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.


Blogger hulananni said...

Great blog. I feel like I was thee again....and, oh, the Radio City Christmas show...magic. Lucky children indeed. Thanks, Will.

11/20/2009 1:43 AM  

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