A Tale of Two Towers :: New York City Hotels

Checking in at the W Times Square.My recent trip to New York led me in opposite directions for lodging. I spent a couple days in the W Times Square, a splashy Starwood hotel that still attracts the young and the pretty from this country and Europe. Then I spent a few days in the Helmsley Middletowne, a down-to-earth comfy old building.

The differences between the two are a microcosm of most types of hotel choices available in midtown Manhattan — glitzy new starlets trying hard to remain chic long after their newness wears off and confident old broads who don’t give a hoot that they’ve become a little worn around the edges. There just isn’t much in between those two worlds.

The W Times Square (www.starwoodhotels.com) got on my nerves this time. While I love being in the newest hot spot or enjoying the trendiest features, the 550-room tower at 49th and Broadway seems to be trying too hard these days. The dim lighting, serpentine route to find elevators and habit of calling the reception area a “living room” all seem tired. When I travel, I want a light I can read by, a bathroom door that closes and a staff that doesn’t sigh and treat me like their mother’s dotty old friend.

The Helmsley Middletowne, (www.helmsleymiddletowne.com) on 48th Street between Third and Lexington avenues, felt like a hug from my mother’s dotty old friend — soft, strong and smelling just a teensy bit like an un-aired closet. The rooms (studio, one- and two-bedroom) are huge and reflect their original jobs as residential apartments with entry-way kitchenette, large sitting room/living room and equally large bedroom. There’s crown molding, windows that open, a single large closet and a bathroom right out of a 1950s home décor magazine.

Most of the Helmsley’s furnishings appear to not have changed for decades. Chintz, stripes and some unfortunate floral prints all vie for attention. But the bed is comfortable. The shower has plenty of hot water and a strong spray. The rooms seem old and occasionally marginally musty, but clean.

Our room at the W, for $400-plus per night, could easily have fit into the living room of our suite at the Helmsley, where we paid just under $300 per night.

The W’s appeal doesn’t seem to be abating and it still boasts the best breakfast and cocktail hour people-watching in midtown. Blue Fin, its street-level restaurant, boasts two sides of floor-to-ceiling glass walls that let guests watch the tide of tourists go by. Breakfasts are ample: Eggs Benedict served with piles of spicy potatoes or a deep bowl of yogurt buried in handfuls of perfectly ripened fresh fruit and topped with home-made granola. Cocktails and wine are pricey, even for New York, but worth it if you can get one of the window tables and enjoy the street scene.

The Helmsley’s breakfast is a simple continental buffet in the tiny lobby, but it includes real bagels (not those hard mini things so often served) and a wide variety of pastries and muffins. The Helmsley Middletown does not have a bar, so for cocktail hour, your best bet is to head west a block and pop into Sir Harry’s bar at the Waldorf-Astoria, perhaps the grand dame of New York’s well-worn old hotels.

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