My mother, a great traveler, used to say that all you do is sleep in a hotel. So where you stay doesn’t matter as long as there’s Paris or Barcelona outside the door. Well, yes, one can take that approach, passing by the Connaught in London, the Raffles in Singapore, the Athenee Palace in Bucharest without checking in. But great hotels are often tourist sites in themselves with rich histories and distinctive architecture. So even if I’m staying in some very cheap and basic place, I make it a habit to peek into five-star havens, maybe have a drink at the bar or powder my nose in the restrooms with their gold-plated fixtures and cloth hand towels. Very refreshing, but a jolt when I have to face the depressing reality of my own not-so-sumptuous digs.
Best is to split the difference, I have found, to find mid-range places to stay, neither too luxurious nor too austere. When I’m lucky and do my homework I sometimes end up in hotels that please me just as deeply as any luxury palace could. Places with character and careful, loving management. Here’s a short list of some of my favorites:
The Hotel Las Golondrinas is a happy choice in Oaxaca, Mexico, a provincial capital surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur, site of Zapotec and Mixtec archaeological sites, predating the Aztec empire. The hotel, about a ten-minute walk from the town’s pretty zócalo, is a modest, low-rise complex built around a series of courtyards, decorated with ceramics, easy chairs, fountains and bougainvillea. Rooms are bare, but very tidy and the staff is friendly. Reserve ahead, though, because Las Golondrinas is popular with Norte Americanos, especially academics. Doubles are about $70.
Whole books have been written about the riads of Morocco, occupying old aristocratic town houses with interior courtyards, rooftop terraces, colorful tile and hanging brass lamps. I tried several in Marrakech, but ended up happier than Scheherazade at Le Gallia, a 17-room French-Moroccan hideaway near the Place Jemaa el-Fnaa. Doubles are about $75, with breakfast featuring tartines as tasty as any on the Left Bank.
Speaking of Paris, where searching for a nice, modestly priced hotel room can seem futile, I’ve become a devotee of the Hotel les Degrés de Notre Dame. Tucked in the maze of streets east of St. Michel metro on the Left Bank, it has a restaurant/bar where guests check in, five floors with no elevator—a factor that scares people off, but keeps rates down—and ten guest chambers with wooden beams, cubbyholes and old-fashioned furniture. Two of them have a sliver of a view of Notre Dame’s apse, where Victor Hugo’s hunchback rang the bells. Doubles start around $150.
Rome is as tough a nut to crack as Paris, but there’s one inn I can recommend there: Hotel Navona, around the corner from the Pantheon on via dei Sediari. It occupies several floors of an old palazzo, set around a central courtyard decorated with stones from the Baths of Agrippa, which occupied the site in Roman times. The proprietor is an architect who keeps making changes, adding rooms, updating the décor. But ask for one of the old rooms because they have the most character, even if the bathrooms are tight and the furniture alla nonna. Standard doubles start around $130.
This summer London is bound to be booked up tight, what with the Olympics. So watch the games on TV and go later. Even so, you should reserve ahead at the Celtic, the new home of St. Margaret’s Hotel, a great old London chestnut that recently had to move a few blocks away from its previous location to a refurbished Georgian building on Guilford Street near Russell Square in Bloomsbury. Fans of St. Margaret’s, who were legion, can rest assured that the homey, shipshape ambience has moved along with the beds and drapes because the Celtic remains in the good hands of the Marazzi family, Bloomsbury hoteliers since 1952. Doubles are about $150, including a stout English breakfast.