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Taj Boston

Taj Boston Lobby

We arrived at the Taj Boston on a summer Sunday with two problems: our feisty 18-pound Shih-Tzu-Lhasa Arthur Rimbaud, and our need for a posh afternoon tea. Fortunately, at the Taj, neither of these are problems. Indeed, this hotel is designed to make you forget you ever even met a problem.

Founded in 1630, Boston is a national treasure, the bastion of the American Revolution, home of Thoreau and Emerson, Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller. It’s also the Hub, the unofficial capital of New England, being the largest city by far among hundreds of charming villages. As Julia Ward Howe, author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” once wrote, “Boston is an oasis in the desert, a place where the larger proportion of people are loving, rational and happy.” Howe missed out on the busing riots in the 70s and 80s but, in general, Boston’s rep as our center of enlightenment is well earned. And with 52 colleges and universities in the metropolitan area, our “Athens of America” is nothing if not welcoming to students. Which is to say, the music scene is awesome.

But, for all this openness, Boston always seems like an insider’s town. The old doggerel still rings true:

"And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God."

In my limited experience of some 20 visits, no matter how many trips I took from Faneuil Hall to the galleries on Newbury Street, from Union Oyster House to Harvard Square, I remained an outsider to the real Boston. The Lowells and Cabots, whoever they were, were not talking to me. I didn’t mind. Much.

And then I stayed at the Taj Boston.

The 5-star Taj Boston is the grande dame of hotels in America’s grande-dame-iest city. Located on posh Arlington Street in the Back Bay neighborhood, the 17-story Beaux Art building rises at the head of the charming Public Garden, and many rooms have views to the Boston Common. To its south is chic shopping HQ, Newbury Street, and to its North is the tranquil esplanade of Commonwealth Avenue. The doormen are in full livery, the high-ceilinged lobby is gorgeously furnished and there is a Chanel boutique in the corner. Of the 273 guest rooms, many have wood burning fireplaces attended by fireplace butlers who offer a selection of timber. Mesquite, anyone?

To stay at the hotel is to hang out where generations of Bostonians have celebrated weddings, put up visiting relatives and fed their enlightened, highly educated selves Sunday brunch. Here, presumably, the Lowells talked to Cabots and the Cabots talked to God. If they were in the mood.

Taj Boston Churchill Suite

One thing you need to know? The Taj Boston hasn’t always been a Taj. Back in the spring of 1927, the property opened as the first Ritz in the US, a sumptuous place hosting very proper parties and serving extremely dry martinis to a select crowd. Room rates began at a staggering $15 and guests were vetted to ensure they were on the Social Register. Even the quality of their writing paper was inspected, so flimsy-looking reservation requests had to book elsewhere. Winston Churchill, Joan Crawford and Liz Taylor stayed here (separately), Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey played here, Tennessee Williams penned part of “Streetcar” here, and Oscar Hammerstein wrote the lyrics to “Edelweiss” while showering here. Dress codes were strict, and women could neither dine alone in the café or—heaven forbid—drink alone in the hotel bar.

Eighty years later, Taj Hotels and Resorts, stepped in. This Mumbai based group runs an otherworldly chain of top-flight hotels through India and the Middle East, many set in grand old palaces. They promptly invested in a gorgeous and pricey refurbishment, much as they had in New York at the Pierre and in San Francisco at the Campton Place. Though there are South Asian touches, including fantastic silks throughout, the folks at Taj relish the history of the space and want to keep it as it’s always been. Employees talk of their “stewardship” of the fine property so important to Boston.

The one main shift is the Taj motto: Guest is God. Staff are determined to make you feel like you are an honored presence at their famous landmark. The sort of care I saw in the lobby, between managing outgoing guests, incoming mounds of luggage (moving in, anyone?), and my small, irritating dog, combined warm humor with Job-like patience.

Three Bikes And A Dog

A little bit about our arrival. As we stepped out of the car, one porter approached to help with the bags and another came holding a dog treat for the innocent-looking Shih-tzu on my lap. When my husband pointed to the three bikes clamped to the trunk – we were en route to vacation – they simply called a third porter to begin the disassembly. Everybody’s happy—for a minute, anyway. We ascended the stairs in peace until, at the landing, the dog began yapping ferociously at the next porter who offered a milk bone, actually jumping on the nice man’s leg. Although my dog, at 17 pounds and possessing only one tooth larger than 1/16”, is no real threat, it made me want to sink right through the marble floors.

The porter brushed off my earnest apologies, saying he watches a lot of the Dog Whisperer, and gave me a five-minute coaching session right there in the middle of the lobby, reservation agents waiting ahead, luxe padded furniture all around, busy, well dressed guests coming and going, and our bikes, one by one, on the way to the storage rooms. The gist of the lesson? My dog requires immediate, consistent correction. I noticed that the man had discretely wheeled a mountain of Gucci luggage to the side as we repeated the exercise again and again. Only when the 17-pound fur-ball had stopped behaving as if he were in charge of this planet did the porter surreptitiously pass my pup another treat and continue on his way, rolling that loaded dolly through the lobby hubbub as if it were a lithe ballerina.

So the Guest is God policy works even when Guest is Dog. When we got to our room, two cute doggy bowls inscribed Woof! were waiting with a bottle of spring water for the pup.

The Room

The Bar at the Taj Boston

About that room? All Taj Boston rooms have marble baths, flat screen TVs, high speed wireless and Frette sheets. And all rooms overlook Commonwealth Avenue, Newbury Street or the famed Public Garden, as ours did—which gave it one of the coolest views in town. The palettes are cream and white with dark wood accents, and the capacious beds rise like marshmallows amid a creampuff. Leave your shoes in the hall before crashing—or, since you’re at the Taj, “retiring”—and they’ll be gleaming in the morning.

We were in a regular room, which means a glamorous creamy 500-sf expanse. There are also 44 suites many of which are wonderfully unique. Among the smaller is the 700-sf Churchill Suite, where the British Prime Minister stayed in 1949. An archival photo of Sir Winston by Yousuf Karsh hangs in the parlor. The very biggest, Tata Suite (named for the owner of Taj Hotels), is a recently renovated 1540-sf mini-palace with a parlor, wet bar, 6-person dining room, and two bedrooms. Along with a Beacon Hill ambience including some of the original 1927 furniture, there are accents of Indian splendor like original art and rich silks.

This is a place where you really want room service, if only to stay inside your private creampuff as long as possible. On the other hand, you’re probably dying to look at Boston from the cat-bird’s seat. We enjoyed both breakfasts in the super-charming café known as—what else?—The Café, with fantastic Crab Cake Benedict, Orange Brioche French Toast and, yes, bacon.

And Now For The Taj Afternoon Tea

Every afternoon tea lover has a barometer for success. Some look to the crumbliness of the scones, others to the moistness of the sandwiches. For me, it’s all about the chocolate covered strawberries. You know how the delicious dark chocolate forms a hard candy around the luscious strawberry? That doesn't happen at the Taj afternoon tea.

Nope. At Taj’s tea, the strawberries have just been dipped, so the warm and fragrant chocolate is still partly melting on the fresh strawberry. And they even give extras. Our plate of tea sandwiches included salmon and cucumber squares, of course, as well as caviar. The Taj blend tea was fantastic and, as always, there was plenty of champagne on offer. Meanwhile a cellist played live as we poured and munched—and requested extra strawberries.

On my recent visit, the famous French Room, where teas have been served for 40 years, was closed due to trouble with the air conditioning. (Do check out the French Room if you can: it is furnished and decorated for the Boston grannie you never had.) Still, our tiered tea trays and steaming pots were just as good when served in the club level lounge on the 18th floor; instead of the Newbury Street vista, we took in that Public Garden and could see all the way to the Boston Common.

Another cool thing about the tea service? The crowd. As in New York, afternoon tea isn’t just for ladies any more. Though the de rigueur bridal shower was in progress when we arrived, the crowd was nicely rounded out by two entire families, two couples and one father and son. And about that group of gals? One of them had an 8-inch Boston Red Sox tattoo on her upper back. Hey--Boston’s a sports town.

Around And About The Taj Boston

From the hotel, it’s an easy walk to all sorts of cool sights. My architect husband wanted to point out Trinity Church on nearby Copley Square, which is Henry Hobson Richardson’s masterpiece, completed in 1877 and the archetype of the Richardson Romanesque style. Do go inside to check out the grand space and the William Morris’ stained glass windows. Just across the way, and reflected in its glass siding, is Henry Cobb’s John Hancock Tower—which was briefly known as the U. S. Plywood Building when the windows started popping out shortly after it was completed in 1976. Also near is the Freedom Trail, www.thefreedomtrail.org, a 2 ½-mile brick lane leading from Boston Common past 16 historical sites you last had to be tested on in grade school.

But you’ll be cheating yourself if you don’t cross the street once or twice each day to stroll the Public Garden. Boston’s elegant 24-acre park of beautiful flowers, broad ponds and weeping willows was America’s first public botanical garden, with seasonal plantings designed for year-round beauty and peace. A visit is great for people watching, and there are plenty of benches open for Bostonians on break, students reading, and observers alike.

My favorite tidbit about the park? When the first plantings arose in the 1837 opening, with a dozen varieties of flowers, some complained that the garish pairings of flowers was beyond the bounds of good taste.

Don’t miss a ride in the lagoon on the Swan Boats, www.swanboats.com, a tradition born in 1877. A Swan Boat is basically a catamaran with a foot-propelled paddle wheel hidden by a swan. (The founder, Robert Paget, was a fan of the opera Lohengrin, in which a knight crosses a river in a boat drawn by a swan to defend an innocent princess, and his family still owns the concession.) The boats seat up to 20 and are popular with kids, who love the tale of the swan knight. But grownups also love to ride high above the lake, slowly and gracefully surveying the very heart of Back Bay Boston.

Taj Boston
15 Arlington Street, Boston, Massachusetts 02116
Tel. 617-536-5700

--Alexis Quinlan
Fall 2012