Tag Archives: hotels

When a Blog Feels Like a Utility Bill

To say I stink at blogging is an understatement, plus it feels so 1998. Social media is microblogging and vlogging, and now, in 2018, everyone has either a carefully curated online lifestyle or a reactive opinion to something. I don’t know where I fit into this, and remembering to blog about something feels like remembering to pay our utility bill.

I started this blog in 2005 to talk about my family’s vacations, and now I’m being introduced as a “travel writer” to people. This floors me because in 1998 when blogging and my journalism career were in their nascent days, a travel writer to me was an elderly white dude who had worked his way up the chain at a particular newspaper for the past few decades, and who wrote about eating poi in Oahu. Or, it was cracking open National Geographic Traveler (which has published me–twice!) and reading something awesome in long-form by someone who didn’t have an Instagram account but was somewhere far away, and perhaps had hammered out observations on a Smith Corona (and if you’re of that age where you think I’m referring to a type of beer, think again). Now, everyone is a travel writer because everyone has Instagram.

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(A favorite room at The Roxbury called “Amadeus’s Bride”)

Lately, I’ve been writing about hotels. For reasons I’m still trying to understand, this brings me absolute joy. And it’s so weird to arrive at this point at almost-45, to feel wow’ed by sharing your opinions on hotels, for tourism boards to invite you to places. You see, my parents did not attend elite four-year universities–or any university–to be groomed for greatness. We struggled financially, and I was raised to attend college, get a job, get married, pay the bills, remain within a short drive from the family, have at least two children, and ride out the years without complaining (I complained). Travel was a luxury, and if you could afford it, was something you did one week out of the summer to some place within driving distance; for us, that was usually Mystic, Connecticut. I was the first on either side of my family tree to actually leave town to attend a four-year, in-state college and come out the other end with a bachelor’s degree. It sounds sad that this would be considered pioneering in 1995, peak Clinton years and the dawn of the Internet, but that’s how I grew up, raised by parents who preferred bubbles of their own making. I didn’t even know what the Foreign Service was until my late 20s when I was building my journalism career, and I look back and wonder if anyone during my high school years had explained to me what the Foreign Service was, would I be schmoozing in nice hotels with ambassadors in places like Riyadh or Dubai? Because I do have schmoozing skills. Sadly, I’ll never know.

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(Sails in the Desert near Uluru in Northern Territories, Australia)

So hotels. I can’t get enough of them, and I realized my fascination with them goes back to November 1998 (a pivotal year, now that I think about it), when Mike and I took a boat ride up to Victoria, British Columbia, and as we got off the boat, I saw Fairmont’s Empress Hotel. We weren’t staying there; we stayed at the Bedford Regency, which also sounded classy and was right on that main thoroughfare, Government Street. But still. The Empress was as regal as its name (and on Government Street). It had opened in 1908, an Edwardian chateau-style party house for passengers of Canadian Pacific’s steamship line, which had a terminal a block away. Canadian Pacific Hotels eventually became Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. If there’s a chain hotel I’m addicted to, Fairmont is the one. One glance at the Empress and I was hooked. I would have afternoon tea and spend a night there two years later.

Since then, I’ve sought out hotels that had character and swimming pools. There are no points programs for going off-brand. One of my favorite hotels is The Roxbury up in the Catskills, which is adding a pool (thank God!). Other favorite hotels are in the fall 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveler, and I recently gushed about this lodge on Australia’s Victorian coast for Flung magazine. I’d love to return to Paris’s Grand Hotel Des Gobelins, which had this majestic staircase, tiny rooms, and this phenomenal breakfast buffet that was served in the bowels of the building (this was 2011, so maybe they changed that). Or go back to the QT in Melbourne where I stayed last November and soaked in another amazing bathtub. Or walk out on to my balcony to listen to the birds before the heat of the day hit at Sails in the Desert Resort near Uluru. I’m eager to try out The Rookery even though I have no immediate plans to return to London. I’ve wanted to check out El Convento in Old San Juan for about a decade. Macau has hotels sprouting up like weeds. Trying out hotels wasn’t something that was encouraged at home or at college: hotels were cheap places with the same non-threatening taupe decor and dentist office art where you crashed for a few nights. Hotels weren’t the vacation.

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(Ah, Le Sirenuse)

Maybe I still want to blog about travel after all but it’s taking on a new form: waxing poetic about beloved hotels (or scrutinizing them for something annoying, though if I’m there in the first place, it’s because there’s something I like). For some people, the excitement of travel begins when they arrive at the airport or board their train or pack the car. For me, it’s sliding the key into that door and seeing what’s inside. Is this hotel about local history? Is it pretentious? Is it an architectural puzzle? Does it want me to have fun? To relax? To sit up straight and take this place seriously? To forget or admire where I am? To disconnect or reconnect? Does it smell like carpet cleaner or someone’s cigarettes? What’s the view?

And that’s the fun, isn’t it?

Ich Bin Ein Californian

The pilot sounded giddy, like some waiter stoked about what the chef was concocting in the kitchen, as if the weather forecast was this awesome meteorological entree he couldn’t wait to dish up. And he was right. It was the smoothest transcontinental flight I had ever been on. Ever. The seat belt sign was barely on. The skies were clear and blue the whole way. I almost enjoyed myself. I almost felt my faith in flying restored.

We said goodbye to that fuzzy green humidity suffocating the Northeast and made our way west to San Francisco where you wear sweaters, hats and scarves in August. Even today, I’m wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa eating hot soup while 2,900 miles east, my backyard chickens sweat in their coop and my cat hides in the shadows to stay cool.

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We’re renting an apartment in the Cole Valley neighborhood, which is a seven-minute walk from Haight Street, still very much alive with hippies, hipsters and homeless. Tour buses cut through all this, as does the voice of some guy on a microphone explaining Haight-Ashbury’s colorful history to an audience of white people wearing normcore without irony. I was hat-shopping there Tuesday when some guy on the street shouted to the tourists on the bus “You’re being lied to!” That’s the beauty of walking around the streets and just hanging out. You see, hear, smell, sense more. We’re among the rows of Easter egg-colored dollhouses, Victorian- and Edwardian-era buildings hugging the hills, where there’s plenty of sensory stimulation. Originally, Mike’s employer was going to put us up in a chain hotel in the touristy parts of town because that’s near corporate offices and that’s why we’re here, but after some online hunting, I found this great, third-floor walkup that saved the company about $1,200, and now everyone is happier. The more I travel, the more I lean on individual rentals than hotels; it offers greater authenticity and, quite simply, it costs less. Hotels distance themselves from their surroundings, they are their own little gated communities; apartments are integrated with their environments and you get to savor a city in an entirely different way.

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The accommodations are as integral to this trip as California itself. After 10 days in the city, we’re off for a return visit to Big Sur where we’ll sleep in a nest, which makes me giddy. I’ve been chatting with the artist who made the nest, and I may get a chance to watch him work next week because he does things to eucalyptus branches that you didn’t think could be done. Even the birds seem impressed. So we’re going to go check that out.

It’s always wonderful to sleep in your own bed, but I’m feeling way too at ease in our temporary housing, as if my daughter and cat and chickens should all come here instead of us flying back east. But I’ve known for a long time I’m a closeted Californian living in the New York City burbs. Last night, Mike and I took the trolley to the beach. The line ends and you literally run out of America because the Pacific is right there. There wasn’t much of a sunset because it was so cloudy, but it was still beautiful. We watched surfers flirt with the current and the current flirted right back; it was like overhearing some sultry conversation at a bar. To surf with so little light takes guts. That means understanding the waves without having to see them, listening for nuance in undulation. I loved eavesdropping in on this. I once tried surfing off the coast of La Jolla and nearly threw up from seasickness. I envy those who ride waves. Later, we walked through the gray, past several broken sand dollars covered by beaten-up beach. My husband remarked that it was very difficult to find an unbroken sand dollar and seriously, just seconds after he said that, I reached down and picked up what looked like a perfect one, unmarred by beachgoers and their hyper dogs. Mike rinsed it off in the ocean and was impressed. No chips, no cracks. It felt like finding a lucky coin on the ground. It’s now on our windowsill drying in the sun. I look at it and think, “Soon, California. Soon.”

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Hotels: Rethink the American Breakfast

Am I the only traveling American who doesn’t want to start her day with a plate of eggs, bacon and gluten bombs? While venturing around the Adirondacks and Vermont these last few weekends, I couldn’t help but notice all the pot-bellied families around me at hotel restaurants and diners eating their high-cholesterol breakfasts. I don’t mean to sound snobby, but America, we’re big. Too big. And I think it’s unfortunate that you have to find a vegan cafe or a five-star hotel to get a breakfast on the road that’s anything besides eggs, bacon and gluten bombs. I don’t expect the world to accommodate gluten-free eating, but isn’t variety the spice of life? Couldn’t the Crowne Plaza in Lake Placid–a pretty nice place with a kickin’ view of Mirror Lake–offer more at its breakfast buffet besides what you can find at a roadside diner? Mirror Lake Inn had the usual American breakfast fare, but there was also a plate of smoked salmon every morning, a feature reminiscent of my mornings at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Just one, preferably gluten-free, outside-of-the-box dish in the morning, America. Just one. That’s all I ask.

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(What you are served most mornings at most American hotels)

Hotels are run by companies, and companies cater to the lowest common denominator because the lowest common denominator makes them a lot of money. Nothin’ wrong with that. We’re a capitalist society. But what about eggs, bacon, gluten bombs AND a plate of smoked salmon or other fish? Or some gluten-free rice cakes, for I am not the only gluten-free traveler out there? Or what about some freshly sliced avocado, full of monounsaturated fats, which actually help lower cholesterol? You know how many people eat fish and rice for breakfast? Millions. Yes, they probably don’t outnumber those traveling along Interstate 40 or munching on egg McMuffins at Newark airport, but they’re out there, craving something different, something better for breakfast, just like me.

You might argue, “Hey, the Adirondacks isn’t where you go for fish and rice. That’s mountain country where flapjack stacks touch the clouds,” and I would reckon you are absolutely correct. The flapjack is a likely descendant of cornmeal cakes, which were the popular pioneer breakfast back when corn was not the bastardized, pesticide-resistant plant that’s now found in everything from fruit juice to salad dressing. I’m not saying eradicate flapjack stacks. And I’ll admit here on the Internet I occasionally eat a piece of bacon. And I’m not saying eradicate grains. America is the land of corn and wheat. But on either side of those massive fields of corn and wheat lie two oceans, so dangnammit, can’t hotels and establishments serving travelers think beyond the middle? The only gluten-free option shouldn’t be that abandoned bowl of browning bananas and mushy apples.

And you might also argue, “Hey, eggs and meat and dairy are on most people’s plates most mornings all around the world,” and you’d be correct, there, too. Check out how folks start their day. The human race has plenty of disagreements, but when it comes to breakfast, there’s vast common ground: we all seem to need a little caffeine kick every morning, and we like our breads and spreads alongside all kinds of things that come from farms. Those are some global breakfast staples.

When I’m in England, I enjoy the traditional English breakfast of eggs, bacon, beans, mushrooms, and that ubiquitous slice of tomato. Yum. Though I can’t eat that every day. Like the American breakfast, it is too heavy.

In France, I’m now having a tougher time because the French breakfast is coffee and croissants (and usually a cigarette), and gluten-free hasn’t taken off in p√Ętisserie country. Yet.

In Iceland, I had fabulous breakfasts of smoked salmon, skyr and shots of cod liver oil.

Eating breakfast in Mexico was a treat because I lived off corn tortillas, rice, beans, guacamole and eggs–all gluten free.

Japan offered “Western” breakfasts alongside their traditional breakfasts, and I gotta say, little servings of fish, rice and miso soup ain’t a bad way to start a day. I haven’t been to India yet, but I think the country’s lentil cakes served with rice, chutney and sambar would suit me just fine.

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(Breakfast in Paris)

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(Ending our trip to Iceland with a morning shot of cod liver oil)

Hotels mirror the culture, and one of the biggest elements of culture is food. Every time a Best Western or Holiday Inn or an InterContinental unveils another plate of eggs, bacon and toast to a guest, it says something about America. To me, it says we lack self-discipline and can’t think creatively. The United States is a melting pot, where Hispanics and Asians are two of the fastest-growing ethnic groups. Why can’t our breakfasts reflect that? Why can’t our hotels be better examples of who we are and what we eat? I challenge Starwood and InterContinental and all the other hotels chains out there as well as the independently-owned bed-and-breakfasts from the tip of Maine to the Hawaiian islands to get imaginative with breakfast. Ok, it doesn’t have to be low-fat, low-carb healthy. Like I said, I’m guilty of occasionally enjoying a slice of bacon. But can’t hotels and what they put on our breakfast plates reflect the diversity America loves to brag about? Can’t we be more than the same-old, same-old? Can we not be the Denny’s Grand Slam?

Places With a Sense of Place

I’ll confess here to my 2.5 blog readers that when it comes to choosing a hotel, I don’t always go budget even though I should. I am willing to pay for a sense of place and a good story. I’ve stayed in yurts, tents, hostels, 19th century farmhouses, cabins, a Jersey Shore hotel that was neither clean nor quiet, converted monasteries, European brownstones, and a five-star urban oasis in downtown Tokyo that left me breathless and amnesiac about the expense. I have yet to stay at a castle, though I will someday. Topping my list of places to stay is America’s (so far) only human nest, which means I’ll get to go back to Big Sur, California, a possibility in summer 2015.

When it comes to choosing a hotel, I probably have too few biases; the place has to be clean, not run down, in a neighborhood where I don’t feel the need to sleep with one eye open, and preferably have a pool (I have chosen hotels based solely on their pools). Other than that, I don’t care if it’s family-owned, boutique, a corporate chain with a loyalty program (I’ve never been brand-driven anyway), 2-star, 5-star, or not even within the galaxy. If breakfast is included, great. If not, chances are there’s a Starbucks somewhere or a mom-and-pop counter with flapjacks and coffee. We have friends who won’t stay in hotels that cost more than $200 per night or that lack a rewards program. We’re not so picky.

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After years of sleeping in monochromatic budget joints, now that I’ve come up in the world a bit, the one area where I don’t like to compromise anymore is whether the hotel gives me a sense of the place. Does it blend in with local color? Don’t think that just because a hotel chain is owned by some white-collared investors living far away that it can’t do local color. Yes, some stick to vanilla playbooks no matter where you stay, but some are smart enough to capitalize on what drew folks to the region in the first place. I found this to be particularly true with InterContinental’s The Clement Monterey, an $80 million redo of prime waterfront space that once housed the old Del Mar Canning Company in the heart of Cannery Row–Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. You can feel it when you walk around the place. Opened in 2008, The Clement Monterey had studied the history of its location and pulled inspiration from the bay, such as the giant, glass sculpturesque jellyfish chandelier-like object in the hallway or the tins of chocolate sardines left in our room. And of course, this being California, there were outdoor fire pits so you could sit outside and think or not think, but stay warm watching sea otters frolic in the bay. Yes, it’s owned by a West Coast management company, but there was a full embrace of the neighborhood’s gritty, early 20th century history that I appreciated.

Another hotel that gave me a strong sense of place is Mirror Lake Inn, where we stayed this past weekend. There’s no point in getting a hotel in the Adirondacks if you can’t see the Adirondacks. Mirror Lake Inn in Lake Placid is not easy on the wallet, but wow, this place IS Adirondacks history. We woke up to blue peaks staring us down through the balcony doors, looking at us like “Yeah, you, the tiny thing curled up in 500-count Egyptian cotton…just a reminder who’s boss here.” The property began as a lakefront estate hosting wealthy visitors from New York City–a story common throughout the Northeast–but then in 1932, it was invaded by Norway. Or, I should say the Norwegian team rented the entire inn when it arrived for the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid (the town hosted the Winter Olympics again in 1980). The hotel’s ties to the Olympics continues in the 21st century; when you check in at the front desk, a silver medal from the 2014 Sochi games and a bronze medal from the 2010 Vancouver games are prominently displayed. The medals were won by alpine skier Andrew Weibrecht, who was born in Lake Placid, grew up racing down nearby Whiteface Mountain, and whose parents own Mirror Lake Inn.

Tokyo will host the summer 2020 Olympic Games, and there, hotels will create new stories. Tokyo is not cheap, but it is best enjoyed high above where you can watch the city sparkle at night and the sun rise over Mount Fuji every morning. I spent three nights at the Tokyo Park Hyatt, where I swam across a pristine indoor pool under the gaze of that Buddha of a mountain, and where we had such an amazing time that when we were handed the bill, we didn’t even blink because we knew we would take the bliss that we felt at that hotel to the grave. I’m not joking. I was blissed out at that place. I *get* what the fifth star in a five-star hotel stands for. Yes, this may have been where Lost in Translation was filmed, but that’s not why I picked this hotel. I chose it for the pool and view of Fuji; just remembering how it felt to step out of that pool and see the snow on Fuji turn pink under the morning sun is the best mental image for meditation class, ever. Next time I grip the armrest during airplane turbulence, that image will be my happy place.

In my rambling way (still sipping morning coffee), what I’m trying to say is the hotel is a way to experience a destination. A Best Western in downtown Tokyo with no view at all would not have given me the same memories of Japan. I’m not saying spend stupidly, but if you can swing it, do a bit more research on your lodging options to find a place that has a sense of place. Spend meaningfully. I knew when I was twenty years old and just starting to travel on my own that I would rather lose coin going, doing, and being than losing it on low-grade goods made in China. Looking back on that, I’m going to pat myself on the back for being wise beyond my years even though I was still too young to legally drink alcohol and properly toast my maturity.

Sometimes I wonder if perhaps we’ve given the false impression to friends and neighbors that we’re well-off because we cocoon in a spectacular, lakefront inn facing the Adirondacks or we overcome our jetlag at a five-star hotel in downtown Tokyo, but we’re also not spending our weekends dropping a few hundred dollars at the mall or Target or Home Depot. I don’t shop, which, let me tell you, is an extremely popular pastime in the Garden State where there is no sales tax on clothing. Where I live, shopping is a competitive event and the school parking lot is typically buzzing with conversations on who bought what where. Our house is pretty bare and spare compared with the cycles of stuff I see elsewhere. Yet I’m sitting here typing, looking around our lack of possessions (which in a non-shopaholic nation would appear utterly normal; we’re not monks, we’re just not the typical American consumer), remembering hotels in Tokyo, the Adirondacks, California, and all the other places where I briefly hung my hat, and I feel completely, totally content right now. Everyone talks about happiness. This morning, sharing some of my favorite hotels with you, knowing I have to pay the credit card bill charges from Mirror Lake Inn, I feel it. I feel very, very happy.

Beach Bumming–Jersey Style

I moved to New Jersey on January 10, 2004, one of the coldest days of that winter, and five and a half years later, I still feel like a stranger in a strange land, especially when summer circles around. That’s the time of year when people go to the “shore” to enjoy some “pie,” a thought that conjures up an image of shipwrecked sailors breathlessly reaching land to enjoy crusted tarts filled with fruit.

Not so in New Jersey. The “shore” is the beach and “pie” is pizza–usually pretty good pizza too (Garden State pizza rocks from Fort Lee to Camden!). Since Anna was born here and I’m raising a Jersey girl, I felt it was important to give her the Jersey Shore experience we had heard and read so much about. I approached the trip with an anthropological curiosity–exactly what was the Jersey Shore experience and what kept people coming back summer after summer? To answer my own question, we spent three days in Point Pleasant and now I can officially say to my kid “Remember that summer we took you to the Shore?” and she’ll immediately know what I’m talking about and won’t confuse it with the other “shores” that we have visited, which include Jamaica’s, Galapagos Islands’, Maine’s, and Santa Monica’s.

The White Sands oceanfront hotel is the classic Jersey Shore family getaway. I would have readily booked a room at anyplace called Clean Sands Hotel, but no such facility was to be found. White Sands had a private beach and a pool and quite frankly, when it is 90 degrees out everyday, that’s really all you need.

One look at the swimming pool at 2 pm and you knew this is where people came to forget about their angst and agony for it was far more packed than the Garden State Parkway on a Sunday night. Competition for the perfect poolside lounging spot was ferocious–people staked their claims early and remained very territorial throughout the day. I questioned the strength of the chlorine used in this pool, but that’s another blog for another day. It might simply have been that there were too many people bobbing around this pool for the chlorine to have been effective.

The pool was also filled with more Anthonys and AJs than I cared to count–rambunctious boys who constantly swam into me and were frequently yelled at from beneath a cabana umbrella by irate-looking women with fierce French manicures. Mike and I concluded after this trip that Anna is not allowed to date anyone named Anthony or AJ (Anthony Junior for you out-of-towners) if he is born in New Jersey. I have a feeling boys named Anthony or AJ who come from say, Ohio, or perhaps Nebraska, are far more low-key.

I’m sure the Boardwalk in Point Pleasant is full of Anthonys and AJs, too, but they weren’t plowing into us, which made the Boardwalk a much more charming experience. Jenkinson’s Boardwalk is where it’s at every Tuesday because it’s all the rides your stomach can handle between noon and 6 pm for only $15. My stomach can’t handle much of anything, so Mike boarded every tugboat, swing, tilt-a-whirl, and rollercoaster that made our kid’s eyes light up. I watched from the sidelines and worked on my tan, which is now a burn. I loved that Anna referred to the Boardwalk as “the carnival” and pie as “pizza.” I pointed to the sand and surf and asked her what it was. She replied, “the beach” and I knew she was mine.

When the sun gets to be too much–and it will–the best place to enjoy air-conditioning is inside Jenkinson’s Aquarium, which for $26 for the three of us, was exceptionally delightful. I’ll admit there’s something unusual about admiring the beauty and grace of creatures you enjoy fried with a side of french fries, but that’s the luxury of sitting at the top of the food chain–you get to look down.

On the subject of food, Boardwalk food is good when you’re in the mood for it, but after two days of chili dogs, cotton candy, pizza slices, and lemonade, I desperately needed a salad and some fresh fish not coated in yesterday’s lard. So we ventured beyond the Boardwalk’s borders to Belmar, Spring Lake, and Neptune to see what else the Jersey Shore had to offer. Mike was disappointed by the local cuisine, but this isn’t gastronomy country. This is where people work up an appetite boogie boarding by day so they can nosh on pie by night. I have never seen so many pizzerias in my life and I’ve been to Italy. Unlike Mike, I enjoyed the lack of surprise in my food. I wanted to unwind and didn’t want to bite into anything experimental. Point Pleasant’s Red’s Lobster Pot served up fantastic plates of fish -n- chips and coconut shrimp. Yes, it’s been done, but it was done well at Red’s and I inhaled every morsel and managed to not dribble any tartar sauce on my favorite orange dress.

All in all, the Jersey Shore was a colorful family vacation. I may not be as tatooed as everyone else on the beach, but I can still wear a bikini without shame–and, really, that’s all the motivation I need to stop me from gorging on Oreos through the winter until the next bathing suit season. Mike enjoyed Boardwalk food without getting an upset stomach. Anna collected seashells, rode rides, and consumed a vacation’s worth of junk food and also managed to avoid an upset stomach.

So what exactly is the Jersey Shore experience? I’m still not entirely sure and may need to return to do more research. I do know it involves a lot of sugar, sunscreen with an SPF of 50, French manicures, tatoos, and kids named Anthony causing trouble. Will we come back someday? Absolutely.

Epilogue: Anna developed gastritis from what we suspect was the hotel pool water. It did feel, um, unclean. I blame Anthony and AJ. She threw up all night and then managed to start the first day of the kindergarten hours later without issue. We think she’ll do fine in college.