Green spin

Vanessa Noel offers a Nantucket hotel experience that's earth-friendly, chemical-free -- and chic

Email|Print| Text size + By Linda Matchan
Globe Staff / September 21, 2006

NANTUCKET -- You may be paying up to $600 a night at the new hotel here owned by Vanessa Noel, a New York couture shoe designer. But at least you're Making a Difference.

It says so, right on the wrapper for the hypo-allergenic toilet tissue made with recycled paper. You're saving natural resources and reducing pollution too, according to this most loquacious of toilet paper, which also sports an inspirational quotation from The Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy.

But this is only one of the earth-friendly offerings at Hotel Green, said to be the first green hotel on the island.

There are also chairs made out of recycled corrugated cardboard. Ayurvedic bathroom soap so organic it has an expiration date. Luxury hemp towels. Organic wheat grass juice for breakfast.

It seems a bit out of context here in quaint and preppy Nantucket (average home price:$2.3 million ). If the island had a color, it wouldn't be green, but pink and green, or maybe red, to coordinate with the ubiquitous brick-red Nantucket Reds canvas slacks from venerable Murray's Toggery Shop.

But this is not familiar old Nantucket anymore, at least not this little corner of it in the historical district around Centre and Chestnut streets. It is Vantucket, where the enterprising Noel has been steadily acquiring real estate and putting her chic, trendy imprimat ur on all she owns.

Her holdings include a boutique hotel called the Vanessa Noel Hotel. A shoe boutique called Vanessa Noel which sells her two shoe labels, ``Vanessa Noel" and ``Vanno." The Vanno Bar. The Seven Seas gift shop, which she describes as ``a highly designed wonderful antiques and fine art gift shop for adults."

Most recently, there is the 10-room Hotel Green in the building that used to be a ``dodgy little guest house," says Noel. Now the 1837 Greek Revival edifice feels more New York than New York, which seems to be the point. The Vanessa Noel hotel is ``Park Avenue Chic," says Noel. ``Hotel Green is Soho Chic."

All this hip New York chic doesn't sit well with everyone on Nantucket, an island where neon signs are prohibited and which is doggedly resistant to change. When a Ralph Lauren store opened recently on Main Street, ``people had a stroke," says Liz Winship, who owns the Nantucket Looms shop and sold her building to Ralph Lauren, moving to another spot nearby. ``People were having a nervous breakdown."

``A portion of [Nantucket] has unfortunately gotten very New York and Hampton-ish," says Vladimir Kagan, a prominent furniture designer known for his avant-garde work. He owns a home on Nantucket with his wife, artist Erica Wilson, who has a needlepoint shop on Main Street. ``It started with the Pearl (a five-star restaurant), which has gotten very chichi," Kaga n says. ``To take an old boarding house and say it is a green hotel is kind of wacky. The whole thing is not at all in character."

He adds: ``Having said that, she will probably be quite successful. The rich like to be seen among their own company."

Not everyone here is wary, though. ``[Vanessa Noel] took a small sleepy guest house and put a green spin on it," Winship says. ``What great marketing! Is it green because it has green walls, or is it green because there is grass in the window boxes now?"

Actually, both . ( Although technically, it's the floors that are jalapeno green. The walls are aubergine. And they were done with Anna Sova organic paint.)

To be sure, hotels marketing themselves as ``green" aren't particularly new, even in Massachusetts. ``It's a major trend," says Tedd Saunders, who co-owns Boston's Saunders Hotel Group, which includes the Lenox and Copley Square hotels, and runs Ecological Solutions, a resource for environmentally-conscious hotels.


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Talk to Saunders about green hotels, though, and he'll talk about nuts-and-bolts matters like renewable energy sources, indoor air- quality issues, and solid waste disposal.

Noel's shade of green seems more about eco-chic. Not that she doesn't care about the planet. Working as a shoe designer in Italian tanneries made it ``hard to ignore" the effects of chemical pollution, she says. ``They use a tremendous amount of chemicals which seep into the ground, and a lot of people living in the little villages are riddled with cancer. It's dreadful."

Her experiences in Italy -- plus a longtime interest in organic foods -- inspired her to open a green hotel. ``If we don't take care of the planet, even the cows won't survive," she says.

Among the hotel's green initiatives are chemical-free laundry and cleaning supplies and eco-friendly light bulbs that ``emit less carbon dioxide," says Noel. ``It's better for the ozone." The rooms offer luxury organic products -- Ayurvedic glycerin bars from India, buckwheat hull pillows, jute rugs with plant fiber matting, fluffy organic towels.

But it's not airtight green. Hotel Green ``is an historic building in an historic area of downtown Nantucket," Noel says. ``It was not built green. It is not pure. But people can start to learn about these things. If everyone went home and bought energy- saving light bulbs, then I've done a good job."

With all this talk about green, it's somewhat surprising to see a guest room decorated in minimalist white -- white linens, white-ish towels, white comforters, accented with jewel-tone toss pillows that add what designers these days like to call ``pop." Also adding pop are a multicolored chest of drawers from Senegal covered with recycled labels and a vintage cool recycled rotary telephone. Noel has plans to add yoga mats, natural cashmere throws, linen draperies hanging from bamboo rods, even a massage room.

What the room does not have are the sort of amenities you'd normally associate with conventional hotels in this price range -- a desk, an armchair, a mini-bar with beer or Toblerone bars. ``Refrigerator bars take up too much energy," Noel explains. Instead there is a basket with wine, sun - dried pineapple, curried cashews, Dutch wafers, and other healthful offerings.

Is it a welcome gift? There's no price list. But it's not the only thing about the hotel that's a bit disorienting. Although the staff is friendly and helpful, Hotel Green does seem to emit a particular brand of if-you-have-to-ask-you-shouldn't-be-here clubbiness that is the essence of certain New York neighborhoods. And yes, there is a charge for the items in the basket.

There is no identifiable concierge who mentions that ``breakfast is served from 7 to 9," or offers to make you a dinner reservation. ``Does the Vanno Bar serve dinner? " you finally ask a staff member. ``Only caviar," is the answer. ``And gravlax."

Why is there a dog dashing between the hotel lobby and the shoe store -- and how is it that everyone who walks in here seems to know his name is Jack? Why do you have to walk right through Noel's shoe store to get into the lobby? (And how can she charge $425 for a pair of hot-pink suede shoes that look like Tevas?)

Most of all, who is this Vanessa Noel?

Actually, she seems much the way she describes herself. ``I'm a normal person," says the amiable Noel, who is well put together but not glamorous, and whose dark pants and sweater set coordinate well with the Vanno Bar's bamboo chairs and leopard-print carpeting. ``I love what I do. And I'm happiest with a sketchpad."

Noel, who declines to say her age, graduated from Cornell in 1984 with a degree in fine arts and architecture. She says she's obsessed with shoes because she is drawn to their sculptural elements, and has been designing them since 1987. She has two shops, one in Nantucket and another in Manhattan, and is about to launch a new collection of green couture shoes -- stilettos, wedges, and thongs -- made of vegetable tanned leathers, cork, hemp, and flax.

``My shoes have always done well," she says, knocking bamboo.

She says she is pleased with the response to Hotel Green since it opened in July. ``The guests are a very cultured, intelligent group of people who are completely embracing the concept."

And those on the island who may not be ? ``People are frightened of what the best of New York has to offer," she says. ``We are not giving you New York in Nantucket. It's an updated wonderful design in a space where you really still feel the vibes of Nantucket. Just because it's New England you don't have to eat clam chowder one particular way. There are amazing tastes on Nantucket. It's not all calico whales."

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