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Paris Ritz regulars bid au revoir to 'Old Lady'

travel Updated: Aug 02, 2012 15:44 IST

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Well-heeled regulars at the Paris Ritz bid au revoir to a dear "Old Lady" on Wednesday as the historic luxury hotel shut for a two-year facelift aimed at matching tough new competition from Asia.

"It's so sad. We've been coming for 20 years," said a bleary-eyed tourist from Hong Kong who gave only her first name, Ray-Heather.

Dressed in an Asian-inspired suit of yellow silk, the elegant blonde in her sixties lingered on in the lobby, embracing the hotel staff, before heading out on to the Place Vendome, beating heart of the Paris luxury quarter.

"The plumbing, electricity -- there's things like that that had to be done," she told AFP. "But as far as the rest of it is concerned, that's the Ritz. It's historical and it's home."

The hotel of choice of Charlie Chaplin, Coco Chanel and Ernest Hemingway, the Ritz is also infamous as the place where Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed dined before their fatal car crash in 1997.

But Paris' best-known luxury hotel has not had a refit since 1979, when it was revamped by its new owner, Al Fayed's tycoon father Mohamed, and even its biggest fans admit it was starting to show its age.

"The Ritz is an Old Lady and as such sometimes needs some tender attention," said Marc Hubert D'je, a Frenchman based in the United States.

"But the structure is sound so I don't think it will really change with the renovations."

Two new state-of-the-art Asian luxury hotels, the Shangri-La and the Mandarin Oriental, opened in the French capital in 2010, raising the stakes for historic players like the Ritz.

Founded in 1898 by Cesar Ritz and the chef Auguste Escoffier, the hotel is home to L'Espadon restaurant, holder of two Michelin stars, and the Ritz-Escoffier cooking school.

The two-year 140-million-euro (170-million-dollar) refurbishment comes after the Ritz failed to win France's coveted "palace" designation marking a top luxury destination.

Improvements will include a garden restaurant and new high-tech features for its 160 rooms, but the Ritz insists they will be redecorated in the same style and colours: pink, almond green, yellow and sky blue.

So hopes Japanese tourist Tamotsu Akiyama, who flew in specially from Tokyo with his wife to bid the Ritz goodbye.

"We really like the present Ritz. Old, old-fashioned," he told AFP.

The hotel was virtually booked out Tuesday night, for prices ranging from 850 euros to 10,000 euros for the Coco Chanel suite, with a special closing night menu featuring foie gras, blue lobster and the Ritz's signature peach melba.

"It was kind of nice. The piano was playing in the courtyard," said D'je.

"All the staff were sad. You can feel the emotion and that means that the people who work here are satisfied and happy," he said as he joined the last departing guests.

One by one the luggage trolleys filed out of the door, loaded high with luxury travel gear, bound for the taxis and sportscars waiting outside.

"We did want to stay here but they are going to kick us out," quipped Akiyama as his wife twirled a sunshade over one shoulder. "Unfortunately we have to move to the Crillon!"