As soon as I opened the door, the olfactory assault began. Instinctively, I put my hands over my nose and blurted out "Sweet Pete that's nasty!" Welcome to my night at the Midtown Hotel. The stink of mothballs and mold — or maybe it was ammonia and mushrooms — clung to my jacket like a stubborn tick for several days after my stay.
I was playing tourist in my own city for a week, visiting hotels that have always piqued my curiosity. I wondered if the natty new Verb Hotel lived up to all the ballyhoo. I wanted to see if Condé Nast Traveler was correct when it named XV Beacon the best hotel in the country. And then there was the Midtown.
My sense of smell is on par with a Shih Tzu suffering from a sinus infection, and yet a can of room deodorizer and a T-shirt tied to my face didn't help the situation at the Back Bay hotel. Fortunately, it was the only place where I encountered such a pungent violation.
I evaluated five Boston hotels, each in a different price range and category. I graded them based on amenities such as mattress comfort, Wi-Fi, and how well the shampoo could tame my split ends. I also took into account what I paid for the rooms. Boston is one of the most expensive cities in the world for lodging, and like any traveler, I wanted to squeeze my nickels as much as possible. Here's what I discovered on my hotel hop.
The new kid on the block: The Verb Hotel
The vibe: I had high expectations for the Verb. When it opened last summer, it was the darling of the city's hospitality scene, thanks to the original 1959 midcentury Modernist architecture and rock 'n' roll memorabilia. The lobby has a turntable, a jukebox, and the Marshall amps are actually refrigerators (clever!). I'm pretty sure every newspaper and magazine in Boston shot a fashion spread here.
The room: My room was decorated with enlarged, mounted covers from the late, great Boston Phoenix. There were cute little rock 'n' roll touches all over. The ironing board cover read "Some like it hot," and there was a picture of girls screaming for Donny Osmond inside the bathroom door. I didn't like those girls watching me while I showered. I was disappointed by the drafty windows in my room. I could feel the cold air pouring in even when the heavy drapes were pulled closed. I suspect these were the hotel's original windows. It's one retro touch that could use some updating. Hip design can't keep you warm at night when there's a 10 degree windchill.
Would you steal the toiletries? Indeed. There was C.O. Bigelow lavender and mint-scented soap, shampoo, conditioner, and body lotion.
Ironing board: Yes.
Wi-Fi: Free. There were outlets and USB charging ports built into the nightstand.
Parking: Valet parking for $39 a night.
Dining options: A basic breakfast was included. This summer, the owners of O Ya will open a new restaurant here. There was a refrigerator in my room, but no minibar. There is also no room service. It's BYOB if you want to party like the rock stars whose pictures were everywhere. The Verb is practically begging for a cool bar.
Conclusion: I liked the Palm Springs aesthetic of the Verb, but I felt that the price was steep for what I got. Perhaps if I stayed during summer when the swimming pool was open and the windows weren't so drafty I'd feel less cranky about those Donny Osmond fans who watched me while I showered.
The top tier: XV Beacon
The vibe: Condé Nast Traveler rated XV Beacon the top hotel in the country last fall. It's also listed in Time magazine and US News and World Report as being one of the top five Boston hotels. I was expecting to be intimidated, but the luxury enveloped me like a toasty pashmina. If I needed to get around the city, I could reserve a free ride in a Lexus, my room had a bath salts menu, and there was a rooftop garden. Once you have a bath salts menu, it's tough to go back home and shower with Dial soap. The Beaux Arts property opened as the Boston Transit Commission Building in 1904.
My room: I walked in, jumped on the Frette sheets, and turned on the fireplace. Yes, my room had a fireplace. It also had a heated towel rack, a fainting sofa, and one of the most comfortable mattresses I've ever slept on. The hotel has turn-down service, but sadly my room was not serviced. It struck me as odd that the nightstands in such a perfect room would be basic restaurant tables covered in fabric.
Would you steal the toiletries? Probably not. They are made specifically for the hotel and I thought it would be obvious if I took them.
Ironing board: Not in the room, but available by calling the front desk.
Parking: $46 a night.
Dining options: My jaw hit the floor when I opened the minibar. There was champagne, wine, hard liquor, and mixers. There were even full-size bottles of the essentials (gin, whisky, and vodka). Now I know how the other half drinks. There was 24-hour room service, and breakfast was not included. Adjacent to the hotel, there is a restaurant called Mooo that's billed as a modern steakhouse. The night I stayed, the restaurant was so busy, I had to have dinner at the bar.
What I paid: $490 through the app Hotel Tonight.
Conclusion: There was little to find fault with, and I'm an expert at finding fault. The price was steeper than the Alps, but let me remind you that there was a car service, a fireplace in my room, and a bath salts menu.
The throw-back: The Midtown Hotel
The vibe: In a word, old. When I checked in the clerk flipped though paper files, not a computer, to find my reservation. If I squinted and blocked my nose, I could envision what a cool place this must have been in its 1960s glory days. It's a good location and usually less expensive than many other hotels, but when does a bargain stop being a bargain?
My room: I had plenty of space and two double beds, but I had a hard time relaxing because my room smelled like a decomposing Pine Sol forest. To be fair to the Midtown, the odor was my biggest and generally only complaint. The chairs looked as if they were purchased at Staples in 1998, and I'm pretty sure that the coffee maker was the same model my parents once used in their trailer, but the beds were comfortable and the room was quiet.
Would you steal the toiletries? Nope
Ironing board: Yes.
Parking: $29 in attached garage.
Dining options: A full range of food and beverage options were available from the vending machine across the hall from my room. I recommend the Fritos.
Gym: No, but it had a beauty salon and outdoor swimming pool.
What I paid: $256.48 through the Midtown's website.
Conclusion: I've read reviews from guests who have paid $100 or $120 a night for a room. If that's what I paid, I would have shut my yap about the smell. I searched my favorite app, Hotel Tonight, before I checked into the Midtown that night and saw that I could have booked a room for $153 at the Park Plaza.
The see-and-be-seen: The Liberty Hotel
The vibe: There is almost always a party in the mammoth circular lobby of the hotel. My party started when I was handed a glass of champagne upon check-in, and then continued with another glass at the bar. Don't judge, I was just doing my job and blending in with the crowd. Every Thursday night style lovers gather here for the Fashionably Late series of runway shows. There's jazz on Wednesdays and DJs on the weekend. This is the liveliest hotel lobby scene in town. When I returned to my room after midnight on a Friday, I had to elbow my way through a crowd of lovely young women with tiny skirts that barely covered their cabooses.
My room: I've been wanting to stay at the Liberty since it opened in 2007. This was once the Charles Street jail, and every time I'm here I marvel at what great real estate those lucky convicts occupied. My room was not far from the lobby, and I was fearful that those good-time Charlenes would keep me awake. But the room was completely quiet as I drifted off into champagne dreams and caviar wishes.
Would you steal the toiletries? In a heartbeat, but the Molton Brown shampoo and conditioner were affixed into dispensers. Good for the environment, but bad for my collection of hotel soaps.
Ironing board: Yes
Parking: Valet $49 a night
Dining options: The minibar in the room is amply stocked. You can order room service or go to any of the hotels or bars for dinner. Try the Italian cuisine at Scampo first.
What I paid: $171 on Hotel Tonight. This was a total steal. A few days later the price was double.
Conclusion: I felt like I had a night of luxury for a good price. Perhaps that's why I slept so well.
The family-friendly: Hotel Marlowe
The Vibe: It's not in Boston, but the Marlowe is close to the Museum of Science, and parents of surly teens can dump their offspring at the Cambridgeside Galleria. It was snowing the night I stayed, so I lingered by the fireplace in the cozy lobby. There were kids sitting near me playing on iPads while their parents worked on their laptops. Nothing like quality family computer time. The hotel helps accommodate babies and toddlers with complimentary cribs and in-room safety kits. Older kids get check-in gifts, and teens get to roll their eyes and complain they're missing Amanda's slumber party. There are free hotel bikes and kayaks. You can also borrow books, including many children's titles, and there's a yoga mat in the room.
The room: The decor was hyperactive Art Deco. Patterns on every surface battled for my attention, but the room still felt luxurious and comfortable. If I had kids in tow, I could have purchased an adjoining room. You can request a bed for your dog, and the hotel immediately won me over when I heard it was cat friendly. The hotel staff will get you anything from Chapstick to stain removers if you forget to bring your own. I wanted to test this, but the phone in my room was not functioning.
Would you steal the toiletries? Yes, they were from the fashion label Etro.
Ironing board: Yes.
Parking: $33 for valet parking, $20 for self-parking.
Dining options: The hotel restaurant Bambara is recently renovated and serves grilled flatbreads, lobster sliders, and hearty entrees. Room service is available, as is an ample minibar.
What I paid: $235.88 through Expedia.com.
Conclusion: The whimsical decor is great for kids, although the cheetah-print bathrobes start bordering on "Real Housewives of New Jersey." The staff was wonderful and the room spacious, but the non-functioning phone was a drawback when I wanted to call the front desk for toothpaste at midnight. I was taken aback that I had to pay for basic Internet service.