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