The seventh-floor lobby dazzles us with its dark Italian marble, graceful architectural lines, classically elegant furnishings, breathtaking chandeliers and spectacular flower arrangements in Chinese vases. It's quite new, but it looks and feels old-money rich.
After a smooth check-in, my husband and I pedal, trot and sweat in the well-appointed health club. Later, we feast on succulent crayfish cannelloni, lobster risotto and grilled Texas axis deer in the formal restaurant. Even later, we waft into the lounge, where jazz ripples from the pianist's fingers, logs crackle in the stately fireplace and water burbles in a marble fountain.
When we retire to our junior suite on the thirtysomethingth floor, we contemplate the sparkling view before sinking into sleep. Downstairs is a glitzy shopping complex. Outside lies one of the most elegant avenues in the world, with a glistening beach a few blocks away. We'll get to them in the morning.
To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, what fresh heaven is this?
Chicago ... yes, Chicago. Specifically, the Four Seasons, one of several new high-class hotels that have sprouted downtown since late 1987. Even more will debut in the next two years -- a total of 11 new hotels with 4,900 luxury rooms and suites from 1989 to 1992, raising the number of rooms downtown to nearly 26,000.
There's a strong whiff of war in the Windy City, and for a change it concerns pillows, not politics. The stakes are considerable, with about a billion bucks being sunk into the new hotels -- in some cases, as much as $250,000 a room -- and despite the recent economic slowdown, hundreds of millions more are being spent to renovate the old ones.
It's a multilateral fight to win the repeat business of frequent individual travelers, small professional groups, upper-echelon conventioneers and leisure travelers, to make back investments within the critical first few years. Some of the combatants are small and sleek, others grandly ostentatious. Many of the new hotels are owned by or affiliated with foreign interests. They cater accordingly to international tastes, with exotic menu items, home-country newspapers, on-staff translators and other considerations.
I scouted the front lines a year ago last spring, scrutinizing the space, service, food and ambiance in three new and two established first-rate hotels. My husband and I stayed overnight in junior suites or their closest equivalent at the Four Seasons, Le Meridien, Hotel Nikko, Drake Hotel and Park Hyatt.
The places I chose lie on or near North Michigan Avenue, where the battle is particularly fevered. (The latest combatants to enter the fray are the Hotel Intercontinental and Hyatt Regency Suites.) The "Magnificent Mile," as it's known, extends from Oak Street south to the Chicago River.
The hotels I visited are among the city's finest, and all attract an upscale clientele, but they're too large to offer the truly pampering luxury available in some hotels with 200 or fewer rooms. Nevertheless, they strive to create an upper-crust atmosphere that's equal parts homey and formal, where, allegedly, every need is tended to -- from the shining of shoes to the presentation of breakfast. For $200 to $300 a night for a junior suite or corner king, it's not too much to expect.
So how do these hotels measure up?
It depends on your personal checklist. Based on our stays, each has something to recommend it, and something that warrants a caveat.
The Four Seasons The Four Seasons is definitely a grown-up place. It does not, however, treat travelers with children as annoying scum. Eloise would approve: Kids get their own downsized terry robes, and for their evening turndown they get a brownie or cookie with milk in a mug shaped like a tree trunk. They also get their own menus with yummy stuff like hot dogs and macaroni and cheese. Kid vids and Nintendo can be procured, as well as more old-fashioned diversions -- coloring books and crayons, board games and storybooks. Baby cribs, tubs and other amenities are all available from housekeeping. As is baby-sitting.
There's no lack of diversions for adults either. The Four Seasons is attached to a spectacular shopping mall with several movie theaters. It has a first-rate restaurant, gorgeous lounge and roomy junior suites. The swimming pool with built-in whirlpool is spectacular, surrounded by Roman columns, with a complex skylight and large windows to the south. There's also an outdoor running track and two workout rooms stocked with high-tech treadmills, bikes, Stairmaster machines and five Nautilus machines. Attentive staffers made sure we knew how to use the gear properly, and offered fitness tips.
We also were impressed with the hotel's security: A guard posted by the guest elevators must be shown a room key, or call the guest's room, before he'll allow anyone up.
Minor complaints: During our stay, we didn't get turndown service, and a blackout curtain was missing from one window; a sheepish maintenance crew showed up to replace it the next morning.
Our room-service breakfast excelled, brought in with a nosegay of fresh flowers on a large cart that doubled as a dining table, with a warming rack underneath. I had a broad bowl of perfect raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and blackberries; my husband's cholesterol-free omelet tasted great, but the pressed apple juice from the "Alternative Breakfast" menu looked and tasted like sludge. I'm sure it was good for me, but I couldn't drink it. Stick with the OJ.
The Four Seasons, 120 E. Delaware Pl., Chicago, Ill. 60611, 1-312-280-8800 or 1-800-332-3442. $215-$265 doubles; $275 junior suites; $650-$2,500 suites.
Le Meridien If Macon Leary were a hip, postmodern kind of eccentric, he would love Le Meridien. The fictional guidebook writer in "The Accidental Tourist" could hunker down in one of the sparsely decorated, cocoon-quiet rooms that overlook downtown from a safe distance. He could play his favorite music on the in-room CD player (he'd have brought his own discs, of course), or order up one of hundreds of movies (good ones) to watch on the in-room VCR. He would love the security -- room keys can be programmed to alert a central computer if anyone enters a room while you're out, whether it's a maid or mini-bar replenisher.
He could soak in the deep Kohler tub or shower in the clear-glass stall in the chic black-and-white tile bathroom, once he figured out the obtuse West German fixtures, which indicate water temperature in Fahrenheit, instead of the less hip Hot and Cold. He could knock back a Samuel Adams beer (imported from Boston; $4 in the mini-bar), order up a stylish room-service supper, contemplate the tasteful Mapplethorpe flower print on the wall, turn down the rheostat-controlled designer lights, prop up the down pillows, crawl under the white duvet, hit the remote control switch on the VCR and feel right at home.
We skipped the videos and entertained ourselves with dinner at the remarkable Cafe 21, now the Laurent. It's an intimate second-floor aerie overlooking lively Rush Street, sleek with black-and-white marble and leather and linen, but warmed by stunning flower arrangements. The fare is elegantly innovative, pleasing to the eye, the palate and the imagination.
Room-service breakfast couldn't compare. It was brought on a tray (no warming cart), with only one napkin and one set of silverware. Orange juice portions were puny, and my muffins came with no butter, which they needed.
Le Meridien lies around the corner from the exclusive boutiques of Oak Street, and just two blocks from Michigan Avenue and the lake. Complimentary chauffeur service to shopping and business districts is provided in BMW limousines.
Le Meridien, 21 E. Bellevue Pl., Chicago, Ill. 60611, 1-312-266-2100. $205-$240 doubles; $260-$315 junior suites; $400-$500 penthouse suites.
Hotel Nikko Like a lot of Americans, I know nothing about sake. When I order it with sushi, it usually arrives, warm and anonymous, in a little ceramic bud vase. What a surprise and education, then, to find a menu of cold country sakes at Benkay, the Japanese restaurant on the "river" level of Hotel Nikko. I tried the very dry selection and found it wonderful with the exotic treats we ordered.
Benkay's plain dining room doesn't distract from the magical view of the Chicago River, with downtown's skyscrapers rising above it, and a Japanese rock garden in the foreground. (Traditional tatami dining rooms are available as well, but without the view.) Les Celebrites, the elegantly eclectic Western restaurant, shares that view, as does the quietly convivial lobby bar, Hana, which also overlooks an enclosed traditional Japanese garden. Such details in the hotel's design, along with several works of Japanese art, make it a serene haven in the bustling hub of the city.
The hotel's 26 suites include two Japanese versions, with tatami sleeping rooms, large soaking tubs and private rock gardens. The suites and several regular rooms occupy the upper three floors of the 20-story hotel. The "Nikko Floors," as they're called, provide guests with special concierges, separate check-in/check-out service and an attractive two-level lounge. (The concierge earned my gratitude by providing some emergency nail polish to stop a run in my stockings.)
We poured our own cocktails at the honor bar, but found the complimentary hors d'oeuvres a little tired. In the morning, breakfast tables were crisply set for the complimentary buffet of beautiful fresh fruit, plump pastries, cold cereals and yogurt, plus plentiful fresh orange juice, coffee and tea. I fetched a few things back to the room and ordered a room-service omelet with smoked salmon and wild mushrooms, which arrived on time. Only the greasy hash browns disappointed.
We stayed in an executive suite -- a terrific value for $250, given that it had two separate entrances, duplicate bathrooms, closets, desks, televisions, phone lines, ice buckets, barware and mini-bars. On one side we had a spacious bedroom and sitting area; on the other, a full living room with comfortably modern furniture and a small dining table. Between the rooms were two thick doors; I could read in bed and not hear Steve watching television. (This room configuration would be a particular blessing for travelers with children.)
I was enchanted to find a large towel hamper, as most hotel bathrooms don't have enough racks for used towels. Steve's amenities box considerately included mouthwash, toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste; mine didn't.
My only complaint was that we couldn't get CNN on the television, which did carry several other cable channels. (This is a serious demerit on my personal checklist.) And the doors lack knockers or bells; it's hard to hear someone knocking.
Hotel Nikko, 320 N. Dearborn, Chicago, Ill. 60610, 1-312-744-1900. $215-$235 doubles; $250-$2,500 suites.
Park Hyatt The Park Hyatt's signatures are its intimacy, its service (which is bright and considerate), its breezily elegant lobby lounge and its restaurant, famed for corporate power breakfasts and superbly sophisticated dinners. The guest rooms, alas, are pretty but cramped. The coziness obviously suits thousands of the hotel's regular guests just fine, but we felt somewhat caged, and our view of a brick wall offered no relief. (For those seeking more space, the company recently opened a Hyatt Regency Suites Hotel a few blocks to the south.)
The lack of room space is compensated for with almost every amenity imaginable: Our bathroom bulged with a small TV, wall-mounted hair dryer, phone, scale, toothbrush holder and matching ceramic cups, four kinds of soap, Q-Tips and cotton balls, shampoo, conditioner, bath gel, body lotion, talc, nail files, sewing kit, a retractable laundry line and soap for hand-washables. The wealth of amenities reflects the hotel's attentiveness to its high proportion of women travelers -- 30 to 40 percent.
Our Park Regency room, as the junior suites are called, brimmed with other thoughtful touches -- a lovely bouquet of tulips, some potted plants, fresh fruit, a chambered nautilus shell full of hard candies, a freestanding brass suit rack, a rotating tie rack in the closet, a good assortment of magazines on the coffee table and three-way light bulbs in every lamp. Instead of the usual hotel-issue white sheets, our bed was done up in a pretty floral print on a dark-green background.
The only separation between the bed and the sitting area was a low dresser with the television perched on it, which made moving around the small space particularly difficult.
Eating breakfast in the room was awkward; I sat on the sofa with my plate on the coffee table, while Steve made do at the desk. The china was beautiful, trimmed with a graceful morning-glory design, but service and quality disappointed: My "fresh seasonal berries" consisted of a skimpy portion of strawberries for $5.75; my croissant order was forgotten; Steve's cholesterol-free omelet was bland and our coffeepot dribbled like mad. A second call to room service did, however, bring up a bowl of raspberries and strawberries, and two divinely fluffy croissants.
A better idea would be to have breakfast at La Tour, which overlooks pretty little Water Tower Square and Michigan Avenue. The hotel is well situated for shopping; it sits within a couple of blocks of I. Magnin, Neiman-Marcus, Bonwit Teller, Water Tower Place and the Shops at 900 N. Michigan Ave.
Park Hyatt, 800 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611, 1-312-280-2222 or 1-800-233-1234. $245 doubles; $310 Park Regency rooms/junior suites; $575-$675 one-bedroom suites; $2,500 presidential suite.
Drake Hotel Twenty-some years ago, my parents took me to the Drake to visit the legendary Arthur Rubinstein and his wife. Little appears to have changed this broad-beamed bastion of local tradition, although the number of rooms has been reduced from 690 to 535, thus enlarging some spaces. High ceilings and wide corridors lend a sense of majesty. Several employees have been around for decades, and they remember long-term guests by name without prompting from a computer. Younger staff members are bright and cheerful. White-gloved attendants still operate the elevators. A quaint touch: Children sharing a room with their parents stay in the hotel free -- even if the child is 50 and the parents are 80.
Extensive rehabbing since 1981 has preserved the charm and character of this 70-year-old grande dame of North Michigan Avenue, instead of forcing a facelift. The Drake continues to have a devoted following, although some newcomers may find it a little too old-fashioned and borderline dowdy. The lobby remains grandly theatrical with its intricate moldings, baroque chandeliers and splendid flowers. The Palm Court provides a warmly plush setting for the rendezvous of romancing couples and reminiscing blue-haired ladies, whether for high tea or cocktails.
We were booked into a junior suite on the third floor, but at no extra charge the front desk upgraded us to a $450 deluxe suite on the seventh floor, with a spectacular view of Lake Michigan. The "suite" consisted of a foyer, bathroom and an enormous single room with two televisions, a sitting area with sofa at the south end and a king-size bed near the north windows -- which made sleeping difficult because of the roar of traffic on Lake Shore Drive. The decor was pleasant but unimaginative, and some of the upholstery was stained.
The mini-bar, hidden behind French doors, held some nice surprises: a sink, plenty of barware (including separate glasses for red and white wines) and pint-sized bottles of Chivas, Smirnoff and Beefeater, along with the usual teensy one-shot selections.
Two tests of service disappointed: Our shoes could not be polished overnight, and housekeeping could not provide hand-body lotion, which isn't included in the skimpy bath amenities. I was advised apologetically that I could go down to the arcade shop and buy some -- hardly what I wanted to hear while wrapped in a towel. My room-service breakfast, however, was delivered in 15 minutes -- half the promised time, which meant I was still in a towel. The waiter comported himself with commendable dignity.
Drake Hotel, Lake Shore Drive and North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Ill. 60611, 1-312-787-2200 or 1-800-HILTONS (445-8667). $205-$260 doubles; $260 junior suites; $450-$595 one-bedroom suites; $1,200 presidential suite.
Magda Krance is a writer living in Chicago.