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Upscale Hotels on the Upswing

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.


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