the sweet and lowdown
There was a time period at the end of the 70’s, when rock and roll belched up 15 minute ballads sticky with hairspray, and the efficiency of a 2-4 beat and counterculture got lost in the woods and egos of stadium shows. We ended up with “Paradise By The Dashboard Light”. Fortunately punk rock and new wave was birthed as a counterweight to the bloating of rock, so that bands like the Talking Heads in places like CBGB could rescue us from forgetting why rock rolls.
In the late 20-teens, I see a parallel with what was happening in the hotel industry; and by the time Covid pent up our travel-lust for a few years, some travellers came out of the gates wanting and needing those long ballad, overpriced rooms in Phuket and Lake Como more than ever before. Now there are corner suites in New York that run north of $12,000 per night; and this, like bad ballads of yesteryear, I find offensive.
Give me the Ramones, David Byrne, and Blondie, keep your Blue Oyster and Meatloaf.
I like a nice hotel, but price and size don’t make a hotel great; there is an alchemy, a golden ratio, an artistic slant one needs to have in mind while building something, and this feeling, if strong enough in the soul and done with deliberation, can be fully formed in a $100 a night room. You can see this on the Frugal Gourmet reruns on PBS, you feel it in your favourite dive bar, or in a slice of kraft singles on a ballpark burger.
There are hotels that are priced high and which are paying employees appropriately, with philanthropy projects associated – these hotels I find interesting. But the hotels that drive the price up for the sake of trend and without the extra value seem to have run a bit too rampant as of late.
Here is an ode to the heart-and-soul hotels we love, the small, the simple and the elegant, the grand and old, the slim-down efficient – some sweet and lowdown places we like to rest our weary little heads. Well designed, but understated places with human heart.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Slovenia is a jewel hiding in plain sight. Domacija Novak, a guesthouse nestled in the Slovenian countryside, sums up why I love this country so much. A handful of simple yet comfortable rooms combine incredibly well with a kitchen that produces mouth-watering dishes and a wine cellar (or two!) that can beat out any fancy restaurant. The best part though are the charming owners Boris Novak and his wife who proudly run this place.” –Claudia
“Myanmar isn’t the same as it was when I saw it last as there was a coup d’etat and an ongoing occupation, but I keep in touch with the folks who live and work in this property (it is a hotel and also the UN office in country) and it is still up and running. This isn’t the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok, it isn’t the Peninsula in Hong Kong, or The Strand in Yangon or any of the other hotels the Sarkkies brothers built, but what it is, is a novel incarnate and I love it. Mid century Modern and a dash of brutalists, teak furnishings and set on the shores of Inya Lake on the outskirts of Yangon. The bellman has been working there since mid century modern was new, and remembers that I like Debussy’s Children’s Corner so always asks the pianist to play it after I check in. The place needs work, the teak is used too much and makes some corners dark, and the paint is crumbling, but like an old leather chesterfield there is patina in the best of ways, and you can tell when it was new, no expense was spared, all the small parts fit to last unlike many new hotels outfitted in faux furniture. The first morning I spent there, I sat next to Mr Sukhdeep Singh who, at the time, was the GM of both the Inya Lake hotel and the obvious classic hotel in Yangon, the Strand. And I saw him there every morning. He said he liked the heartbeat of Inya Lake, the memories, and although it was a little run down, it still was his favourite of the two. I smiled nervously because I had just stolen a silver plated coffee pot and had it in my bag, something I had never done and never did again but it was some desperate attempt to keep a little bit of the magic from that place, like some sort of rock star fan stealing a drum stick or a guitar pick to take the concert home.” –Tyler
“A small inn in the wee town of Berat in the very up-and-coming destination of Albania, this place was a real find, authentic, historic, and with genuinely warm and friendly staff, plus an awesomely delicious local breakfast. It is in the heart of the town, a stone’s throw from the main sights and the river for that all important sunset to perambulate.” –Anton
“There’s something about this little guesthouse in the Greek countryside, close to the entrance of the site of the Byzantine city of Mystras. Large, comfortable and country-stylish suites are spread over a handful of stone-built houses set in lovely gardens. Views of the mountains, Mystras and the plain of Sparta, a little pool for summer dips, deckchairs set in the shade of olive trees, breakfast with home-baked treats delivered at your doorstep in a picnic basket, some fantastic eateries in the village, what is there not to love?” –Jacoline
“Tucked in the Inagh Valley, and the savage beauty that is Connemara, sits a lodge, the old fishing and hunting lodge from the Ballynahinch estate nearby, a refuge. There are two sitting rooms as you walk in, a pub in the back, a dinning room to the left, and rooms upstairs and down the hall on the first floor. It is like my childhood home in that I can picture it in my mind and I know what it smells like and sounds like. This is the way I felt the first time I walked in, and many feel the same, like you have been here before, in some strange dream. Dominic O’Morain and Maire O’Connor , a brother sister team, run it and they are a joy. The farmers in the valley come down for pints at the end of a day and fill the back pub, and it feels and is very real. I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari, and this worn boot called Connemara can stir up nostalgia deep inside even if you’ve never been before. There is some prehistoric shared memory in this landscape.” – Tyler
“Fos ke choros is Greek for “light and space”, and that is exactly what attracted a Dutch couple to this spot in the hills of the island of Kythira. They made it their home-cum-guesthouse, consisting of two gorgeous twin buildings, each with an apartment on the ground floor and a studio on the floor above, all with sea-facing terraces. Well off the beaten tourist track and with beautiful villages, good beaches, and a varied landscape, the island of Kythira is ideal not only for summer vacations, but also for off season ‘alternative’ holidays, think olive harvesting, walking, soap making, fishing, farmhouse cooking, walking, and more, so much more. A gorgeous place to stay at prices that are beyond reasonable on an island that offers pretty much everything except crowds and craziness, is a combi that’s hard to beat. There’s just one catch: it requires early booking. Not surprising.” –Jacoline
“A fun and upbeat boutique hotel and beach club, that is not only B Corp certified but is also solar powered, zero waste and a living wage employer. Blue Apple centers around impact, positive impact and a place where any and all are welcomed and accepted. The staff are attentive, but relaxed and will even encourage you to take the local boat to arrive to the island, and why not, it saves energy and fuel, allows you to engage with the local life while creating a sense of adventure. You can come for the day, or stay for a couple nights and at prices that are extremely reasonable.” –Victoria
“Hotel du Tourisme (2 stars) at the entrance of the Mont Blanc valley, is possibly one of the cheapest hotels in France AND one of the hotels of the valley offering the BEST view over the Mont Blanc mountain. Sitting on the private balcony at sunset is priceless. Sleeping for a night will cost you 59 euros. The hotel has 4 rooms only (all of them with private bathrooms, formica desk and TV unit from the 70s). early). Surprisingly, I was the only customer during my visit last July at the peak of the season. The hotel is also a PMU where you can bet on horses, buy some cigarettes, share a coffee and gossip with the locals. A truly immersive experience for the price of a bottle of wine. ” –Michael
“What happens when you mix a Norwegian interior designer with an Iraqi Architect and one of the world’s most fascinating ancient walled cities? Owners Kate and Aladdin knew they were on to something incredible when they bought and painstakingly restored Dar Seffarine twenty years ago, deep in the medieval Medina of Fez. 7 rooms (all named after the first seven clients to stay at the hotel) so exquisitely decorated maintaining original features in a traditional house that is at least 700 years old (they have the deeds to prove it) becomes the setting for a nightly house party of world travelers and creatives that sit at a communal table for meals or chat over glasses of wine in the kitchen as Aladdin prepares dinner of Iraqi specialties from his childhood. You won’t find locks on the doors, Tvs, or minibars, but staying here is more than just a living museum, it’s sharing in a project that was always about community over making money.” –Sebastian
“This $40 gem is a guide classic in Hoi An, Vietnam. And $40 is criminal with what you get, the sleepy ambience, the hammock and pool, the Graham Greene feeling rooms, one could write a book here alone or on the guest you meet. It isn’t backpacker, and it isn’t glam seekers, it is travelers and guides who love this spot. Across the street from the pricier Anantara resort, a sanitized version of the Ha An. It is like those real pubs that exist in the same neighborhoods as TGIF’s or Jack Astors, the corporate version of the real. The Ha An Hotel is the real. With the real come drafty doors and noise from the street, but sometimes that is just what I want, to be in the place instead of sterilized by it.” –Tyler
“A sister hotel to Monachyle Mhor, this is one of those fun projects, an old motel, bought by creative people keen on bringing back some life to an intersection in the Highlands of Scotland. Funky, fresh and fun.” –Tyler
“This is an hotel of old, slower times, when one would sit near other people and drink tea and talk and not look at their phones blinking away trying to sell them things. It is central, as all grand hotels usually are, and it is lush with plant life in the central courtyard which opens up to the sky. I stayed here ages ago and still dream about it. It is hard to tell if it was a dream or real but I see it still out there in hopes of going back.” –Tyler
“Mouco is the sort of place that had I arrived there as a backpacker in my 20s, I’d have probably ditched my plans to thumb it around Europe on the spot and ask for a job here. While the concept isn’t an entirely original one it is new for Porto and Portugal: a musical-themed hotel, where everyone working there is a musician, and each room features a turntable and stacks of vinyl you can check out for free from their music library to play in your room (volume is restricted so that you can get a decent night sleep even if your neighbour insists on playing Punks Not Dead at midnight). They even have guitars they’ll lend you when you’re inspired to play some licks, before grabbing drinks in their hip bar or checking out a regularly rotating series of concerts featuring local and international bands in their basement stage venue. Rooms are minimal, well sound proofed and comfy and start at around 65€ in low season. What’s the catch? Far away from the tourist crowds of the centre (which really, is a plus these days) in Porto’s Campanha neighbourhood, with plenty of local flavour and restaurants and about a 20 minute walk from the action. But Mouco is where it’s at, yo.” –Sebastian
“If you read all the books on how to decorate, organise and run a hotel, and then disobey every rule, you might come close to something like the Annexe d’Aubrac, buffeted by the wind high up on a plateau of France’s Massif Central, a million stylistic miles from anywhere. The interior decor relies heavily on the use of mirrors, trees and antlers. I took my family here before Christmas, and made no attempt to describe it to my 6-year old beyond calling it a haunted house. The owner used to have a pet fox, but has upgraded and now has a pet wolf. For all that, she is professionalism defined, if meaningful attention to detail, easy-going friendliness, and a world-beating recipe for soupe au fromage are how you define professionalism (I do).” –Jack