When the Orient Express steamed into Zagreb, Croatia, during the route's 1920s and '30s heyday, its well-heeled passengers didn't have to go far to find rest and refreshment of equal status. Stepping out of the lithe, neoclassical station, they merely needed to cross a small park to reach the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel.
Built in 1925 on a vast, open field (or "esplanade"), the hotel embraced the glitzy, garish trends of the roaring decade, splashing creamy, black-veined marble gilding and Tiffany-style glass inside a sheath of art deco. Looking every bit like a palace, the Esplanade attracted royalty from all industries through the decades, from aviator Charles Lindbergh and actress Elizabeth Taylor to soccer star Pele and Queen Elizabeth II, who awarded the hotel chef a gold coin for a delicious gilthead bream.
The elegant setting and freewheeling attitude also attracted many amorous, off-the-books tete-a-tetes, particularly "dissatisfied wives and their lovers." Indeed, the hotel legendarily saw the country's first striptease, at the farewell party of an Italian count.
In today's Esplanade, such frivolity has largely been tamed. But the style and swank remain, thanks to a two-year, top-to-bottom renovation by London-based MKV Design in the early 2000s. Little survives inside from the original design, apart from the marble and fireplaces in the lobby and the Emerald Ballroom just beyond, where it takes but a modicum of fantasy to fill the oval, columned, glass-tipped space with dancing decadence once again.
The mission of the Esplanade — to provide the best accommodation in Zagreb — has not changed, and by and large, it succeeds, starting with the staff, who impress in their efforts to fulfill every expectation or solve any issue from check-in to checkout.
The Superior room in the Esplanade Zagreb Hotel features goose-down duvets and classic luxury standards such as dark wood and thick carpets.
The same goes in the hotel's flagship restaurant, Zinfandel's, named for the well-known Dalmatian grape — to the point where it outshines the food itself. Sommelier Ivan Sneler, who's been with the hotel for 35 years, is particularly notable for dispensing both exceptional Croatian wine and sweet, grandfatherly charm. In fact, his selections are more likely to remain on the tip of your tongue long after the meal than the menu's citrus jelly oysters, Iberico pork cheeks with candied chestnuts or Istrian fuzi pasta in creamy truffle sauce.
The hotel's dedication to Croatian wine is evident in its grape-and-vine logo, but perhaps the most pleasurable manifestation is in the spa, where the Istrian Wine Treatment scrubs, rubs and revitalizes your body with local grapeseed oil for an hour.
Left in limp-limbed bliss, your super-soft skin will find an apt complement in the goose-down duvet on the bed in your Superior and Deluxe room or suite. Or slip inside the large tub in the marble-clad bathroom and slather on the L'Occitane skin care products. Comfort is assured in the 208 rooms stocked with all manner of amenities and technology, but they do keep to classic luxury standards, with traditional dark wood, richly colored fabrics, gold accents, thick carpets and tasteful wall art.
It's not actually anything material that is the Esplanade's standout feature but rather its integration with Zagreb as a whole. Its location does put nearly every major site in walking distance, including the main square about 15 minutes away, but more importantly, locals are not excluded by its five-star status. In fact, they make full use of all it has to offer, so you don't need to leave the hotel to experience at least a portion of Croatian culture; simply stop in the bistro for lunch, pony up to the bar for a glass of wine or grab a coffee in the lounge and you'll see, taste and hear life in Zagreb.
Nightly rates range from about $160 for Superior rooms to about $1,700 for Esplanade Suites. See www.esplanade.hr.