- Pricey per day for parking
- Across the river from Boston proper and most tourist attractions
- Lax service
A pit stop for celebrity scholars, fine-dining aficionados, and alums and academics in the Harvard orbit
In general, the 294-room Charles Hotel strikes a good balance between a rustic New England vibe and modern luxury. It's decorated throughout with regional artwork and a collection of early American quilts -- nods to local history. But in-room electronics include a large flat-screen TV, a Bose Wave radio, and even a TV screen embedded in the bathroom mirror -- accoutrements of modern luxury. The hotel's biggest selling point, though, is its location, just two blocks from Harvard Square and the university's storied quad. The Charles is the natural choice for anyone visiting Harvard who's willing to shell out a little extra for small luxuries.
The hotel's website has a VIP guest list showcasing such luminaries as the Dalai Lama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and Nelson Mandela, alongside folks like Michael J. Fox, Bill Cosby, and David Bowie. And then there are all the superstar scholars who stay here -- though you probably won't recognize them from People magazine. During my visit, the place was buzzing with well-dressed partygoers (the jazz club Regattabar, on the 3rd floor, is available for private events) and professionals of all ages. Henrietta's Table, the more casual of the Charles' two restaurants, drew a full house for lunch: men in sport coats and open collars, women in skirts and heels, and a few older men sidling up to the bar with a glass of wine and a stack of papers.
For those who are visiting Cambridge but don't need to stay quite so close to Harvard, several other hotels are worth considering. The Hyatt Regency, on the banks of the Charles River, is one of the cheapest Cambridge options, with a top-notch fitness center, a pool, and a free breakfast buffet; it's a handy business hotel that doubles just fine as a leisure hotel a bit off the beaten path. And both the Royal Sonesta and Hotel Marlowe are comparable to the Charles in the level of style and amenities in their rooms and restaurants -- but both have lower price tags.
You can get whatever you need, but the delivery is perfunctory.
I was surprised at the lack of formality at the Charles. Plenty of cheaper hotels that are just as nice, like the Hotel Commonwealth in Back Bay, have a way of personalizing your stay by, say, calling you by name. Other places take a more formal approach and offer to assist in any way possible, at all times. The Charles did neither. The service wasn't bad, per se, but for the price, it just felt like nobody was paying much attention to how they delivered it. That said, the actual services offered were ample.
The Charles is just a short walk from Harvard Square in Cambridge.
Just across the Charles River from Boston proper, Cambridge seems at once part of and distinct from the city. Cambridge provides much of the classic and academic imagery for which Boston is known: stately red brick townhouses; the sight of rowers launching from ancient boathouses on the banks of the Charles; the elite atmosphere that envelops Harvard, the nation's oldest university. And yet Cambridge virtually buzzes with energy as well; biotech companies, countless startups, and the studious whir of college town activity combine to make it one of the country's most vibrant intellectual centers.
Unlike elsewhere in Cambridge, there are plenty of places for eating and drinking around Harvard Square, like the tourist magnet John Harvard's Brew House and low-key pubs like Grendel's Den. In addition, this part of Cambridge boasts a lively music scene -- a perk to being just across the river from the Berklee College of Music. Plus, most of the city's attractions are easy to reach from here.
The rooms at the Charles were renovated in 2006 and represent the best the hotel has to offer. The New England theme is reflected in the beds' high wooden headboards, custom down quilts, and lovely wooden chairs engraved with the hotel's name. There are dimmers on the lamps, and the minibar is stocked with the usual goodies -- nuts, candy, juice, beer, liquor -- in addition to Charles' custom chocolates and a CD featuring performances from the hotel's jazz club, Regattabar. The electronics are impressive: 31-inch flat-screen TVs with HBO, DVD players, Bose Wave radios, and Seura "in-mirror" televisions in the bathrooms -- yes, there are televisions actually built into the bathroom mirrors, so you never have to miss an episode of Charlie Rose. And while most hotel rooms' magazine racks have picture-heavy travel magazines, the Charles has copies of Harvard magazine and The Atlantic.
The Charles' interior is hardly dazzling, but it has a distinctly homey (but not quaint) New England feel. A collection of early American quilts hang throughout the hotel, in addition to regional paintings. The hotel provides a pamphlet for guests to learn more about the art. The lobby has a library, with many books signed by authors who have visited the hotel.
All hotel guests have free access to the adjacent Wellbridge Health and Fitness Center, a massive, multistory complex that far exceeds typical hotel gyms. Affiliated with but not owned by the hotel, it features an indoor heated lap pool, whirlpool, steam room, exercise rooms, and one-on-one fitness training. Also next door is Le Pli Spa and Salon, which offers hair, skin, and body treatments -- but no discounts for hotel guests.
The vibe is highbrow, but the Charles is still relatively kid-friendly.
For kids, the Charles provides free cribs and high chairs, board games, night lights and outlet protectors, and a selection of children's books.
Dogs and cats are welcome.
A one-time fee per stay for dogs and cats.
There's nothing to worry about here -- the Charles is well taken care of.
With two restaurants and two bars, the quality and variety of the hotel's on-site eateries is impressive. The main restaurant, Henrietta's Table, serves regional fare using fresh local ingredients. The restaurant, named for the chef's late beloved pet pig, includes a gift shop that sells cookbooks, prepared foods and stuffed piglets. There's even a photo of Bill and Hillary Clinton posing with Henrietta. There's also an Italian restaurant, Rialto, and two bars in the hotel. Additionally, there are plenty of places for eating and drinking around Harvard Sqaure, like the tourist magnet John Harvard's Brew House and low-key pubs like Grendel's Den.
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