Four Seasons leads renaissance of Baltimore’s Harbor East district

A Japanese restaurant offers Maryland’s largest selection of sake. A 10,200-square-foot spa features 11 treatment rooms offering everything from signature massages to aromatherapy and  a commanding view of the Inner Harbor from Baltimore’s most spectacular infinity pool.

It’s almost enough to convince visitors they’re not really in Charm City at all.

His-and-hers sinks at the luxurious bathroom of the $7,000-a-night presidential suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photos by Larry Luxner)

But then again, Baltimore has changed dramatically in the last few years — and the gleaming new Four Seasons Hotel is a cornerstone of that transformation. Inaugurated last November, the 256-room luxury property sits conveniently between the Inner Harbor and Little Italy, just off President Street in downtown Baltimore — in an area that not long ago was dominated by vacant parking lots and derelict warehouses.

Today, the Four Seasons and its neighbors — the nearby Legg Mason Tower, the Marriott Waterfront Hotel, the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, 650 Exeter, 800 Aliceanna, Spinnaker Bay and The Vue — are all part of Harbor East, a $1.67 billion mixed-use development founded by two local visionaries: John Paterakis and Michael S. Beatty.

We recently visited this 16-story glass tower and were given the grand tour by public relations manager Audrey Slade. We also had the opportunity to dine with Julien Carralero, the hotel’s general manager.

The affable Carralero arrived in Baltimore in mid-2011 from Hungary, where he spent nine years running the Four Seasons Gresham Palace in Budapest. Before that, he was second-in-command at the Four Seasons George V in Paris. The hotelier’s impressive resume includes stints at the Four Seasons North in San Diego, and the 366-room Ritz-Carlton Pentagon City in Arlington, Va.

Carralero, a Spaniard who was raised in Geneva, said Four Seasons — which operates 88 luxury hotels in 35 countries from Argentina to Azerbaijan — sees a bright future for Baltimore.

“There’s a need for us to be in this market. We’re investing long-term, not just for the next two or three years,” he told us over lunch in the hotel’s signature restaurant, Wit & Wisdom. “We’re contributing to the rebirth of Baltimore by bringing in an upscale product that prior to our arrival was lacking. Harbor East is an enclave, and the unique thing is that the Four Seasons is a contemporary building in a city with a lot of tradition.”

Harbor East owns 6.5 million square feet of developed real estate, with another 5.5 million square feet under potential development. According to the company website, Harbor East supports more than 12,000 jobs and generates $45.2 million in state and local tax revenue.

The Four Seasons alone represents a $200 million investment and opened with 240 employees; that’s since grown to 400 as it expanded with the Pabu restaurant, the pool deck and other amenities.

“The Four Seasons and the Legg Mason tower are the crown jewels of Phase I for Harbor East,” said the company’s vice-president of development, Michael Ricketts. “The Four Seasons is the best hotel you could imagine, and it’s performing just like we anticipated it would. The feedback we’re getting from the community is phenomenal.”

Japanese calligraphy and art decorates Pabu Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland.

Among other unique touches, the Four Seasons features selected pieces of art from the Washington Color School, a visual-art movement of the late 1950s through the mid-1970s that focused on largely abstract works. And its Wit & Wisdom Tavern, a restaurant by Michael Mina, serves local delicacies wherever possible.

So does the Japanese-themed Pabu, a collaboration between Mina and restauranteur Ken Tominaga.

“We try to source products from Maryland growers as much as possible,” said Carralero, noting the presence on the menu of items including greens and herbs from Hamilton Crop Circle; Maryland blue crabs from J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. in Cambridge; beef from Piedmont Ridge, shrimp from Marvesta Shrimp Farms and Chesapeake Bay oysters from Rappahannock River Oyster Co.

“We’re very lucky to have Michael Beatty and the Paterakis family as a driving force to keep cultivating that great image we’re trying to develop,” the GM told us. He said the Baltimore of today is a far cry from 30 years ago, when the city was desperately teetering on bankruptcy.

“In the 1980s, Baltimore was in need of cash. They were looking for somebody to purchase this land where Harbor East is. The city sold the land to Mr. Paterakis with the understanding that years later, the city would buy it back. But somehow that purchase never happened,” Carralero said.

“One of the first buildings was The Vue. The Marriott came right after that. Obviously there was an ongoing sense of vision of how Harbor East could contribute to Baltimore as a destination. When we bring meeting planners here, if they remember Baltimore in the ’70s or ’80s at all, they say that it’s changed a great deal.”

Carralero noted that the global financial crisis of 2008-09 hit Baltimore hard, but business is on the upswing again. Yet crime is still a major worry in this town.

“It’s definitely a concern, primarily when we see things blown out of proportion. But crime has come down slightly and continues to decrease. We have a commitment from the mayor’s office to reduce crime.”

Even so, he said, “Harbor East is a very secure, self-contained area, and crime hasn’t deterred people from coming here and doing business with us.”

Indeed, right outside the hotel are dozens of high-end retailers including J. Crew and Anthropologie.

All these upscale boutiques and nearby luxury apartment buildings are clustered around Baltimore’s famous Katyn Forest Massacre Monument — a 30-foot-tall sculpture which commemorates the 1940 massacre of thousands of Polish army officers and prominent citizens not by Nazis but by occupying Soviet troops during World War II.

Telescope looks out over the Inner Harbor from the $7,000-a-night presidential suite of the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland.

Over the Labor Day weekend, Baltimore hosted its annual Grand Prix auto race, and during the annual Preakness Stakes — one of the nation’s premier horse-racing events —  Four Seasons hosted several top corporate events along with a series of food and beverage specials themed around the “middle jewel of the triple crown.”

Professional baseball and football lures thousands of out-of-town fans to this sports-crazy town, Carralero said. He expressed hope that one day — in addition to Baltimore’s beloved Orioles and Ravens — Maryland’s largest city will boast its own professional basketball team as well.

Ricketts agrees. “Baltimore is a two-sport city, so we have baseball and football,” he said. “We don’t have a winter basketball or hockey team, but if we had all 12 months covered, it would make a difference.”

To be sure, the Four Seasons isn’t the only game in town; nearby competition comes from the Marriott Waterfront, the Hilton Garden Inn and the Royal Sonesta Harbor Court. Yet it’s clearly the most expensive. Regular suites cost $449, and the presidential suite — complete with Kawai baby-grand piano and stunning views of the harbor — goes for $7,000 a night.

“Not everyone can stay at this hotel,” group sales manager Sanae Harrison says with a smile. But high prices are no deterrent for one of this luxury property’s most lucrative guests: wealthy Arabs in need of medical treatment.

Ceramic bottles decorate the Japanese-themed Pabu Restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore, Maryland.

Health care is the main driver of business to the Four Seasons Baltimore, home to Johns Hopkins Hospital, the University of Maryland Medical Center and Mercy Medical Center. It’s one of the reasons Four Seasons chose to open a hotel here in the first place.

Harrison said 80 percent of her overseas guests fly in from the Middle East, and that international sales have jumped by 30 percent since the hotel’s inauguration.

She said the bulk of that business comes from Saudi Arabia, with the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait supplying most of the remainder. It certainly helps that earlier this year, the UAE opened the 355-room Sheikh Zayed Tower at nearby Johns Hopkins Hospital — a gift valued at $200 million. Before its opening, many of the Four Seasons’ guests previously stayed in Washington, D.C., and received medical treatment in Baltimore, often for advanced heart disease and aggressive forms of cancer.

“We do not discuss why they are here. You never want to ask why. It’s a very sensitive subject,” said Harrison. “We’re here to make them comfortable.”

That explains why this hotel offers its guests as many as 15 Arabic-language satellite TV channels, not to mention halal food prepared according to Muslim tradition.

“Some of them have never been here before, so we really try to make their arrival experience special,” explained Harrison, who’s originally from Morocco. “We put arrows on the wall pointing to Mecca. We also purchased prayer mats that tell you which direction to face when praying. I’ve not seen that anywhere else.”

These Arab guests are particularly important because they often stay for a month at a time, and together with their royal entourages can take up to 25 rooms.

She added: “Around Ramadan, we come up with a customized menu because of the fasting, adding things like apricots and top-quality dates. We have an espresso machine in every room. They love it.”