- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

An American in Paris? Unfortunately for the French, not as many as there once were. “Our American clientele has been No. 1 in percentile — 50 percent and a little higher, but that number has dropped to under 40 percent,” says Catherine Martel, public relations director of the historic Four Seasons George V in Paris, which, minus the Yanks, is still running at 90 percent occupancy, better than any other Four Seasons hotel.

“We’re lucky,” she says. “A very nice hotel next door to the American Embassy has only 28 percent occupancy.”

One certainly could attribute this to the current U.S.-Franco political climate, which is still smarting over Iraq, but the exchange rate isn’t helping the French attract Americans, either. A strong euro — up 25 percent over the past year against a weaker dollar — is currently trading at about $1.15.

Add to the expensive bottles of bubbly a concern over terrorism, the recent transit strikes in Paris (our taxi ride from Charles de Gaulle International Airport to the George V off the Champs-Elysees took 2 hours instead of 40 minutes) and overblown fears of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), and it’s no wonder George V hasn’t raised the prices at this Parisian palace hotel since last year.

“We have some amazingly good packages right now,” Miss Martel says, including A Long Weekend in Paris. The bed-and-breakfast-rate package includes three nights (arriving on a Thursday night) and offers superior, deluxe or suite accommodations with all the amenities of this landmark hotel, including:

A bottle of champagne upon arrival; a generous daily American (really French) breakfast; a complimentary Friday-morning or Friday-afternoon massage or facial (My daughter Kerry recommends the George V vitamin A facial); three days of museum and monument passes; a wonderful afternoon tea for two at La Galerie; and an unheard-of late checkout, at 4 p.m. Sunday.

That was more than enough time, we discovered, to shop for dresses in the heart of the most fashionable quarter of Paris, climb the Eiffel Tower, stroll beneath the Arc de Triumph and float down the River Seine past Notre Dame, all within blocks of the legendary 245-room hotel.

Better yet, pick out a table at any of dozens of charming outdoor bistros fronting Avenue George V and nearby Avenue des Champs Elysees, order a glass of red wine, and watch the French pass by.

Even without so many Americans, the Four Seasons George V has cause to celebrate this year. For the first time in Paris, a hotel restaurant has reached the “stars,” as Miss Martel puts it. Under the culinary mastery of executive chef Philippe Legendre and his team of 70 cooks, Le Cinq Restaurant, with its 40,000-bottle wine cellar, claimed its first, then second, and now its third Michelin star — or Macarons — in barely three years. Such was the reputation of Mr. Legendre that one star was awarded two months after Le Cinq opened.

A past winner of the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France award, Mr. Legendre is known for reinventing dishes such as lobster “smoked in its shell and roasted,” or grilled rib of beef. He orchestrates a new menu with each season.

That is not as often, of course, as the hotel’s floral designer, Jeff Leatham, changes the flower arrangements. A former runway model in Paris who grew up in Ogden, Utah, the world-renowned Mr. Leatham had no formal floral training but attributes his inspiration to his father, a landscape artist.

“Flowers bring out the passion in people,” he says. “They exude energy, color and light, and they can lift us above the brouhaha of everyday life.” That is why Parisians literally walk in off the avenue to view Mr. Leatham’s latest creative display. He designs a new theme each week but refreshes and sculptures his arrangements on a daily — and even hourly — basis.

All told, the designer and his team of seven assistants unveil 23 major arrangements in the spacious lobby and adjacent public areas, in addition to 150 smaller bouquets throughout the property, including rooms. This requires up to 17,000 blooms purchased each week from the Netherlands.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower wouldn’t recognize the place. In August 1944, the George V was his headquarters during the liberation of Paris. Later, as president, he returned to pay homage to the hotel that had sheltered him through those perilous times. Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon — and, more recently, Bill Clinton — made the hotel their Paris base, and they wouldn’t recognize the property, either.

In late 1997, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts signed a long-term management agreement with George V owner Prince Waleed Bin Talal of Saudi Arabia. The hotel was closed for the two-year, $125 million renovation of the property and formally reopened in March 2000 with its original elegance, complemented by lavish 21st-century amenities.

Also new for this year, the George V has teamed up with Le Cordon Bleu, Paris’ legendary academy of culinary arts since 1895, to offer five-day cooking-class packages. Daylong courses, offered twice monthly in July, September and October, will consist of demonstrations and practical classes, ranging from buying fresh market products, pairing food and wine, and patisserie demonstrations — savory and sweet.

At the end of the week, participants (class size is kept to a maximum of 10) will receive a certificate of participation from the best-known cooking school in Paris.

Cooking-class packages include a king deluxe room for five nights, daily breakfast (lunch is provided and no doubt prepared by Cordon Bleu — or perhaps you), spa certificate, transfers to and from the cooking school and bakery, and all classes. A woman and a boy walk around Walden Pond in Concord, Mass. It was to this peaceful New England lake that a remarkable individual came to live alone, clearing a spot for a one-room cabinSo, Washington, what are you waiting for?

Leave your political stresses at the George V door, retreat to a massage table, and let the spa’s skilled therapists rub your grudges away. “It will be nice,” Miss Martel says, “when we get the American clientele back.”

• • •

Superior accommodations for A Long Weekend in Paris (Thursday arrival only) vary with the exchange rate but are set per couple at 1,950 euros through this month, dropping to 1,800 euros in August — expect to pay these numbers in dollars plus 15 percent more. Lower rates are available for singles.

Additional packages for this year include A Taste of Paris, with a single room at 645 euros the first night, 620 euros an additional night.

Noces, the Ultimate Romance in Paris, offers deluxe rooms at 880 euros the first night and 780 euros additional nights. Dates for the Cordon Bleu classes are July 15 through 19 and 21 through 25, Sept. 15 through 19 and 22 through 26, and Oct. 13 through 17 and 20 through 24. Cooking school and hotel package price for one participant is 5,270 euros, or 7,640 euros for two participants sharing one room. The price for two persons sharing one room with only one participant in the cooking class is 5,420 euros. The Four Seasons George V reservations service on the Internet — www.fourseasons.com/paris/vacations/rates_and_packages.html — offers a currency converter to determine the euro prices in dollars, or phone 33-1-49-52-71-00.

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