How many hotels have a suite with a secret passageway? San Francisco's Fairmont does, writes James Lane.

An earthquake "fortress", a celebrated film location and a five-star hotel steeped in history - the Fairmont San Francisco is many things.

It's a signature hotel in one of the city's most exclusive neighbourhoods where stately mansions, world-class restaurants and old-world glamour seem to occupy every piece of concrete.

So where better to take in the sweeping views of Nob Hill than the historic penthouse suite of The Fairmont?


This grandest of grand dames has hosted every US president since Harry S. Truman and its association with the US political elite is such it's often referred to as the "White House of the West Coast".

The Fairmont's lavish meeting venue, the Garden Room, was the setting for the drafting of the United Nations charter in 1945 with a plaque commemorating the event and the flags of the original signatories flying outside the hotel's entrance.

Fairmont public relations consultant Samara Diapoulos says the hotel is often viewed as the city's fortress after the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed about 80 per cent of San Francisco.

Ironically The Fairmont was due to open when the twin disasters hit. The quake left it largely untouched but the fire charred the building's interior and so it was in April the following year before this high-end establishment was opened.

The Fairmont's opening came to symbolise the city's rebirth after the devastating quake.
"We like to think that the city was built around us," Samara jokes.

As she's telling me about the hotel's dramatic opening, I'm sitting in the presidential penthouse sipping a glass of wine taking in the sheer opulence of this historic luxury suite that spans the eighth floor of the hotel's main building - about 560sq m.

Commanding a jaw-dropping $26,000 a night, the penthouse has been home to royalty, politicians and rock stars including US President John F. Kennedy, Prince Charles, Mikhail Gorbachev, King Hussein of Jordan, Marlene Dietrich, Mick Jagger, Elton John and Tony Bennett.

This lavish suite is home to a two-storey circular library with a planetarium-style ceiling featuring a constellations map in gold leaf, a billiards room covered in Persian tiles from floor to vaulted ceiling and a terrace with killer views of San Francisco.

Movie buffs take note: it's also the same terrace where the dangling scene from the 1996 thriller The Rock was filmed.

Actually ever since Alfred Hitchcock chose to use his favourite San Francisco hotel for his legendary film Vertigo (1958), The Fairmont has become a silver-screen icon. Other movies filmed here include Petulia (1968), Towering Inferno (1974), Sudden Impact (1983) and Junior (1994).

Features of the penthouse include a secret passageway behind bookshelves on the library's second floor and in a bedroom decked with atlas-themed wallpaper there is a hidden door right where Australia is located. Behind it? A toilet. Our tour moves downstairs to the much-loved Tonga Room tiki bar, which has been pouring mai tais for 70 years.

Opened in 1945, the Tonga Room started around the indoor swimming pool and became a lagoon known for its floating stage, cocktails and "tropical rainstorms" every evening.

During a visit US celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain became so enamoured that he declared: "If you have no love in your heart for this place, you are a sick, twisted lonely f*** with too many cats." A tad extreme, but like so many others he adores the bar's mix of kitsch and cool.

Sadly, even after an hour or so, I've barely scratched the surface of this quintessential piece of San Francisco and it's time to go.

After taking in the history, interiors and breathtaking views I'm left truly spellbound.
In the end The Fairmont is a luxurious taste of what most love about Nob Hill: old-world elegance in an unrivalled location.

A classic San Francisco experience.

The Fairmont is at 950 Mason St and has 592 guest rooms and suites, with prices ranging from $575 to $26,000.