TODAY’S ESCAPE: New York City hotel an affordable gem

The area known as SoHo — aka “south of Houston Street” — has been one of New York City’s most fashionable areas for almost 40 years.

In 1968, a group of artists and activists moved into what was then an area of the city zoned for manufacturing. Seeking to geographically identify themselves, they consulted with the city’s planning board — who described the area as “So. Houston.” As a result, the group called itself the SoHo Artists Association.

Bounded by Houston Street to the north and Canal Street to the south, Crosby Street to the east and West Broadway to the west, the area — known for buildings with cast-iron architectural elements — attracted artists who valued the industrial buildings’ upper stories (or lofts) for their large areas, large windows admitting natural light and cheap rents.

Through decades of gentrification, SoHo has become one of the city’s most popular areas for shopping, galleries and nightlife. Think Prada, the Guggenheim Museum SoHo and the Macou.

The time to go — for bargain hunters — is now. Book a flight and a hotel for January or February — which offers the best deals for New York City.

Getting to SoHo in high style

From San Francisco last month, I flew Virgin America to New York’s JFK airport. Like the neighborhood, the Virgin America experience was high-style (nice seats, a touch menu for ordering food or drinks and lots of free in-flight entertainment). In January, direct-flight fares in the main cabin start at $109, one-way.

From JFK to the Big Apple, I splurged on a taxi. All city taxis charge a flat fare of $45 when taking passengers from JFK to the city. On the return, however, I took the subway — which boasted a $2.50 subway ticket and $5 AirTrain JFK fare. Cabs charge by the meter when leaving the city.

Once in the city, I purchased an MTA one-day fun pass ($8.25), which is valid for unlimited subway and local bus rides from first use until 3 a.m. the following day.

Where to stay

My only previous experience at a hotel in SoHo had been at the SoHo Grand — a luxury-boutique hotel on West Broadway with rooms starting at $325 per night in January.

Last month, however, I made a great discovery: the Gem Hotel SoHo. Bordering the Lower East Side, the hotel is located on the main thoroughfare of SoHo, but is also across the street from the leafy, 7.85-acre Sara D. Roosevelt Park — a busy meeting place for seniors, children, recent immigrants, artists and yuppies.

This modern, 43-room boutique hotel offers both understated luxury and great value. The front desk and hotel staff are young, professional and laid-back. All smoke-free rooms are thoughtfully designed to utilize space: Every room has a mounted, flat-panel LCD television, iPod docking station, down pillows, coffeemakers with complimentary Wolfgang Puck coffee, terry bathrobes, hairdryer, iron, ironing board and Gilchrist and Soames bath amenities — and perks such as free high-speed wireless Internet access and free bottled water.

But a few things that I really liked included the hotel’s ever-­changing chalkboard in the front lobby, which included the latest must-see local events and nearby happy-hour specials. For first-timers to the area, the hotel also loans guests complimentary iPods, loaded with audio tours for popular New York City areas, such as Chinatown, Little Italy, the Meatpacking District and Times Square. Without question, I would stay here again.

What to do

Although some of these places are technically in the Lower East Side, they are in a three-block walking distance from the Gem Hotel SoHo.

For great tapas and drinks, visit Macando (157 E. Houston St., Offering Nuevo Latino cuisine, this casual-but-cozy restaurant specializes in delicious small plates such as Venezuelan arepas, cocas from Barcelona, churros con chocolate from Spain and Mexican tacos. On weekends, it’s open until 3 a.m. and for brunch.

For the latest in art-house cinema, take in a flick at Sunshine Cinema (143 E. Houston St., A Landmark cinema, Sunshine is not what it appears: The former Yiddish vaudeville house was renovated in 2001 and features stadium-style seating and Dolby sound.

For the ultimate gourmet-deli experience, visit Russ and Daughters (179 E. Houston St., www.russand Established in 1914, this outstanding shop specializes in smoked fish, caviar and appetizers. It is always busy. Try an Oy Vey Schmear sandwich ($7.45), the deli’s ever-popular chopped liver with sliced pickles on a bagel or bialy.

For a slice of pizza, nothing beats Ray’s (195 E. Houston St., Best part: The pizzeria is open until 5 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights.

For bargain hunters, explore Orchard Street on a Sunday morning — where hipster boutiques and garment stores have their wares on sale.

If you go

The Gem Hotel SoHo 135 E. Houston St., New York, NY, 10002

Web site:
Phone: (877) 424-6423
About The Gem: In January and February, the hotel is offering a “Wintertide” package; rooms, based on availability, will start at $129 per night. — Kathleen Jay

Free events in NYC

NYC and Company — the official tourism organization for the City of New York — has a section of its Web site devoted to free events throughout the Big Apple. During January, the organization will launch several winter savings programs, such as NYC restaurant seek, a third-night-free hotel program and a two-for-one off-Broadway promotion in February. For more information, visit

Main Cabin Select class on Virgin America

Starting at $404 (one way)

Although Virgin America is offering great deals for flights from San Francisco (SFO) to New York City (JFK) — with fares starting at $109 one-way — for a few dollars more, a splurge in Main Cabin Select may be worth it. Perks include 38-inch pitch and special services such as one free checked bag, complimentary food and beverages and priority boarding. Standard perks in the Main Cabin for all passengers include on-demand movies and live TV; a kids’ entertainment section; an MP3 library; interactive Google Maps; seat-to-seat chat messaging; and on-demand food and drink ordering system. For more information, visit

Life by Numbers

Year New York permitted certified artists to reside and work in Soho lofts

Year Cast-Iron Historic District designated a landmark

Years approximately 250 cast-iron buildings were constructed in Soho
1840 to 1880

Endorsement: Vote yes on Prop. A to strengthen public transportation in San Francisco

Prop. A will bolster S.F. investment in upgrades to public transporation

Fun, free, cheap: What to do in San Francisco this week

Car-free fun in Bayview, blooms and salsa at Union Square, outdoor films