As NYC roars back to life, the city’s most iconic luxury hotel welcomed back guests this week after a 15-month closure due to the pandemic.

By Melanie Hansche
May 28, 2021
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The Plaza exterior
Credit: The Plaza - a Fairmont Managed Hotel

In ordinary times, staying in a near-empty 282-room historic hotel with only a handful of other guests and staff for company might seem like the stuff of nightmares. (You've seen The Shining, right?) But these are not ordinary times. After spending the last year or so studiously avoiding other people, a vacant hotel has a certain level of appeal, and thankfully, The Plaza is no Overlook Hotel. This is why I gratefully accepted an invitation to spend 24 hours in its luxurious embrace before it formally re-opened to guests this week.

Even as a German-Australian expat, I'm well-versed in the fact that the turn-of-the-century hotel on Central Park's southeast corner is an iconic part of New York's cultural fabric. I read Kay Thompson's illustrated Eloise series as a wide-eyed kid new to the English language, watched Home Alone 2 as an awkward double-denim clad teen in the '90s, and peeped in the foyer as a broke, visiting tourist in the early aughts.

But in the last five years, The Plaza took on its own personal significance: as the venue of a serendipitous and martini-fueled reunion with a long-absent Aussie friend. It was an unnaturally chilly October day. The company I worked for at the time was acquired by another and I had just delivered a pitch to the top brass to keep my staff and myself gainfully employed. As I left the office at lunchtime with a ball of doom in the pit of my stomach, I noticed said friend was in town (hooray for social media!) and The Plaza was within easy walking distance of both of us. As we embraced under the glorious stained-glass, domed ceiling of the Palm Court bar surrounded by tropical greenery, perched on our cane chairs, and commiserated my impending unemployment over dry gin martinis, the world slipped away. It was only us and The Plaza. It was magic. 

Mel making a cocktail
Credit: Midnight Sunday

This is why I was so utterly chuffed when the hotel indulged my request to shake a martini in the bar in memory of that moment, right after I checked in. Checking in does look a little different these days; the hotel offers a contactless service, as well as complimentary COVID-19 PCR or rapid antigen tests in your room, which will be available—but not compulsory—for all guests. This is part of the hotel's commitment to creating a safe and welcoming environment through a program rolled out across all Fairmont-managed properties (ALLSafeandWell.com). You'll also see that manifested in the touchless hand-sanitizing stations peppered in common areas throughout the hotel, in the thoughtful welcome packs of masks, sanitizer and gloves in your room, and in the absence of crowds. The Plaza will initially operate at 20% capacity before gradually increasing it over the coming months.

Back to that early afternoon martini though. All I can say is thank God for high tea and The Plaza's new rendition of it. As a former resident of the British Commonwealth, I'm naturally disposed to enjoying this ritual, though really, what's not to like about eating tiny morsels of food from your own three tier-tower? It was even more fun to see the hotel's tea service nod to New York by way of their savory and sweet treats, such as tiny cucumber sandwiches with a hint of pickle brine and a smear of Green Goddess crème (on New York rye, no less), and delicate yuzu and mascarpone baked cheesecake with a citrus Graham cracker crust—a homage to the city's eponymous dessert. The hotel will be serving tea daily to guests and the public with a reservation; the Palm Court's cocktail bar will be reopening in the evenings from the Memorial Day weekend onwards, from 5 p.m. to midnight. The Plaza Food Hall will remain closed for the time being.

And while shaking your own martini is not exactly on the list of formal frivolities (nor a private DJ performance in an empty grand ballroom, or late-night pizza in the Royal Suite—these are purely the folly of visiting travel writers!), the hotel is rolling out a range of new experiences for guests. In anticipation of an initial bump of local tourists, The Plaza will offer complimentary private transport to and from the hotel (up to 60 miles) for those booking a Legacy Suite Escape (from $1500). The 29 Legacy suites include the one I stayed in, a Carnegie Park suite, which clocks in at 1000 square feet and includes a generous living room, bedroom, and an ample bathroom with bath and walk-in shower.

The décor is elegant without being over-the-top frou frou. Think classic, vintage details like crown molding, an ornate (non-working) fireplace, magnificent statement chandelier, and intricate mosaic work and 24-carat gold-plated Sherle Wagner fixtures in the bathroom. The Carnegie is by no means the largest Legacy suite on offer—there are two-bedroom and three-bedroom suites, as well as the multi-level Grand Penthouse with its own outdoor terrace. (Yes, I snooped on all of them, they are fabulous as much for their lavishness as for their small details, including pretty wallpapers adorned with birds and florals, bespoke gold fabrics on the Louis XV-style chairs, and gilded full-length mirrors.)

For the first time, the hotel also plans to offer some of its most luxurious suites like the Penthouses and Royal Plaza Suite as venues for small celebrations, such as birthdays, family reunions, or anniversaries. This focus on local guests makes perfect sense; many folks are seeking a luxurious, transportive experience close to home, especially as international travel is still uncertain. But even if a staycation at the hotel is not on the cards, you can still experience its palpable magic—by booking a treatment at the Guerlain Spa, say, or inviting your besties to afternoon tea (with Champagne, of course), or finding that long-lost mate you haven't seen the entire pandemic and meeting them at the Palm Court for a dry martini and a hug.