The Thief: Design hotel thrives in Oslo’s newest cultural district.

The swim-up window at the Spa allows you to float in a heated pool listening to Reiki Zen meditation music while peering outside at pedestrians walking along the snow-covered Norwegian landscape (photo The Thief)

The Thief Oslo

By Ron Bernthal

Although most visitors to The Thief , in the Oslo neighborhood of Tjuvholmen (tchuv-holmen), arrive by taxi, others can travel by bus, tram or ferry and walk ten minutes along the Aker Brygge waterfront, past the stunning, three-year old, Renzo Piano-designed Astrup Fearnley Museum to The Thief, an equally impressive structure designed by the Oslo firm Mellbye Architekter AS. The hotel’s name came about not because of the property’s high room rates (Norway is not an inexpensive country to visit), but because 18th century Tjuvholmen was called “thieves’ island,” a time when criminals caught stealing were executed in this once isolated area.

Large artwork by Richard Prince installed on a wall in the lobby of The Thief (photo The Thief)

Today, Tjuvholmen is one of Oslo’s glittering new arts districts and, as one might expect, The Thief has its own art curator, Sune Nordgren, a noted Swedish-born art and design aficionado and founding director of the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design in Oslo. Mr. Nordgren oversees the 100+ museum quality art pieces that are displayed inside and outside the property, including Sir Peter Blake’s collages in the hotel suites, the Andy Warhol print in the Fru K restaurant, Jeff Koons balloon animal sculpture and Julian Opie’s animated artwork in the elevators. When I checked in at the hotel’s reception desk I kept staring up at the Richard Prince’s huge ink-jet on canvas work, “Cowboy – The Horse Thief” that covered an entire wall of the lobby. The hotel maintains a close working relationship with the Astrup Fearnley Museum next door, and all that priceless, borrowed art in the guest rooms and interior public spaces, and the stunning sculptures outside the hotel, like Antony Gormley’s intriguing cast-iron beggar outside the front entrance, is a great perk for guests. Free admission to the museum comes with your room booking, although few of The Thief’s upscale guests are looking to save the 100-120 krone ($11-$14) entrance cost.

Astrup Fearnley Museum (photo Nic Lehoux)

The 119-room property, opened in 2013, is a member of Design Hotels™ and the entire building, and almost every object inside, is a feast for the eyes, including the most common elements, like the perfect round holes that act as handles on the translucent bathroom doors, the adorable glass yogurt cups on the breakfast buffet, and the narrow, rectangular swim-up window at the Thief Spa, where you can float in a heated pool listening to Reiki Zen meditation music while peeking outside at pedestrians trudging along the snow-covered Norwegian landscape in parka’s and woolen ski hats. Every sensory experience, from the images of brightly colored artwork that flash before your eyes, to the pleasing curvature of the hotel’s glass façade at twilight when the golden glow of lighted room windows contrast with the moody dark waters of the fjord, is enjoyable.

The Thief sits between a small canal and the scenic Oslofjord in the revitalized Tjuvholmen district, steps from the Astrup Fearnley Museum and close to the Oslo Opera House. (photo The Thief)

The large windows in my room face the Astrup Fearnley and the Oslofjord, as well as the modern, rust-colored Handelsbanken, where, from my comfortable leather desk chair, I watch office workers stay busy at their desks until well after sunset. There are nine pillows on my King bed, with two flexible reading lights on each side of the headboard, and two stunning lamps on each end-table. A glass door allows access to petite triangular balcony, just big enough for a small chair. A wooden shelf holds large-size picture books about Norwegian art and architecture. The 42” Philips plasma HDTV offers dozens of channels from Norway, USA and Europe, and the complimentary Wi-Fi is fast and reliable.

Standard guestroom with view of Oslofjord and Astrup Fearnley Museum (photo The Thief)

A solid pocket door separates the white and brown marble bathroom from the guestroom, and sensors turn on the recessed mood lighting as soon as you enter the bathroom. A price guide to the bath amenities lists the thick, fluffy Maggie Wonka-designed bathrobe hanging on the door at 1,500 Norwegian krone, about $177, or one can purchase a tube of Marvis, the Italian-designed toothpaste, for $7. Even the little white boxes hanging on a bathroom wall where glasses are stored, is imaginatively designed.

The steel and painted polyester sculpture “Le Grand Rossignol” by French artist Niki de Sainte Phalle (photo courtesy The Thief)

The hotel’s fine dining Fru K restaurant serves three meals daily, and is filled with as much art as any other space in the hotel. I especially liked the original 1976 Andy Warhol silk screen and acrylic on canvas, a piece from a series called Ladies and Gentlemen. This work, valued at close to $2 million, hangs casually in the same room as the gorgeous buffet breakfast spread. Honestly, at 7:00 am it was not that difficult to decide which attraction needed my attention more, but Warhol was a very close second. Fru K has its own meeting room, a private bar area, an outdoor patio and a lunch and dinner menu that rivals any in Europe. Depending on the season, some of its Norwegian cuisine includes cod from Lofoten in the far north, quail eggs from Toten north of Oslo, Langoustine are caught by trawlers off Norway’s west coast and delivered live, and reindeer ribeye steaks arrive from the Nordas region near Bergen.

Small plates of Norwegian cuisine from Fru K restaurant (photo The Thief)

Although the Thief Spa is physically separated from the hotel by about 50 feet, with its own entrance for local visitors, hotel guests use a private elevator that descends along an outside wall to a below ground location, where an underground corridor leads to the reception area of the Spa. Constructed in 2014, about a year after the hotel opened, Thief Spa offers treatment and dressing rooms, post-treatment relaxation areas, a gym with the newest exercise machines, sauna and steam rooms, and a lovely heated swimming pool with mood lighting above and below the water. A small fee is charged to use the Spa, and includes complimentary fruit, nuts, and tea.

While former industrial areas of Oslo are still being transformed into modern arts and cultural districts, like nearby Bjørvika, where the modern Oslo Opera House opened in 2008, the construction work in Tjuvholmen is now complete. With the Astrup Fearnley Museum and The Thief pushing the envelope in terms of design and art, several of Oslo’s most well-known art galleries, including Galleri Brandstrup (www.brandstrup.no), Galleri Pushwagner (www.pushwagner.no) and Stalper+Friends (www.stolperandfriends.com) have now moved into the area, along with numerous restaurants, outdoor cafes, and a few brightly colored, design-driven residential buildings, all facing the sea, Oslo’s most precious asset.

A view of the Oslofjord from Tjuvholmen with ferry, sailboat and storm clouds (photo Ron Bernthal)

Hotel Review: Reichshof Hamburg, Curio Collection by Hilton

Hotel Review: Reichshof Hamburg, Curio Collection by Hilton

Reichshof Hamburg, Curio Collection by Hilton (photo © Matthew Shaw for Curio Collection by Hilton)

Review by Ron Bernthal

During a recent business trip to Hamburg, Germany, I took a fast metro train from the airport to the center of the city, a pleasant 25-minute ride. I was happy to have reserved a room at the Reichshof Hamburg, a deluxe property just a five-minute walk from the Hauptbahnhof, the city’s main railway station, where high-speed inter-city trains and local metro lines are accessible. The five-star Reichshof Hamburg re-opened in May, 2015, after a $34 million restoration.

Slowman restaurant opened in the 1920′s and has been restored with its original walnut paneling. (photo © Matthew Shaw for Curio Collection by Hilton)

Built in 1910 as the Reichshof Hamburg — now known as the Reichshof Hamburg, Curio Collection by Hilton – the property was one of the largest hotels in Europe and the largest in Germany when it opened. It has now been exquisitely restored to its early grandeur, retaining its original Carrara marble columns and tile flooring, the art deco façade and gilt chandeliers in the lobby, and hand-crafted original walnut paneling in the Slowman restaurant and in some of the nine meeting rooms. The hotel’s early baroque and classical influences are clearly visible, and preserving many of the property’s original architecture was always part of the restoration plans.

This early photo of the Reichshof Hamburg, now hanging in the hotel’s lobby, was taken shortly after the property opened in 1910. (photo Ron Bernthal)

My renovated room, like the other 277 rooms (reduced from the original 303 rooms), was quite large with a high-ceiling, art deco flourishes, complimentary Wi-Fi, large-screen HDTV, comfortable, modern furnishings, and a nice selection of bathroom amenities. The floor-to-ceiling windows overlooked the Kirchenallee, a busy street that runs past the Hauptbahhof, located just down the block, but not directly opposite the hotel. This is not your typical cookie-cutter, chain property. There are more than 60 different room sizes and varieties, from the 150-215 square-foot medium size rooms, all the way up to the spacious one-bedroom suites.

Spacious rooms with high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and complimentary Wi-Fi are standard amenities in every room category (photo © Matthew Shaw for Curio Collection by Hilton)

The hotel’s lobby, including sections of the original checkered tile flooring, the framed black and white photographs of early Hamburg (including a large photo showing the interior of the hotel shortly after it opened), and the cozy Bar 1910, with its cocktails and premium whiskeys, are incredibly reminiscent of pre-World War I Germany, although with eclectic touches, such as the unique pink fabric hanging from the original lobby chandeliers and Sushi & Sweets lobby bar, which offers sushi and baked goods from the hotel’s own patisserie.
The hotel’s signature restaurant, known as Slowman (breakfast, lunch and dinner), was opened in the 1920’s and retains the ambience and look of early 20th-century Hamburg, with its ship-style design reflecting the city’s rich maritime history. With its walnut paneling and configuration the restaurant’s design takes its inspiration from the mid-19th century cruise line Hapag. The hotel’s builder and first owner, Anton Emil Langer (1864-1928), was a former executive chef of Hapag, and is responsible for the property’s present-day atmosphere and service. The Langer family continued to run the hotel for many years afterwards, and descendants still live nearby.

View of restored 1910 lobby, a mix of historic artifacts and designer driven architectural flourishes (photo © Matthew Shaw for Curio Collection by Hilton)

The property has a new spa and fitness center, and is located directly across the street from a StadtRAD Hamburg docking station, where inexpensive bike rentals are available for visitors and residents. Biking is a good way to get around this relatively flat city, but public transport is efficient with several metro lines stopping close to the hotel. The property is also within walking distance of Hamburg’s downtown lakes, the new HafenCity redevelopment district and the stunning new Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic Concert Hall).

The Elbphilharmonie (Elbe Philharmonic Concert Hall) is the latest architectural gem in the HafenCity district, located just a short traxi or metro ride from the Reichshof Hamburg hotel. (photo courtesy Hamburg Convention Bureau)

Guests of the hotel should ask to see the property’s early, pioneering technology – a massive indoor car garage with hydraulic lifts. Although the garage is no longer operating (a newer garage is available), it is an amazing relic of the hotel’s early modernization projects. During World War II the former owners of the Reichshof Hamburg hid the hotel’s engraved silverware, porcelain equipment and art nouveau paintings in a hidden walled-off room, and some of these artifacts can still be spotted in the dining room and other areas of the property.

CONTACT:
Reichshof Hamburg, Curio Collection by Hilton
Kirchenallee 34 – 36,
20099 Hamburg, Germany

http://curiocollection3.hilton.com/en/hotels/germany/reichshof-hamburg-curio-collection-by-hilton-HAMRHQQ/index.html

Hotel Review: Red Roof PLUS + Secaucus/Meadowlands, NJ

photo courtesy Red Roof Inn

Review by Ron Bernthal

Before checking into the Red Roof Plus+ Secaucus/Meadowlands I tried to imagine what type of property this would be, sitting in the shadow of a busy highway overpass in the semi-industrial city of Secaucus, New Jersey, a town of about 16,000 people whose name comes from the Algonquin phrase “a place of snakes.”

To say the least I was pleasantly surprised when I pulled off Route 3 onto Meadowlands Parkway on a hot summer night and found a lovely three-story hotel surrounded by a beautifully landscaped garden and interior courtyard. Across the street from the property was the Swan Plaza Shopping Center, where bright neon store signs advertised several restaurants, a wine outlet and other small businesses.

The lobby is just big enough room for a few people to register at the front desk, but the staff was friendly and after receiving my room key I moved my car a bit to park closer to my room, one of the great perks of American roadside motels.

The Secaucus property is known as a Red Roof PLUS+, the first Red Roof in New Jersey to receive this designation. What this means is that all the rooms have been recently renovated with higher-end amenities, and 100% smoke-free. My room amenities included a King bed, free high speed wireless internet access, a 32-inch flat-screen LCD HDTV television, a work desk and ergonomic desk chair, microwave and refrigerator. No, it’s not Four Seasons quality, but comfortable and clean, and the room rates make for great value.

Red Roof Inn Secaucus King Premium Room (photo courtesy Red Roof Inn)

Although I could not tell in the dark of night, I did notice in the morning that the back of the property faced the Hackensack River, and is located between the two overpasses of Route 3 (Eastbound and Westbound lanes), which is an interesting juxtaposition of the structural steel underbelly of a highway bridge, and the somewhat pretty, urbanized/natural view of the 45-mile long Hackensack River. The river, which used to be one of the most polluted waterways in the country, has been cleaned up in recent years and before I left the hotel in the morning I actually saw some folks fishing.

It must have rained during my night at Red Roof Plus+, in the morning the grass, shrubbery, and groomed trees around the hotel and in the center courtyard were glowing green with moisture, and combined with the summer heat and humidity it looked and felt more like southern Florida than a community in the shadow of Manhattan.

Red Roof Inn Secaucus Double Premier Room (photo courtesy Red Roof Inn)

My wake-up call at 5:30 am was on-time, and I checked-out without going into the lobby for free coffee. I also noticed that some of the rooms had stickers on them that advertised the property’s new Premium rooms, which mine was not. In those rooms, I later learned, guests receive special plush pillow-top mattresses, a spa-inspired bathroom with multiple shower heads, and a mini-fridge stocked with high-end snack treats, orange juice and water, as well as a larger TV. There is a small surcharge for the Premium rooms, but they seem well worth the additional expense.

And why would a guest stay in Secaucus more than one night? Believe it or not, there are many reasons, some I knew about, like the proximity of the Meadowlands Sports Complex and MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Giants and New York Jets. Others I learned about later, like several large, nearby outlet malls, a boat launch and docking area, and a riverside picnic area on the property with several barbeque grills. There are also natural attractions as well, tucked into spaces between highways and light-industrial plants, like Snipes Park located nearby in the rear of Osprey Cove, with two pedestrian bridges that lead into the park. And located just a few minutes’ drive from the hotel is Schmidts Woods Park, a 14-acre multi-use park containing one of the last remnant woodlands in the Meadowlands District. Who would have thought you could see Trout lilies (a field of yellow delicate wildflowers), Yellow-crowned Night-Heron nests, or the spring migration of Black-and-white and Yellow Warblers, Brown Thrashers, and Red-winged Blackbirds and Ruby-crowned Kinglets all within close proximity of major metropolitan highways.

Perhaps the best reason for multi-night stays in Secaucus is the New Jersey Transit Railroad Station that is just a five-minute taxi ride from the hotel. I believe that many of the guests at this property are really visiting New York City, and are taking the NJ Transit commuter line from Secaucus Station into Manhattan. It’s the next and last stop after Secaucus, a ten minute ride, and with frequent service throughout the day and night. There is nothing wrong with taking advantage of low hotel rates, and free overnight parking, to be so close to Manhattan.

In March, 2015, Red Roof Inn received the #1 ranking in the ReviewMatrix Customer Satisfaction Index Benchmark survey among economy category hotels for the 5th consecutive year. With the 208-room Red Roof Plus+ Secaucus/Meadowlands, I believe that its overall quality, location and price offer great value for many travelers to the New York metropolitan area

Contact:
RED ROOF PLUS + SECAUCUS/MEADOWLANDS
15 MEADOWLANDS PARKWAY
SECAUCUS, NJ 07094
PHONE: 201-319-1000

www.redroof.com

Hotel Review: Sonesta Collection ES Suites, Burlington/Boston, MA

Lobby of Sonesta ES Suites Burlington and, beyond, part of breakfast room. (Photos courtesy Sonesta ES Suites Burlington

 

 

Review by Ron Bernthal

In 2014 the Sonesta Collection of hotels and resorts launched their Sonesta ES Suites brand, with “ES” the abbreviation for Extended Stay, one of the fastest growing hotel categories. I really like most extended stay properties, especially when the room rates are comparable to regular, non-extended stay properties.

When I needed to spend some time in the Boston area I chose Sonesta’s ES Suites Burlington, a property located in Boston’s NW suburbs, close to Route 128, known as the “high tech” highway because of all the technology companies that are located in that area.

The hotel, which had been another extended stay property brand before Sonesta took it over several years ago, has been completely remodeled, updated and refreshed with room and public area renovations and redesign. This part of the Boston metropolitan area is busy, not only with corporate offices, but residential housing and shopping malls have expanded throughout the area, and regional highways are maxed to capacity during morning and evening rush-hours. Rooms at the Burlington Sonesta ES Suites property, as well as the Sonesta ES Suites property in nearby Andover, are often quite full with business travelers on multi-week work assignments, leisure travelers visiting friends and relatives, and travelers on I-95 going to/from New Hampshire and Maine needing an overnight stop.

Despite a busy lobby with late afternoon check-ins the front desk wait was minimal, and the reception staff was friendly and efficient. Good extended stay hotels need to have oversized and clean accommodations and my one-bedroom suite did not disappoint (the property also offers studio rooms and two-bedroom accommodations). My suite had a full kitchen with a separate table for eating, full-size fridge and freezer, microwave, two-burner electric stove, dishwasher, and a complete set of glasses, plates, silverware, pots and pans, toaster and coffee maker.

Kitchen in hotel suite.

The living room of the one- and two-bedroom suites are equipped with a 32” Samsung TV, work desk, chest of drawers, couch, comfortable reading chair, phone, plenty of lighting and outlets everywhere, and a large window for natural light. Framed prints hung on the walls. For a business traveler staying for several weeks, this room could easily be a home-away-from-home.

Sleeping area portion of hotel’s one-bedroom suite.

In the bedroom, separated by its own door, was another chest of drawers, another large screen Samsung, two Queen beds (Kings are also available), night tables with reading lights, another phone and charging port, and a colorful, plastic laundry basket for taking clothes to the guest laundry room. Both rooms had pleasant, if not institutional looking, brown carpeting. Wi-Fi speed was excellent throughout the property, and complimentary.

The bathroom contained a nice looking, square Kohler sink with a large vanity mirror, and many drawers under the sink. There was also a separate tub, shower and toilet room. Poggesi brand canisters of Coco Mango shampoo, conditioner and bath gel were attached to the shower walls.

The public areas of the property were equally as impressive, including the large breakfast room, a modern and colorful space near the front desk with a variety of seating choices. The complimentary breakfast was your normal buffet lineup of eggs, bacon, potatoes, fruit, cereals, juices and coffee, and it was kept clean and refreshed during the entire morning until 10:00 am. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays the property offers a 5:00-7:00 pm manager’s reception, a social gathering offering complimentary hors d’ oeuvres and wine or soft drinks. This is targeted to their extended stay business travelers, which make up much of their mid-week business, but all guests are welcome.

Photos courtesy Sonesta ES Suites Burlington

The hotel’s fitness room is called the “Mat” and is a small room near the lobby with two new treadmills and other “Life Fitness” brand equipment. The “Shoppe” is little grocery section next to the front desk that sells a variety of snacks and drinks. There is also a wonderful, landscaped courtyard, accessed by doors off the breakfast room, with an outdoor pool, barbecue grills, tables and chairs, and a full-size outdoor basketball court (a rare amenity at any hotel).

Full-size basketball court located within landscaped courtyard (photo Ron Bernthal)

A huge shopping mall is located five minutes from the hotel, along with other retail outlets and a large number of restaurants. For business visitors with appointments along the Route 128 corridor, Burlington is quite convenient, and for trips to center city Boston the drive is just 25 minutes during non-rush hour periods. There is also a commuter train from nearby Woburn station, a 25 minute ride.

Contact:

Sonesta Collection ES Suites, Burlington/Boston
11 Old Concord Road
Burlington, MA 01803
Phone: 781-221-2233
http://www.sonesta.com/burlingtonma

Hotel Review: The Press Hotel, Portland, Maine

The Press Hotel, Portland, Maine (photo courtesy The Press Hotel)

THE PRESS HOTEL
119 EXCHANGE ST.
PORTLAND, ME 04101
(877) 890-5641
www.thepresshotel.com

Review by Ron Bernthal

Like its name implies, this hotel is about the newspaper business — the writers, the headlines, the tools of the trade and the industry vocabulary of daily newspapers all over the world. Specifically, the hotel is about the Portland Press Herald, formed in 1921 with the merger of Portland’s Daily Press and Herald newspapers. The Press Herald occupied this building, on the corner of Exchange and Congress Streets, from 1923 to 2010, and after a meticulous and expensive conversion, it opened to the public as The Press Hotel in May, 2015.

Even if you have never worked as a newspaper journalist, or no longer read hard-copy newspapers, the interior details of this 110-room hotel will still be a joy to experience, as the architects and interior designers used creativity and a bit of playfulness to cleverly convert a vacant, 92 year-old newspaper office building into a modern hotel environment.

The lobby is spacious, like a large living room with comfortable chairs and couches, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the street. At one end of the lobby is Union, the hotel’s signature restaurant, and a bar and lounge, named The Inkwell, occupies space at the other end. And, in this hotel, when guests come down in the morning for breakfast at Union they pass a wood table in the lobby overladen with complimentary newspapers – stacks of Wall Street Journal’s, the New York Times, USA Today and, of course, the Portland Press Herald.

Lobby and front desk of The Press Hotel (photo Ron Bernthal)

Below the lobby, accessed by a modern staircase, are four meeting rooms, appropriately named the Composing, Editorial, News and Press Room, and an Art Gallery displays works by Maine artists. The hotel is filled with art, and while many of the pieces reflect the newspaper industry, like the “letterpress art wall” sculpture behind the front desk, or the two-story installation of antique typewriters conceived of by students at nearby Maine College of Art (see lobby photo above), most of the art covers a broad spectrum.

Although Stonehill & Taylor, the interior design firm, says the décor of the guestrooms was inspired by a 1920’s-era writer’s office, the details are subtle. Bathrooms feature a reeded glass door similar to those in traditional newspaper offices, and a wood writing desk has plenty of outlets, good lighting, and complimentary WiFi available throughout the hotel. On the back of every leather desk chair is the phrase, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” in Times New Roman typeface. Wood floors are covered with herringbone area rugs, and local Main-based companies supply the bed coverings and bedding. Prints by Portland artists are in all the guestrooms.

King room at The Press Hotel (photo The Press Hotel)

The not so subtle but very imaginative touches can be found in the hotel’s corridors, where the wallpaper is comprised of enlarged Press Herald newspaper headlines, in black type over the white walls, and the corridor carpet is whimsically scattered with typewriter letter keys imprinted into the carpeting, as if the letters are dropping off the wall and onto the floor. In guestrooms the privacy tags have esoteric quotes on them from famous literary figures and songwriters, as in “My goal as a writer is more to comfort than to disturb,” by Joni Mitchell. The thick Press Hotel-branded “beat reporter” note pad, found in each room, is so beautiful they will need to be replaced frequently.

Wallpaper on corridor outside guest rooms shows Press Herald newspaper headlines with text letters seeming to drop down and scatter on carpeting below, part of hotel’s whimsical “newspaper industry” interior design theme (photo The Press Hotel)

Union, the hotel’s restaurant serving three meals daily, has already become a popular dining venue for local residents as well, a big accomplishment for a new restaurant in a city known for some of the best dining venues in America. The farm and sea-to-table menu will change at least as often as Maine’s seasons, and when I visited in June there was locally sourced oysters, scallops, salmon, mountain trout, Casco Bay cod and lobster, with farm fresh chicken and Maine-grown fruit and vegetables. Desserts and excellent oat bran bread are made in-house and the wine list is affordable, with a nice selection of California and European bottles. With its open kitchen, friendly staff, communal table, and a few more subtle details of the building’s former occupant (note the real newspaper clipping under the salt cup at breakfast), I imagine that Union will be as cozy and comfortable on a cold winter night as it was during a sultry summer evening.

Unique lighted room number outside guest room door. (photo The Press Hotel)

Portland is a walkable city, and the downtown Press Hotel is close to the historic port area, the city’s business district, and the Merrill Auditorium entertainment venue. The property is part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection™ of hotels.

Former newspaper office typewriter in The Press Hotel lobby. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Gloucester Journal: Historic seaport always had atmosphere, scenery and unlimited ocean fishing, now looking for economic boost to combat fishing restrictions.

Good Harbor Beach, Gloucester, MA (photo Arlene Taliadoros, Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce)

By Ron Bernthal

Gloucester, Massachusetts was settled in 1623, making it one of the first English settlements in what would become the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and today the town proudly proclaims itself as “America’s First Seaport.”

Although this early group of settlers abandoned Gloucester three years later due to the harsh conditions, English fisherman and farmers eventually tamed the land, harvested an unlimited supply of ocean catch, and incorporated the seaside town in 1642.  It has been a fishing port ever since, although its harbor is seeing fewer and fewer fishing trawlers.  Although fish packing houses still line Rogers Street as it meanders along the waterfront, and summer tourists still crowd local restaurants for fresh seafood, unemployment in the fishing industry has grown as government catch restrictions limit, or sometimes prohibit, the amount of fish that can be legally caught and sold.

Since the early 1800’s Gloucester’s harbor and the quaint towns and beautiful seascapes throughout the Cape Ann peninsula have also attracted painters, photographers, sculptors and writers who established private summer homes in the inland forests or on the bluffs overlooking the sea.  Art galleries and studios line village main streets, and it is a common sight in good weather to see painters standing in front of their easels with Gloucester Harbor or a deserted ocean beach as a backdrop.

The ethereal light along the coast in the Cape Ann region is often compared to the light in Arles, a city in the south of France where van Gogh produced 300 paintings during his time there in the late 1800’s.  Today, if one looks at the 19th- century paintings of Fitz Henry Lane, who lived in Gloucester, the Cape Ann scenes he depicts are very reminiscent of southern France.

Gloucester Harbor at Sunrise (painting by Fitz Henry Lane, 1851, courtesy Cape Ann Museum)

“The early artists concentrated on all the beautiful natural landscapes we have here, including the shoreline, the harbor and the center of the Cape Ann peninsula, which is still relatively uninhabited,” said Martha Oaks, curator of the Gloucester’s Cape Ann Museum. “Some of them did wonderful portraits of local fishermen, and captured the large schooners that used to sail in and out of the harbor.”

Gloucester itself, with only 30,000 residents, has so many arts and cultural venues that in 2013 it became the first community in Massachusetts to be granted two cultural district designations.  A good introduction to Gloucester’s historic seaport is to take the Harbor Walk, a short self-guided tour that meanders along the historic harbor area and in the narrow streets above the port, which are lined with numerous small, family-run businesses, including taverns, pizza shops, restaurants, barber shops and clothing stores.  On a hill in the center of town stands Gloucester City Hall, a lovely 1881 building with a clock tower that looks out past the harbor to the glittering bay beyond. The larger restaurants, those most frequented by summer motor-coach tours, as well as local families celebrating anniversaries and birthdays, are located along the waterfront and offer fresh fish and lobster with views of the harbor.

Fishing boats in Gloucester Harbor (photo Arlene Talidoros, Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce)

In the last few decades the city has experienced its share of tough times.  A rash of teenage pregnancies, drug abuse among its youth, and growing unemployment that is more than the national average, not unlike many other small New England coastal towns.

One of six restored murals by Charles Allan Winter displayed at Gloucester City Hall (photo Ron Bernthal)

But perhaps the cruelest indignity has been the decline of Gloucester’s fishing industry.   Although depleted stocks have taken its toll all along the East Coast, fishing has been Gloucester’s life blood for 400 years, and the decline has been especially difficult for the residents here, financially and psychologically.  Massachusetts ranks second behind California in the number of jobs supported by the fishing industry, but with coastal cod fishing in New England highly restricted, and severe limits on other species also affected, each year there are far fewer local boats leaving Gloucester harbor before dawn for a day’s catch.

Annisquam Lighthouse on Cape Ann (photo Arlene Taliadoros, Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce)

Many of the former fish processing sheds along the waterfront have either closed, or now process product that arrives by truck from larger seaports along the coast, and for many young men in town, following your father onto a Gloucester-based fishing boat is no longer a guaranteed career.

The town still supports a fishing fleet,  Gloucester fishing boat captains are the stars of the TV show Wicked Tuna, and the popular film, The Perfect Storm, is a true story based on a Gloucester fishing boat, and was about filmed here. But local officials and the business community have to make-up for the revenue and jobs lost in the fishing industry, and they are doing so by inviting high-tech firms to relocate out of the pricy Boston market nearby, and recently approved a modern hotel development project on beach property near the harbor.

Although the traditional fishing community has not objected to the inland high-tech development that is taking place on the Cape Ann peninsula, the hotel project had divided Gloucester during the years when it was being debated in town meetings, until construction was finally approved to move forward by the Gloucester town board.

Rendering of new Beauport Gloucester Hotel, opening 2016 (rendering courtesy Olson Lewis + Architects

In the end, the fishing community in Gloucester, traditionalists who opposed the hotel being built on a town beach, the site of a former Bird’s Eye processing plant, lost out to residents who see the future of the city’s economic revitalization no longer can count on fishing, but with luring modern businesses, design-driven hotels, and more affluent business and leisure travelers.

Painted door on fisherman’s house near Gloucester Harbor (photo Ron Bernthal)

The 96-room Beauport Hotel is expected to give Gloucester’s economy a much needed boost. “That project is a case of land going unused.  Do you just let it sit there, let the former buildings crumble and waste away?  It is prime waterfront property, and can bring it megabucks to the community,” said Erik Ronnbert, adjunct curator for maritime history at the Cape Ann Museum. “The new hotel, and perhaps others like it, will be a benefit for the city, but I understand why some residents of Gloucester were against it. The hotel is symbolic of the changes in lifestyle for generations of families that were once part of the city’s fishing heritage, and they’re seeing their culture and heritage disappear.  The kind of employment being offered to many of these proud fisherman, they see it as a step down in the town’s social hierarchy, so of course they aren’t happy about the changes are coming.”

Other residents welcome the changes.  “Interestingly, there were big resort hotels here 100 years ago, the city has always been a popular destination for visitors,” said  Scott Memhard , president of Cape Pond Ice, a company which has supplied Gloucester’s fishing fleet since 1848, and was featured in the film the Perfect Storm.  Mr. Memhard’s business has seen sharp declines in the number of fishing boats they serve, but welcomes the new hotel and the possible increase in leisure boating that may result.  “Gloucester is not really reinventing itself, there actually was once a fancy hotel on Pavilion Beach, just down the way from the Beauport Hotel, and these properties were always an important part of the economy here.”

Scott Memhard, president, Cape Pond Ice. (photo Ron Bernthal)

The Beauport Hotel is expected to open in 2016 with visitors coming to see the area’s museums and art galleries, but also to walk along the city’s working harbor, stroll the nearby beaches and enjoy the beautiful and fragile sunlight that artists have been trying to capture since Gloucester was founded 400 years ago.

Hotel Review: Former 19th Century Office Building in Boston’s Financial District offers 21st Century Comfort as Design-Driven Deluxe Hotel.

The deluxe Ames Boston Hotel (center right with historic facade) was the former Ames Office Building, the tallest building in Boston when constructed in 1883. (photo courtesy Ames Boston Hotel)

Review by Ron Bernthal

From the Orange Line’s State Street subway station I walked across the street to the Ames Boston Hotel, a 13-story, luxury boutique property that had once been Boston’s tallest skyscraper when it opened as an office building in 1893. Originally the home of the Ames Company, a manufacturer of America’s first shovels and other agricultural tools, the firm was founded in the 1770’s and is the oldest existing company in the United States, now headquartered in Pennsylvania.

The building became one of the tallest masonry load bearing-wall structures in the world, meaning the 13 story building was built without steel, with a three story granite base and sandstone and brick façade. The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The conversion of the building to the Ames Boston Hotel was completed in 2009.

The lobby is intimate and stylish, with an eclectic chandelier, designed by Rolf Knudsen and made of thousands of reflective mylar discs, suspended on wires over the interior entry way. Above the chandelier is a stunning, domed mosaic ceiling, preserved from the original 19-century architecture. An interesting juxtaposition. The front desk clerk was friendly and efficient, and off to one side of the lobby is the hotel’s King Street Tavern, a pleasant, casual dining venue with long, communal wood tables as well as smaller individual tables situated next to large windows overlooking Court Street. This convenient on-site restaurant serves breakfast and dinner.

The original domed, mosaic tile ceiling from the 1893 Ames Office Building has been preserved in the Ames Boston Hotel lobby. (photo Ron Bernthal)

My third floor accommodations was a wonderfully designed, minimalist “loft” style King bed guest room (there are only four loft-style rooms out of 114 guest rooms and suites), with a huge, eye-brow style window overlooking the street and the Old State House (1713). This particular room has high ceilings, bare oak floors, and an open-configuration with a sitting area and a large comfortable couch separated from the bedroom by a half-wall that held two back-to-back 42” HDTV’s, allowing TV viewing from each area. The room had two great-looking amenities, a Vers model radio/alarm/iPod docking station, and a brushed silver aluminum Pablo Pardo-designed tube LED desk light that sat on a white work desk.

View from loft-style guest room at State and Court Streets, and Boston’s 1713 Old State House (photo Ron Bernthal)

The extra-large bathrooms are one of the hotel’s most popular features. My bathroom was separated from the bedroom by a huge glass window, through which the commode, shower and sink was all quite visible. The property promotes their “infamous sexy showers” on marketing materials, and they are quite nice, with deep-seated marble bathtubs in some of the rooms, and streamlined stainless-steel fixtures. Modest couples, however, should note that the optional sheer curtains that can be drawn over the bathroom window will not conceal much.
The hotel offers free Wi-Fi and, despite its casual “boutique” ambience, provides all the standard property amenities found in larger deluxe hotels, including a 24-hour fitness center, 24-hour business center, concierge services, valet parking, and meeting and event space.

King bed guest room, view from glass-wall shower. (photo Ames Boston Hotel)

Boston has been a leader among U.S. cities where 19th century structures have been successfully converted into downtown luxury hotels. These include a former bank, a jail, a customs house and police headquarters. Several of the city’s current historic hotels were originally built as hotel properties and have been beautifully restored, including the Omni Parker House, which opened in 1855 and is the longest continuously operating hotel in the country.

The Ames Boston Hotel is located on Court Street, in the heart of the city’s financial district and is a short walk to the Government Center, Faneuil Hall Marketplace, Beacon Hill, Boston Commons, several subway lines and Amtrak’s South Street Station.


Contact:

Ames Hotel Boston
1 Court Street
Boston, MA 02198
Ph: 617-979-8100
www.amesbostonhotel.com

Restaurant Review: Westward, Seattle

Communal tables, fresh fish and swaying bright lights feel more like small Greek island than high-tech Seattle (photo Sarah Flotard)

By Ron Bernthal

In 2014 Bon Appétit magazine named Westward one of the best new restaurants in the U.S., but even before I had anything to eat I had reason to love it. Located on the north shore of Seattle’s Lake Union, this rustic, wood building is hidden from the street by foliage, and was difficult to find on a dark, rainy night. Shipbuilding and repair yards border the property at each end, a testament to this area’s still vibrant fishing industry, and the view from the restaurant’s outdoor patio (and most seats indoors) is of the glittering Seattle skyline on the other side of the lake.

Colorful umbrellas on the patio of Westward (photo Sarah Flotard)

The serene waterfront setting, with a dock and umbrella-covered tables that are much coveted by diners in warmer weather, is just one part of Westward’s unpretentious charm. Inside the low-ceiling dining room with a nautical theme are about a dozen tables, a chef’s counter facing the kitchen and, in a separate area of the room, the Little Gull, a 22-seat oyster bar where guests can order freshly harvested Washington State oysters and ice-cold beer. Outside, by the dock, are more tables, many of them communal, and the strings of little bright lights swaying above the crowd makes Westward seem more like a small Greek island taverna than a city restaurant in high-tech Seattle.

Fresh, locally harvested Washington State oysters at Little Gull oyster bar (photo Ron Bernthal)

Chef Zoi Antonitsas serves a Mediterranean-influenced menu, using Northwest fish, like Idaho river trout and sockeye salmon, locally farmed vegetables, beef and lamb, and home-made desserts. They also prepare great small plates, depending on what’s in season. I had an excellent octopus appetizer as well as small plate of squid with sesame seed pistou.

Afternoon lunch or cocktails on the patio at Westward, with views of Lake Union and Seattle skyline (photo Sarah Flotard)

Lunch, dinner and brunch menus change frequently, what chef Antonitsas purchases in the morning is served that day, and her Greek roots are unmistakably noticed in the marinated olives, grilled halloumi cheese, mussels served in a broth of harissa and ouzo, potatoes cooked in the Applewood-burning oven, seasoned with Greek oregano and lemon, and the wonderful loukoumades with lemon curd and poppy seeds for dessert. There is a nice selection of Greek wines, Washington State craft beer and hard cider, cocktails, excellent coffee and about ten various aperitifs from Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece, all reasonably priced, and all a perfect ending to dinner or lunch.

Westward
2501 N Northlake Way
Seattle, WA 98103
Ph: 206-552-8215

www.westwardseattle.com

The Sinatra Table at Scottsdale’s FnB

Pavle Milic, co-owner of FnB restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona (photos Ron Bernthal)

By Ron Bernthal

When Emily Milic, co-owner of the newly relocated FnB restaurant in Scottsdale’s Old Town, asked me to remove my coat before going to my table for dinner, “because it was a tight squeeze,” I wasn’t sure what she meant. FnB is an intimate and friendly place with only about 12 tables, but there seemed to be plenty of room for people, and heavy coats, on this cold, winter Arizona night.

Then Emily led me past the cozy front bar and into the restaurant’s tiny open kitchen, which faced a full dining room, as all the diners stared at the single gentleman who was given a seat in the kitchen. It so happened that a local friend who made the reservation had requested this special table for me (no extra charge). I sat at a small, white tablecloth-covered café table raised up on a little platform, sharing the space with noted Southwest chef and co-owner Charleen Badman and her assistant, along with a food cooler, a four-burner stove-top, a hot mesquite charcoal and wood-burning oven, and dozens of plastic bins and farm cartons filled with root vegetables, fruit, brown eggs, and assorted spices. Every few minutes a rack of lamb riblets went into the oven, a tray of fish was taken out of the cooler, strawberries were expertly sliced, and friendly banter and jokes flew around the small kitchen as if it was a private comedy club. It was the best seat in the house.

Pavle Milic, Emily’s husband, calls it the Sinatra Table. “Everyone in the dining room now thinks you own the restaurant, or you’re a VIP,” he said, joking, after I maneuvered myself into the small space between the sink and the prep table. Pavle said he could even squeeze another three people around the table, although I wasn’t sure if he was still joking.

White tablecloth chef”s table at FnB can sit one or two and is located in the tiny kitchen, where dinner guests get close-up views of meal prep’s, their own and all the other customer meals as well.

With Pavle handling the front of the house and sommelier duties, and making quick visits to the kitchen to see if I was enjoying the ambiance (I was, tremendously), I watched chef Charleen Badman prepare farm-to-table appetizers like beet falafel and marinated greens, hand-pulled mozzarella with leeks gribiche, or roasted carrots and parsnips with dates, honey and rosemary. My main dish, corvina with pomegranate, persimmon freekah (a healthy Middle Eastern cereal), and chermoula (a North African spice), was truly amazing. Desert was chocolate soufflé with a scoop of ginger ice cream on the side. Food & Wine magazine named Ms. Badman’s braised leeks with mozzarella and fried egg one of the ten best restaurant dishes in the country. Although it wasn’t on the menu during my visit, everything else I ate could have won the same award.

FnB chef and co-owner Charleen Badman in the tiny kitchen where she produces locally sourced, fresh and organic cuisine

Pavle Milic, who was born in Colombia and raised in New York City, and chef Badman, have been running FnB for five years, and the new location, on a quiet Old Town plaza near Scottsdale’s art gallery district, offers an ever-changing menu sourced from local farmers and ranchers, with a great selection of high-altitude Arizona wines. The dinner menu includes a mouth-watering array of small plates and just four entrees, all tasty, aromatic, most organic, and rarely the same two nights in a row. Ask for the Sinatra table when making reservations; it’s a VIP experience without costing extra to reserve.

Frank Sinatra always got the best table in the house.

FnB Restaurant
7125 E 5th Avenue, #31
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
Tel: 480-284-4777

www.fnbrestaurant.com

Swiss Mountain Chalet in Suburban Seattle – Willows Lodge

by RON BERNTHAL

After a drive of a just 30 minutes from downtown Seattle I am in the foothills of the Cascades, in the pleasant suburb of Woodinville. With office parks, affluent private homes, two-story residential complexes, a few large vegetable farms saved from developers, drive-thru espresso bars, craft beer breweries and a slew of restaurants and wine tasting shops, it is a pretty, but hardly unique, West Coast suburb.

However, this Seattle bedroom community it is also the home of Willows Lodge, rated by Travel & Leisure magazine in the January, 2012, issue as the best hotel in the state of Washington, and one of the best hotel properties in the world. Situated on 5.5 acres along the Sammamish River, the 84-room “lodge” is an unassuming, two-story boutique hotel that truly has all the high-tech amenities, charming coziness and design-sense of a deluxe Swiss mountain chalet, minus the towering Alps outside the bedroom window.

Walkway through hedges in Willows Lodge parking area (photo Ron Bernthal)

During check-in at the front desk I am surrounded by beautiful Northwest coast native paintings and sculpture. I am also aware of thick Douglas fir timbers crisscrossing the ceiling above me, an architectural theme used throughout the property – in guestrooms, the spa, the Fireside lobby bar, and in the Barking Frog fine dining restaurant in a separate building about 50 feet away. These huge trees were cut 100 years ago and used to build the port of Portland, Oregon. Rather than see the wood thrown away when the port was renovated, the Willows’ owners transported them to Seattle and used them during construction to give their property a very Northwestern-style ambience. Look closely and you will see the old notches and bolt holes in the beams, but they have been smoothed and waxed by local craftsmen, who also created two sofa tables in the lobby from the same wood.

Regular king bed guest room at Willows Lodge (photo Willows Lodge)

One of the nice touches at Willows Lodge, and there are many, are the recycled materials used inside and outside the property. The stones that form the massive fireplace in the lobby, and the smaller gas fireplaces in all the guestrooms, were found in nearby forests. Guestroom work desks are recycled slate pool tables from old bars in British Columbia. Bathroom floors are worn slate, the lobby floor is stained concrete and of course there is reclaimed wood everywhere.

But don’t think Willows Lodge is all rough and tumble. The gas fireplace turned on with a flick of the switch, and my bedroom was so warm and comfortable on a cold, winter Sunday afternoon that I had to force myself to go outside for a bike ride. The bed was covered with an Australian lamb’s-wool mattress pad, 300-thread Egyptian cotton sheets, and a European duvet. A 40” Sony HD/TV, a French press coffee system and well-stocked mini-bar, including many bottles of Washington State wine, were also quite tempting. The Wi-Fi is free throughout the property, and I am still trying to find out who designed the exquisite hanging light above the desk, which made laptop work so pleasant.

In all the bathrooms are Dornbracht fixtures; a designer sink made from Mexican marble; a deep soaking tub big enough for two; a large walk-in shower with a digital water temperature control device; and bathrobes and slippers, used for walking to the full service spa (the bamboo massage, the lavender-infused essential oil treatment, and salt scrubs are popular), the fitness room, or to the outdoor relaxation pool. Needless to say, with a good supply of Molton Brown coco and sandalwood body lotion and ultra-pure milk soap bars, along with 5,000 square-feet of meeting space, Willows Lodge is both a romantic weekend retreat for Seattleites and an upscale conference center for the many high-tech companies located in the well-groomed nearby.

Fireside restaurant and bar offers large fireplace during cool weather and outdoor patio dining in warmer weather, complimenting the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus. (photo Willows Lodge)

During my visit I saw many business and leisure guests enjoying the Barking Frog, the hotel’s main restaurant that exudes the same warmth and Northwestern architecture of the main hotel building. The restaurant, which has a wonderful communal table, specializes in the seasonal and organic produce found in the Puget Sound area, while the main building’s Fireside bar and café offers a casual dining venue off the lobby, with an outdoor patio overlooking the peaceful landscape near the river. Both restaurants serve wine from top Washington wineries, most of whom are represented in the nearby tasting shops.

The hotel’s fine dining Barking Frog restaurant offers Northwest architecture and ambiance, similar to the main lodge building just across the lane. (photo Willows Lodge)

Although I was not able to visit the Herbfarm, a privately-owned, nine-course wine pairing dinner restaurant located on the Willows property, its stone and wood rural English village-style building is very distinct. If you’re lucky enough to visit, ask to meet the restaurant’s pets, the pot-bellied pigs Borage and Basil.

Willows Lodge herb garden is located next to the Spa and is a beautiful and peaceful spot in any season. (photo Ron Bernthal)

In addition to exploring the local Woodinville area, the Willows offers complimentary bicycles to use on nearby bike trails (the 29-mile Sammamish River Trail starts right next to the property, along the river), and Redhook Brewery, a well-known craft beer producer, is a two-minute walk from the hotel, offering daily tours and tastings as well as the on-site Forecasters Public House.

The Willows Lodge looks and feels much newer than it is, an undiscovered gem that seems to have been flying under the radar, at least for travelers from the East Coast, since its opening 15 years ago. I guess Microsoft, Expedia, Nintendo and hundreds of other Seattle area high-tech firms are used to keeping some things secret.

The Willows Lodge is just across the road from a large vegetable farm, and adjacent to a biking trail along the Sammamish River. Turn left for nearby wine tasting shops and Woodenville restaurants. Turn right for the towering Cascade Mountains just 20 minutes away. (photo Ron Bernthal)

Willows Lodge
14580 NE 145th Street
Woodinville, WA 98072
Tel: 425-424-3900

www.willowslodge.com