Afternoon Tea at the Mena House, Cairo, Egypt
Around the world in 80 famous hotels
by Andreas Augustin
'Wherever you go, try to stay at the most famous hotel - even if you can only afford the smallest room!' (A. Onassis).
A journey around the world can take – as we have all learnt – 79+1 days, it can also take you to 80 different hotels. I prefer this way of escape; it suits me, there is no time pressure involved. I do like to travel to places and stay; to dig deep wherever I stand, reflect, and learn to understand. Speed is only a virtue if you are racing. Even obvious signs like your far-travelled Louis Vuitton luggage set or your Palladium and Centurion Cards are the standard-bearers, but trust me: time is the true sign of wealth.
All over the world it is the people who make a hotel: the staff on one side and the guests on the other. So many hotels, so many stories. Sometimes hotels immortalise people, sometimes it is the other way round. Charles of the Ritz, Michael Moser of the Imperial, Peter of The Savoy, Kuttan of the Galle Face are the people who welcome us back. The various Ritz hotels will always remind us of the doyen of this industry, the charismatic Cesar Ritz. On the other side the English writer Somerset Maugham is inseparably linked to names like Raffles and Oriental, Dorothy Parker to New York's Algonquin. Martin Luther King had his dream at the Willard in Washington.
The grand hotel as such is a child of European and American culture, for the first time presenting a collection of services all under one roof: rooms to rent, a restaurant, a porter, laundry services, etc. All extras were as the name suggests 'extra'. Before 1900 you could find candles to light your room and wood for the log-fire separately on the bill, as well as the porter's modest fee for carrying your luggage upstairs. With the advent of mass transport (railway) the grand hotel in the heart of a city became a necessity. In January 1774 David Low opened the first so called 'Grand Hotel' in London. However, the first true grand hotels opened not before the arrival of the railway. In 1870 we find the Grand Hotel in Vienna, Austria. All other - today called - Grand Hotels were later, after they had grown, renamed Grand Hotel.
Cesar Ritz (picture) built his hotel in Paris, ran one of the first hotel chains in the world, had his name associated with over one dozen of Europes best hotels and eventually inspiring a chain (Ritz Carlton: his wife practically sold the family name, after his death). His name grew into a synonym for luxury.
By 1920 America had over 200 notable hotels, following European standards where between 1850 and 1920 grand hotels rose all over the continent, giving every city of note a variety of individual hotels. In Africa and Asia the hotels rarely reflected the style of local traditions, but satisfied the demand of colonial travellers, thus creating a home far away from home for Europeans.
The abolishment of nobility in India made Maharajas turn their palaces into luxurious hotels. The rich and famous of India had long stayed at famous hotels around the world. For a season they spread the atmosphere of Rajastan, Patjala or Punjab among European society, who gasped at the wealth of their illustrious decorated exotic guests. While the Nawab of Bahawalpur or the Maharaja of Patjala threw lavish dinner parties at London's Savoy and other European hotels, it seems ironic enough that at home they might have found it difficult to even enter one. British hotels enjoyed almost ex-territorial status. Not the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay, which was built by Indian industrialist Tata for precisely that reason (he was once denied entrance to one of the better known - British - Bombay hotels). Private entrepreneurs became famous hoteliers, lending their names to equally fabled establishments like the Lake Palace or the Rambagh Palace. These are not famous historic hotels according to the statutes of our organisation.
The Sarkies brothers were not trained but talented hoteliers, with a sense for great locations and big names: "Raffles", "Eastern and Oriental Hotel", "The Strand", to name but few of their hotels, all founded in Asia; an enduring legacy.
The grand hotels of this world were always the showcase of the latest inventions. In these hotels, for the very first time, there were bathroom attached to the bedrooms, modern water pipes installed, from the late 1880s even with hot running water. Oscar Wilde scorned the Savoy in London for delivering hot running water through pipes to the bathroom: 'What a nonsense - if I want hot water, I'll ring for it.'
We also monitor the development of today's new companies. Conrad Hilton, Isadora Sharp (Four Seasons), Fairmont, Marriott, the Shangri-La group, the Mandarin Oriental, The Peninsula and Kempinski, who opened their first hotel in Berlin in 1952.
The Indian Oberoi founded a chain of hotels that exported Indian hospitality abroad, running legendary hotels such as the Mena House in Cairo or - or some time - the Windsor in Melbourne. Various hotels have fallen into neglect, from glorious days to a barely acceptable existence in the shadow of global tourism. Mostly victim to political turmoil or economic hardship, they either closed down and disappeared or lead a live in poverty and despair. One of them is the Astor House in Shanghai. It was 'the' hotel, opened in 1846. The first electric light of Imperial China was lit there, the first telephone was installed in it, the first stock exchange of the empire was declared open there. It hosted US president Grant, Albert Einstein, Charles Chaplin. Only now does it slowly return, equipping itself again with modern facilities and restoring once celebrated venues.
In 1911, the Hotel Baron in Aleppo,Syria was the most modern hotel in the city. Today it is a far cry from its former glory. In Cairo the former Savoy stands in the heart of the city, totally empty and virtually useless. The Saint Georges in Beirut is a ruin after decades of civil war. The Phoennicia still stands strong in an seemingly never ending civil war.
The interior of Germany's oldest grand hotel Breidenbacher Hof (1822) was auctioned at Sotheby's and only after many years reopend (2008), being among those hotels which are celebrating glorious returns.
The Grand Hotel in Vienna became an office building after the war, only to be reopened as a sparkling hotel again in 1994. The Grand Hotel Royal in Budapest was closed for a decade before Alfred Pisani and his Corinthia Group from Malta arrived to kiss it awake to a new lease of life in 2002. The Adlon in Berlin had to wait for half a century after being bombed and destroyed in 1945 to be rebuilt and opened by the German Kempinski group, who are hoteliers since 1952. In spring 2005 the Plaza at New York's Central Park was about to be converted into a multi functional apartment-shopping-office complex, before a world-wide uproar, supported by 600 employees and an understanding NYC major changed this direction.
London's The Savoy (1889) was built by theatre impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte, the man behind the Gilbert&Sullivan operettas. Cesar Ritz was its first general manager, presenting Auguste Escoffier to London, the chef who created the modern restaurant kitchen as we still have it today. He invented Peach Melba for Australian opera diva Nellie Melba. The home of Winston Churchill's the Other Club, the London address of Oscar Wilde and the venue of the yearly Wimbledon Ball, to name but three of 300 highlights, it had became such an institution, that a letter - once addressed to 'the manager of the greatest hotel in London' - was promptly delivered to the Savoy.
In London famoushotels.org lists 13 hotels, from Dorchester to Claridges, the private Goring and its oldest, Browns Hotel (1837), and more recently the London Hilton on Park Lane, which now turned 50 years. Scotland comes in with two railway hotels in Edinburgh and the legendary golf hotels. In Paris we currently feature 16 hotels. Today equally exquisite are the Meurice, the Crillon, the George V and the Plaza Athenee.
France has over 25 famous hotels, from the palaces at the Cote d'Azur to Biarritz. At Monte Carlo we always stop at the Hotel de Paris. In Germany we find over 20 historical hotels like the Elephant in Weimar (1696), the Bayrischer Hof Munich, Atlantic and Vier Jahreszeiten, both in Hamburg, the Nassauer Hof in Wiesbaden, to name but a few. We try to arrive at Frankfurter at the Frankfurter hof in October, during the Book Fair, the hotel's busiest but also best time of the year. Reservation is key, otherwise you find yourself sleeping in one of the cosy armcharis of the Author's Bar. A series of castles and villas are successfully operated as hotels - Villa Königstein near Frankfurt opened in 1956, for example, and is among the top rated hotels.
Switzerland (22 Select Member Hotels) is one of the cradles of great hotels and hoteliers, the Palaces in Gstaad and St Moritz and all great winter resort hotels own their mere existence to a bet between a hotelier and some Englishmen, who didn't believe that one could actually spend the winter in the mountains.
The hotels along Lake Geneva are legendary (Montreux Palace, Beau Rivage Lausanne, etc.). In front of Geneva's Beau Rivage, where she stayed, Austria's Empress Elisabeth 'Sisi' was stabbed to death. Zurich is famous for the Beau Rivage and the renovated Dolder.And now you can again visit the Park Hotel Vitznau, a fairy-tale-dream castle at Lake Lucerne, where you also find the grand hotels of Lucerne, once homes to the wealthy aristocracy of Europe and famous artists.
Viennese Eduard Sacher, a Ritz contemporary, has his name today not only on two Austrian hotels, but on almost every chocolate cake around the world.
Great hospitality is celebrated in Austria (7 hotels) at Vienna's Imperial. It was built as a palace for the Prince of Wuerttemberg and in 1873 converted into a hotel, immediately becoming the official residence of all state visits. Across the road stands the Grand Hotel and the Bristol and around the corner the legendary Hotel Sacher of chocolate cake fame (Graham Greene wrote The Third Man there).
In Salzburg we find one of the oldest inns, today a luxurious hotel: the Goldener Hirsch (Golden Stag), dating back to 1407. It's a nice touch to think that Mozart might have walked through its doors. In the south of the country we list the Schlosshotel Velden, with a confirmed history as a castle dating back to 1600, while the hotel started operating in 1892.
Empress Elisabeth was a great traveller. The Austrian Empress made Reid's Hotel on Madeira her temporary home on the island and was stabbed to death in front of Geneva's Beau Rivage (Switzerland).
Italy as a classic tourist destination is home to many grand hotels (33), from Venice's Danieli to the Grand in Florence and further south to Rome (6) with its Grand Hotel (opened by Cesar Ritz in 1894. In 1931 King Alfonso XIII of Spain made it his home, where he died 10 years later. For years the hotel would be the court of the Spanish kings in exile), the Excelsior and the Hassler.
From the grand hotels of Naples to the relatively young holiday resort Cala di Volpe on the Costa Smeralda, built by the Aga Khan, it's all there. Hasta la vista in Spain's capital Madrid, at the Palace or the Ritz. At the Southern end of Europe rests the Rock Hotel in Gibraltar. Portugal is at her best in Estoril, and on the lovely island of Madeira, where a certain Mr Reid was kind enough to leave us his Reid's Hotel.Opened in 1891, to welcome ocean liners on their way to the outposts of the British Empire, Reid's Palace is today more beautiful than ever.
If you'd care to accompany me to the North of the continent to Denmark we find the 1755-opened Angleterre in the royal city of Copenhagen. There, you also find one of the first designer hotels. Architect Arne Jacobsen created the Royal there, in 1960.
Further north we visit Finland's capital Helsinki (Hotel Kaemp, where composer Jean Sibelius once spent three days and nights drinking) and - across the border, in the former Russian capital St Petersburg - we enjoy a spoon of caviar and Boef Stroganoff at the Grand Hotel Europe, where Peter Tchaikovsky spent his honeymoon.
Europe's largest country Ukraine was still part of the Russian empire when the Palast Hotel in the capital Kiev (the mother of all Russian cities) opened its doors in 1912. Today it is the new republic's celebrated five star hotel, under the name Premier Palace.
Travelling south after passing through Athen's restored flagship Grand Bretagne we reach Istanbul in Turkey, where the Pera Palace welcomes us. Rumours have it that this is the place where author Agatha Christie once vanished for four days. Trust me, these were rumors.
When in Egypt, we have a mint tea at the Mena House, gazing in amazement at the Great Pyramid. In the footsteps of detective Hercule Poirot and Death on the Nile we visit Aswan and take a drink on the terrace of the Old Cataract, in Luxor we enjoy a pepermint tea at the Winter Palace.
North Africa is home to many tales of oriental hospitalities. Names like Marrakech automatically bring up the hotel La Mamounia, Tunis stands for Majestic, the hotels El Djazair for Alger and Minzah for Tanger. The rest of Africa holds a selection of former colonial hotels, from the romantic Victoria Falls to the traditional Mount Nelson in Cape Town, where we love to take tea. Most African capitals have lost their interest in their historic hotels, but in Nairobi you still enjoy the Norfolk's (1904) cordial welcome, while it needed the private initiative of a Spanish honorary consul to revive the legendary Castle Hotel (1927) in Mombassa.
East of Suez on the shipping route from Europe to Asia - we searched in vain for the remains of the great hotels in Port Said and Suez itself. In Aden, the Crescent stands as an icon of a distant past, left by the British in 1967. After Esfahan and Karachi we reach Mumbai's Gate of India where the majestic Taj Mahal hotel welcomes us.
The Imperial in New Delhi sports a strict art-decco architecture. Here Muhammed Ali Jinnah founded Pakistan. It is the haunt of all discerning travellers, after its total renovation it is a true luxury hotel of international standards. As the owners decided to exhibit their vast collection of over 2,000 prints, paintings, illustrations and artefacts, they employed a dedicated manager of art and history. It is may be the only hotel functioning as a museum, too.
Some miles away - in (old) Delhi - slumbers Maidens Hotel. In Calcutta we list the Grand (1890). We have taken note of the palaces which were only recently converted into hotels, namely the Rambagh, Umaid Bhawan and Lake Palace.
The Sarkies brothers brought a standard to Asia that earned them the comparison 'The Savoy of the East' for their Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
Sri Lanka offers from the charming Mount Lavinia to the very private Hill Club the full assortment of historic lodging places. The Galle Face offers a brand new wing. In Malaysia we overlook the sea from the E&O in Penang, before we meet at Raffles in Singapore, splendidly restored to a never before seen standard. Our train leaves for Bangkok, but we make it a point to stop over in Thailand's seaside resort Hua Hin, to pay a visit to the newly restored Railway Hotel.
We spend a few days at The Oriental in Bangkok (1876), for many simply the best hotel in the world. At The Strand in Yangon we complete the visit of this former chain of hotels all built by the Sarkies brothers between 1884 and 1901 (Raffles, E&O, Strand).
In Saigon, pardon, Ho Chi Minh City, we visit the Continental and the Majestic and continue our journey to Hanoi, where the Metropole - Graham Greene's haunt - has stood proudly since 1901. Hong Kong's oldest hotel is relatively young (The Peninsula, 1928), but absolutely on the top, and so are you, in particular when you disembark from your helicopter on its roof.
In Beijing we visit the Grand Hotel (des Wagons-Lits), and in Shanghai we fox-trot to the sounds of the jazz band at the Peace Hotel. Further on we go to the The Manila Hotel (1911) and in Tokyo we pay our respect to the all time classic Imperial (the orginal hotel was opened in 1890). By 1923 the hotel had a spectacular new building added, designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, which survived the devastating earthquake on its opening day. A quick detour to Australia takes us to Melbourne to the Windsor (1883), Australia's only hotel of historical importance.
Let's take a ship to the States, where another earthquake made the Fairmont on San Francisco's Nob Hill an institution. The setting for the TV series Hotel, based on Arthur Hailey's best-seller, it is a symbol of San Francisco, reaching back to 1906, when the Great Fire following an earthquake took all of the city. The Fairmont stood - Parthenon-like - at the top of the hill, whilst all around there was devastation and rubble. When you cross the US from West to East you have an armada of legendary hotels (85). Let me drop some names: Halekulani, Moana, Beverly Hills, various Plazas, Breakers, Biltmore, Don Cesar, St Regis, Mayfair, Brown Palace, Jefferson, Pfister, Lenox, Poca Raton, Hay Adams ..., all in all currently over 80 famous hotels.
The Waldorf-Astoria in its new location. Built in less than two years.
In New York waits its legendary Waldorf-Astoria (opened in 1931 with 1,410 rooms as the largest hotel in the world), where gatherings of celebrities are on the daily schedule. Conrad Hilton acquired it after dreaming of it as the 'greatest of them all'.
Canada offers a unique series of wonderful hotels, notably a collection of fairy tale castles like the Chateaux Frontenac, Lake Louise and Laurier. Down south the Bahamas and the Caribean have their splendid spots, on Cuba a handful of famous hotels doze in the streets of Habana, among them the Ambos Mundos cultivating faded memories of past grandeur.
In Brazil you swing to Samba at the 1923 built Copacabana Palace, Argentina welcomes us at the Alvear Palace (1932) and at the Plaza (1909). In Santiago de Chile we visit the Hotel Carrera and nearby the ski resort classic Portillo. On your way back to Europe we stop at Ireland's west coast to enjoy the hospitality of the romantically situated Ashford Castel, which became a hotel in 1939.
The Shelbourne in Dublin, dating back to 1824, was home to John F. Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline, in 1958. If we sail further south - as the Irish dramatist George Bernhard Shaw did in 1924 - we arrive at the harbour of the island of Madeira, off the north-western coast of Africa. In its capital Funchal the good old Reid's Hotel overlooks the Atlantic. Here Shaw learned to tango and left his autograph for his dancing instructor with the words: 'To the only man who ever taught me anything'.
Fancy a new round around the globe? Why not. Peter Ustinov once said – and there is nothing to add: ‘When I leave, I am already on my way back.’
* Andreas Augustin is a writer and traveler, who is the honorable president of The Most Famous Hotels in the World, an organisation founded to safeguard the history and cultural heritage of all legendary hotels around the world. The result so far are over 35 different hotel books, and over 50 titles in total.
Hotels are listed independently, regardless of their geographical location, their political environment and their commercial success.