An Eloise-Inspired Family Weekend in New York City
Staying at the Plaza’s Eloise Suite sounds like heaven for little girls—but how do the adults fare? Curtis Sittenfeld (plus three) checks in for a family adventure.
The delicious absurdity of staying in the Eloise Suite at New York City’s Plaza hotel reached its apotheosis at bedtime on our first night. My daughters, who are seven and five—I’ll refer to them here as Fern and Pippi—had put on their pajamas and brushed their teeth. We’d read (from Eloise, naturally), and it was time to turn out the lights. The task was more difficult than I’d expected. On the wall above the king-size bed hung bright pink neon letters spelling out eloise in the book’s distinctive font, and though I flipped various switches and toyed with various plugs, I couldn’t figure out how to dim the neon. While I was on the phone with the front desk, Fern and Pippi noticed, much to their delight, that their shadows on the white bedspread were pink. I can’t say the discovery made it any easier to get them to go to sleep, but it lent a distinctly festive air to our wait for the maintenance man.
Staying at the Plaza had been Pippi’s idea because the classic children’s book series written by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight was popular in our reading lineup. My daughters adored the books’ depiction of an indulged, mischievous, and bitingly funny six-year-old wreaking havoc inside the famous hotel. When I was a child, my favorite part of Eloise was any scene involving her pet turtle Skipperdee. (I loved his miniature sneakers.) But I suspect my girls’ more playful sensibility is revealed by the fact that their favorite part is when Eloise torments her tutor, Philip, by repeating everything he says.
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We visited New York over a long weekend in July, and making this pilgrimage was a big deal in all sorts of ways. For starters, it was our first real, pure, voluntary family vacation—we weren’t traveling to see relatives or toting the girls along on a work trip (we live in St. Louis, where I’m a novelist and my husband is a professor). When Fern was a baby, we’d taken her with us to Arizona, where I was attending a book festival. One night, after coaxing her to bed around 8 p.m., as my husband and I sat on our hotel-room floor eating takeout (next to the bathroom, no less), we had a haunting realization: traveling with little kids is tough. Having a second child didn’t make things easier, nor did our discovery that Pippi has multiple food allergies, which means that we generally avoid restaurants. Thus, this trip was not only a celebration of all things Eloise, but also an experiment to determine if our kids had reached the age where a vacation with them could actually feel like a vacation.
The girls’ expectations were high, too. As it turned out, the Eloise Suite, while decorated in a way that thrilled my children, is a bit of a misnomer: it’s one spacious room with a king-size bed, and though it sits on the 18th floor, it has an “interior” view—that is, not one of Central Park. The suite showcases details lifted from the book along with pieces that play off of its spirit. A familiar coat rack stands in one corner, and plush toy versions of Skipperdee and Weenie the dog stand guard. But the princess costumes and tiaras in the closet were rather more contemporary, as were the zebra-patterned rug and sparkly pink headboard (the latter two courtesy of Betsey Johnson, the suite’s designer).
Since we were traveling as a foursome, the Plaza had recommended that my husband and I also book the adjacent “Nanny Suite,” which, fortunately for us adults, was an actual suite. It featured a living room with Louis XV–style furniture, a wet bar, and a bathroom with 24-karat-gold-plated fixtures. The extra space meant that after the kids went to bed, my husband and I could relax with the lights on (!) and talk aloud to each other (!). As Nanny, with her fondness for speaking in triplicate, might say, we found it great great great.
We purposely left our schedule open and flexible. On our first morning, we meandered up Fifth Avenue, where my daughters had the chance to throw pennies into the Pulitzer Fountain, peer into the windows of Henri Bendel, and ponder a question presented by a three-story-tall ad for shoes: Why were all the models naked? We rode to the Top of the Rock observation deck and took in views of the tiny, far-off Statue of Liberty as well as an eye-poppingly tall residential skyscraper. We visited a splash pad in Central Park, and the girls got soaked. For all of the Plaza’s fanciness, the legacy of Eloise has made it such that kids can act like kids there—when mine walked through the lobby in wet swimsuits, no one batted an eye.
We also had an Eloise-themed tea at the Plaza’s elegant Palm Court, and this was where we encountered the trip’s only real snafu. With regard to Pippi’s allergies, I’d been told in advance by the Plaza that the restaurant could accommodate any special food requests, and the chef’s assistant had patiently sent me ingredient lists and photos of, for example, the packaging of the frozen chicken tenders, which was how I realized the breading contained eggs. After all the back and forth, I decided it was simplest to just bring Pippi’s own food to the tea. She and I had discussed what she’d enjoy and decided on Oreos and gummy worms. (Hey, the goal was to be safe and festive, not healthy.) But the truth is that bringing Oreos and gummy worms into that grand space—being a “food allergy family,” being our idiosyncratic selves—seemed weird; it felt like a faux pas in a way that bringing food to, say, Panera, never has. And this was because the Palm Court staffers were so very gracious. I suspect the premium they place on customer service made it impossible for them to believe it was fun—it was enough—for Pippi to drink ice water out of an Eloise teacup and eat gummy worms off an Eloise china plate, while her sister ate all the finger sandwiches. After this debacle, which I’m pretty sure seemed like a debacle only to the adults, I went shopping at Whole Foods, and Pippi and I ate the rest of our meals in the Nanny Suite while my husband and Fern mostly went out.
I realize that to people unacquainted with food allergies this might sound depressing. But as both a reader and a writer, I’d argue that all stories are subjective—including that of Eloise herself. Is she actually a spoiled brat abandoned by her parents and left in the hands of a paid caretaker? Sure, but she’s also a plucky heroine who’s still an icon for young girls decades after Kay Thompson created her, in 1955. Now, when we reminisce about our trip, my daughters say their favorite parts were Central Park, the striped door of the suite, and the fancy floral armchairs, where they sat in dress-up clothes. Meanwhile, for my husband and me, our favorite part was the realization that traveling with kids does get easier. The logistics are still not simple, but they’re a lot less challenging than they used to be. For all of us, the trip felt like a decadent deviation from our usually unglamorous lives. It felt, you might even say, like a chapter in the book we’re writing as a family. Eloise Suite from $2,043; theplazany.com.