New Orleans is a contradictory town, at once extroverted and rigidly clannish, boisterous and somnolent, a bastion of Old South restraint and a seething cauldron of excess. It takes the Crescent City 60 parties to wrap up Mardi Gras, a time when even sensible folk are transformed into bacchanalians squabbling over tawdry beads. Throughout the year, diners feast on food too rich and spicy to be legal. A bumper sticker summarizes the local take on life: WHY BE NORMAL?
In this gumbo of conflicting impulses and opposing cultures, don't expect consistency when it comes to hotels. Discriminating travelers swear by two small hideaways in reconfigured 19th-century French Quarter dwellings. But most top-three lists also include a modern hotel that, though it could have taken its decorating inspiration from the city's indigenous French, Spanish, Creole, and Southern styles, chose instead to evoke English Romanticism. Why be normal?
It's hard to imagine a more seductive entrance. Returning in the evening, you unlock a gate, walk down a flagstoned carriageway lit with candles, and enter a shadowy brick courtyard where more candles light small tables. A fountain set in a brick wall makes a whispery trickle.
In the morning's light it all seems, if possible, just as winsome. You take your breakfast in that same courtyard, now dappled with sunlight playing in the magnolia tree and potted palms. Someone brings you orange juice, potent New Orleans coffee with chicory, and a basket you unwrap to find two buttermilk biscuits cuddled up to a warm stone.
You'd never guess that such comfort lies behind the unassuming exterior. As at many hotels in the French Quarter, the entrance is easy to miss. In this residential neighborhood, daytime action centers on tours of the 1827 Beauregard House next door and the 1752 Ursuline Convent across the street. With no bars or restaurants hereabouts, evenings are serene. From the sitting room off the courtyard, with its honor bar and lavish floral arrangements, the night sounds are nothing more intrusive than the rustle of palm fronds and the murmur of couples in the candlelight.
Soniat House is made up of several restored old buildings, and its guest rooms vary widely. There are 24 in two adjoining Creole-style town houses and two wings of former slave quarters. All the rooms are decorated with flair—using English, French, and Louisiana antiques—but those in the slave quarters have much lower ceilings, and some have passé exposed-brick walls. My parlor-floor room, up a curved Shaker-like staircase, had two enormous windows looking onto the front balcony, and a four-poster bed with soft linens and puffy down pillows. The high ceiling made the smallish room seem vaguely off-kilter, however, and the space had been altered to retrofit a small bathroom. My other quibbles: a few lapses in housekeeping (a rug with underpadding exposed) and decorating (lighting too dim for reading in bed). The most egregious shortcoming was an odd Lucite TV stand that allowed a clear view of cables and electrical cords down the back.
If I'd booked earlier (New Orleans is a favorite spot for conventions), I would have held out for a room in the newly acquired building across the street. Apparently that's what Robert Duvall had recently done (hotel staff in New Orleans are notorious name-droppers). Seven almost-too-fabulous suites are arranged around a shaded courtyard; the most beautiful is decorated in shades of apricot and taupe, its canopied bed hung with exquisite Jacobean-style embroidered linen panels. So while some of the original rooms (the hotel opened in 1982) may be in need of attention, the newer ones are simply the best New Orleans has to offer.
1133 Chartres St.; 800/544-8808 or 504/522-0570, fax 504/522-7208; doubles from $170, suites from $235.
Maison de Ville
On a livelier thoroughfare in the French Quarter—in fact just steps away from honky-tonk Bourbon Street—the Maison de Ville works hard to maintain its atmosphere of gentility. Arriving, you find yourself in a minuscule parlor with golden-yellow walls, Oriental rugs, and delicate, well-chosen Louisiana antiques. Sixteen rooms in the main hotel encircle a courtyard with a three-tiered fountain and a pond where bronze cranes stalk amid the bamboo and papyrus. Tennessee Williams lived here off and on in the 1940's, spending his days smoking, sipping Sazeracs (bourbon and bitters) and working on A Streetcar Named Desire.
Lovely as this courtyard is, the Maison de Ville has something even better two blocks away. It's the hotel's Audubon Cottages: seven suites in a series of low buildings that date from the 1800's, each with its own walled garden. In the middle of the compound is a secluded swimming pool. During 1821 John James Audubon painted some of his wildlife masterpieces in cottage 1; its exposed ceiling beams came from Mississippi river barges. Guests receive a key that opens the gate to this hushed compound, a favorite of Ed Bradley, Paul Newman, and Elizabeth Taylor, among other celebrity guests (no, I didn't have to ask). Though I'd wanted to stay in the Audubon Cottages, I'd booked too late to have a choice (again, my mistake). Instead I wound up at the main hotel in suite 1, a restored carriage house at the back of the courtyard. For once, I was grateful to be traveling alone. Close quarters are common in the French Quarter, but they don't come much closer than this. My front door opened into a sitting room that would be considered a foyer anywhere else; a narrow carpeted staircase led up to the bedroom, which was nearly filled by the queen-size bed. The bathroom was so tiny that only a triangular sink would fit. And you'd better be a Sinatra fan to stay here: until 11 p.m. the crooner's voice oozed from garden speakers outside the Bistro, the Maison de Ville's excellent and cozy restaurant. I dined on superb pecan-crusted fried oysters ("Fly Me to the Moon") and yellowfin-tuna salad Nioise ("That's Life"). But even more annoying than the evening-long serenade was the clock radio that announced itself at 3 a.m. and then resisted all my efforts to shut it off.
By morning, however, everything was forgiven. As I ate my breakfast (flaky croissant, carrot muffin) at a wrought-iron courtyard table, someone in a nearby building started playing jazz riffs on a saxophone. In the peaceful inner sanctum of Maison de Ville, I felt as though I were in the heart of the vrai Vieux Carré.
727 Toulouse St.; 800/634-1600 or 504/561-5858, fax 504/528-9939; doubles from $195; Audubon Cottages from $245. Rates include breakfast.