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Time for a splurge in S.F.

Times Staff Writer

Luxury hotels in this city all but have “on sale” signs tacked to their doors. All things are relative, of course, and at the four- and five-star level, a room for two at $200 and lower is a steal.

These days, it’s also a reality.

So if you’re fed up with bounce-back foam pillows, coat hangers permanently affixed to their rods and other annoyances of mid-priced hotels, it may be time for a splurge in San Francisco, where tourism has been hit hard by the dot-com collapse, the Sept. 11 fallout and a resulting hotel room glut.

To splurge is to step into a world of down pillows and duvets, padded satin hangers, complimentary newspapers and shoeshines, 24-hour room service, luxurious linens and thirsty terry robes, lighted magnifying mirrors, nightly turndown service and bonbons on your pillow. Some of these hotels will even take Fido, though that may add up to $75 to your bill.

Although not all image-conscious establishments are eager to advertise that they’re doing deep discounting, anyone with a computer and/or an auto club or American Express card can find good rates. Some bargains are Internet only; a telephone call directly to hotels often will yield rates that match those on the Web. But you must ask.

Late last month I checked into five luxury hotels on five nights, Monday through Friday: two grandes dames, the Fairmont and the Palace, both of which have had multimillion-dollar renovations; the Clift, transformed under new ownership; the recently renovated Campton Place, a boutique hotel; and the year-old Four Seasons.

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My quest for good deals began on the Internet, where sites such as Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity post a dizzying range of rates for the same rooms, typically moderate or standard doubles with king-size beds. (Other good Web site sources are www.quikbook.com and www.hotelres.com.) I then telephoned the hotels -- never identifying myself as a Times travel writer -- and asked for their best rates. The first rate quoted was rarely the best rate available. It took a little persistence to get to the bottom line, but once I did, the savings were substantial.

Why this windfall? For two years straight, San Francisco has been the hardest hit of any U.S. city. And with about 31,000 hotel rooms to be filled, the dramatically decreased demand has created a buyers’ market.

“People can come up from L.A. and get great hotel rates and probably will be able to do so through the middle of the year,” says Gary Carr of PKF Consulting, which tracks such matters for the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau.

PKF figures released last week show that, year to date, the average daily room rate citywide is down 15.7% from 2001, and occupancy is down too. In September, rates at high-end hotels ($160 a day and up) averaged $199.62, down from $208.39 last year.

Flying to San Francisco, I pondered how a bargain hunter would be received at these posh hotels. Would I be treated like a refugee from Motel 6, shuffled off to a dark cubicle next to the ice machine?

The reality: Although several rooms were on the small side, all were luxurious. All had down pillows -- usually four -- and most had duvets. At most of the hotels, bells and whistles included in-room high-speed Internet access, voicemail, irons and boards, in-room movies ($10.99 to $12.99), CD players, two or three telephones, including one in the bath, and mini-bars with overpriced snacks and drinks (and, at the Clift, condoms). All but the Clift had ice machines on each floor. Fitness and spa facilities ranged from a canopied terrace with the standard exercise equipment (Campton Place) to the state-of-the-art, 100,000-square-foot Sports Club/L.A. and Splash spa at the Four Seasons.

“Extras,” such as overnight parking rates up to $45 and add-ons as high as 75% for long-distance telephone calls, can quickly pad room rates. It’s good to keep in mind that the room rates do not include a 14% citywide tax.

Here’s what I found:

*

Cozy, classy Campton Place

Any fears of being treated like a second-class tourist were dispelled the moment I walked into the 110-room Campton Place, a little gem wrapped around an atrium with a Zen-inspired garden. This boutique hotel, just off the newly spiffed-up Union Square, opened in 1983 in the former Drake-Wiltshire space and underwent a $15-million renovation in 2000.

Published rates began at $335, but I paid $195.

I was warmly welcomed by name and taken to my fifth-floor room, which made up in amenities for what it lacked in space. Minimalist in shades of beige, with rich pear wood, it had a spacious bath, wonderful lighting and a double-paned window that shut out city sounds.

It was noontime, so I ducked around the corner to Maiden Lane, where at Mocca, a little cash-only Italian cafe, the sandwich-and-salad crowd included shoppers bearing bags from the chic stores around Union Square and along Post Street.

Room service prices, though daunting, are less than at some of the other hotels. American breakfast -- bacon and eggs, juice, toast and coffee -- is $19 plus $2 delivery charge, 15% gratuity and taxes. But there’s always Starbucks next door.

Knowing the reputation of the hotel’s restaurant chef, Laurent Manrique, I had booked a dinner reservation. This was the week’s big splurge -- about $100, including tip and a split of California Sauvignon Blanc. With only 14 diners in a room for 65, I had a waiter for every course. The halibut, three perfect medallions in a sauce of diced tomatoes, black olives and capers, served on a bed of pureed potatoes, didn’t disappoint. And the homemade prune ice cream -- yes, prune -- with Armagnac was memorable. The piece de resistance of the room decor, San Francisco artist Nikolas Weinstein’s glass chandelier, was a bit baffling: wilting calla lilies, perhaps, or some exotic sea anemone?

Returning to my room, I found on the nightstand two Mrs. Fields cookies, the next day’s weather forecast and, on the floor by the bed, a small mat and a pair of terry slippers with the hotel’s signature swan logo. I put my shoes outside my door; the next morning they had been shined.

It was inviting, friendly and intimate, with great service, a good location just off Union Square and a tranquil Asian-inspired ambience. Standard rooms are on the small side but have generous baths. There’s a top-echelon restaurant and a clubby bar.

*

The Fairmont’s fabulous face lift

At the 591-room Fairmont, which last year completed an $85-million restoration, I had booked a view room in the original low-rise for $224.65 (recent rates began at $169 for the lowest-level room) but was upgraded without explanation to a 16th-floor tower room with a dazzling view. In greens and golds, it was big and formal, with traditional dark wood furniture. The fringed moss green velvet draperies recalled those from which Scarlett fashioned a costume to beguile Rhett. Still, it was a lovely room, with generous marble bath (tub and shower) and mirrors galore.

Scanning the room service breakfast menu, I was reminded that luxury has its price. Continental breakfast is $17, plus a $3.50 service charge, tax and a 17% gratuity. I opted out, having discovered downstairs Espressions, where a bagel and coffee cost $3.50. The rich may be different from you and me, but I noticed other guests at these hotels engaging in small economies, such as schlepping their own bags or eating at modestly priced places nearby.

Even on Nob Hill, I spotted two small spots, Vicino and the Nob Hill Cafe, at Clay and Taylor, only a short walk from the major hotels. In the theater district, across Geary Street from the Clift, are David’s delicatessen, Max’s and a California Pizza Kitchen.

The paucity of visitors to the city is evident, both in some of the high-end shops and in the restaurants. At the Fairmont’s kitschy Tonga Room, which by popular demand has been little changed since 1945, there were a dozen guests on a Tuesday night. I ordered a mai tai in a faux coconut shell and settled into a wicker chair to watch the rain on the roof.

After checking out of the Fairmont, I checked in with Jeff Doane, the hotel’s sales and marketing director, who took me on a tour from the $10,000-a-night penthouse suite to the Venetian Room, where Tony Bennett first sang in public “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” The Fairmont’s crowning glory is its Edwardian lobby, now ivory and gold, with stately marble columns and gilded mirrors. “From 1945 to 1999, this was a red and black hotel,” said Doane as we crossed the lobby. Gone are the black walls and the red velvet bordello decor, replaced with sofas and chairs in soft cocoas. Gone too is the red and black carpet, yanked up to expose the circa-1907 marble floor. In the adjacent Laurel Court restaurant and lounge, false ceilings have been removed to reveal lovely twin glass domes.

This palatial landmark, very Old San Francisco, is for those who prefer big hotels with elegant public rooms. There’s good people-watching from one of the greatest of all hotel lobbies. The rooms are nicely sized, traditionally furnished, some with sweeping views, and the Fairmont has an excellent Nob Hill location, cable car-close to all.

*

The understated, elegant Four Seasons

The next day I checked into the Four Seasons, a 277-room oasis of privilege that occupies 12 floors of a 40-story residential high-rise on Market Street. I paid $299; published rates begin at $469.

It was built for $364 million and opened just a year ago. In the fifth-floor lobby, geometric glass sculptures at either end of the gilded 60-foot ceiling cast prisms of light. Contemporary works by Northern California artists adorn walls of richly burnished wood.

The neighborhood, although being gentrified, is still a mix, not the best place for an evening stroll. But from the Four Seasons, the fast-food joints and tacky storefronts, the buskers and beggars, seem of another planet.

I had a corner room with tall windows, a lavish bath with window and deep tub, and a king bed with pillow-top mattress. The colors were soothing: sage and buttery taupe, the Art Deco furnishings handsome. I found a laminated card on an elastic string with a map of suggested city jogging routes.

One of the hotel’s prides is its state-of-the-art Sports Club/L.A. complex, which is free to guests. Occupying two levels, it has a basketball court, restaurant and the Splash spa, where I booked a 50-minute massage with Heather ($85) and was soon relaxing on a heated table while she pummeled and kneaded. I passed on the oxygen facial and the soy and mud wrap.

At the cocktail hour, the wood-paneled Living Room lounge off the lobby adjacent to Seasons restaurant beckoned. Candles flickered in the low light, and my drink came with a linen coaster and napkin. For nibbling there were wasabi peanuts and olives. My club sandwich was made with real turkey. Soon the house pianist, who had a fondness for romantic tunes from the ‘40s, began playing to a largely empty room.

The Four Seasons is stunning. It has generous rooms and baths, exquisitely understated wood-paneled public rooms and friendly service. There’s some Market Street noise on lower floors. It’s not as convenient to theaters and shopping as some, but it’s steps to San Francisco Shopping Centre mall and other South of Market destinations.

*

An Old World feel at the Palace

The next morning I rolled my bag the two blocks to the 552-room Palace, where, without asking, I was upgraded to a spacious $775 corner suite for which I paid $199. (Published rates begin at $590.) The Palace, now a Starwood hotel, opened in 1875 and had become a bit tired before being shuttered for a top-to-bottom renovation completed in 1991 at a cost of $140 million. Now the glass-domed Garden Court, one of the most beautiful of all hotel spaces, sparkles. Enjoying a shrimp salad before check-in, I imagined onetime guests Sarah Bernhardt or Oscar Wilde sitting beneath a potted palm.

My suite, traditional with dark woods and blue and gold decor, lacked nothing, though the bath was small, with a curtained tub-shower combination. A corner desk in the living room overlooked a tall, curved window with an ornamental iron rail. The corridors are grandly wide, the original PH brass doorknobs on guest rooms brightly polished.

The next day, as I walked south from the hotel a few blocks to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, I paused on Mission Street, where, near 3rd Street, a queue had formed at A.G. Ferrari, an Italian marketplace-deli from which came irresistible scents of cheeses and olives. There were panini and salads to be eaten at little round tables.

For dinner that night I chose the light menu at the Palace’s Pied Piper Bar, where it’s said Mark Twain used to lunch. Three hours until midnight closing, it was almost empty. The Promenade, the grand galleria that cuts through the hotel for most of a city block, was deserted. Occupancy has been “up and down,” said hotel sales coordinator Liz Pasha, although half of October was sold out. When I checked out, a doorman thanked me profusely “for staying with us.”

I left behind an elegant, Old World hotel with nicely sized rooms. It’s big and a bit impersonal. Like its neighbor the Four Seasons, it’s not as well situated for theater and shopping as some, but it is close to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Yerba Buena Gardens and Moscone Convention Center.

*

The oh-so-happening Clift

Day 5 brought me to the theater district and the 375-room Clift, home of the Art Deco Redwood Room, an icon for generations of San Franciscans. The hotel, formerly a Four Seasons, is now owned by Ian Schrager Hotels and reopened in July 2001 after a $25-million makeover from which it says it emerged “a wonderland for the jet set.”

Stepping through the tall glass doors is a bit like falling down the rabbit hole. French designer Philippe Starck’s eclectically playful lobby accommodates a French bronze chair three times the size of a normal chair; a Salvador Dali table; metal sculptures for sitting; and an ostrich sofa with horns, created by French cartoonist Michel Haillard. (“Yak horns,” the concierge explained. “They’re shed, not killed.”)

My room was, to be charitable, cozy, the bath so small (4 1/2 by 6 1/2 feet) that there was no place to put anything. There was a curtained shower-tub combination, and the plumbing was sluggish, the shower running hot and cold. But the room had charm, with its sycamore sleigh bed, yards of shimmery champagne draperies, little chrome lamps and a lavender chair with a lavender throw and orange plexiglass cubes for bedside tables. A crystal vase on the desk held a stem of orchids. All this for $195; published rates begin at $325.

The guest directory told me that, for $12 a night, I could rent a DVD -- everything from “Gone With the Wind” to adult movies. CDs, $6 a night, ranged from Snoop Dogg to Tony Bennett singing you know what. Absolut vodka was $95 a bottle from room service. (It’s about $30 at your local grocery.) There also was a you-gotta-be-kidding price list for purchase of in-room amenities ($300 for that lavender throw, $50 for a small, garden-variety hair dryer).

When I called to reserve for a late dinner in the Redwood Room I was told that, it being Friday, I’d have to take my chances. The Redwood is as beautiful as ever, despite the Gustav Klimt reproductions having been replaced by ever-changing digital art on flat-screen TVs. On a Friday it’s SRO, a hip young crowd, lots of singles. I spotted a small brown leather sitting cube and moved it to a spot against a wall. No sooner had I commandeered a tiny plastic table than a man asked, covetously, “Is that a table or a seat?” It was a table, and I wasn’t giving it up. The canned music, some sort of rock, was deafening. As passersby swept French fries off my plate, I remembered with fondness the old Redwood Room, with its tinkling piano and air of civility.

At breakfast in the adjacent Asia de Cuba, Michael, my waiter, literally danced to the table. (Yes, that music again.) It’s hard to believe this once was the stuffy French Room, all Louis Whatevers and crystal chandeliers. Now it is an inviting extension of the Redwood, with wood paneling, brown velvet draperies and leather banquettes with tall fan-shaped backs. A 30-foot cross-shaped etched glass table, lighted from beneath, with high bar stools for 24 guests, is inspired.

I ate my pancakes and checked out, off to look at more luxury hotels.

The Clift is decidedly eccentric and avant-garde, not for traditionalists. It has a young, hip clientele and a friendly young staff. Venture into the popular Redwood Room on a weekend night at your own risk. Standard rooms and baths are small. It’s well located off Union Square in the heart of the theater district.

*

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The way to get a deal: Ask

In search of more bargains, we checked out prices at a dozen other traditionally pricey San Francisco hotels. Asking for a rate card elicited one of two responses: There wasn’t one because rates are in flux, or there was one but the rates didn’t apply. Clerks were almost invariably happy to show a room.

Grand Hyatt, 345 Stockton St., (415) 398-1234, www.grandsanfrancisco.hyatt.com. At this 685-room convention-oriented hotel just off Union Square, the clerk said, “Our rates change all the time. I’m sure we’ll be having some holiday specials.” Regular rates start at $169, but specials abound.

Huntington, 1075 California St. on Nob Hill, (415) 474-5400, www.huntingtonhotel.com. A clerk at the 135-room, family-owned hotel handed over a rate card, scribbling reduced prices alongside printed ones -- $310 for a luxury $455 double, $195 for the $310 superior double.

Mandarin Oriental, 222 Sansome St., (415) 276-9888, www.mandarinoriental.com/sanfrancisco. The clerk at this 158-room hotel wrote special holiday rates good through November and into December alongside printed rates -- $250 for a $540 deluxe king, up to $450 for the most spacious view king, listed at $725.

Milano, South of Market at 55 5th St., www.hotelmilanosf.com, (415) 543-8555. Rate cards have been removed at this 108-room hotel, but the clerk quoted a range from $199 to $299, then advised asking for park-and-stay specials.

Nikko, 222 Mason St., (415) 394-1111, www.nikkohotels.com. “Rates go up and down,” a clerk said of the 532-room hotel. He offered a November special of $159 a night for a king for a package that would have cost $235, including free parking (usually $30) and a sake martini.

Nob Hill Lambourne, 725 Pine St., (415) 433-2287, www.nobhilllambourne.com. “It’s best to call. Rates vary these days,” said the agent at this 20-room hotel. She offered a brochure, on which she wrote a price of $189 for a deluxe queen and $219 for a deluxe suite. All rooms have kitchenettes; rates include breakfast and a wine-and-cheese hour.

Pan Pacific, 500 Post St., (415) 771-8600, www.panpac.com. At this 330-room place, a cheerful agent produced a sheet showing rooms and suites ranging from $365 to $2,500, then suggested calling in-house reservations for a better rate and mentioned a Thanksgiving special of $129 for a superior queen from Nov. 22 through 30.

Renaissance Stanford Court, 905 California St. on Nob Hill, (415) 989-3500, www.marriott.com. No rate sheet was available for this 400-room hotel. “Rates constantly change, depending upon availability,” a clerk said. Regular rates start at $170, deluxe view rooms at $199.

Ritz-Carlton, 600 Stockton St., (415) 296-7465, www.ritzcarlton.com. Only at the 336-room Ritz was a rate card handed over with no comment. The lowest listed rate was $500 for a deluxe room. A check of the hotel’s Web site showed rooms starting at $355 and, through Dec. 30, a $369 as-available package with overnight parking, American breakfast for two and a 25% discount certificate for shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue.

San Francisco Marriott, 55 4th St., South of Market, (415) 896-1600, www.marriott.com. The 1,498-room hotel did not have a rate card but quoted a special of $189 to $204 with breakfast for two, adding, “It fluctuates from day to day.”

W, 181 3rd St., near Yerba Buena Gardens, (415) 777-5300, www.whotels.com. A standard room starting at $299 was offered at this 423-room hotel. But that changes, the clerk said, “depending on when you book and whom you book with.”

Westin St. Francis, 335 Powell St. on Union Square, (415) 397-7000, www.westin.com. A rate card also was unavailable at the 1,194-room hotel. The clerk mentioned a range of $189 to $469, adding, “Rates vary according to occupancy.”


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