Staying at a plush new hotel is possibly the last thing most Americans are thinking about this holiday season. Dreaming about, maybe, because who can afford it?
So here's a morsel of consolation: Although the economy in much of the country continues to stagger, an unprecedented 34 hotels have opened this year in New York, and 28 more are under construction. Occupying new buildings, joining a host of ever-permutating chains and pioneering neighborhoods across the five boroughs, the roster of just-launched properties offers visitors a wide selection in price and style.
Hotel industry experts have myriad explanations for the growth, but the bottom line is that the Big Apple is persistently popular with visitors and keeps reinventing itself by adding attractions such as the elevated High Line park in Chelsea and the Time Warner mall at Columbus Circle.
"Let's face it," said Sean Hennessey, chief executive of the consulting firm Lodging Advisors, "there's an almost endless number of people in the world whose dream is to take a trip to New York."
TO LEARN MORE
New York & Co., http://www.nycgo.com
Last month, I stopped in the city to check out a few new hotels. I was on my way home from a long trip to Southeast Asia, where I had stayed in a room at a guesthouse near the Thai-Cambodian border that cost $15 a night and came with a frog. It made for an interesting comparison with the places I sampled in New York, where the average rate is $250 and rising. ("If you wanted a really great bargain," Hennessey said, "you should have visited in 2009.") Rooms in the city have Vichy showers and 400-thread-count sheets — but no wildlife. I'm still trying to figure which was the reality check: New York or Cambodia.
I could not figure out why a woman in a Little Bo Peep costume was standing at West 44th Street and 8th Avenue, around the corner from the new, glass-clad, 36-story building that houses the InterContinental New York Times Square. Maybe she had just escaped from Bellevue or an 8th Avenue girlie show. Or maybe I was seeing things; after all, I'd been on a plane for 20 hours.
Things started to make sense once I reached the InterContinental. A bellman in a camel's hair coat stopped warming his hands long enough to wish me a happy Halloween and show me to the lobby, a large space, empty but for several massive copper columns and a long marble reception desk backed by windows overlooking a spotlighted courtyard.
The elevators are to the left. On the right, the lobby yields to a library-like concierge station, a lounge with a cheerfully glowing fake fireplace, a cool-looking bar plied by cocktail waitresses in backless black mini-dresses, the Ça Va Brasserie by celebrity chef Todd English (of Olives in New York, Boston and Las Vegas) and Marché Bakery.
Very snazzy, in a vaguely Midcentury Modern way; also buttoned-up, understated and gender-neutral — in other words, classic InterContinental.
More of the same in my sixth-floor double, priced at the time at about $350. It had the standard hotel room configuration, decorated in beiges and grays with unassuming textures and patterns, but was, alas, too low for a view of the Times Square skyline from the floor-to-ceiling window. Two overstuffed queen beds looked as though they'd been injected with collagen; there also was a comfortable work station with a touch-screen computer and a mini-bar with a Keurig coffee brewer. In the roomy midnight blue-tiled bath, I found a walk-in shower with an overhead spigot that rained instead of spurted, Gilchrist & Soames toiletries and new-smelling Corinelli robes and towels.
Everything suited, but nothing struck me as a pleasant surprise in the way, say, of a room with a frog.
So I had dinner from the three-course, $36 prix-fixe menu at Ça Va. It was tasty, but the lights were so dim that I had to ask for a flashlight to cut my hanger steak.
Then I discovered the hotel's most compelling amenity: its Theater District address, down the street from the Broadhurst, where Al Pacino is starring in "The Merchant of Venice," and near such Broadway fixtures as Sardi's, the old New York Times building and Restaurant Row; and 8th Avenue, which, despite gentrification, has clung to its seediness like an old hooker clutching her wig in the wind.
The InterContinental boasts a top-drawer concierge staff to help guests get tickets and navigate the neighborhood. This is a chain signature, so I put a young man at the desk to the test.
On a Sunday night, there wasn't much on except noisy, long-running musicals. When I told him that I didn't care for song and dance, he perked up, suggesting I catch "Welcome to the Rileys," a new movie showing near Lincoln Center. He spoke so cogently about its stars, James Gandolfini and Melissa Leo, that I had to ask, although I already knew the answer, "Are you, by any chance, an actor?"
InterContinental New York Times Square, 300 W. 44th St.; (888) 424-6835, http://www.ichotelsgroup.com. In the heart of the Theater District. Doubles will start about $229 in January.
Some people shop for hotel rooms the way I shop for wine: If it's more expensive, it must be better. Using that criterion, I had every reason to be excited when I checked into the Setai Fifth Avenue, one of a handful of high-end hotels to open this year in New York.
The hotel, part of a small chain with properties in Costa Rica, Uruguay, the Bahamas and Miami, occupies the lower floors of a smashing new 60-story skyscraper designed by New York architects Gwathmey Siegel & Associates. Upstairs, developers are selling luxury condominiums that include hotel services.
A big part of the allure comes from the Fifth Avenue address, just down THE STREETn from the landmark New York Public Library and Bryant Park..
I stood back to admire the Setai building's silver crown and huge teardrop-shaped sculpture by Santiago Villanueva. Then I pushed through the revolving door into the lobby, which has the uncluttered marble-clad calm of a national monument. The adjoining Bar on 5th serves fancy mixed drinks and doesn't charge a cover to hear a jazz quartet in the evening. (Ai Fiori, the second-floor dining room by noted restaurateur Michael White, hadn't yet opened when I visited.)
Staff members were solicitous, no doubt having graduated from charm school with a degree in circumlocution. "How would you like to establish credit, Ms. Spano?" is the way I was asked to produce my plastic. I'd booked the least expensive room available, a superior for $595 — brother, the $90 tax alone will kill you.
What did I get for that, precisely?
— A strikingly large, tastefully decorated, neutral-toned room with all extraneous details hidden away and built-in custom furniture to maximize space. The closet was half the usual length, and the room had neither a good reading chair nor a luggage stand. But, honestly, I could have played shuffleboard within its walls.
— A sleek platform king bed, garbed in Pratesi linens, with the remote for an outsize flat-screen TV close at hand and a huge coffee table book on the Setai that described the style: "aesthetic restraint, even rigor … a design that is at once incredibly simple and abundantly sufficient." Fair enough, though some would call it chilly.
— A really cool bath with a big, cut sunken tub and white marble floors. The Lorenzo Villoresi toiletries were divine, and in the drawer I was impressed to find a tube of Marvis toothpaste, an Italian brand I discovered while living in Rome.
— Switch-controlled draperies and a TV screen set into the bathroom mirror.
— Free Wi-Fi, nonalcoholic beverages, Nespresso, ironing for five garments on arrival, use of the fitness room and a tour of the exceptionally outfitted Auriga Spa on the fourth floor.
Of course, to use the spa's plunge pools, sauna, steam and showers cost an additional $50. In the evening, no one turned down my bed or changed the towels; I had to call guest services twice to get a robe; and there was only a scrap of rug in the bath, so my footsies froze on the icy marble.
Perhaps I should cut the Setai some slack, because it had been open only a week when I visited. On the other hand, don't you think it ought to do better for six big ones a night?
Setai Fifth Avenue, 400 Fifth Ave.; (212) 695-4005, http://www.setaififthavenue.com. Rooms are large and sparely modernistic, baths plush. Doubles will start at $595 in January.
Call me bourgeois, but I had the best time at Eventi, a middle-of-the-road addition to the scene from Kimpton. The boutique hotel chain, founded in 1981 in San Francisco, knows all the little touches to make guests happy, without driving the room rate into the stratosphere.
Eventi occupies a new building on workaday 6th Avenue at West 30th Street. The neighborhood, straddling the Garment District and Chelsea, has no particular embellishments, and the furnishings in the small lobby look as if they came from a yard sale at a house recently vacated by a member of the Rat Pack.
Oh, well, there's no accounting for taste, and the style cools down in the guest chambers. Mine was a double on the 12th floor, priced about $375 in November, with a roomy entryway but barely enough space to squeeze around the bed. The bath had a large, walk-in shower, but no tub, and I couldn't find a switch for the curtains so I had to open them by hand, revealing the room's up-side: a floor-to-ceiling view of the Manhattan skyline from the Empire State Building to the gold-roofed New York Life Building on Madison Square Park.
I liked the view so much that I started thinking about ordering room service — one of my favorite self-indulgences — so I could watch the city lights come on during dinner. Instead, I decided to go out. I deliberated between Bar Basque and FoodParc, a to-go market next door operated by the hotel. I decided on Basque, but the place was so packed that I almost turned back. I'm glad I stayed because the wine list features a sizable selection of red Riojas by the glass and delicious paella, served on a sizzling plate of rice covered with shrimp, calamari and clams.
Then I went back to my room, put on the robe — terry cloth with a leopard-spotted collar — lay in bed and watched three episodes of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" back-to-back. The curtains were open to remind me where I was. If you ask me, holing up in a good hotel room is the ultimate guilty pleasure in New York.
Eventi, 851 Avenue of the Americas; (866) 996-8396, http://www.eventihotel.com. Midcentury Modern hotel with 287 guestrooms and the amiably over-the-top Bar Basque. Doubles will start at about $223 in January.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun