Travel writers are often asked, “What makes a hotel the best in the world?” There are several good answers of varying lengths, but the one that comes to mind is the reaction one gets when mentioning the hotel after being asked where one is staying locally. The response is typically an intake of breath, widening eyes and a broad smile, let out with wistful awe. “Oh, the St. Anthony!” San Antonians say, “I love the St. Anthony.”
The best hotels, you see, are not just celebrated by weary travelers. They’re also the meeting points, wedding places, and business lunch venues of the cities in which they make their homes, and when they’re as old as the St. Anthony (which was completed in 1909) they’ve grown up in a city where they’ve awestruck multiple generations of adoring residents. The hotel has just completed a comprehensive restoration, and is a new member of Starwood’s Luxury Collection of five star hotel properties around the world.
The hotel was built in the rather more rough-and-tumble first decade of the 1900s, before air conditioning made the cities of the sun belt suitable for the less-hardy types that would spur dramatic growth in the second half of the century. It was also built under the shrewd notion that faster, easier forms of transportation which were beginning to put more Americans on the road would lead to tourism growth in San Antonio – a notion which would turn out to be correct. Books in the guest rooms outlining the hotel’s history show guest rooms and spaces that have changed with the styles of the time – the early front desk, for example, while in a similar place in the lobby as it is today, was an iron-barred bank teller style affair, today opened up and tucked away into a quiet corner (ostensibly with much less cash being handed back and forth on property, the bars have long since been dispensed with). Photos of guest rooms show contemporary furnishings, from comfortable, minimalist styles during the ’20s and ’30s to the low-profile bedding of the ’50s.
It was pointed out during a recent stay that as the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, specific care was required during the renovations – one of which that all the original doorways had to be maintained in their original place. Walking down the corridors, there are several doors in the hotel that have no handles or signs, and can’t be opened, because the guest room designs behind them have been altered, but the doors must remain. Today’s St. Anthony has 277 guest rooms, including 82 suites, but the structure once housed 400 guest rooms.
When the hotel was constructed, en-suite bathrooms were not a standard amenity, even for luxury properties, and the hotel was considered especially luxurious for offering them in fully half of their guest rooms. Tastes in bathrooms have since changed, and guest room bathrooms today are not only standard, but in many rooms they’re much larger than what would have been acceptable a hundred years ago. And they’re gorgeous. Bathrooms are fitted with shower/tub combinations, or walk-in showers; many suites have both. Guest room mirrors have built-in televisions for catching the news while getting ready in the morning of watching a favorite program while luxuriating in the tub.
Another remarkable feature of the hotel is almost an homage to the leisure lifestyle enjoyed in San Antonio – plenty of indoor and outdoor seating space. from the vibrant greens and whites of the Edwardian Peacock Alley off the lobby to the tall windows and original saltillo tile of the enclosed and air conditioned Loggia, to the mezzanine with dark wood floors and classic sculpture, the library with oak paneling and outdoor seating overlooking Navarro Street, to the top floor Sky Terrace with Spanish Colonial architecture and views of the city to the rooftop pool complete with cabanas and pool bar – there’s much to entertain in this space. The hotel spaces are comfortably enchanting to the point where it is difficult to leave them to explore the city.
While guest room and public space design harkens back to a different era, the hotel’s signature bar, Haunt, and restaurant Rebelle, are ultramodern chic. Haunt is one of black and white vinyl furniture with cocktails that pay respects to the hotel’s resident ghosts: the delightful Lavender Lady cocktail of house-made lavender gin and lavender bitters with lemon and prosecco is a tribute to the unseen spirit whose lavender perfume will wash over guests in the Library, or the Emerick, after a guest who allegedly murdered his girlfriend at the Gunther Hotel (now also a Starwood property) and took his own life at the St. Anthony, whose cocktail is made of Ghost Whiskey, rose water, simple syrup and Amarena cherry juice.
Rebelle is similarly styled in blacks, whites, and purples, and the menu has something for everybody. Split into the “Divide” (shareable plates) or “Conquer” (larger mains), everything examiner.com sampled was plate-licking good, particularly the shrimp in hot & sour cashew sauce and the spinach and gruyere crêpe with cognac cream. Cocktails here are also edgy and delicious, named for the Seven Deadly Sins. “Envy” is appropriately green, made with Tito’s Texas Vodka, St. Germain, Pear Puree, and served with a tincture of rose water.
For those enjoying guest rooms, turndown service is an encompassing affair that includes both milk and dark chocolate, mood lighting, and rose petals, while room service is remarkably reasonably priced (although food in San Antonio skews on the affordable side across the board). Staff are enchanting and eager to please; there’s a distinct pride of the hotel and the city that is a pitch-perfect formula for welcoming visitors.
Enveloped in the plush beauty of the hotel, it might be too easy to muse “how beautiful it all is”, as military attache Frederick Funston did in 1917. His words are recorded for posterity because they were his last before he died of a heart attack while listening to the piano in the lobby playing the Blue Danube Waltz. In less macabre, and far more modern terms, it’s utterly appropriate to wholeheartedly agree with the hotel’s social media tag #TexasJewelReborn.
Check out the author’s Instagram for more photos of a recent stay.
Accommodations and some meals were furnished by the St. Anthony Hotel in preparation for this story.