Hotel San Jose: an Austin Tradition

Famous (and rightfully so) hotelier Liz Lambert crafted a masterpiece on Austin’s South Congress Avenue when she flipped the original uber-modern Hotel San Jose built in 1939.  As chronicled by the hotel’s documentary, The Last Days of the San Jose, Lambert had a seemingly unconquerable task ahead of her, refurbishing the deteriorating and violent scape of the San Jose frequented by crackheads, prostitutes, and once- a stabbing, and all too often guests unable to pay the hotel’s rate offering only what they could.

Everything about the hotel is a contradiction- a beautiful contradiction that is. With stucco walls and cacti aside ivy-covered walls and complimentary baskets of apples scattered throughout the premises, Hotel San Jose is both modern and simple, Feng Shui-appropriate and exquisitely quirky- yet surprisingly calm and invigorating. A place you would go when you want both serenity and hipness, tastefully paired with house-made white wine sangria and Polaroid cameras available for rent to snap nostalgic photos of the cozy corners San Jose has tucked away behind desert flora and ’50s inspired lawn furniture. Vintage typewriters are also available to rent during your stay, so you can write haikus under a shade-tree, a love letter in the comfort of your bed, or maybe a death threat while under the influence. Either way, the unusual amenities are quite romantic.

The courtyard is chill and funky, while hipster servers take orders in high-waisted pencil skirts and short, perfect bangs- orders for fun beers like Ephemere and the new house charcuterie board. Neighboring the hotel pool, the courtyard births an ambience of 1950s eclectic-ness with Jetsons-y touches and rock-n-roll artistic-ness.

Tucked into the overgrown walls of San Jose, it almost feels as if you’ve entered a desert fortress somewhere completely other than this too-hip-to-be-trendy section of South Congress Ave. The rooms are simple and complex, masterfully done. The walls are white. The floors are white. The bathroom is white. A colorful tapestry adds a splash of color to the bed and an antique school desk sits perfectly under the bright window with a single, fresh white flower on its top.  A typed Billy Collins poem called “Morning” on nothing other than plain, white paper is tacked to the bathroom wall with a sewing pin. Simply, yet boldly stated.

The mini-bar offers irresistable novelties as well. My weakness? Cracker Jacks. Cracker Jacks ignite the inner child and when paired with a full bottle of Blanc du Bois (made with Texas grapes) from Georgetown Winery (30 minutes north of Austin), it’s easy to please the aging drunkard as well, similarly to the contradicting presence of San Jose itself.

Within walking distance of some of Austin’s most iconic local businesses, San Jose’s location is prime for those who seek exploration. Nearby is Pink Hair Salon, offering one of the city’s only beehives (yes, really!); Home Slice Pizza, which hand-tosses dough as you wait and is arguably the BEST pizza in town; Boticelli’s, an Italian restaurant with a delightful beer garden and outdoor films on Sundays (my favorite that I’ve caught thus far? Mr. Mom); Uncommon Goods, perhaps my favorite salvage and vintage shop ANYwhere; the Continental Club, featuring great bands nightly; and Hey Cupcake (if they haven’t discontinued it for ethical purposes, the Michael Jackson is my favorite- white on the top and black on the bottom). And those are just a few of the nearby treasures.

San Jose is what happens when the cardigan-wearing librarian girl has a naughty love affair with the leather jacket-clad Jimmy Dean look-a-like. And there’s something sexy about that. Though it makes no sense to those who’ve yet to visit, San Jose is the perfect reflection of an institution and rock-n-roll, truly creating a School of Rock appeal.

By: Ashley Halligan

Park Lane Guesthouse; Fairytale Cottages Hidden in Austin’s Travis Heights (So Hidden, Many Locals Don’t Even Know it Exists)

I don’t exactly remember how I stumbled across the website for Park Lane Guesthouse, a small, not-quite-B & B-but almost, equipped with quaint fairytale cottages behind one of the two owner’s Travis Heights home, but I’m glad I did.

I was out with friends the other night–long time Austinites. They mentioned needing a bed and breakfast or inn for a visiting relative when I suggested Park Lane Guesthouse. They looked at me in utter confusion having never heard of it. How did I, a newcomer, and certainly no expert on Austin, know of something long-time inhabitants did not? (I pride myself on that ability and will not give away the precise qualities that make me a prime Anti Tourist).

Park Lane Guesthouse is small; it’s intimate; it’s charming; it’s cozy; it’s beautiful; and it’s welcoming, alongside an ongoing theme of organic details. The craftsmanship is undeniably remarkable, with an emphasis on detail in every corner of both Shatki Khalsa’s (one of the two co-owners- the other being Dev Kirn Khalsa) home, the surrounding property, and in the character of each cottage and room available. Shatki’s a talented woodworker, carpenter, and crafts(wo)man, and her vision, unique style, and keen eye for detail are blatant throughout the grounds.

The Florentine, the only room within the property’s main house, is brand new following restoration of the property after a fire last fall (2008), is absolutely beautiful, and conveniently has access to the home’s living room and kitchen, providing the feel of a vacation rental, more so than a room in an inn, particularly since there are no other rooms to share with other visitors- offering utter privacy.

I had the privilege of staying in the Carriage House which was built from the ground-up and originally used as Shatki’s wood-shop and converted over as guest quarters in 1999. And it was simply delightful. I had the opportunity in advance to scour the website and spend countless moments weighing the pros and cons (as if there were any!) of each available accommodation, as I so typically do, toggling back and forth, before finally making a very delayed decision.  So, what sold me on the Carriage House? Two main things. Okay three. One: the incredible bed. Two: the adorable claw-foot tub in a (raised!?!?) bathroom. Three: the French doors on both the front and back of the cottage- one side opening to the quiet and private pool area (clothes-optional after dark), including an outdoor shower; the other opened to a small private patio. Of the unusual amenities offered? Sunhats & Pashmina shawls… that’s simply clever. And of course there’s the expected amenities (with a savvy organic twist): organic cotton linens and robes as well as E.O. Small Planet organic toiletries. 

And with only two other options for overnight stays- the Vicky House  (the “Tiny Texas House”) and the Garden Cottage, originally the New Deal Tin Shop from the ’40s, restored and redesigned in 1996, (bringing the total number of on-site accommodations to four), the emphasis on intimacy and privacy can be better understood. Snug in a corner of Travis Heights, this not-so-common, and successfully hidden establishment, truly is tucked into the backyard of a neighborhood home, and tastefully so.

And that brings me to the homemade and organic, vegetarian breakfast- prepared each morning by either Shatki or her innkeeper in her beautifully appointed kitchen (which guests are welcome to visit for additional beverages, etc. throughout their stay). Breakfast is phenomenal. And I’ve yet to mention it’s delivered to your cottage door (or inside door if staying in the Florentine), with the option of dining in your room or poolside on sunny, forgiving mornings. My particular breakfast? A spinach frittata served alongside fresh fruit, strawberries and creme, freshly squeezed juice and……. (drum roll, please).. an edible orchid. Perfect touch. Served alongside organic (hence the aforementioned organic theme!) Fair Trade coffee and an assortment of teas, the essence at Park Lane truly represents responsible consumerism in every aspect.

I sat in that perfect sunny morning, sadly my last day in Austin (that particular visit), and was perfectly at ease. To my right- a strand of colorful Buddhist prayer flags flowing rhythmically in the breeze (brought back from a journey to Dharamshala, India to see the Dalai Lama) and a vintage red cruiser bike fully-equipped with a basket, hanging above the outdoor patio- to the left, a sky blue pool with a floating, inflatable (relaxed) hippo (below a blue sky too, of course), that somehow metaphorically represented my ultimate state of relaxation, brought forth by this beautifully hidden, deep, but not dark, secret of Austin, Texas.

P.S. For all the green thumbs and environmentalists out there, this lovely place is formally considered a “Green Hotel”, and an ongoing member of the Green Hotels Association since 2000!

By: Ashley Halligan