Saturday, March 2, 2024

The Enduring Delights of Traditional Hotels

The Duke's Palace, Bruge, Belgium. 
For a few millennia, inns have existed. Until the last century or two, however, places to plop your head typically hosted working travelers and tradesmen, not leisure travelers and vacationers. 

In fact, the concept of a vacation is a recent development. (Decades ago, a French instructor taught me that the word “travel” is related to the French word “travaille”, which means work. In the not-too-distant past, there was not much that was enjoyable about travel. It was work.) 

Good thing for the modern-day traveler that enterprising individuals figured out that all travel might not be work and that there was a market for grand hotels and quaint inns. These spots took advantage of stunning views, inspiring settings, cozy rooms, or palatial surroundings. And a newly-hatched leisure class checked in. 


These days, travelers have another option, of course. With the Internet, we can easily book villas or homes via Air BnB and other apps. As a result, many of us have forsaken traditional hotels. 


For me, though, there’s a lot to like about Old School hotels. And while I occasionally rent a house or condo, I’m reluctant to give up my hotel habit. 


I’m no Luddite or hopelessly-out-of-touch Boomer, mind you. I’ve used Vrbo and Airbnb, and while the villas and condos I booked offered sweet spots to vacation, there was always something lacking. 


The Mayan Inn, Chichicastenango, Guatemala. 

I’m not talking about the fact that a Vrbo “luxury” home near Sonoma offered five bedrooms, but only two bathrooms, or that a fifth floor Paris pied-à-terre was tucked at the top of a building without a working elevator. No, these were minor inconveniences in the scheme of things. It’s something else, something far more fundamental I’m missing when I don’t stay in a hotel. 


For starters, I love the breakfasts that only traditional hotels offer. Travel ought to include trying a new thing or two and it’s rare that I belly up to a buffet at an international or small U.S. hotel that doesn’t feature a food I’ve never eaten. And then there’s the mesmerizing murmur of conversation—tourists plan their day, studying subway maps and plotting walking routes. Businesspeople make notes and talk shop with co-workers. 


Hotel breakfasts are an invitation to linger, to read an entire newspaper or a few chapters of that difficult-to-put-down novel. Or perhaps to ponder life’s great questions. 


The Hassler Bar, Rome.
And then there’s the breakfast room itself. “Rooms” range from the palatial at Rome’s Hassler to Eden-like in the courtyard garden of Austria’s Weingut Nigl. Or there’s the verdant patio of Cambodia’s Shinta Mani.


While a good breakfast room can make a hotel, it’s hardly the only interesting room. For downtime in the afternoon, libraries, sitting rooms, and sunny nooks with comfortable armchairs seduce. 


And for evenings—both early and late—the bar. There is no quintessential hotel bar: good ones are as varied as hotels themselves—dark, tiny, grand, marbled, worn, cozy, hushed or lively. 


And then there’s perhaps the most obvious room of all: the lobby. Like the much-ballyhooed hotel bar, a great hotel lobby is unique. There is no exact formula that creates the perfect space, but we know a great lobby the moment we enter it. 


A great lobby tempts you to linger to soak up the space, observe fellow guests coming and going, and maybe sip a drink. It might have semi-private corners for hushed conversations (or to quietly observe others) or prominent, comfortable chairs and sofas that invite lounging. 


Finally, traditional hotels have the upper hand come check-out time. Unlike rented rooms or houses, there is no cleaning, no bed-stripping, no tidying things up prior to departure. Departure options can include a scheduled taxi to the airport or a breakfast to-go bag, if you’d like, and almost always a cheery farewell. 


While a sizable chunk of the modern traveling world may have checked out of checking in to hotels, I won’t be giving up my traditional hotel habit anytime soon. 


For some of my favorite spots, as well as some of the things that make them unique, read on. 

The Hassler (Rome, Italy) Atop the Spanish Steps, the fabled Hassler offers one of the most intimate, atmosphere-rich bars in a city brimming with enticing spots. Think polished wood, marble, murals of old Rome, impeccable service, and expertly-mixed drinks perfectly suited for this gilded spot. 

Shinta Mani (Siam Reap, Cambodia) Warm smiles, cool, jasmine-scented towels and icy lemongrass-flavored water greet you after a day of exploring the tumbled ruins of steamy Angkor Wat. Sublime, work-of-art flower displays created daily complement immense contemporary paintings—all illuminated by candlelight come nightfall. This Bensley Collection property competes with the nearby ancient ruins for attention and time. 

Hotel Pensione Villa Accademia (Venice, Italy) The former Russian embassy, this sleepy, quaint spot near the Accademia boasts an antique- and light-filled second story sala perfect for lounging—or cocktails. 


Hotel Captain Cook (Anchorage, Alaska) Don’t let the somewhat bland, contemporary façade fool you: this Anchorage hotel full of paintings documenting Captain Cook’s travels around the Pacific couldn’t be anywhere but Alaska. And it’s anything but bland inside. Many rooms offer views of distant volcanoes and an occasional ghostly-white beluga whale plying the waters just below the hotel.


Bosque del Cabo (Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica) Part of the wild and sometimes raucous rainforest, this eco-resort and its serene sea-view villas allow you to experience Costa Rican nature without leaving your private terrace. Several species of monkeys, endangered macaws, flocks of toucans, and an occasional puma prowl and cavort on the manicured grounds surrounding the villas. Communal dinners in an open-air main lodge offer abundant candlelight and conversation under the warm blanket of jungle darkness. Interested? Read more about my experiences here.

Chicago Athletic Association (Chicago, USA) A cavernous, dimly-lit lobby bar channels an old Venetian palace and the hotel’s earlier incarnation as a private men’s club. In winter, grab a table in front of one of the immense fireplaces or peer over Michigan Avenue and Millennium Park while nibbling breakfast or sipping a cocktail. 

Hotel Bristol (Oslo, Norway) One of Scandinavia’s great gifts to the world is the smorgasbord. And the Hotel Bristol, set in the heart of the city, may render all previous smorgasbord experiences inferior. Come evening, carefully-concocted cocktails are shaken and stirred by fastidious bartenders in the atmosphere-rich bar.


Old Cataract (Aswan, Egypt) Virginia Woolf knew how to write a mystery, but she also clearly knew how to choose a hotel. Perched above the serene Nile with views of Elephantine Island and the Western Desert beyond (just as depicted in the 70’s Death on the Nile), the Old Cataract is to Egypt what Claridge’s is to London. Spacious rooms in a new tower offer expansive terraces with unforgettable views of the Nile speckled with feluccas and brightly painted boats. Happy Hour here comes with unrivaled, cinematic views and the hypnotic, other-worldly call to prayer while the sun sinks behind dun-colored western hills and the mausoleum of the Aga Khan. 

Hotel Imperial (Vienna, Austria) That this former Hapsburg pad feels palatial isn’t by chance—it is, in fact, a former palace. The historic property is full of fine paintings (some of which decorate rooms) and a staircase that cannot be passed by without taking a regal selfie. Breakfast is served by formally attired, fastidious and friendly waiters in the sunny café with Viennese coffee specialties and a selection of newspapers. 

Norfolk (Nairobi, Kenya) When I stayed at this storied haunt in the late 1990s and early aughts, it wasn’t yet owned by a luxury chain. Today, the hotel retains an aura of its early days when corridors were roamed by Lord Delamere, Theodore Roosevelt and Karen Blixen. During my stays, we kicked off and ended trips to Kenya with a traditional dowa (medicine, in Swahili) served by stylishly-attired waiters at the old school bar.


Weingut Nigl (Wachau Valley, Austria) Nestled in steep vineyard-cloaked hills near the Danube, Weingut’s rooms include private terraces overlooking a sleepy, bucolic river valley. Magnificent breakfasts in the quaint cobblestoned courtyard feature local cheeses, wines, and locally-made apricot jam.

The Mayan Inn (Chichicastenango, Guatemala) Steeped in history and loaded with traditional Guatemalan art and textiles, this one-of-a-kind inn offers antique-filled rooms with fireplaces, an essential amenity to ward off the chill of highland nights. Enjoy dinner in a dining room lined with historic, captivating paintings of indigenous Guatemalans and return to your room to find a blazing fire started by the Inn’s resident fire-tender—the only hotel I’ve visited with such a position. 

And a few more: 

The main building of Villa San Michele, nestled in the Eden-like hills above Florence,
was designed by little-known Renaissance architect/artist Michelangelo.  

Dinner with a view.
Villa San Michele's multiple terraces offer views of the Tuscan countryside and Florence.
Table service at Al Moudira on Luxor's West Bank.

Multi-course breakfasts at Pura Vida in San Jose, Costa Rica 
begin with flavor-packed local fruit and tropical fruit smoothies. And Costa Rican coffee. 

A Michigan institution and Arts & Crafts gem, the Lakeside Inn offers vintage 
charms and easy access to the broad, powdery beaches of Lake Michigan.

Rooms at Costa Rica's Lost Iguana offer 
mesmerizing views of verdant rainforest and jungle-clad Volcan Arenal.

The courtyard and lounge, perfect spots for breakfast, cocktails and lantern-lit 
dinners at Al Moudira on Luxor's West Bank.

Amsterdam's quirky Pulitzer offers a serene garden courtyard and 
its own vintage canal boat. 

The Robey Hotel's rooms and terrace offer 
expansive views of historic Wicker Park and Chicago's iconic skyline. 

The Langham, a modernist delight, occupies a Mies van der Rohe-designed building with killer views of iconic architecture lining the Chicago River.




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