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Dallas Morning News - Travel Section, The Saint Hotel & Niven Morgan

Rest easy in the Big Easy at a boutique hotel

NEW ORLEANS — The Crescent City traditionally works its magic on visitors hungry for the next great bite, thirsty for craft cocktails and searching for music thrills, history lessons and architectural eyefuls.

Now, though, the city can boast that it’s also a fabulous place just to retreat and relax.

In the past 18 months, renovations totaling $527 million have ushered in a new era of hostelry in the Big Easy.

Savvy travelers will notice that rooms in some of the major corporate hotels, which have often been simply a place to sleep in a city that loves to party, are boasting hip new designs, upgraded furnishings, high-tech enhancements and eco-conscious initiatives.

At the same time, boutique hotels are gaining a foothold in the French Quarter and the central business district.

We visited three recently to get a measure of what’s new in New Orleans.

Hotel Mazarin

“There’s no hotel called that on Bienville,” my cabdriver told me after I asked him to take me to the Hotel Mazarin on Bienville between Royal and Bourbon streets. He made me call the hotel to double-check the address. Yes, I told him, it’s the Mazarin. He shook his head and drove on.

When we arrived at the address, he nodded in recognition: “OK, the St. Louis.” Some habits die hard: This was formerly the St. Louis Hotel, which recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation to emerge as a boutique hotel named for Cardinal Jules Mazarin, a French-Italian cardinal and diplomat who served as the chief minister of France from 1642 until his death in 1661. He was a man of rich tastes, a collector of art, fine wine and diamonds; he loved the high life. A fitting name, then, for this welcoming hotel rich in creature comforts not often found in typical tourist hotels in the Quarter.

The reception area isn’t particularly posh, but once you get into your room, you start feeling a bit pampered. My king-bed room felt both baroque (gold mirrors and picture frames; sleek black marble floors; rich tones of wood, black, gold and tan) and modern (iPod-iPhone docking station; generous work desk; 42-inch flat-screen TV with tons of channels; fast and free WiFi).

My favorite touches: bright lighting at the his-and-hers sinks; bedside lamps, each with two electrical outlets; a console holding a coffeemaker, a small refrigerator and a safe; and a plush bed with six pillows and luxurious linens.

A few quibbles: a separate water closet with shower and toilet that had inadequate lighting and was temperamental (water leaked from the gorgeous and generous black marble shower); the lack of a waste bin in the bath area; a knock on my door by housekeeping even though I had the do-not-disturb sign on the knob.

But a hotel that has free bottled water and such lovely linens and towels can be forgiven these small criticisms. I also like the pleasant courtyard with its insider’s access to the hip Patrick’s Bar Vin wine bar. Other perks? There’s a small but well-appointed business desk as well as a small but well-appointed workout room, both just off the courtyard.

About that courtyard: In the morning, it’s the perfect place to take breakfast from the generous spread the hotel lays out for free. After a night of partying, you’ll be beyond grateful for that bottomless cup of good coffee and a hot meal that will help you on your way to feeling normal again.

This 102-room inn is ideally situated in the Quarter and offers a lot for the relatively modest rates it charges (average about $169; a summer deal called Summer in the City includes parking and starts at $139 weekdays).

Hotel Mazarin, 730 Bienville, 504-581-7300; hotelmazarin.com.

The Saint Hotel

Trendiness oozes from the Saint Hotel right out onto Canal Street, where doormen welcome you into what is surely the Quarter’s heaviest dose of hip hostelry in years. The century-old Audubon Building that once housed a Woolworth’s department store has been transformed into a 166-room boutique charmer with the kind of design touches that appeal to pampered, plugged-in voyagers.

You’ll encounter a pool table and speakeasy-style cocktail bar before you even hit the registration desk, where I found a pleasant, smooth and quick transition from stranger to guest. My standard room on the eighth floor (hallways are corridors of blue light) was a white-on-white cube punctuated by pops of navy blue. Exposed bricks on the wall with windows that overlooked Canal Street gave a historical, loftlike feeling to what was otherwise an ultramodern room design. My bed (comfortable king, with nice white linens) with a giant mirror headboard faced a glossy white console-work station with a big TV screen and a slightly forbidding minibar — a $7 bottle of Acqua Panna water (no thanks) and a note that warned me not to use the minibar fridge to save a leftover muffuletta lest I risk a $50 restocking fee for removing its precious contents. Oddly, during my stay, a room down the hall marked “vending” was a mini warehouse of booze and other minibar goodies — it was unlocked the entire time.

The hotel’s workout room was a punitive little thing, and the rooftop bar was still not open. (The Saint opened its doors in January.) There was no TV remote-control in my room, the WiFi was slow, and the sharp corners of the platform bed took a painful dig at my knee.

Still, there was much to like about my room, which reminded me of the sleek design instincts of the Morgans Hotel Group and Thompson Hotels in New York. I especially liked the snug, white, subway-tile bathroom that boasted brilliant lighting, generous Niven Morgan toiletries, a nice-smelling reed diffuser and a glassed-in shower with a rain-can shower head.

The Saint’s location at the corner of Canal and Burgundy puts you within arm’s reach of French Quarter and central business district attractions. The hotel also happens to look smashing. The lobby, a pinball machine of white sheer curtains, modern furniture and funky lighting, looks like ground zero for hipsters. Strange, though: I never once saw a single customer in the lobby restaurant Sweet Olive, whose chef recently gave up his post. The restaurant looks swell, but it had better figure out some new shtick quick, lest the Saint’s halo of hipness is tarnished.

Part of Marriott’s Autograph Collection, the hotel might have some service bumps but definitely is a nice place to hang out (king room starts at $189; $209 for doubles).

The Saint Hotel, 931 Canal St., 504-522-5400; thesainthotelneworleans.com.

The Hotel Modern

Depending on how you look at it, the Hotel Modern New Orleans is either ideally located or frustratingly situated. Ideal? It’s a stone’s throw from several museums, including the National World War II Museum (which also houses a John Besh restaurant), and only blocks from must-do restaurants Cochon, A Mano and Emeril’s. The hotel also boasts its own restaurant, Tamarind, and the bar-of-the-moment thrills of Bellocq with its pre-Prohibition cocktails.

On the down side, the hotel is too far from the French Quarter for most people to hoof it. Forget it if you need a quick cab; they whiz around neighboring Lee Circle but never seem to stop at the doorsteps of this cool hotel that feels more like a private club.

It’s received good buzz; Hotel Modern, like the Saint, was included on Condé Nast Traveler’s 2012 list of Top New Hotels of the Year.

There’s no check-in desk in the Hotel Modern lobby. Instead, guests are greeted with a glass of wine while they are being registered behind the scenes. In a jiffy, I had my room key and I headed upstairs to a 10th-floor suite that resembled the apartment of a chic, artsy friend with good taste. Real art is on the walls, and real books are on the shelves — both for sale should you become attached.

My entryway gave way to a neat living room with mix-and-match furniture. The snug bedroom featured a comfortable brass bed, iPod docking, two lamps, a large, wall-mounted television and a window looking onto Lee Circle.

The bedroom closet held a safe, robes and the thoughtful addition of an umbrella. But where were the iron and ironing board? The large bathroom with its soaking tub-shower looked inviting until you turned on the light. The wattage was low and emitted a strange yellowish glow. Forget trying to put on your makeup, ladies, or putting a correct part in your hair, gents — you won’t be able to see. There also was no hair dryer. The C.O. Bigelow toiletries were a welcome touch, but why was there Dial soap instead of Bigelow soap?

After a late-night dinner, I stopped by the non-registration desk to ask for a wakeup call. The employee wrote down my request for a 5 a.m. call so I could get to the airport for my 7:30 a.m. flight home. When I got to my suite, I noticed something that I hadn’t when I checked in: The only phone was in the living room, not bedside. I pulled the phone as far as it could go, letting it rest on the floor of my bedroom. I was suspicious about the wakeup call, so I slept with one eye open and woke at 4:30 a.m. to begin packing. Sure enough, the call never came.

At the hotel curb, it again took a while to get a cab even after calling for one. While waiting, I told the doorman about the wakeup call. “That happens,” he said. Well, it shouldn’t, especially in a hard-partying town where people rely on the call to get to the airport.

Just then a cab pulled up and discharged its fare. Well, he discharged himself. As the taxi passenger attempted to get out of the car he fell straight to the ground. The cabbie helped him to his feet, and he staggered into the hotel. I jumped in (making sure there were no surprises left on the seat or floor) and began a fascinating chat with the cabdriver, who told me that the inebriated man had no money.

It happens, he said: “I could call the cops, but it would take two hours and that’s more lost money. What are you going to do? It happens. This is New Orleans.”

The Hotel Modern, 936 St. Charles Ave., 504-962-0900; thehotelmodern.com (special summer rates $125 to $165).