Park Hyatt Busan
51, Marine City 1-ro, Haeundae-gu, Busan, South Korea, 82-51-990-1234; busan.park.hyatt.com. 269 rooms from $258.
Not many in the West realize the south of South Korea is a hot beach destination. Asia's well-heeled crowd has long frequented Busan's salty playgrounds (there are six beaches) for years, but with the recent opening of Park Hyatt Busan, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, the word may be getting out. Neither frothily hip nor elegantly staid, this new hotel embraces luxury with understated 21st-century chic, and fascinating visual riffs on an earlier epoch.
Park Hyatt Busan is just across from a yacht club marina and a mere 15-minute walk (or five-minute hotel shuttle) to the seaside playground of Haeundae Beach with its plethora of shops, cafés and restaurants. The hotel has stellar views of the Pacific Ocean, the city and the delicate Gwangan Bridge, which at dusk becomes a glittery illuminated archway over the sea. There isn't much to do right around the hotel but the sea breeze and view (minus the noise of sandy hordes of merrymakers) is appreciated.
Controversy follows Libeskind (think Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum and One World Trade Center), and while the hotel has its fans, it has its detractors too ("banal" says architectural historian Gregory Caicco). The curved lines and glass façade of this 33-storey hotel are intended to mimic ocean waves and ships' sails, but locals in nearby apartments are appalled to the point of picketing that they can see "bedroom activity" in the hotel's floor-to-ceiling windows.
The unusually spacious and minimalist rooms have wide French oak planked floors and walls of glass that provide dizzying views. Pale wood lattice screens separate the bath and sleeping areas. And who would expect anything less than a sleek wired and WiFied workspace in Asia's high-tech tiger. Small gestures, however, such as a round non-digital alarm clock, bath salts made from grandmothers' healing herbs such as yunohana, and black and white photos of old Busan remind us that the city was a sleepy fishing village not long ago.
EAT IN OR EAT OUT
While Korean guests seem to prefer anything but native dishes, executive chef Stephano DiSalvo knocks it out of the park when it comes to bibimbap (Korean comfort stew). Seafood is the chef's passion, however, and you can taste it in everything from seafood soup to sashimi salad. So, there's no need to step out of the hotel; the menu at the plainly named Dining Room offers enough foraging for at least several days.
WHOM YOU'LL MEET
Don't expect Psy's K-pop party people here but you might chill in the lobby with South Korea's most affluent as they revell in the Park Hyatt's newness. "New means it's important," says Fred Ebers, a New York ex-pat staying at the hotel for a shipping conference. "Not new means not important. Simple as that."
The service was exemplary. The hotel's goal is not to feel commercial but as if you are staying in someone's home. Staff don't wear name tags; they are just supposed to be "helpful friends," I'm told. And, whether an example of hyper-vigilance or gentle nurturing, guests cannot use hotel scissors unless someone from the staff is present. That kind of (over) attentiveness is typical: When my cellphone didn't work in Korea, a team of concierges are sent on an eight-hour hunt to fix the problem. In the end, I received a loaner from a conciege's boyfriend – for my entire stay.
IF I COULD CHANGE ONE THING
The rooms are so high-tech it takes a Silicon Valley habitué to figure out how to manage the lights, air conditioning and curtains. The hotel needs to supply a cheat sheet for cyber-dummies. Mea culpa says the management: "We are working on a fix."
The writer was a guest of the hotel.