A night in the lap of luxury

Called to serve: Testing posh hotel for Baltimoreans

July 27, 2002|By Stephanie Shapiro and Peter Jensen | Stephanie Shapiro and Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

The champagne was chilled.

So were the towels in the fitness center.

In the bathroom, a platoon of tony toiletries appeared to be arranged by a feng shui master.

Staying at the Four Seasons in Washington is nice. Very nice. You don't have to be in the $1,500 a night Capital Suite in the hotel's Premier Wing to feel rich there. A room in the "Deluxe Wing" for a mere $375 a night is quite plush: There's even a remote for the clock radio/CD player.

No question, if a $100-million, 200-room Four Seasons is built by 2005 along Inner Harbor East as hotel developer and bakery magnate John Paterakis Sr. has promised, it will give Harbor Court Hotel a run for its money.

For 16 years, Harbor Court has defined luxury in Baltimore - from the TVs in its bathrooms to the bone china in its restaurants. But it's also showing its age - a little faded wallpaper here, a water stain there.

When Werner R. Kunz, managing director of the 203-room hotel, is asked the difference between his hotel and a Four Seasons, his answer is succinct: "There is no difference."

But he declined to elaborate further, saying he was too busy to talk yesterday.

As a second-tier city in the hotel marketplace, Baltimore may not even rate a Four Seasons hotel with five-star power, but it will definitely provide wealthy out-of-towners, celebrities and business travelers with an alternative to Harbor Court. (Although Hampton's, Harbor Court's restaurant, remains a worthy competitor with a Mobil four-star rating.)

Competition for big spenders looking for fancy accommodations would escalate as well with the long-promised construction of a Ritz-Carlton near Federal Hill.

The two dominant North American reviewers, the Mobil Travel Guide (which hands out stars) and the American Automobile Association (which awards diamonds) up the rivalry among hoteliers.

Mobil gave Harbor Court only three stars this year. AAA was more generous with four diamonds, but that total is matched by four other Maryland hotels - the Marriott Waterfront, the Hyatt Regency, the Renaissance Harbor Place and the Rocky Gap Lodge and Golf Resort in Western Maryland.

Of the two reviewers, Mobil is consistently the most stingy with its ratings - there are only 25 hotels awarded five-star ratings this year and even the Four Seasons Washington didn't make the cut.

Still, the Toronto-based Four Seasons chain does awfully well - it represents 20 of 69 five-diamond hotels, and consistently beat out Ritz-Carlton for big-chain luxury bragging rights in North America.

And so it begins

It's easy to see why when pulling up to the Four Seasons in Georgetown, where luxury is measured in the ratio of staff to guests. First, a cheerful parking attendant leaps up and takes the keys. Then, the luggage handoff begins: from the car to the door, from the door to the registration desk, from the desk to the service elevator, from the elevator to the room, a process involving four porters.

Awaiting inside the room is a chilled bottle of champagne, as requested. A fresh orchid sprig, flown in from Thailand, completes the tableau.

If the room is not as large as anticipated, and the view, promised as a "historic C&O Canal" panorama, pans mostly over a four-lane highway, no matter. It quickly becomes clear that indulgence, Four Seasons style, is in the amenities: The jogging map provided with the room. The incredible minibar selection, including gourmet chocolate bars, Courvoisier, playing cards and a disposable "Fun camera."

Just being in the room feels like being enveloped in a luxurious, muffled cocoon. It's the same feeling as when you hit 100 mph in a very expensive car without noticing. The king-size bed has the right amount of padding and resistance. The pillows are plush, the sheets of high-thread count, the comforter more than lives up to its name. You could do 100 mph in this room, no problem.

Tasteful color prints of quail and other game birds hang over the bed. In their wisdom, Four Seasons decorators have also included art for a variety of tastes. Elsewhere in the room and throughout the hotel, intriguing original paintings and limited-edition prints are an intelligent counterpoint to traditional trappings. Guests may choose their own sight lines and objects of desire.

The sound quality of the bedside Nakamichi clock radio (tuned to a classical music station) easily surpasses the stereo at home. And the walls are much thicker than more typical hotels where you can hear the people next door brush their teeth.

At Seasons, the hotel restaurant, a never-ending parade of staff assists in the wining and dining of relatively few people. The $900 bottle of Chateau la Fleur Petrus Grand Cru, (a red Bordeaux for you hoi polloi), may not be tempting, but the major name-dropping at the table nearby is. That bearded guy who talks a lot is definitely Somebody.

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