Bunks that buzz with cool

Richard Tulloch discovers you don't have to spend a fortune to stay in hip Manhattan digs.

It surprises no one that New York hotels are expensive. Millions come to the Big Apple for a short splurge, prepared to shell out hundreds of dollars on shows, so spending a lazy grand or two on hotels is all part of the expected experience.

It needn't be. There are establishments that offer value without compromising comfort - or the fun.

Marrakech Hotel

Downtown is busy, crowded and, you guessed it, pricey. There's a happy alternative, in Midtown, a frisbee throw from Central Park. Thanks to an efficient, and now perfectly safe, subway system, it's only minutes from the entertainment district.

The Marrakech Hotel is on Broadway itself, by the corner of 103rd Street. It's above a convenient Starbucks, which made it seem less Moroccan. The young staff didn't seem Moroccan, either, but were friendly and polite as they lugged our luggage upstairs - unfortunately there's no lift.

The small lobby is decked out in North African style - bright colours and fabrics, tiles and comfortable cushions. It's a good place to sit, more so because rooms are small and the "Kazbar" is the hotel's only area with internet access.

The Marrakech was busy without being overcrowded, popular with young Europeans - French, German and Spanish.

The area appeals, too, with jazz clubs and numerous cafes and restaurants that are far cheaper than their counterparts in the Theatre District.

We ate good Thai downstairs in Sookk at a price that was cheap by Sydney standards.

Double rooms from $152. hostelbookers.com.

Hotel 41

If you want to stay in the centre of the action without breaking the bank, you're unlikely to do better than this basic but comfortable hotel on 41st Street, a few metres from Seventh Avenue, two blocks from Times Square and next door to the Nederlander Theatre.

The lobby features plastic stripes running down the wall and forming leaking pools on the floor - not sloppy workmanship but a design feature.

From our sixth-floor eyrie we could walk onto a terrace and look down on the madding crowd.

The bar was undergoing renovation but, from its location alone, promised to be a pre- or post-show hot spot.

We were also prejudiced in 41's favour by its complimentary continental breakfast - pastries and croissants, bagels with coffee and orange juice. Breakfast included is a rare feature for New York hotels.

Dorm beds from $US72 ($70), private rooms also available. hostelbookers.com.

Ace Hotel

We gave ourselves a one-night splurge at what could be NYC's coolest hotel - at night a line of attractive young people was queuing to get in to the bar. We flashed our hotel keycards marked "Everything is going to be all right. Please recycle" and were ushered through.

Even the next morning there was a cafe queue for the excellent coffee. (Why don't all American baristas do it this well?) We took it with "steel-cut oats" - that is porridge to all you non-trendoids.

This was formerly the venerable 1904 Breslin Hotel, on 29th Street, uptown from the Flatiron District. While some old features have been retained, the Ace has jumped into the 21st century with black-and-white decor and casually dressed staff at reception. "EXCELSIOR - ever upwards" reads the slogan, and the service was attentive.

To say the place has "a lively buzz" is an understatement.

The noise in the bar was deafening, and it was lit principally by guests' iPads and smartphones. Fortunately, the noise did not reach upstairs to the bedrooms.

It may not be for everyone, but the Ace Hotel was definitely the hippest of the bunch.

Double bunk-bed rooms from $US368 a night. acehotel.com/newyork.

Aloft Harlem

"You stayed in Harlem?" Our friends were impressed.

Not only did we stay there, we didn't want to leave. No longer is Harlem a depressed, dangerous part of town. It's become trendy and multicultural, without losing the vibrant feel of African-American culture. The streets were full of lots of families in their Sunday best, many hopping in and out of expensive cars.

The Aloft Harlem is the chicest building on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, all glass and brick with luminous orange and lime-green trims. Very cool.

"We have free iPads for guest use," we were informed on check-in.

Basic breakfast buffet and complimentary coffee were available any time but even better food was going on around the corner. We became almost regulars at Manna's Soul Food, where we loaded plastic containers with salads and spicy chicken or fish and paid for it at $US5.99 a pound ($US13.20 a kilogram). We felt like the daring white faces there but it was extremely friendly and good fun.

Just down 125th Street is the legendary Apollo Theatre, which has given a leg-up to young unknowns including Ella Fitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Michael Jackson.

It still has weekly amateur nights, with the slogan "Be good or be gone".

Double rooms from $US152 a night. alofthotels.com/harlem.

The Jane Hotel

In the space of a few years, the Meatpacking District has been transformed from the part of town where dead cows were chopped up to a trendy cafe and fashion district.

"A Hollywood version of New York," scoffed my Brooklyn-born friend, "where everyone is beautiful and has a dog walker."

What hasn't changed so much is the Jane. Survivors of the Titanic were put up here while they waited for the inquiry into the disaster. The Jane preserves the step-back-in-time experience, but with wi-fi.

The decor is fin de siecle - end of the century - with mosaic tiles, potted palms and stuffed peacocks. Hotel personnel wear theatrical button-up jackets and pillbox hats, which probably drive them crazy but they serve with a smile.

Most rooms ("cabins") are steerage size, with bunk beds and bathrooms that are found down the narrow corridor.

If the hotel were inundated in a flash flood, we wouldn't all make it to the lifeboats. Larger "captain's cabins" are available.

While the heavy dark bar and lounge are furnished to offer the Titanic experience (the first two days of it anyway, perhaps in second class), the bright, airy Cafe Gitane serves excellent Moroccan/French cuisine and takes care of breakfast.

Just a block away is the High Line, the old railway recently converted to a brilliant urban walkway.

It's perfect for your morning stroll or jog. Free bikes are provided for guests' use, which is an excellent facility in my book. "Cycling? In Manhattan?" Fear not - a car-free cycle path along the Hudson River is right across the road.

Double bunk bed cabins from $US125. thejanenyc.com.

The writer was the guest of the Jane Hotel and Hostelbookers.com.