NYC

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

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The Surrey is one of a cluster of high-end boutique hotels nestled in Manhattan’s posh Upper East Side. The natural delights of Central Park are a block away to the west, the hedonistic pleasures of the shops and galleries of Madison Avenue are only a short stroll in the opposite direction. The Mark and the Carlyle, two other icons of tasteful luxury, are literally a stone’s throw away in what is otherwise a delightful, leafy residential area of classic New York townhouses. MOMA, the Whitney, The Guggenheim, the Frick and other prime destinations are all within a short walk.

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

The Art of ‘Boutique’

In the rarefied world of the high-end New York boutique hotel, perfection is mandatory; with the goal of making guests feel relaxed and at home the minute they step up to the building. A good boutique hotel will ensure that service is courteous and impeccable, but at the same time warm and accommodating. Where big luxury hotels achieve status through sheer opulence and range of amenities, the boutique strives for something luxuriously different: charm, chic, atmosphere, comfort and quiet.

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYCWhere boutique-style hotels are concerned, much of the secret is in planning the welcome so that staff greet you by name, handle your luggage efficiently, seat you comfortably for the check-in, and offer a glass of Champagne. Kids get special attention. Cut flowers should be everywhere, often from gardens on the property. Beds should be supremely comfortable, and amenities complete, down to details like shaving mirrors, hair dryers, irons and ironing boards, plush robes and slippers and high-end toiletries. They should serve by the cardinal rule, which is that snootiness is the antithesis of great hospitality.

This is the basic formula that has been fine-tuned by the Relais & Chateaux group over the past 60 years—first in France, then in the rest of Europe, and now around the world. To boot, many of the Relais & Chateaux hotels have on-property restaurants that are Michelin-starred; many are world-famous.

Which brings us back to the Surrey in New York, because it is the only Relais & Chateaux member hotel in the entire city. For me, the Relais & Chateaux group has always been the benchmark when it comes to reliably comfortable accommodation and often spectacularly great dining.

On this sixtieth anniversary of the association’s founding, I was curious to see how the core concepts of the association would translate to Upper East Side sensibilities. (We were unable on this trip to sample the Michelin-starred restaurant, Café Boulud, managed by chef Daniel Boulud. Its predecessor, the Pleiades was a famous watering hole and meeting place for the New York art crowd of the 1970s and ‘80s.; the Bar Pleaides off the hotel lobby, also run by Boulud, carries on the name.)

The Art & Glamour: From JFK to Kate Moss

The Surrey was built in the Beaux Arts style as a residential hotel back in 1926, and over the years has seen many a famous guest, from JFK to George Clooney, and plenty of other celebrities whose desire for discretion the hotel has respected.

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

Pleiades lobby bar at The Surrey

The design of Bar Pleiades, the lobby bar, harkens back to the romance of the Roaring ‘20s, but with a decidedly modern twist and lots of quilted odes to Chanel. The lobby itself is a compact, well-proportioned limestone and marble space featuring a quirky, mosaic-tile interpretation of a Persian rug on the floor and contemporary photography and art on the walls.  The view through the lobby past the twin elevators ends in a shock of recognition with what is perhaps the most memorable feature of the hotel’s reno: artist Chuck Close’s enormous, black-and-white Jacquard tapestry of the face of Kate Moss, close-up and in high definition, wrinkles and all.

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

The lobby of The Surrey

Kate Moss, the “anti-supermodel,” is of course emblematic of our era’s fashions and foibles; “the ideal beauty of the moment,” in Marc Quinn’s phrase. But the way photographer Chuck Close has depicted her shines a spotlight on her vulnerable humanity. It’s a mesmerizing piece and it sets the tone for the hotel’s design in both sensibility and color palette.

Other artist’s works, more than 30 in all, are sprinkled through the hotel’s public spaces: works by Cecily Brown, Jerry Halzer, Richard Serra, Imogea Cunningham, William Kettridge and more. Each is worth a visit.

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

A piece of furniture art in the lobby of The Surrey

Both the public spaces and the rooms are decorated with a muted and relaxing palette of silver, black, grey, sepia and cream, with occasional chocolate accents. All of the hotel furnishings were custom-made in New York to designs created by Lauren Rottet, many stenciled and hand-painted. “We were kind of design schizophrenics,” she told an interviewer, “moving through all the styles from 1925 to 1940. It’s beaux arts revival, art nouveau and art deco, traditional and contemporary, all together.”

The Accommodations

We were in an “Ultra Deluxe Suite with Skyline View”, and it was indeed deluxe in every respect. The large windows overlooks the Manhattan skyline and a window seat is decorated with a long grey cushion on which is stenciled: “Through these windows lies the soul of the city, across Madison and down 5th Avenue…” The king bed—mattress by Duxiana, sheets by Sferra, pillows in all shapes and sizes—was heavenly; the marble bathroom has a stand-alone tub, an opening window, and the shower is a high-volume, high-pressure pleasure dome.

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

We couldn’t leave this modern touchstone of hotel design without asking for a tour of the two principle suites; the presidential suite and the penthouse. The presidential suite, a floor a floor down from the 17th floor penthouse, is bright and airy, with coffered ceilings, great views all ‘round and its own wraparound terrace. There’s a small library of books by the living room fireplace that actually look interesting, a mammoth his-and-hers bathroom (plus two others); a full kitchen, bar, formal dining room, a baby grand piano, and of course a pair of sumptuous bedrooms with the same Dux mattresses and Sferra sheets we’d enjoyed.

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

The Surrey’s Presidential media room

The penthouse shares many of the same amenities, minus the baby grand and Olympic-sized master bath, but including a gas fireplace and kitchen like many of the hotel’s thirty smaller suites. Because it shares the top storey with the hotel’s rooftop bar, it’ smaller than the presidential suite, but it’s enough space to raise a family, though of course it’s used mostly for receptions and other functions.

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

The dining area of the Penthouse Suite

The Amenities

On the hotel’s second floor there’s a round-the-clock exercise room with all the latest equipment (empty when we looked at midday), and a Cornelia spa, with five treatment rooms, each impeccably decorated to induce a feeling of serenity. During our stay the internationally-celebrated hair stylist Billy Yamaguchi was making a guest appearance and his trademark feng shui consultation, color, cut and style was going for $800. at the spa.

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

A luxurious treatment room at Cornelia Spa at The Surrey

My treatments at Cornelia Spa made me feel like a royal being pampered in my English estate. The waiting room and exceptionally-large treatment rooms are designed to make you feel right at home, with plush seating, bedroom-like wardrobes for your clothing and robe, soft duvet blankets and patterned cushions. And for those who aren’t into sharing bathrooms, each treatment room comes luxuriously equipped with its own vanity area (filled with Cornelia Signature products), toilet and shower.

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

The Relaxation Library at Cornelia Spa, The Surrey Hotel

The treatments are all designed to fit your specific needs. For example, during my facial, the therapist asked me what my specific concerns were, and since I have wrinkles and dry skin in some areas, and oily skin in others, she customized a delicious-smelling blend of creams and serums to balance my skin and protect it from the harsh New York City environment (which I had a hard time remembering I was still in). The bed, smells and treatment was so relaxing that I may have even drifted off a couple of times (not that I’d admit it!) Afterwards, I was handed some tea, sorbet and Prosecco, and told I should feel free to spend some time in the spa’s “relaxation area”. So I did; soaking in the bliss, having a gratis glass of white wine, and munching on the feast of fresh fruit and nuts that were neatly laid out. If I could have stayed all day, in that plush curtained nook, I would have.

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

The Surrey’s gorgeous rooftop bar, with views of Central Park

Next to the spa, my favorite part of the Surrey experience is their rooftop bar. It is, like the rest of the hotel, near-faultlessly designed for quiet relaxation, with wood decking, lavender-filled planters, miniature boxwood topiary and lots of English ivy. Seating is spaced widely, for private conversation. Subdued background music leans to Tony Bennett and Sinatra. It is an altogether delightful space and unlike popular rooftop bars at many other Manhattan hotels, will likely remain that way because in order to go there you have to be a hotel guest, or a member of the Surrey “Patron’s Club,” which will set you back $1000 a year.

The Surrey: Chic Perfection in NYC

The Surrey’s rooftop simply can’t be beat.

Relais & Chateaux and its sixty-year-old benchmark for comfort and general well-being are well-represented in Gotham, where the Surrey adds a quintessentially modern twist to the classic, old-world luxury that the Upper East Side is known for.

Wade Rowland is ranked among Canada’s leading literary journalists. Publisher of the award-winning Rowland Travel Guides, he regularly writes for North America’s top magazines and newspapers (such as the New York Times) and specializes in travel and culture articles. Wade Rowland, PhD, has written more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from travel and culture, television journalism, philosophy, organized crime and international environmental law, communications technology, the philosophy of science and the sources of human values.

10 Comments

  1. I always check Urbanette for travel ideas — I was looking for a hotel to stay at while in NYC and this looks like perfection! I’ll definitely book a suite here for next month, when I have to be in NYC for a week for work. I also love your articles with ideas of things to do in NYC — the date ideas article gave me a bunch of good ideas. 🙂

  2. I didn’t realize about the roof! I’ll definitely make that a regular spot, provided the cocktails are good!

  3. Ansley Barrington

    Well written piece, truly makes me want to stay at The Surrey

  4. Paula Lowe

    Reading this inspired me (even more) to do really well in my career. To live in NYC and be able to experience even a weekend of an escape to a “mini-paradise” such as Surrey Hotel would be amazing. Hopefully I will be able to do so in a near future and write about my experiences.

  5. So chic and luxurious! I love the way The Surrey goes above and beyond to accommodate hotel guests. Everything from the spa treatments to products in the rooms is top quality. When I come back to New York, I definitely will book an appointment at the Cornelia Spa 🙂

  6. Courtney Watson

    With its 5-perfect rating, I believe the Surrey Hotel can provide me the accommodation and relaxation I’m looking for. Hmmm… The hotel looks fantastic, the amenities (as described in this review) are awesome! I will definitely give it a try and will add my experiences through the comment section soon!

  7. I just made an appointment at the Cornelia Spa. From your description, it looks amazing! Getting a couples massage this weekend — can't wait 🙂

  8. Gabrielle Williams

    Guess where I am staying this weekend? The Surrey! I was doing some research online about it and it led me here where I found this amazing write-up about the hotel. I am so excited, it’s not my first time in NYC, but it will be my first time staying at the Surrey hotel.

  9. Jen Garcia

    This is something that I expect to see on “Pretty Woman” not in real life splendor. Thank you for giving us a tour around this plush masterpiece of a hotel.

  10. This hotel looks gorgeous! I didn't know about the different approach to hospitality, it sounds like it's definitely worth a try.

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