Cigar Aficionado

Hotel Grande Bretagne, Athens

After spending the better part of a week on an ancient Greek peninsula where the architecture and the service are equally antiquated, the uniformed bellhops outside of Hotel Grande Bretagne are a welcome sight. Exuding snap-to-it exuberance, they hustle to the taxi, grab the luggage and leave you confident that you are in good hands. Located in the center of Athens, right in the business district and just a 15-minute walk from the ultraposh neighborhood of Kolonaki, the Grande Bretagne is not only the city's oldest hotel, dubbed "the other Parthenon," but one of its most renowned, with guests ranging from Oliver Stone to Helmut Kohl to Isaac Stern. Built in 1872, it has survived two world wars, 11 military coups and four dictatorships.

Now owned by the Sheraton Corp. and part of its elite Luxury Collection, the Grande Bretagne is a classic European four-star operation, with a magnificent marble lobby, an attentive staff (a fax was slipped under my door five minutes after it was sent from New York) and finely outfitted accommodations. Wood paneling, comfortable desks, princely bathrooms and satellite television that runs the gamut, from a network in Dubai to CNBC, pretty much cover the essentials that make a foreign stay a comfy and productive one. Secretarial services are available and overnight shoe shines are offered; breakfast and high tea are served in the elegant, glass-canopied Winter Garden.

Catering primarily to business travelers, the Grande Bretagne is not the place to go for a purely Greek experience. But it is the right hotel if you want comfort, efficiency and internationally familiar surroundings. The decor, atmosphere and mood operate within the common realm of fine hotels around the world: everybody speaks English, the ambiance is stately rather than charming, the front desk will gouge you a bit on the exchange rate, but they'll never forget a wake-up call. When I slept through mine at 6 a.m., a bellhop let himself into my room and verbally roused me from slumber. When I sensed the door to my room opening and heard an excited Greek-accented voice calling out to me, I was plenty awake.

A small gift shop downstairs offers a modest but decent selection of Cuban cigars. Far more impressive is Psaros, around the corner, where the Cohiba Robustos, Partagas Churchills and Punch Punches are fresh and plentiful. They can be smoked in the hotel restaurant, GB, where friendly but professional waiters serve dinner until 1 a.m.

Like the Grande Bretagne itself, this dining room eschews Greek tradition for continental flair. After you've had a week's worth of spanakopita (spinach and feta cheese pie) with tomato-and-cucumber salads drenched in olive oil, only a basic, homey meal will leave you totally satisfied. I opt for an appetizer of Scotch salmon, a sirloin steak (shipped in from Argentina) and an Irish coffee for dessert, topped off with a glass of Port and a Romeo y Julieta. Halfway through the smoke, I close my eyes and feel as if I'm home. --Michael Kaplan

Michael Kaplan is a freelance writer based in New York City.

Hotel Grande Bretagne
Constitution Square
Phone 30-1-331-4444
Fax 30-1-322-8034
Rates $210 to $350