Cigar Aficionado

Hotel Vernet, Paris, France

A boutique hotel, or hôtel de charme as the French say, the Hôtel Vernet looks like a fine private town house. Less than a block from the Place de l'Etoile and Arc de Triomphe as well as the Avenue des Champs Elysées, the narrow rue Vernet is nonetheless tranquil at all hours. With its limestone walls, bright red awnings and black ironwork balconies, the facade of the 1913 building looks as pretty as an Impressionist painting.

Once inside, you feel as if you've crossed the threshold to an easier, more elegant era. The lobby's tasteful Louis XVI decor, landscape paintings and wall mirrors, bouquets of orchids, marble floors with Oriental carpets, and scattered easy chairs make for a pleasant salon in which to sit and read a paper, dash off a note or meet a friend. Many guests call this their home when in Paris. The small staff, who are happy to speak English for those whose French doesn't get past "bonjour," quickly learn guests' names--and their whims. If there are special cigars you want, the concierge will get them for you, and if the staff knows you, they will have the cigars awaiting your arrival. Have the staff fax you a copy of their thoughtful weekly selection of events, auctions and exhibitions in town before you arrive. Let them know if you'll need any hard-to-find tickets and they'll get them for you.

Through a passage to one side of the lobby is a cozy English-style bar with a superb selection of whiskeys and Cognacs. The Salon Bleu, across the lobby, is a handsomely decorated room with mirrors and marble paneling, a fireplace that is kept stoked, easy chairs and couches. It's a lovely place to retire to in the evenings, puff on a cigar and listen to the pianist just beyond the tall arched doorways in the lobby. The room is large enough to accommodate small conferences and is available for private functions or the most romantic dinner you've ever had.

The food will come from the renowned Michelin two-star restaurant on the other side of the lobby, L'Elysées. The superb Mediterranean cuisine created by the young chef Alain Soliveres is served in a luminous room under a vaulted, leaded-glass ceiling designed by the workshop of Gustave Eiffel, architect of the epinonymous tower. If you're feeling well-heeled and in shape for a three-hour-plus meal, it's very much worth making reserva-tions at least a week in advance to be sure to get one of the 35 tables available for dinner, which is only served Monday through Friday. The restaurant is also a popular lunchtime retreat for local business people.

The hotel has only 57 guest rooms, three of which are small suites and all of which are tastefully decorated, with tall windows, air conditioning (not a given even in some of the finest Parisian hotels) and marble-tiled bathrooms with Jacuzzis. You'll find a basket of apples in the hall and more fresh fruit in your room, bathrobes in the bathrooms, and bars in the suites. All the rooms above the second floor have small balconies. From the uppermost floors, you can spy the top of the Arc de Triomphe.

The coziness, beautiful decor, pleasant rooms and accommodating staff make the Vernet a favorite among the few who know of its existence. Around the corner from many of Paris's most famous fashion houses and boutiques, the hotel served as home earlier in the decade to Ines de la Fressange, the supermodel and muse of the House of Chanel. Now, the Vernet counts among regular guests, tennis players during the French Open and several internationally known pop singers who enjoy the discretion of the staff, the hotel's remove from the hurly-burly of the grand hotels and the centrality of its location.

The Vernet was purchased in 1989 by the Groupe Royal Monceau, a small chain of fine hotels, and has been completely renovated. Guests at the Vernet have access to the health club and beauty center at the Hôtel Royal Monceau, about three blocks away. A stay at the Vernet is not cheap, but it holds its own against perhaps more grandiose but often less pleasant hotels. I'll take coziness and charm at the end of a long day in Paris anytime.--Marc Wortman

Marc Wortman is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Connecticut.

25 rue Vernet Phone 33-01-44-31-98-00 Fax 33-01-44-31-85-69 E-mail hotelvernet\ Rooms (all rates approximated from French francs) single, $325; double, $360; deluxe, $425; junior suite, $700