In cramped New York City, space is key

Image: Hotel Plaza Athenee
Hidden on a tree-lined street in the tony Upper East Side, the 17-floor Plaza drips with sophistication.JW Marriott Hotels & Resort
/ Source: Forbes

What do harried city dwellers and hassled business travelers covet most? Space, and lots of it, judging from this year's list of New York City's 10 Best Hotels, as determined by the Forbes Traveler 400 board of experts, who rated nearly 800 of the world's finest properties.

In a city as dense as New York, easy access to open space is highly valued. Of the 10 hotels on the list, eight are within a three-minute walk of Central Park, while one overlooks the expanse of New York Harbor and another boasts massive loft-like rooms.

On the Upper East Side, The Carlyle, one of the city's most elegant hotels for more than 75 years, is known for having an ambience that's more like a luxurious town home than an urban hotel. The Carlyle offers more than a dozen different types of suites. The grandest is the Empire Suite, a 2,600-square-foot, two-bedroom, 4.5-bath duplex with a full kitchen, office, its own art collection — and spectacular city and park views. That said, the park and city views from the smaller Suite 3301 are exceptional and can be enjoyed from the bedroom. In either case, the sense of airy space is exquisite.

Heading south along Madison Avenue, you'll soon arrive at the Hotel Plaza Athenee, which cultivates a sense of European sophistication while also including modern amenities such as iPod docking stations, 42-inch plasma TVs and Wi-Fi. Once again, room to roam is a priority here. The top suites have dining rooms, indoor atriums and/or outdoor balconies. Sex and the City fans will recognize the attached Arabelle restaurant from the series' penultimate episode.

One block south, The Lowell is a splendid boutique property with just 72 rooms — 47 of which are suites. No rooms are exactly alike. The top unit (literally) is the 2,000-square-foot Penthouse Suite, where three bedrooms and four terraces make it easy to stretch out. You'll also find the Post House, a nationally known steakhouse; a fitness center, for burning off the steaks; and most of all, a surprising degree of quiet, given that you're just five blocks from Midtown.

Six blocks onward, the 52-story I.M. Pei-designed Four Seasons New York is hard to miss, even in the middle of one of Manhattan's busiest districts. The sense of space comes from the rooms themselves — all 368 units are unusually large for their category, some remarkably so. The view from the 4,300-square-foot Ty Warner Penthouse on the top floor is 360 degrees, for instance, and might only be improved if it had wings and could fly (but where else would you want to go?). The sense of airiness extends to the restaurant, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, which seats just 46 diners in a large space.

Near Columbus Circle, the Mandarin Oriental tower sits atop floors 35 to 54 of the glittering Time Warner Center. Monster-movie fans will recognize the skyscraper from Cloverfield; the heroes spent much of the third act here, trying not to get stomped. The height is one of the hotel's many assets — all 248 rooms and suites have floor-to-ceiling river, park and/or city views. Business guests will find excellent meeting spaces and cutting-edge equipment; active visitors will enjoy the 75-foot lap pool and fitness center; and hedonists will never forget the 14,500-square-foot spa with expansive views of the Hudson River.

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Two Ritz-Carlton properties are featured on this year's list. The Ritz-Carlton Central Park South is a 33-story high-rise; many of its 259 guestrooms and suites come with park views so magnificent that on sunny days it's sometimes tempting not to leave the room. The best room is the 1,900-square-foot (and aptly named) Central Park Suite, which features a private service entrance and a dining room for eight. If you're not entertaining, fine dining won't be hard to find, with celebrity chef Laurent Tourondel's fine BLT Market just downstairs. It's French cuisine with hearty American strokes and an emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients.

Further afield is the Ritz-Carlton Battery Park, near the southernmost tip of Manhattan, where the views of the Statue of Liberty from the hotel's 14th floor Rise Bar are superb. The finest of the 298 rooms and suites is the enormous Ritz-Carlton Suite, where the views are enhanced by an in-room telescope; if you prefer, you can simply take in the New York Harbor from a deep-soaking Jacuzzi. If you'd like even deeper relaxation, the Prada Spa offers high-touch skin treatments that might just loosen your brow.

The Mercer in Soho is the only other hotel on this list not located within two blocks of Central Park. Here, the 75 guest rooms and suites reflect traditional New York loft living — with high ceilings, huge windows and large bathrooms. Given its arty locale, it's a natural hot spot for creative types, and the free Wi-Fi and 24-hour lobby food service help fuel late-night brainstorming sessions. The Kitchen, the Mercer's restaurant, is equally creative, with communal tables that create a loose, familial atmosphere; the tall traditional windows further emphasize the location's sense of openness and space.

The bottom line is, even in one of the busiest parts of Manhattan, clever hoteliers can find a way to create an uncrowded feeling. And in New York, that may be the most valuable service a hotel can offer.