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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

'World's Best Hotel 2017' shows its class

Aria in Budapest features rooms dedicated to musical talent, from Beethoven to the Beatles

The Aria Hotel in downtown Budapest, Hungary, won the TripAdvisor Travellers' Choice Awards as the Best Hotel in the World.  EPA/Noemi Bruzak
The Aria Hotel in downtown Budapest, Hungary, won the TripAdvisor Travellers' Choice Awards as the Best Hotel in the World. EPA/Noemi Bruzak

Since winning the accolade of World’s Best Hotel 2017 from among the millions of reviews posted annually on the Tripadvisor website, Budapest’s Aria hotel has received a steady stream of visits from fellow hoteliers trying to figure out just what it has got right.

"We’ve seen quite a lot of them," says the general manager Zoltan Kecskemethy. "We are happy to do so and don’t have anything to hide."

A 49-room boutique property in the heart of this beautiful European capital city, Aria is designed around a musical theme with rooms dedicated to individual artists, from Beethoven to the Beatles, grouped into four wings: classical; jazz; opera; and contemporary.

Guests enter the hotel along a walkway that is a flight of piano keys leading up to a space-age grand piano designed for a Budapest exhibition held in 2015, the same year the hotel opened, and the keys continue upwards on to two curved TV-screens in a final design flourish.

It is all very theatrical but still rather small and cosy. That is how founder and co-owner Henry Kallan likes his hotels of which he has three in New York as well as the Prague Aria and Hotel X in Toronto. Daily free cheese and wine parties in the lobby from 4pm to 6pm are also popular.

Mr Kallan was born in the Czech borderlands of Hungary and emigrated to New York in 1968, working his way up from bellboy to hotelier, becoming a general manager at just 27.

"It’s all about personalised service and making guests happy," says Mr Kecskemethy, 29. "All our New York hotels are in the Top 10 on Tripadvisor and I think this is the key to our success."

So, think the highest New York service standards transplanted into central Europe - quick, efficient, friendly and always available.

Nonetheless, the hotel itself is an impressive building and cost more than US$50 million to build, or over $1m per room. Early in its construction the existing structure was found to be too weak to support the weight of the building so it all came down, and was rebuilt from scratch to match the original.

This was clearly an unexpected additional expense, but the architect then did not have to compromise on the interior space in the way that an older building would have required.

The basement spa, for example, is far more spacious than you would usually find in a boutique hotel and has high ceilings. There is a small swimming pool and jacuzzi.

And the use of glass walls in the treatment, infra-red and sauna rooms makes the subterranean spa far less claustrophobic than they often can be, albeit the two-treadmill gym might be regarded as insufficient by some guests.

Rooms themed to individual musicians really rock or soothe, depending on your choice of music. A Samsung TV placed in a fireplace greets guests on arrival with flickering flames and plays the music of the room’s artist on the in-room hifi system. This also follows into the oryx marble bathroom.

Otherwise, there is not much that is especially unusual about the five-star bedrooms apart from a few ecclectic light fittings and splashes of strong colour, both typical of modern Hungarian designers.

It is all personalised, however. The mini-bar is filled to guests' specification without annoying autocharging. Room service is available but hardly used, according to Mr Kecskemethy.

Water or soft drinks are only €3 (Dh13) and a club sandwich and fries €7.70. The hotel staff can clean and press a shirt in an hour for €6.50. Free high-speed Wi-Fi clocks up 10mbps.

There are two PCs with printers at the back of the hotel music director’s library of CDs and DVDs, together with complimentary coffee and tea, fresh fruit and water.

Three meeting rooms are available for €1,500: Teatro, a mini-theatre, seats 70, the Pavilion 65 and the Library 35. If this might seem an unlikely business hotel that is far from the truth.

For entertaining in style there is the SkyBar for drinks and snacks with superlative views over roof-tops of Budapest and its landmarks. But I was surprised by the lack of a signature restaurant, although it is surrounded by excellent fine dining establishments

And I suppose it is Budapest’s status as a rising star destination that is the final secret to this hotel’s success. Overall visitor numbers to the city are up 12.5 per cent this year, though only 3.4 per cent in the five-star segment due to a lack of capacity.

Middle East guests appear to like the Aria, and so far in 2017 a total of 973 have stayed and it looks likely to comfortably exceed the 1,387 of last year. Rooms prices from €247 are also very reasonable for a luxury boutique hotel.

But the hotel has that special star quality that you have to experience yourself to understand. And who knows, you might bump into Kylie Minogue at the reception. The Australian pop star stayed at the Aria incognito recently.