Gramercy Park Hotel, New York City

Smoking on the roof in Manhattan.

Picture everything you've read or seen about the mythic Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Recall the Byzantine weaving of nature and architecture with enough majesty to be classified as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Now think less Mesopotamia and more Manhattan and imagine a lush rooftop garden floating 16 stories over Gramercy Park (New York City's last private park) where you can enjoy a cigar without incurring a fine.

Unlike the Hanging Gardens, this is a place you can actually visit. You need only walk south down Lexington Avenue until it ends at the iron bars of the verboten Gramercy Park. Look to your right and you will see the understated facade of the Gramercy Park Hotel, but before you make a dash for the elevators, there are a few things you should know. First, the terrace gardens are private, reserved for members and hotel guests only. Second, the lobby and lounges on the cavernous first floor are worth checking out, even though you can't smoke in any of those spaces.

Despite its cutting-edge, new high bohemian ambitions, the hotel has some history. Humphrey Bogart married his first wife there in the 1920s, and Babe Ruth was known to frequent the bar during the Great Depression. Over the course of the twentieth century, the hotel acquired a reputation as a hideaway for both glitterati and literati types. Ownership changed many times until the hotel was bought by hotelier Ian Schrager, who gutted the interior with the idea of creating a luxury establishment that still paid homage to its bohemian roots. Not that Bogie or the Babe would recognize the place anymore should their ghosts decide to haunt this landmark.

The cloistered Jade Bar is just off of the hotel's entrance behind a pair of velvet drapes.

If a museum decided to drop off all of its closeted and forgotten exhibits at an abandoned castle inhabited by squatting artists, you'd get something like the ground floor of the new Gramercy Park Hotel.

"It's over for design hotels with their slick, spiffy and over-styled interiors," said Schrager. "They have been embraced by the mainstream and become the rule, not the exception. The Gramercy Park Hotel is the ultimate anti-brand and anti-design hotel. It is a celebration of the idiosyncratic."

The lobby feels very much like a private salon, but it also has a gallery ambience you can't help slowing down for. The furniture is plush and vaguely papal-looking, the drapery heavy. Checkered tiles lead to a large, hand-carved fireplace, ablaze and crackling even in the summer. The salon aspects, however, are tempered by wood surfaces you'd never see in a château, and some twentieth-century original works by artists such as Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Damien Hirst. Artist Julian Schnabel, who co-designed the hotel with Schrager, threw in a few of his own pieces, including a pair of mounted serrated sawfish snouts that menace the lobby floor like a surreal antithesis of colonial ivory. They look as though they were stolen from the American Museum of Natural History. Would Bogart have tolerated this? No matter.

Off to the side under an arched entrance lies the Jade Bar, where the predominant color scheme changes immediately from crimson to green. Have a quick drink here, admire the marine-life hues and then turn left into the much larger Rose Bar for another chromatic shift back to red.

If you arrive before 9 P.M., you can wander in without a reservation. Both Jade and Rose are outfitted with modern art. I could use buzzwords such as whimsical, eccentric, evocative or mysterious to describe the rooms, and true, they'd all be accurate descriptors, but there's a mood that those words fail to capture. Monkish attention seems to have been devoted to creating a candle-lit environment as appropriate for prayer as it is for drinking. And many of the design elements seem to tell a story. The wood on the lobby pillars, for example, could've been pulled off the hull of a shipwrecked vessel slumped on some Southeast Asian shore. Or the floor tiles salvaged from a Moroccan church ravaged by a religious war. Pity that both the Jade and Rose bars would've made such nice smoking rooms.

Once you have had another drink and can no longer resist the urge to light up a cigar, your room key should activate the elevator, taking you straight to the private terrace.

The ascension ends on one of the 16th-floor corridors that wind through a series of interior club rooms which, like downstairs, also serve as de facto art exhibits. One chamber holds a celestial canopy of lightbulbs suspended from its ceiling.

All of the rooms lead out to the verdant terrace. On a recent visit, I took a seat in the southeast corner and lit up a Nicaraguan cigar. It was quiet on the rooftop garden and that's how Schrager envisioned it -- a tranquil extension of Gramercy Park below and a nod to the terrace gardens of old New York. Flowers blossomed along the ledge, vines hung in pergola fashion, and soon I was handed a cocktail menu. I'm guessing the drinks are allusions to the overall decor -- curious concoctions with no obvious classifications. The drink I chose was called a Maca Martini, a mixture of Sagatiba Cachaça, elderflower liqueur, fresh lime juice and apple cider. I found the punch of the Cachaça (Brazilian cane juice rum) to go well with the strong Nicaraguan tobacco.

Late supper service is offered on the roof if you don't want to smoke on an empty stomach. Or you can dine at Wakiya, the hotel's high-end Chinese restaurant serving food inspired by the cuisine of Shanghai, Szechuan, Canton and Beijing. Either way, this botanical oasis is full of interesting impressions that complement the cigar-smoking experience, whether it be that of low-keyed conversation or quiet contemplation. And if you wish to stroll the last of the private parks, guests are also granted privileges to the gated grounds of Gramercy Park itself.

Gramercy Park Hotel
2 Lexington Ave.
New York NY 10010
Tel: 212-920-3300

"Ive been a NYC resident since birth till 29. Astoria, Woodside, Flushing/Corona - A Queens kid. Started my career on Wall street just at the brink of the 90's cigar craze, at first influenced by my bosses now to find myself with a 300cigar humidor/3 sticks per day. Moved to Tokyo at 29 and since worked in London, Sydney and Hong Kong, but on every trip back home, Gramercy has been the place to stay mainly to enjoy the terrace on the 16th floor. The hotel's been through lots the past 20 years now to see itself in its present state - fascinating to say the least" —October 8, 2012 07:07 AM