It was the news of the year for global hospitality in 2015. On the day Marriott’s acquisition of Starwood was announced, forming a million-plus-rooms hotel conglomerate, the largest in the world, I happened to be in the land where happiness is a measure of national progress—for the opening of the latest Le Méridien.
Marriott made it amply clear through their official message on the day—a big reason for the acquisition was Starwood’s strength in their clearly demarcated lifestyle brands, of which Le Méridien is arguably a star, if an emerging one. Ever since Starwood had acquired the brand that Air France once started with great ambition, the focus had been to reinforce its French character and blend it with local elements wherever Le Méridiens happened to be.
To this end, the brand, which now has about 200 hotels globally, isn’t about flash—W takes care of that. Nor is it about the no-distractions corporate traveller, for whom Starwood’s largest brand Sheraton has been a faithful companion. Le Méridien is designed to be for the guest who seeks a deeper connection with the destination—a ‘curated approach to culture’, interpreted through many a programme in each individual hotel. This ranges from the unique ‘arrival art’ specific to each hotel to room key cards doubling up as complimentary guest passes (collect them for their superlative designs) to local cultural hotspots to ‘lobby socialising’, a special coffee programme in conjunction with Illy, éclairs with local flavours, even ‘eye openers’ for breakfast and European aperitifs. Starwood is spending billions of dollars in this rebranding exercise, a special element of which are the films made by American fine art photographer Gray Malin, commissioned by the brand.
Malin’s film on the Paro property, only the second to be shot after the one on Barcelona, seeks to capture the hotel and its wondrous setting. The film plays on loop in the lobby, or The Hub, the focal point of this resort. I missed it entirely. For the first view, once past the rather imposing entrance, is of the valley just outside. Visible through a number of traditional wood-framed windows is a canvas that, however clichéd it sounds, is a sight for sore eyes.
There’s a silver ribbon, lightly tinkling through rocks and sand. Locals call it Paro Chu, or simply ‘river’. Just beyond are lush, terraced rice fields, dotted with the oh-so-picturesque traditional houses. I am told that the ones with more brightly coloured walls, such as those in pale pink or light peach, have been apparently asked by the administration to rethink their colour, for it does not conform to the national ideals of blending in and humility. Or something like that. Well, no one told the most azure of skies above or the almost fluorescent grass blades below to dial it down as their glistening hues deflect the sun’s rays. Clumps of willowy trees lend texture. All of this is framed by the backdrop of the majestic Himalayas rising in layers—with an occasional glistening white chorten, or stupa.
That’s the view from every room in this 59- key resort, conveniently located just four kilometres from the only international airport in the country—and your entry point. Once I had my fill of the view for a bit, a look around the room—this one in the Deluxe category— changed my smile from one of wondering pleasure to one of contentment. Spacious, done up in warm earth tones, it had all the elements that a luxury hotel room would be expected to spoil you with: from a bed topped with 250-thread-count sheets to thoughtful twin basins in the bath and soft bathrobes and duvets. A well-stocked fruit tray sat beside the Kuensel—Bhutan’s leading newspaper—next to a couch looking to, well, the View. If you do want to remember the unhappy world further away, there’s a 40” TV, a lot of plug points for your gadgetry and high-speed internet. Every room has a representation of one of Bhutan’s eight auspicious symbols. What’s not there is an air conditioner—it’s too cold for one, though there is a grand ceiling fan, just in case.
Given that almost everything has to be imported, the resort is well stocked. From lavish breakfast buffets at Latest Recipe, the all-day diner, to the decently stocked bar at Latitude 27°23’, a lot is owed to regular transportation, I learn! The pan-Asian restaurant Bamboo Chic is open for dinner, while the afternoon éclairs—apple and betel leaf flavoured—are unique to the location. The Eye Opener flavours, in case you wondered, are Apple–Coffee and Virgin Mary!
The hotel is well geared for meetings and banqueting, and indeed weddings, for which there is a special venue at the top level. An indoor pool, expected to open soon, and the spa enhance the relaxation options. The glass-walled gym is not huge, but given that it overlooks the river from the closest point in the hotel, is a sought after spot.
What really captures the hotel’s soul is its abundant art. From the very architecture of the building, in the shape of a slight arc, to its bright white façade, there is a grandeur seen usually in a more luxurious level of lodging. The wooden windows are in local style, though their unpainted veneer is in contrast with the more florid dragon and floral themes found almost everywhere. A lawn facing the riverfront has a largish white stupa, within which I’m told are 11,000 little chortens handmade by the owners!
This isn’t the first or the grandest hotel in Paro—look up the more boutique Amankora or Uma for that. Instead Le Meridien brings to Paro a greater accessibility, a global brand and affordable and entirely satiating luxury. Its unmatched location—close to ancient monasteries and fortresses and the ‘high street’, really the only street in Paro, an hour from capital Thimphu—make it an ideal place for the guest who wants to maximise time in this ‘land of happiness’. If you still need convincing, do go see Malin’s film.
Location: Le Méridien Paro, Riverfront, P.O. Box 1265, Shaba, Paro, Bhutan; 4km/10 minutes from the airport.
Accommodation: 24 Classic rooms, 24 Deluxe rooms, 4 Grand Deluxe rooms, 6 Corner suites, 1 Royal Suite
Tariff: $500 (Classic rooms), $550 (Deluxe rooms), $630 (Grand Deluxe), $710 (Corner Suite); breakfast included, taxes extra
Contact: +975-8-270300, starwoodhotels.com/lemeridien