Sets and the city

New York’s finest ho­tels are the per­fect back­drops to life, art movies, says Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

THE big man is shout­ing to some­one I can’t see. ‘‘ I’ll take you to the candy shop, you dumb-ass, and I’ll let you lick the lol­lipop.’’ There are rap mu­si­cians and their hang­ers-on all over the foyer when I ar­rive at the Trump In­ter­na­tional Ho­tel and Tower on Colum­bus Cir­cle, over­look­ing Cen­tral Park. It is 2am, the night be­fore the MTV Mu­sic Awards down the block at Man­hat­tan’s Ra­dio City. Sleek black lim­ou­sines choke and clog the streets around the ho­tel and private se­cu­rity guards hover pro­tec­tively over their jiv­ing flocks.

Known more re­cently for his role in the television show The Ap­pren­tice , and his sig­na­ture line, ‘‘ You’re fired’’, Don­ald Trump is the celebrity real es­tate de­vel­oper who wears an edgy flam­boy­ance as pre­car­i­ously as he sports his weird piece of seem­ingly vel­croed hair. ( TV crit­ics sug­gest that Trump’s other re­al­ity show should be called Ex­treme Hair Comb-over.)

Ubiq­ui­tous in pop­u­lar cul­ture, he would feel right at home in his own foyer tonight among the in-your-face mu­si­cal po­ets oc­cu­py­ing ex­pen­sive suites up­stairs. The prop­erty king is fa­mous for his flashy, of­ten abra­sive style, but the flag­ship of his New York prop­er­ties shows a sur­pris­ingly el­e­gant re­straint. How­ever, on the night I ar­rive it’s de­cid­edly groovy.

The mu­sic from the car stereos echoes through the Trump, a loud string of sighs and grunts con­tin­u­ously re­peated over a se­ries of thuds.

Guys who can only be rap idols hang with their fe­male en­tourages in the oddly small lobby, dressed in capes and laden with gold, di­a­monds and cleav­age, the bling catch­ing the flash­ing po­lice lights out­side.

The room is hand­somely pan­elled in Brazil­ian ze­bra­wood, with only a desk for reg­is­tra­tion and a smaller one for concierge Car­los Freire who, it later turns out, knows ev­ery crime book­shop in town when I ask him for di­rec­tions.

A gor­geous girl, barely dressed, wan­ders past me to a limo, her high heels clat­ter­ing as she teeters from step to step. ‘‘ We’ll meet you at the next place and then we’ll move on to the one af­ter that,’’ she half-sings into her phone.

On each of the two nights I’m here, I amtreated to ex­tem­pore floor shows. Glam­orous, sin­u­ous dance-pop di­vas flirt and shimmy near the lifts in skimpy de­signer dresses, one ca­ress­ing a small mon­key as we push through for an early din­ner one night. Small dogs in hand­bags, heads just vis­i­ble, are a com­mon sight.

Shiny and Star Trek -slick, this 50-storey tower of bronzed glass in the sky is a nat­u­ral home for A-lis­ters, mu­si­cal celebri­ties and New York wannabes. It reigns over Cen­tral Park on Man­hat­tan’s West Side, an area that was not known for its so­phis­ti­ca­tion un­til Trump ag­gres­sively gen­tri­fied it.

The build­ing is so fu­tur­is­tic I al­most ex­pect to see Spi­der-Man sail­ing from web-rope to web-rope like an ur­ban cousin of Tarzan as he bat­tles the Green Goblin on its fa­cade.

Colum­bus Cir­cle was a ghost town be­fore 1997 when Trump and ar­chi­tects Philip John­son and Costas Kondylis ren­o­vated the old Gulf & West­ern Build­ing. They turned the of­fice tower into a hy­brid of lux­ury ho­tel and con­do­mini­ums, now tro­phy prop­er­ties on pre­vi­ously scruffy, qui­etly down-at-heel Colum­bus Av­enue.

Pent­houses in the prop­erty quickly went for mil­lions (Bruce Wil­lis is ru­moured to own one), though Man­hat­tan ar­chi­tects con­tin­ued their be­lief that any­thing with Trump on it was ugly by def­i­ni­tion. (Co­me­di­ans joke that the rea­son he puts his name on his build­ings is so the banks will know which ones to take back.)

Trump in­tro­duced a quiet revo­lu­tion in the area long known as the city’s cap­i­tal of sports bars and baby strollers. Slowly, the glam­orous, height-re­stricted res­i­den­tial build­ings, high-end shops and uber-ex­pen­sive din­ing op­tions have trans­formed the precinct’s streets.

Re­mark­ably, lit­tle of the spe­cial spirit of an area con­ceived in di­ver­sity, and com­pris­ing so many ar­chi­tec­tural styles, was lost. Drawn from his­tory, its con­nect­ed­ness re­mains, its streetscape loaded with three cen­turies’ worth of in­trigu­ing and un­ex­pected in­ci­dents and per­son­al­i­ties.

As I wan­der around the next morn­ing, a long-time ded­i­cated snooper, it’s pos­si­ble to see the small em­bel­lish­ments on the fa­cades, grace­ful robins carved in stone and lau­rels of leaves cut into the walls be­neath large brown row-house bay win­dows.

I walk back to the Trump, a slow wan­der that re­veals a fresh glimpse of a city that is, tan­ta­lis­ingly, never fully know­able, even though ev­ery­where you walk re­minds you of an old movie.

My room over­looks Cen­tral Park, a place that ap­pears to­tally other-worldly in the con­text of Man­hat­tan’s bus­tle, seem­ingly the last re­main­ing tract of the city’s nat­u­ral land­form. In fact, the won­drous green car­pet be­fore me was en­tirely man-made through a stren­u­ous cy­cle of blast­ing stone out­crops more than a cen­tury ago. The park was a new en­gi­neered form of art, rather like Trump’s ho­tel.

Cen­tral Park is a con­structed en­vi­ron­ment closer in essence to a Hol­ly­wood film set than to Mother Na­ture. (Freire tells me more than 200 movies have been filmed here.)

My sur­pris­ingly un­der­stated room has high ceil­ings and floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows, all with tele­scopes for tak­ing in the view and sump­tu­ous mar­ble bath­rooms with spa baths. The quiet in­te­rior de­sign of­fers the warm, invit­ing and in­ti­mate am­bi­ence of a toney private res­i­dence, un­like the ho­tel’s foyer dur­ing the past two nights.

As be­fit­ting a ho­tel renowned for its crea­ture com­forts, my room in­cludes a Euro­pean-style kitchen with el­e­gant china, crys­tal glass­ware and Christofle serv­ing trays.

One of the best rea­sons to stay at this ho­tel is the unique in-room chef ex­pe­ri­ence: guests can en­joy the cre­ations of glo­be­trot­ting chef Jean-Ge­orges Von­gerichten served in their rooms.

With in-room din­ing this amaz­ing it may be tempt­ing to hole up, but the award-win­ning Jean-Ge­orges restau­rant is worth com­ing down­stairs for: it’s a place that leaves you open-mouthed when not chew­ing.

Von­gerichten’s cui­sine is of chore­ographed del­i­cacy: one ef­fect de­fers to the next so quickly it’s im­pos­si­ble to re­mem­ber what you just tasted. The at­mos­phere is re­laxed, the ser­vice so at­tuned it’s barely no­tice­able, and Cen­tral Park seems to float in through the big win­dows.

The calm, el­e­gant am­bi­ence of the Trump al­lows me to dis­pel any preju- dices I may have had to­wards the de­vel­oper. It’s now easy to ap­pre­ci­ate why some­one would be will­ing to sell their soul for the chance to be­come the mas­ter builder’s ap­pren­tice on a crappy TV show. Let’s face it, the guy has chutz­pah, that so-New York qual­ity of un­be­liev­able gall.

A cou­ple of years ago, when the new Time Warner Cen­tre was be­ing built, hous­ing the Man­darin Ori­en­tal and sur­round­ing half of ad­ja­cent Colum­bus Cir­cle, Trump hung a sign from his ho­tel. Barely vis­i­ble from the street, it was aimed at res­i­dents across Colum­bus.

‘‘ Your views aren’t so great, are they?’’ it read. ‘‘ We have the real Cen­tral Park views and ad­dress! Best wishes, The Don­ald.’’

You can’t imag­ine the own­ers of the Plaza Athe­nee on the Up­per East Side across the park, where I stay next, need­ing to boost their prod­uct so crudely. It’s a gor­geous ho­tel with at­mos­phere to burn that gets it right with a firm grip on old stan­dards and tonguein-cheek deco­rum, be­gin­ning with its dis­tinc­tive bright red street canopies.

Nes­tled amid gen­teel res­i­dences on 64th Street, be­tween Park and Madi­son av­enues, this haven, so Euro­pean in style, speaks of a more re­fined time and place than the Trump.

I walk in from the street to hand­painted mu­rals and plush, ex­otic car­pets. The lobby is a fan­tas­tic dis­play of Ital­ian mar­ble floors and crys­tal vases hold­ing gi­ant flo­ral ar­range­ments. There are Rousseau-style mu­rals, pot­ted palms, bur­nished chan­de­liers and au­then­tic Louis XVI furniture.

But be­fore you think the over-the-top op­u­lence of the Athe­nee makes it seem un­reach­able, vis­i­tors are wel­comed in the finest Euro­pean tra­di­tion. The ho­tel pro­vides the only sit-down reg­is­tra­tion in New York (though it’s com­mon in Europe and, in­creas­ingly, Aus­tralia). Much like its sis­ter ho­tel in Paris, this pala­tial pile is as good as it gets, the kind of place where pa­trons dressed to kill, and pose.

Dozens of mod­els, haughty and moody-look­ing, are idly loung­ing for a mag­a­zine fash­ion shoot in the bar. The at­mos­phere sug­gests a time when men prac­tised look­ing debonair. And for a mo­ment I wish I were wear­ing a fe­dora in­stead of a Bos­ton Red Sox cap.

It feels as if I have stepped into that ‘‘ long-lost world’’ John Cheever re­dis­cov­ered when col­lect­ing his short sto­ries: ‘‘ When the city of New York was filled with a sil­ver light, when you heard Benny Good­man quar­tets from the ra­dio in the cor­ner sta­tionery store, and when al­most ev­ery­body wore a hat.’’

My suite is com­pact and lux­u­ri­ously ap­pointed in that cos­mopoli­tan style the Up­per East Side has so stylishly ap­pro­pri­ated. The cur­tains are weighty, like mu­si­cal stage cloths, in choco­late and fawn, the light fit­tings are an­tique brass and the thick, green, pat­terned car­pet ab­sorbs all noise.

It’s as though, for a mo­ment, I’m a char­ac­ter in Edith Whar­ton’s TheAgeof In­no­cence dur­ing the sump­tu­ous golden age of old New York, when so­ci­ety peo­ple ‘‘ dreaded scan­dal more than dis­ease’’ and few things were more aw­ful than an of­fence against taste.

The Plaza Athe­nee is the kind of place where you may wake to hear your com­pan­ion walk­ing around qui­etly.

‘‘ Oh, I love you,’’ she says. ‘‘ What did you say?’’ you mut­ter. ‘‘ Quiet, you. I’m talk­ing to the room.’’

House­keep­ing leave notes on guests’ pil­lows at night, ti­tled Thoughts for Pleas­ant Dreams. Even the mini­bar is stylish, filled with vel­vety Grey Goose, Belvedere and Chopin vod­kas: all the trap­pings of a New York TV night in.

Such vod­kas are the ul­ti­mate in­gre­di­ent in mar­ti­nis in New York bars, as I quickly dis­cover dur­ing the next few days in a city where mixol­o­gists are the new style tsars. The Athe­nee’s bar is the chic, am­ber-lit Bar Seine, the hippest af­ter-

can slink

in, work cock­tail hang­out in Man­hat­tan and the only wa­ter­ing hole with an al­l­leather floor. Its decor is North African with a lit­tle Parisian so­phis­ti­ca­tion folded in. An­i­mal print fab­rics cover the seats, and the walls and ceil­ings have or­nate, Moroc­can-style flour­ishes.

Con­sumed in the right cir­cum­stances, a cock­tail can work won­ders, a fan­tasy of clean lines, pared-down ef­fi­ciency and el­e­gant sim­plic­ity. The spe­cialty of Bar Seine is the crys­tal cosmo, a mix of Ab­so­lut Cit­ron, Coin­treau and white cran­berry juice, gar­nished with a lime wedge. Prop up a stool by the cosy counter and you may find your­self sip­ping a mar­tini with Jack Ni­chol­son or Sarah Jes­sica Parker. Scenes from Sex and the City were filmed here, though it’s just as rem­i­nis­cent of the Up­per East Side’s ‘‘ er­mine-in­fested haunts’’, as de­scribed by one 1949 guide­book writer.

Ac­cord­ing to Michael the bar­man, this el­e­gant joint is per­fect for il­licit li­aisons, too. And at that mo­ment a man who looks like the world’s old­est gigolo steers his part­ner, a very el­derly but game wo­man in a cop­per-coloured cock­tail dress, on to the small floor, danc­ing to some Nat King Cole sweet croon, ex­e­cut­ing sweep­ing pat­terns that em­brace the en­tire area.

Back in my eighth-floor room, I dis­cover the win­dows ac­tu­ally open. I look out over the roofs of the ad­ja­cent apart­ment blocks, stretch­ing down to the cen­tre of Man­hat­tan. It looks like Oz af­ter dark, an­other world of strange steel shapes, col­umns, spires and chim­neys lit by neon. The rooftop wa­ter tow­ers, sturdy on their wooden stilts, as New York as bagels or yel­low cabs, glow from char­coal to black.

As nov­el­ist Paul Auster writes in The New York Tril­ogy , trac­ing the thoughts of his pro­tag­o­nist, Daniel Quinn, a mys­tery writer: ‘‘ New York was an in­ex­haustible space, a labyrinth of end­less steps, and no mat­ter how far he walked, no mat­ter how well he came to know its neigh­bour­hoods and streets, it al­ways left him with the feel­ing of be­ing lost.’’

In my case, it was prob­a­bly a case of too many crys­tal cos­mos. Graeme Blun­dell was a guest of Air Tahiti Nui and Lead­ing Ho­tels of the World.

Main pic­ture: Lonely Planet

Mov­ing images: Be­low from left, Spi­derMan would be right at home climb­ing the Trump’s tow­er­ing ed­i­fice; break­fast al­fresco at Ho­tel Plaza Athe­nee; liv­ing room at the Trump; Bruce Wil­lis dies hard again in Man­hat­tan; above, a smil­ing door­man in front of Trump Tower

Euro­pean so­phis­ti­ca­tion: Ho­tel Plaza Athe­nee on the Up­per East Side oozes charm

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