Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Let me stay in a hotel

As a kid my parents took me to hotels during vacations. Hotels were big square buildings, with high ceilings and long hollow corridors. And at night, it was even a bit sinister. Nights were never as dark like in hotels, and since the old style hotel rooms in the 1960s our family could afford had no bathroom, you better grinned and bare it and waited until the next morning if you had to go. Because a walk through the dark corridor - you never could find the light switch - was an unpleasant option for a young boy.

But it must have provided the framework for my love of hotels. There are few things in life I like as much as staying in hotels. It is that special feeling, being pampered by anonymous people, the usually lovely beds, and when you wake up you know their will be a rich breakfast buffet that can keep you going for most of the day. The breakfast at the Kurhaus Hotel in Bad Bentheim, where I stayed for two nights last December, was one of the best ever. If you wished, there was even a glass of sekt for you to start the day. Sekt - Germany’s sparkling wine, a kind of champagne, at breakfast was however a bit too hedonistic for this modest Dutch guy.

 The Kurhaus Hotel, Bad Bentheim, Germany.

There are good hotels, mediocre hotels and downright bad hotels of course – but these days, thanks to the internet, it is difficult to go wrong. Many hotels in Germany, Austria or Switzerland also offer you a pool and a sauna. What else can you wish for? Well, actually, a nice bar would be great, but not all hotels see the necessity for that evening hideaway. Still, sometimes you are still surprised. One of the best hotels I had the pleasure to stay in was a modest looking building, but offered beautiful rooms with a big balcony overlooking a small town and mountains in Germany’s Black Forest. I fondly remember the evenings, relaxing on the balcony, seeing the day changing into evening, and watching hikers, farmers with their tractors, people walking the dog or just cars on the narrow one lane roads through the fields on the mountain slope. A kitchen halfway down the corridor provided a big fridge for your drinks and snacks, while free coffee and tea was available. Best of all – a room only set you back 22 Euros per night per person, including a sumptuous breakfast with locally bought ham, eggs, cheese, jams and buns.

 A room with  a view - from the Sauerland Stern Hotel in Willingen, Germany.

Now, if you get the impression I am spending my vacations in five star hotels, I’ll have to set the record straight: I don’t. In my lifetime I only stayed in real luxurious hotels in Morocco, where the rugs were so thick, that your feet sank into it. And the American Hampton Inns are very comfortable too. Related to the Hiltons, they offer the best beds you can imagine, and only the question of your stay is financing Paris Hilton might keep you awake. Great beds notwithstanding, something is not right there, just as in most American hotels. When you come down for breakfast, you are reminded every morning that the Americans still do not know how to offer a great breakfast to their guests. Granted, in the 1990s there was no breakfast at all, and you had to go out to start your day with bagels, waffles or eggs - scrambled, omelette, no cholesterol, you name, they do everything with eggs. But Europeans want breakfast in their hotel, and they do not want those greasy options. Luckily, many business men have no time to look for diner outside, so offering a breakfast has become a requirement in the USA as well. But what kind of breakfast… even the Hampton Inn directs you to room that look more like a cantina then as the breakfast room of a $120 hotel. Coffee comes from big pots with a Starbucks label, and your choice is bagel, waffle, cereal, toast. Of course, all self service and plastic plates. Pathetic is the only word to describe this. What will Americans think when they experience a European breakfast buffet, with their own China coffee pots on their table?

 Fontana Village Resort Hotel, Great Smokie Mountains, North Carolina.

The best hotels in the USA are the motels in the mountains, privately owned and not part of the big uniform chains. I fondly remember the beautiful Junge’s Motel in North Conway in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Their rooms look like luxury bungalows. But a modest looking motel near the Great Smokies National park, offering a rocking chair on a porch and a vast garden with big trees that stretched out to a streaming river, with barbecues, picnic tables and solitude not even a nature campsite could offer. And do not get me started about the Sky River Valley Inn in Skykomish, Washington… You hear the Skykomish River streaming close to your spacious room with fridge and kitchenette, and sliding doors bring you from your room directly in the riverside garden. But alas, it is deconstructed right now, and it is anybody’s guess if the owners will build it up again. Lovely quiet Skykomish in the Cascades is undergoing a massive oil spill removal, caused by the Burlington Northern and BNSF railroads, and most of the soil is removed – including many structures. And one of them is my beloved motel.

One of the most bizarre hotels I know, brought me back to my childhood just a few years ago. Hotel Zum Türken in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, is an old style establishment. Rooms with high ceilings and without bathroom, and once again I had to cross a cold looking tiled corridor at night. And I could hear the hollow sound of soldier boots in my imagination. Soldier boots, you say? Yes, because Hotel Zum Türken has a sinister history. It is located on the Obersalzberg, and anyone with interest in the Second World War will understand what I am hinting at. This is the location where Mr. Hitler used to spend his summer and winter vacations. Maybe just 50 meters away from the hotel Hitler had his Berghof built, and guests of the Hotel Zum Türken have pretty much the same view the Führer enjoyed. There is not much left of the Berghof – only a part of the stairs leading to the main entrance can be found, and under the hotel in the mountain are the rooms and corridors where Hitler and Eva Braun could seek shelter in case the allied forces would bomb the Berghof. Except for their private underground rooms, the labyrinth of corridors and rooms is open to the public. I was a grown man when I stayed here. For the six year old boy it would probably have been too scary.


  1. My first reaction was to write "if you like hotels then you will love cruising".

    But your comments about hotels, and the comparison between US and European hotels is generally true.

    It is a good idea to avoid the US hotel bar, restaurant and breakfast buffet even in many of the better chains. In think this may be due to the intense competition. Yes, you can get great deals on accommodation, but that means that for everything else you have to pay - and pay handsomely. The business has to make money somewhere. Not that the hotel catering is actually bad - just very poor value for money. You can usually do much better - and cheaper - a short walk away. And some apparent "chains" are actually franchises, with variable controls over standards and quality.

  2. I actually chuckled a bit while reading the portion about your expectations for breakfast. To American ears you sound like quite the prima donna there!

    The point of hotel is to give you a place to sleep, not to give you meals and wait on you hand and foot (at least, not for free), so it always seems like such a nice compliment when they do offer something. Yes, the selection and presentation is rather plebian, but that's much better than the natural alternative, which is nothing. If one desires an actual dining experience, you're always free to drive down to TGI Friday's and, well… buy a breakfast. Just my POV and I suppose it’s because I’m American. It must be interesting to be treated like a king in a European hotel, I would like to experience that some day.

    Hotels are something you can sink a shocking amount of money into when a perfectly decent experience can be had quite cheap, just like clothes, jewelry, and, well, almost anything in life actually. Thus, I rarely stay at actual hotels – motels are the way to go (I’m not sure if they make a distinction between the two in Europe). If I’m traveling and just need a place to catch some sleep, then a bed, a table, a lamp, an alarm clock, and a toilet offer an attractive alternative to the backseat of my sedan.

    If you want to really pamper yourself on a long-term vacation, then I can understand swinging $250/night for the Jacuzzi, feather pillows, bronze-plated elevator, and yes, a fancy breakfast. But in most cases the $45 special at Econo-Lodge gets the job done for me.

  3. American style motels are popular in the UK and in France, but in my country and in Germany you'll find those only around larger towns, focussing on business people. And with a corresponding price tag. Smaller individual hotels abundant though.
    When I am travelling, most motels (in Europe and USA) will do fine for me, since I will be on my way the next day. But when I am staying for a few days, I become more picky.

    On the food subject: some ten years ago I stayed a few days in the Timberline Lodge in Oregon with my nephew, and there is not a town in the near distance. The room I booked in advance was not too expensive, but when we walked to the restaurant (the only place to get food there) I sensed we were being outclassed. Cheapest dish was a simple pasta for $22...

    I like that bronze plated elevator comment by Max - that is the Hampton Inn!

  4. Cornelius KoelewijnJanuary 12, 2011 at 9:22 PM

    During my stays in the US I've noticed a lot has changed when it comes to motels and/or hotels. Many 1950's style road side motels, where you could stay for 35 bucks, are gone now. They've been replaced with ubiquitous chains like Motel 6, Motel 8, Econolodge and the broad assortment of more expensive hotels.
    I agree with Martin that German hotels are the best to spend the night. Extremely clean, courteous service and excellent breakfeast buffets. After 3 or 4 buns, coffee, eggs, yoghurt, fruits and a glass of orange juice of course, you only get hungry again at 6 PM... Too bad Martin didn't mention the German restaurants...

  5. I would have to agree with Max about the simple stuff being all I need when on the road. I tend to like doing a circle tour and in doing so I only stay in one location for one night then move on. I do, however, try to book my motel/hotel with at least a "continental breakfast" if possible. I often call ahead to verify the usual items available for breakfast if I am trying to save on the costs of the trip. OJ, coffee, some cereal, and a banana is all I would have at home, so why demand more than that on the road? I have stayed at all varieties of places, some with awesome buffets which were a real treat, but overall, not worth the 3x cost. A $40-60 room is plenty, especially if I can get some simple food as well. The fancy places in the States usually do not include the buffet as part of the cost, but instead charge around $15 for the full buffet and beverage. Only when my employer has paid the bill have I stayed at such places, other than a few times that I have used my Entertainment book for 50% off the rack rate, like staying at the Bourbon-Orleans in the heart of the French Quarter in New Orleans. That is a location where you do want to stay more than one night, and I can understand wanting some pampering on occasion.
    If you really want pampering, I agree with what was stated above: take a cruise.