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There is no better way to experience the hipper side of Austin than by staying at the recently renovated San José Hotel, located about half a mile south of downtown on thriving South Congress Avenue. The San José is nestled among the city’s better vintage-clothing and kitschy antiques shops, the popular Yard Dog folk art gallery, the Continental Club (one of Austin’s well-known live-music venues), and the constantly packed Güero’s Mexican restaurant. But it’s also worth staying there just to see how this onetime thirties tourist court, which into the nineties was a notorious fleabag for drug addicts and prostitutes, has been transformed by owner Liz Lambert, a former lawyer in the state attorney general’s office. The San José is now an innovative mix of little bungalows with porches that come with flowerpots and even repainted metal chairs that used to sit in the yards of old Texas motels. There are also large suites next to the swimming pool and tiny but functional upstairs rooms overlooking South Congress. In one of these rooms, you can open your blinds at night and watch the red neon “hotel” light blink on and off: the perfect setting for you to hole up and write your noir novel.
The hotel’s decor is a delight—mainly because it’s so unexpected. There is no plush carpeting in the forty rooms; rather, the floors have been stripped to their concrete base, polished, and covered with throw rugs. The beds, side tables, and writing tables are made of East Texas pine that was harvested back in the thirties. The bedspreads are expensive new versions of the old Indian blankets that were de rigueur for Austin hippies in the seventies. Instead of art, poems by e. e. cummings are tacked to the wall. You can choose music and videos from the hotel library (the CDs are mostly blues and jazz greats, and there’s a good collection of Texas movies, everything from Paris, Texas to Giant). And if you take your dog, Lambert graciously provides dog beds and dog bowls.
Then there is the groovy, mostly female staff. Many of the employees are either in a band, dating someone in a band, or married to someone in a band. The front desk manager is model-turned-mother Karen Sexton (married to the great Austin guitarist Charlie Sexton), and Denia, one of the women who works the front desk, has a new band called Denia and the Devine Five. The small bar, which serves beer and wine, has already become a quiet hangout for the locals. Although there is no restaurant, Lambert’s brother, Lou, who runs a catering shop down the street, cooks steaks and fish on the outdoor grill every Tuesday night. A continental breakfast is served in the lobby, or you can walk across the parking lot to Jo’s (which Lambert also owns), a kind of coffee shack that offers a variety of coffees, bagels, and muffins. Many Austinites rarely go north of the Colorado River—they say everything they need, from Barton Springs to the Broken Spoke, is in South Austin—and after a weekend at the San José, you begin to understand why. SKIP HOLLANDSWORTH
In San Antonio the boutique hotel of choice is the pricey Havana Riverwalk Inn, tucked away on the downtown river about a ten-minute stroll from the main River Walk entertainment district. This could be the one place where you can walk out of your hotel, head to the River Walk, and not feel crushed by the crowds—that is, if you want to leave your room. The Havana’s 27 spacious rooms have a spectacularly historic feel, with great antique four-poster beds, armoires, and desks so big that you and your beloved can dance on them. Decorative touches include vintage photographs of old San Antonio on the walls and well-worn cowboy hats hiding the thermostats in each room. Every floor of the three-story building has a long, covered balcony. The lobby and the dark basement bar are full of ancient, distressed-leather chairs. The hotel’s restaurant, Siboney, operates as a full bakery in the morning, serves salads and sandwiches for lunch, then turns into a tapas bar at night. S.H.
For pure European grandeur, the two best urban boutique hotels in the state are the seven-suite Hotel St. Germain, near downtown Dallas, rated the number-one hotel in Texas by the 1997 Zagat guide, and La Colombe d’Or, in Houston’s museum district. Owned and operated by Claire Heymann, the elegant granddaughter of a Paris antiques dealer, the St. Germain is straight out of the Old World, filled with ornate canopied feather beds, fireplaces in each suite, tapestries on the walls, and on and on. White-gloved butlers with French accents are on hand to take care of your every whim, and in the restaurant you dine on seven-course gourmet meals by candlelight ($85 per person prix fixe). The hotel is just across the street from the tony Crescent shopping area, within walking distance of the city’s best art galleries, and a quick three-minute drive from the Dallas Museum of Art and the Meyerson Symphony Center.
If the St. Germain symbolizes the best of Paris, La Colombe d’Or is like an old, beloved château in the French countryside. Not everything in this refurbished oilman’s mansion is perfect—you’ll find a couple of worn carpets and some nicks in the walls and the furniture—but that is owner Stephen Zimmerman’s idea of how a luxury hotel should look. The original La Colombe d’Or, in the hills above Nice, opened in the twenties, and the owner often let artists stay in its rooms in exchange for one of their works. In similar fashion, Zimmerman puts much of his money into an extensive art collection that covers the walls of his hotel—original oils by Dalí and Kandinsky along with works by little-known modern-day French artists and such Texas painters as Lucas Johnson and Earl Staley. The five suites on the second floor and the penthouse that covers the entire third floor are gigantic: Each has a private dining room that can seat up to fourteen people. There is the obligatory intimate French restaurant on the first floor, with superb cuisine (when you make a reservation, Zimmerman gives you a table for the entire night), and across the hall are a cozy bar and a wood-paneled library. But the real highlight of the hotel is the ballroom. The rococo-style wall panelings—which Zimmerman got from a wealthy Houston oilman who had bought them from an antiques dealer after World War II and then kept them in storage for more than fifty years—were carved by artisans in the 1730’s. The ballroom is not nearly as big as one you can rent at a Marriott, but in a state where bigness is considered a virtue in itself, Zimmerman knows he can get a lot of attention being small. S.H.