In 1904, Colonel John Jacob Astor broke ground for the building of the first St. Regis hotel, in the most exclusive part of Manhattan. More than a century later, Nicholas Chrisostomou road tests an Empire Suite at St. Regis Doha, to see how one of the hospitality industry’s most historic hotel brands has been reinterpreted in the capital of the world’s richest country.
At the beginning of the 20th century, as John Jacob Astor’s hotel was going up on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 55th Street, Astor was stuck for a name for what was to become his hospitality swan song. During Astor’s stay with his brother-in-law on a beautiful lake in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, Astor’s niece offered a solution, “Uncle Jack, why don’t you call it after this lake?” After doing a little research, Astor discovered that the lake was named after a 17th century French monk, Jean-François Régis, who was known for his kindness and hospitality to travellers, as well as and his care for the poor and marginalised. The monk was recognised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in the 18th century. Astor thought, what better name for his new hotel, the St. Regis. And so the hospitality legend began.
By the time the Trowbridge and Livingston-designed St. Regis opened in 1905, its construction had cost more than USD5.5 million, an unheard-of sum at the time. It was also the tallest hotel in New York, standing at 19 storeys high, and was widely described as the most richly furnished and opulent lodgings in the world. When the St. Regis opened, the daily room rate was USD5.00.
Astor spared no expense in his furnishing the St. Regis: floors and hallways were paved with marble from the quarries of Caen in Normandy. Louis XV furniture filled the rooms. Stunning Waterford crystal chandeliers hung from the ceilings. Antique tapestries and great works of art adorned the walls. Beautiful oriental rugs lay on the floors, and 3,000 leather-bound, gold-tooled books filled the oak shelves of the hotel’s library. Two beautiful burnished bronze doors marked the entrance, the hotel soon set high new hospitality standards, and consequently the St. Regis hosted some of the most celebrated and prestigious parties.
After divorcing his wife with whom he had two children, Colonel Astor shocked New York society by marrying a 19-year old lady, Madeline. After their wedding, they left New York to honeymoon in Europe. Unfortunately, their return trip was on the doomed Titanic, and Astor gave up his seat on a lifeboat for his pregnant young wife. Astor was last seen trying to free his dog from the ship’s kennels. Their son, J. J. Astor VI was born a couple of months after his father died, and was nicknamed the Titanic Baby.
After Colonel Astor’s death, his son Vincent sold the St. Regis to Benjamin N. Duke, and the St. Regis continued to thrive. Salvador Dali, his wife Gala and their pet opossum stayed at the hotel every winter from 1966 to 1973. Some other well-known guests included Alfred Hitchcock, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, Ethel Merman, Dustin Hoffman, Tony Curtis, Vidal Sassoon, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Mick Jagger had his 30th birthday party at the St. Regis.
After World War II, the St. Regis underwent a series of other owners until the ITT Sheraton Corporation of America acquired it in the mid 1960s. In 1988 the hotel was declared a designated landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. In May 2016, it was announced that an investment fund from Qatar offered a billion dollars for the St. Regis hotels in New York and San Francisco. In the end, only the hotel in San Francisco was sold for a cool USD175 million.
Today, the St. Regis in New York continues to be one of the world’s most revered hotel addresses, and John Jacob Astor’s hospitality legacy lives on. It is against this intensely historic backdrop that I was curious to see how the renowned hospitality brand had been reimagined in Doha.
First-time travellers to Doha, the capital of the world’s richest country, would be forgiven for mistaking the city as a little aloof. While its regional metropolitan peers have a clear semblance about what they are (just take one look at Dubai – positively oozing glitz, glamour and wealth), the Qatari capital is, to some extent, still searching for its footing, as it carves out its identity amidst a geopolitical climate that remains tense, since a June 2017 blockade and trade embargo against the tiny Gulf state was imposed by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the U.A.E and Egypt. But delve deeper.
Wander through the capital’s Souq Waqif, or ‘Standing Market’, and you’d be fooled into thinking you’re in the middle of an authentic Arabic bazaar, complete with a cacophonous riot of sounds, sights, smells…and even camels. The souq is indeed an atmospheric place to spend a Thursday night and kick-start a weekend in Doha. The city’s iconic I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) stands slap-bang across the street, located at one end of Doha’s graceful seven-kilometre waterfront Corniche, and could be straight out of one of Europe’s great cities – beautifully-constructed, fastidiously-executed and lovingly maintained.
Sitting on its own island close to the traditional dhow harbour, the MIA is currently Doha’s greatest artistic magnet – soon to be in close competition with the new Jean Nouvel-designed Qatar National Museum opening just down the road, which takes the tumbling shape of a desert rose. While at Katara Cultural Village, the city’s planners have cleverly executed a snapshot of Qatari life, interspersed with Arabic history and a touch of ancient Rome.
With the 2022 FIFA World Cup looming, hospitality expansion and development continue at warp speed – although, on the whole, the city falls somewhat short when it comes to premium hospitality, since many of Doha’s five-star hotels lack European levels of class. Happily, sophistication and decorum prevail in a handful of the city’s top hospitality establishments, of which the supremely-refined St. Regis Doha is the newest, largest and most lavishly-appointed beach resort hotel you’ll find in the country.
Situated in Al Gassar resort, between Doha’s heritage sites and the city’s business hub, and adjacent to Katara Cultural Village, the 336-room St. Regis Doha is an imposing hotel which utterly dominates the beautifully manicured grounds in which it is situated. Standing tall either side of the hotel’s driveway are giant 12-ton 14-metre Oryx sculptures, designed by Ellen Hlavata and fashioned in stainless steel by the renowned Foibos Design Lab. At the top of the driveway, the imposing edifice oozes opulence, timeless elegance and luxury from the moment one sets foot in the grand lobby.
Lavish surroundings and a peaceful atmosphere are complemented by more than ten different restaurants (including an award-winning Hakkasan and two Gordon Ramsey outposts), a stylish jazz club, a residents-only private beach, heated outdoor Olympic-sized pool and a blissful Remède spa. In harmony with the hotel’s extensive leisure facilities is an inimitable butler service, a hallmark of The St. Regis Doha experience, and available 24/7 via WhatsApp to fulfil any guest request at literally any hour.
A bank of floor-to-ceiling windows stand sentinel the length of the corridor leading up to my lodgings, offering spectacular vistas of West Bay’s gleaming skyline. At the end, a pair of imposing dark oak doors mark the entrance to my home for the next three nights, Empire Suite 944, and a plush abode it is. In keeping with the traditions of one of the world’s most elegant and refined hospitality brands, the suite’s interior décor is understated and unfussy, yet the overall effect is one of grandness and sophistication.
Large geometric rectangles of marble and onyx adorn the entryway floor in a complex shadow-play that offsets the neutral palette of the space. To the right of this foyer is one of the master suites, while to the left, a corridor of Arabesque arches leads to a dining nook, powder room, large lounge with a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows and, at the end, the largest of the two bedrooms en-suite. The dual-aspect sleeping quarters fill opposite corners of the tower and give way to stunning views across the water towards West Bay and The Pearl-Qatar. In each, a huge bed, oversized chaise, desk, dresser and plenty of wardrobes lend the feeling of a smart New York apartment, gently accessorised by hand-blown glass vases in shades or burnt orange and red, and semi-abstract original artworks adorning the walls.
The airy lounge sits comfortably in between the bedrooms, offering both distance, sound-proofing, and a great degree of privacy between the sleeping chambers. In the living space, muted tones of sable and sand, offset by russet and gold accent features, artfully mirror the natural surrounds of desert, sky, and sea, and little distracts from the spectacular views – through more huge windows – out across the azure waters of the Arabian Gulf. This is a lounge for contemplation and relaxation, rather than partying.
The en-suite baths are elegant, marble-clad sanctuaries with free-standing deep soaker tubs, acres of counter space, walk-in showers, French Laboratoire Remède toiletries and every conceivable mod-con. As always with St. Regis, the devil is in the details, a fact that’s not been overlooked even in the bathrooms, where modern but classic American Standard Town Square faucet fittings in gleaming chrome-coated brass finish the rooms perfectly. Each feels like an opulent, private mini spa. In the larger of the two bedrooms, the master bath is reached through a spacious walk-in closet and dressing area – further adding to the sense of sanctuary and privacy. Here one can luxuriate in bubbles whilst watching the sunset from the comfort of the bath.
More detailing is gently evident throughout the suite, although not, at any point, in your face – which makes the entire space easily liveable and perfect for working and entertaining if you’re a business traveller, or simply seeking a five-star address for a city staycation with friends. For me, the only thing missing was perhaps a butler kitchen and separate access for in-room dining deliveries, but, this aside, an Empire Suite at The St. Regis Doha offers the perfect combination of space to live/work/entertain for a family or group of friends who want to indulge in a first-class experience in the Qatari capital.