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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Four Seasons: Seattle's Cool

Here in Seattle we like cool.  Not the finger-snapping, head-bobbing, dark-sunglasses kind. The contemplative gray weather, subdued clothing and any-car-color-but-red kind.  We believe in elegance over flash, doing over bragging, and pocket protectors over gold chains.  A special occasion calls for a microbrew by the fire with friends on a rainy night, not Cristal on a sundrenched Malibu cliff with helicopters clattering overhead.

Which is why the Four Seasons Seattle is perfect.  It's everything a celebration-minded local could want, and everthing a luxury-minded tourist needs for a glimpse into our character.

Rising in a discreet block of stone and glass at the south end of the Pike Place Market, the Four Seasons does not dominate Seattle's skyline. Instead its shape echoes that of the Seattle Art Museum directly across the street. The hotel's location makes it possible to step directly out of the foyer to two of Seattle's major attractions.

That foyer pays homage to the location - housing a museum-worthy collection of works by promininent Northwest artists. But in keeping with Seattle style, the art never calls attention to itself.  You'll notice it when you look for it. Maybe while you're sitting by the sleek modern gas fireplace or headed to the hotel's ART Restaurant for dinner. There, behind a ceiling-high screen of stored Northwest wines a mix of locals and hotel guests are silhoutted against the shimmering bay. Servers glide back and forth lofting plates of Pike Place Market delicacies transformed into colorful arrangements like culinary versions of the bouquets sold by the market's flower vendors.

For our first visit to a Four Seasons hotel, my husband and I stayed in the least-expensive room we could book. Even so we found the level of luxury bordering on alarming. Twice-daily service, a pre-filled ice bucket and a view of ferries and freighters sliding across a section of Elliott Bay were some of the surprises. Also remarkable for a luxury hotel was the complimentary wi-fi. 

Best of all was the bathroom - a palace of warm brown marble with a separate room for every purpose.  Between the dual-headed shower and the bathtub big enough for snorkeling I would have begun to look like a Shar Pei puppy if I had remained much longer.

Not unexpectedly there was no in-room coffeemaker. We briefly toyed with the idea of pulling on jeans and sweaters to walk to the Market, but decided that we hadn't distilled an eternity of long work hours and late meetings into a night at the Four Seasons to do what we could do any other day.  So we called room service. The coffee setup arrived to the minute of  when it was promised, and another staffer arrived later unbidden to whisk away the empty dishes. 

For a luxury visit to Seattle it would be hard to top the Four Seasons.While the rest of the country broils, the Four Seasons is as cool and collected as a Seattle summer.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Nickeled and Dimed

On July 18 the New York Times ran an article on the pros and cons of "cafeteria" pricing for coach airfares. You know, those beguiling palm-fringed ads for cheap flights that morph, by the time you've "chosen" to pay for "extras" like checked (or in some cases carry-on) baggage, water and toilet paper, into less-alluring deals.

This fee structure has been lauded for giving customers the freedom to choose only those services for which they want to pay. It's hard to fault that argument, and perhaps I'm just revealing myself to be a dinosaur (maybe pterodactyl is a better metaphor) by my struggle to abandon the notion that little comforts and amenities like pillows, blankets and luggage transport are as inherent and non-negotiable a part of the flying experience as jet fuel and landing gear.

I now imagine Michael O'Leary, CEO of the legendarily "no-frills" Ryanair, thinking "Hmmm, jet fuel. Perhaps the flight attendants should pass the hat up and down the aisles a few times before takeoff. If enough passengers kick in, the pilot will fire up BOTH engines!"

But I digress.

The Times article noted that in a recent poll of air travelers 16 percent of respondents said they would pay extra to be first off the plane.

I'd pay extra to be first off the bus, or first in line at the discount lingerie bin at the start of Nordstrom's half-yearly sale, but that doesn't mean it's right. The problem with the airlines' ever-growing list of fee-based "amenities" is that they further separate the "haves" from the "have-nots."

Of course air travel itself is hardly one of life's necessities, and the world has far more pressing problems than whether Delta should charge for blankets. Airlines, like ocean liners, have a long and glorious tradition of charging extra for services. It's always been possible to pay double or triple the coach fare for the privilege of turning left when boarding the plane, to swill Champagne in an airborne BarcaLounger while the masses behind the curtain jostle for the armrests.

But the coach experience used to shared equally by all. The thrifty business traveler, the young family and the backpacking student had the same chances at a window or aisle seat, overhead bin space, exit-row legroom and boarding priority. Some flights you won,some you lost. But everyone was in the same boat, or plane.

Today, with the opportunity to buy your way ahead of fellow slightly-less-flush coach passengers, the creeping class-stratification of American life is reaching into Economy. Travel, even its vicissitudes, should be something that brings people together. An airfare policy encouraging cash competition for basic amenities at the expense of one's seatmate, seems like abandonment of a fundamental business commitment to provide a quality experience for all customers.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to spread my leathery wings and turn my long, pointed head back home.