NYC's neighbourhood chic

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New York — When Thompson Hotels opened its Canadian outpost in Toronto last year, it reinforced the notion for some that T.O. had come of age. The brand’s reputation for a stylish and laid-back stay was perfected in Manhattan before branching out across the continent. Just don’t call it a "chain."

Thompson has managed — in ways many hotels can’t — to distinguish its properties as reflections of their local neighbourhoods. They’ve also opened in places where boutique hotels had not ventured before. With this in mind, I made a point of staying at all five Thompson hotels in New York over successive trips to see how well a hotel can capture the spirit of place.

60 Thompson

There is no Mr. Thompson to greet you at check-in. The clever idea of naming the first hotel after its address was a nod to the importance of being local — and made easy work for cabbies. After an inauspicious opening the day before 9/11, the hotel in trendy Soho has become a hot spot for celeb sighting in the large second floor lobby. Modest double rooms have all the luxe amenities of the show-stopping suites.

6 Columbus

Midtown is where the big chain hotels climb to the sky. This low-rise 88-room hotel dares to be different and has fun at the same time. A Jetsons-inspired ’60s theme pervades with curvy space age seating and mod sensibilities throughout. It has a rooftop bar with views onto Central Park. The ground floor Blue Ribbon Sushi Bar & Grill is popular with CNN staff from the Time Warner Center next store, where an excellent affordable lunch can be had at Bouchon Bakery.

Gild Hall

It’s not this former 18-storey Holiday Inn that is lined with namesake gold — it’s the Wall Street neighbours, especially the Federal Reserve Bank, making this probably the safest part of the city. Tours of the world’s biggest stash of gold can be arranged a month in advance (see Dimpled leather headboards, wood panelling, work stations, walls of books and an antler chandelier lend an eclectic gentleman’s club ambience to this business hotel, which often has great weekend rates. Stroll pedestrian Stone Street, New York’s oldest cobblestone lane lined with bars and restaurants.

Thompson Lower East Side

This gritty part of town in transition to a trendier vibe is where Thompson opened an 18-storey purpose-built hotel layered with references to the Bowery’s past. Industrial loft chic touches of high ceiling concrete, chainmail screens and exposed columns blend with artful displays that recall the days when artists colonized the area. The rooftop pool (a rarity in New York) features a painting of Andy Warhol. If the sex appeal of the rooms doesn’t put you in the mood, you can always try what famously worked for Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally at Katz’s Deli around the corner. But these rooms offer a chance for the real deal — not just faking it.

Smyth Tribeca

The 15 blocks of former warehouses converted into indie shops, bars and loft living that once stood in the shadow of the World Trade Center is now kid central with a baby boom in full swing. This cool oasis for the downtown crowd is also kid-friendly. My toddler loved running his fingers along the dark embossed leather walls. Attentive service and whimsical design make this a winner for staying off the beaten path. The nearby 24/7 Bubby’s Diner is packed for Sunday brunch, complete with angle parking for strollers.

So choose your part of town, pick your style and set off to explore New York by getting to know its neighbourhood hotels first.