Grand Hotel

How I checked in to Dallas’ Mansion on Turtle Creek and found out for myself why it’s a superstar of the country’s inn crowd.

I DON’T WANT TO GIVE the idea that having my shoes polished was the high point of my day and night at the Mansion on Turtle Creek hotel, because it wasn’t. No, the peak experience without question was room service breakfast (shiitake mushroom omelet, perfectly brewed tea, heavy silver on white linen, the best biscuits in Dallas). But I have to say that when the bellman delivered my shoes and I turned them over to find that not only had their black leather uppers been buffed to a glossy sheen but their black composition soles had been washed … I was impressed.

In the rarefied world of deluxe hotels, Dallas’ Mansion on Turtle Creek can hold its well-coiffed head up in the company of any hostelry in the country and quite a few other stately pleasure domes around the world. Its guest list encompasses presidents (Clinton, Bush,  Carter, Ford), entertainers (Madonna, Bill Cosby, John Travolta, Whitney Houston), royalty (Princess Margaret, the king and queen of Sweden), beautiful people (Claudia Schiffer), and national icons (Elizabeth Taylor, Muhammad Ali). Its tony references include the Zagat Survey of Hotels, Resorts and Spas (which just declared it the best hotel in the United States for the third consecutive year), Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice Awards (among the three most outstanding hotels in the country), the Mobil Travel Guide (five out of five stars), and the pedigreed directory Small Luxury Hotels of the World. The roll call of accolades could go on and on, but you get the idea. Which is why I began to wonder, at first idly, then more seriously: What’s the deal? What makes a hotel the “best”? So one night in May I checked in with a friend, using an assumed name, to see what the fuss was about. And, quite frankly, to see if I could find some chinks in its armor.

Stanley Marcus, the former CEO of Neiman Marcus and Dallas’ civic guru in residence, once observed that interior designers and fine hotels are alike in that both strive to create “an intangible sense of euphoria.” At the Mansion, this frisson of heightened expectation begins with the neighborhood—an enclave of serenity and lovingly tended lawns only a few blocks from busy Oak Lawn Avenue and ten minutes from Love Field. The anticipation builds with the driveway—moderately steep, gently curving, culminating in a landscaped circular parking area full of Caddies, Lincolns, Jags, Mercedes, even the occasional Bentley. As I handed over the keys to my considerably more modest vehicle, the valet told me that all I had to do was call and give my last name and the car would be brought around at any time. Good sign: I was a person, not a number. After the driveway, the Mansion’s lobby came as a surprise. Not because it’s unattractive or uncomfortable. In fact, it’s lovely, in a subdued, old-money way, with a taupe velvet sofa, love seats, and ottomans arranged congenially around a polished fossil-limestone fireplace. No, the lobby is a surprise because it’s so, well, small. Of course, the flip side of small is intimate, even homey, and it is easy to imagine oneself sitting in the Mansion’s lobby, pretending to read a book, silently hoping that Cher will slink in.

At the registration desk our reservation was pulled up, and the clerk said, “I see you’re having dinner with us, Mrs. Hamilton. May I confirm the reservation?” One point for service, one demerit for assuming I was “Mrs.” Our room, on the first �oor, was ample but not huge—a 450-square-foot space with a pair of beds, each graced by two tall �uted posts, a sofa and commodious chair, a desk, and a tiny private patio. The color scheme was peaches and cream, with �oral-print fabrics that looked a bit like Scalamandré or Brunschwig and Fils; the bathroom counter was amber marble with brass fixtures. As a little test, and because I truly wanted to know, I called the concierge and asked if one could get the brand name and colors of the paint. In about an hour, a peach-colored envelope was slipped under the door with a handwritten note: Glidden custom shade Mansion P.T. 100 (peach) was used on the walls and Mansion P.T. 101 (cream) on the trim. How many other hotels could provide their color scheme on short notice, if at all?

A few minutes later I was perusing a list describing the Mansion’s business center (computers, copiers, fax machines), the fitness studio (exercise machines, free weights, treadmills), the salon (hair and nails), and the free limo (within a five-mile radius) when there was a knock at the door. “Room service,” announced a voice, and indeed, there was a waiter with complimentary chocolates and passion fruit—�avored iced tea. A lovely touch, made more so because it was completely unexpected.

After calling the laundry service to have three garments pressed in the two hours before dinner and making an appointment for a pedicure the next morning, I decided we should prowl. The swimming pool proved to be quite small, but gratis bottles of Evian arrived the minute we sprawled out on the poolside chaises, and the waiter said we could order anything from ostrich tacos to a sirloin through room service. Walking around to the dark, clubby bar, we found a handful of regulars deep in cigars and Scotch. Eavesdropping on two men at the next table, I learned an unusual definition of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Famine, Pestilence, Bill Clinton, and the ex-fiancée of the younger guy.

Back in the room, we still had time to kill before dinner, so I opened up the rather impressive armoire. These days, of course, many nice hotels conceal the television sets in armoires. But the Mansion takes the concept about five steps further. Inside this Command Central facility was not only a 25-inch TV with 38 channels but also a VCR, a CD player, a tape deck, a fax machine, snacks galore, and a safe. Would we

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