The modern hotel traces its origins back to Europe’s capital cities after the Napoleonic wars. The concept had hardly got going when the railways came along.
Rail travel was to provide the boon that the new breed of hotel owners had hoped for. A newly affluent middle class flocked to the coasts and mountains. The modern business traveller was born, too. These business travellers, then as now, need somewhere to stay – and the 19th century variety liked their stations and hotels to be close together.
So European and then American and Asian cities acquired new landmarks: grandiose, gothic railway station hotels in iron and brick. But as the 20th century wore on, the railways declined; and so the hotels and the areas around them became ever more seedy.
But now the renaissance is well underway. The great hotels have been brought back from their glum afterlife, renewed and glammed up just as the 21st century traveller rediscovers the joys of rail travel. Here are some of the best.
Tokyo Station Hotel, Tokyo
Westernising and industrialising Meiji Japan got the railway bug at the same time as a passion for grand French-inspired architecture. One result was the handsome cupola’d Tokyo Station and its accompanying hotel. Today’s hotel, marketed by Small Luxury Hotels of the World, has 150 rooms, 10 restaurants and a classic red-brick facade that sets itself apart from its slick, high-rise neighbours.
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, Quebec City
If there’s a hotel that more completely dominates its city’s skyline we’ve yet to encounter it. This multi-spired fortress, designed by American architect Bruce Price for the Canadian Pacific Railway company, sits high above the St Lawrence river, making the settlement below look like toytown. There has to be a renovation story in every railway hotel. This one cost C$75 million (HK$468 million) and was completed in 2014. Its Franco-Canadian heritage was further strengthened in 2016 when its Canadian owner, Fairmont, was acquired by France’s Accor group.
InterContinental Barclay, New York city
The great European stations have their faded majesty, but no other terminus has the glamour and buzz of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. The Barclay opened in 1926 with its own platform in the basement for its upscale commuters. After a US$180 million (HK$1.4 billion) renovation, the glam is back. The Gin Parlour is the place to try out your Hemingway stares and Dorothy Parker one-liners.
The Pilgrm, London
The railway hotel renaissance began, appropriately, in the place where railways began: England. In the 1990s, the design entrepreneur Terence Conran reopened the Great Eastern Hotel at Liverpool Street (it’s now an Andaz). A decade later, George Gilbert Scott’s gothic masterpiece at St Pancras was unveiled as an appropriately named Renaissance by Marriott. London’s most charismatic little station, Paddington, was somehow left behind. That’s until last year, when the funky little Pilgrm opened. It’s a masterful combination of Victorian posh, hipster plush and eccentric spelling. And there’s not a bear in sight.
Pullman Brussels Centre Midi, Belgium
We had to have a Pullman. The name became synonymous with luxury train cars in the early 20th century. By a circuitous route, France’s Accor hotel group acquired the name and the heritage. This, its 80th Pullman hotel, is housed next to the rococo Gare du Midi. While the hotel itself is true to the modern brand’s functional-luxe style, designer Jean-Philippe Nuel calls it ‘a return to the spirit of the 19th century, when upscale hotels were located inside stations’.
Find Kenneth Branagh’s remake of Murder on the Orient Express on the interactive menu (movies – Western cinema)