It felt a bit surreal, climbing out of my car amid gracious bonjour madames at the entrance of Le Bristol in Paris. I paused and felt my shoulders relax. Months of planning had gone into this moment: U.S. citizens still aren’t able to travel to European Union countries, but those with exempting circumstances, such as students and dual citizens, can still visit – albeit with a hefty pile of paperwork in hand. (Reason number 47 you need a Virtuoso travel advisor.) Because I was born in France and have a European passport (in addition to my U.S. passport), I was able to visit just two weeks ago. I traveled to the country for a family wedding and to see cousins, aunts, uncles – and a niece! – for the first time in two years.
Covid-19 has taken a toll on the travel industry, but companies have seized the opportunity to establish new health and safety protocols, and, in some cases, use months-long pauses to finish prolonged projects.
On September 1, the 190-room Le Bristol, part of the Oetker Collection, reopened to guests with a renovated, gorgeous garden, Le Jardin Francais. The debut is a beautiful example of finding rays of sunshine – literally – amid an otherwise gloomy year. Coveted accommodations such as the Lumière and Paris suites in the hotel also sport freshened looks with new bedding (by Italian linen specialist Quagliotti), brass furnishings, and an airy palette of blue-grey, beige, and ochre.
Here’s an inside look at Paris’ newest garden destination:
A Royal Design
Past the hotel’s Café Antonia, where a portrait of Marie-Antoinette holds court over guests taking afternoon tea, and down a tiled hallway that was once part of a Catholic convent, the 13,000-square-feet Jardin Francais opens up to a quiet stillness. This pocket-sized secret is just a ten-minute drive from the Arc de Triomphe.
Interior designer and Oetker family member Countess Bergit Douglas, who also curated the hotel’s art collection, collaborated with MM Design and landscape architect Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd to design the new space. (Flora enthusiasts, take note: Lennox-Boyd is a six-time gold-medal winner of the Chelsea Flower Show.)
Think of the verdant symmetry of the Palace of Versailles grounds, with an organic bent. Hornbeam trees and dark green hedges give structure and privacy to the main dining area, while smaller round tables line the periphery, perfect for an evening apéro and people-watching. (My first night there, as I enjoyed a glass of Sancerre, a team of discrete waiters murmured quietly to the man at the neighboring table, “Bienvenue, Prince.”)
A team of horticulturists nurture the garden with 100-percent plant-based and biodegradable products, and the diverse collection of local flowers – magnolias, dahlias, forget-me-nots – are coordinated to bloom at different times throughout the year. “We also have five beehives on the roof of the hotel,” head of guest relations Jean-Marie Burlet says. “The flowers and shrubs were planted so the bees will feast.” (The beehives produce more than 400 pounds of honey each year – you’ll want it for the breakfast muesli, which I happily enjoyed via room service.)
Stunner Suite Views
Early one morning, I looked down at the garden from my Deluxe Suite window, and for a heart-stopping moment, watched as a pheasant alighted in a tree – until common sense told me it must be an in-the-know, gargantuan Parisian pigeon.
“One of my favorite spots to experience the Jardin Francais is from the first- or second-floor suites, where you can enjoy the views, the sunlight, and the birds,” hotel managing director Luca Allegri says. “Lady Arabella has made the garden a lot brighter than before.” The hotel faces south, which means maximum happy-hour sunshine.
Dining Under the Stars (Michelin Stars, That Is)
Some well-heeled gourmands travel to Le Bristol exclusively to eat a meal (or two) at Epicure, a hallowed French restaurant led by chef Éric Frechon, and home to an award-winning wine cellar. (Really. It’s a Grand Award winner from Wine Spectator, which is the highest recognition they offer.) With doors opening to the garden, that dining experience now extends to the Jardin Francais.
“The fact that you have so much nature and natural light surrounding you, whether you’re inside Epicure or eating outside on the terrace, defies words,” Burlet says. “No one else in Paris can offer this. And the garden will continue to grow as the seasons change.”
Who else gets giddy at the thought of a secret garden? Here’s where to go: “There’s a cloistered spot behind Epicure – you’ll know you’re there when you see the antique urn,” Burlet says. Occasionally the hotel cat, Fa-raon (“pharaoh” in English), graces the Jardin with his presence, and this is his favorite spot. We’re right there with you, Fa-raon.
Virtuoso travelers receive breakfast daily and a $100 spa credit.