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 The Brancatelli File

joe HOTELS GREAT AND CHEAP

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

March 31, 2005 -- This is the bad metaphor that I have always used about life on the road: The airlines drive the bus.

My point is that, for better or worse, the stuff that the airlines do generates a disproportionate amount of the publicity and attention. We spend more time in hotels and our life on the road is generally defined more by our interaction with hotels than with airlines, but, somehow, it's always the airlines that get the ink.

Maybe it's because we feel that we're prisoners of an airline. After all, if we don't like our room, we can check out and move to a hotel down the street. Or maybe it's because we feel that the airlines have our lives in their hands. After all, checking into a hotel doesn't feel like a leap of faith. Or maybe it's just because hotels generally do a better job than airlines so we don't think about them as much.

But this week, at least, let's try to redress the balance a bit. I've been stacking up files and observations and little notes about some hotels I've visited lately. Hotels great and cheap. Hotels lavish and sleek. Hotels modern and traditional. Hotels international and domestic. Let me tell you about a few.

THE NEW BIG DEAL IN DUBLIN
Once upon a time, when you went to Dublin, you checked into the Shelbourne on St. Stephen's Green. The Shelbourne is a Marriott now and frankly a bit tatty. The Four Seasons Dublin, nice as it is, is too far away from where most of us do business in central Dublin. Which brings us to The Merrion, opened in 1997 inside a series of 18th-century Georgian townhouses across from the seat of Irish government.

With 125 rooms and 25 suites, The Merrion is where the power crowd stays in Dublin now. The public rooms are lush, but intimate, with cushy furniture and big log fireplaces. The guestrooms in the Main House are classically elegant; guestrooms in the Garden Wing are more modern, but quite plummy. Dublin's best dining room (Restaurant Patrick Guilbaud) and its most attractive pub (The Cellar) are on the premises. There's a lovely series of courtyard gardens, a spa with a stunning swimming pool and an exceptionally helpful staff. The rooms have been wired for high-speed Internet, too.

The bottom line: The Merrion is what classically styled modern luxury hotels should be: Big enough to have everything you need on the road, but cozy enough to feel like home. You'll pay for the privilege, especially in Dublin, the priciest city in Europe, but the best of class is never cheap. (Published rates start at €370 a night; promotional rates start at €210.)

CUTTING-EDGE STYLE BEHIND A CLASSIC FAÇADE
If the Merrion goes for a classic style inside its 18th-century shell, the same cannot be said for the Radisson Edwardian in Manchester, the northern English city that was once the center of the world's cotton industry.

Opened last year in an ultra-modern, 16-story tower, the Radisson Edwardian Manchester is tucked behind and connected to the façade of one of the world's great buildings, the Manchester Free Trade Hall, built in 1856. The Free Trade Hall façade is all arches and columns and warm stone and ormolu. The hotel itself is all angles and lines and glass and cutting-edge modernity. The 263 guestrooms and suites are aggressively, almost uncomfortably, fashion-forward. The bathrooms are clad in marble and slate and have walk-in showers. The workspace in each guestroom is also ultra-modern, with high-speed Internet access, European plugs rather than the bulky, old-style British plugs and phones with their own number that bypass the central switchboard. Each room also has a Bang & Olufsen entertainment center. The hotel offers two dining rooms, a spa and lots of meeting space, as befits its goal of being a convention-venue property.

The bottom line: You won't fall in love at first sight with the design of the rooms in the Radisson Edwardian Manchester--I couldn't find the hidden toiletries cabinet and the free-standing sinks inexplicably have no place for soap--but you will be impressed with the style. And the merger of the ultra-modern with the Victorian Free Trade Hall is impressive and, ultimately, effective. And I'd rather stay here than the fussy, self-satisfied Lowry, the Rocco Forte Hotel that sits atop the market and the Manchester train terminal. (Business Class rates start at £155 a night and include breakfast and late checkout, but not the 17.5 percent value-added tax.)

HAMPTON INN UPS THE LOW-END ANTE
Lest you think that I spend all my time in swanky hotels in exotic overseas locations, let me assure you that I actually spend a lot more of my life on the road in domestic motels by the side of the access road to the airport. And, you know, that's fine with me. I believe that one of America's most important contributions to world culture is great, cheap hotels.

One chain in what the hotel industry is fond of calling the "focused-service" category, Hampton Inn, remains a great value-for-money buy when you need a no-nonsense hotel room for a night or two. And as a year-old upgrade of Hampton's brand standards begins to take hold at the more than 1,200 locations around the nation, you would be hard-pressed to find holes in the concept.

The sheets and bedding have been noticeably improved. Each guestroom is now equipped with a lap desk, which is nice since most rooms are also now equipped with free Wi-Fi or, at worst, wired high-speed access. The bathrooms have been upgraded, too, with better-quality towels and amenities. The shower-curtain rods have been curved to give the feeling of more space in the combination tub-showers. Another smart move: The shower curtains are clear at the top, which permits more light into the shower. None of this will make you feel like you're in a Ritz-Carlton, but they are all nice touches.

Hampton has also improved its free breakfast offerings with more hot items and upgraded cold and packaged items. I'm not much of a breakfast guy myself, but road warriors I've interviewed give the new Hampton buffet an emphatic thumbs up. Hampton also offers take-away breakfast bags now, too. They are stuffed with fruit, a cereal bar, a muffin and bottled water. You want an in-flight breakfast? Grab a Hampton breakfast bag before you leave for the airport.

The bottom line: Twenty years after they were created, Hampton Inn remains a smart choice when you're looking for a good night's stay at a reasonable price. You're never going to come back off the road raving about your stay at a Hampton Inn, but you're almost never going to be disappointed, either.

This column originally appeared at JoeSentMe.com.

Copyright © 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.