THE HUDSON | NEW YORK CITY
Manhattan is deservedly notorious for obscene hotel rates; the average tariff recently topped $250, and even that sounds low to those who have tried to book a room here lately. Fortunately, there are exceptions—and we don't mean places where the remote control is bolted to the nightstand.
Hotelier Ian Schrager first wooed budget-minded guests a decade ago with the Paramount on 46th Street, heralding a trend for "cheap chic" that was, in reality, far more chic than cheap. But last November Schrager raised the stakes—or rather, lowered them—with the Hudson, just off Central Park South, whose smallest rooms rent for as little as $95 a night.
Go on, find another New York hotel where a C-note gets you bed linens of 300-thread-count Egyptian cotton, a CD player, and a private phone number for your room—not to mention access to a spa and an Olympic-sized pool, all within the hotel.
Of course, the real draw, as you may have heard, isn't the service (it can take three hours just to get a pot of coffee delivered to your room); it's the Scene. On any given night, everyone and his A&R rep seems to be vying for admission to the bar; the gossip columnists can't go a day without writing about the place. Schrager's hotels have created buzz ever since he hit upon the idea of "lobby socializing" at the Royalton back in the eighties, yet the Hudson's popularity must have exceeded even his expectations.
And the bar is quite a sight, with the surreal Francesco Clemente ceiling fresco (conveniently located about eight inches above your head), the amoeba chairs and gold-leaf settees, and an eerily illuminated glass floor. Only a few lucky people can look good lit from underneath, and most of them are here. On crowded nights, the bar has a guests-only policy—which makes that $95 room tariff either New York's best lodging value or its priciest cover charge. I know of a guy in TriBeCa who books himself a room here on weekends, just so he's guaranteed entry to the bar. Hey, it's sexier than bribing the doorman.
So what's the big attraction?For starters, that signature Philippe Starck design in the public areas: a whimsical cacophony of Charles Eames and Louis XV; of benches fashioned from tree trunks and fiberglass; of comic plays on scale, like the 500-gallon watering can in the courtyard. The courtyard itself is another selling point—in warm weather it achieves the seamless fusion of indoors and out that works so well at the Delano in Miami Beach and the Mondrian in West Hollywood. There's talk of recitals and readings being staged here, bringing real meaning to Schrager's concept of the hotel as theater.
Elsewhere, the ambience is positively Ivy League. Long, communal oak tables fill the Cafeteria restaurant, which calls to mind a college dining hall with its three-story-high ceiling and acres of dark-wood paneling. (Just as in a college dining hall, it's not about the food, but whom you lock eyes with.) The Library Bar—as cozy a spot as Schrager and Starck could hope to create—is dominated by a huge fireplace and an antique, royal purple pool table. Surrounded by chessboards and dusty old tomes, you can't help ordering a Cognac and holding forth on Foucault, or at least pretending you are.
The 1,000 guest rooms pick up on the collegiate theme, exploring what you might call Dorm Chic. Space is tight and most bathrooms have only stall showers. There isn't much by way of seating, either. ("We encourage people to get out of their rooms," my bellman admits.) Singles are outfitted with a brushed-aluminum naval chair and a very slim desk/table pushed against the foot of the bed—shades of freshman year—plus a couple of tiny stools that slide under the nightstands.
But what the room lacks in square footage and furniture, it makes up for in pure visuals. The rich African makore-wood paneling and floors add a warmth and elegance missing from most Schrager hotels, and offset the stark coolness of the ultra-white bed linens, the gauzy white curtains, and the white vinyl headboard. Funky Clemente-designed light boxes double as bedside reading lamps. Not that you'll be spending the night with a book. 356 W. 58th St.; 800/444-4786 or 212/554-6000, fax 212/554-6001; doubles from $125.
PIER 5 HOTEL | BALTIMORE
Baltimore's harbor bursts with historic sailing vessels, an aquarium, a science center, and both a Hard Rock Café and a Planet Hollywood, so you'd expect child-friendly hotels. What's surprising is how well the three-year-old, 65-room Pier 5 caters to both sides of its clientele: upscale couples and their sprouts. Without going overboard in its seafaring theme (just some portholes and wave-motif glass panels), the space tends toward playful—oddly shaped velour sofas and lounges in the skylighted lobby; a festive palette of purple, mustard, and olive; metal wastepaper baskets that look like tote bags. Even the room-service menu has child appeal: it's delivered from the Cheesecake Factory. But the spacious rooms, with terraces overlooking the city or the harbor, are strictly adult. So is the restaurant, McCormick & Schmick's, which serves top-notch seafood and carries an extensive collection of wine, scotch, and port. 711 Eastern Ave.; 877/207-9047 or 410/539-2000, fax 410/783-1469; doubles from $189.
TABARD INN | WASHINGTON, D.C.
Next time you're in D.C., head to the three linked Victorian town houses on a tree-lined block near Dupont Circle. On weeknights, the Tabard Inn's restaurant is buzzing with regulars who come for chef David Craig's inventive dishes or to eavesdrop on foreign journalists talking politics over cocktails at the bar. While all 40 rooms are eclectically furnished, the Penthouse, with its Persian rugs, Modigliani print, and gilded Venetian mirror, is the quirkiest. (At $185, it's also the most expensive.) The lounge is well-loved and full of character; on a Sunday evening, you can sink into an overstuffed chair, order Stilton and toasted walnuts with a glass of port, and listen while a jazz trio plays Ellington tunes into the night. 1739 N St. NW; 202/785-1277, fax 202/785-6173; doubles from $95.
GEORGIAN TERRACE HOTEL | ATLANTA
Opened in 1911, the Georgian Terrace has served as Atlanta's classiest hotel, its seediest apartment house, and one of its most neglected landmarks. Now the once-fashionable Peachtree Street neighborhood is being restored, and it's taking the hotel with it. Gleaming from a fresh renovation, illusionist murals brighten the white, gold, and green color scheme. The rooms were actually once apartments, with that rare luxury: space. Most have full kitchens and washer-dryers, and range from 600 to 1,700 square feet. Views from the penthouse health club and rooftop pool are overwhelming—the Southern city's jagged skyline and lush hills are unobscured. No wonder this is a favored address for travelers like Michael Eisner and Whitney Houston. 659 Peachtree St.; 800/555-8000 or 404/897-1991, fax 404/724-9116; doubles from $129.
THE TOWNHOUSE | MIAMI BEACH
Maybe it's the games in the breakfast room—remember how absorbing a jigsaw puzzle could be?—or the cheerful staff, or the rooftop water beds, but the 71-room Townhouse is more than a place to sleep, it's fun. Where else would you get a beach ball instead of a mint on your pillow, or a complimentary condom to remind you that this is the place "For a Good Time." Designer India Mahdavi uses blocks of color (white, red) and shapes (circular rugs, L-shaped bolsters) to create an atmosphere that's clean-cut and comfortable. At the hotel's Bond St. Lounge, guests order up saketinis and sashimi, prepared by sushi chefs brought down from the original in New York. The opening of Nobu at the neighboring Shore Club later this year just might pull all the SoBe action to the upper reaches of the South Beach strip. 150 20th St.; 877/534-3800 or 305/534-3800, fax 305/534-3811; doubles from $125.
CENTURY HOTEL | MIAMI BEACH
After its 1998 renovation, the 28-room Century with its alfresco Italian restaurant, Joia, was targeted by hipsters and fashionistas. Although it still draws celebrities and models, the current crowd is more subdued and grown-up than the attitudinally challenged clientele at the new club-restaurant Pearl across the street. The rooms' hardwood floors are balanced by comforting white duvets—but be aware that the sounds of late-night diners and early-morning dish-stackers may well ensure insomnia, so ask for a room away from the restaurant. If you want to party till dawn, however, the concierge will hand you VIP passes to any of the velvet-rope venues nearby. 140 Ocean Dr.; 888/982-3688 or 305/674-8855, fax 305/538-5733; doubles from $125.