Paris’ George V regularly tops the world hotel rankings, and it’s so flush with amenities it could make the ghost of Marie Antoinette blush. So why did a jury of industry professionals omit it from France’s inaugural list of élite “palace” hotels?
That question has the hotel’s jet-set guests up in arms, and the French hotel world shouting “Mon Dieu!” François Delahaye, the general manager of the Plaza Athénée—one of eight hotels that did receive the designation— says the jury has made itself look foolish by overlooking a Paris landmark. “I have a bitter taste of victory in my mouth,” he told the AFP. “The fact the Ritz and especially the George V were not on the list removes all credibility for the award.”
Tourism authorities had hoped the new designation—dreamed up by the French government last December—would boost the profile of the nation’s most chic hotels and protect “French-style excellence.” In doing so, the classification system would help the market’s traditional leaders stand out from new luxury arrivals from Asia, including the Shangri-La (opened in December 2010) and the Mandarin Oriental (opening in June 2011), which TIME reported on earlier this year.
A five-star system works well in many cities, but not in Paris, where luxury reaches immeasurable heights. In the City of Lights, five-star hotels typically cost between $350 and $600 per night. But at the city’s most exclusive hotels—including the George V and the Ritz, which have been referred to informally as “palaces” for years—rooms start at $1,200 per night and climb to more than $20,000. “Let’s forget whether they call them palaces or not. In reality they are in a category that is well above five stars,” Paul Roll, the General Manager of the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau, told TIME last year as officials were drafting the bill. “There are five star hotels—and then there are the palaces.”
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To qualify for the official palace designation, a property must fulfill a series of strict criteria, as evaluated by undercover tourism officials. The hotel’s polyglot staff must answer all phone calls from guests within five rings (though most shoot for three), the building must possess architectural and historical significance, and the hotel must demonstrate excellence across its dining, health and spa facilities. There’s also a less tangible element. “A palace is not just a space surrounded by four walls,” Dominique Fernandez, the chairman of the jury, has said. “It is a kind of novel placed in a mythical setting which the guest enters like the world of 1,001 Nights.”
The George V does that in spades. Originally built in 1928, it served as General Eisenhower’s headquarters during the liberation of Paris in 1944. In the late 90s, the hotel’s owners spent more than $300 million to complete one of the most illustrious renovations in hotel history, updating the hotel with plenty of mod-cons while maintaining its Old World sheen. Inside, stunning chandeliers and 18th century tapestries smack of French elegance, while some suites boast over-sized marble bathrooms, personal steam rooms, and in-room safes the size of small apartments. There’s also a two-Michelin star restaurant, and a spa designed to conjure up Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. It’s been voted Europe’s best spa by Travel + Leisure for four consecutive years, and it may be the only luxury spa in the world to offer hair-extensions sourced from Paris’ finest suppliers (a ponytail will set you back $350, while a full-on mane could run as high as $4,000).
Christopher Norton, the hotel’s general manager, is too classy to respond to the jury’s slight, and has avoided the messy business of campaigning for palace status. But with the hotel undergoing a $30 million touch-up, he’s clearly ready for a fight. “The refreshing of our rooms and the upgrading of our experience couldn’t come at a better time,” he told TIME back in December. “It will just raise the stakes in what I think is one of the most exciting hotel markets in the world.” (via Independent)