Why not the best?
December 26, 2006
Let’s be honest. Sometimes a cheap hotel is all you need. Not cheap and sleazy – cheap and decent: a roof over your head, a firm mattress, clean sheets and good plumbing.Maybe you’re driving from Point A to Point B and you just need a good night’s sleep before you get back behind the wheel. Maybe you’re on a business trip and you’ve got a bean-counter booking your room. Whatever the reason, if cheap is what you want, you’ve got plenty of choices. Super 8. Holiday Express. Microtel. Best Western. Take your pick. You’ll get the sheets, the mattress and the plumbing.And that’s that. But sometimes you need – or you want or you flat-out know you deserve – more.Maybe you’re on an extended business trip. Maybe you’re on vacation. Maybe your rich uncle is paying the bill. In any case, you’re looking for something that’s nicer – not just a little bit nicer … in fact, not even a lot nicer, but a whole different world from “cheap and decent.”I’m not talking – not now, anyway – about resort hotels or spas, places where the hotel itself is the destination. I’m thinking about a great place to stay in a big city, a hotel that will add something special to your big-city experience, whether you need respite from a hard day’s business or that final cherry on top of a great day of vacation.And, for today, let’s say you’re in search of a great hotel in a great city – specifically, San Francisco.If you’re looking for luxe in that City by the Bay (you know, where little cable cars climb halfway to the stars and all that), you’ve got plenty of choices. And, while you can’t really go wrong, the differences between those luxury choices are wide-ranging and subtle.In the basic “roof over your head” category, there are just two grades: pass and fail. Acceptable and disastrous.But in the true luxury category – well, there’s really just one grade: A+. Anything less and the hotel has just slipped into a lower category. If it’s not A+, it’s not real luxury. (And, by the way, they’re probably charging too much for their rooms.)But just because everyone gets an A+ doesn’t mean they’re all the same. Way up there at the top of the heap, what you get is a grand variety of personality. Look at it this way, nothing in this world is perfect. But at the level we’re talking about, a hotel has quirks instead of flaws. At El Cheapo Motel you get problems, and you put up with them; at the top of the line you get personality – and you love it.San Francisco is a great place to see how that works. The city itself is glorious, so a hotel has to be truly special to enhance your experience. And, at the same time, the city is not so overwhelming as to make those personality differences almost irrelevant.On a series of recent trips, I had the opportunity to stay at four of San Francisco’s best: the Fairmont, the Mandarin Oriental, the Ritz-Carlton and the St. Regis.They ranged in personality from grand to opulent from hip to business deluxe. Each had its strengths. Each had its quirks. Each had a strong personality.
The FairmontOK, I have to admit, right upfront, I’m a sucker for grand old hotels. Give me a lobby with acres of marble, gold-leaf trim, towering columns, 30-foot ceilings, red velvet armchairs … you know, the works. I confess, I love it.
Of course, the hotel has to back it up. If I walk through that grand old lobby and then wind up in a fleabag room that belongs out on the strip between a used-car dealer and a topless joint, well, my anger will be as towering as those marble columns.But that first impression sets the mood and, in the case of the Fairmont, the first impression is right up there. The building itself is imposing – a vast stone palace at the very top of Nob Hill, built just in time to get shut down by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. We’re definitely talking historic.And once you’re inside, the lobby is just what you’d expect. Imposing columns (faux marble, actually, but that’s OK), rococo ornament, gold leaf, velvet armchairs … all of it. And on the day we checked in, there was an elegant woman playing a harp as we walked through the lobby. She was there, I assumed, to accompany the Sunday Brunch being served in the Laurel Court restaurant, just off the lobby – and, OK, maybe it was a little over the top, but what the heck.But if the building and the lobby were both impressive, the real payoff came when we got to our room. We were staying high up in the Fairmont’s tower and the views – from one of the top floors in the tallest building on one of the highest hills in downtown San Francisco – was staggering.We could see in a single glance from the Bay Bridge clear around to the Golden Gate, with the city itself laid out at our feet. Some of the other hotels I stayed at boasted great views, but I think the view from the top of the Fairmont is unmatchable. It is, quite simply, one of the world’s great vistas.If you splurge for a suite on the northeast corner of the building, the view will emerge in all its grandeur. But any room high up on the north side of the tower will take your breath away.Of course, the Fairmont has its fair share of quirks. The service was not quite at the level of near-perfection I found at some of the other hotels. Case in point: On my way out one morning, I passed a room-service cart that someone on my floor had pushed outside their door after breakfast. That cart was still there when I returned to the hotel in the late afternoon. Not tragic, but still … And, despite a recent $85 million renovation, there are still a few items that failed to measure up. In our room, the windows that opened onto that magnificent view had aluminum frames, a reminder of the 1960s, when the tower was built. Never mind aesthetic issues, those frames leaked the famed San Francisco chill into the room, so that I shivered as I enjoyed a magnificent sunrise on an August morning.In a nutshell: A grand old hotel with a handful of quirks that simply fade away in light of the extraordinary setting and views.Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason St., (415) 772-5000. Rate (online): Signature King, Tower, Alcatraz & Bay View, $459.
The St. RegisIn the heart of downtown, a block or so south of Market Street and perhaps a 15-minute stroll from the waterfront, the St. Regis reminded me of a really, really great office – and I mean that in the best way. Everyone’s young and bright and working hard to do a great job. Like the people who work there, the hotel itself is, at first impression, slick, sharp. The lobby entrance is a big sweep of glass, not lofty, but wrapping clear around the corner of the building. As you enter, the hotel doors open onto a super-modern fireplace; the dancing flames lend warmth to what might otherwise be a slightly chilly expanse of glass and dark glossy stone.Once you’re inside, the lobby bar is as convenient a destination as the front desk. One step to the left, you’re in the bar; one step to the right and you’re at the reception desk. But even when the bar was pleasantly jammed on a Friday night, the front desk remained an island of orderly calm, as it should be. I said it had the feel of a great office – and, really, shouldn’t a great office have a good-time party right inside the front door? Of course it should, as long as you can still get your work done. And you can definitely get your work done at the St. Regis.Our room had the same “business sleek” feel as the lobby. Just about everything is built-in. In fact, there were only two pieces of movable furniture: the desk chair and a chaise lounge that my wife enjoyed lounging in as she contemplated the downtown cityscape. The lack of clutter made the room feel spacious – although the lack of real furniture left me eating a room-service meal at the built-in desk. My wife actually gloried in eating while lounging, so there was no problem there.The effect of spaciousness was further enhanced by a curiously clever set of shutters that opened from the bedroom to, of all places, the bathroom. On the bath side of the opening was a large soaking tub and with the shutters open, one could relax in a hot tub and gaze across the bedroom and out the windows at the city. A delightful sybaritic touch – and it makes the room feel much larger (and rest assured, all necessary modesty is preserved).For all its hip, business-sleekness, the St. Regis also has an artsy side. The hotel building actually incorporates the city’s new Museum of the African Diaspora; right next door is the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and across the street lie the Yerba Buena Gardens, including the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.The major quirk at the St. Regis was very much in line with its essential character. There is a very hip, all-in-one, electronic control center for almost every imaginable function within the room – and it’s all run from a screen on the telephone. At the risk of sounding like a dratted old fuddy-duddy, I’ll say that it was tough to phone down to the concierge without accidentally closing the drapes or turning off the lights. Well, maybe I’m exaggerating – but the point is that it made a number of important minor tasks more annoying than they had to be. Worse, there was no way to open the curtains by hand, and the whirring motorized draperies made it hard to quietly enjoy the early morning light while my wife slept in. A drapery cord and a light switch are wonderfully simple and functional.On the other hand, I appreciated the private direct fax line into our room. And the preprinted personalized “In Residence” letterhead and business cards were a nice touch.
Despite the stellar reputation of the hotel’s Ame restaurant, our hotel dining was limited to breakfasts on this trip. And the breakfast was excellent. We – well, I – overate shamelessly in the morning. Grand indulgence.In a nutshell: Don’t send your grandmother there, she probably will be frustrated by the electronic gadgetry. But if you’re young and hip – or like to think you are and can pull it off – and especially if you’re traveling on business, this is one great hotel.St. Regis, 125 Third St., (415) 284-4000. Rate (online): Deluxe double, city view, king, $449.
The Mandarin OrientalThe Mandarin Oriental is not quite as fiercely hip as the St. Regis. The lights have switches. The drapes are manual. The telephone doesn’t control the mini-bar. And that was just fine with me.The Mandarin is just a few blocks from the St. Regis, across Market Street and several blocks closer to the waterfront. I have to say the hotel lobby is not impressive. The hotel entrance feels like the entry to a somewhat anonymous office building. The lobby itself is small, almost cramped. But the staff behind the desk were sharp, polite and swiftly helpful.And once we were upstairs, any concerns faded away. The room was wonderful. Simple, understated, modern and luxurious. Although it wasn’t large, we were fortunate enough to be on a corner of the building so the windows wrapped around two sides of the room – and extended into the bathroom, which had a great city view of its own. No clever tricks here, just a glorious view out a window that ran the length of the wonderful soaking tub.And everywhere I looked, my eye fell on a delightful detail, a perfect small touch. I walked to the window to enjoy the view, which included a small swath of the bay, and found a pair of binoculars sitting on the windowsill. Nothing flashy, just exactly what I wanted, right where it ought to be – before I even quite realized I wanted it.Maybe I’m stretching the point, but it felt as if those details were somehow part of the hotel’s “Oriental” touch. The luxury here was solid, deep. Frankly, I loved it.And although the Mandarin didn’t supply my own personal private direct fax line, there was personalized letterhead and personalized “In Residence” business cards. In short, the business side was nicely handled.Quirks? Well, I would have to count the lobby as one. It was simply too cramped and nondescript. Unless, of course, you want to count that as being intentionally humble, one more “Oriental” touch.Another quirk would involve the breakfast. As at the St. Regis, we did not eat dinner in the Mandarin’s acclaimed restaurant. And, as at the St. Regis, the breakfast we did have was excellent. However, the service at breakfast was somehow disorganized, lackadaisical. In the morning, I want swift, efficient breakfast service, and I didn’t feel as if I got it. It really didn’t take very long to get our breakfast, but I got a little jumpy. Nothing major, just a quirk.In a nutshell: If you don’t insist on grandeur in the lobby and ornate details in the room, the Mandarin Oriental is damn near perfect. Call it glorious.Mandarin Oriental, 222 Sansome St., (415) 276 9888. Rate (online): Bay View Queen, $430.
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The Ritz-CarltonOur four San Francisco hotels ranged neatly along a spectrum that ranged from “slick modern” (in only the best senses of those words) to “grand traditional.” And, on that spectrum, the Ritz-Carlton fell almost exactly in the middle. There was luxe galore – a lobby awash in marble and decorative touches – combined with a host of modern conveniences and a very modern snap-to-it level of service.An example of that almost (but not quite) over-the-top snappy service: In any decent hotel these days, when you pick up your phone to call the front desk, whoever answers greets you by name. “Yes, Mr. Stone, can I help you?” Given modern technology, that’s easy enough. But at the Ritz, on our third day in the hotel, the doorman greeted me by name as I came back from a brief morning outing. I asked how the heck he did that – how he knew me out of the hundreds of people staying there – and he said he just tried very hard to know all the guests in the hotel.No technology involved – just determination. I admit, I was impressed.That modern snap is nicely balanced by the hotel’s well-earned historic presence. In fact, the building – high up on Nob Hill, but not quite at the top – is even older than the Fairmont, although it was not originally a hotel. It opened in 1909 as the Pacific Coast headquarters of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. So, although the public spaces may lack a little of the grand scale of the Fairmont, they have an opulence that is much more than skin-deep.Our room at the Ritz followed that same balance: not sleekly modern, not ornately grand – just solid, impeccable luxury. Everything was exactly as it should be, from marble bathroom to sumptuous bed linens.Perhaps the only quirk had nothing to do with the hotel – it involved the other guests. We were lucky enough to have landed on the hotel’s “Club Level,” which offers wonderful extra touches, including an all-day buffet that begins with breakfast in the early morning and extends to desserts in the evening. It is delightful, to be sure, but we were astonished to find ourselves surrounded in the mornings by guests who apparently felt as if that breakfast buffet was “just like home.” People in pajamas and bathrobes really should not wander around even a semiprivate buffet area. Especially when they look as if they have just rolled out of bed. Really, people, shape up!Speaking of breakfast, I do need to mention the spectacular Ritz Sunday brunch, a destination in its own right. It is pricey (somewhere around $70, last time I checked), and reservations, well in advance, are required. On the other hand, it’s worth it. A staggering array of food – from sushi to crab claws to rack of lamb to omelets (of course) and a vast selection of desserts. We sat outside on the terrace in the August sunshine and loved every minute (and every bite).In a nutshell: Perfectly balanced, perfectly wonderfulRitz-Carlton, 600 Stockton St., (415) 296-7465. Rate (online): Deluxe double, $425. Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.