be in the single-floor, Rhône-facing 358. I especially liked Nuel’s soft-greys interior palette enlightened with bronze, and the fabrics and feel of the day cushions. I eschewed the hotel’s gym – too far away and too public – in favour of a dawn-breaking walk over Lyon’s famous Pont de la Guillotière – in medieval times the only Rhône bridge south of Paris. And then, after a splendid breakfast which showed French products at their best, I walked through the conciergerie and across the public walkway under the Dome to reception. Note, incidentally, that space’s end wall of real books, with bookshelves reaching right up to its centuries-old ceiling. Some walls are partly covered by freestanding silk screens – Lyon is still centre of silk. This entire hotel has so many stories waiting to be told, and shared.

Lead image: Shangri-La Hotel Paris, Grand Salon

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