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The Capella & Rocco Forte European Empires

Courtesy of Capella Hotels and Resorts Capella Hotels and Resorts

Photo: Capella Hotels and Resorts

Nobody ever thought Horst Schulze would father a dud. Not that Velden and Castlemartyr are flawless. But he’s onto something with service. He believes the guest should determine his own experience, and that no one should be made to feel crazy for asking for something a little out of the ordinary. Macrobiotic food and pillows stuffed with fresh mint leaves are not empty promises. Capella’s teams of private assistants, defined as “proactive concierges,” have imbibed gallons of this Kool-Aid. Design is another story. While unimpeachably comfortable, the hotels are clunky, unsubtle, and lumpy.

Schloss Velden is poised on the edge of Lake Woerth, in a pocket of the Carinthia region known to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as “the Austrian Riviera.” Based on a 1603 manor house that stood on the same site, it was constructed as a hotel in 1890. Schloss means castle, but there is nothing castle-like about a stay at Velden, not if by that word you understand “grand” and “Old World.” This is true whether you book a room in the earlier, turreted wing or the new annex, which wraps around the back in austere, unfriendly cubes. No attempt has been made to reconcile the two styles of architecture. Of course, confrontation is the point. But there are no sparks.

I visited Velden in January. I don’t recommend it. The place was dead. After Christmas, the fancy jewelry stores empty their vitrines, lower the shades, and hang out signs that say see you at easter. What would it be like in season?With some effort, I could picture myself pawing through cheesy European celebrity magazines in one of the lakeside cabanas at the hotel’s beach club, a little fly-fishing here, a little schnitzel there.

Castlemartyr’s challenges are weirdly similar to Velden’s. It sells itself as a country-house hotel, but only 11 rooms are in the original 17th-century block; a lumbering addition has 98. And apart from a fluffy Rococo buttercream ceiling, the old section is not even very distinguished. It feels too much like the Carmelite boys’ school it previously was. The person I was traveling with says I’m too hard. Okay, the boys didn’t have a chef standing by to cook their catch, Waterford tumblers on the night tables, carriage rides, Lady Primrose bath gel, Pratesi linens, Wedgwood china.…

Le Richemond takes the high road: no baiting and switching. Forte and the Bank of Scotland are only the second-ever owners in the property’s 133 years. A check for $102 million bought them the hotel plus several adjoining buildings, allowing expansion. The choice of John Stefanidis to steer the makeover was a shocker, in a good way. Stefanidis is a blue-chip talent, and he had the advantage of never having done an entire hotel before (high-end residential decorators who make a sideline of hospitality have their bag of tricks and quickly become hacky). The look Stefanidis evolved for Le Richemond is tailored and manly but not butch: red lacquer cabinets, walls that reference straw-marquetry screens by Jean-Michel Frank, gray flannel curtains edged in striped ribbon-belt grosgrain.

Munich native Christoph Sattler had zero hotel background when he was tapped to be the Charles’s architect. He is famous, with Heinz Hilmer, for his redevelopment plan for the Potsdamer Platz, the Times Square of prewar Berlin. Sattler’s inspiration for the Charles, a gently curving essay in limestone adjacent to the old botanical gardens, was the grand Belle Époque hotels of the Côte d’Azur. It certainly feels prosperous. Placed end to end, crescent-shaped banquettes in velvet and faux snakeskin rumba their way down the middle of the rotunda lobby, watched by aristocratic portraits by the 19th-century Munich painter Franz von Lenbach. It’s an exciting, powerful space.

On second thought, it turns out that what Forte really meant is that it’s the largest operator of luxury city properties in Europe. It is this week. By next month, Forte and the Four Seasons will be locked in a dead heat, with 11 each. What both never say is why you should care in the first place. All most travelers want to know about is the best place to stay, spare them the figures. The whole numbers war between big hotel companies is like a department store that gives “consolidation” as the reason for running a sale. You can practically hear the end user cry, “Show me the money!”

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