Tuesday, 21 October 2014

"Destination" hotels

I read a travel piece in one of the Sunday papers recently. It told me all about a destination. The best hotels. The best budget hotels, indeed, except that when I say 'budget' I mean 300 rupees a night (about £3) and they mean £150 and up. The best cafes and bars. The best restaurants. The best shops.

No museums. Nowhere to walk. No gardens, no churches, no monuments, no history. I ended the piece wondering why on earth I would go there. Just for shopping, eating, and drinking coffee? (Even if it was a damn fine cup of coffee...)

The "destination hotel" is perhaps my worst nightmare. Going to a place just in order to sit in a room. Admittedly I've stayed in and used some lovely hotels in my time. One favourite: The Crillon, Paris, for the amazing waiter service; a table of five is served, all the plates covered by silver lids - and hey presto! all at once, all five covers are lifted to expose the magic of the cuisine. A masterclass in how seriously the French take their food. Another: The UN Plaza (as was), New York. Nowhere else have I been able to swim and look down 30 floors on to the gridded streets of the city; surreal, wonderful, and very Manhattan.

But I go somewhere because of its flavour. I go to see the landscape, to see the crowd, to see the history. A recent walk beside the Gironde delivered tiny fossils in the chalk, fishermens' cabins on stilts, a lonely Romanesque church on a headland over the grey waters. Yes, we also stayed in a lovely B&B, but that wasn't the point.

I travel to find surprises. A fossilised leaf in the rock at my feet, just exposed by the low tide. Or in Bangkok, a while ago, a group of graffiti artists working on a commission to jolly up a food kiosk and its alleyway, or ladies cooking the monks' breakfast at a local temple. The hammer dulcimer class I was invited to join in Chiangmai. My first taste of vin de noix in a little hotel in Conques, on the way to Santiago de Compostela (years later, I've found the recipe, and make six litres, religiously, every year). A "destination hotel" doesn't deliver surprises.

So, why destination hotels? How cynical do I want to be? First, because travel sections of newspapers now aim to deliver nice easy experiences that everyone can have. (Well, everyone with a rather large amount of money to spend, anyway.) "Our readers don't want to have their minds opened. They don't want to know about the challenges of farming in the high altitude deserts of Ladakh, or the aesthetics of Japanese calligraphy. They want to know where to spend £500 for a weekend break. They don't want surprises. They want two good meals a day, a nightclub that's edgy, and a room that's guaranteed to be on-trend."

And secondly... because I suppose some people really do want to play it safe.

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