I have nothing against five star hotels – a little creamy elegance and fawning service never hurt anybody – but given a choice, I’ll always go for small, quaint and unusual. Give me a converted windmill, rice barge, convent or olive farm any day over a cookie-cutter corporate chain. There’s so much more to talk about afterwards. Once, when I asked a woman I know how she was enjoying her stay at one of Seville’s premier hotels, she said, “OK, I guess. The bathroom had all the complementary toiletries you’d expect.” That’s nice, but how do you parlay free shampoo and shower caps into a sparkling anecdote or a cherished memory?
Of course, quaint and quirky can definitely go to far. Once in Bhutan, we had a bare-bones room in a guesthouse, and to reach the outhouse I had to cross a courtyard, climb a ladder, go over the garden wall, climb down another ladder and make my way through the scrub brush. Luckily, there was a full moon that night, but still!
And then there was the Hotel Maya, a large roadside establishment catering mostly to long-distance truckers in the Punjab. Our little group arrived there after a grueling 18-hour bus ride from New Delhi, and we were underwhelmed to discover sticky floors, electrical wires dangling from holes in the walls, squat toilets and rock-hard beds with stained sheets. Eyeing the sheets, one friend whispered, “I’m not sure I’m getting undressed.” Another muttered back, “Undressed? I’m not even taking off my shoes!”
The facilities were pretty basic at the Maya.
The proprietor led us back out into the shadowy corridor where a small spigot poked out of the wall. “And if you want hot water, it’s right here in the hall!” He turned the handle with a proud flourish and sent a stream of water cascading over the floor. I was pretty sure complimentary shampoo and shower caps were out of the question.
What is the ideal balance between McLuxury and checking into a flophouse for nightcrawlers? How do you find affordable places with character and hot showers?
I often start by consulting such savvy travelers as Karen Brown and Rick Steves. Their websites and books are full of well-researched recommendations for small, charming hotels. Trip Advisor provides customer reviews, which are enormously helpful but do need to be taken with a grain of salt. Once, after booking a small, inexpensive B&B in Rome, we later read a scathing review and rushed to cancel our reservation, only to find we couldn’t. With considerable annoyance and trepidation, we showed up … and decided the review had seriously overdramatized the drawbacks. It might not be the Four Seasons, but it was a long, long way from the Maya, and we’d certainly stay there again.
The hot new phenomena is AirBnB, which lets you rent a room directly from individuals in their private homes in an informal (and some say questionably legal) type of bed and breakfast. If you’re on a tight budget and your privacy and comfort requirements are more flexible, there’s CouchSurfing, in which locals let you stay on their couch or in a spare room or even their entire apartment for free or a very modest sum. Both Air B&B and CouchSurfing seem to work surprising well in most cases, although one couple I know booked someone’s spare room over the Internet and arrived to find a dingy, squalid atmosphere that sent them running for the door so fast they almost tripped over the empty beer cans scattered around the floor.
And then there are the new, improved, not-for-youth-only hostels, such as those shown on Hostels.com; they’re so respectable now that Rick Steves and Karen Brown include them in their listings. Hostels still offer the cheapest beds around, but many have now added private rooms with en suite bathrooms to attract more upscale travelers, and you’ll often see Volvos as well as walking sticks parked outside the door.
Small hotels, informal B&Bs and hostels offer a great way to meet locals and experience the regional culture. Of course, be sure to read the reviews and the fine print to make sure you’re not expected to scale garden walls to visit an outhouse or wait in line to use the hot water in the hall. With a little basic research, we have discovered many delightful, out-of-the-way places over the years. Some of them even offered complimentary shampoo and shower caps. All of them offered moments I'll never forget.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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