Great Hotels Are Like Great Art - You Have To Know What You're Looking At
My favorite professor in architecture school was on a mission. Both in the studio and his favorite class - we called it history and mystery - his obsession was a long and arduous journey to impart knowledge to his students. As a former student of one of the founders of The International Style, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, he insisted his young charges leave his classroom and studio with as much knowledge of the aesthetics, structure and meaning of great architecture, art and other artistic accomplishments, great and small, as he could impart. Many people are fond of the statement - I don't know anything about art, but I know what I like. Statements like that in the presence of Professor Gettle would get you a stern reprimand and an intense lecture on the nuances of Renaissance painters versus Cubism or the reasons for the fluted grooves in Greek columns, which are many and beyond the scope of this post.
Determining the coolness factor or the aesthetic worthiness of a small hotel and its surroundings requires much the same level of "knowledge" about what you are looking at and looking for in a place that can take your vagabonding to the next level. It's similar to comparing a Frank Lloyd Wright house to one designed by a lesser talent. By combining the notions presented throughout this blog with your own timely travel research, you will develop an appreciation of all the factors that make a place worthy of your time and money. Ultimately, the goal is to develop the knowledge and experience to ensure that you know what you are looking at. If you believe, as any aesthetic vagabond believes, that architecture and design, when done well, can actually make your travels, indeed your life, better, then read on. Otherwise, skip the esoteric lingo and check out the latest "deal" from Kayak or Hotels.com. As someone once said when asked why he would spend $1,000 on a new suit as opposed to $200, he replied - Because I look much better in a $1,000 suit.
But Wait - It's Not Always About The Money
The focus of this blog has slowly transitioned, over its first three years, into an obsessive search for great hotels or other unique places to sleep that don't require a second mortgage to pay the rent. If you stay at The Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, for the ridiculous sum of $1,200 to $1,400 per night, everything, and I do mean everything, better be otherworldly, or there will be trouble. I'm just sayin'.
If you have unlimited funds, you will always have the perceived best at your disposal. Expensive hotels, especially "resort" hotels, spend an inordinate amount of time and money on services that a true vagabond doesn't need. I really don't need my luggage hauled to my room with the mandatory explanation of how the television works or where the hair dryer is. A hotel we stayed in not so long ago in Jacksonville Beach, of all places, did not have a coffee maker in the room or ice makers on the floor, requiring you to call room service to have those rather pedestrian conveniences delivered to your room with the expectation of a tip for each delivery. All part of the "total service" hotel experience - tedious!
Finding a great hotel at a great price is not always easy. It depends on where you are headed and what you are looking for. It's easy in Europe, the UK being the one exception. Italy, France, Spain et al have scores of great places at great prices. And its hard in the good ole USA. If you do a lot of homework, you can find reasonably priced hotels in parts of California, the Northwest and the East Coast. Florida? Fugetaboutit, unless you go to Miami. And why would anyone do that on purpose? Boutique hotels are, indeed, rare in the Sunshine State. When planning a trip, you should include a few places that you would never tell your in laws what you spent because they would try to have you committed. As my old roomie used to say - What's a few hundred dollars in a lifetime? As in life, travel is about balance, right?
Many factors go into the creation of a great hotel. Today, I am going where no other travel blogger has gone before. I am taking the plunge. I am waxing eloquent. I am going out on a limb. I am barking up the big tree. I am going to give my favorite nomads a short version of the unadulterated, unfettered, unabashed and extremely opinionated checklist to use when searching for the perfect place to R & R like a true Nomad.
Aesthetics DO Matter
A well designed hotel, like a beautiful woman, gives one pause to smile. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In hotels, less so. One of the discussions we have around here fairly regularly is the attempt to answer the modern architect's lament - Why do Americans embrace the McMansion model of residential design, as opposed to the beautiful, simple and elegant "modern" residential designs that were immensely popular in the fifties and sixties but gave way to the faux estatelettes that litter suburbia today. Whether it's a sleek modern, minimalist design or a repurposed prison built in the fourteenth century that is now an elegant twenty room boutique, the design of the place makes a difference.
Cibilo Creek Ranch near the art colony/town of Marfa, Texas proves this point in the extreme. A repurposed fort, complete with gun openings used back in the day for keeping attackers at bay, Cibilo sits amidst thirty thousand acres of hauntingly austere and beautiful Texas desert. Purchased and restored by a wealthy CEO, this "ranch" sports every quality one would expect in a five star hotel overlayed and inserted into an 1800's fort. The blend of ancient and new makes it memorable. Not to mention the killer beds, on site food and camels, yes camels, that roam the place.
Size Really DOES Matter
If anyone within the sound of this blog has ever stayed in a mega hotel and thought it worthy of their hard earned cash, by all means please let me know. There is nothing more tedious than a thousand room hotel that is over staffed and overpriced to respond to your every need. You become a bit player in a kind of a ground hog day of valets, room service with average food and lobbies full of hundreds of people thinking they have found the best of the best. The smaller, the better in my book. You get more real personal service because the people serving you are usually the owners who have invested their money and their lives in running their little part of the travel world. Only in environs like the intimate courtyard of a repurposed manse in Avignon can you sit with the owner and discuss how their unique place came to be. Designed by a Swiss architect and his artist wife, the edgy Lumani B&B, in the heart of the City of Popes, is just such a place. Small really is the way to go.
And Speaking of Food
Food is the WD-40, if you will, of travel. We all agree you have to have a great place to sleep, but, without great food, you will eventually become a creaky, cranky vagabond. If you are staying in an urban hotel, the food choices are usually many. You should aways check with the owners of your hotel for the best spots. Many boutique hotels are located in places far away from the madding crowd. This fact usually requires that food be served on site. Dining on rabbit at Castello de Tornano, in the heart of Tuscany, was both a culinary and sensory delight that we still talk about. The fact that it was served in the former great hall of a vintage castle built in 1110 didn't hurt.
The Bed's The Thing
At the The Inn of The Five Graces in Santa Fe, you can actually purchase their bed "system" for the princely sum of $5,000. Now I have never spent that much on a bed, but, sleeping on one will tempt you to run up your American Express right on the spot. Resist the urge. You're on vacation, man! The point is - great little hotels usually have big, comfy beds.
You Need Stuff To Do Too
OK, you've slept well. You've eaten well. And you have money to burn, because you didn't spend the ridiculous sums and you didn't pay all the fees and tips associated with a big fat resort. No, if you followed all the Do's and Don'ts of finding the perfect little place, you ended up in an intimate boutique with a view to die for at a price you can brag about. But after the sleeping and the eating, a vagabond needs something to do. That's where the local environs of a hotel come into play. And personal preference becomes critical. If you happen to be one who lives for the urban delights of Paris, then, an isolated former hayloft turned country chic suite to die for in the middle of nowhere probably isn't your first choice. But, if communing with cows and rural artifacts is your thing, then say hello to the country life.
Recently, on our annual anniversary trip to a small five unit boutique, Wild Springs Guest Habitat, in the even smaller town of Port Orford, Oregon, we enjoyed the wild beauty and isolation of the Pacific, as well as world class art galleries and edgy art exhibits. All in a community with no more than three traffic lights. If you do your homework, you can have your travel cake and eat it too.
At The End Of The Day
When its all said and done, the perfect vagabond hotel comprises those attributes that take you to a different time and place that feels right. Everyone is looking for God's Country. If you are passionate about travel and do your due diligence while planning your dream vacation, you will find your little piece of heaven on earth. In the city, in the country, by the sea or in the desert. Travel changes you in ways you never expect. And it goes a lot better when you are in a place that meets your aesthetic, emotional and cultural needs. So, happy hunting. Great travel requires inspiration and an unwillingness to settle. But when you sit with the ones you love and raise that glass of local vintage, under the big tree overlooking the big sea, you will know that it was worth it.
I hope 2014 takes you to places you never knew existed. Remember, the yellow brick road had a lot of curves in it, not to mention the interesting characters along the way.
See You Somewhere Over The Rainbow
Travel Quote of The Week - “The major advantage of domestic travel is that, with a few exceptions such as Miami, most domestic locations are conveniently situated right here in the United States.” – Dave Barry
Video Artist of The Week - Steely Dan - The purveyors of Post Modern Jazz Rock bring excellent musicianship and lyrics, sarcastic and ironic, that only Fagan and Becker understand - But its still great listening and very tight.