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January 22, 2006

Hotels (2): Fancy Places

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

My previous post on hotels dealt with places ranging from moderately-priced traveling salesman motels to pretty dumpy downtown hotels. Been there, done that – I tend to be a cheap traveler, especially when on my own.

I've also stayed in nicer places. Not quite the level of the Crillon off the Place de la Concorde, but above average for sure.

Probably most of times I've stayed in above-average hotels were due to attending professional association annual meetings, the association arranging for halfway-decent room rates. These were large hotels that cater to the convention trade such as the Hiltons in San Francisco and Washington. (I was in the latter a few weeks before Reagan was shot; I actually looked out a window at the setting, which made it easier to follow the TV coverage of the event.)

Sometimes a client would put me up at a nice spot. I stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria when doing some media demographics consulting in the late 70s and at Boston's Copley on the square (on weekends) in 1982 when on a project for the John Hancock.

The Waldorf room was not spacious, which surprised me at first. But then I remembered that the hotel was built about 1931 and that hotel rooms in those days tended to be smaller than what we are used to today.

For example, in the early 70s a demography meeting was held at the old Commodore Hotel (site of the present Grand Hyatt) by New York's Grand Central Terminal and my wife and I stayed in a seriously small room by an air shaft on the northern side of the building. It took some fancy maneuvering to get from the door past the bed to the window, snaking around a couple items of furniture. But that was the way they built hotels in 1920.

And between last Christmas and New Year's Day, the Fiancée and I stayed at the Moana (formally, the Sheraton Moana Surfrider) in Waikiki, one of the two classic hotels from the steamship-travel era (the other is the famous pink-colored Royal Hawaiian, a couple doors up the beach). The central part dates to 1901. Bookend wings (where we stayed) were added around 1918 and other parts around 1950 and 1970. Our room seemed roughly comparable in size to the Waldorf room, suggesting that it was pretty large by 1918 standards.

As I type this I realize that all the rooms just mentioned probably were functionally larger when they were new than they are today because beds tended to be smaller. Rather than having a twin or maybe queen-size bed, that cramped Commodore room likely began service with a single, meaning that there was more free floor space than we had 50 years later. And some photos of the Royal Hawaiian taken near the time it opened (1927) show a room with two "single" beds; today that room would likely have a king-sized bed.

Besides having larger rooms to accommodate larger beds as well as desks, television cabinets, couches and other standard-equipment items, modern luxury hotel rooms feature really fancy bathrooms.

Our Moana bathroom was pretty small. It had the essential toilet and sink plus the combination bathtub-shower with European-style detachable shower head (a truly minimal installation would have been shower-only). But there was only a tiny amount of counter space around the sink -- maybe six inches on either side.

Contrast the Moana to a room in Las Vegas' Bellagio where we once spent a night. The main room was large, albeit with a slightly low ceiling (the Moana had high ceilings, perhaps related to the hot climate in pre-airconditioned days). But the bathroom was huge and richly appointed: acres of counter space and lots of marble. Besides generous counter space, twin wash basins can be found in fancy hotels, a handy feature when Milord and Milady need to rush to get ready for the next soirée.

The Moana and Bellagio were not my personal top-luxe digs. That honor goes to San Francisco's Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill, home to the famous Top of the Mark watering hole.

We had taken advantage of a promotion that, for less than $250, offered a room plus parking and buffet breakfast. On checking in, the clerk asked if we would like a free upgrade to a suite. Yes indeed, we would like just that.

So there we were in a "terrace suite," perched on a corner of the building right below the final four or five story tower that housed the Top and a few ultra-super suites. Our suite had a living room and a sun room as well as the bedroom and bath. The bedroom wasn't huge, but the bathroom was spectacular -- tub and shower stall were in separate richly stone-lined compartments, with the sink, counter and other details carrying on the theme. At the time (2004) these suites had an advertised rate of $1,500 a night.

Below are some pictures of the Mark Hopkins setup; alas, I couldn't find one of the bathroom.

Gallery: Mark Hopkins Suite

Mark Hopkins exterior.jpg
Mark Hopkins Hotel. The Terrace Suites are at the corners of the level below the tower.

Hopkins corner suite.jpg
Terrace Suite living room.

Hopkins terrace suite.jpg
Terrace Suite sun room, living room through door.

Hopkins terrace suite breakfast.jpg
Terrace Suite sun room as breakfast nook.

Having lived a pretty modest existence, I find myself slightly ill at ease in luxury settings; down deep, I feel I don't really belong there and somehow am cheating or deceiving to be there. At the same time, I'm thinking: "Wow, this is really neat. After all, somebody has to stay here, so why not me!"

Other folks seem to take luxury hotels in stride. One example is The Wall Street Journal's Laura Landro who contributes the "Finicky Traveler" column to the Friday "Weekend Journal" section when her health permits.

Do any of you have tales about luxury lodging?



posted by Donald at January 22, 2006


One problem with luxury hotels is that the room rates aren't the only things which are sky-high. Parking, health club fees, and of course room service are just an example of the things which are exhorbitantly priced. You'd think that with high room rates, a luxury hotel could afford to keep other things reasonably priced.

Posted by: Peter on January 22, 2006 9:39 PM

I'd have to echo Peter's remarks. Because of the business I'm in I often get seriously discounted or even free hotel rooms. My wife and I took advantage of one such room in Rome, which had a truly spectacular view of the city. However, despite having wrangled a quite reasonable room rate, when we tried to eat meals, or use the athletic facilities, or even get drinks at the bar, the prices (well in excess of $20, as I recall, for a simple cocktail) tended to dissuade us from moving forward. We ended up sleeping there and having almost no other contact with the place, eating and drinking in either the city or the suburban surroundings of the hotel. When checking out, I remember distinctly feeling that I had escaped from an oddly comfortable prison.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 23, 2006 9:24 AM

I’ve always wondered about the Mark Hopkins. I’ve stayed next door at the Fairmont. (By the way, the concierge, Tom Wolfe, was phenomenal in arraigning events.) I’ve had a drink at “Top of the Mark” like James Stewart mentions in Vertigo.

That’s quite a suite. Of course, without an upgrade, I couldn’t justify staying there. I'll have to tell my wife (about the hotel, not the suite ... or else I'm in trouble when she falls in love with those pictures.)

Speaking of delightful suites, we’ve stayed in a duplex suite in London’s “Montague on the Gardens” in Bloomsbury (around the corner to the British Museum.) Actually, it was a split-level triplex with the bedroom on one level, the living room on the split level and an office above the bedroom. They have two such suites, the Duchess and the Marquis. The Duchess has a British country feeling with blue-white printed drapery. We only regret we didn’t have friends in London to entertain.

The interesting point is that a duplex suite at the Montague was similar in cost to a single room at many of the top hotels ... and perhaps less.

Posted by: Jason Pappas on January 23, 2006 11:24 AM

When I was a tour manager, in the late 1970s, I stayed in a few NYC hotels that might have been considered to be in the luxury category. The two that come immediately to mind are the Waldorf-Astoria and the Essex House. I also stayed at some other hotels, like the Barclay, that might have been considered luxury hotels, but also may have been considered just high class business hotels.

It seems to me, however, that in NYC the definition of what constitutes a luxury hotel may be somewhat problematic. Is it just a hotel that is expensive? If so, there are plenty of hotels that are not particularly luxurious that might fit the bill. Is a luxury hotel spacious? In NYC this is somewhat unlikely as most NYC hotels occupy expensive, very tight locations (with poor views).

My guess is that in NYC a true luxury hotel is most likely to be a hotel that is small-ish, well-appointed and very service intensive -- and also very EXCLUSIVE. While of course I haven't been there, I think a hotel like the Regency (on Park Ave.) might fit the bill. (I believe this is the hotel that Elizabeth Taylor usually stays in when she is in NYC.) It also seems that a number of them are likely to be co-ops/apartment hotels, with long-term residents (which is what, for instance, I believe the Hotel Pierre is). The Hotel Pierre has, I believe, a magnificent triplex[?] penthouse apartment that used to belong to Jack Warner -- of Warner Bros. -- that was on the market for maybe something like $30 million.

Another good example, might be the Waldorf-Astoria TOWERS, which is the portion of the Waldorf-Astoria that is probably TRULY luxurious. The Towers portion of the Waldorf has its own elevators and separate entrance on the 50th [?] St. side of the block-sized building. The (presumably) small and exlusive lobby of the Towers is connected with the main lobby of the hotel so that Towers residents have easy access to the ballrooms, restaurants and luxury shops of the main hotel. The Towers is the portion of the Waldorf that presidents stay in and the portion that Cole Porter and Frank Sinatra had (owned?) suites/apartments in. (I think this portion of the hotel may be co-op.) And since the rooms in this portion of the hotel are literally located in the Waldorf's two tall, thin towers, they are likely to have short hallways and great views (unlike the rooms in the regular hotel which have views of the surrounding buildings or the Waldorf's own, although not unattractive as far as these things go, air shafts.

(One time when I was in the lobby, I saw Pat Nixon, followed discreetly by some Secret Service men, doing some window shopping at the luxury shops off the lobby. Since the Nixons were then living in New York, my guess is that she just stopped by to visit the shops -- or maybe she was visiting someone or attending some function?)

These days, there also seems to be a "trendy" boutique/luxury hotel category, first pioneered by Ian Schrager of "Studio 54" fame. His first hotel, the name of which I forget, was on Madison Ave. and it attracted a lot of celebrities. These hotels generally seem to have very small rooms, but the rooms are decorated in the highest (wackiest and most dysfunctional?) of modern styles by the trendiest interior designers and architects of the day. These hotels also seem to be service intensive, and also seem to make a point of hiring young, good looking woman and men (actors/models) for prominently visible service positions and give them very high style uniforms (in black?) to wear.

Getting back to the Waldorf-Astoria, in the late 1970s, I found the main hotel to be only moderately well-maintained, but the building's structure has such great "bones," or "DNA," that the experience was impressive anyway, despite the less than top notch maintenance. For instance, the hotel's hallways seemed unusually spacious, as did the elevator lobbies, which also had windows for natural light. But the lights in the "crystal" mini-chandelier lighting fixtures had been changed from home-y incandescent to Bronx tenement florescent!

It also seemed to me that some of the bathrooms had been renovated in a way that made them seem less spacious and comfortable and that the older, solid bathroom fixtures had been replaced with fixtures that were less impressive.

At the Essex House (where they used to, or still do, put up the guests for "Saturday Night Live"), the service was not good (at least for my group), but I was given, for some reason, an enormous room, that seemed to be a combination of two rooms that had each, on their own, been pretty large to begin with. (It was almost like being in a small lobby or ballroom.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on January 23, 2006 12:57 PM

Your comments about small hotel rooms struck a chord.

In the late 80's I would fly down to New Orleans about 8 times a year and would stay in the Sharaton just outside of the French Quarter. As a relatively steady customer I became used to good discounts and room upgrades.

One of my lady friends moved up to New Jersey and had been harassing me to come up and visit. I took a week of vacation and went up to visit. We planned on spending 5 days in Manhattan which would be my first visit there.

I had been warned that prices were a tad higher than I was used to. I booked a room at a Sharaton. The supposedly lowered price was $170 a night. Plus something like $50 a night for parking(!). I did wangle an "upgrade" to a larger room. Upon checking in my mouth hit the floor. The two full sized beds (there were three of us) left approximately 1 foot of space to walk around. You litereally had to turn sideways to go to walk along the side of the beds.

I had a closet in my house that was bigger than that entire room.

Without unpacking a thing I immediately went downstairs to have a word with the staff. I ran into the "stereotypical" NY rudeness. They insisted that this WAS an "upgraded" room and didn't have anything bigger for anywhere near the same price.

As an aside one pleasant surprise was that the stereotype, well, wasn't. With this one exception I found people in NYC far more friendlier than most other large cities in the USA when talking to strangers. Maybe not in terms of smiling and pretending to be nice but anywhere I went there was _always_ someone willing to shoot the breeze with a stranger.

The next day were were taking the obligatory carriage ride through Central Park. When the driver pointed out the Trump Plaza hotel I asked about rates. He said that he thought that it was in the $300 range. Well, hell. I was willing to cough up the extra $70 bucks a night. Even if it was still a closet at least it would be a closet right next to Central Park.

We hurried across the street and up to the check in desk to ask about rates. The clerk mentioned that it was the off season and so rates were low. How much? $200 a night. How about parking? $20 a night. WHAT!?!?!? Their closet would actually be cheaper! I immediately booked a room and we scrambled across town to retrieve our belongings before check-out time. We didn't even have time to look at the new room.

Entering the room was a shock. It was HUGE! Not only that just about any luxury you could ask for was in place. It was one of the best hotels that I had ever stayed in. The service was fantastic, even the doorman was greeting us by name on the second day.

Now, perhaps this was due to it being the off season but it really made me wonder about how the national chain could survive with such a disparity in service.

One funny item was check out. I had not brought any nice clothes and was in jeans and an old coat. One of my lady friends had to be back at work that morning and had left hours before. The other lady was in jeans and a beat up black leather jacket. We were standing in the lobby surrounded by men in suits and long coats and ladies in furs. Who were all staring at us with "who let these bums in?" looks. When our car was pulled around the doorman lept towards up ignoring all of our betters who needed a cab and made sure that all of our belongings were quickly loaded so that we could be on our way.

The looks did not get any friendlier when that happened.

Posted by: Nobody on January 23, 2006 1:09 PM

Oh yes you bet, Donald, I do have plenty of personal stories associated with luxury hotels. [this one, for inst.]
Waldorf: my firm did the renovations for 10+ years staring in 1986 exactly because the Hotel wanted to get rid of the "Hilton blue" and the fluorescents. The shop drawings of the millwork and the updated bathrooms customized to look 1920 but with contemporary plumbing (which is particularly challenging in the old building) are still in the office and they look spectacular. That was before my time and I've never been to the place; but knowing my boss's borderline obsessive attention to detail I'd wager a good sum the place is up to its' former glory.

Mark Hopkins' Terrace Suite, judging from the pictures, doesn't look very luxurious to me, sorry. Especially that sunroom, with cheapo wicker furniture and [horror1] glass tabletop.

Benjamin, Jan Schrager: that Jan Schrager?

My own personal over-the-head hotel experience - Tivoli, Lagos (Portugal) beats all I've seen so far. May be I'll write some more about it, now that I have peace of mind, quiet and my own little soon as they come and hook me up to Internet!

Posted by: Tatyana on January 23, 2006 1:32 PM

Thanks, "nobody," since I live in New York, when people ask me about hotels I obviously can’t say anything from experience. But the Trump Plaza Hotel sounds a cut above the rest.

Tatyana, if you company worked on the Waldorf they did an excellent job judging from the Grand Ballroom (I was there a few weeks ago.) It had all the Art Deco splendor I had hoped.

Posted by: Jason Pappas on January 23, 2006 2:23 PM

I don't think we did the Ballroom; the bathrooms and the guestrooms (all 1425 of them, if I'm not mistaken), were designed and contract-administered (is it still English, you ask? it's architect-talk) by us. See this, imperfect, photo.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 23, 2006 2:51 PM

Okay, I'm going to have to write some blog posts about a) staying in the biggest and most expensive suite at the Ritz in Paris, for all of three hours in the morning, b) later that day staying at the biggest and most expensive suite at Claridge's in London, c) the time I had not a lira to my name (I had to walk with a hundred pounds of luggage from the Piazzale Roma to the Piazza San Marco), but stayed 3 nights in the Cipriani in Venice, and d) staying at the Hotel de Russie in Rome.

Posted by: john massengale on January 24, 2006 12:43 AM

Donald -
I stayed in that Hopkins suite on my wedding night ten years ago. It was nice, but not as ritzy as many newer hotels I'd been in. The view was fabulous, however.
[We actually lived just a block away, and stayed there that night, a gift from friends, as her parents were in our apartment.]

Posted by: Paul Worthington on January 24, 2006 1:22 PM

"In his lifetime, jovial and flamboyant Amon G. Carter of nearby Fort Worth gave Mr. Stanley a run for his money as the best-known Texan of his time, but their personalities were somewhat different. Carter's notion of showing good will, and one that was widely approved of by its beneficiaries, was to arrive in New York's Waldorf-Astoria for the annual newspaper publishers' convention, take over an entire floor, and throw all the keys out the window into Park Avenue. He then kept open house like a maharaja for the duration."

(Lucius Beebe, "The Big Spenders", 1966, Doubleday & Co., p. 303)

I once rode into New York on the crew-coach of a rock band that won a Grammy on the country charts. Some of these guys had never been out of the woods before. So, there I stood, watching the hilarity as one of them clutched a paper-bag filled with his essentials, checking into The Plaza.

You really had to see that.

The staff were superb, throughout.

Posted by: Billy Beck on January 31, 2006 2:05 PM

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