Michael W.

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From the outside, the Skyline Hotel in New York resembles a roadside motel...

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...but when you step inside, you find a perfectly solid midrange hotel.

It’s easy to see why a mediocre hotel would do everything in its power to spruce up its exterior: you only get one chance to make a first impression, after all. Exhibits A through Z? How about half the hotels in South Beach, where bright, inviting Art Deco buildings are a dime a dozen but where, if you don’t pick the right one, you could end up in a place like this. What’s surprising is how many hotels there are out there that seem as if they don’t even try to invite you in in the first place. Granted, there’s only so much you can do if you move into a building like this one. But come on, at least cover up a blemish or two with a billboard or something.

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A Peninsula guest, a la Garbo

Some hotels, as we learned last month, charge five figures for a single cocktail. Others, which shall remain nameless — OK, it’s the Four Seasons Maui — deploy poolside staffers to cool down sunbathing guests with spritzes of Evian. And then there’s the Peninsula Beverly Hills, a hotel so exclusive that its true VIPs don’t even bother with the ho-hum 425-square-foot — and $425+ per night — standard rooms. Instead they stay in one of the Peninsula’s 16 villas, each of which has its own private entrance — and each of which costs between $885 and $6,000 a night. (In 2007, Britney Spears hid out from the paparazzi in one after she lost custody of her children to K-Fed.)

In honor of Sunday’s Academy Awards, the Peninsula Beverly Hills, or “PBH” as we in the biz (that would be the hotel biz) call it, has introduced something called “Recapture Classic Hollywood Glamor.” For a mere $950, guests can enjoy the “opportunity to be photographed in a style that brings back the famous black-and-white studio publicity portraits of movie stars in the 1930s and 40s.” Award-winning celebrity photographer Roger G. James “will set up a portrait studio in the guest’s room, complete with makeup, costumes, props and lighting. Within one to two hours, he will transform the guest into a glamorous star from the past, à la Lana Turner, Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable or Greta Garbo and capture the look on black-and-white film.” One such Garbo is pictured above. Not bad, as you can see here.

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The Las Vegas Hilton, home of the largest sports book in the world.

The Las Vegas Hilton, home of the largest sports book in the world.

Now that Valentine’s Day is finally over, it’s time we get back to the important things. Like basketball. College basketball, to be more specific. March Madness, to be even more specific. Yes, you — and by “you,” I mean everyone who considers, as I do, the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament the most wonderful four days of every year — have exactly one month to book your (possibly annual) pilgrimage to Las Vegas to experience, first-hand, the only thing crazier than the brackets themselves: a Vegas sports book on the opening weekend of March Madness.

Those four days in mid-March now rival Super Bowl weekend as the busiest days of the year in Vegas; it’s a safe bet (the only safe bet, to be sure) that it’ll be nuts no matter where you watch the games. But just as all hotels are not created equal, so each casino — each sports book, in particular — offers its own advantages and drawbacks. Yet again, we are at your service.

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The lobby at the Willard in D.C., where the word "lobbyist" allegedly originated.

The lobby at the Willard in D.C., where the word "lobbyist" allegedly originated.

Given how much time presidents spend on the road, it’s no surprise how many noteworthy events — famous and infamous both — have taken place at hotels. If you read our blog on Monday, you know that we have Woodrow Wilson to thank for presidential suites. And any respectable Obamaphile worth her weight in health care reforms already knows that the Obamas spent the week leading up to his inauguration at the Hay-Adams, across the street from their soon-to-be home. But did you know that the two most recent presidential assassination attempts both took place at hotels? Or that the word “lobbyist” might derive from a famous hotel lobby? If not, then this post is dedicated to you (and maybe Washington, Lincoln, and some of those other guys, too).

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"I dropped $200 a night for this?"

"I dropped $200 a night for this?"

The 15 or so oyster-borne food-poisoning deaths that occur every year are caused by a bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus, which thrives in the Gulf of Mexico. We haven’t endured anything quite that heinous on our trips, but we’ve certainly experienced our unfair share of soiled sheets, unwanted guests, and, well, unwanted guests. Not that we enjoy it, exactly, when we end up at fleabag hotels – but they do yield some good stories. And here, in “Rotten Oysters,” is where we tell those stories.

With our first destination of 2010 launching soon (here’s a hint apropos of Rotten Oysters: think, a mouse you do want in your hotel…), we decided to cull reviews of the nearly 850 hotels we covered during our first year and bestow upon each of the following our distinguished mark of shame, a Rotten Oyster.

Strangest Bathing Policy: No shampoo or conditioner allowed at the Runaway Bay Heart Hotel in Jamaica

Yes, you read that right. Because the shower run-off is used to irrigate the hotel’s grounds, the Runaway Bay Heart doesn’t allow you to use anything other than the bar soap they provide.

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The Oak Bar at the Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston, which serves a $12,750 martini (not pictured, because, well, Oyster reporters' per diem is only $12,500 per day).

The Oak Bar at the Fairmont Copley Plaza in Boston, which serves a $12,750 martini (not pictured, because, well, Oyster reporters' per diem is only $12,500 per day).

We were amused and intrigued last week when we saw this story about a $10,000 “proposal martini” available at the Algonquin Hotel’s Blue Bar, especially in light of the Great Recession. A little digging of our own – investigative, not gold – turned up a couple of interesting footnotes. First, that the Algonquin’s is not the only absurdly extravagant cocktail out there. (Not even close: We found at least two more drinks that cost as much as a Nissan.) And second, that people have actually purchased these drinks. In fact, according to Alex Aubry, Food and Beverage Director at the Algonquin, six men used the bar’s “Martini on the Rock” to pop the question in 2005, the year the hotel debuted the cocktail. Since then, that figure has fallen to two or three per year, perhaps because of the economy.

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The Distrikt (on the right, adjacent to the glass building) debuts on Monday.

The Distrikt (on the right, adjacent to the glass building) debuts on Monday.

Yesterday we had the opportunity to get a sneak peek at the brand new Distrikt Hotel in New York, which opens on Monday. Located across the street from the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown West, a few blocks west of Times Square, the Distrikt joins an already-crowded hospitality scene in the city’s most touristed neighborhood: two other midrange hotels, a Four Points Sheraton and a Fairfield Inn, are literally next door. The building is as tall in floors — 33 — as it is wide in feet; that’s Manhattan for you.

The 155-room Distrikt is named for its theme: essentially, the diversity of New York City’s various neighborhoods, or districts. Starting from the bottom of the building (Wall Street, TriBeCa, etc.) and ascending “uptown,” the neighborhood changes every three floors, culminating with Harlem at the top. Other than the views, which obviously improve the more “uptown” you get, the themes manifest themselves in the artwork in the hallways and rooms. You can request which “neighborhood” you want to stay in.
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Hey kids! Don't get dirty!

Playground at the Desert Tides in Las Vegas

At Oyster, our main goal is helping you find the best hotel for your trip. That’s why we visited some 800 hotels in 2009. And that’s why we spend a lot of time and energy compiling “best of” lists, from the most family-friendly hotels in Jamaica to the most luxurious in New York. We even have “best of the best” roundups for a number of categories in each location.

Isn’t it also fun, though, to poke fun at the worst of the worst, to marvel at the derelict and mock the unclean? Yes. Yes it is. In that spirit, welcome to Rotten Oysters, where we mock not just the unclean, but also the unfriendly and ill-equipped, the supercilious and superfluous.

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Punta Cana Hotel

Um? So this is where pregnant chicks like to stand?

First we did creative toilet paper. (Actually, hotels did it. We just took pictures.) Then came clever do-not-disturb signs. Now we present — with inspiration from, and apologies to, one of our favorite travel-related websites, Engrish.com — a few of the silly/baffling/grammatically deficient signs we’ve encountered at hotels we’ve covered.

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Our top 10 new hotels of 2009

by Michael W. on December 28, 2009

W South Beach, one of our top 10 hotels that opened in 2009

W South Beach, one of our top 10 hotels that opened in 2009

It’s the end of the year. That means different things for different people. For some, egg nog. For others — not many others, one assumes — fruit cake. There are a few things, though, that apply to almost everyone: holidays, family, overeating, unmet resolutions (often related to family or overeating), and, of course, year-end top-10 lists. They’re ubiquitous. The top 10 movies of 2009. Top 10 books. Top 10 songs and albums. Time even published a “Top 10 Everything of 2009,” with 50 different lists.

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