James Hotel: New York hip but with Arizona problems

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - If you want to feel cool, Paris Hilton and Jessica Simpson cool, the ultra sleek James Hotel is the place for you. If you want to be comfortable - even Marriott chain hotel comfortable - the James Hotel is best passed over.

For now.

The caveat is thrown out there because the James Hotel is the kind of place you want to see succeed. It dares to be different in a Phoenix-Scottsdale resort corridor that can be resolutely old school in its hotel approach. It is owned by New York restaurateur Stephen Hanson, offering the hope for an individual touch in a world of cookie-cutter hotel chains.

It boasts one of the best dining experiences in all of Arizona, the consistently mouth-watering Fiamma Trattoria. It's given Scottsdale a trendy bar where Hilton and Nicole Richie are comfortable hanging out and yet managed to make that bar not nearly as obnoxious for the rest of us as that implies.

There's a lot to like.

Until you step into your room.

Once, you pass through that colorful blue door, the whole James experience takes a serious tumble. The standard room was as narrow as a Manhattan studio apartment. The bathroom was smaller than what most people use as a half bath, (stumble at the sink and you're in the shower.)

The chair at the counter that could be used as a desk was about as ergonomically sound as a torture rack. Forget about getting comfortable putting together a business presentation on the laptop here.

Of course, if you push that chair more than two steps back, you're knocking into the bed anyways. That's how tight the squeeze is.

Yet, all of this paled in comparison to the air conditioner. This wall unit rattled with the force of a lion nursing a sinus cold. It was so bad, that it would make anyone consider purchasing one of those white noise machines with ocean breezes, jungle chirps and the like.

Air conditioning is no minor feature in Arizona, either.

The James Hotel is a converted old, run-down hotel and it unfortunately still shows. More than a year after it's opened, there are still plenty of kinks to be worked out. You hope it comes around, that more money is put into further room renovations, because there are so many touches that make you smile.

Every room has a 42-inch plasma TV for example. And the stereo system is almost equally top notch. The magnet board with words on the wall that are usually arranged by housekeeping into some type of "the James is sexy" message provide laughs. The martini shaker in your room with recipes for various concoctions is another conversation starter.

That's the thing about the James Hotel. It does the impractical, interesting extra great, the practical basics not so well.

Hip hotels are great. The W chain has put forth some outstanding hits and a few misses following this concept. The Muse in New York City provided arguably my best hotel stay of all time, even with the staff in all black speaking into earpieces. But just being hip does not mean you can ignore the basics.

That's where the James Hotel stumbles in its mission.

A number of publications have fallen over themselves to praise the concept of the James and the hotel's marketing department uses that to full advantage. The Los Angeles Times and NewYork Times stories featured on the James' Web site are general almost preview-like overviews rather than the impressions of a travel reviewer who's actually been on site. In fact, PR seems to be the hotel's second specialty.

You can also browse through a series of photographs of celebrities who've visited the James, ranging from Kevin Bacon to Run-DMC. If the stars did actually stay here (most are pictured in the aforementioned great Fiamma Trattoria restaurant) you can bet they got a better room than the standard.

Interestingly enough for its golf packages, the James Hotel has teamed up with McCormick Ranch Golf Club, one of the more traditional courses in all of Phoenix-Scottsdale. McCormick is a good play, it's just a surprising choice for a hotel so fixated on being hipper than hip.

"It means James the butler to take care of you, and James Dean and James Brown to have fun and to feel good," owner Stephen Hanson said in describing his philosophy to the Los Angeles Times.

Less high-conceptual attitude and more emphasis on the tried and true (like quiet air conditioners) would do the James a world of good. Of course, if you do step past the lobby lounge continually playing James Bond movies, you are just a short walk away from the heart of Scottsdale.

It's a great place to walk to the best bars and restaurants around. Yes, the James Hotel has a fantastic location as well. When you have so much going for you and still cannot get the basics right, it might be even more disappointing.

Shame on you, James.

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.

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