| Not usually a fan of the French capital, Lucy Kellaway wonders if its first floating hotel - complete with inflatables - will change her mind
ROCK THE BOAT
Around the infinity pool couples sat at orange tables eating a late breakfast in the sun. Legs were long and tanned. A couple of stubble-chinned men moved to the pool’s edge and dangled their feet into the water, beyond which was more water. Electro music played. It might have been Ibiza. But then there was a rumble and a pale green metro train rattled its way over a mighty iron bridge a few yards away. None of the beautiful people raised their heads from their pain au chocolat or crêpes. No one seemed surprised, and well they might not be, as the trains on the M5 line pass that way over the Seine every minute or so. Paris is meant to be the most romantic city on earth - a label that my own multiple experiences of the place have never supported - yet here were all these couples putting up a jolly good show of having a romantic time. The catch was that they were doing so by pretending to be somewhere else. The OFF Paris Seine, which opened a fortnight ago, is the city’s first floating hotel. And at least when the sun shines - as it miraculously did when we were there - you can close your eyes, listen to the water (and the trains), order a mojito and be wherever you like. Even though my daughter and I weren’t attempting romance, I was still perfectly happy to pretend to be spending the weekend elsewhere. Since seeing the city for the first time as a teenager and marvelling at its beauty, I’ve always felt let down by Paris, and sensed it felt let down by me. My French isn’t good enough; I’m not chic enough. I never find anywhere nice to eat. I always end up standing in queues for galleries and then getting so frustrated that I abandon the exercise before reaching the front. Since Eurotunnel opened I’ve liked Paris even less as the splendour of St Pancras is still fresh in my mind as I arrive in the grubby squalor of Gare du Nord. This time I resolved it would be different. No expectations. We would plan nothing and just walk. So we ambled along the pretty Canal Saint-Martin admiring the imaginative municipal planting schemes. We wandered into the Père Lachaise cemetery and paid our respects to Chopin and Oscar Wilde before heading towards the river. Off is housed in a large floating barge covered in slatted horizontal strips of wood, in a slightly unprepossessing position between the Gare de Lyon and Gare d’Austerlitz. Inside it is light and if one ignores the large copper reception desk and the faux suede chairs, it is, if not exactly tasteful, then not objectionable, either. An excited young woman clad in a white polo shirt and looking more like a physiotherapist than a receptionist led us downstairs into a long central corridor in which wooden benches and gold beanbags were arranged in alternating rows. No one sat there, and I doubt if they ever will. Our room, which opened off the central space, was almost entirely filled with a bed and a shower, which the girl proudly explained could be lit in any colour you like. Outside, through a picture window filling a whole wall, was the Seine, with a commanding view of the SNCF office block opposite. Still, the reflected light from the water - no longer dirty and full of small brown fish - dappled the walls, the boat swayed a little and we lay happily on the bed and read. There was none of that guilty feeling that says you should be queueing at the Musée d’Orsay. Instead, we stirred ourselves only to go upstairs and sit by the pool with a glass of rosé before getting off OFF and rejoining Paris. There, we strolled through the lovely Jardin des Plantes and ended up in the Latin Quarter, which was every bit as tawdry as last time I visited. Too footsore to try to find the perfect restaurant, we dumped ourselves down at one on a corner, where, as if in repayment for all the bad meals I’ve had in Paris, I was given a deli-
cious one. Afterwards, my daughter felt sufficiently on holiday to buy a packet of cigarettes, and instead of chastising her I was filled with such gay abandon I sat on the pavement and smoked half of one myself. Back in the hotel, the bar was packed with more beautiful couples drinking and gazing at each other, so we turned in. I had chosen to take my shower green, which was most unflattering to my flesh, so I tried purple instead, which was no better. Still, the bed was comfortable and the sway rocked me to sleep, where I might have stayed all night were it not for a boom-da-da-boom drum beat and raucous party that burst to life in the small hours. By 4am, murderous and sleepless, I started crashing around the room in the dark trying to find the intercom to ring reception and shout. My daughter assured me that there was nothing to be done as the party was on a boat parked opposite, and suggested I get back in bed and ignore it. Which I respectively did and didn’t. Eventually it stopped and I slept, waking late the next morning to blue skies and lapping water and a feeling of slight disorientation. Was I on a beach holiday or was I in Paris? To settle the matter I went back on deck for a plunge in the infinity pool. The water hardly came up to my waist and was 4ft wide and about 15 long; a length could have been swum in four strokes were it not for a giant inflatable gold swan that entirely occupied one end of the pool. I got out barely a minute after I’d got in, watched with insouciance by the romancing couples. After breakfast, as we sat and basked in the sun, I wondered what OFF would be like on the majority of days a year when the weather is also a bit off. Then it wouldn’t be Ibiza-en-Seine. It might just be a barge in the middle of a river with slightly dodgy furniture and nasty coffee from a machine. But as it was, we left in the best spirits and walked by the side of the Seine past Notre Dame, which never looked lovelier, all the way to Invalides. And then, feeling no particular compulsion to do so, dropped in on the Gustave Moreau museum, which turned out to be charming, cool and empty. I almost started liking symbolism on the strength of it. Round the corner in Rue des Martyrs we stopped off and bought the best apricot sorbet I’ve ever had, and arrived at Gare du Nord in lots of time. Once inside we were instantly back in bad old Paris. Someone had left an unattended bag and we were in the middle of pushing, shoving security alert. Filthy, crowded, shouting, boiling hot, a most unpleasant hour passed; but when finally installed on a new Eurostar train, our good humour returned. We’d been in Ibiza and in Paris and were a bit sunburned and just a little cultured, and were being transported with speed and comfort back to St Pancras..