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Thursday, December 20, 2007

Holiday Travel - Best of Paris

PARLEZ vous francais? Non?

Well, if you don’t speak French, you’re not familiar with Paris and you don’t have anyone to show you around, despair not.

If your goal is to explore what this fashion capital – with its 17,500 boutiques, six department stores, variety of markets – has to offer but don’t know where to start, call shopping specialist UUU.

With its tagline “Ultimate luxury service for U and only U”, the company offers a range of services guaranteed to take the stress out of shopping and open the doors to top end boutiques, fashion shows and unusual finds.

The animated window display at Galeries Lafayette.

“Everyone wants to come to Paris to shop but language is often a problem and the French are rather arrogant and not helpful with tourists. So this is where we come in.

“We want to offer the best tips for the best places ? to make everything possible for the tourist,” said UUU Fashion:ID general manager Zachary Chanou.

At 500 Euros (RM2,500) for a half day service or 800 Euros (RM4,000) for a full day, the UUU’s concierge will take you and your group on a personalised tour of the world of fashion, beauty and design; get you special discounts, book the best table at a famous restaurant, or hire you a limousine with a driver to get to the opera ? the list is endless.

True to its word, UUU provided a small group of us Asian journalists a taste of its impeccable services.

We were met at our hotel by Chanou who took us on a 10-minute walk to the famed La Duree Royale for brunch. We sampled La Duree’s celebrated macaroons that came in as many pretty colours as there were tempting flavours (rose, liquorice, orange blossom, to name a few).

Thoroughly scrumptious too was the brunch offer of pastries and sandwiches while the hot duck foie gras served with crystallised dates was simply divine.

It’s hard not to feel that you’re really in Paris when you’re in a tea salon that was established in 1862 and decorated with wainscoting and frescos depicting angelic pastry chefs and voluptuous ladies.

La Duree’s delicious macaroon window display.

Since it’s the perfect place for tea and is very popular, it would be best to make a reservation to avoid disappointment. (La Duree has two other outlets in Paris and one in Japan.)

The long queue for takeaway macaroons on the ground floor and the gorgeous purple themed macaroon window display are part of the lasting memories of La Duree.

After satisfying the palette, it was time to pamper the body.

A visit to Espace Caudalie at Hotel Meurice revealed just how many ways one could rest, relax and restore the body, mind and soul with the “beauty of the vine”.

The Spa Caudalie offers the popular and unique vinotherapie treatment incorporating the anti-oxidant power of grape and grapevine polyphenols in Caudalie products. The best part is that you don’t have to travel to its vineyard in Bordeaux to indulge in this spa.

From the hotel, we were driven to Appartement 217, a well-being beauty salon that “cares for the body and the mind”.

While its range of treatments were impressive (from anti-ageing treatment with oxygen to Japanese ceramic steam dome for detoxification), what was even more captivating was its ambience.

Far from the madding crowd, it is set up in a huge apartment in an old but upmarket residential block. Each of the rooms for the different treatments is beautifully designed with lovely touches and scented candles to make one forget the cares of the world. The feng shui master, who dictated the colours of the walls, certainly got the formula right.

Galeries Lafayette

All that bodywork prepped us up for shopping the next day at Paris’ second most visited attraction after the Louvre (where we traded consumerism for culture for two short hours).

Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann, a 68,000sq m store, is a must visit even for the non-shopper, especially at Christmas.

For the shopper, it is sheer paradise, what more with a 12% tax refund for non-European Union visitors and 72 days of sales a year. (Sales in Paris begin on the first Wednesday of January and the last Wednesday of June.)

And the biggest group of non-EU visitors must be from China, judging by the Mandarin speaking queue that stretched across the Louis Vuitton boutique at Galeries. Their fervour for all things LV was palpable and only the firm and authoritative voice of the sales staff kept order in the room. The beeline to the boutique is understandable as LV goods are said to be 20% cheaper in Paris and the selection wider.

All the designer labels you want and more can be found at Galeries Lafayette. – Photo courtesy of Galeries Lafayette

“Most of the Chinese come here with their savings and spend it all during their once-in-a-lifetime trip,” said Linda Ho Cappelle, a Shanghainese who married a Frenchman and now lives in Paris. She speaks fluent French, English and well as several Chinese dialects.

The Asian client relations manager shared that the international zone was set up at Galeries years ago to host the Japanese, Koreans and lately the Chinese. With translators, special welcome service at entrances, and instant tax refund counters, the international department has become an important segment as foreigners make up 30% of Galeries’ clientele.

Sadly, there is no discount rack at Galeries as everything in the store is current season.

(Check out La Vallee Village designer shopping outlet, just 35 minutes by train from Paris, for previous season’s stock at 33% to 60% discount;

It is certainly lovely to walk through the store and see, touch and feel all the brands that you glimpse on Net-a-porter.

But not all that is worth appreciating is in the store – the window displays during Christmas are a must-see too. The highly creative animated window displays with last Christmas’ snow theme kept the young and old captivated.

My personal favourite was at Printemps: a group of cuddly little white bears frolicking in the snow, one clutching a warmer to his belly and another stuck in an ice cube quivering.

If you’re looking for quivers of excitement – be it from the fabulous shopping, invigorating spas, haute cuisine or just a latte at a cafĂ© – look no further than gay Paris.

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