JOHN’S JOURNEYS: ROOM AT THE INN John Burke remembers a variety of accommodation
Like out of a legend of ancient China
A foreign correspondent gets used to sleeping in anything from a top-rated hotel to a tent. Likewise, as a tour-guide or travel-writer, I have run the gamut from
five stars to one; the lower categories include establishments that were either the best off the beaten track or else long past their heyday such as the Gontico that opened in Belo Horizonte in 1937.
Some sumptuous establishments, such as the Krasnopolsky in Amsterdam and the Astoria in Lucerne, are still rated as highly as when I took American passengers there on the Europe-in-28-Days tours, but others have changed names or closed down. The same has happened after other travels.
During a university vacation, I was a bellhop at the Heiden Hotel in the Catskills whose guests were mostly Jews from New York City, so it was kosher throughout.
The ruins caught fire in 1998, but still standing in Dawson City is the clapboard structure of Flora Dora, which was erected during the Klondyke gold-rush, and also welcomed guests for nigh on a century.
There was spartan status again in the luxurious Enturperu in Ayacucho, a town overcrowded with Peruvians at Easter, so I had to share a staff-room. Yet the beds in all those establishment were far more comfortable than sleeping-bags under canvas which the Portuguese Army put up for John Paul II’s visit to Fatima in 1982, and the French Army did likewise when Benedict XVI visited Lourdes for its centenary in 2008.
My softest bed ever was in the Sheraton in Damascus shortly before the current war, while I remember its Cincinatti namesake for the yard of ale in a tall pipe of a glass, brought by a black waiter in eighteenth-century livery. The one hotel to leave personalised headed notepaper in my room was Brown Palace in Denver, the mile high city, and that was the loftiest hotel until the Tequendama in Bogota and the Crillon in La Paz. Unlike in other capitals, however, the latter hotel was literally downtown, as the heights (11,932 feet) are windswept.
So is Galway, but no hotel could be more solid than the granite Great Southern, overlooking Eyre Square since 1852. It adjoins a railway station just like the sandstone North British in Edinburgh where I once alighted from the overnight express amid deep snow for a welcome breakfast of porridge and kippers.
I have stayed in several other railway hotels, especially the Canadian Pacific ones as far apart as St John’s and Vancouver, while the most memorable establishments on the beach were Iberotel, at Puerto Plata on Santo Domingo, and Sans Souci in Ocho Rios near Ian Fleming’s home in Jamaica, followed by the Dan Eilat (kosher throughout).
A magnificent view of the Red Sea.
Frankly, I am not that keen on four-star or five-star, especially tower-blocks. The disorientation includes mistaking floors and corridors, and it always takes too long getting from room to street. Also, in modest accomodation it is easier to meet the locals, although I chose Air Raid City Lodge in Darwin just for the name.
When visiting Bonn, my home was a cosy guest-house where the owner’s wife served a hearty Bauernfrühstück, (omelette with bacon and potatoes). In the Brazilian cities of Curitiba and Porto Alegre, I chose simple hotels that were a couple of minutes’ walk from the coach stations.
Yet there are three reasons why a leading journalist should stay in the finest hotel, especially in capital cities. A professional tourism director will arrange this for local prestige, but were it requested of an amateurish press officer, she would jump to the wrong conclusion!
Actually, it is a chance to meet or mention important guests such as Gulf princes at the Mutiara in Penang and the Calista in Antalya. Historical highlights also make good copy: for example, the Rock Hotel on Gibraltar and Atlantico (now InterContinental) in Estoril were hotbeds of international intrigue between 1936 and 1944.
Newsworthy too was the gossip that the revenue of Taipei’s legendary Grand Hotel provided Madame Chiang Kai-Shek’s pension. Yet my best story is getting the presidential suite at the Muehlebach Tower in Kansas City while going coast to coast for BBC-TV in 1970.
Dominating Quebec’s skyline since 1893.
I got a small room, however, at the Château Frontenac where Churchill, Roosevelt and Mackenzie King conferred in 1943. It is among hotels to illustrate my articles, as it dominates Quebec’s skyline, while my photograph of the Wyndham Kingston’s pool is even in a Jamaican guidebook.
The final reason is that the finest hotels usually offer excellent panoramas, examples being the Westin-Stamford in Singapore; Schlossgarten in Stuttgart; Isrotel in Tel Aviv … I have also captured good views from Hilton hotels in Cairo and Budapest.
The finest view of Singapore.
Still with the camera and celebrities, there was a technical variant in Cannes whose tourist office lodged me not where Hollywood stars hold court on the beachfront, but two blocks behind at a three-star allocated to the film-crews and make-up girls.
For pure prestige, it would still be hard to beat Kempinski that was the hotel in (West) Berlin, but soon after the wall fell, I went east to the Metropol, still showing its socialistic credentials in the form of Heinrich Ziller’s drawings of slum-dwellers during the Great Depression. Even under communism, however, eastern Europe had some classy hotels such as the Ambassador/Zlata Husa in Prague.
Paradoxically, capitalism created the more egalitarian Holiday Inns as far apart as Boston, Dubai and Athens as well as Providence and Port-of-Spain. Their standardisation is a boon, although the one in Bruges is required to retain the facade of a onetime convent.
The chain now belongs to Intercontinental.
I visited Holiday Inns’ headquarters in Memphis during a four-hour stopover between Las Vegas (Caesar’s Palace, of course) and Philadelphia where, equally inevitably, my hotel was the historic Benjamin Franklyn. It was rather like the Ideal Home Exhibition … room after room with varied decor for franchisees to choose. Also there, as a museum-piece, was a bedroom of the first Holiday Inn of 1953.
It would barely get one star today, but still better than being under canvas.