I inhabit a world in which hotels loom unfortunately large. During many work weeks, I spend more nights in hotels than at home. Many of these hotel nights involve nondescript rooms in cookie-cutter chain hotels. These chain hotels are neither good nor bad, merely boring. They are so lacking in distinctiveness that often I am unable even to remember where I am when I first wake.
Fortunately for me, there are hotels I enjoy and that I even look forward to visiting. The purpose of this post is to share my list of favorite hotels, ranked according to my own admittedly quirky criteria. My hope is that readers will respond and offer their own favorite hotels, as a way to share information with others and perhaps enrich each others’ travel experiences.
Let my begin by relating an experience that sums up what I dislike about so many hotels, while at the same time identifying my hotel ranking criteria. Due to a weather-related flight cancellation, I recently spent an unplanned night in Philadelphia. Many other travelers were in the same fix, and so hotel rooms were scarce. Just at the point when I began to fear I would spend the night in the airport, I managed to find a room – at the Ritz-Carlton. For those of you who are thinking “Sweet!” --let me relate what I experienced.
First of all, the hotel stay itself cost over $550. What do you get for $550? You get a cavernous atrium echoing with over-amplified rock music that made it impossible to hear or to be heard. You get a hotel room bathroom with enough marble for the mausoleum of an eastern potentate and his entire entourage. And you get a bed with 13 pillows. I don’t need or even want any of those things.
But wait – there’s more.
When I tried to check in, I found myself in a line behind six other people also hoping to speak to the beleaguered clerk behind the desk. When I had finally been able to check in, I went to my room and found out that for $550, I earned the privilege of paying another $9.95 for Internet access. I also found that my room lacked a TV remote control. When I called about that, they brought me one, held together by duct tape. And when I went to check out next morning, there was no one at the reception desk.
To summarize, the hotel was ridiculously over-priced (particularly given the added Internet charge) and featured a lot of pointless and even worthless “amenities.” The overall effort reflected poor execution. The experience was a total disappointment.
Let me contrast that with my all-time favorite hotel, the Base2Stay Hotel in London (pictured above). This small hotel is clean, quiet and inexpensive. The rooms and common areas are decorated in a simple Scandinavian style, which though perhaps austere to the point of severity, are practical and efficient. The location may not be fashionable, but it is functional – it is located a block from the Earl’s Court tube stop, on the Piccadilly Line (which also serves Heathrow), in an area with pubs, shops and cafes, and on a quiet street full of school kids and Moms pushing prams. The people who work at the hotel are friendly and helpful.
To be sure, many Americans would find the rooms small, perhaps too small. Personally, I find them a wonder of efficiency, the hotel room equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. They manage to include a small kitchenette (with refrigerator), an ultramodern bathroom with all sorts of nifty plumbing fixtures, and a satellite cable connection with a global TV channel selection and music. Oh, and by the way, a single occupancy room runs around £105 a night – including Internet access at no additional charge.
This hotel hits all of my important criteria. It is clean, quiet and inexpensive. It is in a convenient location. It includes everything that is indispensable but avoids pointless amenities that add only to the cost but not to the overall experience. And it has its own distinct charm and character.
Many of the hotels on my list of favorites and that meet these criteria are in Europe. This preference isn’t the product of some snooty Europhilic distemper. Rather, it is due to the fact that when I travel to Europe I am unwilling to pay a premium to stay at a hotel that lacks charm, character and distinctiveness. Both to keep costs down and to improve my travel experience, I am willing to go further afield. With TripAdvisor.com as my guide, I have had some terrific experiences.
My most recent discovery was the hotel in which I stayed in Amsterdam. (More about my Amsterdam travels here.) I was fortunate enough to stay in the Citizen M Hotel, a “concept hotel” located on Beethovenstraat in a quiet, leafy residential area on one of the main tram lines. The hotel is a way station for a surprisingly cosmopolitan clientele. The hotel is ultra modern, with simple décor, complicated lighting fixtures and a lobby full of flat screen TVs. All of the rooms and common areas are WiFi enabled (at no additional charge). The ground floor is built around a bar/lounge where people actually do congregate and converse for breakfast in the morning and for cocktails in the afternoon. The rooms themselves are small but efficient, with very space age-y plumbing fixtures. The beds are enormous. And the wall phone was Skype enabled. I made a bunch of International phone calls and the charges didn’t even amount to a euro. And the best part of all is that a single occupancy room costs around €95 a night.
Another favorite European hotel is the small hotel in which I stay while in Cologne, the Domstern. The hotel is just a few blocks from the central train station, but it is on the opposite side of the station from the Cathedral and the main tourist areas, so it is quiet. The rooms and the common areas are decorated in basic Ikea. The hotel is quiet and clean. The rooms have a pan-European cable connection and the fastest Internet connection I have ever had in any hotel anywhere. But the thing that sets this hotel apart is the breakfast service, which is included in the cost of the room. The menu includes fresh breads and pastries; homemade jams, jellies and honey; meats, sausages and cheeses; fresh fruit and various kinds of yogurt; and excellent coffee. I would travel hours to stay in this hotel just for the breakfast. And the best part of all is that a single room runs only about €60 a night.
My favorite hotel in Paris is the Hotel de Fleurie, which is located in the Sixth Arrondissement, just a block off of the Boulevard St. Germain des Pres. Even though it is in a very lively area, the hotel itself is quiet, because it is on a one-block long one-way street that doesn’t really go anywhere. The hotel is located in a restored 18th century building and the rooms are charming and comfortably decorated. The location is about perfect – it is just a block from the Odeon metro stop and a short walk from the Jardin de Luxembourg. The Seine River, Notre Dame Cathedral and the Louvre are all within walking distance. Breakfast is included in the room charge, and features freshly baked breads and excellent coffee. The rooms and common areas have ultrazippy WiFi service (at no additional charge). This hotel is more upscale than the others, but a single room runs only about €120 a night.
I have other European hotels I particularly like, but the others are sufficiently quirky that I hesitate to go too far overboard about them here.
Because of the predominance in the U.S. of the chain hotels, it is a challenge trying to find hotels that are both inexpensive and charming. There are of course innumerable bed and breakfasts, many of which are quite wonderful. The best ones tend to be out in the country or in locations that are not always well suited to my business purposes and requirements. They also tend to be too frou-frou and Laura Ashley-ish for my tastes. There are a few bed and breakfasts that I have been able to enjoy on business travel, including the White Swan Inn in San Francisco. Readers’ suggestions in this category are welcome, particularly for inns that provide the indispensable combination of lower cost, charming environment, and functional location.
One U.S. chain that I am happy to patronize is Club Quarters. I have stayed in Club Quarters hotels in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and San Francisco. The rooms in these hotels are small and ascetic. (The first time I stayed in one, I was sure the room had been designed by an architect whose prior assignment had been designing airplane lavatories.) But the hotels are clean and quiet and they tend to be in very useful locations – for example, the Chicago hotel is in the Loop near Wacker Drive, the Philadelphia Hotel is on Chestnut, the New York hotel is mid-town, and the San Francisco hotel is in the financial district adjacent to the Embarcadero. The room charge includes Internet access, and most of the hotels have exercise facilities. These hotels are functional, not charming. But the room charges run significantly less than other business hotels located nearby.
Not all of my favorite U.S. hotels are austere. For example, my favorite hotel in Denver is the Oxford Hotel, which is a beautifully restored 19th century hotel located in the renovated Lower Downtown area. The rooms in the hotel have fine period-piece furniture. Hotel guests have access to a great nearby health club, and the area around the hotel, which is just blocks from Coors Field, is full of bars, book shops, cafes and restaurants.
In Washington, my favorite hotel is the Georgetown Inn. It is on Wisconsin Avenue, just a few blocks north of M Street, in Georgetown. When I visit Washington, I try to set up my meetings in the hotel restaurant, The Daily Grill, or at my favorite bar in DC, Martin’s Tavern, which is just a block away. The rooms in this hotel have a comfortable, old-fashioned feel. The best part is the access the hotel affords to the residential area of Georgetown.
One of my favorite hotels to visit is the Claremont Hotel, located in the hills of Berkeley, California. Admittedly, this hotel is by no means a bargain hotel. It is more of a resort destination, with one of the best health clubs and fitness centers of any hotel I have every stayed in. The décor is early 20th century country club. (Indeed, the look and feel is very similar to the clubhouse of my home golf course.) On a clear day, the views of the bay and of San Francisco are fantastic.
I could go on and on (perhaps unfortunately so, as it bespeaks my itinerant lifestyle), but for purposes of this post and for today, that is my list of hotels. I don’t feel nearly as passionate about my U.S. recommendations as I do about my European ones, in part because I have had far less success in the U.S. finding inexpensive, charming hotels in useful locations. I hope readers will respond with their favorite hotels, particularly if you have suggestions of great, inexpensive places to stay in the U.S.
I will freely admit that a big factor in many of my assessments may have been random good or bad experiences. For example, I am sure I just caught the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia on a bad night. I may have had an unusually fortunate experience at some of the hotels I have recommended. I certainly can’t ensure that others visiting those hotels will enjoy them as much as I did. But on the other hand, I find the hotel reviews on TripAdvisor.com remarkably accurate, which sugests that random hotel experiences often are representative.
I hope many readers will use the Comment feature of this blog to share with other readers their favorite hotels – or for that matter, their worst hotels, that is useful information too.