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Green, getting its legs

January 07, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

San Francisco — FOR those eager to take their conservationist convictions on a holiday, San Francisco has a new hotel that's just what the inner activist ordered.

The Orchard Garden Hotel opened its doors in November with an Earth-friendly pedigree -- as California's first "green" hotel, built to nationally accepted standards. It is tobacco-free and uses chemical-free cleaning products, organic bath products and paper goods made of recycled materials and printed with soy-based inks. Almost everything in the place is eco-friendly, from the glue to the wallpaper to the paint on the wall.

The hotel also uses a guestroom key card energy-control system similar to that used in Europe and Asia. The card triggers lights and electricity. When the guest leaves, the power shuts off. I try to be as "green" as the next guy, so I checked into the Orchard Gardens recently.

Bunking down: I was underwhelmed by the Orchard Gardens, which, at best, seemed like upscale Travelodge. Sure, there are bells and whistles: WiFi access, LCD panel flat-screen TV, DVD and CD player. But the impression is far from luxurious. The room decor was a drab green and beige, and the bathroom had fixtures straight from our favorite home improvement store. Also, the shower took a good five minutes to produce hot water.

Hanging around: All new hotels have a break-in period, and the Orchard Gardens is no exception. The hotel officially opens all of its 10 floors this month; when I stayed in November only three were ready. I didn't get a chance to eat in the dining room (now open) or relax at the rooftop garden area (still closed). Still, the lobby is so claustrophobic that when the desk guy told me a continental breakfast would be served there, I couldn't help but ask, "Where?" To be fair, the breakfast of fresh fruit, buns, juice and coffee was nice.

Going out: Orchard Gardens is next door to the Grant Street gates to Chinatown, so souvenir shopping is nearby. For serious shoppers, Union Square is a five-minute walk. Other cool places in the neighborhood: Le Centrale, a cozy French restaurant and a favorite hangout of former Mayor Willie Brown; a hip wine bar called Enoteca Viansa, where 5-ounce pours are half price during afternoon happy hour; and the best place of all, Cafe de la Presse, a French-inspired cafe where you can wear your beret and drink coffee from shot-glass-sized cups.

Perks and peeves: My most telling experience at the Orchard Gardens came after my wife and I checked out on a drizzly Sunday morning. After exchanging a few words with the bellman, we made a dash through the rain to a nearby subway station. A block away, we ducked under an awning, already drenched. I turned to see the bellman: "Here, take my umbrella," he said. "I have another." I will return to the Orchard Gardens -- not for the chemical-free soap but because of the kindness of people like bellman Davis Turnbull.

The Orchard Garden Hotel is at 466 Bush St., San Francisco; (415) 399-9807, Doubles from $162, which includes continental breakfast.

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