On a wintry Saturday afternoon, even as two travel-writing colleagues of mine were winging toward the Guatemalan jungle on assignment, i pulled a shoulder bag off a closet shelf, packed it with the tools of my trade (alas, no swimsuit), and headed out the door toward a nearer but no less exotic destination: a New York hotel.
Unless memory fails, i hadn't stayed in a New York hotel since a teen-age visit to the old St. George in Brooklyn, that time after a family car trip from well beyond the Hudson, so it's understandable that I felt a bit of an innocent at home as I ducked into the lobby of the Berkshire Place, at 52nd and Madison. My aims were at least dual: to see if the newly renovated 400-room hotel lived up to the praise an architecture critic had recently given it and to sample one of the many weekend packages New York hoteliers had devised to fill their rooms after the brisk weekday traffic subsides.
Hotels offering such arrangements come down anywhere from 25 to 40 percent on weekends and usually throw in inducements like theater tickets, breakfasts or even dinners, flowers, and morning newspaper at the door. At the Berkshire Place a couple can get two weekend nights for $130 total -- in other words $65 a night instead of the weekday $95 or more. If that sounds a step face, consider that it's very much the norm among the 22 New York hotels that Egon Ronay singled out in an appendix to his 1980 Great Britain & Ireland guide. Mr. Ronay put the Berkshire in sixth place behind only the Pierre, UN Plaza, Waldorf-Astoria, Carlyle, and Mayfair Regent, calling it "intimate in spite of its size."
Intimate is surely what the Berkshire's tiny elevators are, I mused on the way up to Room 1819. As I lounged on the outsize bed (a king, at last) and drank in the peace and comfort of my new hideaway, waiting for room service to deliver an early-evening spinach salad, I couldn't help thinking that even at their lowered weekend rates, New York's top hotels still make us hesitate to leave our unprincely homes. Of the 22 on the Ronay list, the storied Algonquin charges the lowest nightly double price, $55 to 65; one, the Carlyle, startsm at
Evidently undaunted by the costs, business and pleasure seekers are pouring into town at a record pace while new hotels hurry to open their doors (three or four are due next year) and old guards like the Berkshire, the Halloran House (nee Shelton Towers), the barclay, and the Westbury spruce themselves up with massive renovations. Still, a few bargains lurk beneath lesser-known marques, to wit:
At 55th and Madison, the 100-room Winslow, whose manager calls it "quiet and European," averages $44 for a double, has singles for $34, and goes no higher than $49 for a twin. The Pickwick Arms at 230 East 51st doesn't stray much above $30 for two; the Tudor at 304 East 42nd, although its rooms are small, charges $48 to $55 double; the Abbey Victoria at Seventh and 51st, $32-$40; the George Washington, Lexington and 23rd, $34-$40. All of the above and dozens of others, including the Vanderbilt and West Side YMCAs (with rates below $20), appear in a hotel guide one can receive without charge from the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau, Two Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019.
For some travelers, a hotel is only as good as its room service, and on that score the Berkshire Place did not let me down. My spinach salad was wheeled in only 15 minutes after my call, complete with a white tablecloth and the waiter's apology for tardiness. By 7:30 I was on my way out the front door between the two antique stone lions, joining those restless hordes that begin to sweep across the width and breadth of Manhattan every Saturday night (and most other nights of the week) at precisely that hour.
It occurred to me as I strolled up Fifth Avenue past the crowds and glittering shops that the 7:30 migration is a most fascinating and fractured movement. Tens of thousands shuttle hither and yon, to plays, concerts, basketball games, restaurants, ballet, movies, and heaven knows what other diversions. Not everyone on the street is a would-be spectator. As I crossed Columbus Circle, a man passed me wheeling what appeared to be a trussed-up cello. He was going to work.
I was bound for Lincoln Center, which celebrated its 20th birthday earlier this year -- or more specifically for Alice Tully Hall, where a friend had tickets to the first of the three performances (the others will be on Feb. 2 and April 5) of the New York Renaissance Band. These 12 musicians, playing such antiquated instruments as the shawn, the sackbut, the krummhorn, and the lute, swept us back to the 16th century and before, and when they had finished their haunting and sometimes bawdy numbers just before 10 o'clock, we wouldn't let them go. Not until they had played that loveliest of Renaissance melodies, "Green Sleeves."
New York City experiences another lively migration along about 10:30 p.m. when the myriad entertainments are over, and now we found ourselves in the midst of it, moving south on Broadway. We were lost in discussion on that most topical of after-concert subjects: where and what to eat. Propelled by an acute homing instinct, we made straight for 56th and Seventh, the Carnegie Delicatessen. One corned beef on rye, one order of French toast made of the fluffy challah bread.
There was little human movement of any kind when I trotted out of the front door of the Berkshire at 9:15 the next morning and romped uptown in sneakered feet to circle Central Park -- closed to traffic on weekends. At noon I was camped at the door of the hotel's Rendez-Vous restaurant when it opened for brunch. In the mirrored, cozy French-style cafe, I had something called Swordfish Nicoise, and left not a single caper uneaten. Then I checked out and went home to my own cooking and my own bed. And not a minute early. I was getting spoiled.