In Praise of the Basic Hotel
The travel writer's version of trading in the sporty convertible for the responsible minivan: swapping the luxury hotel lifestyle for glamour-free chain stays. For mom-freelancer Alyssa Shelasky, it doesn't even feel like much of a sacrifice.
Chateau Marmont. Chiltern Firehouse. Amangani. Gstaad Palace.
I’ve stayed at all of them. I’ve worn all the Frette bathrobes. I’ve swayed on all the Kelly Wearstler hammocks. I’ve ordered all the Champagne from all the butlers — the ski butler, the cheese butler, the Burberry butler.
I’m ready to say goodbye to everything.
For one, my editors can’t afford to jet-set me anymore. I worked for celebrity and food and travel magazines in the golden era, when publishers had money. Buckets of money. Private planes to Miami with Jennifer Lopez money. But that gravy train has left the station — and won’t even pay for an uberPOOL to pick me up.
Second: I have a child now, a three-year old daughter. And my child doesn’t care about the St. Regis Bloody Mary or the sweet, sweet serenity of a La Prairie spa. My child wants a pee-filled indoor pool, and regular people who don't hate her for playing in the lobby, and a basic buffet breakfast that has free juice — ideally not the fresh-squeezed kind.
Which explains why I find myself doing what would have been absolutely unthinkable a few years ago: I am starting to break up with super-chic, crazy-luxurious hotels. They just don’t work for my lifestyle anymore. I am not interested in pillow menus or vinyl curators. I need function, and complimentary coffee, and a nearby CVS.
I now eagerly await emails from the PR folks at The Residence Inn, not the Parker Palm Springs. (Okay, that one hurts.) I show up for meet-and-greets with Disney Cruises, not Relais & Châteaux. I am absolutely dying for the Mohonk Mountain House and Great Wolf Lodge people to learn my byline and know me and love me. Hello, anyone?
One of my favorite recent travel memories saw me, my boyfriend, and our daughter crashed at a no-name motel somewhere in Maine after a long day in the snow. There was no soap in the tub, let alone Moët in an ice bucket, but our daughter fell asleep in my arms in front of a cheap, electric fireplace ... and I went to bed feeling so deeply fortunate.
A few months ago, we visited Puerto Rico and fell in love with Hotel El Convento in Old San Juan, a glamorous former monastery adjoining the San Juan Cathedral square. We fell in love NOT because of the striking Andalusian tiles or the sexy little pool with a view. We fell in love because there’s a cocktail hour on a terrace where toddlers can run wild and tourists can drink for free.
This week confirmed everything when I traveled to Los Angeles for work meetings and chose to stay not at Sunset Towers, not at Sunset Marquis, but at The Intercontinental in Century City.
Now, I get it. The Intercontinental is very nice. It is hardly slumming it. Despite the impression from what I’ve written so far, I am not some sheltered travel snob. Growing up, the nicest hotel I ever stayed at was The Marriott in Times Square and that’s because my great-aunt had a friends-and-family discount there. I was conceived at a Sheraton off the highway in Framingham, Massachusetts. (Don’t ask how I know that.) I wish every citizen of the world could enjoy the privilege of staying at The Intercontinental for one night of their lives, or any hotel with clean water and warm beds, for that matter.
But The Intercontinental is not trendy. There is no wellness wing. No white, marble hammam. No underwear-ironer. Frankly, the main reason I picked it was because its central location meant I could walk to my TV development meetings — everything is right there: CAA, ICM, FOX, etc. — and avoid the chronic car sickness that had me barfing at a Warner Brothers pitch last month. Welcome to Hollywood!
It turns out The Intercontinental fit me like a glove. Maybe not a Gucci glove, but, let’s say, a lovely Coach glove. (Speaking of simpler pleasures, the brand new, one-billion-dollar-renovated Westfield Mall is right there, and, with everything from Maje to Jo Malone, I’d say it’s the best shopping experience in LA.) Anyway, The Intercontinental is solid. The hotel is stable. I ordered tortilla soup to my room and it was, like, 11 dollars — and delicious! (Dad, that’s really cheap for room service.) They have a house car that takes you places for free. They put strong coffee out at 6 a.m. My minibar had a Snickers bar, not a Sugarfina bento box. I was so happy there.
Here’s another way to put it: The Intercontinental is probably not the best sex of your life, but it’s maybe the guy you should marry.
Did I see Jon Stewart eating breakfast with his brood, like I did at The St. Regis in Rome? No. Did I see Ben Affleck guzzling red wine and talking everyone’s ears off, like I did at Parrot Cay? Thankfully, negative. Did I see Jennifer Lawrence kick off her heels and slip into cozy socks, like I did at The Greenwich Hotel? No. But, yeah, she seemed really cool.
You know who I did see? A completely attitude-free staff. Lovely, drama-free guests. ;And a heck of a lot of Anderson Cooper, as I laid in my bed working with CNN on, feeling zero pressure to go to the bar to — ugh — network. I also saw ten hours of sleep. (Although, for that, I have to thank my boyfriend, who stayed with our daughter in New York.)
Look, I’m not saying I don’t love a fabulous hotel. I dream of bringing my daughter to Claridge’s someday. Borgo Egnazia is top of my Italy wish list (I mean, Justin freakin’ Timberlake got married there). Meadowood in Napa Valley and Inn By The Sea in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, are pretty much cemented as my two favorite hotels in America.
I’m just saying that things have changed, and I’m okay with it. I am extremely lucky to have stayed at the best hotels in the world. But I am even luckier to realize that at the end of the day, all you really need is a small, dodgy room and a big, fake fire.
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