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On a recent return trip from Manila to London, I found myself with an eight-hour layover in Hong Kong. To pass the time, I recalled the advice of a well-traveled friend, grabbed a taxi outside Kai-Tak Airport and bid the driver to take me to The Peninsula, one of the grandest of all of Asia's vintage hotels.
Once inside, I went straight to the generously stocked Davidoff cigar shop for a choice selection, then for a few hours of relaxation a few steps away in the capacious post-Edwardian lobby, renowned for its cornice work and which, since the hotel's construction in 1928, has served as the British territory's most popular meeting place.
The Peninsula Hotel is approximately two densely packed miles from the airport, hovering on the South Kowloon shoreline like a grizzly bear, a massive torso and towering head at the center, with two bear-like arms reaching out to the edge of Salisbury Road.
Between these arms is the busy driveway entrance to the hotel, where a guest might see the hotel's fleet of nine newly ordered Rolls-Royce Silver Spur III limousines parked and at the disposal of the hotel's VIP customers.
This latest acquisition of cars--The Peninsula has always had a fleet of Rolls-Royces--is part of a big new package for the hotel. The centerpiece is the newly opened 30-story tower, which dominates the central wing; in addition, many of the existing rooms have been renovated. The new wing adds 132 rooms and brings the Peninsula's total room capacity to 300.
The refurbishing, which cost $200 million, had become necessary for three reasons--soaring demand for quality hotel space in Hong Kong and Kowloon, the fortuitous ending of building height limits in Kowloon and the odd decision by the government to permit construction in the 1980s of a space and art museum complex on landfill just opposite The Peninsula.
Prior to that, the old hotel, at just six stories, had an unobstructed view of Hong Kong harbor and the Manhattan-like skyscrapers shooting up on the island's financial and business districts on the opposite shore. The new tower reclaims that view and gives The Peninsula one of the most spectacular vistas in Asia.
But hotels are about people. The most important at The Peninsula are the Kadoorie family, the offspring of a nineteenth century Mesopotamian merchant family who came from Baghdad to Hong Kong to seek their fortune. In the process, the Kadoories founded China Light & Power Co., Hong Kong's largest power utility, and in the 1920s commissioned work on The Peninsula, the flagship of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Hotels Group Ltd.
The Peninsula's restaurants and bars reflect Hong Kong's polyglot community. The newest, Felix, crowns the 28th floor and specializes in Euro-Asian cuisine. The real action, however, is on the first floor, where the Japanese restaurant Imasa opened last year. It is next to the Spring Moon, which features authentic Cantonese, while the nearby Verandah restaurant specializes in continental cuisine.
Undoubtedly, one of Hong Kong's most famous restaurants is Gaddi's, named for the Peninsula's former general manager, Swiss-born Leo Gaddi, who opened the restaurant in 1953. It boasts many showpieces, including two six-foot chandeliers and a Chinese coromandel screen made by Fong Long Kon in 1670.
Gaddi's also boasts an exceptional wine list of more than 400 different offerings. There are satisfactory French and California wines in the US$20 to $40 range, but for one of the rare vintages, be prepared for prices in the hundreds and thousands of dollars.
Like the Raffles in Singapore, The Peninsula has had its share of famous guests. Writer Ernest K. Gann used The Peninsula as a setting in the 1955 film, Soldier of Fortune, based on his novel. Fans could see Clark Gable exiting from the hotel and climbing into, what else, his Rolls. Other guests included Noel Coward, Marlon Brando and James Clavell, who used one of the Peninsula's suites as a base to write his Hong Kong epics Noble House and Tai-Pan.
The Peninsula survived the Japanese occupation during the Second World War--the Japanese used the hotel as an administrative headquarters. Now it is preparing for June 30, 1997, when the British are replaced by the Chinese as sovereignty over Hong Kong is transferred. Forget about booking a room at that time--it has been sold out for ages. One of its customers will be Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister who negotiated the transfer.
Frank Gray is a correspondent for the Financial Times of London.
The Peninsula Hong Kong
Salisbury Road, Kowloon
Phone: (852) 2366 6251; fax: (852) 2722 4170
Room rates: Single or double "superior" rooms start at approximately US$342 per night, rising to the one-bedroom Peninsula Suite, at US$5,000 per night, including a 24-hour butler and personal use of a chauffered Rolls-Royce.