By Michelle Chaplow
The Fairmont San Francisco is one of those glamorous venues that just lures you in. I arrived after dark, and as soon as the cab stopped at this impressive building, the doorman was uncomplainingly taking care of my endless supply of camera gear and luggage. When you arrive in the States, it’s the exceptionally friendly service-with-a-smile that stands out. Then, of course, you remember this is the land of big tips – but even so, in this case it’s well worth it.
There is something really addictive about hotels with old-fashioned revolving doors in mahogany tones, with glass panels and shining brass – one turn is just not enough, I always feel I want to go around again.
The hotel stands at the very top of Nob Hill – the structure survived the 1906 earthquake, was renovated by one of America’s first female architects Julia Morgan in the same year, and opened in 1907. This is one majestic hotel indeed, with a century of American history and a Who’s Who-style list of dignitaries and celebrities guests that have also passed through those revolving doors.
The splendour of the circular entrance lobby, with its warm tones, majestic marble columns and lush carpets and fabrics, makes any visit feel like an occasion. As soon as I saw the lobby, I had it mentally marked down for a photo shoot.
There are so many highlights to this hotel.
I’m particularly partial to afternoon tea in historic hotels, and I’m collecting photographs from around the world on this very subject for a future article. The Laurel Court, with its circular dome and grand piano, is the perfect venue. I must add that shoot-wise, nothing was too much trouble for the incredibly obliging staff, right down to moving plant pots and the angle of the grand piano for a better shot
I enjoyed 10 nights as a guest in room 1607, which boasts spectacular views to the bay of San Francisco and of course the Golden Gate Bridge. Being so high up, the hotel sometimes disappears into the clouds and then reappears, as if by magic. As soon as I unpacked, I placed my tripod in front of the window pointing in the direction of Coit Tower, the island of Alcatraz and the visually soothing waters of San Francisco bay.
The Penthouse sells for around US$ 15,000 a night suite
During the 10 nights I stayed at the hotel, on only one night was this suite free to photograph. It’s a dream, with secret passages behind bookcases in its own library, apparently used by Marilyn Monroe used to escape the crowds, to hand-painted maps of the world, exquisitely tiled sinks, a dome above the library with astral chart, panoramic views from its numerous rooms and balconies and, to cap it all, its very own Moorish snooker room. You have no problem envisaging that this 2,000-m2 suite has played host to Presidents, heads of state, other dignitaries and celebrities.
Knowledge is indeed power, and the two concierges that I dealt with here, Tom and Nelson, both of whom have decades of experience, were flawless. Indeed Tom, who was the US’s first-ever concierge and who speaks five languages, founded the US branch of the international concierge association, Les Clefs D’Or.
The San Francisco Cable Car is a must: a well-shaken blend of Captain Morgan spiced rum, Orange Curacao and lemon juice. If the walls of that cocktail bar could talk, I’m sure there would be some great tales to tell.
The Cirque bar was the first bar to open in San Francisco after prohibition. It is a fine example of Art Deco design, with ornate murals and gold leaf created by the celebrated Bruton sisters. At the time of writing, this bar was closed, however with its stylish design it is perfectly positioned to reinvent itself. There is an air of glamour waiting to be rediscovered.
“I left my heart in San Francisco”
Tony Bennet performed for the first time in the Venetian Room of the Fairmont hotel what became his signature song, “I left my heart in San Francisco, high on a hill……” That hill being Nob Hill, where the Fairmont Hotel proudly stands. This fact particularly thrilled me, as I photographed Tony Bennett a decade ago, as part of an assignment for the Library of Congress in Washington.
Thinking about it, I may just have left a little piece of my heart in San Francisco too.
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