Monday, April 26, 2010

Get a Room

While you might not spend as much time in your hotel room as you would spend on exploring the city, hiking that mountain or chugging your pint(s) of beer, the place where you lay your head at night can make a big difference in the quality of your travel experience.

A terrible hotel experience stays with you—and not in a good way. My friend, Tricia, recently told me how she found someone’s pair of dirty socks inside her bed sheets—ick. My worst hotel experience was when I waited three hours for my room, only to find that it hadn’t yet been cleaned when I finally got to it. This was most evident in the fact that my toilet seat was, for lack of a better description, smeared with feces. So much for that supposed five-star rating.

These types of hotel stays have inspired some of the most vehemently colorful and detailed reviews to be found on Yelp and TripAdvisor. They also, more often than not, deter travelers from ever making a return visit to that destination, let alone that particular property.

A good hotel, however, gives you peace of mind when you’re far from home—it gives you a place to store your bags, take a shower and get rested. But a truly great hotel does so much more than that.

An amazing hotel stay is intimately tied to your entire travel experience: When you look back on your trip, you can’t help but remember that place; it’s as much a part of your trip as your first walk along the beach or your impromptu shopping trip through the night markets.

I’ve been lucky enough to have had some of those unforgettable hotel stays. Each one enhanced my trips in ways that I never could have anticipated or imagined and, when I look back on those memories, I can’t help but recall how much I loved being there, and being able to call these places my home away from home.

So, here they are, my favorite accommodations thus far. And yes, I’ll admit that my list is somewhat skewed more toward “luxury” than “budget,” but what can I say? It’s just another great perk—for which I am very grateful—of being a travel writer.

No. 8: Encore Las Vegas
Why: It's My Kind of Vegas
I'm not much of a Vegas person at all: I don't gamble, I don't really have a desire to go clubbing every night and I hate not knowing what time of day it is when I'm cooped up in the casino 24/7. What I do love about Vegas, however—mainly the gastronomic and retail offerings—can all be found here at Encore Las Vegas, along with the nightclubs and gambling, of course. I love the fact that the casino has floor-to-ceiling windows that reveal the outside, overly manicured gardens and pool area. And the spa (see the photo below) is just insane: it's practically gilded in gold. Sure, it's all a bit gaudy and excessive, but isn't this what Vegas is supposed to be like when it's done right? (Photo (c) Russell MacMasters for Wynn/Encore Las Vegas)  

No. 7: The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel
Why: The View
When I think about my favorite rooms with a view, this one is almost always near the top of the list. Having lived in Southern California all of my life, I’ve often taken the ocean for granted. Staying here, however, reminded me why so many people live—and love to live—in Southern California: it’s just so beautiful, especially if you can afford to pay for such a view.

No. 6: Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi
Why: The Ambience

Staying here felt like being holed up in a cozy lodge in the woods—albeit one with a nightly turndown service of shortbread cookies and water and a retractable (and sizable) flat-screen TV. I stayed at the inn during my very first visit to Santa Fe, N.M., last winter and immediately fell in love with the hotel’s welcoming and cozy ambience, complete with a kiva fireplace and a balcony overlooking the Santa Fe Plaza.

Why: The Amenities
I stayed at the Langham Place Hotel Hong Kong for a week and loved it for many reasons. For one, it was smack dab in the middle of Mongkok, Hong Kong, where all the good markets are located (an absolute plus for a shopaholic like myself). And secondly, it was just, well, cool. From the moment I pulled up to the porte cochere and saw that sculpture by Jiang Shuo (see photo), I knew I’d like it here. It was also extremely hi-tech: the in-room safe could even charge your laptop while you were out for the day. And although the Langham Place encompassed a sprawling 42-story building, I never felt lost; it was like my second home for that entire week. (Photo (c) Langham Place Hotel Hong Kong)

No. 4: Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi
Why: The Bed
I know that you’re supposed to spend most of your time on the go while on vacation, but I’d never before been so tempted to stay in as I was when I stayed here. The bed at the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi was the epitome of everything I’d ever want in a bed: ultra-soft, but not too soft, and covered in Egyptian cottons and plush pillows. It was torture getting up in the mornings—especially so when we set our wake-up call at 4:30 a.m. to make it to the Tsukiji Fish Market—but it was pure bliss just to drift off into sleep at night. (Photo (c) Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi) 

No. 3: One of the campgrounds at Yosemite National Park (I can’t remember which one, sadly)
Why: The Company
I can’t even remember which campground it is that I stayed in with my boyfriend, Eliot, and his two best friends. But I do remember how freezing it was, even in the middle of the summer, and how one of his friends nearly scorched the bottom of his feet in an attempt to warm himself by our makeshift fire. Nonetheless, this reminded me that, even when your accommodations are nowhere near five-star (or even at a hotel for that matter), they can still feel like they are if you’ve got the right company with you. The entire trip was filled with episodes of hilarity: we woke up too late to make it to Half Dome in time and we didn’t bring enough blankets or clothing to keep warm at night. Even so, we had a blast and for that, it’ll always be one of my favorite camping trips.

No. 2: The Peninsula Tokyo
Why: The Welcoming Committee
The Peninsula Tokyo was the very first hotel that I stayed at during my trip to Japan last December and it set the bar high—very high—for the rest of my trip. We had just arrived at night from Narita, still groggy from our 11-hours-long flight but, as soon as I stepped into the hotel, I felt immediately at home—if only my home could be as luxurious and opulent as The Peninsula Tokyo was. In fact, it felt just like my dream home, complete with a huge walk-in closet (with a built-in nail dryer), a multi-functioning printer/fax machine/copier (yes, that kind of thing matters to me), and even a digital clock embedded into the bathroom mirror so you're never late for an important meeting. And waking up the next morning to a traditional Japanese-style room service breakfast was, for me, the best part.  

No. 1: Hoshinoya Kyoto
Why: The Experience
Have you ever stayed somewhere and just felt like you were living in a different time and place—as though you really were on vacation from your everyday life? That's exactly how I felt when I got to spend two nights here. At first, it might seem strange to describe the Hoshinoya Kyoto as a modern ryokan (traditional Japanese-style inn) but that's exactly what it was in every sense of the word. It still had all of the modern amenities that travelers expected (including those frighteningly intelligent Japanese toilets) but all of it was housed within the confines—both physical and metaphorical—of an historic ryokan. It was, simply, a magical stay from the very start: to even get to the Hoshinoya, you had to hop on a boat to travel down the river. And my room wasn't even just a room—it was like a small house, complete with a tatami-floored living room (where we had a room-service breakfast of nabe; see below), a separate bedroom and a separate bathroom. If I ever go back to Kyoto (which I hope I do), I hope I can stay here once more.

Eliot eagerly anticipated our room-service breakfast of nabe (Japanese hot pot).

This was a hallway from one of the other buildings on property.

And this was the view of the river from our room.

Now that I’ve shared some of my favorite hotels, I’d love to hear about some of your favorite—and not-so-favorite—stays, too.

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