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The pool at the Peninsula New York. (Photo: Christopher Elliott)
TravelTraveler Magazine

24 Hours in Manhattan: Hotels with More Than Beds

Manhattan’s hyper-competitive luxury hotels are always trying to outdo each other. But they’ve been taking it to a new level lately.

How else would you describe a museum-quality art collection, a 3D movie theater, or the finest indoor pool this side of Central Park?

At the Peninsula New York, that’s what hotel guests find when they ride the elevator to the 22nd floor: one of the most impressive hotel pools in town. It isn’t its size — it’s not even a third the size of an Olympic pool — but the glass-enclosed views that leave guests gasping. You can get a good look at 5th Avenue straight down to Central Park, while sipping a complimentary espresso and saying to yourself, “Only in New York.”

If you’re lucky enough to be staying at the Peninsula, you’ll have access to the pool anytime (it’s open 5:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.). But you don’t have to be guest to use it. Just book a two-hour treatment at the spa, which got a major overhaul a few years ago. You can take in the same stunning view from the spa’s floor-to-ceiling windows and peer down and snicker at the little people below. Being in the pool in the dead of winter can make you particularly smug; it’s cold and gloomy outside, but steamy and serene inside.

Like other Peninsula hotels, you’ll want to consider a stay here if you want to feel very pampered, and don’t mind paying for the privilege. The guest experience lives up to the Peninsula reputation. Someone is always asking you if they can help with something, even if you’re toting nothing more than an overnight bag.

A little farther up 5th Avenue at the Pierre New York, you’ll find the same obsessive attention to detail (they even have an elevator operator who remembers your floor). But at this landmark property, it’s all about the art. The museum-quality pieces throughout the hotel touch on the history of The Pierre as well as the artistic tradition of modern and contemporary Indian art.

Works by the Indian abstractionist Akbar Padamsee, M. F. Husain and Ganesh Haloi line the halls and lobby, giving this iconic building a slightly exotic feel. As I waited for an appointment near the reception desk, I asked one of the employees about the exhibit. She pointed to one work and whispered that it had been valued at more than $1 million.

Just in case anyone doubts how serious the Pierre takes its art, you should spend a little time in its executive offices. Even the hotel’s general manager has his own private stash of art on the shelves and walls of his office — beautiful things he has collected over the years, by artists whose names I don’t recognize but I’m sure will be house-hold someday.

I didn’t believe Pierre’s reputation for art until a friend, who lives in New York, told me he visits the lobby just to see the paintings. (“It’s one of New York’s free art museums,” he said, and he wasn’t kidding.) I’m told the hotel will introduce monthly, guided art tours in March to properly show off its collection.

At the Bryant Park Hotel, a boutique luxury property across from the New York Public Library, the art and the decor are spare, but walk downstairs and you’ll see something that sets it apart from the rest in a decisive way: a movie theater. And not just any movie theater, but a Real 3D screening room, installed just last summer.

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Screening room at the Bryant Park Hotel. (Photo: Bryant Park Hotel)

I could tell you about the technical specifications of this 70-seat private theater, or about the understated hotel, which at this time of year looks out to the park and a lively skating rink. But here’s a story that helped me understand why hotels go to such great lengths to have to best pool, art collection or high-tech movie palace.

Last year, director Martin Scorsese used the Bryant Park’s theater for a private screening of his Academy Award-winning 3D film Hugoa private screening of his Academy Award-winning 3D film Hugo. It was a birthday party for his daughter, Francesca, and 50 of her friends. Events like that put hotels on the map in New York, where having a comfortable bed and over-the-top bath amenities and a central location aren’t always enough to different you from the competition.

It’s good for guests like us. But it also kinda makes you wonder: What’ll they think of next?

Christopher Elliott writes the Insider column for National Geographic Traveler. He’s traveling across the country with his family and blogging about the experience at Away Is Home. Follow him on Twitter.