At the time of booking at the beginning of July, Croatia had very low rates of coronavirus and had recorded only around 120 deaths (though infection rates have unfortunately shot up recently).
After spending months at home in the UK, I was eager for a change of scenery - and decided to spend a couple of days in Zagreb - the capital of Croatia.
Booking the Esplanade, Zagreb
I called the hotel before making my booking and was surprised to hear that restaurants, bars and cafes in Zagreb were open as normal. Similarly, all the facilities at the Esplanade were operational and I was looking forward to the “holiday” feeling I’d been missing for so long.
I booked less than a week in advance via hotels.com and paid £241 (USD 323) for two nights in a 40 sqm deluxe room - which is very good value for money for a hotel of this calibre in a European capital city (you’d easily pay double for something similar in Vienna or Paris).
As a gold member, hotels.com stated that I would receive a free bottle of wine during my stay (though this didn’t materialise). My booking also included wifi, but not breakfast.
About the Esplanade, Zagreb
The only luxury hotel in the Croatian capital, the Esplanade has been the centre of Zagreb social life for 95 years.
Only the second hotel to open in the city, it was built in 1925 to accommodate the wealthy passengers of the Orient Express as they travelled between Paris and Istanbul. With decadent marble and running water, the Esplande must have been something to behold - truly an innovation in what was then Yugoslavia.
In a perverse testament to its enduring appeal, the Esplanade was even occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War (apparently they would always pick the best building they could find to set up base).
Today the Esplanade attracts business clientele, as well as an increasing number of tourists. The capital city is slowly becoming a destination in its own right - in days gone by, tourists would only think of visiting Croatia’s beautiful beach resorts.
The Esplanade has 208 rooms, including one presidential suite, a spectacular ballroom and one of the best restaurants in the city (Zinfandel's - more on that later).
The hotel is located on the street Mihanoviceva - around 15 minutes’ walk from the city centre. Zagreb is a small capital city, and you can easily manage everything on foot.
Arrival and check-in
As noted in our review of my flight to Croatia, Zagreb’s airport is modern and conveniently located for the city. Uber cars were readily available and the 20-minute journey to the Esplanade costs around HRK 60 (USD 9.5) for regular service, or HRK 120 (USD 19) for Uber black.
Stepping out the cab, I noticed there was a crane parked out front of the hotel. Just before my visit, there was a reasonably severe earthquake in Zagreb and many buildings had scaffolding up. Fortunately, the Esplanade wasn’t badly hit.
Entering the hotel, the marble-laden lobby creates an immediate impression. Along with the fireplaces and the ballroom, the original marble in the hotel is protected under Croatian buildings regulations.
Check-in was good and coronavirus measures were being adopted. Hand sanitiser stations were liberally dotted around, the check-in agent was behind a screen and rooms are quarantined for 45 hours following a guest’s departure.
I also scored an upgrade from a deluxe room to a deluxe suite.
Deluxe suite at the Esplanade, Zagreb
As soon as I got out of the lift, I thought I could smell cigarette smoke, and I got the same smell in the room.
The suite was okay, but the bedroom and the living room was separated by a long hallway and, besides the smell, the room didn’t feel particularly cosy. It did have a nice view, however.
I dithered about whether to ask to move when I thought I’d check the connecting door to the next room. I was able to freely open it and, apart from some collapsed foam hindering me slightly, I could walk right into the next guest room.
At this point, I decided to ask for another room and the same check-in agent ended up taking me on a little tour of the hotel. First up, the agent showed me a deluxe room (the category I had booked in), which was very nice.
I was surprised at how large these rooms were, and I would definitely be happy if this is what I ended up with (especially as the deluxe rooms seemed almost as big the suites, though they are a good bit cheaper).
The deluxe rooms and suites are also very similar in decor and in reality there is very little difference between the two categories.
Presidential suite at the Esplanade, Zagreb
While we were touring the hotel, I asked the check in agent if she would show me the hotel’s top suite - known as the presidential or Esplanade suite - and she was happy to oblige.
Apparently the suite costs around £2,000 per night - which is a lot of money, but much less than you’d pay for such space in other European capitals.
The 120 sqm suite features a spacious dining and living area, as well as an adjoining bedroom and a butler’s pantry.
There are plenty of seats to accommodate your guests and, to make you feel at home, the hotel provides Croatian brandy for you to enjoy (as well as vintage champagne on arrival).
The highlight of the marble-clad bathroom is a sauna - the first time I’ve seen one of those in a hotel room!
Unfortunately, it was soon time to move on 😪.
Deluxe suite at the Esplanade, Zagreb - take two
Finally, the agent offered me an alternative deluxe suite on the first floor (meaning I could take the stairs, which I thought was better than using the elevator).
As far as I could tell, there was very little difference between the deluxe rooms and suites - and I would definitely advise you to stick with the deluxe rooms rather than paying extra for only a little extra space.
That said, it felt strange to turn down an upgrade, so I stayed put in deluxe suite number two.
This was a much nicer room, with no wasted space in the hallway, as the door opened directly into the lounge. The view was a grand building across the street (which I later found out were the offices of Croatia Railways).
Waiting in the room was a nice platter of fresh fruit and sweets (perhaps in lieu of the promised bottle of wine) and I received three glass bottles of water. There was also decent coffee making facilities.
The bathroom was a good size and was stocked with L’Occitane toiletries, which are quite nice.
Although there was a knock at the door at 6pm with the offer of another chocolate, there was no turndown service - so if you make a mess of your room in the evening, it may remain in that state when you get back from a night out.
That aside, the room was very nice and I slept comfortably both nights.
Breakfast at the Oleander Terrace
I had the opportunity to take three meals at the Espalande, including breakfast, which is served outside on the beautiful, huge Oleander Terrace (big enough to accommodate 1,000 guests when there are private functions).
So pleasant is the terrace that it apparently inspired somebody to declare it “the place where the Balkans ends and Europe begins”. Be warned that breakfast is a full meal featuring multiple courses and is fairly expensive at HRK 175 (USD 28).
The food is supplied by Zinfandel's - the main hotel restaurant.
Glancing around at other tables, I noticed that dishes would come out as per the kitchen’s convenience, rather the customer’s, and I noticed one irritated couple struggling to juggle all their plates on quite a small table.
I chose the vegetable, ham and cheese omelette which was very good, but annoyingly it was delivered at the same time as the cold cut starter. I ordered an orange juice but it never came, so I asked again about 20 minutes later.
I have to say that service at breakfast was not great - dishes were not cleared and I was left to my own devices for most of the meal. Only after calling for the bill was I was asked if I would like anything else (a full 1 hours and 15 mins after being served my food).
Overall, I think the hotel is missing a trick. I probably wouldn’t have breakfast with them again, simply because I don’t want to eat that much first thing in the morning. Management should definitely work on introducing a menu with more options, and also keep a closer eye on service.
Lunch at Le Bistro
I had a meeting with the hotel on the second day and was invited to Le Bistro - the hotel's French restaurant. It’s not accessible from reception, so you’ll need to walk out of the main doors and then turn left.
Le Bistro has outside tables and, as we met outside, we never made it into the restaurant. We had a great lunch in the sunshine, and I really enjoyed the cheese risotto, washed down with several glasses of a very pleasant rose wine.
The waitress, Aleksandra, was fantastic - attentive, polite and very encouraging for me to keep drinking - which was just fine with me!
I had no room for dessert, but Aleksandra insisted I try a local sweet wine - which was also very pleasant. Knowing that I would need something to go with the wine, my host brought out a small plate of petit fours - the perfect accompaniment.
Leisurely lunches don't get much better than this and I left a very happy man!
Dinner at Zinfandel’s
Before dinner on my second evening, I decided to have a drink at the Esplanade 1925 bar, which was a bit of a disappointment. I had to search for the waiter to place my order - despite there being few other customers around - and my cocktail was just OK.
I couldn't resist ordering the 'Aviation' cocktail, including gin, maraschino, violet and fresh lemon (HRK 60/ USD 9.5), which sounded delicious but was a bit of a let down. The bar area also featured a smoking lounge.
Luxury hotel bars will often bring a selection of snacks to enjoy with your drink but there was nothing like that and I decided not to hang around.
Fortunately, things improved immediately when I entered Zinfandel’s - located directly opposite the bar - a very classy restaurant that’s featured in the Michelin guide.
Wondering about the name? You probably associate the word zinfandel with American wine, but in fact the zinfandel grape was exported at the beginning of the 19th century from Dalmatia (on the Croatian coast) to the USA.
I took these photographs of the restaurant during the daytime:
Under the guidance of head chef Anna Grgic, the restaurant serves European cuisine that aims to “connect Zagreb with the Mediterranean and continental Europe”.
Dinner began with an amuse bouche of tuna with crushed chickpea - something I would never order by choice, but it was absolutely delicious. In fact, I think it was one of the nicest things I’ve ever eaten!
To say I was impressed was an understatement and what followed was just as good.
I ordered some more of the rose wine (possibly the same as the one I drank at lunch) and my starter soon arrived. I went for the ice cream mushroom ravioli - which sounds strange, but worked very well.
I was encouraged to order the (local) lamb, rather than the steak, and wasn’t disappointed. It came with some potatoes and artichokes.
Dessert of baked figs with red wine reduction and ice cream was very good - though I thought the lavender (for which Croatia is famous) was rather overpowering for a pudding.
Dinner came to HRK 560 (USD 90), which I thought was good value, considering I ordered three courses and had two glasses of wine. Note that the wine pours are generous at Zinfandel's - the same can not be said for all restaurants in Zagreb.
Esplanade, Zagreb’s other facilities
It was a pleasant surprise to learn that the majority of the hotel’s facilities were open as normal, including the leisure areas. There's a large gym, with plenty of equipment.
While there is no swimming pool at the Esplanade, massages are available (though I decided to give that a miss).
As mentioned earlier, the hotel houses a fabulous art deco-style ballroom, located just off the reception area. Be sure to ask one of the staff to show you around, as it’s a beautiful feature of the hotel.
A short walk from my room on the first floor was the business centre, which wasn’t used much during my stay but looked a handy place to hang out if you need to work or kill some time before checking out of the hotel.
When searching for hotel options, I quickly came to the conclusion that The Esplanade is really the only place to stay in Zagreb (the next best option would probably be the DoubleTree by Hilton).
Overall it didn’t disappoint, though I would like to see more options at breakfast time and I wasn’t very impressed with my experience at the bar.
By contrast, lunch and dinner at the hotel were excellent - and you’ll be well-looked after if you are lucky enough to be served by Aleksandra.
I would say the hotel looks a little dated, but a full refurb is planned (it was originally due to take place this year, but was delayed due to coronavirus). I’d also recommend you avoid booking the deluxe suites as the deluxe rooms are almost the same size.
Considering how calm and normal things were at the time of my visit (when Croatia’s coronavirus rate was very low), it felt great to get away from the UK and enjoy a change of scenery. It was nice to have a holiday vibe, and I enjoyed how quiet and compact the city is.
I would definitely return to The Esplanade in future. What do you make of Zagreb’s only luxury hotel?