Plaza Athenee, Paris

The Hôtel Plaza Athénée in Paris leads a 24-hour-a-day life of its own, like a grand luxury liner that just happens to be moored in the middle of Avenue Montaigne, its jaunty red window awnings aloft in a sea of couture houses, high-carat jewelers and nineteenth-century mansions.

Service begins with breakfast at 7:00 a.m. in the Regence and runs right through into late lunch, when fashion designers and their rich-and-thin clients fill the tables with hot gossip over cold salmon and salad. By 5:00 p.m., the columned alcoves of the glittering Les Gobelins are full to overflowing, quietly clattering with the service of high tea and pastries, a piano tinkling softly in the background. (There's tea in the Relais Plaza, too, accompanied by a harp.) By 7:00 p.m., tea has given way to predinner cocktails and coupés de Champagne. And late into the night and early-morning hours, French show-business stars encounter their visiting Hollywood counterparts in the English Bar downstairs, where musicians, singers and occasional impromptu performances by well-known guests turn the clubby, mahogany-paneled room into the "backstage Plaza."

Since its opening in 1911, in the full flower of the Belle Epoque, the Plaza Athénée has been the most glamorous of Parisian palatial hotels, acquiring a famous clientele including Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, Charles Lindbergh and Josephine Baker, Marlene, Ava and Liz. Heiress Barbara Hutton used to arrive with her own satin sheets. Today's roster might list Harrison Ford or Jack Nicholson, Michael Jackson or the king and queen of Spain.

All 211 rooms and suites in the hotel face either onto the chic bustle of the Avenue Montaigne or onto the spectacular, ivy-walled courtyard, with its window boxes dripping with red geraniums. The rooms are all done in soft colors of cream, pale yellow, peach or apricot, with satin or silk damask and lots of gilded moldings; furnishings run the course of eighteenth-century elaborate, from Louis XIV to Empire. Femme fatale and notorious spy Mata Hari preferred Suite 120-121, with its exquisite carved-oak-paneled sitting room, gold-satin-and-peach-brocade bedroom and Louis XV rosewood furniture. Gina Lollabrigida's favorite is a junior suite in pale yellow and powder blue. Presidential Suite 309-310 is immense, all gold and white, with crystal chandeliers and red velvet sofa and chairs. Standard doubles are usually quite spacious, if a bit more simply furnished. Sixth-floor rooms and suites facing the avenue have balcony terraces overlooking the Seine and the Eiffel Tower--a truly magical sight at night.

Television sets and other audiovisual equipment are hidden in damask-covered round tables and will rise up for use at the simple push of a button. All of the hotel's bathrooms have been modernized and done in marble; almost all have separate stall showers and all have the requisite amenities including hair dryers, magnifying mirrors, heated towel racks and baskets full of assorted toiletries.

The Regence restaurant--a Michelin one-star--is a grand hotel dining room from the good old days, aglow with candlelight and crystal, with oak paneling around a marble fireplace, chairs and banquettes upholstered in rose velvet and towering bouquets of flowers. In fine weather, the restaurant moves into the courtyard--tables under red umbrellas for lunch, candlelight at night. Chef Gerard Sallè keeps his menu simple and classic, with luxury ingredients to the fore: caviar, Norwegian smoked salmon, langoustine ravioli in tarragon bisque, lobster salad, scallops in coriander broth, lobster soufflé, roast lamb with oregano and celery purée, filet mignon with Chinon wine, parsleyed marrow and profiteroles with pistachio ice cream. The extensive (and expensive) wine list is complemented by a selection of very old Cognacs, Armagnacs and other elixirs, and the humidor is stocked with eight brands including Romeo y Julieta Churchill ($27), Cohiba ($26) and Davidoff No. 2 ($20). (Among the Plaza's regular cigar smokers: French actor Alain Delon and Geneviève Dalle, wife of L'Oreal President François Dalle.)

One of the Plaza Athénée's few drawbacks is the lack of a pool or exercise facilities, but the hotel has an arrangement with the Ken Club, a health club on the Avenue de President Kennedy, about a 10-minute drive from the hotel, with transportation provided.

With all its round-the-clock activity, the Plaza Athénée usually gets top marks for service from its guests, and for a very good reason: in a profit-sharing scheme unique to Paris hotels, the hotel's staff receives a percentage of the operating profits each trimester. From the busboy to the head concierge, everyone has a direct financial interest in keeping the clientele happy and the guest register full.

-- Judy Fayard is a writer who makes her home in Paris.

Hôtel Plaza Athénée
25 Avenue Montaigne
Phone: 33 (1) 47 23 78 33
Room rates: about $434 to $594; suites $896 to $1,853