WHEN I WAS A THREE-FOOT-TALL traveler who frequented chain motels, I went wild over the miniature bars of Ivory soap, the cellophane-wrapped glasses, and even the sash across the toilet seat. These days, it takes a bit more to thrill me, and hoteliers don’t shrink from the challenge, wooing me with everything from high-thread-count linens to palatial spas with treatment menus as thick as Gideon Bibles. While Texas boasts plenty of notable lodgings—the famously inviting Mansion on Turtle Creek, in Dallas; the chic hideaways at Cibolo Creek Ranch, near Big Bend; the hip Hotel San José, in Austin; and a bevy of historic grande dames like Austin’s Driskill—I went looking for something more than just a great stay. At the risk of sounding like a Hollywood agent, I was searching for places that popped and sizzled. Sure, newness didn’t hurt, but what I was really looking for was nowness. In other words, to make the cut a hotel had to have the kind of buzz generated not only by material goodies like goose-down pillows, rooftop pools, and fancy shampoos but also by such intangibles as a sense of humor or a ton of class. And who am I to judge? Well, after a lifetime in Texas and a decade as a travel writer, I figure I’ve spent the night in hundreds of beds in this state alone. So with all due respect to your personal favorites, here, in no particular order, are mine.
If Madonna, a French count, and a set designer from a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams decided to open a hotel, the result would be Hotel ZaZa. Since its arrival on the scene in 2002, this whimsical palace of enlightened eroticism and raging urbanity has remained wildly popular. One weekend when the hotel was sold out, a man was so desperate for a room that he offered the front-desk clerk a $900 bonus (to no avail). Another time, someone scalped his room reservation on the street out front for quite a profit. And just try to wedge your way into the outdoor poolside club, Urban Oasis, on a Saturday night, when lights bathe the perky cocktail crowd in changing shades of pink, green, blue, and orange and fan-generated breezes spin the giant beach balls in the pool. Unlike some hotels, ZaZa’s personality doesn’t evaporate as soon as you leave the public spaces. Naughty Helmut Newton photographs and exotic furnishings such as a huge wooden horse from Indonesia line the hallways, and the concept suites are odes to individuality, from the red-black-and-Warholed Art Suite to the tailored, masculine Metropolitan Suite. Even the spacious, high-style standard rooms have their eccentricities: Nightly turndown service includes lighting votive candles and leaving a box of, say, Milk Duds on your pillow, and minibar selections go beyond a diet cola and a bag of mixed nuts. (The Shag Bag includes condoms and gender-specific vitamins.)
Insider tip: ZaZa condos and a spa are currently being constructed smack up against one window of, yes, the Zen Suite. Scenesters will be happiest with a room overlooking the pool, known for its late-night parties; sleepsters should request a room facing a quiet side street (although all rooms come with complimentary earplugs).
There’s a teddy bear on the bed, a rubber duck in the slate shower, and on the desk, a Siamese fighting fish swimming in a glass bowl. Now, before your cloy-o-meter sounds the alarm, let me assure you that, except for these few playful accents, the rooms in this renovated former wholesale grocery are otherwise the picture of pared-down simplicity: crisp white linens, leather club chairs, polished longleaf-pine floors. But never fear: You won’t have to do without modern-day necessities like Internet connections, white-noise machines, flat-screen TVs, and DVD players. Thank goodness the innkeepers realized that piling on the frippery would only detract from the building’s 121-year-old architectural strengths: soaring ceilings, brick walls, and enormous ten-foot-tall windows that frame intimate cityscapes. The views from the hotel’s seventeen rooms play like film clips from a (nearly) silent documentary: sightseeing barges cruising under arched stone footbridges, gaggles of tourists crossing Losoya and Commerce streets, and the Tower of the Americas revolving in the middle distance. Should you decide to join the passing parade, you’re only one block from the Alamo, across the street from a trolley station and the Rivercenter Mall, and steps from landmark eateries like Schilo’s Delicatessen and Tex-Mex stalwart Casa Rio.
Insider tip: The Hugman Vista, a corner suite named in honor of the architect who dreamed up the River Walk, is tops for its views, while the Joske’s Vista, overlooking the ornate facade of the venerable department store (now a Dillard’s), is a bit quieter.
Mansion at Judges’ Hill
Perhaps because this new boutique hotel sits only a couple of blocks from the University of Texas campus, I suddenly felt the need to develop an objective, scientific formula for my lodging critiques. Could I figure out how to assign numeric values to intangibles like historical importance? The hotel is, after all, the latest incarnation of the Goodall Wooten mansion, which began life in 1900 as a wedding gift to Ella Newsome and Goodall Wooten from her parents and has served over the years as a society showplace, a dormitory, a sorority house, and a rehab center. Would it be possible to quantify its restored turn-of-the-century grandeur, factoring in such variables as massive columns, original longleaf-pine floors, a wraparound verandah, coffered ceilings, and period furnishings? Could I devise an ooh-aah quotient based on its high-speed Internet access, free parking, imported linens, and sumptuous bathrooms? Would these questions best be resolved over breakfast, lunch, or dinner in the Mansion’s ambitious restaurant—or should I just sleep on them?
Insider tip: With its matched Victorian bedroom suite, ornamental marble fireplace, and French doors opening onto the second-story verandah, room 24 reeks of days-gone-by elegance.
With its blue-and-white-striped awnings, six flags of Texas flapping over the entry, geranium-filled window