Membership may have its privileges, but at Saint James Paris, a Relais and Chateaux property, anyone who books a stay may enjoy the premises. Club members, however, may enjoy the benefits of the mansion’s library/lounge, Michelin-star restaurant and whimsical French garden patio — whether or not a guest room is booked.
For over a century, this once private mansion catered to the brilliant scholars of famous Parisian universities as a residence through the Thiers Foundation, funded by the widow of former French President Adolphe Thiers in tribute to her husband. In 1986, the presidential palace closed its doors until 1992, when the transformation of the four-star Saint James Paris opened its doors to embrace elements of the past and present through the creativity of U.K. designer, Bambi Sloan.
Saint James Paris is the only chateau-hotel in proper Paris, sited on a corner within the heart of the 16th arrondissement near avenues Foch and Victor Hugo in a residential area with easy Metro access. The grandeur begins upon entering under the iron arch leading to French gardens, past a sun-room, stone fountain and into the mansion’s over-sized doors.
The site of this chateau is where the first hot-air balloons took off from Paris. A nod to this historic fact lends itself to design elements throughout, including wallpapering images of monkeys riding hot-air balloons. The red carpeted staircase is where brides are photographed — just past the faux zebra heads mounted over the fireplace mantle in the main lounge.
The interior’s décor within the lounge is a collection from travels and refurbished finds of Paris’ Les Puces flea market. Hanging from the ceiling is an oversized toppling structure of crystal chandelier chaos, which adds to the interesting literary marble columns, panther velvet covered chairs, red velvet carpet and sofas.
The galley-shaped library bar to the left of the lounge is carpeted in panther print and telltale of its scholarly past via the two floors of shelves filled with books from the hotel’s boarding house days. A narrow circular staircase made of iron leads to the top shelf. Within its hunting lodge ambiance, ram’s horn sconces add light to the authentic chateau style. The added attraction is the bar at the far end, where you can grab a cocktail and relax at a cozy table or hold a meeting.
Adorned with palatial-inspired paintings and Napoleon III decor, the dining room off the lounge and library is open to the public for dinners and Sunday brunch. Guests and club members may enjoy this quiet side of Paris during breakfast, lunch or a Michelin-star dinner inside or outside in the most notable garden area and cocktail spot. Astro Turf lays the foundation for toile cushions on scrolled-iron tables and chairs with grapevine motifs.
Lining the perimeter are three life-size hot air balloons made of varying fabric panels — the middle balloon is where the basket is a makeshift bar. Specialty cocktails are named after famous writers such as Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and French writer Marguerite Duras, the latter a mix of homemade limoncello, rosé wine, basil, cucumber, sugar and homemade chamomile bitters.
The red carpeted stairs off the lounge lead to a second floor of passageways where sconces and a chandelier follow the same pattern of the hot air balloon wallpaper. When the English red lacquered doors open, the theme changes: One room is papered in music sheets of black and white, another with the roofs of Paris. French amenities help seal the deal with Guerlain grooming products and Mathilde M. soaps in every room.
The third floor is themed as a winter garden and brings to life the dream of Paris with skylights, vanity tables and splashes of red accessories. Eye-catching details include an oversized porthole window, great closet space, leopard carpeting and even a grand piano in one room. There are 22 connecting rooms to enlarge the suites, one with a large sitting room between two suites, and townhouse options for those who prefer two floors. One room is named the Last Queen of Scotland and its walls are draped in faux animal skins and red accents refurbished from flea market finds. Another room is named The Scent of Madeleine and is designed in walls of turquoise, curtains of silk and accents of black.
A room suited for male clientele has a wall lined with shirt cotton, faux parquet carpeting and the bed inspired by Italy; one room is designed in teal and taupe French bed covers and headboard.
Bicycles are parked outside and available for guests to enjoy. If the preference is to workout inside, there is a spacious gym on the basement floor. Additionally, a massage area is located down a winding Parisian staircase that leads to the lower level of the mansion where Spa by Gemology offers massages with Guerlain products.
Many guests at Saint James Paris book a room for a few days but end up staying for the week because they don’t want to leave. After all, you are a guest in a chateau, where you feel at home.
Note: This review was originally published in Forbes Travel Guide.