When a hotel earns a fifth star, it’s not unusual for them to lose something else, especially the community. Set on a lofty pedestal, with equally lofty price points, the hotel quickly becomes regarded by locals as a no-go zone and the domain of rich foreigners. In fact, some luxury hotels insulate guests further from the local environment by high walls, strong-armed security, bland design, and elevated nostrils.
In Zagreb, the five-star Hotel Esplanade takes exactly the opposite approach, opening its doors to the sprawling capital around it and inviting all people in at all times, a gesture that keeps it close to the hearts of locals.
Built in 1925 on an empty field (or “esplanade”) the palatial Art Deco block was designed to serve the well-heeled passengers steaming into town on the Orient Express in its decadent heyday. Creamy black-veined marble, gilding, and Tiffany-style glass was splashed throughout the building along with all the glitzy and garish finery of the Jazz Age, which attracted royalty of all industries in the years to follow, from Charles Lindbergh and Elizabeth Taylor to Pelé and Queen Elizabeth II.
War, communism, and general neglect eventually took its toll on the building inside and out, so by the time Croatia achieved independence in the mid-1990s, the Esplanade was in serious need of some TLC. Thankfully, London-based MKV Design, led by the renowned Maria Vafiadis, stepped in and conducted a head-to-toe, two-year renovation.
When it finally reopened in 2004, little of the original material remained apart from the marble and fireplaces in the lobby. However, the entire Emerald Ballroom was preserved and remains the centerpiece today. Step inside the oval, columned, glass-tipped space, and it takes little effort to imagine it swinging with roaring decadence once again.
The spirit of yore can also be found in the hotel’s flagship restaurant Zinfandel’s—named for the famous Dalmatian grape—particularly in its incredible wine list. Just ask sommelier Ivan Šneler, who’s been with the hotel for 35 years and is an expert at dispensing both exceptional Croatian vintages as well as sweet, grandfatherly charm. In fact, as confident and tasty the menu’s citrus jelly oysters, Iberico pork cheeks with and candied chestnuts, and Istrian fuzi pasta in creamy truffle sauce are, they may take a back seat in your memory to teran and malvasia filling your glass.
After you’ve enjoyed a less than responsible amount on your insides, consider doing the same for your outside in the downstairs spa. Among the many selections from the menu here is the Istrian Wine Treatment, which scrubs and revitalizes your body with a sugar-grape seed oil mix before proceeding to a pleasant, but not levitating, massage over an hour. Be sure to budget a little time for the sauna in the locker room, which will finish the cleanse of your skin leaving you feeling almost newborn to the touch. Attached is a medium-sized gym to induce more sweat should you feel extra masochistic.
Continue the pampering in your superior or deluxe room or suite, thanks to large bathrooms with adult-sized tubs, rain showers, L’Occitane products, fluffy bathrooms, and the goose down duvet on the bed. Indeed, you’ll sleep very comfortably here for sure, with all the luxury amenities and up-to-date technology only an arm reach away. However, none of it challenges the traditions of hotel design, and if there’s anything to knock at the Esplanade, it’s perhaps the heaviness of the traditional dark wood, richly colored fabrics, gold accents, and thick carpets that squash any sunlight entering the windows or general sense of airiness. But in a hotel that trades on its history, this is no surprise.
That said, the value for the cost—with rooms starting at $116 a night—is astounding, and frankly unparalleled in almost anything in my experience. No doubt the relatively low cost of living in Zagreb has a lot to do with it, but I prefer to think of it as the Esplanade’s dedication to accessibility and embrace of community. In this regard, the Hotel Esplanade achieves its greatest success. Book directly online with the hotel or through a booking site like Expedia or Hotels.com.
Mike Dunphy stayed as a guest of the Hotel Esplanade
All photos by Hotel Esplanade