Beantown bliss in the Taj Hotel
Oscar Wilde once said that “when good Americans die they go to Paris.” I used to think the same until I came to the Taj Hotel in Boston and sat in the Club Room overlooking the Public Garden. Now I’m fairly sure this is exactly where good Americans go— during life and after death.
The hotel stands on the corner of Newbury and Arlington streets, where “location, location, location” meets early American history, luxury shopping, dashing parks and more. The temptation to go out and explore is matched only by the desire to stay inside and soak in all the exquisite goodies this 273-room hotel offers.
As of two years ago, the building was “the mother ship for all Ritz-Carltons,” says Patrick Blangy, Taj’s director of sales and marketing, “setting the benchmark for all luxury hotels by becoming the first ‘chandelier luxury’ hotel in America. They coined the term, which meant, essentially, a hotel that went all-out with their grand decorations.”
But the Ritz-Carlton Group was purchased by Marriott International in 2000, and took up residence across the park, where they proceeded to set up placards asking guests to request if they wanted their sheets to be changed. That same year, the Tata Group (owners of Tetley Tea, Jaguar, Land Rover, approximately 50 percent of the world’s undersea cable and 80 of its hotels, including Rambagh Palace in Jaipur, the Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur and the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower in Mumbai) took up residence at the former Ritz, and left the sheet-changing decision-making to the staff. Which is to say: if you need something done here, it will happen about five minutes before you think to ask. “We’ve taken over a traditional building, this historical flagship Ritz-Carlton building, with its traditional services,” says David Gibbons, general manager of the Taj. “We wanted to be the stewards of this great property. To keep with the heritage.”
The Taj’s efforts in Boston have earned it a spot in Travel and Leisure’s “500 Best Hotels” issue two years running; one of Conde Nast Traveler’s Gold List and Reader’s Choice Awards; as well as the Mobil 4-Star and AAA Four-Diamond Lodging Award. As one couple in the elevator kept saying to each other, “It’s just like the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris!” That’s some heavy-duty, spot-on praise.
The views from the Taj are second to none. “It’s very dramatic to see the uniform color of the Boston Commons in the background, serving as a sort of frame for the Public Garden’s variety of trees,” says Blangy. “It’s a nice fall foliage, even now in December, a rainbow of foreground colors.”
The best panoramas are to be found from the 8th floor on up, because they’re unencumbered, with no buildings getting in the way of the picturesque fauna during the day, and the swags of holiday lights over the park at night. All the rooms are little gems, but the Luxury Park Suites are virtually peerless when it comes to, well, everything: a bed that seemingly goes on forever, dressed in high-count cotton sheets, Frette linens and an array of different pillows in the room from which to choose (down alternative microfiber, anti-snoring, different densities, etc.); a turn-down service presented on a tray spread with future-needs-fulfilled (a linen laundry bag, a full breakfast menu, Taj chocolate squares and a weekly weather forecast); floor-to-ceiling windows that look down on Newbury Street, with its high-end shops in their full holiday regalia.
Go from the bedroom to the parlor and the entrance to the Public Garden beckons below, while inside a butler dressed in near-tuxedo garb lights a fire using wood selected from the Firewood Menu (cherry and oak are offered, but the most popular with guests are the birch and maple). I go for cherry.
The scene is set for au goût in-room dining: seared bay scallops served with a brown butter truffle hollandaise, smashed potatoes and asparagus on the side— with, perhaps, a Louis Jadot 2005 Pouilly-Fuissé Burgundy— followed by a hedonistic take on the traditional Boston cream pie; and then, a glass or two of Remy Martin Louis XIII. Segue to the bath, after you’ve put in a request from the Bath Menu. A “Simply Romantic,” with scented bubbles, rose petals, champagne and strawberries, is icing on the romance cake. The “Make Way for Ducklings” comes with a steaming mug of hot chocolate sitting beside a bath full of bubbles and rubber duckies. The lavender-tea “Boston Tea Party” bath is an outer-body sodium pentothal experience. Total complacency kicks in. I’m ready to give up all my secrets to the butler who drew the bath. Life can’t get much better than this.
While I soak, I think of Boston, where I spent the first two years of my life. I know virtually nothing of this place, but soon find out why it has the reputation of being considered the “Capital of New England.” Being in this city is a bit like being in Oxford or Edinburgh (I fully expect to see one of those iconic black cabs toodling along whenever I looked out the window). Boston is much smaller than one might think, which is why it’s also called a walking city. Author Bill Bryson says, “Boston’s freeway system is insane. It was clearly designed by a person who had spent his childhood crashing toy trains.” In other words, do what I did— get a good night’s rest, take in a breakfast of fresh berries and orange French toast, then head outside to explore on foot.
The Taj stands at the front door of the Public Garden, which begins Boston’s famed Emerald Necklace— a chain of parks that wrap around the city’s thoroughfares, built by Frederick Law Olmsted and his partner, Calvert Vaux, the fathers of American landscape architecture and the designers of Central Park. The Public Garden cuffs off the Back Bay area (once a tidal estuary— the Science Museum also serves as a dam) through Boston Commons, then on to other parks (Jamaicaway, with its stunning Jamaica Pond, Fenway Park, Common-wealth Avenue, etc.), finally ending at the rural Franklin Park, a woodland preserve.
Boston is one of those rare cities— like Paris— where getting lost brings the really good finds. I stumbled upon the Old Granary Burying Ground at Bromfield and Tremont streets, with row upon row of blackened tombstones, where John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere R.I.P., and where one can find the obelisk monument erected by Benjamin Franklin to his humble parents.
I strolled into Copley Square and found the Romanesque Trinity Episcopal Church (built in 1887 and listed on the American Institute of Architects’ Ten Most Significant Buildings in the U.S.), where candlelight carol services are a tradition and an absolute must-do for those with a waning holiday spirit. I happened upon ice skaters at the Frog Pond in the Boston Commons; discovered the three-mile Freedom Trail that leads to Paul Revere’s teeny, warping house, the chock-full-of-tourists Quincy Market and the amazingly historical Faneuil Hall; delighted in the Bunker Hill monument where Col. William Prescott shouted out his famous command “don’t fire til you see the whites of their eyes,” to save gunpowder needed to defeat the British during the revolution.
I did all of that, with the harbor winds fairly whipping my hair in every direction, finally ending up at the seaport, following a group of tourists to I-didn’t-know-where. Sometimes it’s good to follow a throng of tourists. I had the unexpected pleasure of happening upon the U.S.S. Constitution, the oldest commissioned ship in the world (211 years old), with real active-duty naval officers on board. It was first built to attack pirates, then used against the British (instead of blowing up, their cannonballs merely stuck inside the white oak boards of the ship, giving the ship its nickname “Old Ironsides”). It’s a cold tour for December, but the real chill— the important chill— comes from the history, which makes the getting out and seeing so important.
There’s such a sense of history here, in fact, that the Taj doesn’t want to be derivative in the way it decorates the hotel. The idea is to keep the traditional, yes, but to leave the “Currier and Ives outside, and bring in a fresh take,” says Gibbons. When Gibbons first met French designer Francoise Semeria, the decorator they specifically use just for Christmas (Fleur Magenta Tel, her company in Nice, is a celebrated holiday-themed design firm in France), he says, “I walked in the room and saw this small woman talking, and thought, ‘What is this?’ but within minutes I knew I was in the presence of someone who really, really knew what they were talking about.’”
Now, every summer, Semeria flies over from Nice to conspire with him to make a lush, modern, traditional, European Christmas scene. Last year the hotel was dressed up in a “confectioner’s pink,” says Gibbons, where instead of silver, things were silver with a pink blush. This year, the Taj is dressed like a white, chic winter wonderland.
For families, December brings the Teddy Bear Tea, where PB&J, chocolate-covered strawberries, assorted Christmas cookies and hot chocolate await eager little guests in the Grand Ballroom. Everything is decorated in candy-cane stripes, and teddy bears hang on the walls (the teddies are brought in by children for tea, and then donated to the Children’s Hospital Boston). As a nod to the Indian proprietors of the Taj, a huge gingerbread house is baked to look like the Raj Palace.
For Christmas dinner, executive chef, Franck Steigerwald— who is almost certainly fated for some Michelin stars— cooks up a feast with oysters, champagne and caviar, followed by a roulade of turkey breast with mushroom and foie gras and traditional accompaniments. Then Christmas dessert arrives— exquisite little individual bûche de Noëls in white chocolate, raspberry or hazelnut pralines. For a final touch, guests have stockings filled with chocolates and cookies hanging from their doorknobs.
The Cafe, the name of the restaurant, is achingly pretty for lunch the day after Christmas, with its cream-caramel colored walls and floral designs: textured sage-colored fabric with red cherries, white and yellow roses, and gray vines that cover the booths and chairs; taupe and celadon needlework pillows that bear hydrangeas, irises and pansies, while one yellow rose floats inside a slender minimalist vase on each table. It’s all very Silk Road. Photos of the rich and famous— Elizabeth Taylor, Winston Churchill, Shirley Temple, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and the scandalous: Edward III, The Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson— line the back wall, which makes me feel rather important and a little insignificant at the same time.
Since the waitstaff are knowledgeable and good conversationalists, I knock back three of the best cappuccinos I’ve ever had in my life while waiter Gianfranco Verri, who comes from a small town near Turin called Giardino, encourages me to let him choose my meal for the evening. It is a good move: tomato mozzarella with arugula and fennel salad, roasted duck breast with sweet potato mash and Madeira cranberry sauce (accompanied by a Chateauneuf du Pape, 2005, La Bernardine, M. Capoutier) and dessert— a vanilla crème brûlée with fresh berries and an apricot pane de gene.
Still, I must confess that the Club Room is my favorite place at the Taj. Every morning and afternoon, members (pay the extra bit at check-in, it’s worth the price) have private access to a special room with enormous, sweeping park views, a high-end bar, a well-dressed butler, a gourmet buffet of oh-so-many international amuse-bouches-cum-tapas: lobster profiteroles, tuna tartar, fresh sushi, foie gras with toast points and thinly slivered grapes— the cast of epicurean characters are enough to bring me to my knees. (For those who decide not to partake in the services of the Club, weekend afternoon teas in the Cafe afford some of the same, adding on currant and orange scones served up with Devonshire cream and lemon curd, Opera cakes, teas, champagne and more.) But this spot— here in the Club— this is my final resting spot at the Taj now, and hopefully during my second life.
The Taj Boston Hotel
15 Arlington St., 617-536-5700, tajhotels.com/Boston Fastest Route: JetBlue from BWI to Logan International; fares starting at $40 one-way. Most Scenic Route: Amtrak Acela from Penn Station to South Station; fares starting at $150 one-way.
> The Eliot Hotel, 370 Commonwealth Ave., 617-267-1607, eliothotel.com. 95 rooms, of which 79 are suites, this eco-friendly hotel is handsomely decorated and situated on a beautiful boulevard; comes with one of the coolest in-room computer systems for guests ever.
> The Back Bay Hotel, 350 Stuart St., 617-266 7200, doylecollection.com/locations/boston_hotels/the_back_bay_hotel.aspx. Trendy luxury in the former Boston Police headquarters, near Copley Square.
> The Millennium Bostonian Hotel, 26 North St., 617-523-3600, millenniumhotels.com/millenniumboston/index.html. Newly renovated with designer Jinnie Kim’s Asia-meets-Boston, offers upscale sleeping at inexpensive rates. Directly across from Faneuil Hall.
> The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, 280 The Fenway, 617-566-1401, gardnermuseum.org. A little Louvre in America. Stay late for some of the after-hour concerts in the cloisters.
> USS Constitution and Museum, Charlestown Navy Yard, 617-426-1812, ussconstitutionmuseum.org. The oldest active naval ship. Served during the Revolutionary War and now a wow-tourist stop with exceptionally humorous and knowledgeable tour guides.
> Walking Tours of Historic Boston, 221 Massachusetts Ave., 617-670-1888, walkingboston.com. Follow the red brick road of the Freedom Trail for three hours, with clever, revolutionary-outfitted guides who hit all the important historical markers.
> Harvard Museum of Natural History, 26 Oxford St., Cambridge, 617-495-3045, hmnh.harvard.edu. One fascinating scientific research museum, housing three sub-categories worth visiting: the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Harvard University Herbaria, and the Mineralogical and Geological Museum.
> Sportello, 348 Congress St, 617-737-1234, sportelloboston.com. James Beard awarded Barbara Lynch (Boston’s answer to Baltimore’s Cindy Wolf), debuts her newest, innovative, prix fixe restaurant this month.
> North 26, 26 North St., 617-557-3640, millenniumhotels.com/millenniumboston/restaurant/index.html. Executive chef Brian Flagg makes the best New England clam chowder in the city— hands down— and the rest of his menu is as playful as his cooking, too.
> L’Espalier, 774 Boylston St, 617-262-3023, lespalier.com. New England meets French seasonal degustation at this Boston favorite.