New York on the Danube

I rarely go on press junkets, not because I fear they might compromise my journalistic integrity, but because I never get invited. And when I have gone-for example, to the Caribbean a couple of times years ago-my hosts have had the audacity to expect me to spend precious tanning time visiting hotel properties. However, when an invitation arrived in the mail a few weeks ago, inviting not just me but also my wife to Budapest for the weekend, our only question was where to ditch the kids. The occasion was the grand opening of the Art’otel Donald Sultan, a rather intriguing concept where a hotel is turned over to an artist with name recognition who is then given carte blanche to design everything from the fountains to the terry-cloth bathrobes.

Art’otels are also in the works in Rome (Francesco Clemente), Berlin (Jim Dine), Los Angeles (Edward Ruscha), Miami (James Rosenquist) and New York, where an artist and site have yet to be designated.

Among those I spotted in the Malev Hungarian Airlines departure lounge who were apparently as swayed by the artistic possibilities (or at least by the offer of a free trip) as me, and who fell for the pitch letter’s evocation of cobblestone streets, baroque palaces and poppy seed strudel, were the novelist Tama Janowitz; the crime reporter John Connally, on assignment for National Geographic Traveler ; and several dozen of Donald Sultan’s downtown artist friends and family members. They included Ann Freedman, the president of the Knoedler Gallery, Mr. Sultan’s dealers; Barbara Siebel Thomas, a highly personable house portrait painter (and former wife of my Observer colleague Michael Thomas), who was seated beside us on the plane and whose fear of turbulence quite possibly exceeded my wife’s; and Mr. Sultan’s mom Phyllis, an 82-year-old force of nature whose only regret was that the trip would make her miss her first yoga class.

When we landed in Budapest the next morning, the weather was cool and overcast, as it was to remain for the next two days, and somehow exactly what you’d have expected it to be in a former Communist republic. The landscape our bus passed on the way into town was a jumble of old and new: bouncy billboards hawking cell phones overlooking neighborhoods of dilapidated 50’s worker housing.

Our hotel, on the other hand, which we spotted for the first time crossing the Danube over the Chain Bridge, shone with an inviting postmodern clarity of purpose and sparked thoughts of starched sheets, hot baths and sleep.

Unfortunately, our rooms weren’t ready. I’d been under the mistaken impression that we were to be the Art’otel’s first guests, but I discovered that the hotel had been undergoing what’s apparently known in the hospitality business as a “soft opening” since July, and the previous night’s residents were taking their sweet time departing. So we proceeded directly to the official grand-opening ceremony and champagne toast, where we heard from Mr. Sultan, who looks a bit like an affable, overgrown fifth grader with his moon-shaped wire-rimmed glasses and mop of unruly hair, as well as Jonathan Read, chairman of Park Plaza Worldwide (the parent company of Art’otel), whose mom was also along for the festivities, and Kimberly Tufo, the fetching young wife of U.S. Ambassador to Hungary Peter Tufo.

Mr. Sultan’s remarks were admirably short (“It’s the first exhibition you can go to in your bathrobe,” he said), but those of Joseph Domberger, one of the hotel’s developers-who had more people to thank than Britney Spears at the People’s Choice Awards-tested our already-depleted endurance.

By the time Mrs. Tufo stepped to the podium and accepted a check from the hotel on behalf of her pet cause, something called the Children’s Safety Service, I was calculating how many bodies I’d have to step over when the ceremony broke to make certain I was the first person on line at the reception desk to demand a room key.

My pugnacity paid off. We were awarded a lovely room overlooking the Danube with a view of the neo-Gothic pinnacles of the Parliament building beyond. Art’otel Donald Sultan doesn’t aspire to be the Pierre or the Crillon-at the Art’otel, a double room runs about $150 a night-but the artist’s confident touches lend it a certain elegance, even glamour. They include numbered Sultan lithographs on the walls, a metal songbird perched high on one wall-“I thought everybody should have a sculpture in their room,” the artist explained-and playful red carpeting with a needle-and-thread motif that supposedly hearkens back to Hungary’s history as a tapestry-making capital. Mr. Sultan even designed the matchboxes, which bear images from his Smoke Rings series.

The weekend’s only off note occurred that evening, when we were all invited to dinner at an authentic Hungarian restaurant and many of us made the mistake of ordering the fish. My wife Debbie had been told by a friend who spent a couple of weeks in Hungary that, even though it may sound counterintuitive in a landlocked nation, the fish is superb. Apparently she wasn’t referring to the catfish.

The following morning, we attempted to reverse the damage done to our stomach linings by taking the medicinal waters at the Gellert Hotel, one of Budapest’s famous bathhouses, a basilica of early 20th-century Secessionist style. I received a 45-minute massage for the equivalent of $7, then soaked in the thermal baths.

An excellent piece of seven-layer cake-alternating bands of chocolate cream and marzipan-crowned a light lunch at Gerbeau, a famous Budapest café, and almost restored my faith in Hungarian cuisine. Dinner that night, our second and last, was at the hotel and included dancing and a charity auction of Mr. Sultan’s work.

Unfortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Tufo, the guests of honor, couldn’t make it, the press of official business calling them to Vienna. We nonetheless managed to overcome their absence. Joining our boisterous group were the Mayor of Buda (the city is divided into several districts including hilly Buda, where our hotel was located, and flat Pest);Yoni (he doesn’t use his last name), a 21-year-old Dalton School graduate and Manhattan club promoter (“You’ve got to bow before someone who can put together a club list from Budapest,” noted Jori Finkel, an editor at Art & Auction ); and an abundance of beautiful young local ladies who weren’t bashful about making eye contact.

With the exception of a flea market on the outskirts of town, where Ms. Janowitz scored a rather cumbersome piece of ornamental ironwork (she told us that on another recent trip she had purchased a ferret, so I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky) and Mr. Connally a pair of Soviet-era binoculars for $50, I didn’t feel like I’d missed much when we boarded our buses Sunday morning for the trip back to the airport.

There was one brief moment of concern when we spotted several Hungarian mechanics huddling beneath the wing of our aircraft and were informed that our flight would be delayed an hour to allow “the glue to dry” on some impromptu repair. But we became airborne without noticeable difficulty, and the nine-hour flight home seemed to take half that long due to the amount of socializing that was going on in the aisles. Since we’ve returned, we’ve received a note from Ms. Thomas, who also sat beside us on the way back (and whose fear of flying remains acute), that a reunion is already in the works.