Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Off the Chain (Hotels)

A few dozen years ago the world was chock full of bland chain hotels. For travelers looking for lodging with a sense of place and style, options were limited. A Four Seasons or Hilton in Frankfort resembled a Four Seasons or Hilton in Honolulu. And non-chain, smaller, and independent hotels were few, particularly in the U.S. 

These days, there are lots of spots that reflect the cities, neighborhoods, or villages they inhabit. Quirky, small, historic, or unique, these hotels celebrate where they are, tempting you to never go further than your cozy room or handsome lobby. 
Guatemala's Lomas de Tzununu.

While this is hardly an exhaustive guide, here are a few of my favorite small spots that offer something the large chains cannot—character, tranquility, and style with a sense of place.

Striking Gold in Guatemala

For more than ten years I’ve made a pilgrimage to Guatemala’s Lake Atitlan, a highland lake seemingly scooped out of the collapsed caldera of an ancient volcano. You can see hundreds of images of the immense lake, its jewel-blue waters dominated by conical volcanoes looming in the background, but still be unprepared for your first view of it. 

A view of Lake Atitlan from La Fortuna.
For many years I stayed at Lomas de Tzununu which perches high above Atitlan and boasts jaw-dropping views. Recently, I returned and stayed at La Fortuna Atitlan, a newer hotel tucked into a thicket of trees between the lakeshore and the steep, jungle-clad walls of the caldera behind it. 

La Fortuna offers a handful of casitas—all with lake views. No two casitas are alike, though all offer al fresco bathrooms with showers open to the tropical sky. Patios and terraces serve as well-designed perches from which to soak up the lake views, birdwatch, or eat breakfast. 

Speaking of breakfast, the meal (delivered to your room) is best enjoyed on the terrace in the company of the volcanoes, benevolent sun, and birdsong. For dinner, reserve a spot at the communal, candlit table in the lodge for conversation and tasty meals (you’ll forget you’re off the grid and far from the nearest village reachable only via boat). 
Breakfast at La Fortuna.

Even if rooms don’t come with views of an immense lake, Mayan Inn in the market town of Chichicastenango is one of my favorite hotels in the world. Adorned with antiques and paintings, bucketsful of charm, and old fireplaces that burn brightly at night when you’re likely to feel the chill of highland nights, the hotel is a pleasing holdover from nearly two centuries ago. To wit, if bright lights, Wifi everywhere, and modern bathrooms are your thing, Mayan Inn will not be your thing. But if you’d like to step back in time to experience a hotel that’s changed little since tourists first arrived here in the early 1900s, this is a place to visit.  

Location, Location, Location: Rome’s Hassler

Rome’s legendary and historic Hassler sits like a crown jewel at the top of the Spanish Steps. While it might seem an odd and perhaps cliché choice, its inclusion on this list makes sense if you book rooms in the hotel’s dependency’s rooms. Sitting just below the Hassler, the dependency consists of a small collection of rooms clustered around a narrow, winding stair hall adjacent to the Spanish Steps. Take the steps up and you pop out on a private roof terrace with some of the best views in the area. Take the stairs down and you’ll exit onto a crowded pedestrian street that provides access to this historic quarter. 

Worried about noise? Insulated windows shut out most of the street sounds, though you can easily swing open the windows for views and to welcome in the hurly-burly of the popular neighborhood. 

Surprisingly spacious rooms, decorated in whites and muted tones, marble, and silk, resemble hushed, heavenly oases. Our bathroom’s small window even afforded a picture perfect view of  Santissima Trinità dei Monti, the iconic church that sits atop the steps. 

Take breakfast in one of the many nearby cafés or restaurants or trek up to the Hassler mother ship for a gigantic buffet. 

Chicago Channels Grand Canal at Athletic Association Hotel

No other hotel in the world is quite like the Athletic Association because no other hotel is housed in a former private club designed to resemble a grand palazzo in Venice. With its intact Venetian Gothic windows (that peek over Michigan Avenue, Millennium Park, and deep blue Lake Michigan in the distance), the hotel’s public areas and rooms prompt giddy confusion: am I in an historic palazzo on the Grand Canal or visiting America’s third largest city? 

The cavernous lobby with original architectural features including arches, massive stone fireplaces, and coffered ceilings is the perfect spot for a cocktail. More serious eats in an equally inspiring setting can be found in the Cherry Circle Room restaurant (reservations recommended). 

 Shinta Mani: Shangri-La in Cambodia’s Siem Reap

Designed by Bill Bensley, Shinta Mani and its corridors, courtyards, and rooms reflect careful consideration of every element—no plant, piece of furniture, fountain, or candle is out of place. Laid out using feng shui principles, the hotel represents the antithesis of chain hotels with their cookie cutter layouts. 

Inside, an atmosphere of Zen pervades. Fountains bubble, birds chirp. Small garden courtyards echo with the sounds of silence. 

If there’s a downside to Shinta Mani, it’s that you may be tempted to never leave the spa-like, serenity-soaked spaces of its rooms or its public spaces, If you must leave—and you must because the temples of Angkor Wat beckon—when you return exhausted from climbing ruins and hiking through jungle in the tropical heat, you can fall asleep with images of Angkor Wat depicted in dimly-lit ceiling insets above your bed.

Palatial Lodgings in Belgium’s Medieval Bruge

Belgian chocolate--part of the breakfast buffet at Dukes' Palace.
The tourist-clogged, storybook streets of Bruge can overwhelm, particularly in high season. And that’s the perfect reason to choose Dukes' Palace which sits in a sleepy corner of the historic district. High ceilings, grand stairways, and sitting areas fit for a duke (if not for a king) provide this former palace with atmosphere unmatched in other area hotels.

For more space and privacy, book one of the semi-independent cottages facing the garden at the property’s rear.

For a step back in time (tasty Belgian brews included), check out what may be the world’s oldest bar on a sleepy side street in a residential neighborhood: Cafe Vlisslinghe.

TIP: Don’t skip the Duke’s buffet breakfast which includes Belgian chocolate and champagne. 

One of the Robey's rooftop terraces. 
The Robey: Art Deco in Wicker Park 

For years I admired a flatiron shaped, monumental building in the heart of Wicker Park and thought it would make an interesting hotel. As it turns out, so did a Mexico City-based hotel group. A few years ago, this art deco gem was transformed from an office building into The Robey, a quirky, relaxed hotel that offers easy access to O’Hare, the Loop, and most importantly, the boutiques, restaurants, and bars of one of the most interesting neighborhoods in the world. 

Urbane, comfy rooms offer striking views of the surrounding neighborhood and Oz-like downtown skyline. In warm weather, two terraces offer views that will cause architecture fans to geek out. Tasty cocktails help to digest the views. 

Antiques abound at Guatemala's Mayan Inn.

Rooms at the Mayan Inn come with fireplaces--and a dedicated attendant.


Anonymous said...

Enticing - thank you!

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