EVERY SEASONED WORLD TRAVELER claims to know of an undiscovered hideaway, where the service and charm of a bygone era are preserved—all at yesterday's prices. The Hotel Porte-Bonheur, alas, is not one of those places, although for a while a lot of Americans thought it was.

The 13-room Porte-Bonheur, which charges $16 a night for a single, is located in Nice, on the French Riviera, where a four-star hotel can easily top $275 a night. So, last fall, when an American guidebook supposedly awarded the hotel the coveted four stars usually reserved for only the poshest hostelries and watering spots, the deluge began.

Ah, but of course, there was a catch. The Porte-Bonheur has never been awarded four stars—or even one star. Ever. By anyone. And for good reason. Guests—who are expected to pay in cash, in advance—must clean their own rooms; the linen is changed once a week. There is just one pay telephone, one TV, no swimming pool, no concierge, no bellhops and no room service because there is no restaurant.

None of this stopped people—mainly bargain-hungry Americans—from trying to make reservations at the Porte-Bonheur, which is in a working-class section of town and caters mainly to students and others at the less fussy end of the tourist market. "I got nervous every time the telephone rang with an American voice," says Christian Reulier, who with his wife, Raymonde, has owned the hotel for 14 years. "We got 40 or 50 calls from the U.S., but it was very hard to convince people in my schoolboy English that we weren't the Ritz."

An added frustration for Reulier is that he has yet to track down the guidebook that purportedly gave his humble hotel such an accolade. "One of the people who called told me he got the address from an MCI guidebook," he says. But nobody at the long-distance phone company knows about such a publication. The confusion over the Porte-Bonheur appears to be abating now, a development that Reulier admits leaves him with mixed feelings. "Though we are fully booked for August," Reulier says wistfully, "we still have rooms available in July."