Upscale Hotels on the Upswing

Upscale Hotels on the Upswing

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Photodisc
A massage in the lobby?A wired cabana?Seal sex?Special-order fireworks?Bob Morris goes deep into the indulgent new world of hotels and their high-needs guests

We have just arrived in San Francisco for the weekend, and the desk clerk at the game-themed Serrano Hotel invites us to roll the dice for an upgrade. We're allowed three tries; on my last I hit double fives. Yes! My friend Tracy and I check into a suite with an extensive menu of board games and a do-not-disturb sign that reads GAME IN PROGRESS. We play with the yo-yo, Etch-A-Sketch, and backgammon set that have already been provided. Also available: goldfish for guests who miss their pets. We head down the street to the Hotel Monaco, another of the Tenderloin district's many new boutique hotels, owned, like ours, by the Kimpton Group. The concierge lends us two goldfish. "Don't worry about feeding them," he says as I carry the bowl out. "They just ate."

Even looking as stern as I do in head-to-toe black and Armani glasses, I'm a joke target for good-natured tourists milling about on a Friday night. "Hey, are you gonna sauté or grill those?" one asks. "Don't take them into any sushi restaurants," another warns. Back at the Serrano's front desk, we sign out Operation and Mouse Trap to take to our room. "I just hope your fish don't get jealous," a clerk says.

We've been here only an hour and we're already done in by all the fun.

Not for long. We may be cynical, but Tracy and I are always looking for ways to amuse ourselves. We'd been working much too hard, so we'd decided to embark on a 10-day, entirely indulgent fun quest. Our plan: to travel through California, land of innovative entertainment, down to Mexico, availing ourselves of the imaginative new amenities offered at small upscale hotels.

We know just what we're looking for, too. Like so many travelers who came of age during the entertainment and technology revolutions, we want to telecommute, instantaneously, from anywhere we please, and to be pampered the way models are before they face the camera. We want fashion-forward food, perfect espresso, informed design, good lighting, authentic experiences in nature . . . oh, and limitless access to inner peace. And as vast as our expectations may sound, we don't want to be perceived as unusually obnoxious. After all, we're not alone: we're just your average double-clicking, channel-surfing, expense-accounting, style-obsessed, nature-savvy, art-conscious, high-strung, high-end, achingly ironic baby boomers being courted by hotels in the new millennium.

It's no wonder so many hotels are becoming fun houses of heady diversions and cosseting. At Miami's Albion and Beach House, both owned by Rubell Hotels, cryptic messages--STRANGERS LOOK IN YOUR EYES AND SEE BENEVOLENCE--are left on pillows before bedtime, along with trendy Chupa Chups lollipops from Spain. The Nob Hill Lambourne, in San Francisco, offers green algae shakes with a continental breakfast, and leaves vitamins as part of turndown service. And at the Atlantis, on Paradise Island in the Bahamas, there's a water slide (one of five) that sends guests flying via a clear tunnel through a shark-filled lagoon.

Bill Kimpton, owner of the Serrano (and other hotels, from Chicago to Vancouver), realizes that his more modest attempts to amuse guests may not work for the trendy, difficult Delano crowd. But like Delano owner Ian Schrager, Kimpton knows that, in a hotel lobby, comfort and discretion aren't always as alluring as novelty. "We make it easy for guests to come out of their cocoons and be playful," says Kimpton, who, because he's always felt intimidated by grand hotels, offers ice-breaking happy hours with tarot readings and massages. "When the psychologist Abraham Maslow studied self-actualized people, the common denominator he found was that, among other things, they were all childlike."

Indeed, we are feeling very childlike at the Serrano on our first morning. After waking up in a room that looks like a puppet stage, with red-and-yellow-striped curtains, we say good morning to our fish, eat chocolate, and play the Pokémon game attached to the TV. That evening in the lobby, a skinny jester is hosting a San Francisco trivia game. While I wait for a free 10-minute backrub in a corner, where people are drinking complimentary wine and carrying on as if they were at a high school reunion, two women let me cut the line. "We're nice because we're from Minnesota," one says.

"Is this the craziest place you've ever worked?" I ask the masseuse. "Not the craziest," she says, "but it's the happiest."

Ah, happiness. Every boutique hotel in San Francisco seems intent on promoting it. Chip Conley, whose Joie de Vivre hotels have inundated the Bay Area, says he's in the business of creating "identity refreshment"--promoting carefully crafted experiences for every picky visitor. Each of his 12 San Francisco properties is based on a magazine, from The New Yorker to Men's Health. Most overreachingly, perhaps, the Bijou, which takes its inspiration from Entertainment Weekly, has a front desk that looks like a movie theater concession, and a kiosk phone hooked up to the San Francisco Film Commission. Guests can call to get work as extras. "What better way to provide entertainment value?" Conley asks.

Costanoa, 50 miles down the coast, is "Outside magazine meets Vanity Fair," according to Conley. It's also a little Playboy, too. Because along with its high-end tents for camping, its luxury lodge, outdoor fireplaces, spa, hot tub, hiking trails, and horseback riding, there's some rather suggestive entertainment across the Pacific Coast Highway. Winter, it turns out, is elephant seal breeding time at Año Nuevo State Reserve. Costanoa, which mentions in its brochure that watching these massive homely creatures might induce affection in guests, offers hard-to-get tickets for guided viewings. "We call it our romance-and-adventure package," Conley says.

Unfortunately, we catch the seals on an off day. Except for two bulls engaging in a toothy contretemps amid a harem of placid females, these creatures aren't doing anything beyond lying around. They might as well be watching videos and smoking cigarettes, they're so listless. Valentine's Day, our guide explains, has already passed, and that's really the peak of the mating season. "Nature," Tracy remarks, "is more entertaining on TV."

Maybe wellness will be more fun.

We arrive at the Hotel Parisi, a small, Zen-elegant spot in La Jolla, to hear New Age music playing in the feng shui-attuned lobby. With an in-room yoga teacher and a psychologist on call (along with treatments at the nearby Chopra Center for Well Being), this discreet, high-end urban property is selling inner peace as entertainment.

So much for silly diversions like board games and dopey elephant seals. Here it's all about the ride inward. After having a yoga instructor named Tah give me a private lesson that's so coddling it's embarrassing ("Perfect" and "Good job" she keeps telling me, even though I'm being appallingly lazy), I have the pleasure of asking a licensed psychologist with a local practice for a session on my terrace. What fun--a shrink you can order in. And she's good, too; articulate and professional. She tells me that hotels distance you from daily routines, so they're good places to reflect on the meaning of life. She adds that many of the guests she counsels are suffering from the stress of success. This isn't my case, I tell her. My problem is that I'm having too much fun.


Perhaps this issue can be addressed at the Peninsula Beverly Hills. Located next to the Creative Artists Agency, the Peninsula is command central for a plugged-in power crowd whose idea of a good time is e-mailing, faxing, and phoning while being pampered. In a world where offices resemble playrooms, what could be better than a posh hotel with poolside cabanas as wired as business centers?

Like so many fast-lane hotels, the Peninsula is a playground for the technocratic elite. Need a status car for your lunch at the Ivy?A digitally souped-up 2000 Audi A8 comes free with your villa, along with a cell phone that picks up your hotel calls. The Peninsula's not just for work, either. It's for working it, too. "You never know who you'll run into here," says Jill Eisenstadt, whose publicity company has taken a suite near ours for luring stars into Oscar outfits. "It's easier making contacts at a hotel than at a party or a bar."

Well, I'm inspired to work it myself. While Tracy relaxes, I put on a terry robe that's been monogrammed at my request. Then I head off to the rooftop pool to inhabit a cabana I've reserved for the day. MR. MORRIS is posted on an imposing letter board. The sun is shining. FNN is listing stock prices on my TV. My pool phone is ringing. While I'm getting a massage, three calls and a fax come in, which feels very validating. The trouble is, with so much activity, it's hard to focus on the calming effects of the massage. In fact, it's hard to focus on anything at all while doing everything at once. I'm stressed. In the name of fun, I have again overextended myself.

I need a vacation from my vacation.

Mass boredom, according to a study by Yankelovich Partners, is rampant in our culture. Some find this boredom boom ominous. Others find it inspirational. Wolf Hengst, president and CEO of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, recently declared that "every experience must be a peak experience" at his hotels. Perhaps that's why the Four Seasons is known for its surreal level of pampering. "The point is to give guests the maximum of whatever they choose to do," says Hengst. The new Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale, for instance, offers synchronized dual massages by moonlight.

"In the old days, families had to find ways to entertain bored children," says Ian Schrager, who remembers riding up and down hotel elevators as a child, and now has trippy videos playing in the elevators of the Mondrian. "It's all about putting on a show, and for me that concept continues to evolve." Of course, upscale hotels (and low-end ones, too--remember Magic Fingers?) have always been about novelty, and architects, from Morris Lapidus to Philippe Starck, have labored to ensure that every space titillates even as it welcomes. But it isn't just architecture or activities that are fun at a hotel. It's people-watching, too. "Vanity Fair in full blast, compressed under one vast cover, in a single vitrine," Henry James wrote of Palm Beach's legendary Royal Poinciana Hotel, which he visited a century ago, at the height of its popularity.

"The point of a lobby, especially for a younger crowd, is meeting people," says hip hotelier André Balazs. At the Standard, his newest place on Sunset Boulevard (he also owns the Chateau Marmont), Balazs is trying to revive the magic of his seminal New York eighties nightclub, Area. A showcase behind the front desk displays curious objects (industrial fans, fake crows) by day, and by night, slackers in their underwear. There's also a wall of video art. "All good hotels transport you to a place you've never been," says Balazs.

"We expect hotels to be like Alice in Wonderland doors you can crawl through," adds Martin Kaplan, who teaches what he calls "entertainment studies" at the University of Southern California. "Discretionary travel these days is about planning your time, being entertained--and not doing nothing."

No chance of that at the Tamarindo, north of Manzanillo, Mexico. An hour after arriving at this chic new resort in a 2,000-acre tropical forest, we aren't kicking back in the sand. We're furiously working out a three-day program of customized activities.

We've scheduled kayaking, tequila tasting, a Mexican cooking class, golf lessons, hiking with an ethnobotanist, polenta body scrubs, food facials, and a dinner outside our villa. In the words of our muse, Eloise of the Plaza, being bored is not allowed.

Tamarindo co-manager Jonathan Heath tells us that the ultimate luxury of late is space and privacy--both of which are in ample supply here, thanks to 29 rambling villas. But what Tracy and I find most amusing is the service. "Everything is possible," a waiter says when I inquire if we can have coffee at the pier while we fish. We ask, we get. Ceviche and grilled shrimp, for example, are served to us on a secluded beach that we reach after a harrowing kayak crossing. At our salsa- and tortilla-making class, dozens of bowls of ingredients are prepared for our use, as if we were on a cooking show. In the Spa Hut, a "kitchen cosmetics" facial, with yogurt, eggs, honey, and a splash of lemon, is arranged for us to enjoy together--not the norm, but we think it will be more fun that way. And when I develop an upset stomach during a hike, our guide makes me tea from huamuchil bark.

On our last night, with 200 candles flickering on the lawn of our villa, we are served barbecued shrimp and steak with chipotle salsa and guacamole--the best we've ever had. Afterward, we watch a fireworks display that we've commissioned, via the hotel, from a local pyrotechnician. The grand finale is a custom sign that says FUN? At 200 pesos per letter, this whimsy costs us about $90. It's a bit like burning money, but what's life without the occasional well-planned extravagance?For a moment, and not much more, FUN? lights up the sky, sending sparks, and pelicans, flying. We gasp. In the distance, other guests cheer. It's spectacular. Then it's gone.

Now, that's entertainment.

Bob Morris writes for the New York Times and does commentary for NPR's All Things Considered.


the fun starts here
Serrano Hotel San Francisco; 877/294-9709 or 415/885-2500; doubles from $209.
Hotel Monaco San Francisco; 800/214-4220 or 415/292-0100; doubles from $209.
Beach House Miami Beach; 877/782-3557 or 305/535-8606; doubles from $190.
Nob Hill Lambourne San Francisco; 800/274-8466 or 415/433-2287; doubles from $220.
Atlantis Paradise Island, Bahamas; 800/285-2684 or 242/363-3000; doubles from $175.
Hotel Bijou San Francisco; 800/771-1022 or 415/771-1200; doubles from $139.
Costanoa Pescadero, Calif.; 800/738-7477 or 650/879-1100; doubles from $160.
Hotel Parisi La Jolla; 858/454-1511 or 877/472-7474; doubles from $275.
Peninsula Beverly Hills 800/462-7899 or 310/551-2888; doubles from $375.
Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale 800/332-3442 or 480/515-5700; doubles from $250.
The Standard Los Angeles; 323/650-9090; doubles from $99.
The Tamarindo Manzanillo, Mexico; 800/337-4685, fax 52-335/15070; doubles from $275.

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