In Depth

The Peninsula New York hotel review: We’ll take Manhattan

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A confession: my last trip to New York was something of a debacle, involving snowdrifts, sub-zero winds, inadequate packing, and too much time in Williamsburg’s dive bars. The upside? A certain expertise when it comes to playing shuffleboard. The downside? With so few iconic sights ticked off, it hardly even felt like the Big Apple. This time around, then, I was heading to the city on a mission: in search of the quintessential Manhattan experience and a touch of old-fashioned glamour.

Checking in

Hotels don’t get much more iconic – or central – than The Peninsula, set in Midtown Manhattan, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street. Last year marked its thirtieth birthday, but that’s just in its latest incarnation: it first opened as The Gotham in 1905, in the city’s high-rolling beaux-arts heyday. Pulling up outside, it’s lost none of its old-school romance, as a doorman in a greatcoat opens the taxi door, and dapper, white-suited pageboys commandeer our cases.

Inside, too, it harks back to an older, more refined approach to luxury, starting with the soaring lobby, with its sweeping staircase, stately chandelier and clusters of white lilies. Then there’s the sheer scale of its rooms and suites; a rare commodity in compact Manhattan, even at the smartest hotels. My room, up on the 19th floor, is kitted out in soft taupes and creams, with gilt-framed mirrors, a leather-topped desk and a handsome marble bathroom, with citrussy Oscar de la Renta toiletries and a TV at the foot of the tub. It’s all so grown-up that I actually unpack; with a wardrobe this capacious, living out of a suitcase seems beyond the pale. 

Granted, there are concessions to modernity, like the clever, touchpad-operated lights, but it’s the old-fashioned details that give this place its charm; the bouquet of pale pink roses on the desk, and stash of fresh ice in the minibar. Its quiet, cocooning luxury is a revelation, as is the eagle-eyed service. (Discreet to the point of being invisible, staff never miss a trick, from coaxing stray cables into ribbon-tied coils to leaving a tactful cleaning cloth by a pair of glasses.) And, if I packed a raincoat, I really needn’t have bothered; the doorman proffers a gigantic umbrella at the merest hint of a cloud.

Its dining options, naturally, are just as civilised, from afternoon tea in the Gotham Lounge to cocktails on Salon de Ning’s terrace – a lychee-spiked ‘Ning Sling’, backdropped by Manhattan’s skyline (even the coolest locals get their iPhones out for a quick sunset selfie). Dinner at its first-floor restaurant Clement is equally accomplished, with a focus on local ingredients, from creamy, made-in-Vermont burrata to Long Island microgreens. Even the wagyu’s reared in Texas, and the oysters are strictly East Coast.

Magnificent though the dinners are, my favourite meal is breakfast, with its linen tablecloths, dignified waiters, and weighty silver coffee pots. While its menu caters to every whim, the scene-stealer is the Maine lobster, with sautéed kale, yolk-yellow hollandaise and two precision-poached eggs. (Spoiler: it’s utterly delicious, but easily big enough for three. Factor in a quick nap afterwards, and don’t plan on an early lunch.)

Classic sights and new heights 

There’s a head-spinning amount to see and do, without going far. Even from my window there’s a bird’s-eye view of Fifth Avenue, with its sleek designer flagships, sidewalk hotdog stands and never-ending ebb and flow of people. With a base this central you can nip to see an icon and still be in time for breakfast; on one magical, rain-blurred morning, I have the whole of Times Square to myself. If dizzy heights are more your thing, the Rockefeller Centre’s also close by, with its seventieth-floor observation deck and vertiginous, wraparound views. 

Back at ground level, Central Park’s also on our doorstep, just four blocks to the north. Past the zoo and queue of hopeful horse-and-carriages, we stroll its broad, tree-lined avenues to the angel-topped Bethseda fountain – what the park’s co-designer, Calvery Vaux, called ‘the centre of the centre’. It’s perfect people-watching terrain, just as it was in Annie Hall, with its loitering lovers, buskers and Upper East Side doyennes, swathed in venerable minks.

With the sky clouding over, we make for the Museum of Modern Art, aka MoMA. Up on the fifth floor, the permanent collections are dazzling, running from Frida Kahlo’s frowning self-portrait to Matisse’s joyous study for La Danse. On request, The Peninsula can arrange an out-of-hours private tour, avoiding the selfie-snapping crowds around the most iconic works (it’s true that when we visit, Starry Night and Water Lilies are lost behind an Insta-frenzy).

Instead, we escape the throng at its ground-floor restaurant, The Modern – a hip addition to Midtown’s sometimes staid dining scene. (When I ask about a clued-up local about cool new openings, she sends back a three-word text: ‘Midtown? Non-existent’). The Modern may be a few years old, but it still has a palpable buzz, with its pared-back design, arty clientele, and two Michelin stars. There’s a polished six-course tasting menu, but we’re content to perch at the bar, snacking on cloud-like gnocchi and impeccable steak tartare. Afterwards, on the bartender’s advice, I head to the museum’s store – design-geek heaven, with its cube kettles, solar lamps and Yayoi Kusami-signed umbrellas.      

So far, so classic – but the following day, we’re off to Hudson Yards, a futuristic new neighbourhood on the West Side of Manhattan. Built over a train yard, it’s an audacious feat of engineering, with 30 railway tracks running beneath its skyscrapers, arts centre and squares (even the trees have air-conditioned roots, to offset the heat from the trains). At the centre of it all is a vast sculpture by maverick designer Thomas Heatherwick, made from 154 interconnecting flights of stairs. It’s an Esher drawing brought to life in precision-engineered steel, and – with a free, timed ticket – ours to explore. It’s surprisingly easy to reach the top, but much more fun to dawdle, playing hide-and-seek amid its gleaming, photogenic curves.

… And relax

In what seems like the proverbial New York minute, it’s the final day of the trip. There’s more to see, of course, but I’ve taken an executive decision: to spend my final afternoon in The Peninsula’s spa. It is, after all, an icon in its own right, with lofty views of Manhattan from its 22nd-floor pool.

After some leisurely lengths-with-a-view, I’m booked in for an Ayurvedic massage, which, in 90 blissful minutes, banishes six months’ worth of stress. The final – not to be hurried – stage is a stint in the relaxation room, with its glimmering candles and cloud-like beds, cocooned in Frette linen-covered duvets. Still under its spell, I sleep for the duration of our flight back to London: an unexpected parting gift from the city that never sleeps.

The Peninsula New York has rooms from $695 (£547) per night based on two people sharing a superior room, on a room-only basis. For reservations, visit peninsula.com. British Airways flies from London Gatwick to New York from £276 return including taxes, fees and carrier charges. To book, visit ba.com/newyork or call 0344 493 0122

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