Over the centuries, its residents have included such diverse types as Voltaire, Charles Baudelaire, Camille Claudel, Georges Pompidou – and more recently, Jodie Foster. It's also where Queen Elizabeth II used to stay on visits to Paris, in the old Hotel de Lauzun.
In 2004, eccentric local songstress Brigitte Fontaine named her CD Rue Saint Louis En L'ile after it – while the tiny Ile Saint Louis again made headlines in 2007 after the brother of the Emir of Qatar, Abdallah Ben Abdallah-Al-Thani, bought arguably the most important historic private mansion on the Ile, the Hotel Lambert, built between 1640-44, from Baron Guy de Rothschild for around €82 million.
"The Ile is pretty much loved by everyone," says Guest Apartment Service's co-manager Philippe Pee , who helps his partner in business and life, Christophe Chastel , manage their 55 private apartments located on or nearby Ile Saint Louis. "If you can't decide on Left or Right Bank, stay in the middle," says Pee. "We're no more than a 20-minute walk to virtually every Paris landmark, including the Louvre."
It makes sense to me. Besides, there's nothing like flouncing around the city of light with your own set of keys, the ultimate living it local accessory. A jangling metal key ring hanging casually from your pinkie finger will ooze Parisian flair as you dash out to restock on coffee, baguette and cheese – in trench coat and ballet flats, of course.
When it to comes to apartments in Paris, travellers are spoilt for choice at every price point. Thanks to long standing operators like Air BnB, Paris for Rent and Vacation Rentals by Owners (VRBO), serviced apartment options – from marbled luxury to shabby bedsits – remain hotter than the Mona Lisa. Indeed, for small hotelier and apartment operators in Paris, the problem can be finding a market niche in this space. They've all been carved out.
For Chastel, his point of difference was ready made when he established Guest Apartment Services almost two decades ago. It all started when Chastel lost his job in real estate during the financial crunch of the early 1990s, explains Pee, his eye colour perfectly matched to his khaki brown Lacoste polo shirt. "Christophe lost his job – but he didn't want to lose his beautiful apartment on Ile Saint Louis, so he began renting out his spare room as a B&B to friends and friends of friends. Word spread fast."
Chastel was also blessed with a good contact book, plus knowledge of the value and ownership of the buildings in this history-rich area. Unable to keep up with demand with only one room to rent, he began speaking to absentee landlords of pied-a-terres and apartments in neighbouring 17th and 18th Century buildings.
By 1997, Guest Apartment Services officially opened its doors. Today, more than 90 per cent of the properties Chastel and Pee manage are located on Ile Saint Louis, plus around the Notre Dame and Le Marais areas. The apartments start at €180 a night, rising to €890.
Up in Normandy, there's also the grand five-bedroom Norman manor house, Le Manoir des Labbes, set on 4.2 acres about 40 kilometres from the town of Rouen and 20 minutes' drive from the coastline of the famous Normandy Beaches. At €550 a night, it will sleep about 10 of your best friends – but has a minimum seven-night stay booking requirement.
Chastel and Pee bought the then rundown 1826-built Normandy house in 2001. Like almost all the properties on their books, the house has been fully renovated – and is filled with Chastel's collected antiques, a passion he began indulging at age 16; he's now 53. Sitting in his office, flicking through images of the handsome manor house, Chastel points to the floors: "You have the cabochon detailing – very French, very traditional – on the marble floor," he says, then turning to a shot of the bathroom: "and in here, you have the multi jet shower – very today.
"When you're tired of Paris, drive up here, and shut the world out."
Early and still loyal fans of Guest Apartment Services include a who's who of the cultural community, from American opera singer and soprano, Renee Fleming to Australian cook, author and restaurateur, Stephanie Alexander, Greek-born Australian chef Janni Kyritsis, plus the Australian founder and former owner of World Expeditions, Christine Courtenay, writer Bryce Courtenay's widow. American and Australian ambassadors, diplomats, models and fashion designers are also among the diverse group of devotees. "Most of our guests have been staying with us for years now," says Pee. "And they keep spreading the word."
It's a pertinent time to be spreading the word given what Paris has been through over the past few years, including the horrific terrorist attacks on the evening of November 13, 2015 that resulted in 130 deaths. "Parisians are resilient, passionate and determined," Pee says. "Our lives will not change (as you might guess!) But there have of course been challenges and sensitivities, which has meant we've all had to work even harder. We're so grateful that Australian travellers have proven to be loyal and quite resilient."
I stay in Christine Courtenay's favourite apartment, Acacia, a deluxe fully renovated natural-light filled suite in a 17th century building on Ile Saint Louis, overlooking the Seine and the back of Notre Dame Cathedral. With its ceiling-high windows, decadent linen on the Queen-sized bed, decorative Louis XVI-style sofa and chairs, 19th century engravings and elegant candles, it's hard to know whether you're enjoying the view out or inside the most. When you can't take anymore stylish Parisian vistas, there's a handily hidden state-of-the art Sony flat screen masquerading as a mirror – plus ''all mod cons'' – Siemens appliances, stove and small bar fridge – in the kitchen. "We decided a long time ago we didn't want guests to feel uncomfortable about being in someone else's apartment with their things, so the furniture is mostly ours with no personal effects lying around," explains Pee. "It's like a well-decorated hotel room or apartment – you don't have the sense that you're in 'someone else's place'."
While most of the apartments feature traditional heritage Parisian decor, a few are done in contemporary style, including "Windows on the Seine'' and "Eglantine", which has 360 degree views of the river.
Not five minutes down the road from Acacia, at 17 Rue Saint-Louis, Guest Apartment Services has a small office that doubles as the lobby and welcoming committee. There's also 24-hour help in the form of an emergency/all hours mobile number that's provided to all guests. In each apartment is a local compendium with many recommendations, from the best bars within a two-kilometre radius to the fluffiest soufflés; the creamiest of cheeses to the no-tourists allowed hidden gallery gem. It's like staying with your best friends without having to make chit chat with their kids, nor worry about a gift. "It's very difficult even for us to find properties to rent in these areas now," says Pee. "For example, Acacia is one of only three properties we have in Quai d'Orleans."
One thing not in the compendium, but highly recommended, is Pee's impromptu tours. I catch him on a quiet day in the office with time to spare, and we're soon wandering past the building where Camille Claudel once lived on the smart Quai de Bourbon. "At roughly €20,000 per square metre for real estate along the Seine, this is one of Paris's most expensive addresses," he says, adding that ideally, you want to stay on Quai de Bourbon or Quai d'Orleans. We wander, enjoying the sights – romantic couples entwined on the sidewalk, slow peddling cyclists, zippy vespas, small dogs being dragged behind their well-dressed walkers, and the constant river traffic. Strolling down the Quai d'Anjou, we pass the grand old Hotel de Lauzon, which is now owned by the City of Paris and has been closed to the public since 2011. With large carved gold dolphins bulging from the exterior pipes, this is definitely the most exotic plumbing you'll ever see.
In my line of work, it's not often I enquire as to why a hotel room is so reasonably priced. But at $411, for Paris, Acacia is value for money. Back in his office, Chastel laughs wearily: "I want people to have a good time. We have a 90 per cent occupancy rate almost year around, which helps me keep the prices down. Besides," he shrugs, "nice people bring me nice people. I want my guests to keep coming back and recommend us to their friends."
Guest Apartment Services has a range of apartments and studios available. Most are located on Ile Saint Louis and surrounding areas. Go to: guestapartment.com
MOVIE SCENES SHOT THERE
In the 1963 film Charade, Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant enjoy an ice cream from Berthillion's. You can get one too at 29-31 Rue Saint-Louis en Ile. When Woody Allen shot Midnight in Paris (2011), he used Quai de Bourbon for the scene where the main character, screenwriter Gil Pender (played by Owen Wilson), is picked up by a classic old car to attend a swinging 1920s party where me meets Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Okay, it's not exactly on the island – but you'll love the very nearby Rue de la Bucherie, which features in a host of films – including the spot where Christian Thompson (Simon Baker) steals a kiss from Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) in The Devil Wears Prada (2006).
Fiona Carruthers was a guest of Guest Apartment Services.
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