The Regent Esplanade Zagreb, Croatia review: On the edge of elegance

Read our writer's views on this property below

Nicola Walker lives like the rich and famous in a splendid historical hotel in Croatia.

Once upon a time, passengers on the Orient Express disembarked seamlessly from their deluxe custom-made carriages with art deco trimmings into the equally stylish Hotel Esplanade in Zagreb.

Indeed, the Esplanade was purposely built in 1925 for the well-heeled clients of the Orient Express and was sited, sensibly enough, close to the railway station, in what was then a field or esplanade. The Orient Express hasn't stopped in Zagreb since 1939 but the hotel, now called the Regent Esplanade Zagreb, is still an art deco triumph.

It is pouring when we arrive in Zagreb on the modern train from Split. There is nothing flashy about our first-class compartment and nothing is seamless about our exit from the train. We don anoraks, clutch our huge suitcases and, as instructed by the stewardess, head left out the station doors and teeter blindly into the night.

We are thrilled, if unnerved, when the gracious neo-classical facade of the Regent Esplanade comes dimly into view. A deep breath, then we schlep through the revolving door into a lobby of curvaceous, old-fashioned elegance; of scalloped edges, bevelled glass and a low-slung retro desk, behind which a sincerely charming receptionist bats not an eyelid and gives us the key to 201.

Before we can even hug each other in glee at the magnificence of this room, a housemaid expertly turns the sofa into a comfy bed for our five-year-old. Within 30 minutes, there are clothes, shoes, books, coats, L'Occitane toiletries, toys, Textas and towels everywhere. But no matter. Iris is out for the count, there is still plenty of floor and the lamps are absolutely gorgeous. They can't be the art deco originals but they are darn good copies.

It's the same throughout the hotel - striking art deco fittings on each floor, in the bar, too, and restaurant and particularly so in the lobby, which, the receptionist tells me, is the real 1920s deal. It is the vast gold-framed mirror propped against the wall that does it, along with the big black clocks, one of which tells the time in Buenos Aires (when, presumably, that city was awash with passengers of the Orient Express). Rarely does a lobby make you feel sexy but this one does. It was the perfect setting for Josephine Baker, who performed at the hotel in her heyday.

Smallish cities can sometimes be characterised by a grand hotel and for many years, the Esplanade was synonymous with Zagreb. It still hosts poetry evenings and in its 80-odd years has seen just about all the great and good, including Sir Laurence Olivier, Nikita Kruschev, Henry Kissinger, Woody Allen, Ella Fitzgerald and Orson Welles, who was noted for dropping banknotes from his pockets and never bending to pick them up.

During World War II, the Gestapo moved in and several waiters were shot for spying. Fifty years later, it took in the first refugees of the bitter civil war and journalists made it their headquarters, fleeing to the basement Taverna Croatica during bombing raids.

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No such horrors disturb our slumber (after room-service parsley risotto) and in the morning we decide Slovenia can wait. An amiable receptionist says 201 is already reserved for that night but seeing as how we like it so much, the newcomers can settle elsewhere.

We celebrate by booking a table at the acclaimed in-house restaurant Zinfandel's. Queen Elizabeth II was apparently so impressed by the bream "Dalmatian style" that she tossed a gold coin at the chef.

It is hard to leave room 201 but we hit the street at noon on a Sunday and find the bronzed hordes of coastal Croatia have disappeared. Here at last are real people going about their lives along the leafy boulevards.

Trams bustle past efficiently, while on the strip that leads to the medieval upper town, sallow youngsters huddle around tables. In the main square (Trg Josipa Jelacica), a hot-pink neon advert frames the defiant equestrian statue of a Croat nationalist. Yet, after the theme-park atmospheres of Dubrovnik, Split and Trogir, the solid, bourgeois Hapsburg architecture is a relief.

In a pretty restaurant near the central market we eat sea bass (almost a daily treat in Croatia). The outing ends perfectly with a viewing of St Mark's Church, its jolly mosaic-tiled roof ablaze on this sunny afternoon, though there is nothing like the view of the Regent Esplanade to quicken our step.

We dress for dinner with care and are the first guests at Zinfandel's and the only ones with a small child.

The professional European waiter executes his job with savvy courtesy and our lean, grey-haired attendant is at the top of his game. A tuna tartare turns out to be a trolley extravaganza, with nigh on 18 condiments added to the squidgy tuna in the glass bowl. It is even more delicious with the Croatian white recommended by an astute and endearing sommelier. A bottle of extraordinary Istrian pinot noir (and a glass of local sticky) later, we make a wobbly exit and, for a second, forget about the five-year-old and attempt to linger in that memorable lobby.

TRIP NOTES

WHERE The Regent Esplanade Zagreb is a five-minute walk from the central railway station. The exact address is Mihanoviceva 1. See regenthotels.com/zagreb or email Info.Zagreb@RezidorRegent.com.

HOW MUCH We booked online and paid €164 ($256) a night in September, without breakfast. Dinner at Zinfandel's costs the equivalent of fine dining in Australia.

TOP MARKS It has stayed true to its heritage and every detail, from the grand staircase to the lavish bloom in a square glass vase, makes you feel special. Unfussy, complimentary wireless connection.

BLACK MARK Breakfasts are crazily expensive.

DON'T MISS A peek at the Esplanade's Emerald Ballroom, which often hosts weddings; Dolac market and the lovely folk art section of Gallery Klovicevi Dvori, where the Austro-Hungarian influence on Croatian culture is strikingly obvious.