Living it up like the rich

My US trip was ending in three days and I had spent as little as anyone could. The travel card still had about $7,000


Living room of the prince’s house in the Waldorf Astoria NewYork hotel. Photographs by Alok Singh
Living room of the prince’s house in the Waldorf Astoria NewYork hotel. Photographs by Alok Singh

Money can’t buy happiness but it can buy comfort. And more money can buy more comfort. Or so I believed till I stayed in the New York home of a Saudi prince.

Several months ago, as a miserly tourist in New York, I was squeezing the most out of my $38 (Rs.2,535) hop-on, hop-off bus tour. I was riding in the downtown Manhattan bus for the third time that day. As we passed the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, the tour guide said yet again, “This is where kings and heads of state stay when they are in America.” And then added, “The moment you step in, they treat you like royalty.”

My US trip was ending in three days and I had spent as little as anyone could. The travel card still had about $7,000. That evening, in my $40-a-night Days Inn room in Newark, I wondered how it would feel to live like a king for just one day. I wanted to give it a try. That’s what happens when you drink cheap alcohol.

The next morning, I walked to the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. A middle-aged ethnic-Japanese lady at reception sized me up in my dirty jeans and offered me a single room. I was not treated like royalty, so I asked for a suite. Very nonchalantly, she said, “That would be $450 a night.” Still treated like a commoner.

After a bit of hesitation, I said, “I want your best room.” Obviously, the stuff from the night before was very potent.

She looked up and said, “Our presidential-style suites are upwards of $10,000 a night.” I could feel the euphoria drain out of my shivering hamstrings.

But then she added, “I have a presidential-style suite on which you can get a good deal. Can you please wait 5 minutes, sir?” Okay. Now we were getting somewhere.

She came back with an offer: “We have a suite in which a Saudi prince stays. It is available now and we can offer it to you for $2,500 a night.” Praise be to the Recession. And then came the but… “we can offer it to you tomorrow. It will take us a day to prepare it.”

View from the suite.
View from the suite.

I was sure they would need time to arrange belly dancers from some nearby Broadway theatre. I accepted the offer: one night in the $450-a-night suite, and the next in the slashed-price Arabian palace, with a complimentary 1-hour massage thrown in.

The hovel

I knew the regular suite was beneath my standard—even before I stepped into it—and pretended to be completely unimpressed by the fabulous view, the awesome bed, the ‘practical’ furniture. I did not even notice the plush carpet.

I was not impressed by the thin slivers of prosciutto, the salmon or the freshly baked pastries and biscuits lying around in the executive lounge, open only to suite guests. I was going to be treated like royalty the next day. Who knew what I would eat tomorrow and how I would eat it.

The fantasy was complemented by the reasonably good complimentary wine. Would I get complimentary champagne?

And this is when I noticed some of the good things about the suite. The attention to detail was impressive.

Those ugly-looking, high-backed chairs served a very useful purpose. They didn’t let you fall to the floor, no matter your state of stupor. I wanted to write this down so that I would’t forget it in the morning. My outstretched hand landed near a writing pad and pen. The TV was not big but was in proportion to the room’s size and the viewing distance from the chairs and the bed. Everything I needed could be found when I needed it. If they put so much attention into standard suites, I couldn’t imagine what they would do to the presidential-style suites.

When I woke up, I could not wait to be treated like royalty.

The palace

I was escorted to the palace of my dreams by a manager-level staffer, and she asked if it was to my liking. It was huge. It was where royalty stayed. What was there not to like? There were no belly dancers, but still.

She told me that many hotels in the city had “sold” large suites like this one to kings, heads of corporations, and basically anyone with lots of money. This one was not only being rented out, it was also for sale—for a little under a million dollars, with full scope for negotiations. I don’t know what prompted the manager to share this with me. I was still wearing the same pair of jeans.

I wanted to be shown the toilet, to make sure the flush worked, but decided to let it go. But I should have asked for it, it took me literally 10 minutes to find it on my own. This was a 10,000 sq. ft apartment on the 35th floor. When in the city, the prince stayed here with his entire family, servants and security. He needed this house, I didn’t.

After the initial 3-4 hours, I started hating the room. Was it because I did not find it value-for-money? Maybe. But there was more.

It had too many rooms. And the master bedroom was not attached to the master bathroom. There were two-three bathrooms nearby that were definitely for the help. For some reason, the master bathroom was at the other end of the suite. It was easier to use the toilet meant for the help.

The bedroom was too big and the TV too small for it. The AC vents were too few, and finding the temperature control unit and walking to it was akin to trekking across the desert, unless you had a security guard on standby. There was a big 10ft-wide TV screen in the living room, which my helpful hotel staff did not know how to start. I could not find the complimentary wine for a long time. It was in the kitchen, which was in another corner of the house. And the champagne was not complimentary. This suite was originally equipped with a whirlpool bathtub too. But the prince did not like it and had it removed.

The master bedroom could be reached only after crossing a corridor that had three-four small rooms on both sides that looked like guard rooms. And worst of all, it was in a quiet and secluded section of the hotel that had to be reached by changing lifts. I was sure the hotel sold such suites because no guest would ask for them a second time.

The thing about such palaces is that, unlike the regular suites, they are not designed with hotel guests in mind. They are designed to suit the tastes and needs of one person or family. Think of a very rich relative. You may like their bedroom at first glance. But you would go crazy if you had to sleep there for a week without making any changes to it. It is the same with these palaces.

When the rich and the famous travel, they live in suites like these because they need to, with their staff and all. If you think these suites will offer you more comfort just because they are more expensive, wake up and smell the coffee. You were having some terrible stuff last night.

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