For ages, Boston's hotel scene called to mind that old restaurant joke: not only were the properties outdated and uninspired, there weren't enough of them. But hold up: in just six years, the city has acquired more than 30 new properties. The turnaround began in 2000, when a 60-room upstart called XV Beacon arrived with some crazy idea of a "design hotel." Its success was a harbinger. Once Boston was deemed safe for such stylish hotels, they began opening all over town, and not just in obvious spots like Back Bay. Some, like the Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square, have even kick-started neighborhood revivals. The next year and a half will bring entries from Mandarin Oriental, Regent, and InterContinental. For now, the buzz centers on five newcomers, each with a distinct character, locale, and target clientele.
Ritz-Carlton, Boston Common
When was the last time your hotel lobby harbored a ficus tree?Two decades ago?While Boston's original Ritz-Carlton, on Newbury Street, transports guests to 1927, its new sister property—a glass-and-steel high-rise in the Ladder District—takes us straight to 1985. The aesthetic is Trump Revival: a glitzy lobby sporting vast quantities of black and beige marble, lacewood paneling, and a 10-foot-wide fireplace; massive vases of lilies and heliconia in every public space (not to mention those ficus); and a smartly turned out doorman. Opulent to the max, it's exactly what you'd expect from Ritz-Carlton—or a bank in Zurich. The look is a bit anodyne, but Ritz-Carlton hotels are designed for pampering, not provoking. Sleeping here is like collapsing onto a big soft pile of money, from the feather beds and Frette bathrobes to the Bang & Olufsen stereos in the suites. Summon your "bath butler" to draw your whirlpool tub with a touch of lavender oil. Guest rooms are perfectly scaled and capably decorated, if not memorably so, in light earth tones and plain, solid fabrics. (Rooms ending in -83 are the best of the standards, with views over Boston Common.)
The hotel sits a half-block off the park, within a complex that includes a 19-screen cineplex and the Sports Club/LA, a 100,000-square-foot "urban country club" complete with a junior Olympicsized pool (hotel guests pay $10 for a day pass). The Red Sox's Manny Ramirez owns a condo in the adjacent tower and is frequently spotted at the hotel bar. Coincidentally or not, the Ritz is where the Yankees usually stay when playing at Fenway. I ended up sharing an elevator with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, fighting the urge to trip them as they left. 10 Avery St.; 800/241-3333 or 617/574-7100; www.ritzcarlton.com; doubles from $579.
Jurys Boston Hotel
The receptionist welcomes you in a Dublin brogue at this Back Bay newcomer. Jurys is an Irish chain, with 36 hotels and a solid reputation back home. After three openings in Washington, D.C., Jurys fixed its sights on Boston, whose Irish roots make for an obvious fit. Of course, Ireland isn't exactly known for chic hotels, which is what makes Jurys Boston such a pleasant surprise—it's as stylish and self-assured as any of its higher-priced rivals. It helps to have great bones: Jurys took up residence in one of Boston's last Italian Renaissance Revival buildings, a stunning 1925 limestone edifice accented with ornate friezes. For 70 years this was the headquarters of the Boston Police Department—note those striking, blue-shaded brass lamps framing the side entrance. With digs like this, you're halfway to greatness.
How shocking, then, to step into Jurys's lobby and be confronted by a chrome-and-glass staircase bathed in an eerie Technicolor glow. A waterfall trickles along the edge of the stairs, shrouded in mist from dry ice. I suppose this is intended to evoke a stream in Connemara, but the sci-fi lights were pure Battlestar Galactica to me. Gas hearths are laid with blue-and-white sea glass. Zany cut-glass lamps and whimsical bronze sculptures provoke the eye at every turn.
The 220 guest rooms are a good deal more sober. Handsome ceiling moldings keep them from seeming too boxlike, but otherwise the look is unremarkable, with fawn-colored carpeting, walls painted sage and rose, and ho-hum mahogany furniture. What does work: vast floor- to-ceiling mirrors, inviting beds sheathed in goose-down duvets, and spacious marble shower stalls with strong water pressure and Aveda products. Free local and 800 calls are a plus. What doesn't work: the cramped desk, offering space for only a laptop and (at least in my room) awkwardly shoved between the two beds to double as a nightstand. Ask to see a few rooms when checking in, as you'll find your fair share of duds. Even within the same category, rooms vary dramatically in layout (some have separate tubs, others just a shower) and views (the best look over Stuart or Berkeley streets, the worst upon an ugly interior roof). In the end, Jurys's trump card is its neighborhood: you're mere blocks from Copley Square, the Theater District, Newbury Street's boutiques, and some of Boston's best restaurants (Via Matta, L, Mistral, Excelsior). The hotel's dining room, the Stanhope Grille, can't compete with those, but the breakfast is excellent, including (you guessed it) rashers, baked beans, and black-and-white pudding. 350 Stuart St.; 866/534-6835 or 617/266-7200; www.jurys-boston-hotels.com; doubles from $435.