Paris hotels with panache

Who would disagree that Paris is more romantic when you stay in the right hotel? (For the purposes of this aperçu, the right person is just a parenthetical detail.) The problem is, with so many hundreds to pick from, how do you find the one that’s best for you? For many visitors the choice is defined by a favorite quartier, budget or both. A friendly welcome is always a plus.

Perfectly valid though these criteria are, I can rarely resist a hotel with that ineffable something the French might call panache. Surprise is often involved and might come in the form of a secret garden or chairs in the lobby that are shaped like rose petals. The unexpected detail is what sets a hotel apart and can elevate a sojourn in it, however brief, to a realm of genuine pleasure. I’ve handpicked a half-dozen hotels here that have panache to burn:

 Hôtel Meurice Of all the Parisian palace hotels, this is easily my favorite, because it’s always posh but never overbearing. For the better part of two centuries heads of state (vacationing and exiled), artists, writers and other celebrities have favored this refined 160-room property. Salvador Dali made it his Paris home for three decades. The hotel emerged from an extensive renovation in 2000 with its Louis XV and XVI look sumptuously intact. This spring the fantastical furniture of Italian surrealist artist Carla Tomoleo made its debut in the lobby, and it looks like it came straight out of “Alice in Wonderland”: a red velvet rotonde sofa with an exaggerated back that spindles three meters toward the ceiling and chairs with overgrown faux-rose backs are prime examples. Discuss it over tea under the Art Nouveau glass dome of the Jardin d’Hiver restaurant. 228 rue de Rivoli, 1er, tel: 01 44 58 10 10, Mº Tuileries, //www.meuricehotel.com

Park Hyatt Vendôme This exercise in opulence opened its doors in 2002 to much deserved fanfare, and remains one of the city’s top contenders for hotel of the moment. American designer Ed Tuttle seems to have had free reign and a near-bottomless budget to work these 188 oversized rooms into the wonders of modern luxury they are. Expect high-ceilings, walk-in closets with ample dressing zones, and separate baths and showers with exquisite custom-built plumbing – features that would make even the Martha Stewarts among us giddy. Gold and red are the colors that dominate Tuttle’s ravishing interiors, and though that may sound a trifle bold, believe me, it works. There isn’t a single door handle that isn’t sculptural. This hotel may not yet have the cachet of the Crillon or the Ritz, but no one can touch it for stylistic edge. 5 rue de la Paix, 2e, Mº Opéra, tel: 01 58 71 12 34. //www.paris.vendome.hyatt.com

Hôtel Saint Merry You needn’t be a man of the cloth to get a kick out of having a flying buttress over your bed, but that’s just what you’ll get if you reserve Room 9 at this gem of a hotel. It’s no coincidence that the Gothic Eglise St-Merry is right next door – in the 17th century, this was its presbytery. Stone, exposed beams, cumbrous wood furniture and wrought iron abound, and the wallet-friendly hotel is remarkably quiet despite a location near the teeming heart of Les Halles. The top-floor suite offers a stunning view of the Paris rooftops -what century is this? – but rooms 6, 12 and 18 are runners-up for best views. The bathrooms run a bit on the dark side, but then this is medieval Paris with better plumbing, not South Beach. 78 rue de la Verrerie, 4e, Mº St-Paul, tel: 01 42 78 14 15, //www.hotelmarais.com

Hôtel des Grandes Ecoles For that Sunday-in-the-country feel in the heart of the city, cross the Seine and enter the courtyard of this small, family-run establishment, which comprises three ivy-covered houses set in a lush garden (be sure to ask for a room with a garden view). Happily, though the secret of this hideaway hostelry is out, it retains the feel of a country French inn. The rooms are not fancy but are comforable enough; bathrooms are clean and modern. In fair weather you can take your café and croissants amid the trees and flowers. 75 rue du Cardinal-Lemoine, 5e Mº Cardinal-Lemoine, tel: 01 43 26 79 23, //www.hotel-grandes-ecoles.com

Hôtel Duc de St-Simon This cozy antiques-furnished 34-room hotel is located on a hidden side street just off the boulevard St-Germain. It is very quiet and very Parisian, making it a preferred pied-à-terre for an impressive roster of transatlantic diplomats, intellectuals and actors. When it’s raining out the place is positively dreamy, so far away from the fray does it make one feel. Garden-lovers might ask for room No. 25, which has a flower-bedecked terrace. 14 rue de St-Simon, 7e, Mº Rue du Bac, tel: 01 44 39 20 20,   //www.hotelducdesaintsimon.com

L’Hôtel Talk about panache: this place has it in spades. There’s a six-story tall light well original to the building, a small but lavish underground swimming pool, and a beautifully appointed guestroom in which more than a hundred years ago Oscar Wilde died (allegedly writing to a friend, “I am dying beyond my means,” shortly before he did). Unlike in 1900, when the place was called the Hôtel d’Alsace, today no two guestrooms here are alike. The Cardinal Suite boasts views of the St-Germain rooftops, the Marco Polo Room sports a stylized Asian look and another is based on Pompeii. Noted Parisian designer Jaqcues Garcia is behind all this, and the very pleasant Le Bélier Bar, in the lobby, too. This is one hotel where it’s worthwhile to call for a brochure ahead of time, the better to guide you to your room style of choice. 13 rue des Beaux-Arts,7e, Mº Odéon, tel: 01 44 41 99 00, //www.l-hotel.com

Anthony Grant Lechtman is author of ACCESS Paris (Ninth Edition, HarperCollinsPublishers), from which some of the above text is drawn, and “The News from Paris,” a novel (Xlibris). He will sign copies of both books at Brentano’s on Thursday, June 24, 2004 at 7pm