Shanghai Opening: Mandarin Oriental Pudong

Shanghai continues apace as a center of unabated urban expansion with the opening of the glamorous new Mandarin Oriental Pudong. And as an unapologetic acknowledgment of China’s place as the universe’s most insatiable contemporary art market, the hotel’s 4000 strong (would we kid you?) art collection, as curated by the renowned Art Front Gallery, might inspire a few "gallery-with-rooms" observations. But this is a Mandarin Oriental, after all, so for those with sufficient dosh, its hospitality credentials are pretty much unassailable.

And to be sure, its 362 rooms are swish, stylish and magnificently appointed. But you’ll likely be spending most of your time at its eponymous spa (its got a Kinesis wall and Maya Fit virtual trainers–look it up!), or amidst the dizzying array of epicurean offerings: Dutch star chef Richard Ekkebus’ modern French Fifty 8° Grill, Tony Lu’s chic Chinese eatery Yong Ti Ying, the more casual Zest, the Mandarin Cake Shop for the sweet of tooth, or the Riviera Lounge for a classic high tea in a somewhat futuristic setting. Nightowls can take in the views, the sexy decor and high-profile DJs at Qi Bar. You’ll be a "fan."

[Related: BlackBook Shanghai Guide; Listing for Mandarin Oriental Pudong; More by Ken Scrudato; Follow Ken on Twitter]

Paris’ Palace Hotels Get A Royal Transformation

Le Bristol, Le Crillon, Le Meurice, Le Ritz, and George V don’t just represent some industry- approved pinnacle of excellence; they’re points of national pride akin to the Sorbonne and the Pompidou. They convey the inimitable ability of the French to transcend what is otherwise a mostly banal, unseemly, global race to the top of the luxury market and actually cultivate history through impeccable hospitality. Amenities are just so much stuff—mythology is what makes a hotel grand.

Yet those same storied Paris hotels have been basking in an unofficial but earnest classification unduplicated anywhere else in the world: they were “Palace” hotels, a lofty designation that conjures the opulence of Louis XVI without, until recently, really meaning much. When the decision by the French government came down in late 2011 that the Palace title would be subject to a comprehensive set of criteria, those responsible might just as well have announced that a KFC would be opening in the Louvre. Only Le Bristol, Le Meurice, the Plaza Athenee and, a bit surprisingly, the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme were initially honored with the title. The release of the list conjured a cultural tempest: both Le Crillon and Le Ritz announced two-year closures for the purpose of carrying out extensive modernizations. The legendary George V, which had undergone a complete renovation in the late ’90s, appealed the decision and was admitted.

The point of the whole exercise was to identify the finest hotels in a city where outrageous luxury is merely a starting point, and while many have decried the omissions, there’s no arguing that the members of the inaugural class of official Palace hotels are among the sweetest sleeps on the planet.

No longer able to skate by on history and reputation, today’s Palace hotels have to work overtime to capture the mix of modern amenities and timeless elegance required to earn the designation. Perhaps anticipating such a defining shake-up, Anglo-hearted Le Bristol had already begun facing down such lavishly appointed, foreign-owned new competitors as the Mandarin Oriental and the Shangri-La, as well as the hundred-million-euro update of Le Royal Monceau by Singapore’s Raffles Hotels. Le Bristol had recently scored perhaps the ultimate coup, having been significantly featured in Woody Allen’s dazzlingly reviewed 2011 film Midnight in Paris, all while deftly carrying out a sweeping renovation. Its parade of celebrity devotees (Brad Pitt, Leo DiCaprio, etc.) were left quite unbothered by it all, as the hotel unveiled the new Matignon wing and the chic 114 Faubourg—a culinary complement to Chef Eric Frechon’s exalted, three-Michelin-starred Epicure restaurant—in 2009, and the Spa Le Bristol by La Prairie in 2011.

The transformation was completed in October with the unveiling of Le Bar du Bristol. Bearing the aesthetic stamp of French superstar designer Pierre-Yves Rochon, the hotel’s glamorous new lounge evokes a classical, club-room feel, with an ornate 19th Century marble fireplace, plush leather armchairs, and Thierry Bruet’s Aubusson-tapestry-referencing mural fresco—yet it also cagily plans a rotating series of contemporary works of art and guest DJ appearances.

Perhaps Le Bar Du Bristol’s true stroke of genius was luring talented young cocktail alchemist Maxime Hoerth—who sharpened his skills in swish hotels from Strasbourg to Luxembourg—away from rival hotel George V. His drinks program favors clever re-imaginings of the classics, such as the Bristol Old Fashioned No. 1, which is made with coffee beans and maple syrup.

So the question is: with Le Ritz shuttered, with Eric Frechon now regarded by many as the top chef in Paris, and its movie star and fashion industry following unwavering in their loyalty, could Le Bristol now be regarded as the new benchmark of Paris luxury hotels?

CEO Didier Le Calvez thinks so. “Le Ritz was likely first in the 1990s and Four Seasons George V in the early 2000s,” he says. “But if we consider the investments of Le Bristol’s owners, the hotel has the vocation to be the palace for this decade.”

Like Picasso and Matisse, or Camus and Sartre, it’s one of those grand French contretemps that is likely to carry on in gloriously dramatic fashion.

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5×5 Project Invites Cherry Blossom Pilgrims to Explore Washington, D.C.’s Artistic Side

Think there’s nothing more to Washington, DC than marble monuments and career politicians? Think again. As thousands of tourists swarm the District for this year’s National Cherry Blossom Festival, the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities is unveiling a dynamic new project designed to raise awareness of the city’s artistic side. With the creation of the 5×5 Temporary Public Art Project, visitors to the nation’s capital are encouraged to discover new perspectives on the city that take them through not just the monumental core, but the surrounding neighborhoods as well. The project unites artists from all over the country and as far away as Europe in creating dozens of dramatic, public art installations placed at various spots around town.

This year the National Cherry Blossom Festival celebrates the 100th anniversary of the historic 1912 gift of 3000 cherry trees from Mayor Yukio Ozaki of Tokyo to the people of Washington, DC as a symbol of the friendship between the two cities. (Another 3,800 trees were gifted in 1965.) With the arrival of warm weather, thousands of cherry trees open their buds, turning the city into a wonderland of delicate pink blossoms dancing in the breeze and reflecting off the water. Most travelers are drawn to the iconic areas around the Tidal Basin, but with the 5×5 Project spread around the city, visitors are beginning to venture away from the standard tourist circuit.

As a guest of the 5×5 Project—complete with a posh room at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel—I was invited to the opening weekend of the National Cherry Blossom Festival to take in many of these art installations while touring the city. I came away with a better understanding and appreciation of DC culture and got to see aspects of the city which I never really knew existed, even though, as a Baltimore native, I’ve been to Washington many times. After a whirlwind weekend of public art, it’s clear that the DC art scene is on the rise, and has earned a spot alongside the creative capitals of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York. In other words, if art’s your thing, don’t miss it.

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In the Southwest Waterfront area, visitors can discover Deborah Stratman & Steven Badgett’s Polygonal Address System, a spinning platform floating about 50 yards out on the Potomac River. As I approached, I was struck by the raucous sounds of political protests. Was there a nearby demonstration? Not today. It soon became apparent that the platform had loudspeakers fixed to the side of it. As the pentagonal structure rotated in the water, the speakers roared with the sounds of historic public addresses and protests, including speeches by public figures from Malcolm X to Ralph Nader.

The Polygonal Address System was one of the more politically-charged elements of the 5×5 project. Steve Rowell, curator of the installation, described his perspective of the system, pointing out that viewers seemed to have varying reactions to the political speeches. He felt that some people enjoyed the speeches, while others appeared turned off by them, as if the art revealed something about each person’s political views. Rowell noted that some of these speeches were “complicating the argument of protests, public activism, democracy, and intolerance amongst so many Americans.”

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Across the street, Charles Juhasz-Alvarado‘s Cherry Blossom Cloud resides in front of the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. One of 5×5’s more interactive installations, the piece is a sound sculpture sitting in a framework of interwoven metal pipes. Explaining his inspiration for this piece, Juhasz-Alvarado said he imagined the frame being dipped into a soap-bubble solution and pulled back out. Every spot where a soapy film-like membrane might appear is where he placed a wooden drum. In other sections he fixed cherrywood xylophones. This installation came with several sets of drum sticks attached to it, encouraging passersby to stop for a moment to drop a beat. This particular sculpture exemplified one of 5×5’s objectives: get people to physically interact with the artwork.

Further away on Southeast Water Street sits Yards Park Lumber Shed, now the temporary home of an intriguing setup. The tall concrete pillars high above anchor Cath Campbell’s Marathon, a working scale-model of the original cable car that ferried passengers up the side of Mt. Hiei in Japan, where the original 3000 cherry trees were cultivated. The Yards Park Lumber Shed is an open-air concrete pavilion where city workers can enjoy a pleasant outdoor lunch on a spring day. The intent behind Marathon is to draw attention to the wide area and emptiness of the structure’s high ceiling as the cable car gradually travels back and forth overhead.

A bit further from the city center in Anacostia, Habitat For Artists is developing their public art initiative How Much? How Little? The Space To Create. Using 6’ by 6’ art studio sheds made from recycled materials, the project is designed to encourage visitors to interact with the artists and the community. One method they are using to engage the local community is by asking them to contribute any kind of poetry, which they can then incorporate into the artwork in some way.

The Habitat for Artists group is a strong proponent for spreading the awareness of art in the DC area. Matthew Slaats, who teaches in the Communication Arts Department at Marymount Manhattan College, explained how this project affects Washington, DC culture as it coincides with the National Cherry Blossom Festival. “The Cherry Blossom Festival draws a crowd to specific areas, so by spreading these various art installations around, you’re going to draw people who might not come down to areas like Anacostia," he explained. "They’ve had people come up to them saying ‘We hadn’t ever been down here. This place is amazing!’”

Anacostia’s also the temporary home of one of the wildest installations in the 5×5 Project. Monica Canilao’s Home Mender (main photo) is a discordant mix of recycled materials formed into the structure of a small dwelling. Think of your childhood playhouse as if reimagined by Tim Burton. Located in an abandoned police evidence warehouse, the top floor of the building is almost completely consumed by the installation. Canilao explained that the idea for this piece was a “woman who carries her house on her back”. This becomes apparent the moment you walk inside and see two large leg-like structures protruding out of the side of the house. The visceral affect is amplified by the fact that much of the framework is visible, as you can see the poles, wires, welds, and panels twist around each other, overlap in some areas and leave gaps in others.

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On the outside roof of the warehouse, Canilao’s team has built a second structure, a multi-story tower which artist Harrison Bartlett refers to as a “giant trash beacon”. It is astonishing after walking through the “house” to realize that everything was, in fact, made from recycled materials, right down to the chandelier made from old glass bottles. Much of the structure was collected in pieces and brought by the artists, but a good deal of it was also found on location in and around the warehouse. As Bartlett expressed “you don’t have to look far to make something beautiful.”

The 5×5 Temporary Public Art Project and the National Cherry Blossom Festival both run through April 27, with a handful of the art installations continuing into the summer. For more information on the 5×5 Project, and for locations of all the installations, visit the website.

All photos by Jack Krajewski

The Suite Life at the Mandarin Oriental Paris

Paris in the springtime gets a lot of press, but Paris at Christmas has its own special magic. Now, the Mandarin Oriental Paris has opened 39 beautiful suites to serve as your home base in time for the holiday season. Of the spacious refurbished rooms, the standouts are quite obviously the seven duplex suites located on the seventh and eighth floors, with spectacular views of the rooftops and monuments of Paris from their private terraces. Designed by French interior designer Sybille de Margerie, she marries Parisian haute-couture details with understated lines and refined materials that echo the hotel’s Oriental influence.

Some take their cues from the material world and focus on the interior details, as in the Couture suites, where the Broderies de Perles, Coromandel and Arabesque suites are all decorated with bespoke Lesage embroidery in silk, pearls, crystals and sequins. The Cabochons suite which embodies its name in bright jewel tones.

Others look outside: literally in the case of the 1930s-inspired 350 square-meter Royale Mandarin Suite, split over two floors with views of Montmartre, the Garnier Opera, the Grand Palais, the Louvre and the Madeleine. We also mean that figuratively, in the nature-inspired Royale Orientale Suite bedecked with hand-painted crocodiles on the bar and Asian-inspired floral patterns on the drapes. And if that’s not enough room to roam for you, in a notable accomplishment, the top-floor Atelier suites can be connected with the Royale Orientale suite to form the largest room in Paris, at almost 1,000 square meters. 

Steal This Bathrobe: The Best Hotel Products to Swipe (& Buy)

You’re wrapped in a plush terry robe, reposing on thousand-thread-count sheets, listening to a custom-programmed iPod on the dock next to your bed, and feeling as though this is nothing more than the lifestyle you deserve. So who could blame you for wanting to take some of the accoutrements of your newfound bliss home from your luxury hotel? These are top three souvenirs we recommend you swipe.

Toiletries: These are always a safe bet, since they’re there for you to use anyway. We love the Remede toiletry kits given out by the St. Regis, the Malin + Goetz soaps used by the Morgans Hotel Group properties (including the Delano in Miami and the Mondrian in Los Angeles) and the exclusive Hermès bath products at all Sofitel locations.

Slippers: Hotels actually get a certain amount of free advertising from branded products escaping the confines of their hotel, and even the non-branded versions still provide travelers with fond memories of their trip. Our favorites come from the amenity-packed Asian hotels, including fuzzy slippers at the Mandarin Oriental’s multiple locations, and the Havianas at the InterContinental Hong Kong.

Personalized Stationery: Once a standard part of luxury hotel service, personalized stationery is a pleasant enough surprise that these days, you might be inspired enough to actually write a letter. While hotel stationery and pens are always fair game, no one can complain about something personalized going home with you, and you can find it at a surprising number of places, including the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, the Trump SoHo in New York , the Stafford London, Chicago’s Talbott, and the New World Shanghai.

That said, not all of us want to steal from our favorite hotels (who wants that on their guest profile?) and hotels have of course developed procedures to address this—many sticky-fingered guests will now find their more outrageous grift charged to their room bill. So why not shop their style the legal way? Many hip hotels have added online shops full of items that either appear on property or embody their style, like these three:

The W Store: W Hotels is happy to sell you everything from the bed you slept in to the music in the air, as well as apparel from brands like John Varvatos and Mara Hoffman. We particularly love their collection of statement jewelry and their eclectic blend of home accessories.

Shutters Beach Style: This Santa Monica hotel is one of a handful that are right on the beach, but the interiors are as striking as the views. Known for its impressive contemporary art collection which belongs to the hotel’s owners, their online store has drawings by Frank Gehry and Ellsworth Kelly, as well as stunning homewares like their signature rug and pewter table accessories.

Shop The Standard: They’re on the cutting edge of urban hotel style, so it’s no wonder that they’d have a quality online presence. The covetable goods include everything from RK Ripper fixed-gear bicycles to limited-edition art prints to the kissing puppy salt-and-pepper shakers on the table at the Standard Grill—so stealable that they’re listed for purchase right on the menu.

The Best Champagne Bars in Paris

Champagne is the “drink of kings,” a reputation it gained during the centuries when French kings were crowned in Reims, the capital city of Champagne province. The festive bubbly was served for the coronation ceremonies. One could easily assume, then, that since Paris is a mere 45-minute train ride from Reims, that there would be champagne bars on every street corner. Not quite. We tasked ourselves exploring Paris’ winding roads in search of the best places to enjoy a flute, whether during fashion week or New Years or a Tuesday. Here’s what we came up with.

The Newest Bar 8 (pictured top) at the Mandarin Oriental is sleek, elegant and inviting. A 9 ton, taupe-colored whole piece of Spanish marble is the first piece that greets you as you enter the bar. The leather bar stools that look out onto the enchanting garden offer a perfect perch from which to study the 70-plus bottles of champagne on the menu. David Biraud, who is known as one of France’s best sommeliers, crafted not just an exquisite by-the-bottle champagne menu, but an impressive by-the-glass menu to go along with it. If you are feeling especially light, a flute of Inflorescence by Cedric Bouchard, a blanc de noirs, will have you feeling like you’re drinking a champagne cloud. There’s also Dom Perignon 2002 for the traditionalists with good taste. And try the J’Aime Paris, a champagne cocktail made with a splash of St. Germain liqueur.

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For Connoisseurs Only Le Dokhan’s is what several friends who are brand ambassadors for champagne houses recommended. Le Dokhan’s and its head sommelier Mikaël Rodriguez have such a loyal following that he’s credited with not just educating champagne enthusiasts, but also igniting the passion of a growing crowd of young champagne devotees. In addition to the 70 or so bottles of champagne, many from smaller producers, you will also find a dignified selection by the glass. And if the occasion merits, you can order a Magnum such as Henriot’s Cuvée des Enchanteleurs 1990, for 950 Euros. Once a week, Dokhan’s has a special selection for their 3 Champagne Tasting, where they offer a Brut, a Rose’ and a Millesime (Vintage). These are selected by Rodriguez, who is pleased to teach you about the five different champagne glasses you can choose from. A jazz band plays once a month.

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The Sexiest Just across the river from the Eiffel Tower is the Hotel Sezz champagne bar, La Grande Dame. Yes, this is the same Sezz as the legendary St. Tropez outpost, and for his Paris property, owner Shahé Kalaidjian has sexed things up a bit. Veuve Clicquot is the exclusive reigning diva at this bar. And the bar is named after their top Cuvée, La Grande Dame. (It’s also the Parisian nickname for the Eiffel Tower.) The hotel is a favorite among Parisians celebrating a romantic weekend or an amorous tête-á-tête, and the discreet “zen” bar and its Christophe Pillet decor cocoons you in noir and hot pink, while offering a generous menu of 10 different champagne cocktails, like the mojito champagne cocktail. Small bites include sushi and salmon skewers.

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The Most Authentic This must be the oldest champagne bar in Paris. Although it might not be altogether accurate to call it a champagne bar, the Paris Museum of Wine’s 14th century walls were once used as cellars by the Abby that stood above it when the area, Passy, was covered in vineyards. In the mid-1900s, it was used as the cellars for the Eiffel Tower. The Museum offers tastings and even lunch, regardless of whether you decide to take the tour or not. The Musée du Vin offers the opportunity to taste 5 rotating champagnes, but when you buy a bottle from their museum store—to drink there or on the Champ de Mars, naturally—they will throw in a complimentary guided tour of the museum, which includes one exhibit devoted entirely to la méthode Champenoise. October 15th is their next scheduled champagne tasting, but you can always request one specifically for yourself or a small group by calling or emailing ahead.

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The Ritziest The Ritz Bar in the Ritz Hotel has a sincere following of young and trendy Parisians. Its versatility is astounding, as it can flip to the Ritz Bar Terrasse, weather permitting, which has a collection of chic and comfortable outdoor lounge chairs that overlook the grassy enclave of the interior courtyard of this legendary hotel. Or, when the weather gets nippy, the bar is indoors, with red interiors and plush upholstered coziness. When you’ve made this kind of mark on the world of luxury, there’s really no other option but to have your own champagne label. So the Ritz Bar serves Ritz Brut and Ritz Brut Rose, and their Millisime’ and Tête de Cuvée. And dince the terrasse is a lovely setting to spend a whole evening with your significant other, nibbling on fresh strawberries, they do offer Cristal (995 Euro), Perrier Jouët Belle Epoque (500 Euro) and Dom Ruinart Brut Rosé (600 Euro) by the bottle. They are probably most famous, however, for their champagne cocktails which include the Ms. Bond, a brut champagne served with raspberry essence and a perfect red raspberry garnish, and world-renowned head barman Colin Field’s other concoction, Le Serendipiti: Mint, Calvados, apple juice, champagne.

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The Clubbiest Before a night at the clubs, young (and famous) Paris heads to Le Bar at the Plaza Athénée on Avenue Montaigne. Its trademark blue lighting turns fire-red at 10pm on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. The resident DJ, Adrien Villanova, starts jamming with his entourage between 11 and 11:30. Here, you can get glasses of Ducasse signature champagne (made by Lanson Champagne), Roederer Brut, or Bollinger Rosé, and you can chase all those down with head barman Thierry Hernandez’s Bailey’s, Grand Marnier, and Kahlua jelly shots, served like pieces of candy on ice. Bottles include the Lanson Noble Cuvée 1998 and Laurent Perrier. Big spenders can opt for their special My Private Boat excursion, which will have you sipping champagne on the Seine while cruising in the Plaza’s signature mahogany and chrome craft. (1,100 Euro for 2 hours, available to Hotel Guests.) Le Bar du Plaza Athénée is party central during Paris Fashion Week, and it’s also the main watering hole on Vogue’s Fashion Night Out.

Paris Opening: Mandarin Oriental

With the openings of the Le Royal Monceau Raffles, the Shangri-La, and now the Mandarin Oriental in quick succession, Paris’ seemingly immovable palace hotel hierarchy has been decisively upended. Indeed, while Le Crillon and Le Meurice still drip with gilt, this rakishly chic new Mandarin Oriental joins the new religion of resolutely modern glamour; there’s not a lick of toile de jouy to be found anywhere.

Located just a few posh boutiques away from that other bastion of unapologetic opulence, Le Ritz, the Mandarin ups the razzle dazzle of its Rue Saint Honore address in, shall we say, a decidedly less grandiloquent manner. Brightly decorated (by Sybille de Margerie) rooms flaunt elegant art deco touches, and the usual array of paintings of stuffy old aristocrats make way here for an exquisitely sensual selection of Man Ray photos; you might, in fact be sharing a room with Kiki de Montparnasse.

Standing most strikingly athwart all the old pomp is star chef Thierry Marx’s Sur Mesure restaurant, stripped down to a minimalist cool of greys and whites by designer Patrick Jouin. Surreal cloud sculptures adorn the walls, reminding you that French cuisine is likely as close as our earthly selves will ever get to Heaven.

It’s not to say we we won’t still go in for a bit of ancien regime decadence when the occasion calls. But for those firmly planted in the new century, this is your new favorite Paris address.

Richard Ashcroft On the Best Place to Drink in New York

“When I was younger, I used to stay at the Chelsea Hotel,” says Richard Ashcroft, now 39. “You were required to have a wild time or you weren’t allowed to stay there. The corridors felt like you were in Angel Heart and William Burroughs might stumble out of a room at any moment.” Two decades have passed since the former Verve frontman first roamed those hallowed New York halls, and on “Third Eye,” a B-side from his fourth solo album, The United Nations of Sound, Ashcroft sings about a different place entirely.

“Let me take you there, to the rarified air of the Mandarin/ I got my beer in my hand, thinking ’bout my life plans.” You’d be forgiven for assuming that Ashcroft—who wrote the ballad “The Drugs Don’t Work” about his well-documented battle with substance abuse—was recalling a psychedelic night inside a giant piece of fruit. But then he continues: “Just sittin’ in the Mandarin, and watch ’em go in cirles/ Columbus circles.” It becomes apparent—especially if you’re a New Yorker—that Ashcroft’s Mandarin is actually the luxury hotel in Manhattan’s Time Warner Center overlooking Central Park, not a precious kind of orange. “I recommend for everybody to go and have one drink at that place,” Ashcroft says of the hotel’s bar. “I stayed there on my own, all night, and saw the sun rise over Central Park,” he says. “It’s the only manmade thing I’ve seen that feels like you’re looking at the ocean, because the concrete just stops at the edge of the park. The shadows and the way the light changes all of those buildings is absolutely incredible.”

How to Get a Free Night in NYC’s Top Hotels

NYC & Company, the official marketing, tourism and partnership organization for the City of New York, has partnered up with 16 Signature Collection hotels that really want you to visit the Big Apple in high style. When you book two consecutive nights at one of the partner hotels—which ranks as some of the best in the city—you get a third night free.

This type of sale isn’t new. We’ve seen it with almost every global hotel brand, but they were struggling at the height of the recession. But these hotels are brimming at capacity during high season as it is, so getting the free night is a major bonus, considering they don’t really need to bend over backwards to fill house. We’re talking major luxury options:Mandarin Oriental, Rosewood’s The Carlyle, The Plaza, Ritz Carlton and several others with a similar pedigree. What else makes this promotion so glorious? Consider that just one night at the Ritz Carlton runs approximately $600 per night. Then again, if you’re rolling high enough to spend two nights at the Ritz-Carlton, a third night free is kind of an insult.