Phoenix's Clarendon Hotel reaches for chic cool in a pawnshop world

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

PHOENIX - If a hip hotel goes up in the middle of a decidedly unhip neighborhood, does it make a sound?

The pool at Clarendon is at the center of the hotel in a courtyard setting.
If you go

In the case of Clarendon Hotel + Suites in Phoenix, the answer is a resounding yes. This little 106-room hotel with designs on chic trendiness has already created buzz and the now-predictable positive write-up from The Los Angeles Times. (If you put "hip" or "boutique" in your hotel description, the Times apparently likes it, no questions asked.) Whether Clarendon warrants the buzz is a much trickier question with much murkier answers.

Clarendon is part of a growing trend of largely self-dubbed hip and boutique hotels trying to compete with the established powers in the sprawling Phoenix-Scottsdale resort corridor.

There's little doubt Clarendon already does the basics better than its higher-profile, higher-cost hip compatriot, James Hotel in Scottsdale. There was no air conditioner rattling loud enough to wake Billy Joel after a bender in my room at Clarendon, no desk chair that could pass for a medieval torture device. Clarendon not only provides a clean, comfortable, quiet room; there was actually room to walk around it without bumping into the walls.

Add a staff that, amazingly, appears eager to help rather than just look cool and Clarendon seems to be far ahead in the hip-hotel game. Add that it doesn't just provide free wireless Internet access but free-long distance and local phone calls (that's right, free long distance) and Clarendon can sound downright nirvana-like.

If you've never stepped foot on the property.

For Clarendon's catch is its address. It is in downtown Phoenix, but that's like saying the Bronx and
Manhattan are one and the same. Clarendon isn't far from the Bank One Ballpark/America West Arena center. But it's far enough (three miles) that walking is not a possibility and it's even farther removed in feel.

While the old standby hotels in the Bank One/America West corridor have areas of restaurants you can walk around, Clarendon is all by itself. It's colored spotlight lit nighttime exterior really stands out in this neighborhood.

A pawnshop advertising a $149 9mm gun special is right down a side street.

The hotel's parking lot borders an apartment complex that has obviously seen better days.

It seems sort of silly to be walking into a supposed paragon of cool in this neighborhood - it's like trying to be James Bond in an area that's more Vin Diesel.

Which doesn't mean Clarendon isn't ambitious. It obviously took some guts to envision this building in this location as a boutique hotel. That spirit is apparent throughout. The rooms do not have window shades, but rather thick paintings on rails you push over to cover the glass. The bathrooms are less than huge - the wedged-in toilet and shower setup may give you visions of a Comfort Inn - but they're stocked full of Aveda products.

This dichotomy - basic hotel room outfitted with high-end frills and eccentric touches - cuts to the heart of the Clarendon experience. It's not bad. It can be fun. The shade of bright Tar Heel blue paint in my room was a welcome break from the usual muted hotel tones. The small outdoor pool in a courtyard, surrounded by rooms looking down on it, had an almost Melrose Place kind of community vibe.

Only there didn't seem to be much of a party community. On this stay, most of the guests appeared to be businessmen or passer-throughs, hustling in and out of their rooms early in the day for meetings or flights. If you were looking for a gaggle of hot girls or guys to be hanging out at the pool, you'd be looking for a long, long time.

The problem isn't with what Clarendon is: a decent room at often decent prices. It's the danger of people being disappointed by it not being what they think it is. Touting it as a luxury experience is a stretch. This is a world away from Fairmont Scottsdale Princess and the rest of the Phoenix-area resort shrines. You're not getting lost in the wonder of Clarendon. In fact, staying here can make you feel like you're far removed from the vacation scene and smack dab in a working neighborhood.

But if you get a good rate (anything over $140 for this, even in Arizona high season, is stretching it, and Clarendon frequently quotes $200-$225 rates) and don't need the resort feel, Clarendon could be the right choice. For golfers just trying to get to the course early every morning, it's a nice, quick direct walk to the free parking lot - no resort-maze navigating - and relatively easy highway access.

One of the most encouraging things about Clarendon is that the management team does things that make you think it's only going to improve. Clarendon put a direct link to reader reviews on its Web site, giving potential customers direct access to unflattering opinions as well as the positive ones. That kind of honesty is about as alien as ET in the hospitality industry.

General Manager Ben Bethel also directly responds to the negative reviews with his own postings, and while a touch of defensiveness sometimes creeps in, generally it's a remarkably customer-responsive exchange. In one post, Bethel admits to lighting issues in some rooms (it can be sort of cavelike at night) and lays out a planned solution.

This no-bull approach may just be the coolest thing about a hotel that desperately wants to be cool. And it offers hope that Clarendon might someday live up to the noise it's created, interesting neighbors and all.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment