By Richard White, March 3, 2014
One of the things we do when visiting a new city is to identify and stay at two or more hotels in the city centre so we can better appreciate the unique character of different districts. Sometimes it can be quite amazing how contrasting a city can be depending on where you stay. This was never truer than our recent trip to Memphis where we chose the Peabody Hotel in the heart of the city centre and the River Inn of Harbor Town on its edge.
Peabody Hotel: The Downtown Mansion
The historic Peabody is best known for its ducks that spend the day in the hotel’s lobby fountain and the night on their rooftop patio. The ducks draw huge crowds (young and old) twice a day as they “march” to and from the elevator. The duck parade dates back to the 1930s when then General Manager, Frank Shutt returned from a weekend hunting trip and thought it would be fun to leave three live English Call Duck decoys in the lobby’s fountain. The guests loved it and now it has become legendary. Lean more.
What we found most intriguing about the Peabody is that it is more than a hotel; it is like a mansion in the middle of downtown. The lobby is the living room where people meet, lounge and enjoy a little food and drink as if they were at home - at least that was our experience. It was January and cold so maybe the lobby buzz was a little magnified, but you definitely get the sense the Peabody’s lobby is like a big living room complete with comfy couches and chairs. The hotel has several “dining rooms” (aka restaurants), a rooftop “patio” (aka back yard) and hundreds of “bedrooms” (aka guest rooms) just like a huge mansion.
The Peabody’s lobby is also home to four Lansky Brothers (better known as Lansky’s) stores (aka closet) – women’s fashions, men’s fashions, souvenirs and women’s accessories. It is best known as “the clothier to The King,” and yes you can get your own sequined shirt, even a whole outfit if you desire. The Peabody lobby is simply the best place for shopping in downtown Memphis.
A quintessential Memphis experience is to cozy up in the lobby with friends and order a Jack Daniel’s. The Peabody actually goes to the Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg TN to personally select barrels of whiskey for the hotel’s Peabody Select. A whole section of the lobby bar’s menu is dedicated to Jack Daniel’s.
The guest rooms have the same comfort and charm but with wonderful views of the city and Mississippi River. Our junior suite had a comfy chair with good light for reading (always a bonus) and a desk for writing (much appreciated); the bathroom was spacious and included a bathtub, which, unfortunately for bath lovers, seems to be getting rarer.
But the best thing about our room were the reading lights on the bed’s headboard. We didn’t find them until the last night, as they are so sleek and subtle we mistook them for mere decoration. A simple chrome rectangle about 8” long and 2”wide that pops out to become a light you can direct to exactly where you need it. Ingenious. We want two for our home.
River Inn: The Downtown Cottage
If the Peabody is Memphis’ downtown mansion, then the River Inn is its cottage. Located on Mud Island, it is a short cab ride, a pleasant 20-minute walk or a 5-minute walk, then a 5-minute streetcar ride to Beale Street. The River Inn is the gateway to Harbor Town, a master-planned community that looks and feels more like a cottage town than an urban village. While most North American cities have been creating high-rise urban villages in their city centers, Memphis has created an upscale cottage town on the 132-acre sandbar called Mud Island. Rumour has it that it is home to several players and coaches of the Memphis Grizzlies NBA team.
The River Inn is a quaint 28-rooom boutique hotel that also includes one of Tennessee’s top fine dining restaurants (Paulette’s) and the Terrace, a rooftop bar and “small plates” restaurant. The Inn also serves as the gateway to Harbor Town’s high street with its pub, restaurants, shops, café and Miss Cordelia’s, a quaint, but well stocked urban grocery. The little Café Eclectic is a hidden gem where you can hang out with the local arts community (the staff are all musicians) and sip on your favourite hot beverage and some great food – love the soups.
The River Inn has the “best little lobby on the Mississippi.” As well as being the entrance to Paulette’s, a grand piano takes center stage in the fireplace-equipped sitting area and the cozy “Little Bar” tucked away to the side. One night when we came home, a symphony of sounds greeted us - chatter from Paulette’s, soft music from the piano player and laughter echoing from the Little Bar’s (yes, it is little, really no more than a hallway from the lobby to Paulette’s)- eight seats.
The staff at the River Inn is, in a word - awesome. When we had a problem with a reservation at another hotel (I told you we like to sleep around), they said “leave it with us go have your breakfast” and while we were enjoying breakfast, they returned saying they were able to accommodate us in our room for the remainder of our stay. Quickly, quietly and professionally our problem was solved. We were delighted to stay an extra two nights!
There was always a friendly smile at the front desk to greet us when we came home (and, it did feel like home), even at 2 am after coming back from the midnight jam at the International Blues Challenge on Beale Street.
You could easily stay a weekend at the River Inn in Harbor Town and never leave Mud Island. The hearty breakfasts alone are worth staying there, but add in fine dining at Paulette’s, a happy hour cocktail at the Little Bar, an evening on the Terrace and a walk or jog along the mighty Mississippi or in the town site and you have the makings of a wonderful getaway. The River Inn is a unique urban experience.
Sleeping around – whether in Memphis or elsewhere – does have its benefits. We would never have discovered Memphis’ Harbor Town if we hadn’t stayed at the River Inn. It changed our perception of Memphis as a place to visit in a really good way.
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