Photo Courtesy of The Surrey

The artwork is by Oldenberg. The linen is by Pratesi. There is no mini-bar, but you may ring your room mixologist. The man who invented W Hotels is impressed by The Surrey and Julie Moline thinks you will be too…

For all its grandeur, Manhattan’s Upper East Side is a hotel desert; there are a few grandes dames (The Carlisle, The Regency, the Plaza Athenée), a handful of boutique hotels and only two chain properties (forgettable Courtyards by Marriott).  That scarcity is one of the reasons why 2009 renovation of The Surrey, a once-faded residence hotel on E. 76th St, was such welcome news to travellers attracted to the Parisian ambience of the neighborhood that flanks Central Park.

This wasn’t an ordinary renovation. It was more of a transformation, not just of the interiors but of the whole idea of what an upscale hotel could be. The budget of $60 million was stunning, considering there are only 190 units in the 17-floor Beaux Arts building.  But from the moment you set foot inside you know that this isn’t a by-the-book refurbishment, and from the reception you get as you check in—gracious, and above all, genuine—you know you’re not going to have a generic hotel experience.  It’s almost like the front desk staff is bursting, trying to keep a secret; the secret is that you’re found a place that gets everything, from fundamentals to grace notes, absolutely right.

It begins with the lobby. A muted palette of cream, silver, grey, sepia and black forms a neutral but luscious backdrop for an art collection that includes works by Jenny Holzer, Claes Oldenburg, South African artist/filmmaker William Kentridge and Chuck Close, whose piece looks like an oversized photo of Kate Moss but is actually a hand-woven tapestry.  It’s as if the designer took the hotel vernacular and skewed it a quarter turn so you look at each space in a totally different way.  Even the marble mosaic floor is offbeat; instead of a geometric pattern or filigree, the tiny marble smalti were set down to look like a deconstructed, monochromatic Persian carpet.

Take the elevator up, and you’ll see that the walls are clad in the same textured leather as the front desk’s facade.  Enter your room, and you are treated to more drama. The standard “salons” are large, bright and sumptuous.  The silky Pratesi sheets and mountainous duvet hide the treasure beneath: a Duxiana bed, whose specifications are unique to the hotel.   The bathrooms have glass walk-in showers with Waterworks fixtures; a thick slab of Carrera marble is the counter. The salons are in fact so ample that there’s a roomy sitting area, illuminated by a table lamp whose white linen shade is hung like a mini grommetted curtain and a floor lamp whose glass base sweetly mimics a woman’s form.  There’s a gorgeous desk if you have to work, and an HD flat-screen TV that’s linked to a Denon iPod docking station, but the most intriguing part of the room may actually be the bar setup.   Instead of mini-bar bottles in a tiny locked fridge, your bar has full bottles of premium liquor out on display.  Call room service, and a mixologist will come to your room to make a cocktail for you—or train you how to do it yourself.

Which brings me to the next noteworthy part of the Surrey experience: the cuisine.  Café Boulud, one of five NYC creations of master chef Daniel Boulud, functions as the hotel’s dining room and also handles room service; Café Boulud also runs the Surrey’s extraordinary Bar Pleiades, whose design inspiration was Chanel accessories—handbags and compacts. Hence the materials (mirrors, leather) and finishes (diamond-quilted walls, black and white lacquer) in the bar and lounge.  The colors and the fabrics from the rest of the hotel are echoed here, so there’s beautiful visual continuity; these are intimate spaces, sexy and chic.  One banquette, walled on three sides, is often used for private business meetings and is now the de rigueur place in the city to propose.

Another Surrey must-see feature is the terrace, a rooftop garden that’s open only to hotel guests.  Try the signature cocktail, muddled lemonade; you choose the fruit, the herb, the spice and the type of alcohol. (I recommend berries, mint, black pepper and vodka, all interesting counterpoints to the fresh-squeezed lemon juice.)  Amid the ornate penthouse levels of classic prewar buildings and long vistas of the park, you can’t help but feel pampered, even if you don’t make it to the elegant, serene spa on the second floor.  There you won’t  be forced to sit in a lounge in white robe and slippers, a locker key around your wrist, waiting for your turn;  the treatment rooms have private showers and armoires to stow your street clothes.  At the end of a langourous hour-long session that was part Swedish, part shiatsu and part deep tissue massage, I was transitioned back to the real world gently, with a pot of white tea, served on a silver tray and embellished by a small, perfect, handmade chocolate.

Barry Sternlicht, the founder of Starwood Hotels & Resorts and a real estate mogul of some renown, was so taken by the Surrey that he told the general manager it was one of the prettiest hotels he’d ever seen.  That’s high praise from a man who invented W Hotels and has probably stayed at or seen thousands of hotels.  I can’t help but agree.

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About Julie Moline

Julie Moline travel writer credits include Harper’s Bazaar, The Daily Telegraph and The International Herald Tribune. She also writes speeches for travel professionals.