Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Weekend at the Waldorf: Still Incomparable After All These Years

My wife and I try to take our kids to New York for a few days in Manhattan at least every three years, and we made such a visit last weekend. The fall lull between Labor Day and Thanksgiving is a good time to go because the weather usually turns crisp, and New York City is not as crowded as it is during the summer and Christmas holidays. We also plan a few Broadway shows into the mix, and then we do a lot of walking. All in all, very relaxing.

Six months ago when I planned our NYC trip, I was happy to find the Hilton's Waldorf=Astoria (the "=" is not a typo--that's the way Hilton markets the hotel's name) was selling rooms at a reasonable (for Manhattan) asking price. I booked a room with 2 double beds for $315 per night with a potential free upgrade to the Waldorf Towers, the hotel within a hotel where every president since Hoover has maintained a suite.

It's been over a decade since I last stayed at the Waldorf, so I didn't know what to expect. It was always one of my favorite places in Manhattan. I love its location, its posh and lovely decor, and its service. I never had a bad night at the Waldorf=Astoria.

Not that the room was cheap. With taxes the room was going to set me back about $800 for two nights, which isn't chicken feed. Ever since booking it, I scoured various hotel sites for a better deal someplace else just in case some fabulous room rate in a midtown hotel suddenly popped up. But one didn't, so I stuck with the Waldorf. Secretly I wanted to stay there again anyway, and to give my two kids a chance to experience it, too.

Meantime, I copped Orchestra center seats five rows from the stage for Disney's Mary Poppins at the gorgeous New Amsterdam Theater (a Saturday matinee and absolutely not to be missed!), and I found a good deal for similar seats at the Radio City Christmas Spectacular show (on Sunday morning and just OK). We figured we could work in a lot of walking and gawking around the shows, and we'd let our kids decide that they wanted to do on this visit.

Our arrival at the Waldorf was two hours later than we planned, thanks to inbound La Guardia flight delays. The hotel staff immediately won us over with the upgrade to a Tower room, 38F2. Technically, I think, every Waldorf Towers room is called a suite, but ours was the runt of the litter. Not that we didn't like it; we did. It's just very tiny to be called a suite. It has a small foyer, adjacent to which is the roomy bath, a decent-sized closet, and the bed room.

I was very pleased, as was my wife (always important). The extremely high ceilings made the smallish interior of the bed room feel much larger, another plus. The appointments were sumptuous if not luxurious, and the beds extremely comfortable.

The Waldorf Towers only go to 42 floors, so my kids were thrilled to be so high up. 38F2 offers a slightly obscured view of the Chrysler Building which did not disappoint them or us.

The bath room had the usual complement of so-called luxury liquids and doodads, but the bottles were all cheap plastic. The bath soap was the winner. It smelled wonderfully of allspice and cloves.

The tub and shower did not have the now-familiar Hilton curved shower rod and curtain, but it was very large and didn't need the artificially expanded interior. Best of all, the shower's water pressure was strong enough that my six year old daughter had to brace herself in its stream. No water conservation in the Waldorf Towers, thank God! With all that water pressure pumped way up to the 38th floor, one wonders what a ground floor shower experience would be like.

Oddly there remained the vestiges of an extra set of water valves for the shower/tub. The presence of the naked holes where the now disused valve handles once emanated gave the appearance of an old, tired hotel whose owners could not afford the expense of removing the cosmetic flaw. It was the one glaring contrast to an otherwise fine experience.

At check-in a small notice was slipped into the little key holder, the small folded cardboard one gets in hotels. Its title: "Our Dress Code." The Waldorf=Astoria wanted patrons to know that they are "proud of our heritage and of the central role we have always played in New York's social community" and therefore "after 6:00 PM each day" guests were to obey the dress code "for all public areas including our main lobby and restaurants." For men, this was defined as "collared shirt and slacks; jackets are optional." For ladies: "Either slacks, a skirt or dress."

The Dress Code further stipulates that "no shorts, T-shirts, or other very casual attire be worn in the evening hours."

This met with my approval, especially as I was already dressed in a tie, and my family also met the criteria. However, when we ducked into the bar between the Park Avenue entrance grand foyer and the interior Main Lobby (the Waldorf capitalizes it, not me) for a $17 gin-and-tonic (plus tax and tip), my wife and I noticed more than half the patrons did not meet the Dress Code requirements.

In fact we observed throughout the evening and again on Saturday night that many hotel guests had failed to read, or chose to ignore, the Dress Code.

Frankly, I was disappointed in their behavior. I am not a snob, but there is civility, even dignity, in dressing up a bit, and the Waldorf dress code bar had not been set very high to begin with. I thought that at least guests would not present themselves in jeans and T-shirts after 6:00 PM, yet there they were all over the place looking like slobs.

The Waldorf Towers features two unique services. First, there is a separate elevator bank which may only be reached by guests holding Towers room key cards. Second, there is the separate Waldorf Towers entrance on 50th Street. Inside is a small but elegant lobby and exclusive Towers service desk for checking in and out. All very posh and manned by well-mannered, knowledgeable, and surprisingly friendly staff.

We used the Concierge Desk in the Main Lobby several times, and every experience was a good one. Staff were quick and cordial to take care of our every need. For example, my six year old daughter needed several band-aids after developing blisters on her heels from ice skating at Rockefeller Center Plaza (about $19 for both skating privileges and skate rentals--a bargain), and the Concierge desk came up with band-aids and ointment in about 3 minutes.

I have already mentioned the lofty prices for a mere gin and tonic in the Waldorf bars ($17 plus plus). Our light late night supper Friday evening came to a more reasonable $72 all in.

Mornings we enjoyed a complimentary breakfast in the Concierge Lounge on the 26th floor. Though devoid of cooked foods, the selection of comestibles was stupendous for a so-called Continental breakfast, reminding me of breakfast bars laid on at the best
European and Asian hostelries. There was something for every taste, and it was all good.

My only nit was that the 26th floor lounge was the sole such facility for the entire hotel, including the Towers. Only guests who paid for or earned the privilege of lounge access were allowed in, of course. Even so, the 26th floor room is not a dedicated space. It is a converted suite with small round tables and over-sized chairs more suited for a smoking lounge than a type of restaurant. Its obviously adapted quality (as opposed to an elegant purpose-built room) was oddly out of synch with the otherwise grand beauty of the hotel's public spaces.

It also seems out of keeping for the Towers not to have its own exclusive lounge. Frankly, sharing the one lounge with the unwashed who must reside in the main hotel is declasse and cheapens the Towers experience.

Weekend hours at the lounge begin at 7:00 AM; Monday to Friday hours are from 6:00 AM. When breakfast is concluded guests may use the lounge for relaxing and enjoy complimentary soft drinks. We did not sample the lounge's evening offerings, if indeed any weekend food and beverages are even available.

So many luminaries from the worlds of politics, business, and entertainment have stayed in the Waldorf Towers that it's hard to make a list. Start with every president since Hoover (who lived in the Towers after leaving office) and go on to Cole Porter (who also lived in the Towers and whose Steinway grand still graces the Main Lobby bar), Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, and Douglas McArthur. Only Buckingham Palace has hosted more heads-of-state than the Waldorf Towers.

I tried hard to find fault with the Waldorf=Astoria experience because no hotel stay is flawless. I mentioned above the few, relatively small chinks in the armor. Overall, however, it was a great experience, thanks in no small part to a great staff obviously proud to be serving at one of the most historic and graciously elegant hotels on earth.

Such an experience, however occasional, stays with me and helps me to endure the countless thousands of pathetic, pedestrian hotels that dot America like a bad rash. I realize, of course, that such a hostelry standard can only rarely be attained elsewhere. But I pray the next time I return to Manhattan that the grand old lady will still be there to enfold me in her arms, and that the Hilton upgrade gods will smile on me once more, enabling me to lay claim to another Waldorf Towers suite for a night or two.

Rail, Air, Automobile: It's All Slowing Down! We're Doomed!

Usually I write about my trials and travails with the airlines, because that's my usual transportation mode. Familiarity with airlines does tend to breed contempt if you fly a lot, and for good reasons, mostly.

Recently, however, I've been experimenting with other transportation options, such as driving when I have to go somewhere less than 300 miles distant from Raleigh (my home), and even taking the train when one's available.

I could spew a lot of words with examples, but I'll be brief because I want to write another, more upbeat blog entry about a delightful weekend experience in Manhattan in the Waldorf Towers.

Regarding my several experiences driving during 2009, suffice it to say that none were entirely satisfactory. With 300 million souls in the USA, and with our Interstates not only over-crowded but crumbling, you just can't get anywhere fast without a police escort, and I am no governor or senator.

Driving a few weeks ago to Washington, DC was another in a growing list of personal disasters to get anywhere near our nation's capital. It took just a bit over two hours to get to Richmond (161 miles) but another four and a half hours to drive the remaining 130 miles. Reason? Traffic, simply too many cars on the road. Weather wasn't bad, just too many cars. No accidents, either. Just too many cars trying to occupy the same stretch of I-95 North.

Returning was no better. I tried to beat the traffic by leaving the city early at 11:00 AM. Apparently everyone else had the same notion because I was still creeping for miles and miles and miles on I-95 South. I can't believe I am writing these words, but flying to and from DC is better.

Or maybe rail? My experience with Amtrak last week right here in North Carolina put the lie to that possibility. I took my children to Greensboro last Wednesday (Veterans Day school holiday, formerly known as Armistice Day) on the train because they love going anywhere by rail. Thanks to North Carolina DOT-Rail Division, which offers several NC-funded trains, there is a good out-and-back connection from Raleigh to Greensboro with a one hour wait time for the return train.

You might recall last week that the remnant of Hurricane Ida was making its slow way up the Atlantic coast, and we got a lot of rain. But not so much to cause floods.

Enough, though, that Norfolk Southern Railway dispatchers, over which Amtrak operates in parts of North Carolina, declared a 15 MPH speed limit for passenger trains and a 40 MPH limit on freight trains.

Why the speed limits? Because NS has cut their track maintenance staff so deeply that they have no one to inspect the roadway when it rains.

Why do they need to do that? Well, they really don't need to do it, barring a deluge and serious flooding (and last week was not that circumstance). The NS culture, however, is so risk averse now that they are scared of their own shadows, so the speed limit was a CYA by management.

Why did they allow freight trains to run faster than Amtrak in the rain? Another CYA. However remote, they don't want the liability or bad press of a passenger train accident.

What was the effect last Wednesday? A 3 hour and 59 minute delay on our return train from Greensboro to Raleigh (which was then going on to New York). I had to call my wife and plead with her to drive the 60 miles to Greensboro to rescue us. The Greensboro Amtrak station, though beautifully restored, is a cold, austere environment with no restaurant or diversion to fritter away a long delay, and it's remote from downtown, too.

The worst news, though, is my discovery (after making some inquiries) that such 15 MPH speed limits are ROUTINE when it rains for Amtrak trains over the Norfolk Southern Railway tracks, and that they are likely to be routine when it rains even for the NY-Washington-Atlanta high-speed trains that eventually come through here.

So much for traveling by rail in that part of North Carolina over the NS Railway.

Can you imagine slowing every train down every time it rains? Trains once gave the post office its proud slogan that went something like this: "Neither sleet nor snow nor rain nor fog nor gloom of night shall prevent the Post Office Department from delivering the mail." The P.O. could make that boast truthfully because mail moved mostly by rail, and trains ran at the fastest allowable track speeds through any weather. And they did that for more than 100 years! So why not now?

Meanwhile, ICE trains in Germany and TGV trains in France are never slowed by a little rain, and they often make close to 200 MPH. Shame on us in the USA.

Finally about my air experience last Friday RDU/LGA: Getting in and out of any New York airport (EWR, LGA, or JFK) is always iffy, but last Friday that darn hurricane (what was left of it) remained stalled over the northeast dumping rain. Clouds and rain at La Guardia always produce miserable delays. Friday was no exception.

Long story short, my AA Eagle flight was 2 hours late, and I was happy it wasn't canceled altogether given the weather. Just another waste of time combined with sheer boredom.

So where does that leave us in the United States in terms of transportation options? I don't have any answers. Every time you head for the train station, the airport, or take to the Interstates, it's entirely a crap shoot.

My advice? Go anyway. Travel is always worth it. Just make sure you bring a book along, or maybe two.