Treading in the footsteps of some of the world’s richest 20th century shipping magnates, Nicholas Chrisostomou drops anchor in one of Germany’s most opulent hotel suites, in the port city of Hamburg
Do you know that feeling one gets, when one’s especially excited about an experience that’s about to happen? Like looking forward to a good Sunday roast, or meeting-up with a long-time friend for lunch which might get a little, cheekily boozy. In a traveller’s world now awash with overly-designed five-star hotels and all-singing-all-dancing resorts brimming with all manner of hi-tech wizardry and thread-counts of close to 1,000, such feelings of excitement are becoming rarer in advance of a hotel experience, and are increasingly only provoked by very special properties that in some way connect with us emotionally. In a day-and-age when unique personalities in the hospitality industry are becoming rarer, many having been replaced by faceless career-driven types moving between hotels, so too are truly grande dame properties becoming fewer and far between. For me, this is one of the few, true downsides of the fast-evolving travel industry. Hotels need characters to genuinely connect with guests. Vegas, for instance, is crammed with vast hotels, where even if you stay for a week, you will probably leave not knowing the name of any staff member who assists you or speak with. And they will almost certainly not remember you either. This is a sad reality of 21st century tourism. Refreshingly, this scenario couldn’t be further from the truth when staying at Fairmont Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten in Hamburg. Proudly standing in a prime position on the western side of Inner Alster Lake, commanding the attention of Germany’s handsome second city, the Vier Jahreszeiten is a true hotel grande dame in every sense of the phrase.
From the bell boys and housekeepers through to the chefs and managers, all are universally committed to the cause, work as a team, pool their acres of experience and are constantly driving towards the same goal of hospitality excellence. This is evident from the moment one checks into the Vier Jahreszeiten, the anticipation of which sends tingles down my spine, as my BMW 7 Series ride glides along one of Hamburg’s grand tree-lined avenues en route to the hotel. It’s 8am on a Bank Holiday morning and the streets are worryingly devoid of all cars. Nevertheless, a liveried bellman is standing in front of the hotel to welcome guests and the front desk is fully staffed and primed for early check-ins. These may sound like basics, but you’d be amazed how many flashy new hotels have no idea how to properly handle guests and hence elicit little loyalty in the travellers staying within their portals. This is not the case at Vier Jahreszeiten, where every guest is treated like an individual, irrespective of what room category they’re staying in, and front of house staff take a personal interest in the well-being of arrivals from the get-go. Like all of the world’s great hotels, Vier Jahreszeiten has a storied past. In 1897, on the day of his fortieth birthday, South-German entrepreneur Friedrich Haerlin bought a small, nondescript and bankrupt 11-bedroomed 3-bathroomed house, then known as “Hotel zu den Vier Jahreszeiten”, at auction. Since running his own hotel had long been a vision of his, Haerlin spent the necessary funds to furnish the property appropriately. It didn’t take long for his investment to start paying off.
Within just a few years, the hotel was regularly hosting members of the international jet set and celebrities from the entertainment world, as well as politicians, statesmen and European royalty. Not to mention shipping magnates and esteemed members of Germany’s high society.
Over time, Vier Jahreszeiten’s popularity allowed Haerlin to purchase the neighbouring houses, until he had acquired much of the street. As adjacent buildings were bought and walls were removed, more guest rooms and new restaurants were added. By 1911, the hotel had a total of 140 bedrooms and 50 bathrooms.
In 1912, the hotel’s former reception was reconfigured as its Wohnhalle (The Living Room). In 1919, Haerlin’s eponymous restaurant opened. Today, Haerlin has two Michelin stars and the restaurant’s culinary creativity is renowned way beyond Hamburg. In 1925, the first dish was served within the rich Art Déco confines of refined Jahreszeiten Grill. Almost one hundred years later, both of these venues – Haerlin Restaurant and Jahreszeiten Grill – are still staples of Hamburg’s flourishing foodie scene.
During the early 1930s, around the same time as Friedrich Haerlin gave the hotel to his son Fritz, the Vier Jahreszeiten was crowned with its distinctive copper roof.
The hotel remained family-owned for over a century, until 1989 when it was sold to Japanese husband and wife hoteliers Chieko and John Hiroyoshi Aoki. Such was the quality of the furniture that Haerlin and his son had installed in the Vier Jahreszeiten during the 100 years their family owned the hotel, that it continued to be used until the turn of the millennium.
Today, owned by entrepreneur Kurt Dohle, Vier Jahreszeiten’s 156 effortlessly classy guest rooms including 30 suites, together with multiple bars and restaurants, a splendid spa, a state-of-the-art gym and even an al fresco summer terrace which seemingly floats on the lake in front of the hotel, welcome both regulars who have been patrons for decades alongside discerning younger money with taste.
With my luggage already in the Presidential Suite, I travel in one of the hotel’s two antique elevators to the fourth floor and make my way towards the end of a wide, regal corridor to explore my deluxe accommodation for the next three nights.
At more than 260 square metres, Vier Jahreszeiten’s Presidential Suite is one of the largest in Hamburg, yet feels decidedly inviting and comfortable, thanks in large part to beautiful light oak flooring by Schotten & Hansen which covers much of the vast space, plus an abundance of warm soft furnishings in velvets and tweeds, and plush curtains dressing every window.
Each of the three bedrooms are accessed from the suite’s main entrance foyer, as are a large living room bathed in plenty of natural light and boasting views directly across the lake; a stately boardroom cum dining room known as the Alster Salon, which easily seats 12; a butler pantry and two guest cloakrooms.
Interior designed by Vier Jahreszeiten’s general manager Ingo Peters in tandem with his wife Christiane, in honour of Fritz Haerlin who took over his father’s hotel in 1934 and was a passionate horseman, the Presidential Suite is fittingly accessorised with a variety of horse riding-themed artworks. Some original awards and prizes won by Fritz Haerlin in show-jumping competitions are also on display in the Alster Salon. The same theme subtly extends to the overall colour scheme and many of the textiles in which key furniture pieces are upholstered.
A pair of statement Lladro chandeliers designed by Bodo Sperlein, decorated with dozens of small handmade fairies in matte white porcelain with gold wings and lit by fibre optics, hang above the huge polished mahogany dining table in Alster Salon, adding a whimsical touch to what might otherwise have been an austere room.
Gorgeous Jan Kath-designed hand-knotted rugs woven in Kathmandu, which combine classic oriental carpet elements with modern, minimalist design, complete the timeless and diplomatic yet contemporary and fresh design aesthetic throughout the social areas of suite.
The three bedrooms are unsurprisingly super-luxe and cosseting, each with its own chic black and white-themed bathroom en suite. Pillow menus and black-out blinds on every window ensure that the suite’s inhabitants enjoy the best possible sleep.
Whilst not super-sized, the well-proportioned master bedroom enjoys stunning views directly towards the lake, a walk-in closet and a large HOESCH whirlpool tub which gives the bathroom a private spa-like feel. A TV hanging directly opposite the computerised loo makes the total number of screens in the suite at least six, possibly seven, married with enough techy gadgets to keep even the most geeky of kids contented.
Skilfully combining antique furniture with luxe fabrics, rich materials and contemporary décor elements endears Vier Jahreszeiten’s Presidential Suite to its inhabitants in a way like no other. To say “user friendly” would belie its hefty price tag, but the suite is just that: majestic yet utterly usable.
As I look out towards Inner Alster Lake, I wonder what Vier Jahreszeiten’s founder Friedrich Haerlin might make of such a sprawling, sumptuous suite occupying so much floor space of his hotel. I find it hard to imagine that Haerlin wouldn’t be jubilant at the thought of world leaders spreading out in lavish apartment-like lodgings, in the very same building which 120 years earlier started its hospitality life as an inconspicuous house on a lake in Germany.