Guests at New Orleans's International House hotel this week found themselves in a lobby covered with oversize photographs of cemetery scenes, black beads and glowing white candles. Not your usual hotel corridor welcome, it was a celebration of All Souls' Day, a holiday of some importance in this deeply spiritual corner of the South.
Never mind if you missed that special International House moment; you can always catch the next one. Like the city surrounding it, this lively new boutique hotel seems to move gracefully from one celebration to the next. In late June, staffers deck the lobby with a voodoo altar and call in a Mambo priestess to commemorate St. John's Eve, the year's biggest voodoo holiday. Grand fetes are also held to mark the birthday of Louis Armstrong in July, Mardi Gras in February and other occasions.
But it's the Big Easy itself and the city's unique blend of Cajun, French, Spanish and other ethnic traditions that the hotel celebrates best. Trademark New Orleans-style ceiling fans and black-and-white photographs of the city's jazz greats hang in each guest room. Every ornament and piece of furniture--from the stately white pilasters and gas lamps out front to the guest-room armoires made of cherry, mahogany and cypress--was designed and made by Louisiana artisans. Guests who book the hotel's "Sanctuary of Love Experience" get a basket of potions and accouterments for making a romantic celebration. For an additional fee, a priestess will restyle the room with a personal altar and sacred objects.
What sets International House apart from other hotels in this stronghold of grand accommodations is its contemporary take on New Orleans culture. The mood evokes the upbeat spirit of popular jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis far more than the down-home style of Louis Armstrong.
International House developer Sean Cummings and architect Brooks Graham, young New Orleans natives, have created a place that is at once evocative of the ambiance of the Crescent City and very contemporary. "Those of us who live here know that there's a new upbeat rhythm emerging beyond the more traditional mood that the French Quarter and other parts of the city are known for," Cummings told me. "It's a modern ambiance that comes out in the city's culture, architecture, music and food. All of that is what we were seeking to capture here."
The result is a place with a funky, up-to-the-minute allure. A lobby that is bathed in light. A young staff clad in cream-colored seersucker in summer and black, three-button suits in winter. An inviting bar that glows with the light of dozens of candles. A health club with the latest in treadmills and other exercise equipment. An in-house restaurant, Lemon Grass, that features French Vietnamese cuisine rather than the more traditional gumbo and jambalaya fare for which New Orleans is known.
Unlike many boutique properties, International House is not a place where decorating expenses were spared. The guest rooms, spacious and calm, all have lush beds, glass power-showers or oversize tubs, CD players, two-line speaker phones and Aveda bath amenities.
Located in the business district, the 12-story brick structure, fashioned from a 1940s office building, is two blocks from the French Quarter.
International House, 221 Camp St., New Orleans, 504-553-9550, www.ihhotel.com. Doubles start at $189. The "Sanctuary of Love Experience" is $249 a night, based on a two-night stay. A Christmas special features rooms at $99 from Dec.1 to Dec. 28.