You Can Check Out Anytime You Want

by Nancy Bestor

When our children were growing up, they loved staying in hotels of all shapes and sizes. They were quite enamored with hotel features and amenities. They loved sitting in fancy chairs in the lobby. They loved taking turns pressing the elevator buttons. They loved swimming in hotel pools. They loved the mini shampoo bottles and the ice machines down the hall.

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I get it. Hotel stays sometimes feel like an escape from regular life. But I can safely say that at 49 years old, I don’t love every hotel I stay in. I’m not so excited by elevator buttons, or swimming pools, or mini shampoo bottles and ice machines. I’ll be honest, I’m a little more discriminating these days. I like quality accommodations. I value sheets with high thread counts and comfortable mattresses. I like roomy bathrooms filled with plenty of soft towels and good toilet paper.

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But if I could bend your ear (or your eyeballs) and tell you about my ultimate dream hotel, it has all of the things I mentioned above (particularly the good toilet paper), as well as some kind of old world charm and/or small family feel to it. I like a little history, but at the same time, I like modern conveniences. I like hotels that are run by families, or people who feel like family. I’m not interested in high-rise structures with hundreds of rooms, but rather prefer an old building that has been a hotel for a hundred years, or a home or unusual structure that has been converted to a hotel. We’ve stayed in a lot of hotels over the years and we’ve been fortunate to find more than a few unique ones along the way, that also offer many of the amenities I prize.

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In New Zealand for example, we stayed at two different “pub” hotels, where rooms were either next door to, or above, a cozy local drinking establishment. Although I worried about the potential noise, in both cases, it was just as quiet as a typical hotel room. In Bangkok, we stayed at Siamotif, a small, family run hotel that had been converted from the owner’s original family home. In Shanghai, we stayed at the Astor House Hotel, which opened in 1846 and boasts a past guest list that includes Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin and Ulysses S. Grant. And in Memphis, we watched the ducks parade in each morning of our stay from their penthouse suite on the hotel roof to the fountain in the lobby at the Peabody Hotel. Now I’ll admit, they didn’t all have sheets with high thread count, but I was willing to sacrifice a bit of comfort for a little history and a lot of charm.

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Maybe the hotel offers guests a lovely local drink when they check in. Perhaps they provide snacks and/or drinks at happy hour every day. Maybe they leave handwritten notes from housekeeping making sure guests have everything they need. These are the little extras that excite me.

The cities of the world offer an abundance of hotels that travelers can choose to stay in when visiting. My ideal hotel certainly isn’t right for everyone, but it’s exactly what I aspire to find when hotel shopping. Here are a few of the things Bob and I do when looking for a hotel. We Google “unique hotels” for our destination and then spend lots of time (arguably too much) reading reviews from other hotel guests. We look at as many pictures (those published by the hotel and by guests as well) as we can find. And then, when we book, we try and make sure our booking can be canceled in the event we find something better.

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Of course we are not always successful. Sometimes our number one choice is too expensive. Sometimes there are no vacancies. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. But that just makes the times we do find them that much more special.

Have Yourself a Scooby Snack

by Nancy Bestor

I fancied myself as something of a Nancy Drew when I was 10 years old. Perhaps this was because we shared the same first name, but more than likely, it was because I read, re-read and then read again every Nancy Drew book I could get my hands on. I was also a huge fan of Scooby Doo cartoons (I was always Velma). Thus, mysteries have always intrigued me. If you’ve got a Secret in Your Old Clock, I want to hear about it.

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On our recent trip to St. Martin, we heard about a luxury resort that had been abandoned 20 years ago, after Hurricane Luis brought much destruction to the island. The resort, La Belle Creole, was built on the shores of Nettle Bay, less than a mile from where we were staying. We could easily see its large, signature tower in the distance, and once we learned its fate, La Belle Creole beckoned to me. I got out my magnifying glass, put on my detective hat and off we went. We walked along the beachfront to get to there as we weren’t sure if we could get to the property from the main road. We discovered however, that one can walk to the resort from its main entrance, as there is just a simple chain across the driveway, keeping cars from entering.

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We trespassed on La Belle Creole (because that is the complete truth, we were trespassing) late one afternoon, and it was eerily quiet. As we approached the main courtyard, the resort just looked like a large hotel or condominium structure in disrepair. From the outside it did not look nor feel creepy at all. But once we started exploring the hallways, dining rooms and guest rooms the place took on a whole new dimension. It seemed as though the hurricane had hit just a few weeks prior. Outside of the fact that most of the furniture was gone, except for some large dressers and metal bed frames, the rooms looked…..well frankly, they looked haunted. Tattered curtains billowed in the breeze that whistled through broken windows, doors hung askew from their hinges, and the furniture that remained was mostly in pieces, and strewn about in odd positions.

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The story of La Belle Creole is a sad one. In 1964, Claude Philippe, the well known and respected maitre d’ of New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel, purchased about 300 acres of land on St. Martin, with the dream of building the Caribbean’s finest resort. Unfortunately that darn reality called money, or lack of it, got in his way. Philippe believed in extravagance in all areas, including apparently serving champagne to his construction workers. The project kept lurching forward and then shutting down again due to lack of funds. In 1988, La Belle Creole was finally completed, all 27 buildings and 156 rooms of it. Claude Philippe, however, had died in 1979. Unfortunately, just a few years after its grand opening, La Belle Creole was hit by Hurricane Luis, and would never open again.

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We explored as much of La Belle Creole as our nerves could take, then left via the main gate. As we walked away, I could have sworn I heard someone say, “and I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for those meddling kids.”

I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink

241655_3022by Nancy Bestor

Twenty-five years ago I did some traveling for my job with the California banking industry. My expense account was generous, and the hotels were high end. My co-worker, who had been traveling with the company much longer than me, said when she was on the road she would often order room service and hide out in her room, to avoid company dinners whenever possible. She also clued me in to using a hotel room’s mini bar if I didn’t want to see anyone in the hall or down in the restaurant when getting a soda or drink. This made perfect sense to me, because I was 24 years old, and didn’t really want to spend my evenings with bankers 50 years my senior, after I had already spent the entire day in meetings with them. I got used to getting a coke from the mini bar when I returned to my room, and ordering a hamburger and french fries from room service, then sitting on my bed to watch a pay-per-view movie and eat my dinner. I didn’t pay much attention to the prices, because I just signed over the bill to my company (and I wasn’t ordering Chateaubriand either).

Fast forward 25 years. Bob and I are paying the hotel bills now, and I realize that room service and mini bar prices are damn expensive! No way am I paying $4 for a can of coke, or (I kid you not here) $5 for a 12-ounce bottle of water. I can walk down the hall, or better yet, send Bob to the vending machine, and pay $1.50 for a coke (yes, still a rip off, but better than $4). water bottlesI can even LEAVE THE HOTEL, and walk to a convenience store to buy a soft drink. And room service, really? The food is mediocre, arrives lukewarm at best, and it is WAY overpriced.

Here are a few random but interesting minibar facts: the top selling minibar snack is Pringles; M&M’s make up for 7% of minibar revenue; and the number one minibar item is bottled water, followed by Diet Coke. (Maybe Jeopardy will have a hotel minibar category sometime soon. If so, you’re welcome.)

Many hotels have done away with the minibar altogether, as apparently I’m not the only one who thinks the prices are not worth it. I’m always frosted (get it, frosted?) when some hotels won’t even let me put my own food/drink into the refrigerator to keep it cold. Since minibar products are sometimes on sensors, even if you move a drink to make room for your leftovers, you’ll be charged. Rude.

minibarWho even uses the minibar these days anyway? Are there still companies like mine from 25 years ago who will pay most every hotel bill and not bother to suggest their employee go down to the lobby or restaurant for a soda or hamburger? Give me an empty hotel fridge any day. I’ll fill it with cheaper and better food and drink.

 

We’ll Leave the Light On For You

by Nancy Bestor

hotelblogI’ve stayed in a fair number of hotels in many different quality categories in my young (ha!) life. They’ve ranged from hotels where the employee checking in travelers was behind bulletproof glass, to a hotel where guests lounging poolside were offered free popsicles on a hot day.

I recently had a run of stays in several mid-level hotels in the United States that made me think about things that make a hotel “nice” and also make them somewhere I would recommend to a friend or family member. I discovered that the price of a hotel doesn’t always reflect its quality. While it probably goes without saying that a top end, $400 a night hotel is likely going to provide beds with high thread count sheets, boutique quality bath products, and excellent service, hotels that are lower end to mid-level, the Days Inns, Marriott Courtyards, and Hiltons of the world, can vary tremendously in quality and comfort. It’s very difficult to use a hotel’s own website and photos to determine their quality. Professional hotel photos can be deceiving, so I try very hard to look at travelers’ personal photos before I’m willing to book. Sites like www.tripadvisor.com and www.oyster.com offer great, unbiased hotel reviews written by regular travelers, with lots of real photos.

hotel2I don’t set high expectations for low to mid-priced hotels. Often our family stays just one night, arriving late and leaving early, so we really just need a clean place to lay our heads. Take our recent night at a Staybridge Suite in the Sacramento area. We arrived about 9pm, and were back on the road the next morning by 8am. Our room was fine, nothing to write home about, but about the quality I expect for $99 a night for four people. The price did include a breakfast buffet, which is pretty good value for four people. But a few the little things were, quite frankly, lacking. Take the bathroom door for instance. You couldn’t close the door all the way, because the latch on the door DID NOT LINE UP with the strike plate on the jam. It wasn’t even close. Really, it’s the little things. I’m not asking for much. I’d just like to be able to shut the bathroom door all the way when I am doing my business.

A few days later we stayed several nights at Four Points by Sheraton, in Culver City, California. We checked four people into the hotel, and found just three sets of towels in our bathroom. We called to let the staff know we would need another set of towels, which were delivered promptly. But for the next four days, every time our room was cleaned, we were left just three sets of towels. So we had to call for our fourth towel every day. How hard is it people? Can you not make a note of the fact that we have paid for four people, and have no interest in sharing towels?

hotel4Other low to mid-range hotels have been just lovely. From fun magnets to put on your door instead of the usual, “do not disturb” sign, to soap, shampoo and conditioner dispensers in the shower that provide plenty of product, but also save the environment by not using millions of tiny plastic bottles, I’m extremely delighted when a hotel does just a little extra to make a stay with them more unique than your typical chain hotel. Offer me warm cookies in the evening (thanks Doubletree), provide a free airport shuttle, or give me a little bigger room or bigger bed for free when I’m checking in. When I’m asked to recommend a good hotel stay, it’s these hotels who have gone the extra mile (really it’s more like 30 feet) to make my stay just a little nicer that I’m going to mention.