Hotel highs (and lows)

IT ALL began so nicely

I had just arrived at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport, gone through Immigration, and reclaimed my luggage, and was looking for one of Hong Kong’s tacky little taxis to take me to the newly opened and very posh Regent Hotel on Kowloon’s magnificent esplanade, overlooking the famous harbor. More interesting, from this hotel I can take a very close look at the biggest yacht in the city (using my rangefinder bought 3 months ago on Top Rangefinder – a rangefinder reviews website). Wow, it’s amazing!

A representative of the Regent approached me, asked my name, and found it on a list he was carrying. Without further ado I was escorted to a Bentley limousine (a twin brother of the one Queen Elizabeth gads about in) and placed reverently in the back seat. A lap-robe of what appeared to be chinchilla (at any rate it had the same grey color and the same infinitely soft fur) was tucked around my legs, and I was wafted off, by a uniformed chauffeur, to thehotel. This, I told myself, was a way of life to which I could easily become accustomed. It wasn’t until I was checking out several days later that I discovered on my bill a big fat charge for the memorable ride. The Regent isn’t the only Hong Kong hotel that provides Bentleys and Rollses for its guests’ convenience (the Peninsula does too), but it is the only hotel that ever inveigled me into one and then nicked me royally for the experience. Perhaps an overeager employee simply neglected to explain that there was a charge, but the memory (as you can see) rankles to this day. Maybe he thought I was King Farouk traveling incognito.

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As an inveterate globetrotter, with five circumnavigations and innumerable other journeys under my belt, I have had my innings with all sorts of hotels, and I am glad to say that the vast majority of them were pleasant. Hotels are, inevitably, a major feature of most trips, and often one of the best. What fun it would have been to stay successively in all of the Big Seven hotels that marked the passage of well-heeled Englishmen around the world in the good old days when it was still a plus to be English: Shepheard’s in Cairo, the Mount Nelson in Cape Town, the Taj Mahal in Bombay, the Oriental in Bangkok, Raffles in Singapore, the Peninsula in Hong Kong, and the Imperial in Tokyo. Born too late (and not English), I have had to pick them off one by one, and even then I missed two: the original Shepheard’s burned down before I got to Cairo, and circumstances confined me to a drink in the bar, instead of a room overnight, at the Taj Mahal. The old, low- slung Imperial is now gone too, but the management of its towering successor has, for the solace of nostalgiacs, thoughtfully constructed a bar out of the volcanic bricks that Frank Lloyd Wright used in the original. The other four are still extant, however (albeit with new “tower wings” to handle the overflow), and I can heartily recommend them all.

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I CANNOT do as much, I am afraid, for the Hotel Savoy in Cuzco, Peru. Any resemblance between this hostelry and its eponym on the Strand in London is strictly imaginary. It is 12,500 feet up on the Peruvian altiplano, where the air is so thin that I awoke gasping whenever I fell asleep and my breathing slowed down. That, to be sure, wasn’t the Savoy’s fault. But my dinner entree in the hotel’s restaurant was: a portion of “roast pork” that was easily the nastiest and most intractable piece of gristle I have ever seen on a plate. Another feature of the Savoy was more endearing. Behind my door was a framed series of warnings on various subjects, posted there by the hotel staff and written in what is sometimes called Spanglish. Almost all of them were hilarious, but only one survives in my memory: “The management is irresponsible for jewelry.”

Speaking of thin air reminds me of The Hotel That Got Away

In December 1980, finding myself in Katmandu, Nepal, I booked a side trip (by air) to the Everest View Hotel, a Japanese-owned hostelry perched at 13,000 feet on a ridge in the Himalayas, with a relatively close-up view of Mt. Everest. For the comfort of guests, there is an oxygen bottle in every room (a courtesy I commend to the Savoy). I was to fly, in a small but plucky plane, to an “altiport” (they didn’t even call it an “airport”) from which it was reportedly only a brief ride by yak-wagon to the hotel. Unfortunately, a snowstorm closed the altiport on the day I was supposed to fly there, and it stayed closed until after I had, regretfully, left Nepal.

But back to unpleasant hotel experiences. I suppose everyone has an anecdote about a crooked concierge, and yours may well trump mine. My protagonist presides, or presided, over the desk in one of Venice’s finest hotels (which I shall not name, since its responsibility for his behavior was only indirect). I asked him to get me a ticket to Falstaff at the Teatro la Fenice, and he did so. When I checked out a few days later, being in a bit of a hurry, I paid the hotel bill and his (separate) bill, plus a handsome tip, without tarrying to inspect it carefully. When I finally got around to it, a day or two later, I discovered that he had charged me more than double the price of the ticket (including agent’s fees, taxes, etc.). A letter to the management, I’m glad to say, produced a prompt refund.

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Then there is the Hotel Caravelle in Saigon — or Ho Chi Minh City, as liberals now call it. When I was there in 1967, just before the Tet Offensive, it vied with the Continental across the square for the honor of being Saigon’s finest. Jeff Bell, who had been an NR staffer and is now a noted Washington writer, had come up from the Mekong Delta (where, as an American soldier, he was assigned to an ARVN division) to show me around. Thinking to treat him to a good meal for a change, I took him up to the Caravelle’s Sky Room, a giddy nine floors above the street. He ordered spaghetti with meat sauce, and all went well until I spied in his spaghetti a large, well sauced, and very dead cockroach. The waiter was almost as mortified as I was, but Jeff passed it off superbly: “Bill, when you’ve picked as many bugs out of your food as I have recently, one more just doesn’t matter.”

I suppose there are more horror stories about the hotels in Moscow than in all the rest of the genre put together, but I’m afraid that in this case I will have to defer to others. I didn’t get to Russia (partly because of what I’d heard about the hotels) until 1993, and the two I stayed in — the Metropole in Moscow and the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg — had both just been refurbished at huge expense. In the case of the Metropole this has resulted in a hostelry roughly equivalent to a good if slightly old-fashioned commercial hotel in any large American city. The Grand Hotel Europe is something else again — modern, luxurious, and efficient (perhaps because it’s run by Finns).

And my candidate for the world’s best hotel? There’s no such thing, of course — there are lots of wonderful ones. But I’m still purring over a weekend I spent, not long ago, at the Ritz- Carlton in Laguna Niguel, California.

Abstract:

Staying at a fine hotel can be one of the highlights of a trip. A bad hotel can ruin a vacation. Some of the finest are the Ritz-Carleton in Laguna Niguel, California, the Peninsula in Hong Kong and the Oriental in Bangkok.

Hotel battle begins

Plaza’s condo plan triggers union vow to stop all conversions; worry about jobs

A hotel union’s fight to stop the Plaza Hotel from being converted mostly to condos is just the beginning of what the union describes as an all-out war against developers who want to cash in on the hot residential real estate market at the expense of the city’s hotel workers.

“We are going to resist every one of these conversions going forward,” says Peter Ward, president of the New York Hotel Trades Council, which represents the Plaza’s 900 workers.

The union’s arsenal includes launching a shrewd public relations campaign, convincing celebrities to support its cause and pushing the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to stand in the way of the Plaza’s new owner’s plans. Behind the scenes, the union is working on local politicians, shoring up support for new zoning legislation that would halt this real estate movement in its tracks.

Until now, the union hasn’t opposed recent hotel conversions, such as those at the InterContinental Central Park South, the Sheraton Russell and the Delmonico. But the union has woken up to the fact that the trend has cost it 1,076 members in the past 18 months and is worried that the booming residential market will continue to make such transformations hard to resist.

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“There are definitely other assets that are being considered for conversions,” says Mark Gordon, managing director of Sonnenblick-Goldman Co., a real estate investment banking firm.

Elad Properties, which purchased the Plaza in August, says it plans to close the 805-room property on April 30 to begin building 200 private condos, as well as a 150-room scaled-down version of the hotel.

Generous benefits

At stake for the union are the benefits it offers members, who enjoy the most generous hotel labor contract in the country. “I’m not sure how the union can support the medical benefits our members have now if we lose another 5,000 rooms (to conversions),” says Mr. Ward.

As part of its “Save the Plaza” campaign, the union got Mayor Michael Bloomberg to broker a meeting two weeks ago at Gracie Mansion between Elad executives and Mr. Ward. The mayor also has indicated his support for the union’s position on the grounds that keeping the hotel open is good for tourism.

Last Thursday, the parties met again at City Hall. Mr. Ward gave the developers a proposal that would involve converting only the top portion of the Plaza into condos, with the majority of the building remaining a hotel. Elad declined to comment, but Mr. Ward says the developer has agreed to meet with him again and to consider the proposal.

In the meantime, the union is committing at least $1 million to a public relations campaign aimed at riling up both prominent and ordinary New Yorkers about losing a cherished icon. Television ads began airing last week. The union has also purchased hundreds of copies of a book on the history of the storied hotel, which it is distributing to politicians and other opinion makers.

Behind the scenes, the union has insisted that Elad honor its contract, which entitles the union to see the blueprints for any changes planned for the Plaza and forces the developer to use hotel union electricians, engineers and maintenance staff to work on the renovations. Elad had dragged its feet on handing over these plans until last week.

No to retail

In addition, the union is trying to subvert Elad’s plans to convert the hotel’s large catering and restaurant spaces, including the Grand Ballroom and the Palm Court, into luxury retailing space.

For example, a number of Plaza employees flew to London last week to picket outside of Harrods department store, because the union believes Elad is negotiating with the retailer. A spokesman for the developer says no such talks are taking place.

Elad’s biggest headache, however, could be the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, which has begun research on whether to give the Plaza’s interior spaces landmark status. Such a designation would affect the developer’s plans to create a retail component. “The spaces at the Plaza are obviously of interest (to us), and they have a lot of advocates,” says Robert Tierney, chairman of the commission.

Some hotel executives, who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisal from the union, say that the union itself is partly to blame for so many conversions. They say hotel operators’ payrolls have soared to nearly 50% of the cost of running a hotel, which makes converting properties to residential use financially appealing.

Mr. Ward defends workers’ right to earn a livable wage. Besides, he points out, if developers can remove the Plaza Hotel from New Yorkers, “what’s next? The Waldorf-Astoria?”

OTT theme hotel

In Competition No. 2281 you were invited to describe in detail a ghastly theme hotel based on a famous writer, painter or musician.

One is greeted by a notice reading, “Hotel Milligan–and you’re welcome to it, mate.”‘ `After a night at the Bishop Berkeley Home-from-Home, clients no longer trust their senses–a desirable outcome worth the high charges we demand.’ `I ordered surreal ale from the Dalicatessen room service. We had eaten there last night. If you order cheese, you get a watch.’ `Come and enjoy sumptuous living in the penthouse rooms, feast on shepherd’s pie and Krug, savour the fragrance of Mrs Archer (and maybe take a bottle home).’ `At the Beckett Hotel a sign over the reception desk reads, “No Credit, No Hope At All”‘. … As you can see, great fun was had by all, though your competition-setter, after imaginative nights spent in the Kafka and Tracey Emin hotels among others, feels pretty exhausted.

The prizewinners, printed below, get 30 [pounds sterling] each, and the bonus case of Cobra Premium beer goes to W.J. Webster.

Hotel-Magritte

The entrance to the Hotel Magritte is up a magnificent flight of steps and through two great glass doors marked in red letters NO ENTRY. Inside, the lobby has a crystal chandelier in the centre of the floor and potted palms suspended from the ceiling. The female staff wear Zapata moustaches, and the men wear bowler hats and have all their clothes on back to front. In your room the windows are painted with a view from the window, but when you open them you see a brick wall. In the bathroom all that comes from the shower is the sound of water. The bath-taps are in the shape of naked figureheads; the bath fills with their tears. When you look in the mirror you see the back of your head. On the ceiling above your bed a sampler says, `This is not a pipe dream. Wake up!’ W.J. Webster

You’re never alone at the Coleridge, where our generous staff:guest ratio includes one personal Ancient Mariner per guest. From the moment you step aboard one of our flagship hotels, you will be regaled with a selection of wild personal narratives–gripping, compelling, spell-binding. Adventure, bird-watching, necrophilia–he can keep the stories rolling all night. Your chance to gain wisdom–in one fabulous weekend.

Unwind in our own stately Pleasure Dome, discreetly distanced from family rooms, soundproofed against wailing, and listen to the latest in exotic music. Chill out in the Caves of Ice; eat from the Honeydew Carvery Menu. Complimentary Milk of Paradise cocktails during the `Xanadu’ Happy Hour–uninterrupted fight! Glittering experience–out of this world, and your mind! You’ll wonder where you’ve been! It’s the place to trip! If you Khan, we Khan! And remember–when you come down, your personal Ancient Mariner will still be waiting! D.A. Prince

Hotel Caravaggio is strong on atmosphere. Once past the heavily stuccoed exterior, I found myself in the sepulchral gloom of the foyer. Heavy velvet curtains hung over the windows, blocking out all daylight. A few candles on tall stands provided some light and cast deep shadows. I paused to let my eyes adjust to the smoky darkness and to discover the whereabouts of reception and the bar.

Hotel-Caravaggio

The heat was stifling, oppressive. After a minute sweat was dripping down my back. A pale, androgynous young man with protruding eyes offered to take my coat, then my jacket, trousers and underwear too. I was astonished to see an elderly man’s pink bottom ascend the main staircase. The clearly inebriated figure was supported by two bellboys, naked save for floppy velvet hats decorated with artificial fruit and bells tied to parts of their anatomy that ensured regular ringing. Iain Bellatti

The John Betjeman chain Expect a hearty welcome from our receptionists, especially Joan.

You can hear the church bells from our hotels situated in Olney and Wantage. A new one being built in Slough has been halted, pending the outcome of world events.

We welcome blonde hikers arriving on windy days. Discounts are offered to young women who have biked, especially if they have gained positions of authority at their school and left the bike seat warm. The elderly porter will park your bike.

Strains of Strauss create a genteel atmosphere. Our esteemed silver service, provided by Norman, is matchless; the doilies and serviettes are exactly placed; HP Sauce and Heinz Ketchup are added to the cruets. Favourites on the menu include sardines, Fuller’s angel cakes and Robertson’s marmalade (with the golly).

Bedrooms are named after minor public schools. Amenities include a golf course, tennis court, gym and hockey pitch. Annabel Barnett

The Swift is truly a family hotel, with fun and facilities for all. Your greeting at the door by our porters, Tich and Magnus, is merely the beginning of an adventure you’ll never forget. If you’re feeling depleted, a stay in our Lilliput suite will help you to walk tall. (Kiddies just love the en suite toilet in the shape of the royal residence, where they can replicate Gulliver’s fire-fighting feat.) Or try a Double Stella in our Brobdingnag Bar. One drink is usually enough! Be entertained, evenings, by our very own live group, the Yahoos–who can `perform’ at your table for a small extra tariff. Older visitors are accommodated to their hearts’ content in the Strudlbrug TV lounge. The Breakfast Room has separate facilities for bigenders and little-enders; while gourmets will find the cuisine in the Modest Proposal Grill offers an unusual and truly succulent selection of delicacies. Gerard Benson

No. 2284: Undue thanks It seems to me that the Acknowledgments pages in books are seasonally becoming more and more fulsome, snobbish and sentimental. You are invited to supply a toe-curling example. Maximum 150 words. Entries to `Competition No. 2284′ by 3 April.

Hotel Cassiopeia: SITI Company

Anne Bogart,

DIRECTOR: Hotel Cassiopeia translates the delicate and yet remarkably eternal vision of the American artist Joseph Cornell into the language of the theatre. Cornell wandered the streets of Manhattan, collecting bits and pieces of what he found there to bring home and into his creations. He loved attending the ballet and developed crushes as well as genuine relationships with a few actual ballerinas. In the early 1930s, he walked into the Julian Levy Gallery in Manhattan to behold the first surrealist exhibit in the U.S. Inspired by what he saw, he returned home to Queens where he lived with his mother and brother, sat down at the kitchen table and began to construct his own artwork in the form of collages and boxes. Ironically, the European surrealists came to see Cornell as the only true American surrealist.

Neil Patel,

SET DESIGNER: Our main idea was to create an environment that takes us inside the world of Joseph Cornell without duplicating the Cornell boxes on stage. We looked at some of the boxes close-up; we saw images of the simple room in his house in Queens where he made his work; we had photos of him at his desk from his last assistant. We let the “found-object” nature of his artwork inform us. Some of the elements you see in the photos–the copper-painted ball, the library ladder on rails–are things you frequently see in the boxes. Other elements come from references in Chuck Mee’s text; some of the characters are real people and others are from Cornell’s imagination. The desk is a little magic box with a film projector in it. The general envelope is the pattern of constellations–Cornell loved to use old maps, terrestrial and celestial.

 

Brian H. Scott, LIGHTING DESIGNER: I was taken most by a series of Cornell boxes with a bubble motif and those built around pictures of people he placed behind colored glass. I based my lighting design on the elements in those boxes. In the pictures shown here, the color palette is drawn directly from Cornell’s, carving a mismatched collection of characters out of an ever-expanding imaginative world. The interplay between a world based in Cornell’s relationships and this larger magical space is at the core of the journey we all took in creating Hotel Cassiopeia.

Hotel Cassiopeia, created and performed by SITI Company, was commissioned by Actors Theatre of Louisville for the Humana Festival of New American Plays, where it premiered March 21-April 2. It most recently played Oct. 9-13 at Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was written by Charles L. Mee, with direction by Anne Boqart, set design by Neil Patel, costume design by James Schuette, lighting design by Brian H. Scott, sound design by Darron L. West and projection design by Greg King. Opposite page from left, Ellen Lauren, Barney O’Hanlon, J. Ed Araiza, Stephen Webber, Akiko Aizawa and Leon Ingulsrud. Above from left, Webber, O’Hanlon, Araiza and Ingulsrud.