The Peninsula Chicago turns ten today, and in the first decade of the 21st century the hotel has quickly established itself amongst the finest in the world. Peninsula is without a doubt one of the marquee hospitality brands in human history, but what is surprising, given its big reputation, is how small it is. The original property has long been the gold standard for Hong Kong (named for its epic location on the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula), and the name carries the same cache as top tier luxury brands like Hermes or Rolex, yet is shockingly small compared with its chief competitors, Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental – there are only 9 Peninsula hotels.

While New York and LA both have a smorgasbord of true top tier luxury hotels, Chicago, despite its size and huge convention business,  has only three, the Peninsula and two Four Seasons properties (in a bizarre case of legal rigmarole, the Ritz Chicago is a Four Seasons, not a Ritz Carlton, which confuses everyone).  Interestingly, Peninsula has a hotel in each of these US cities, its only ones in this country, and tellingly, all three earned the coveted Forbes 5-Star rating for 2011 (along with the Four Seasons Chicago, there were just two such honors awarded in the Windy City). I’ve stayed at the Peninsula New York, where I had the quietest hotel room I’ve ever experienced in one of the world’s louder cities, and I’ve had the pleasure of staying at the Hong Kong flagship a couple of times.  As contributing travel editor to Cigar Aficionado Magazine, I am in charge of the magazine’s annual travel polls, and the Peninsula Hong Kong is usually ranked the single best hotel on earth (though last year it was nipped by the Four Seasons George V, Paris).

But the big surprise in our 2010 poll was when the Peninsula Chicago overtook the previous winners, Four Seasons New York and Ritz Carlton Central Park South, to claim the title of Best US Urban Hotel . So I went to Chicago to take a look. I went with high expectations.  I was not disappointed.

The experience starts with a perfect location half a block off Michigan Avenue in the heart of the Magnificent Mile (the hotel is actually located above Tiffany’s), with excellent shopping and dining  just out the door, yet the lobby enjoys  a bit of peace on a quieter side street (One of the hotel’s personal appeals to me is the fact that two of the city’s most venerated dispensaries of deep dish pizza, Giordano’s and Gino’s East, sit within two blocks).

Inside the hotel everything is bigger than life, especially for a place with just 300 rooms, though it seems much larger. The fitness center is state of the art, one reason why the hotel is the choice of many visiting professional athletes. For weekend warriors, if you forgot your workout gear but are tempted, they will lend you everything you need, right down to running shoes. The gym is part of a spa and pool complex that occupies two floors and includes a lap pool with stunning views out of floor to ceiling glass walls (also a great spot for poolside cocktails), and an almost unheard of slate of more than 30 complimentary scheduled fitness classes weekly (yoga, plates, aquatic), whereas most luxury hotels are lucky if they offer one or two daily. The Peninsula Spa is a true urban oasis, run by intentionally renowned ESPA.

Continuing the theme of excessive facilities, the hotel has five food and beverage outlets (one is on the street outside, adjacent to the lobby, with no obvious connection) for its 300 rooms, including the 2 Michelin-starred Avenues (also 4 Forbes Stars) so named because it overlooks the golden junction of Michigan and Chicago Avenues. Peninsula is famous for its focus on views, born from the sweeping vistas of Hong Kong harbor it began with, and this hotel is no different, with the spa, eateries and guest rooms overlooking such Chicago icons as the Water Tower. Avenue chef Curtis Duffy worked at both of the city’s Forbes 5-Star eateries, Charlie Trotter’s and Alinea, where he was chef de cuisine, before coming here, and the small, intimate dining room is among the very top celebratory choices in Chicago, whether you stay here or not. Of course, the hotel has its prerequisite Chinese outlet, which also happens to be excellent for the US and exceptional for the Midwest.  Shanghai Terrace covers all the high-end bases, from Peking Duck to abalone, but also offers a surprising depth of traditional and unusual noodle dishes, and offers outdoor dining in a private garden, a rarity in Chicago that makes it very popular.

Another trademark of the brand is the Peninsula Academy, which offers guests educational or enrichment classes, tours and experiences unique to each location. Here offerings include a tour of Chicago sites made famous in film, a private architectural boat tour, cooking classes, or the latest, a customized private tour of the famed Art Institute of Chicago, customized in the sense that the hotel will arrange for your guide to be an expert in the area of art that interests you.

Being somewhat hyper critical, it is extremely rare for me to visit any hotel, not matter how good, without some crotchety complaints, and the Peninsula is no exception. I get the elevator up to the lobby thing at really tall hotels, or hotels at the top of really tall buildings, like the Park Hyatt Tokyo, but not this one. It’s not the above street level lobby I mind, it’s the two different banks of elevators. If the lobby was just a stop on the way that you could bypass after check in, that would be fine, but it is kind of a pain to always ride two different (and not close) elevators every time you go up or down.  Also, while I can’t understand it, I know that hotels of this stature almost never have facilities for in-room coffee, but they usually compensate with urns of coffee in the lobby during morning times. My inquiry here was met with a suggestion to ride the extra elevator and head down the street. Not too cool at these prices.  At least they had free WiFi. And my final complaint is a common one: you have to move the bed to access an outlet anywhere near where you sleep.  Considering how many people use their phones as alarm clocks these days, it is amazing to me how difficult it is to find an outlet.

Okay, I’m done venting.

The Peninsula Chicago plays in the biggest leagues of luxury hotels, so it should not be surprising that the food, spa, service and guest rooms (except for limited electrical outlets) are all well up to snuff. But the single biggest surprise I had was the concierge staff, run by veteran Todd Nelson, who came over from the Four Seasons when the Peninsula opened a decade ago, has been its only Chief Concierge. Nelson has both a degree from the world’s most prestigious hotel school (Cornell) and an MBA, and he is a hell of a concierge.

Like so much of the formality and class in our world, the position of concierge has eroded considerably in the past few decades, and at most hotels, even luxury hotels, anyone can call themselves a concierge – and they often do. Nelson is the real deal, an actual member of the Clefs d’or, or Society of the Golden Keys, to concierges what the word champagne is to bubbly wines.  He is old school, in that he has put in the years and years of networking and legwork so he can get things done, get that table no one else can at the restaurant of the moment, but also myriad little but important things that might never occur to a business or leisure traveler until they are needed, like arranging an impromptu appointment with the city’s top ophthalmologist when a guest gets glue in his eye.

I’ve experienced concierge service like this in Paris and Hong Kong, but never in the States, and to see the dedication with which the Peninsula approaches this aspect of its operations was enough to convince me the hotel is the real deal. As Nelson told me, when he interviewed for the job over ten years ago, he said, “It’s very easy to build a hotel with lots of marbles, and whether it’s the Four Seasons or the Mandarin Oriental, these hotels all have the same feel. I told them ‘I’m not here to build a hotel like that, I’m here to build a cathedral to service.”  The fact that they then hired him says it all.

10th Anniversary Specials

The hotel has rolled out two very interesting specials in celebration of its first decade, both of which will run through the end of the year. One is a second night for $10 with virtually no restrictions other than that you have to pay for the first night, with rates starting at $750. This essentially halves the price of any 2-night stay in 2011.

The second is the very unique 10th Anniversary Culinary Journey, which hits all the hotel venues in a single traveling feast. It starts with the hotel’s new signature anniversary cocktail, “Pen 10”, in The Bar, then a Mushroom Flatbread appetizer in Pierrot Gourmet.  Next, head to Shanghai Terrace for a choice of several dishes, followed by Alaskan King Crab as the entrée in Avenues.  The meal ends in The Lobby, with a selection of delectable desserts, and the entire experience e runs just $170 per person (Tuesday to Saturday, reservations required).


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