Confessions of a Hotel Fancier

Pierre Berton March 9 1963

Confessions of a Hotel Fancier

Pierre Berton March 9 1963

Confessions of a Hotel Fancier

The Toyed Hawaiian in Honolulu

The atmosphere is vintage Canadian Pacific, plus hula dancers, hibiscus and Waikiki Beach

The Imperial in Tokyo

After 37 years the manager still discovers unsuspected nooks and crannies

Pierre Berton

A Marco Polo of the credit-card age conducts a world tour of places to stay: great ones, crummy ones and, ah! the ones with atmosphere


ever to

accept my custom was a clapboard lodging known as the White Pass hotel. It stood on the main street of Whitehorse. Yukon, across from the White Pass Railway station, with which it had no kinship since both hotel and railway were named independently for a common geographical feature.

It was not. of course, a great hotel but it had the one requisite without which none can aspire to greatness. Jt had a certain flair ... an atmosphere ... a mad individuality that set it apart. It was also warm, an important property in a country where the thermometer sometimes drops below sixty minus. Indeed it was so warm that it occasionally caught fire and that, in the end. was the end of it. But its real warmth sprang not so much from its embellishments (giant brass bedsteads. porcelain basins and pitchers, black-buttoned leather chairs) as from the personality of its proprietress, a Frenchwoman of fierce loyalties and healthy animosities, who knew every customer by name, reputation and lineage and treated each, as a good hotelier should. like royalty — as long as he did not bestow his trade on the rival inns in town: then she was a terror. I remember once suggesting to my father that we sample an alternative hostelry for curiosity's sake. He blanched at the prospect.

Her other hatreds were reserved for the railway which vainly kept trying to get her to change the name of her hotel since the wealthy tourists assumed it to be a creature of the transportation system and thus the approver! watering place. She refused and the feud continued until the hotel met its doom.

Atmosphere and character seem to me to be the essence of the real hotels of this world. Since I first dropped my dunnage bag in the White Pass lobby I have taken my ease in gilded lodgings as disparate as the Kona Inn in the South

Pacific and the Flora on the Via Veneto.

I once spent eighteen hours in a suite in the Mark Hopkins and never saw the rest of this fabled Frisco xenodochium, for I snoozed out my entire stay. I occupied for a couple of nights Franklin D. Roosevelt's former room in the Royal Hawaiian, suffering badly — as he may have — from tropical sunburn. I have checked into the New Hiroshima a few yards from the epicentre of the great Blast, and Eaglecrest. the semiprivate log guest house on Vancouver Island where Prince Philip and his bride holidayed during their first tour of Canada. If I had all the money I have tipped bellboys in the past twenty years I could start a hotel of my own. 1 hope it would achieve atmosphere.

You cannot manufacture atmosphere no matter how much cut stone you put in the lobby and that is why the new concreteslab inns, punched out by some giant Miami Beach stamping machine, lack the feel of those venerable rooming houses with names like Savoy. Sacher. Imperial and Empress. CONTINUED OVERLEAF

CONTINUED The Hiltons have tried for Instant Atmosphere and failed miserably, in my opinion. 1 shall never forget walking into the Nile Hilton, that great caricature of a hotel in Cairo, after staying at the new Shepheard’s. The effect is pure de Mille: Uncle Conrad and his minions have not been able to resist improving on the real thing. The servants have been got up in a Malabar version of native dres^~ complete with peach-colored turbaris, since the authentic ones aren’t in Technicolor. The murals are wall to wall on every wall but far too perfect to be Egyptian: they are pure Madison Avenue. The “authentic” Egyptian dishes served on the rooftop restaurant overlooking the ageless Nile have all been changed and

improved slightly by the chefs and are served by waiters in fancy dress.

The Nile Hilton, in short, is a little corner of a foreign strand that is forever Hollywood and the clientele reminds you of home. The Egyptians do not care for it. possibly because they are not used to eating and drinking in the pitch dark. Continental hotels, including the famous Shepheard’s, just a block away, serve drinks in their bright, spacious lobbies with tables at arm’s length. The Hilton clings to its small, gloomy, crowded cavern of a bar. As for its restaurant, it is so Stygian that they have had to design a special flashlight so that guests may read the fake papyrus menus.

I am sure the new Shepheard’s isn't a patch on the old one with the piazza and the stengahs and the monoclcd army men cursing the upstart Wogs (who eventually burned it up). But it achieves atmosphere without peach-colored turbans. At first it seems undistinguished, yet from the moment you enter it, you know you are in an Egyptian building. Perhaps it is the slight mosque-like curve of the portals, or the lemon squashes served so deftly in the lobby, or the big fans whirring in the humid delta heat, or the unobtrusive white-gowned servants; whatever it is it proves that there is no substitute for the real thing.

Atmosphere, of course, is not enough. New York’s fabled Algonquin fairly reeks with atmosphere. The dining room is jammed with Steve Allens and Bennett Cerfs. The last time I checked in. William Faulkner was signing the register. You cannot enter your room without being reminded that this was once the playground of Dorothy Parker. James Thurber, Franklin P. Adams and all those other madcaps whose life revolved around The New Yorker magazine. You are reminded of this because the management stocks your room with books and magazine articles explaining how much atmosphere the Algonquin has. It also has, alas, some of the crummiest rooms in New York at some of the fanciest prices. I'm tired of paying for Alexander Woollcott's ghost anti have long since added the Algonquin to my

list of unsatisfying hotels in Manhattan. For a time I settled for the half-price Royalton across the street, which came complete with George Jean Nathan and William Saroyan in the elevator. But the Royalton has virtually no room service and George Jean Nathan has gone to his rest. So have I; elsewhere.

I have still to find a satisfactory hotel in the big city. I tried the Waldorf-Astoria once and found it a crushing disappointment. The main floor, true enough, is all any red-blooded country boy could wish for, being almost as vast as Central Park and ablaze and aglitter with giant chandeliers, gilt and red plush. But a hotel ought to be more than a foyer. For anything less than thirty dollars you’ll get a small, drab and tasteless room furnished, as my friend the comedian Milt Kamen would say, in “early lobby.” The color scheme is best described as beige on beige. I suspect the Waldorf is great for conventions and for such as the Duke of CONTINUED ON PAGE 32



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“Give me a Grand Palace with corridors like boulevards and a tub big enough to drown in”

Windsor, his duchess and all those poodles who take their case in that heady eyrie known as the Waldorf Towers; but for the rest of us peasants it leaves much to be desired. Still it's a cut above Manhattan's newest monstrosity, the Americana, a scraper which appears to have been trucked in unretouched from Acapulco. When I stayed there the whole affair was being run so inefficiently (the elevator wouldn't work, my room was occupied by somebody else and when I was given another one I couldn't get it warm) that I had the feeling the machine would shortly run right down.

What is it that creates atmosphere in a hotel? I should think the five criteria are spaciousness, setting, charm, service and cuisine. A really top hotel must have four out of five of these and the last two are mandatory.

A sense of spaciousness is something most hotels neglected in the money-grabbing post-war days. As a result several have deservedly come a cropper. The Lord Simcoe in T oronto, for instance, splurged on its lobby and its restaurants and cheated on its rooms. It has been feverishly tearing down room partitions in an effort to stave off bankruptcy. A hotel does not have to be huge: many of the great ones are relatively small; but it must have space, within and without. Foi sheer size of rooms give me an oldfashioned hostel any time — something like the Windsor in Montreal or the Savoy in London or any of those cavernous Grand Palaces sprinkled across the.^continent. each one of which rf.T.'nt have been the prototype of Vicki Baum’s famous novel, i am thinking, for instance, of the Excelsior in Rapallo on the Italian Riviera or the Victoria-Jungfrau in Interlaken eleven such seedier stopping places as the Piccadilly or the Strand Palace in London where the very bathrooms would encompass many a modern and the tubs are big enough to drown in. where the corridors are like boulevards and you can hear your echo across the bedroom. Such rooms are often labyrinthine, abetted in their immensity by a small coterie ot anterooms, breakfast nooks, cloak rooms and closets, the latter large enough to play host to a brace of illicit lovers should the need arise.

Few hotels these days can afford such prodigality. An exception is the new FI Presidente in Mexico C ity, perhaps the most luxurious hotel I have stayed at on this continent. It has a swimming pool in the bar and a waterfall in the lobby: the rooms are big enough to swing a jaguar in. Indeed thev are more like suites than bedrooms. encompassing as the\ do. breakfast nook, dressing room, and balcony. It is nice, for once, to escape the feeling that you are living in a railway compartment.

Setting is almost equally important and here again spaciousness conies in. Give me every time the hotel that sur-

rounds itself with a garden. That is why, in Acapulco I continue to stay at the oldest of the good hotels — the Prado-Americas, perched high on a cliff and considered less fashionable than the balconied skyscrapers jutting up from the beaches. The Prado is a cluster of low Spanish buildings rambling over several dozen acres of hibiscus, oleander, croton and jacaranda. It is a simple delight to stroll about, with the perfume of the tropics all around you.

A really great hotel never takes its setting for granted. The Royal Hawaiian has one of the greatest natural vistas in the world — the white crescent of Waikiki and the backdrop of the blue Pacific; hut it has set itself apart from its neighbors by surrounding itself with one of the finest tropical botanical gardens in the world. The edifice itself is an architectural curiosity, a pleasure-domed Moorish palace of passion-pink stucco; hut it is saved from being a horror by the softening effect of the eighteen acres of rare flora (including one hundred and fifty varieties of hibiscus) in which it is half hidden.

The influence is a Canadian one. For fifteen years the manager of the Royal Hawaiian was Arthur Bcnajlia, who began as a CPR potato peeler and rose to become manager, successively , of the Pall ¡ser, Empress, Vancouver and finally the resort hotels of Banff and Lake Louise. After Banff, Benajlia went to the Royal Hawaiian and laid on the atmosphere in gobs. He met every guest at the door with a glass of pineapple juice and saw them off with a flower lei. In between he gave them the Hawaiian equivalent of Banff's feathered Indians and red-coated Mounties: hula dancers, complete with grass skirts and ukuleles. Benajlia died during the war hut the atnios-

phere remains. Milt Kamen claims that the Royal is the only hotel in the Hilton chain where Uncle Conrad’s picture loses its knitted brows and conies up smiling. Few other hotels in the world can boast, as the Royal does, of a steady customer who runs up a twenty-thousand-dollar bill each season. He’s a Cincinnati silversmith and the hotel lets him choose his own furniture and decor every trip, cheerfully redecorating and furnishing his suite at no extra cost. For twenty thousand dollars what hotel wouldn t?

The Royal's impeccable service and cuisine (a guest can order any dish in existence and get it) smack of the great days of the Canadian railway hotels and the garden is certainly reminiscent of the Empress in Victoria. an ivy-covered chateau surrounded by rose arbors, rhododendrons and emerald lawns. Of all the older hotels in Canada I personally consider the Empress the best. For very similar reasons I find the Bayshore Inn in Vancouver the best ot the new ones. The Bayshore, too. was not content merely to be on the ocean’s edge where its guests can hear the cry of the gulls and sec the winking lights of passing ships; these natural advantages have been supplemented by a garden area which has helped give the inn a certain atmosphere in spite of its newness. The concept of a hotel in a garden is, l am happy to say, making a comeback. The most lavish of all may easily he the Inn on the Park, soon to open in Toronto: it appears to be everything its name implies.

Certain hotels, of course, create their own setting simply through the fact of their presence. The Kempinski, at the corner of Berlins Kurfürstendamm and Fasanenstrasse has helped make this the liveliest corner of the

liveliest street in this strange artificial city. The world passes through its lobby and out into its superb sidewalk café and that, surely, is setting enough for any hotel.

Of all the watering places at which I have lingered, however, none has a more exotic setting than the Volcano House perched on the very rim of the great crater of Kilauea on the island of Hawaii. The hotel is heated entirely by live steam which bubbles up from the earth's entrails. I had the luck to check in the day after the great fire pit of Halemaumau. in the heart of the dormant crater, erupted into flame and I will not soon forget the view from my window at dusk — the cold gray desert of lava stretching for miles and. in the distance, eating at its core like a crimson canker, the gkwving pit w'ith flames seven hundred feet high leaping to meet the darkening sky. It was the first eruption in more than a generation and the proprietor, an aging Greek named George Lycurgus. took credit for it. He had for years been propitiating the Fire Goddess Pele w'ith a regular bottle of gin tossed into Halemaumau's maw. The previous month, so he swore, he had doubled the ration. The resultant eruption kept his hotel jammed for the entire season. That is roughly what I mean by character.

Chandeliers and pizazz

Charm, in a hotel, is the hardest of all to come by, especially in the larger hostelries. The Empress in Victoria certainly has it aplenty —a subtle mixture compounded of crumpets, old ladies, chamber music, and the presence of a real conservatory down the corridor.

But charm is also decor and you cannot get it with early lobby or beige on beige. Vancouver's Bayshore Inn has perhaps the handsomest decor in Canada, a symphony of warm browns and burnt oranges in a Polynesian tapa cloth design that is constant for walls, furniture and carpeting and which blends perfectly with the Asian spirit of the garden, the cuisine and the staff itself. El Presidente in Mexico is the only hotel I've seen that dares to use charcoal black as its chief color motif. It is surprisingly restful, especially with this hotel's indirect lighting. In Vienna two years ago I stayed at the Kranz-Ambassador. meeting place of diplomats and presidents and perhaps the most opulent lodging I've ever booked. The Ambassador is red plush. By that I mean that the lobby is red plush, the elevators are red plush, the walls, carpets and ceiling are red plush, the furniture is red plush and the verv bedspreads are red plush. Every room comes equipped w'ith a crystal chandelier big enough to spear Lon Chancy. And anything that isn't red plush is gilt. Somehow in Vienna it all seems to fit; one expects it and is gladdened by it. I would not say that the KranzAmbassador has charm but it certainly has something — panache, perhaps, or pizazz. Anyway it's just as good.

I have stayed in many a cheerless inn. from Pusan to Monte Carlo, but the one that takes the caviar is Moscow's monolithic Ukraine built in a spiky style that has come to be known as Stalin Gothic. The Ukraine seems to be almost half lobby (there is a

lobby on every one of the thirty floors) and a cheerless lobby it is. for all of its marble and its chandeliers. The starkness is exceeded only by the inefficiency. In this thousand-room building there are only two elevators. There is no room service. There are a hundred and ten items on the menu but. since each has to be individually prepared, it takes an hour to order a single course. There is plenty of hot water, good laundry service, a cheerful staff and a telephone in every room. But the room numbers don't correspond to the telephone numbers and there is no telephone directory. To find a telephone number for a friend's room you go down to the desk and back to your room again — if you can get an elevator.

There is one good hotel in Moscow, however — the hundred-room Metropole. built in the eighteen nineties and presided over by a suave hotelier in the traditional neatly pressed blue suit who might have stepped right out of any Statler. Here you will find magnificently comfortable three-room suites complete with grand piano, linen-covered walls and a balcony over the river — all for $7.50 a day. But getting one is like drawing a horse in the Grand National. You don't pick your owm hotel when you visit Moscow; the tourist bureau does it for you.

The most charming hotel I ever stayed at w'as a Japanese ryokan in the mountain spa of Kinugawa north of Tokyo. Perched on the lip of a rustling gorge, fashioned from native rock, polished tree trunks and rice matting, fed by hot sulphur water that had been diverted into flowerfringed indoor pools of great beauty and cunning shape, this little inn imparted a feeling of serenity unknown in a Western environment. It was forty-eight hours before I discovered that the other guests — all of them Japanese — spent their evenings in the American bar drinking ersatz whisky and listening to Paul Anka on the juke box.

The Imperial in Tokyo has some of the same qualities. It is odd that the old wing, designed by the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, should be so oriental in feeling while the two newer wings, designed by. native Japanese, should be pure Miami. Like most people I hated the Wright building when I first saw it; I thought it unutterably gloomy with its low ceilings, its labyrinthine corridors and its massive slabs of pitted volcanic rock. Like most people I grew to love it on closer acquaintance. I have stayed three times in the Imperial and each room was quite different from the others. So are the remaining 697 that Lloyd designed individually, to the despair of those who like to order draperies and accessories in quantity. No other hotel in the w'orld bears such an individual stamp, for Wright's hand is everywhere — in the arrangement of the bricks on the stairway, in the peaked ceilings (a sort of Asian Gothic), in the tiny checkerboard design that pops up in the queerest places and in the odd shapes of the furniture, which was also Wright's creation. The manager. Tetsuzo lnumaru. told me that after


thirty-seven years in this hotel he still walked through it with a sense of discovery. The tragedy is that this remarkable building which survived the world's greatest earthquake may succumb to the wrecker's axe because Tokyo's real estate prices, the highest in the world, make a three-story structure financially obsolete downtown.

The Swiss are said to he the best hotelkeepers in the work! and when you stay at one of their hotels you

instantly know why. What they lack in atmosphere they make up in service. There are no words to describe the well-scrubbed air of a Swiss hotel or the utter efficiency of its staff — a staff that is never servile, obsequious. haughty or snobbish.

The most pretentious hotels ought to be judged by the speed with which breakfast arrives in the morning; At the Waldorf, if takes ten minutes; at the Americana, fifty minutes by my

watch. (In Switzerland you don't need to time it.) The first real hotel thrill I had was in the Carrera in Santiago, Chile, almost fifteen years ago when, two minutes after 1 ordered a pot of hot chocolate it arrived at my door. Like the great continental hotels, the Carrera has a kitchen on every floor.

It is hard (apart from Switzerland) to beat the service at London’s Savoy. My only complaint is that it’s difficult to tell the personnel from the guests; if anything they are better dressed — and slightly more snobbish. But the Savoy makes the finest Tom Collins in England and I will forgive it anything for that. Few European hotels understand our crude drinking habits. I once tried to order ice and ginger ale from room service in the Piccadilly. 1 had finished all the rye before the mixer arrived but I finally got exactly what 1 asked for — a small piece of ice in a glass of ginger ale.

It ought to be a truism that the best meal in town is to be found at the best hotel in town, but it isn't — especially in Canada. (The secret of ordering a meal in a railway hotel is to engage a room and order room service; some have special kitchens for the purpose.) One of the nicest surprises my wife and I ever had was when we drove into Berlin at midnight. registered at the Kempinski and, being too travel weary to scout about, decided to try our luck in the dining room. It turned out to be the finest meal we had in Berlin, from the smoked eels and the bird’s-ncst soup to the shashlik of beef and the saffron rice.

One reason I used to like the LaSalle in Montreal was because of its cuisine (the lack of hot water finally drove me out ). The same is true of the King Edward in Toronto and the Bayshore in Vancouver, which remain the best places to eat in their respective cities. A hotel can be forgiven its trespasses if it feeds its guests like princes; but hotel food in this country has become a synonym for the bland and the bitter. For this the service clubs must hang their heads: they have trained the local Bonifaces in the art of preparing papier-maché chicken and some of the technique has spilled over into the real dining rooms.

A great hotel these days needs to have several dining rooms to satisfy the cosmopolitan tastes of its jet-age guests. Tokyo's Imperial, for instance, has everything from smorgasbord to sukiyaki and all of it is excellent. (The only time 1 ever faulted the Imperial wars when 1 ordered a crab sandwich by phone and got a club sandwich — but then there are language difficulties everywhere.) The Northgate Hotel in Toronto has outdone all its fellow's however by establishing a veritable shopping centre of restaurants and bars ranging from a Klondike tavern to a Polynesian luau to a Dickensian pub. As a true hotel, however, the Northgate leaves much to be desired. It has no room service. This is because, in spite of its name, it has no rooms. It has always seemed to me that rooms arc the one essential requirement of a really good hotel. Rooms and, of course, a certain amount of pizazz. ★