Inside Travel: Straight-friendly gay hotels
Can accommodation be all things to all people? Samuel Muston checks in to find out.
Low-slung and formed of steel, glass and concrete, the hotel my taxi pulls up outside could, on first glance, be one of any number in Manhattan. But screw your eyes up and you'll just about see, in the architecture and lighting, something quite different. There, in the shape of the glass frontage and lighting accents, tall and proud, are the letters O-U-T. As in, out of the closet; as in, gay and proud. This is OUT NYC, New York's first official gay boutique hotel. Not only that, it's the first "straight-friendly" one, too.
It is an interesting gambit, to invert the "gay-friendly" tag of most boutique hotels. And it strikes me as being two things. A political statement, a sign of self-confidence and a rather deft marketing ploy. But it also poses a question: can hotels, as self-defined as these, be all things to all comers? What makes this shiny new 105-room hotel in Hell's Kitchen any different from other Manhattan operations – the all-are-welcome Standard Hotel, for example? Or the very gay but less boutique-y Colonial House Inn in Chelsea? What does it really mean to be straight-friendly and gay?
According to OUT's owner, Ian Reisner, the difference is simple: atmosphere. "Gay-friendly boutique hotels are wonderful and growing in number every day," he says. "But we offer a larger gay community environment than they do. We offer a place for the community to socialise in a predominantly, but not exclusively, gay area."
In this sense, it serves its community well. It is palpably gay – playful, too. Although straight couples mill around (about 25 per cent of guests), none had, as far as I saw, used the hot tubs, 17ft waterfall and sundecks in the hotel's three courtyards, on which the rooms look out, so affording maximum, shall we say, "admiring potential" of those below.
Admiration is much in evidence in the hotel's XL club, especially when it comes to the go-go boys. Guests can access this 14,000sq ft gay extravaganza nightly for free – and a good number on the Saturday night I'm there seemed to be doing just that. It will undoubtedly be a big draw – with room for more than 1,000 punters, tonight near exclusively men. The mix of percussive house and techno rings out until 5.30am. Fine, if you're in the throng, less so if, like me, your room's above the club.
Soundproofing aside, the black-and-white bedrooms are glossy and have all the boutique gubbins – plasma TV, large memory-foam double bed and wet-room-style bathrooms with oomphy showers and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Can't stretch to the $250 (£167) per night lead-in rate? You can rent one of four bunks, separated by privacy curtains, in the shared rooms for $99 (£66) a night instead.
The design, the layout, the in-house club and the light breakfasts are likely to play well with New York's eight million gay visitors – especially the night owls. Would you, however, choose to stay here if you were a straight couple? Probably not – you could get the same or better elsewhere. But would you feel welcome if you did? Absolutely.
Across the Atlantic, at the new straight-friendly gay hotel in Marais, Paris, things hum to a different beat. As brazen, brash and joyful as the OUT is, Jules et Jim is demure, chic and very Parisian.
The 23 rooms here are split between an 18th-century townhouse (Jules) and a larger, modern tower (Jim). There is a library and a gallery in the lobby; staff wear Lacoste polo shirts and Supra trainers; Kusmi has blended a special tea for them and there is an outdoor fireplace for smokers.
The rough-hewn wood and reclaimed furniture of the bar and lobby are restrained and elegant. The bedrooms are unobtrusively luxurious – it succeeds, decor-wise, in establishing a coherent identity, as the OUT does not. Rooms are reasonable in this part of town at €180.
"Camp" is not a word in its lexicon. It feels like a very fine boutique hotel, created for discerning visitors of any sexuality. (But the marketing buzz around the "straight-friendly" monicker is quieter here.) Owner Geoffroy Sciard points out the discreet nods to gay lifestyle. "We worked on good noise and light isolation for those who wish to sleep in when partying late. The breakfast is for those who like food but want to keep trim," he says. "There's an alchemy that makes our place cool and open."
One could see Jules et Jim as a hotel as the margarine version of the full-fat butter OUT, less confident and watered down. But better to see it simply as a different kind of gay lifestyle. Both play to different strands of a diverse group. But which of the is most straight-friendly? Despite being much quieter about it, it is certainly Jules et Jim, which gives the impression that it doesn't really care, or even notice, who is gay or straight. For some though, the nuts and bolts are irrelevant; the "gay hotel" tag is unhelpful. For them, a new "self-segregating" hotel is outmoded.
Darren Scott, editor of Gay Times, makes a different point. "I don't think gay people want or need to be self-segregated," he says. "But some still, in 2012, feel they need to know that somewhere is safe." Clever marketing the "straight-friendly gay" tag may be then, but there is an important point, too: for some travellers, the metaphorical "no vacancies" sign has been in the window all too often. So, hotels like these, self-defining but excluding no one, can only be a good thing.
The OUT NYC, 510 West 42nd Street, New York City, US (001 212 947 2999; theoutnyc.com).
Hotel Jules et Jim, 11 rue des Gravilliers, Paris, France (00 33 1 44 54 13 13; hoteljulesetjim.com).
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