Blank stares. That’s what I got when I told friends I was heading to New York City for the primary purpose of spending two nights at The Whitby, a new British boutique hotel. It seems more intellectual pursuits guide my friends’ Big Apple travel decisions — a trip to Gotham to see the latest Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit or attend a concert at Carnegie Hall. But as a self-proclaimed hotel groupie, I have a soft spot for unique luxury hotels, and news of this whimsical escape from reality was compelling.
While it doesn’t have a massive “palm court” or grand open space, The Whitby has something better: imagination in every nook and cranny. To start, a series of sophisticated alabaster sculptures, maybe 8 feet tall, lead to the front desk and a sleek lobby with hits of reds, chartreuse, blues and greens. The message is clear: This is not a hotel for monochromatic minimalists. If you’re an “everything beige” person, head to a big bland chain.
The Whitby vibe is artsy-craftsy meets high style with enough ingenuity to stock an artist’s lair. A “real time” grandfather clock by international artist Maarten Baas has a film of a man inside the clock telling the time. Even the elevators offer visual treats with boxed collages adorning outrageous fabric-lined walls.
The 30-foot pewter bar is snapshot- perfect, too. With a nod to the English fishing village for which the hotel is named, 50 large woven baskets like those used for collecting oysters, fish and potatoes or for selling flowers hang overhead. Each one is tagged with info about its origin. Nearby, a pair of carved wooden Hercules keeps a watchful eye on imbibers.
We wind our way through the courtyard garden, drawing room and dining room, gaping at every inch of space adorned with more paintings, ceramics or glassware displayed in lighted wall niches. A mélange of styles lives happily together — American folk art, reproductions of 20th-century mosaics, porcelain pots of New York landmarks and a lamp base in the “honor bar” constructed of a towering collection of patterned china cups and saucers.
I feel like Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum could have had a say in the decorating.
Our suite’s floor-to-ceiling windows open to a large private terrace with jaw- dropping vistas of glittering glass and steel skyscrapers. Room furnishings are a blend of sophisticated warm tones with playful touches — a traditional record player sits atop a table along with a stack of records inviting us to take a spin. The base of one lamp is a carved wooden dog. Polished wooden balls fringe the draperies. As they say, it’s all in the details, and here, every room and suite is different.
But it isn’t only its look that makes The Whitby special; it’s the service. At breakfast, gluten-free isn’t an afterthought, all eggs are cage free and when we ask for coffee, the friendly server immediately offers an array of choices.
The 86-room Whitby is the dream of Tim and Kit Kemp, owners of Firmdale Hotels, a small British luxury hotel group. Kit, a textile designer, is the artistic decorator and collector. She’s even designed the hotel’s Wedgwood china and line of bath products called RikRak. The Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo is their only other U.S. property. Here at The Whitby, they’ve combined an art experience with a luxe hotel that’s a short walk to my favorites: Central Park, MoMA, Bergdorf’s, Tiffany’s and Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar.
Before I check out, I pause to think about what a civilized experience this has been, savoring art, gracious service and thoughtful food. As for those hoity-toity friends, the blank stares are gone, replaced by reservations for their next visit to the city that never sleeps.
WHERE TO STAY
The Whitby Hotel
18 W. 56th St., New York
Doubles from $695 a night
WHERE TO EAT
Ralph Lauren Polo Bar
1 East 55th St. (between Fifth & Madison avenues)
It’s warm, clubby and inviting. As you’d expect, The Polo Bar has plenty of nods to the sporting life. Pause for cocktails at the bar or cozy fireplace nook before heading down an elegant wooden staircase to the dining room. The menu is classic American, inspired by Lauren’s favorites. The best part is you can eat as casual or as fancy as you like.
WHERE TO SHOP
When you tire of Fifth Avenue, head downtown to Brookfield Place. Shop a new, smaller Saks, Hermès, Bottega Veneta, Burberry and other luxury stores. brookfieldplaceny.com
WHAT TO SEE
The Tenement Museum
103 Orchard St.
With immigration in the news, it’s a good time to remember what many of our ancestors endured when they came to America. See tenements that housed immigrants from 20-plus nations and learn about the New York businesses that employed them.