Travel: San Francisco; Stay in a film...

If you're going to San Francisco you may as well experience a little fantasy. Don't choose a big, anonymous hotel, advises Richard Gilbert - go to Hollywood
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The Independent Online
Two hours after arriving in San Francisco I was in the bar of the Hotel Rex, blearily watching my dollar bills being torn up and then reassembled by a magician.

This was an appropriately quirky introduction to the Rex and to Joie de Vivre, the unusual hotel group that owns it. "Most hotels are in the business of just selling sleep - I'm in the business of selling dreams": those are unlikely words from a hotel tycoon. But Chip Conley, the 37- year-old president of Joie de Vivre, is not in the mould of the corporate suits who run the Hiltons and Marriotts across the US. His group has 13 small hotels in San Francisco, most of them themed and all unorthodox. Their total capacity of 800 rooms could easily fit into a single one of the city's big hotels such as the Hyatt Regency, and they are much cheaper.

I chose the Rex on Sutter Street because it is the only hotel I know which is built around an antiquarian bookshop. It is the nearest the West Coast gets to the Algonquin, with authors' readings, book signings, literary discussions and a decor that evokes Twenties salons, with the work of pre-war San Francisco artists on the walls. Even the lifts play a part - they are papered with pages from the San Francisco Social Register of the period.

Conley opened his first hotel when he was only 26. While working in real estate, he met the rock promoter Bill Graham and heard rock groups and comedians regularly complain that San Francisco hotels were too stuffy and expensive. He raised $1m, took over a run-down flophouse on the edge of the seedy Tenderloin district, and opened the Phoenix. It quickly became a hit, and rock and film celebrities poured in - Bowie, Baez, Dunaway, Ronstadt, kd lang. Despite some "Tour Manager Suites" among the 40 rooms, prices are reasonable.

Since then, Conley has opened a dozen more boutique hotels in a city usually associated with grand hotels such as Mark Hopkins and Sir Francis Drake. Strangely, the wide range of flourishing magazines on American newsstands was the original model for Conley's niche hotels. He was convinced that consumer magazines had a strong and distinctive customer base that was missing in the hotel business. Before developing a new hotel, he imagines a magazine that helps to define its style and decor. so the Phoenix is Rolling Stone, and the Maxwell, with its retro decor and velvet curtains, is the Saturday Evening Post.

I checked into the Bijou, a film-themed hotel on Mason Street, which I assumed would be identified with Variety, or the movie magazine Entertainment Weekly. All 65 rooms are named after a film shot in or featuring San Francisco. I stayed in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?, where the walls are decorated with black-and-white stills of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Down the corridor were Bullitt, Jagged Edge, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Conversation. The lobby is designed like a cinema box office, complete with popcorn and Tootsie Rolls. The Bijou is the only hotel I have found that has a free private cinema for guests. Every evening it shows two San Francisco-linked films in a mini-cinema. You don't get valet parking or 24-hour room service, but who needs that when you get The Maltese Falcon and Escape from Alcatraz free?

Most of the Joie de Vivre hotels are central. The Commodore on Sutter Street is targeted at visitors who want to discover the hidden treasures of San Francisco. Too many tourists arrive in the city, take a cable car to Fisherman's Wharf and then wonder why San Francisco has such a high reputation. Every room in the Commodore has a framed description of an unfamiliar attraction in the city, with directions how to find it. Nob Hill Lambourne, on the edge of the financial district, is a favourite hotel among the wired generation and competitive young executives (Byte? Business Weekly? Fitness Magazine?). All 20 rooms have a laptop computer, a fax, a VCR and an exercise machine. It is so health-conscious that the mini-bar is stuffed with rice cakes, vegetarian chilli and organic wine. There's no chance of mint chocolates on your pillow at "turndown" time. Instead, you get beta-carotene vitamin pills wrapped inside a motto like an upmarket fortune-cookie: "Dreaming permits us to be quietly and safely insane".

Chip Conley takes his maverick philosophy on niche hotels seriously, but at least he laughs at his own jargon, which he blames on a Stanford Business School background. He argues that the big hotel chains are still driven by superficial demographics, while Joie de Vivre relies on "psycholographics". He is in no hurry to open up hotels in other cities.

"Someone offered me a site in Houston the other day. Why would I want to go to Houston twice a month? I am only interested in cities that I like."

Yet in the summer Joie de Vivre is moving into a new area by opening California's first "boutique camp site" on the coast, an hour away from San Francisco. Conley claims that "It will have everything visitors like about camping without any of the stuff that keeps you from doing it." Sounds as if he has been reading Field and Stream.

For more information about Joie de Vivre hotels in San Francisco, call 001 415 835 0300 or in the US, 800 738 7477. Website: www.joiedevivre-