A pearl necklace (not mine) is hanging from a black ceramic hand, a guitar sits in one corner of the room and a framed picture is propped on the floor as if waiting to be hung. When I wake up I can't immediately see any of these things, though, because the huge, comfortable bed in which I am lying is adrift in the middle of the room - perfectly placed so when I get up to draw the curtains the light falling on me is at its softest and prettiest. As five-star hotel rooms go, it is the most eccentric that I have ever stayed in - and deliberately so. Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris, which opened its doors in October, was conceived by Philippe Starck as somewhere that offer guests "a touch of panache, a hint of irreverence and lot of outrageousness". It's an ambitious yet fitting description of the overall effect.
"They're trying to eat our lunch, but we're not going to let them," Christopher Norton says, with a deep laugh. It's later in the day and I'm now sitting in the very grand La Galeri at Le George V, already established as one of the world's great hotels, where Norton is the general manager, watching the well-dressed and the beautiful parade past a backdrop of gilt-framed Flemish tapestries and heavy crystal chandeliers. Such is the quest for perfection that the 88-metre Flemish carpet, handmade in Spain, is replaced every nine months before it shows any signs of wear and tear.
Trying to ignore this sideshow, we're discussing the latest revolution to take place in Paris. For decades, six well-known names - Hôtel de Crillon, Le Bristol, Le Meurice, the Ritz, Le Plaza Athénée and Le George V - have dominated the hotel scene. Their names are synonymous with old-fashioned grandeur and a certain style, and occasional entrées onto the pages of novels have conferred a romantic status upon them. The big six are not just any old five-star hotels, and to confirm their status they have recently applied for "palais" or palace status, the new category being introduced by the French tourism authority.
There are five pretenders threatening to usurp the old guard though. Mandarin Oriental, Raffes with Le Royal Monceau, Shangri-La, the Peninsula and Starwood with W Opéra, are all trying to muscle in with their own ultra-chic offerings, not to mention the promise of exhaustive levels of attentiveness and courtesy to counter a reputation for Parisian hauteur when it comes to service. As a wake-up call for the establishment, it doesn't get much louder.
With the economies of Europe still unsteady, 2011 might seem an inauspicious time to embark on such expensive new ventures, but the opening of a hotel is years in the making, and perennially popular tourist destinations such as Paris or London are relatively safe bets. Added to that, the luxury market is the one that has held out best. Generally speaking, it is the grander, more expensive hotels that have showed the most resilience and it is the most costly, lavish suites that have been booked out.
Anticipation is currently focused on the Mandarin Oriental, which will open on July 1, assuming it is given the all clear by the Security Commission who are due to do their checks this month. Located on Rue Saint Honoré, one of the most fashionable streets in the world and within five minutes walk from the Louvre, it promises style and class with a double-height presidential suite billed as the finest in Paris.
On Avenue Georges V, Le George V is said to be the most recession-proof hotel in the world but competition is still cut-throat, and Norton is neither foolish nor smug enough to sit back and do nothing: Four Seasons, which manages Le George V, is currently redecorating every last bedroom. The work began last month and the well-known French designer Pierre-Yves Rochon, responsible for its last facelift 10 years ago, has been recalled. The hotel's majestic but slightly cold and formal, gold and brown colour palettes are disappearing and being replaced by soft blues and creams. "We are taking a realistic and aggressive stance towards defending our number one slot," Norton says with determination.
He has an ally in the French government, which has introduced new measures to communicate excellence to confused guests. Only two years ago, it introduced a new five-star category to differentiate the top end from the more hum-drum four-star hotels. The French ministry of tourism is introducing a "palais hôtel" definition with an application deadline for those hotels wishing to be considered at the end of last year. But - and here is the catch - hotels had to be at least three years old to apply. The new hotels are furious at the French government, privately accusing it of colluding with the older, more established hotels.
"It's ridiculous. Either you are a palace hotel or you are not - why three years?" says Alain Borgers, the director general of the Shangri-La, which opened its inarguably palatial doors at 10 Avenue d'Iéna in December. "It's up to our guests to decide if we are a palace hotel, not the government." Built in 1896, as the home of Prince Roland Bonaparte (Napoleon's great-nephew), the new Shangri-La has been lovingly and painstakingly restored by its new owner. The main staircase, lounges, frescoes, wood panelling, gilding, chandeliers and marble fireplaces have been returned to their former glory. And what glory. Just across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, the panoramic suite has the best views of that most iconic of Parisian landmarks, but Prince Roland's former bedroom, restored as the imperial suite costing €18,000 (Dh89,865) per night, faces the other way, reflecting the nonchalant attitude Parisians had to the monument at the time. Prince Roland would still feel very much at home here: many of the public areas feel more like a museum than a hotel, a point defended by Borgers. "It was a residence and now it's a hotel. But it's also a French monument, and we wanted to protect the history of the building."
Philippe Leboeuf, the former general manager of Claridges in London, who was poached by Mandarin Oriental to head up its new Parisian project, says the management considered going to Brussels to challenge the three-year ruling but decided against it. The Mandarin Oriental opted for the freedom of renovation rather than the confines of restoration. Only the 1920's Art Deco-style facade at the front has been kept; behind it everything has been rebuilt. Its vast inner courtyard planted with camellias and magnolias will be the place to be seen in this summer. The style promises to reflect its location, not its historic foundation. Unlike the design of Shangri-La hotels, where Asia meets Europe in everything from the staff's uniforms to its cuisine, the Mandarin management has made a deliberate decision to eschew more overt shows of Asian culture. "The staff will not be wearing kimonos. We will be very Parisian, very French, classy and stylish. Only the spa will be Asian," says Leboeuf. "It is very important to have a [local] sense of place."
In contrast, Starwood's W Paris Opéra, which is due to open in December on Rue de la Chaussée d'Antin near the Opéra de Paris, will play upon and celebrate its status as an outsider. "Its identity, positioning and targeted market is different from its competitors," says Marie Cazaux.
By that I assume it will transport W's unique customs and slightly crazy culture, though what Parisians will make of a concierge desk that is named and answers the phone "whatever, whenever" is yet to be seen. But had Starwood hoped to break the mould in a city known for stuffy institutions, it has been beaten to it by Raffles.
The placing of the bed in my room is not its only idiosyncracy. Le Royal Monceau has not so much been designed by Philippe Starck as curated. The original chandeliers are still here but corralled together above the staircase, hung at different heights. There is a modern art shop and an art concierge who will advise guests on what galleries to visit and who to see. An art curator supervises the team, and just as the concierge of the older hotels can reserve a table at a fully booked restaurant, he arranges access to private collections. All the art on show is part of the hotel's own private collection, but should you admire a particular painting or piece, the art concierge will introduce you to the artist so you can buy a similar work.
I meet Sylvain Ercoli, the ebullient general manager, in the lobby; only it's not the lobby but the Grand Salon and we sit on large pouffes right in the middle. The boundaries are purposefully blurred to create the feeling of a home, with the eating area spilling out into the reception area. The check-in is tucked away to the side near the entrance and opposite the lifts so that guests can arrive and go to their rooms without being seen.
"We want to make this hotel to Paris what Raffles is to Singapore. It has Parisian DNA," says Ercoli. "We are pushing the boundaries but in the context of good traditional service. We all come from traditional backgrounds and know the importance of getting that right."
The last of the newcomers is the Peninsula, which is slated to open early in 2013. As with Raffles and Shangri-La, it is the hotel group's first European outpost and brings with it a fearsome reputation for excellence. Little wonder then that the grande old dames such as Le George V are touching up the gilded furniture. But back at Le George V, Norton does not look like a worried man. The winners and losers of the new order will be defined, he says, not by the splendour of the buildings, historical significance, expensive spa treatments or experimental restaurant menus, but in a more personal way.
"A hotel is like love," says Norton. "It is the way it makes you feel which matters most. The guests are like women, they won't leave you unless they are unhappy."
If you go
Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies from Abu Dhabi to Paris from Dh3,945 return, including taxes
A double room at the Four Seasons Le George V (8000 65 0561; www.fourseasons.com) costs from €850 (Dh4,632) per night, including taxes. A one-bedroom royal suite costs from €15,000 (Dh74,910) per night, including taxes.
A double room at Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris (00 33 1 42 99 8877; www.raffles.com) costs from €780 (Dh3,894) per night, including taxes. The royal suite costs from €10,000 (Dh51,064) per night. One of three self-contained apartments, the "Ray Charles" costs €16,000 (Dh79,870) per night.
A double room at the Shangri-La Paris (00 33 1 53 67 19 98; www.shangri-la.com) costs from €725 (Dh3,950) per night, including taxes. The imperial suite costs from €18,000 (Dh89,865) per night, including taxes.
The Mandarin Oriental (00 33 1 55 04 80 21; www.mandarinoriental.com) is due to open on July 1. Double rooms cost from €765 (Dh4,122) per night, including taxes.