Spring always makes me think of cherry trees and blooming flowers and parks in Japan and it has always been my desire to go to Tokyo at this time of the year. In early March, a trip presented itself so we “flew the coop”’ and, by a stroke of luck, found ourselves in a Tokyo hotel that has one of the best reputations in the world.
It’s the Park Hyatt Tokyo–the “go-to hotel” in in the Japanese capital–and upon arrival, we were immediately immersed into Japanese hotel heaven. Being a bit rung-out from the long journey, we couldn’t wait for the Park Hyatt to begin its magical decompression.
Located in the Shinjuku Park Tower in West Shinjuku, the Park Hyatt occupies the top 14 floors of the 52-story building complex. It has 177 generously-sized rooms which includes 23 suites, five restaurants, a complete spa, health club and a glamorous swimming pool that helped put the hotel on the map.
On first arrival, the Park Hyatt is undeniably one of the most guest friendly establishments I’ve ever encountered. Exiting our taxi, seemingly, a phalanx of exceedingly courteous doormen descended upon us to assist with our arrival and bags. Within seconds our bags disappeared and we were directed to a bank of elevators, one of which whisked us upwards to the 41st floor. Getting out of the elevator, one walks past the bamboo shrouded “Peak Lounge,” then down a passageway past the hotel’s European restaurant, “Girandole,” and then past rows of shelves of books and a treasure trove of beautiful art books and onto the reception area.
The time at the reception area is short indeed; instead of standing, or even sitting at a traditional check-in counter or desk, guests are immediately escorted by one of the smartly attired receptionists to another private elevator bank and whisked up to one of nine floors that make up the accommodation levels of the hotel.
Into the rooms and we are shown all the room necessities, amenities and payment details are quickly and politely dispensed with. A plate of pastries and muesli with fresh juices are also laid out and waiting on a coffee table for guests to have a quick refreshment before going on to whatever–a nap, exploring the hotel’s attractions, i.e. “the pool,” or going outside for a bit of exploring the Shinjuku neighborhood.
The hotel has a shuttle van running every 20 minutes between the hotel and Shinjuku Station, a five minute ride depending on traffic, although walking is about 10 minutes. Shinjuku is the world’s largest train station with more than two million commuters using its 200 portals every day. The trains at the station, both under and overground, will easily take one anywhere in or around Tokyo or beyond. Tokyo is very much a commuting country where space is a premium and the cost of parking in Tokyo is astronomic. Also built into the Shinjuku station complex are a variety of well-known department stores; no retail opportunities missed here.
Nearby the hotel–a ten minute walk–is a park and the world renown Menji Jingu Shrine. While strolling through the park, we happened onto a wedding in the Shrine. After watching the participants amble by, we continued our walk through the Park to Harajaku, a shopping district very similar to Soho in New York City. It’s a great area of Tokyo, but that’s another story.
Walking through the park and Harajaku to get rid of our jet lag wasn’t quite working–at least walking and window shopping wasn’t the answer. So we returned to the hotel.
Our next “grand awakening idea” was, “let’s go for a swim in one of the most famous swimming pools in the world.”
The Park Hyatt’s large-scale swimming pool, located on the 47th floor, achieved its iconic status starring in the 2003 feature film, Lost In Translation. Co-starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson, numerous scenes were shot by the pool, thus giving the pool its renown status. The pool seems so surreal located so high above the Tokyo skyline. It’s length is a healthy 65 feet by four wide swimming lanes, and good enough for any healthy workout–and it is open all day and early evening.
The pool did the job. After swimming a few laps, we were re-energized for another walk on the town amidst the neon ”glamourama” that lights up Tokyo every evening.
Aside from the pool and its fascinating history, one of the interesting “finds” at the hotel was, in fact, an individual that works there. It’s the chief concierge, Mr. Adrian Fautt. Originally a native of Southern California and having attended a world-renowned university in Los Angeles, Mr. Fautt is a veritable encyclopedia of Japan when it comes to suggestions and recommendations on what to do and see, where to eat and where to shop. Whether you want an evening strolling the Ginza or Harajaku, or a day’s outing in nearby quaint Kawagoe, his easy-going manner combined with his cultural and linguistic expertise, his energy, enthusiasm and knowledge, make this gentleman a five-star diamond asset for the Park Hyatt.
On our final evening, we decided to splurge for the last supper. We usually avoid hotel dining rooms, but the New York Grill on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt has the reputation of being one of the top ten restaurants in Tokyo. We heard that recommendation from a few of our foodie friends that had dined there as well as reading about it in every travel story of where to dine in Tokyo. It was a toss-up between Kozue, the hotel’s Japanese restaurant or the New York Grill, and we were thrilled with our decision.
The New York Grill sports four huge paintings and other art works combined with floor-to-ceiling glass windows offering spectacular views in all directions of Tokyo. In addition to its very buzzy open kitchen, there are large tables where cutlery, dishes, napkins, water and wine glasses aren’t jammed up against each other. And then there’s the fun of deciphering the menu and wine list with the help restaurant manager, Daniel Ganser. Mr. Ganser, originally from Austria with a great culinary sense and expertise, has to be one of the most jovial and energetic individuals to ever run such a masterful and extraordinary dispensary of finely crafted food and drink combined with artful presentation. He genuinely knows his stuff and it’s a pleasure to be on the receiving end of his savory pitches.
I ordered the scallops and my wife ordered the duck–and we shared a side of crispy duck fat potato fries. The meal was simply divine. To top it off, there was a jazz band playing well-known standards to accompany the superb meal, making the evening extra special.
So ended our quick Tokyo sojourn, but thanks to the personal care, gracious customer service and incredibly elegant accommodation at the Park Hyatt, Tokyo, the memories will be long lasting. This is one unique property that really did live up to its reputation!
The beauty of Haneda Airport is that it is really close to downtown Tokyo–unlike Narita, which is more than 50 miles east of the sprawling Japanese capital. Until 2010, Haneda was just a domestic airport handling volumes of regional traffic plus domestic arrivals and departures. But 2010 saw the opening of a new international terminal as well as a much needed fourth runway and I recently experienced the joy of using close-in Haneda as opposed to distant and overcrowded Narita.
Our flight landed at Haneda at approximately 9:30 a.m. on the most easterly runway (34R) and experienced a fairly long – maybe 15 minutes – taxi over to the International Terminal located on the west side of the airfield.
Disembarking from the airplane, it was onto a jetway, and then into the terminal building and down a long hall way to Japan’s Immigration facilities; that stroll was pretty brisk as we were eager to get out of the airport after a 12 hour flight.
Luckily at that time of the morning arriving at the immigration area, there were plenty of manned kiosks with lively officials ready to stamp us into Japan. That process, even with several people in front of us in the queue, took no more than three minutes max.
Then walking straight ahead into the baggage hall, there was an immediate chiming sound and the baggage carousel began to churn. And within minutes, our bags were there, ready for the picking. Because we had been on a connecting flight, the connecting bags emerged first – that was a bit of pure luck.
Baggage carts at Haneda are free, unlike the $5 ripoff at most USA airport terminals (LAX being an exception in the arrivals area of the Tom Bradley International Terminal). The carts also are large unlike some of the familiar SmartCarte models, and can take three large suitcases. We had three plus a few hand carries so two carts filled the bill.
Outside the baggage hall, there were well-staffed information desks and kiosks to obtain maps and advice as well as purchase transport into Tokyo. And then, pick-up areas for public transportation were located immediately outside the baggage hall.
Now on to town and our hotel in downtown Tokyo. There are several modes of public transport available to downtown Tokyo – taxi, an airport limousine bus and a monorail. Since we were schlepping all those bags, and were headed to the Park Hyatt Hotel located on the west side of downtown Tokyo, we chose the airport limousine bus to Shinjuku Station, the largest commuter hub in Tokyo, and closest to our hotel.
Haneda, adjacent to Tokyo Bay and south of downtown, is only nine miles from Shinjuku Station. The fare is 1,200 yen each (about $12.65) and it was a non-stop ride which took about 30 minutes. Since we were driving well after the commuting hour, it was fast and comfortable.
Upon arrival at Shinjuku Station, we hopped into a taxi for the five minute ride to the Park Hyatt; the taxi fare was 710 yen ($7.48). All counted, our trip for two from Haneda to the hotel was just under $33, a sensible price from airport to hotel in just under one hour.
Departing to Haneda from the hotel several days later for an early flight back to the USA was just as effortless, with the exception that it simply cost more and it can be at an ungodly hour of the morning. Because of slot times at Haneda, departures to long-haul international destinations are timed very late at night or during the very early morning hours.
Coupled with the fact that most public transportation shuts down during the wee small hours of the morning, private car or taxi is the only way to Haneda. But if you can get by the outlandish 15,000 yen taxi fare ($157.83), the ride is less than 25 minutes.
On arrival at the departures level of Haneda’s International terminal, there are plenty of baggage carts curbside – again, no charge. Once inside the terminal, well-lit signage directs one to the appropriate check-in area. By the way, all airport signs are posted in English as well as Japanese.
Airlines have been allocated plenty of available check-in desks for each class of service and there are an abundance of check-in staff to assist with baggage, passport and seating formalities. Check-in is a cinch.
From the check-in area, it’s an easy two minute walk to security – the lines were quick – and one does not have to remove shoes, only laptops. From security, one walks straight ahead to immigration, and again, there are numerous manned kiosks and you’re away in seconds.
Again the early timing of the departures may work against you if you still have yen to burn as the duty free shops and restaurants may not be open. On our experience, the very large duty free shop opened just after 5 a.m. and there was an immediate flood of customers pouring in to buy those last minute goodies; Japanese cookies, pastries and candies are the best deals. Unique to Japan, you will be able to find KitKats in a variety of flavors such as green tea, blueberry cheesecake, strawberry cheesecake and others.
In the morning hours, the gate areas have plenty of seats and by the time you get somewhat settled, trying not to doze off and miss your boarding announcements, flights are ready to go. Airline lounges also are located airside making the walk to the gate less strainful.
On our flight, boarding by cabin and by row was called about 45 minutes prior to departure enabling the flight to push back right on schedule.
For sheer ease and convenience to downtown Tokyo, flying in and out of Haneda beats the out-of-the-way Narita. However to save money on airport transfers, particularly on outbound flights during reasonable daylight hours for eastbound flights across the Pacific, Narita would be the airport of choice. Narita also offers more flights to and from a variety of USA gateways.
Daily flights between JFK, New York, and Haneda are operated by American Airlines with Delta Airlines operating daily between Los Angeles and Haneda, and starting June 1, 2013, Seattle/Tacoma and Haneda. Also Hawaiian Airlines flies daily between Honolulu and Haneda.
Haneda also hosts other well known international airlines such as British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Singapore and, naturally, the two global Japanese carriers, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways.
NOTE: Narita, the larger airport of Tokyo which handles most all international carriers, offers bus limousine service to and from downtown Tokyo. A rail connection also is available. The bus ride, to or from downtown, may take anywhere from one hour 15 minutes to over two hours, depending on traffic and time of day. One-way limousine bus service between Narita and downtown Tokyo is 3,000 yen ($31.61).
In past columns, I’ve related some personal experiences, especially about childhood memories and travel that lend themselves to my adult travel adventures. I can now reveal another recent travel experience that enabled me to erase a childhood memory which caused a bit of hurt a long time ago, but has permitted me to close the door on years of gentle, brotherly jealousy.
When I was in junior high school, my younger brother was in grammar school, and my parents would take him on annual ski vacations to Alta, Utah, but never me. I guess being the older brother, I couldn’t miss a week of school, but my younger brother could.
Over the many years of going to Alta, my brother Lanny became an expert skier. I always felt left behind, doing my best to learn to ski at local ski resorts around Los Angeles or the occasional ski weekend to Mammoth Mountain.
Over the years, I mastered skiing to the cautious intermediate level and was always pleased with my amateur status. And on a few occasions, I had the good fortune to ski at Vail, Gstaad, Zermatt and, of course, my California favorite, Mammoth.
I always had this desire to ski at Alta just to see where by brother learned to ski so well and to kick this childhood jealousy out of my system.
Some 12 years ago, my brother’s wife Sharon bought a home in Ogden, Utah, about a one hour drive north of Salt Lake City – - and over the years they have invited me numerous times, summer and winter, to visit and go skiing when the snow was on. And just as often, work always got in the way; it seemed the preferred winter ski trip was always out of the question because of conflicting work commitments or when I could get away in late spring, the snow had already melted. A summer visit might be nice, but it wouldn’t resolve my ski dilemma.
Since retirement I have more flexibility, and after all these years, I finally found the right time to buy an air ticket to Utah for the winter trip that would make up for all those childhood ski dreams.
One recent evening, I flew out on JetBlue’s non-stop to Salt Lake City Airport from JFK, rented a car and then headed north on I-15 to Ogden. It was an hour’s drive to their house, a beautiful “cottage” as they call it, nestled half way up Ogden Canyon. As I drove up the canyon around midnight, I couldn’t see too much, but I knew at day break, the views would be inspiring.
I woke at sun up, and sure enough I wasn’t disappointed. I was awestruck at the views out the cottage windows. The early sun hit the high canyon walls and it was just like a western landscape painting or a photo from some century-old naturalist art book. Blue sky, the evergreens and the snow everywhere made it look like a picture postcard. I started shooting photos and sending them to all my e-mail connected friends.
On my first day I explored Ogden and environs, and just took in the wide expanse and beauty of the Wasatch Mountain range which extends from the Idaho-Utah border, down south over 160 miles to the center of the state. Many of the famous Utah ski resorts dotted in the Wasatch hosted various events in the 2002 Winter Olympics.
I didn’t ski the first day, as I just wanted to adjust and get acquainted with this new region of the USA that I had never visited before. First stop on the drive ‘round was Farr’s Ice Cream store – actually turned out to be the first of several visits. Farr’s was founded in 1920 and now serves over 75 flavors at any given time – some of which were a first for me. Since I class myself as an expert ice cream buff (many years working at Baskin-Robbins in the 60‘s), Farr’s rated pretty high on the list.
Next stops were a couple local ski and sports shops just to insure we weren’t missing any ‘end of season’ deals that we could use in the next few days. One shop advertised discounted lift tickets, but when we tried to buy the tickets for a couple of days, it turned out they were adult advance purchase only and we were too late and also, they did not indulge in selling senior discounts.
The second day the weather was blue sky and beautiful, and we made the 20 minute drive to Snowbasin, one of Utah’s premier ski areas with over 2,800 skiable acres and a vertical drop of just over 2,900 feet. Snowbasin was the 2002 site of the Winter Olympics Downhill, Super G and combined Races. So I had come upon a pretty classy ski resort with 11 chairlifts, two high-speed gondolas, 104 ski runs, restaurants at the top and bottom of the main runs and full service rental and retail sales shops. Everything available–and a snow pack of over five feet. Peachy!
I hadn’t skied in five years so my first two runs were on the short Little Cat (bunny) slope just to insure I still had my ski legs and that I remembered how to maneuver; it all seemed to coordinate together so then it was off to the Becker Lift which starts at a 6,556 foot elevation and goes up the 7,817 foot De Moisy Peak. I took the beginner and intermediate runs back down and all went well.
With a couple good runs with my brother, it was now time to ride the gondola called the ‘Needles Express’ up to Needles Peak, 8,726 feet high. Very cautiously I skied down, constantly staying at slower speeds and resting every few minutes. I could feel my heart racing, both from the needed exercise that I hadn’t done in five years, but also from the anxiousness at not wanting to fall and be a complete nuisance to my brother. In fact, he was terrific, stopping with me and making sure I felt ok. It all worked brilliantly that first day, and we came home that afternoon very pleased with ourselves - he skied in excellent form, and me, happy that I didn’t fall or break anything, and we had a great time.
Day two went just as well although I felt a bit sore, and because the weather was a bit gray, we just took it easy, and didn’t ski as long as we did the day before. I emerged from day two with confidence and content. That second day I did fall once in some powder as I managed to slightly veer off a trail and found myself struggling to get up, out of the deep powder. With my brother’s help, I made it back on piste and, together, we mildly schussed down the mountain.
With the second day of skiing under the belt, the next diversion was apres ski, and wow, did my brother know the right place. About an hour from Snowbasin is Crystal Hot Springs, located north of Ogden in Honeyville. Crystal Hot Springs has several hot pools of mineral water – one hotter than the other - each incredibly muscle-soothing and relaxing after a tough day on the slopes. The mineral bath complex is well run and very clean although the men’s changing rooms reminded me of junior high school gym class locker rooms, but once attired in swim gear, one makes the mad dash from the changing rooms into 20+ degree temperatures and into the steaming water. It is just fantastic! No question about it – the only thing missing was the hot toddy.
After the relaxing hour at Crystal Hot Springs, it was on to dinner, and we were really famished. The next interesting find was the Maddox Ranch House restaurant in Perry, back south in the direction of Ogden. Known for its steaks, fried chicken and a wide variety of comfort food since 1949, Maddox was the perfect end to the day. Maddox’s prices are reasonable with oversize portions of main courses, sides and desserts – any and everything you want to muster up for dinner. They feature old fashion root beer and sarsasparilla, plus coffee and tea, but no alcoholic beverages. Maddox also does a lunch special from 12 noon to 5 p.m. which presents most of the main menu items at less cost than dinner – the restaurant is jammed packed between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. when it seems all of northern Utah cashes in on the bargain meals.
Totally stuffed, we rolled out of Maddox to the car and drove home to end what was a perfect sports occasion. And to the point at the beginning of my saga, my childhood jealousy of my brother’s skiing expertise was fading fast. It was a great pleasure being with him and learning about his experiences and knowledge of the region – time to enjoy the present and forget about the silliness of the past.
The next day we decided to take a day of rest – not skiing, but exploring more places of interest in and around Ogden. First stop was Hill Air Force Base’s Aerospace Museum. As a retired airline PR guy, and an airplane techie, the Hill Museum is as close as one may come to the Smithsonian Museum Aviation displays out by Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia. The Hill exhibits are all American aircraft, save one Russian MIG17 and a British-designed, American manufactured Canberra bomber. There are over 80 aircraft – everything from Wright Brothers era aircraft, to World War II, Korean, Vietnam and even a SR-71 – fighters, bombers, troop transports and helicopters – all sizes and shapes. From wooden prop to supersonic jet, it’s all there!
From the Hill Aerospace Museum, I had to shop for a small gift for my wife slaving back in New York. We love special sweets, and when in the west, we make a habit to go to See’s Candies as it’s the real thing, and the hand-picked chocolates are only available in the Western USA. But now my sister in law told me about Mrs. Cavannagh’s chocolates, so I had to check them out. A small shop (one of only five in the region) in north Ogden, was the home of Mrs. Cavannagh’s Chocolates (the factory is located near the Salt Lake City Airport) and the drive there is worth every penny or dollar. There are new varieties (comparing to See’s) which are mouth-watering and seemingly double-dreamy chocolately – if there is such a word. Their chocolate covered peanuts, almonds and cream assortments are definitely worth the stop if you crave chocolates for any occasion.
Onwards to lunch – and to the very tiny town of Huntsville, Utah, population, maybe 700. You get there by driving from Ogden up through Ogden Canyon and then follow the signs. In Huntsville, a 30 minute drive from Ogden, is the Shooting Star Saloon, founded in 1879, and alleged to be the ‘first real saloon’ west of the Mississippi. Shooting Star offers a very limited menu – hamburgers, cheeseburgers and a few variations, plus numerous brands of beers, big brands and those I never heard of that are micro-brewed locally. Shooting Star gets jam-packed, especially from 4 p.m. onwards when everyone comes in after skiing or after work. It’s a real throw back to a bygone century – a real hoot! And a must stop in the Ogden environs.
Another site of historical interest near Ogden is the Golden Spike location at Promontory Summit where the first Transcontinental railroad was joined in May 1869. The final or golden spike was driven by Leland Stanford celebrating the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads finally connecting the entire USA by train.
Finally – the shopping. Ogden’s economy may not be the most robust in the USA, but there are numerous shops to keep Utah green. There are dozens of outlet stores for skiing and winter clothing and sports, and, of course, there are the usual mall shops. Solomon Brothers’ outlet featured a good selection of ski clothing at discount prices. But the best bet was the BDO Outlet Center in Bldg. 12A of the Business Depot (a former army base). It had the most curious array of selected grocery items, bakery goods, furniture, clothing and winter sports wear. I wound up buying a $149 winter jacket for $9.99. I have half a dozen jackets at home, but for the price, I couldn’t let this one go. One of my older, now too small coats in the closet will just have to go.
On this particular trip, I definitely ventured beyond the normal scope of skiing. I feel fortunate to have finally skied in Utah in order to end my early childhood hangup over my brother’s superior skiing ability, and at the same time, proved to myself that I can still ski without making a mess out of it. And at the same time, this trip brought two brothers a lot closer in many ways beyond the skis and snow. Long may there be good snow and good cheer in Utah!
Now I’m not one to write overly-emotional or mushy reviews about trips, properties or airlines unless something or someone has really gone over-the-top. I tried not to do it while writing press releases or correspondence during my airline career and I guess it’s the experience of being in the PR business for four decades and maybe seeing almost everything that one gets slightly jaded and spoiled.
But recently in snowy London, I really did encounter such a welcoming experience that I felt other travelers should know about my little sojourn. It was a short hotel stay that was a business trip to some extent with a bonus of having time to visit friends.
Now to put this into perspective . . .
For myself and perhaps for most road warriors, the very best part of the road trip is coming home. Yes, it’s quite over-the-top and utterly fantastic when we land the big contract for a million dollars worth of widgets, but by-and-large, the best part of the trip is walking into that warm and comfy home, taking off of the angst blanket and falling into that fabulously cushioned sofa or that triple-soft, body-warming bed.
But let’s back up a bit. Say you must travel to London for several days to meet with several clients and the appointments are all fixed; but you really don’t want to leave home. Teleconferencing, facetime or skype won’t do – there just has to be face-to-face communication – it’s always the best. So you plan to fly off to the UK.
What to do for a hotel? You want the comfort and convenience of home, but not the nuisance of a bad location or the high cost of the conventional super-deluxe, five-star hotels (which obviously of course, everybody wants; no secret there).
Now there are probably only a very few luxury hotels in Europe, let alone the world, that can fill the bill: comfort, space, economical and reasonable price with no intentional gouging the guests.
One hotel in London that certainly fits the bill is the Athenaeum, a small, family owned property located a stone’s throw from Hyde Park Corner on Piccadilly in the Mayfair district of London.
Now I first mentioned snowy because when we arrived at London just two weeks ago, it was in blizzard conditions. London gets very few inches of snow, probably once every two to three years, and the city’s snow removal plan is non-existent. We arrived in a howling snowstorm at Gatwick Airport and throughout our transfer from the airport to Victoria Station and then to the hotel, all worked exceedingly well. The city roads were all black, but we could see pedestrians with their umbrellas and slickers skillfully maintaining their balance whilst plying the sidewalks.
What immediately astounded me is that no one clears the sidewalks of the snow and ice. Upon arrival at the front door of the Athenaeum, we found the sidewalk had been cleared. Thank God.
What most people don’t realize is that the London sidewalks are made up of individual blocks or slabs of cement as opposed to continuous porous concrete or asphalt as found in the USA. When wet with snow or ice, these cold cement blocks are slippery as hell. It was kind of walking a tightrope hoping not to fall over. In the next two days of walking around London, we had to be every-so-careful as not to wind up on our bottoms. That was the last thing we needed.
The point here is that the Athenaeum had the good smarts to clean up their front door right away and avoid problems for guests or just passers by. Two steps into the hotel, and I was already impressed.
Upon checking in, Betty, a most courteous and lovely receptionist guided us through the check-in protocols, and then escorted us to our room. The room was spacious and looked ever-so-relaxing. Betty explained the various bits and pieces about the room and then totally flabergasted us when she stated that all snacks and non-alcoholic beverages in the mini-bar were free – - and that the minis of vodka gin, scotch, whatever, they were all £2.20 each.
Then the big hit – wifi also was free! I couldn’t believe it. A five-star, luxury hotel in central London not nickel and diming its guests.
I hadn’t been in the hotel for 20 minutes and I never wanted to leave. What a find! Why hadn’t I stayed here all these many times visiting London! Well I can’t erase the past, but I can certainly make up for some lost opportunities by enjoying the new hotel digs.
Getting back to the room – - upon first settling into a new hotel room, the first stop is the bathroom. Hey – it’s true. There were plenty of nice amenities, but the really cool thing is the soft water. Especially in cold, dry weather, it’s positively brilliant. Then the heated towels – of course a heated towel rack upon which were folded the British Floringo brand of towels, most luxurious and fluffy.
Now I can get a bit snobby about bed linens – my wife has taught me well – and I always joke about sheets and pillow cases with high thread counts. The bed linens were really smooth and then I saw why; they were Frette, one of Italy’s top linen manufacturers. No need to say more here. There were plenty of pillows, and what I love, a bouncy and fluffy duvet. For some reason, I love duvet covers rather than blankets – it’s a comfort thing as opposed to cosmetic or aesthetic. Maybe it’s the filler – down or whatever feather – but there’s weight and warmth without the scratchiness. That’s just me.
So there’s the hotel room – probably as close to home comfort and being 3,500 miles from Manhattan.
Being an ex-airline person, hotels usually were the necessary sidelight to a trip – it was always the destination or, quite often, the airplane that intrigued me: number of engines, size of the aircraft, cabin interiors, passengers, crew, aircraft performance – remember the Concorde or your first A380 ride - seat types, etc., etc., the list was endless.
Now here was a stationary, land-based object – a hotel – that really got my interest. Aside from the obvious places one would encounter between the front door and the bedroom, what else might there be slightly intriguing about this establishment?
First of all it has a great location in the heart of Mayfair, on a main thoroughfare, Piccadilly, very close to the Hyde Park Corner or Green Park tube stations. There are bus stops on either side of Piccadilly within a one minute walk from the front door. The location of the hotel is phenomenal considering that several blocks away is Apsley House, a once-stately home belonging to the Duke of Wellington, that is now a museum that bears the address, Number One London. Can’t get much more central than that.
Two other very important aspects of the Athenaeum – its very unusual and unique vertical garden and the separate private apartments around the corner.
First the vertical garden. When I first saw it and realized what it was, my reaction was, “how’d they do that.” Simply put, the garden or ‘living wall’ is eight stories of greenery, flowers and bushes that somehow adhere to the walls and foundation of the building – a kind of botanical architecture. It’s not just a case of a dense growth of up-shooting vines, but the artist/gardener has found a way to grow plants without the need for horizontally-based soil. There is a system of slats that secure an artificial felt and hundreds of plant roots, much the same as wild plants grow on vertical rock faces or tress. And it’s almost like Green Park across the road extended itself onto the Athenaeum – it’s quite a green-growing stunner!
The next unusual highlight of the Athenaeum is, in addition to 164 guest rooms and 12 suites in the main hotel building, the Athenaeum owns a block of 18 luxury town-house apartments located on adjacent Down Street. The Edwardian-architecture buildings house full size, one-bedroom, one bath, living areas complete with full kitchen facilities, living room and dining areas. There also are a few apartments that adjoin each other to make room for large families. It’s a great place for some guests host business meetings and meals while working, and not have to bother with setting up separate private meeting or banquet rooms; it’s all there. On one occasion, a very famous Hollywood director used the adjoining apartment as an edit bay and suite while working on his film.
The upper floor apartments all have elevator access and all apartments have twice-daily complete maid service. And the beauty of staying in the apartments is that there is no minimum or maximum stay as there can be with numerous other short or long-term apartment locations.
Often times business travelers are able to take their families, and this hotel sports a kid’s concierge that assists with kid-friendly shows, events and restaurants. Children are supplied with child-sized bathrobes and slippers, appropriate DVDs, snacks and soft drinks, and cookies and milk at bedtime. Age appropriate books, toys, games, electronic and otherwise, also are available. And everything is free – on the house.
Beyond the bedroom scene, the Athenaeum also has numerous other amenities to bolster its primary goal of accommodating the sleep-over needs. There is a luxury restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, a very cozy bar that features over 275 whiskies and a Garden Room for relaxing or taking in a sumptuous afternoon tea.
And something noteworthy, the Athenaeum was last year’s winner of the London Tea Guild’s “Top Afternoon Tea 2012,” a very prestigious Oscar-like award that pits the top hotels of London against each other in this friendly battle of the tea leaves.
The hotel also has its own spa offering a wide variety of relaxing body or facial treatments, and then there’s a wet area featuring glorious hot tubs and sauna. There is an exercise and gym area with treadmills and workout machines, plus the greatest set of bike trails in Green Park right across the street; the hotel does provide bicycles as well.
Now after reading all of this, many people will believe the Athenaeum will cost an arm and a leg. In fact it is nowhere near the prices charged by some of the larger five-star London hotels – and remember, wifi is free. That’s a biggie! Hotel prices will always vary by the season and even by the day of the week – that’s sound revenue management and any business subscribes to these dictums. And when you’re running a hotel with 225 staff, almost a one to one ratio of staff to guest, management is always looking for the best ways to properly serve its guests without overextending budgets.
It just so happens that during this time of the year, there is an Athenaeum room sale going on through the end of February. It consists of three nights for the price of two; it’s in dollars which makes everything more economical and easier to figure out; a three-night stay in a superior room is priced at approximately $723. The offer includes full English breakfast daily, all non-alcoholic drinks and snacks from the mini-bar, free wifi and full use of the hotel’s spa, gym and hot tubs. Children aged 12 and under eat free when dining with an adult.
Like I said before, London is a fabulous city, one that I had the privilege to live in for almost a year many years ago. I would do it again if I had the opportunity and the time. It’s almost like London is a second home. The reality is that certain places in this world, like London and its Athenaeum, really punch up the nostalgic button – for fact or dream, “two homes are better than one” and for the first time in a long while, I really didn’t want to go home.
Earlier this year I wrote about my Viennese connections and after a recent trip to Stockholm, I have discovered there are a few Swedish connections as well. Not so overtly familial, but more subliminal messages from my parents as well as the three trips to Sweden in the last two years.
First there was a trip to Malmo two years ago and later a trip to Stockholm. And just before this past Thanksgiving, we spent six days in Stockholm. The first Stockholm visit was quick and there was a bit of intrigue as I wanted to sightsee in the city locales featured in the “The Girl with Dragon Tattoo” books which I thoroughly loved. In the spring of 2011, I even assisted Sony Columbia with some costumes and props for one segment in the movie when the two principals fly to London from Stockholm to investigate a family connection.
At any rate, Stieg Larssons’s trilogy of murder and mayhem in Sweden was chilling as well as exciting and I had a contemporary excuse to visit Stockholm and follow the trail of Mikael Blomkvist.
Back in 1966, my parents started buying Volvos – a tradition which would continue for some 30 years. There had to be half a dozen parading through my life – when I would visit home in Los Angeles or when they drove cross-country.
I can always remember my parents loving everything Swedish – from a wide variety of furniture, dishes, silverware – and then the Volvo cars through the years.
They had a clever way of buying their cars, and at the same time having one swell of a vacation. My parents loved to travel and take mostly driving vacations, with some intercontinental trips thrown in. Whether they’d drive from LA to Utah for skiing as they did for many years, or drive across the USA as they did a few times, they preferred to drive and have their own sightseeing freedom, visit friends and just do what they enjoyed.
First they would pre-order a car from a local LA dealer, fly to London and connect on to Gothenburg – site of the Volvo factory, drive through Europe and end up in London and then have the car shipped to San Pedro, California.
They took the Volvos everywhere and thus avoided renting a car- in those years, the 60’s through 80’s, renting was almost as costly as buying a new car.
Now they were turned on to Volvo’s for several reasons. One, they loved the safety aspects of the car (no – this is not a commercial for Volvo), but the USA dollar was strong in those decades and European cars were quite a buy, especially if you could bring it back to the USA as a used car and not have to pay the more expensive import and new car taxes.
Well enough of my family’s Volvo ranting, although it does further explain my love of travel and driving around Europe. I’m sure there’s a travel gene in me that was inherited from both parents.
So far as Sweden goes, there was this insurmountable urge to visit Scandinavia for many years, and even throughout my career with British Airways, I just never got there; a solid business reason to travel to Sweden never materialized. But now, I’m fairly familiar with Stockholm.
Stockholm is a picturesque city comprised of 14 islands; there seems to be water everywhere since it is bounded on the east by the Baltic Sea. Most everywhere one walks or drives in or near the town center, one sees water; and, of course, the accompanying pleasure, fishing and sightseeing boats, small ferries and large cruise ships. You can’t escape it.
Over the centuries, the sea, with a few other elements, determined the culture, growth, history and tradition of all Scandinavia; Sweden being no exception. Just think – from where did many of the Vikings come from – by sea from Sweden. They weren’t all that sweet and kindly to most of the places they visited, but it was their sea faring expertise that allowed them to establish outposts in many areas of Europe, Iceland, Greenland and North America. By way of this convoluted introduction to the Vikings, one can gain a mass of information and knowledge by visiting Stockholm’s Viking Museum. I wonder if the V in Viking has anything to do with the Vs in Volvo. There’s enough gold treasure and booty, journals of sea lore, statues, replicas and videos of Viking villages and life to keep one thoroughly busy for two days at least.
There’s the Vasa Museum, not to be missed. It houses a 17th century warship, that when launched in April 1628 in the Stockholm harbor, it immediately sank due to it being massively overweight with too many cannons and ammunition. Over the centuries the harbor waters remained so consistently cold that it was salvaged fairly intact in 1961. Since then, the ship underwent reconstruction, and in 1990, it was officially opened. Work has continued to re-paint and refit the ship as well as improve the climate control of the new museum in which it is housed. The Vasa museum was literally built around the ship, and it is now one of the most popular “must see” sights in Stockholm.
The Nordic Museum in Stockholm houses the ethnic history and contemporary life of Sweden. It is contained in a most wondrous and beautiful castle located a stone’s throw from the Vasa Museum on the Island of Djurgården, just across the water from the center of town.
Sweden’s National Museum is by the water, just a hundred yards down the street from the Grand Hotel, holding the country’s major art collection including numerous old masters, a few impressionist paintings, and, of course, some more traditional sculpture and canvases that reflect contemporary Sweden.
A visit to Drottningholm Palace, the summer palace and country home of the current King and Queen, is a must on the list. It’s actually located on an island about 20 minutes from the town center and not really out in the country, but it’s their summer residence. There are guided tours in English and one is ushered pretty much throughout the palace – most all the public rooms are viewable with the exception of the royal family’s private quarters.
By the way, everyone, and I mean everyone in Sweden, speaks English. It’s required learning at a very early age in the Swedish schools. Something that American schools should learn from since most Americans don’t speak a second language, and are not even exposed to a new language until middle school – way too late in my opinion. Everybody working in department stores, shops, restaurants, hotels, museums, buses, trains and airports – they all excel in English.
The main department store in Stockholm is NK – the Swedish equivalent to Bergdorf Goodman. It has everything, and for most Swedish products, prices are a bit cheaper than in the USA. For foreign brands, you will pay very high prices. Meals at NK are terrific with several restaurants around the store; the ground floor’s restaurant best recommendation is the shrimp salad, either for lunch or dinner. It’s the best value with what looks like hundreds of tiny shrimp with tons of fresh vegetables.
Other great stores in Stockholm are Illums Bolighus, Ahlens and H&M. Don’t forget to ask for the VAT forms when shopping to get your tax on your purchases refunded.
A fun, real shopping expedition is to visit the original IKEA store, opened in 1965, and now the chain’s flagship location situated in Kungens Kurva, about 20 minutes drive south of the city. You can snack on Ikea’s Swedish hot dogs or meatballs. What really makes it uniquely fun is the free roundtrip bus transportation between the city center and the massive store; you even get a bit of sightseeing along the way.
The restaurant scene in Stockholm is plentiful with everything from McDonalds, Subway, and Friday’s to small local restaurants serving everything from sandwiches to sushi. But for sheer splendor and chic, there’s the Grand Hotel. Everyone should experience the Smorgasbord at the Grand, at least once, just so you can boast you’ve been there, done that. It is grand in every way. Also the Opera Bar restaurant behind the Opera house is excellent as well, particularly after a performance for a late evening snack, digestif or coffee.
Sweden, and mostly Stockholm in my limited experience, is a glorious and picturesque city – both in the summer and winter. The two extremes give it balance and beauty not found anywhere south of the 55th parallel. The summers can be hot, sultry and humid, while the winters are usually gray, cold and brutal. Nevertheless it is a city and a country with rich history, unique design, a friendly population and well worth the visit.