Sacramento has only two B&B's, but they're distinctive

01/27/2013 12:00 AM

01/27/2013 12:54 PM

Step into the Emily Dickinson Room. No need to tread lightly or maintain a librarian's hushed tones.

Spacious and effulgent with natural light, flanked on one end by a heart-shaped Jacuzzi and a skylight, and on the other by a queen bed with high-thread-count sheets, the room is anything but the dowdy, spinsterish hovel you might associate with the Belle of Amherst.

There is nary a doily in sight, either.

You mention this to Judith Bommer, proprietor of the Amber House Bed & Breakfast in midtown Sacramento, where the Dickinson room is a big hit, and she covers her mouth and titters.

The bed-and-breakfast industry, long linked to old-fashioned touches such as teddy bears on pillows and doilies on, well, everything, has updated its look while trying to shed its reputation in recent years.

And Bommer, who bought the 27-year-old business in 2004 after a long career as a corporate hotelier, has thoroughly modernized the 1905 tri-level Craftsman home on 22nd Street and its companion 1895 Dutch Colonial across the street.

Gone is the green carpet throughout and generic countryish interior, replaced by the original wood floors that give off an amber sparkle reflecting from the crackling living-room fireplace. Added are amenities such as free Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs, anathema to certain stern B&B purists.

What hasn't changed, though, is the tradition of naming rooms after famous personages. At the Amber House, after poets and classical composers. The rooms (thankfully, in Emo Emily's case) aren't theme-decorated, and previous owners wisely stayed away from the Slyvia Plath Room. But Bommer found her longtime clients identified with sobriquets such as the Lord Byron or Vivaldi rooms.

"Even though the room has no relationship to the poet and nothing to do with the period," she said, poking her head into Emily's room, "Guests like that. I probably would've picked different poets, but "

But in the bed-and-breakfast business, providers must straddle the line between tradition and trendiness, between the personal touch and professionalism.

That is especially true in an urban area such as Sacramento, where only two true B&Bs cater to tourists and business travelers. Amber House's counterpart, the Inn & Spa at Parkside, on Sixth Street, has gone through several owners in the past decade and is now bank-owned but still operating.

B&Bs expand to big cities

Perhaps in outlying areas, such as the Gold Country and Napa Valley, bed-and- breakfast places can stay staunchly traditional, as homey as the fictional Vermont B&B over which comedian Bob Newhart presided with a gentle hand and subtle humor. But city folk – and people who visit there – apparently have a different idea of comfort.

The hegemony of a Hyatt or Sheraton in major population areas demands that any B&B with the temerity to hang out a shingle make allowances.

"The competition in a big city, like L.A. or San Francisco, is hard for a B&B," said Jenn Wheaton, marketing coordinator for the California Association of Bed & Breakfast Inns. "Sacramento can be the exception. The perk of a B&B is that the innkeepers are much more personal with the guests and you get more attention than just the check-in and check-out type of thing.

"It's for the traveler looking for something quieter and smaller. They want, well, I don't want to say a 'quality experience' because I don't want to put down hotels, but a little more luxury."

Wheaton and Bommer say innkeepers in all but the most remote locations are updating their look and services to cater to business travelers.

Nationally, an industry trade group is promoting a "Death to Doilies" campaign to raise the B&B hip factor among those without artificial hips, featuring a YouTube video with a sepulchral gravedigger tossing fresh soil on said doily.

"Some of our old-fashioned, standard B&Bs still have the doilies and teddy bears. They are popular and doing well, so why should they change?" Wheaton said. " 'Death to Doilies' is just to debunk myths about B&Bs – grandparents and antiques – and try to attract 30-somethings and business people."

Let the debunking begin. One visit to either Amber House or the Inn & Spa at Parkside is a good start.

Parkside may be housed in the early-1930s Fong Mansion, an example of Mediterranean style architecture, but inside the 7,100- square-foot house is a pan-Asian design featuring a mix of ornate rugs and tables, a sleek red-tiled porch and vibrant murals in place of pale rose-print wallpaper.

Its shelves hold DVDs, not faded Reader's Digests from 1962, and its wine rack vies with the fireplace for living-room dominance.

Perhaps the starkest B&B change: the sight of two Parkside workers carrying breakfast trays upstairs to the guests.

Yes, at both Parkside and Amber House, communal dining is not mandatory, heartening to those weary of stilted, strained conversations among strangers.

"Some people don't like dining with strangers, or just don't want to get up in the morning," said Erin Tignor, general manager at Parkside. "They just want to get in their bed and relax. We want a homey feeling and to make them as comfortable as possible. If that means eating in their room, great."

Bommer says "nine out of 10" guests at Amber House choose in-room dining.

"Sometimes, you get a couple who are B&B aficionados, and they want to come down and meet people, talk. They're very disappointed because the other guests are eating in their rooms.

"But then, we also have had great table (conversations). Sometimes, they'll be sitting there for hours."

Shared-bathroom myth

Tignor and Bommer say the breakfast option runs a close second to the most persistent B&B myth – the shared bathroom misconception.

Not only do the rooms at both establishments feature full baths, many have spacious Jacuzzis and walk-in showers. Amber House, in fact, boasts one room with a bathtub that opens out onto a porch that affords a fine view of a garden, sort of a Cialis commercial made real.

When the Swiss-born Bommer, 42, and her husband, Kevin Cartmill, 51, moved to the Sacramento area a decade ago, she had tired of her career serving corporate clients at Accor-Hotels, one of Europe's top chains. She had a dream of opening a B&B, like so many, but she had a specific vision in mind. She first looked to the East Coast.

"I never imagined it would be in Sacramento," she said. "Kevin is from Boston, but none in Maine made any financial sense. Most were owned by people in retirement who rent out a few rooms. They are closed half of the year. I'd be very bored."

But in 2004, the Amber House's original owners, Michael Richardson and Jane Ramey, put the B&B on the market. Bommer bought it for $1.2 million.

"There aren't many B&Bs or many boutique hotels here, so we thought there might be a market," Bommer said. "Sacramento isn't a Napa or Lake Tahoe or Mendocino, where the B&B culture is (established) and people look for it. We have to market ourselves."

To that end, Bommer has transformed the physical and psychic space around Amber House to make it accessible to B&B connoisseurs, younger couples seeking romantic getaways and business travelers seeking less-sterile accommodations.

Hence, her rooms have Wi-Fi, iPod-docking stations and desks, but also spas, fluffy bathrobes and, for an additional charge, chocolate-dipped strawberries and fresh-cut flowers.

"When you're paying $200 for a room, you don't expect a downgrade; you want an upgrade," Bommer said. "Our clients demand flat-screens and desks. The thing about a (traditional) B&B is, it often is tailored to the taste of the owner. Because most owners don't have the hotel background, they just kind of decorate how they'd like it. We took a different course."

Business-travel option

Her focus on business travelers and their needs is partly why Marc Lichty, an account manager for Econolite in Tualatin, Ore., stays at the B&B when he visits Sacramento. He says he likes the personal attention, especially the time his rental car got towed.

"Instead of me having to take a cab the next day to pick up my car, Judith took time out of her day to take me there," he said. "I like the breakfast and the parking that are included in the fee of the room. With many of the hotels, these fees are extra."

There are, he admits, limits to what a B&B can provide.

"No exercise room, no ability to collect points to use for the chain hotels for vacation," he said. "(But) I like the homey feel, and the staff, and I have become very good friends. They make me feel very comfortable when I am there."

How comfortable?

The first time Lichty stayed at the Amber House, a staff member asked him if he wanted a late-afternoon glass of wine.

Lichty asked if they had beer.

"They did not," he said, "but the next time I went back a few weeks later, I was asked if I would like a beer. They had a six-pack of a variety of beer that I could choose from. That was a very nice touch."

Try getting that at a Marriott.

Non-business travelers like being pampered, as well. Both Amber House and Parkside offer special packages for couples, and both usually sell out quickly for Valentine's Day. (Parkside has an on-site spa that is popular, and Amber House has special deals with the B Street Theatre, Fast Eddie Bike Tours and, occasionally, local restaurants.)

Interestingly, both B&Bs report that a significant client base are couples who live in the greater Sacramento region and seek a romantic respite.

"We actually had people who live just a couple blocks away and wanted to get away from the kids just for a night," Tignor said.

One local couple is LeAnn and Peter Fong-Batkin, ages 40 and 41, of Elk Grove. They have two young children and use Amber House as "our home away from home" several times a year.

The couple will dine out, go to a show at the Music Circus, for instance, then enjoy the sky-lit Jacuzzi in the Emily Dickinson Room.

"For about the same price," LeAnn Fong-Batkin said, "we could stay at the Sheraton or Hyatt. But they don't cook us breakfast. They don't have the Jacuzzi. There's no free newspaper. There's no cookies."

And there's no Emily Dickinson Room.


SACRAMENTO B&Bs

The Sacramento metropolitan area has two bed-and-breakfast establishments, Amber House and the Inn & Spa at Parkside.

For a complete list of Northern California B&Bs, go to the website for the California Association for Bed & Breakfast Inns, www.cabbi.com.


AMBER HOUSE

Innkeepers: Judith Bommer and Kevin Cartmill

Address: 1315 22nd St., Sacramento

Phone: (916) 444-8085

Web: www.amberhouse.com

Rooms: 10 – Five in the main house, a 1905 Craftsman, and five in an 1895 Dutch Colonial across the street. Rooms are named after poets and classical composers.

Amenities: Private patio (in two rooms), fireplace (three rooms), Jacuzzi (seven rooms), full bathroom (all rooms), HD flat-screen TVs and DVD players (all rooms), free wireless Internet (all rooms).

Cost: Ranges from $179 to $279

Meal: Complimentary gourmet breakfast served at the time of your choice, in your room or in the dining room.

Perk: Fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies are served in your room with turndown.


INN & SPA AT PARKSIDE

Innkeeper: Erin Tignor (general manager)

Address: 2116 Sixth St., Sacramento

Phone: (916) 658-1818

Web: www.innatparkside.com

Rooms: 11 – With names such as "Dream," "Kiss," "Passion" and "Healing Energy."

Amenities: Bathroom (all rooms), flat-screen TVs (all rooms), fireplace (seven rooms); Jacuzzi (six rooms), balcony (four rooms), kitchenette (one room)

Cost: Range from $169 to $259

Meal: Complimentary gourmet breakfast served at the time of your choice, in your room or at the dining room table.

Perk: Discount days at the onsite day spa.

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