An Overnight Sensation; A Five Star Diamond rating is a nice reward. But those who work there and stay there know Baltimore's Harbor Court Hotel can't and won't rest on its laurels.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It wasn't the custom-made Irish linen. Ditto for the Italian marble or the handmade rugs, the silk wall coverings, the frescoes on the ceiling, or even those 5-inch color TV sets mounted in the guest bathrooms.

Oh, those things are nice. But to the discriminating traveler, they're practically a given. What makes Baltimore's tony Harbor Court Hotel truly special -- at least in the eyes of the American Academy of Hospitality Services -- is the service. Period.

"You can look at marble and crystal all day," says Joseph Cinque, the academy's director of operations. "But it's how you're received, how they take care of you, that's what it's all about."

Last Friday, the academy recognized the Harbor Court as a Five Star Diamond hotel. In the hotel business, getting a "five" from a travel rating service is akin to winning an Academy Award. In the case of Harbor Court, it's even a bit like Rocky's best picture Oscar in 1976 -- a storybook upset.

Only 31 U.S. hotels have won the award this year. Of those winners, most are in major cities or they are sprawling resorts. Philadelphia doesn't have one, nor does Washington, or Boston.

It puts the relatively tiny (at 203 rooms) Harbor Court in the company of such modern palaces as Beverly Hills' L'Ermitage, New York's Four Seasons and the Grand Wailea in Hawaii.

"We don't compromise," says Werner R. Kunz, Harbor Court's managing director. "We could start putting silk flowers out or not using bone china, but people would notice -- maybe not consciously -- but they'd see us slipping, and that wouldn't do."

In his 10 years at the 13-year-old Harbor Court, Kunz has developed a reputation as a demanding, hands-on manager. It's not uncommon to see him personally rearranging a lobby rug, mopping up a spill or inviting a guest to a game of racquetball.

"How do you maintain excellence? That's the trick," the 56-year-old Swiss native insists.

Just so

Harbor Court's 340 employees live under stricter rules than their counterparts at other hotels: no gum, no sneakers, no attitudes. Housekeepers have photos of properly made-up suites they can consult so that such amenities as the note paper and English milled soap are positioned exactly right.

Harbor Court officials were so excited by the award that it was immediately mounted on a lobby wall and this week hotel employees sported matching lapel pins.

"People love good service, they really do," says Don Coley, 50, the hotel's legendary doorman, a former city social studies teacher who knows virtually every repeat visitor by name.

Part of the thrill is that Harbor Court isn't qualified to make top ratings from the better-known North American travel guides, the American Automobile Association and Mobil. That's because both expect five-diamond (in the case of AAA) or five-star (Mobil's rating) hotels to have spectacular amenities like an 18-hole golf course or a grand concourse lined with upscale shops.

As a result, the hotel is a perennial four-star and four-diamond destination -- an excellent rating but not a world-beater.

Harbor Court is also privately owned -- by David Murdock, the West Coast developer who created the hotel and the adjoining Harbor Court condominium tower for more than $100 million -- which means it doesn't have the public-relations clout of a chain.

But with its European ambience -- its discreet courtyard entrance and elaborate decor -- the Harbor Court has been Baltimore's premier destination since it opened. Celebrities from Sharon Stone to Will Smith and a parade of foreign dignitaries have stayed there, and the hotel's willingness to accommodate them is legendary.

Where else can a member of the Saudi royal family expect a four-course dinner for 30 people at 3 a.m.? Where else would a concierge spend half the night tracking down Bill Cosby's favorite brand of coffee from Spain? Or track down kitty litter for Robert Goulet's cats?

"You can see more stars walking around at Harbor Court than anywhere else," marvels John A. Moag Jr., managing director of Legg Mason, who steers clients to the hotel.

When the hotel opened in 1986, it seemed a highly speculative enterprise on a still-budding Inner Harbor. "Luxury with a capital L," a newspaper headline proclaimed.

Baltimore's movers and shakers were soon introduced to the hotel's main dining room, Hampton's. With its wing-back chairs, flawless service and trademark gardenia floating in a crystal bowl on every table, it quickly established a reputation as Baltimore's most luxurious dining spot.

The Explorer's Lounge, the safari-motif bar, and the more casual dining room, the bright and English garden-like Brightons, have garnered their own following. But for most Baltimoreans, Harbor Court's premier attractions -- its 26 suites costing up to $3,000 a night -- are something to only dream about.

'Second home'

"Sometimes we wish we were back at the hotel," says Art Modell, the Baltimore Ravens football team owner who made a Harbor Court suite his address for the first 14 months in Baltimore. "It's one of the finest in America."

Academy officials say the Harbor Court was brought to their attention by past hotel guests, chiefly from New York's financial community, and by hospitality professionals. After an anonymous inspection confirmed Harbor Court's charms, the award was ratified by the organization's governing board of hoteliers.

The academy's award is not without controversy. AAA and Mobil have complained for several years that "Five Star Diamond" sounds suspiciously like their rating systems, and questioned the academy's objectivity.

"The only two we consider reputable are Mobil and AAA," says Tia Gordon, spokeswoman for the American Hotel and Motel Association. "That's not to say this isn't reputable, but we don't keep up on it."

Still, that doesn't mean the Harbor Court doesn't deserve a toast to its excellence (perhaps from a bottle of 1989 Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame at $215 a pop from the Hampton's wine list).

Joseph Masiello, a stockbroker with Donaldson Lufkin Jenrette in New York, says he wouldn't consider staying anywhere else when he comes to Baltimore. He's been doing just that an average of once a week for 10 years.

"It's like my second home," he says.

Johns Hopkins Hospital, which attracts thousands of foreign citizens including royalty and the super-rich seeking medical treatment, routinely sends its most demanding visitors to Harbor Court. Some competing hospitals such as Duke University and the Cleveland Clinic have trouble attracting such patients because their cities lack such a luxurious hotel, Hopkins officials say.

"Our biggest problem lately is that the hotel's full," says John J. Hutchins, the hospital's director of international services.

That may change soon. Plans are in the works to build a Ritz-Carlton harbor-front hotel in Federal Hill, possibly as early as in 2002 -- if a dispute over the building's height is resolved.

Meanwhile, the Harbor Court is considering building "a training facility for our new employees, maybe building four new bi-level suites on the rooftop garden," Kunz says. "Baltimore will have never seen anything like it."

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