Tag Archives: resorts

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.


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.

Not Excluding the All-Inclusive

This week, The New York Times featured an article about all-inclusive resorts stepping it up and making their allure more alluring. These are difficult economic times and free drinks isn’t a strong selling point anymore. The all-inclusive resorts are adding perks to their packages such as luxury meal deals, a variety of water sports, and a wider range of children’s programs. Obviously, resorts have harried families seeking a few relaxing days or weeks of sun and fun in mind.

More interesting than the article were the comments–remarks such as (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘you can’t experience another culture when you go to resort,’ or ‘why spend all that money to sit on a beach when you can just go to Florida’ or ‘a packaged vacation doesn’t mean you have to think.’

I used to view all-inclusives the way I still view Wal-mart–commercialism at its best and worst. That changed in 2007, when, after a few trying years, I was ready to spend the money to go somewhere far and beautiful and sit on a beach. We picked Coyaba, a small resort in Montego Bay, Jamaica, got on a plane, and four hours later, sat on a beach feeling pretty good about life.

The all-inclusive is good for just that–taking a break. I didn’t go to Coyaba to experience Jamaica. I went to cocoon somewhere warm. All-inclusives are not the best way to experience a culture, and that’s ok. After Coyaba, I no longer viewed resort guests as mindless tourists leaving obnoxious footprints all over what was once a pristine island. Many of them were just tired or overworked, like me, and just wanted to sit on a beach, read a good book and add another stamp to their passport, like me.

There’s no need to argue that all-inclusives fail to offer cultural insights because that’s not what they’re meant to do. If you want cultural insights, pack light, expect inconvenience and go with the flow. A year after Jamaica, we did 10 days in Quito and Galapagos Islands. The reason for the trip was that my daughter was a flower girl in a wedding taking place on the island San Cristobal. Look it up on the map — it’s far. We have family down there, and were fortunate to have enjoyed a very un-packaged sojourn that took us to hostels, beaches, highlands, and along some bouncy truck rides on some very dark, winding roads. Food took forever to arrive, sea lions blocked access to the beach, flights didn’t show up when the schedule said they would, crabs chased after my kid’s toy, and the Internet cafe was useless. There were no itineraries, and sometimes we had nothing handy to eat or drink but Oreos and Nescafe. And you know what? The trip was awesome, and just as rejuvenating as our four days in Jamaica, which catered to our every whim.

Mix it up. Every place has something to offer and every vacation is what you make of it. Doesn’t matter if you’re paying a la carte or if you paid one price to sit among pale, obese Americans who talk loudly and call everyone Jose (that actually happened during our trip to Spain). We do urban trips and for those, we often stay at two-star B&Bs like during our jaunts to Bruges, London and Paris. Pack comfortable walking shoes and don’t worry about calorie-counting–you walk it off with all the museums, shopping, and sightseeing (and save money on taxi fare). Our trip to Quebec next month will be like this. We also go rustic and swing a few different ways here–sometimes we’ll camp, like we used to in Shenandoah Valley or Assateague Island–sometimes we do mountain resorts like Mohonk Mountain House. When we return to California in August, we’ll be among the sentinels of the forest–the Redwood trees, and we’re staying at Glen Oaks Big Sur, a lodge that combines pastoral chic with mid-century mod. I can’t wait!

And we throw in the occasional all-inclusive, like our 2011 trip to Dreams Cancun. Yes, there were a lot of loud, heavy people at the resort drinking drinks the colors of popsicles and getting louder by the minute. We used Dreams as family headquarters and ventured off resort a few times. Based on our own observations and the reaction of our concierge, not a lot of people appear to do this unless they were going on another packaged trip, such as a bus ride to Xel-Ha (which we also did).

Coming up for 2013, we’re eyeballing a possible camping trip in Arizona and we want to celebrate a milestone birthday in Japan. Both trips should give me plenty to talk about.