A $164 per night view?
Why is it that all the travel destinations featured in those glossy magazines seem so, well, glossy? The mental snapshots of my own travel memories tend to have a decidedly matte finish. When I travel, it rains. I get bumped. I get lost. The attractions are closed for repairs. Or is that jealousy talking? Maybe travel really is exponentially more enjoyable when you have a bottomless budget. I decided to test that hypothesis in one of my favorite cities: I would spend one night in one of the best Seattle hotels I could find, followed by a night in the kind of hotel I would normally use. Price wasn't the only factor, though it was a big one. I wanted to spend both nights in independent hotels that were somehow typical of Seattle, rather than in big chain properties. I also wanted to be right in the thick of things both nights. For my night on a credit-card bender, I chose the Inn at the Market (86 Pine St.), a beautiful little courtyard hotel almost right on top of the Pike Place Market, Seattle's second most-recognizable landmark. Built on a hillside that drops off sharply to the waterfront just blocks away, the hotel offers wonderful views of Mt. Ranier on the left, the snow-capped Olympic range on the right, and the Puget Sound dead ahead. The $250 I paid for one night got me a Laura Ashley suite with more chintz than I cared for, but infinitely more service than I was used to, and a private deck with great breezes. The city's spectacular art museum is close by, as is Seattle's upscale shopping district, and one of the best restaurants in the country, if you trust the food critic at Esquire magazine, is right downstairs. Campagne is a cozy little French country place where two people could conceivably spend as much for dinner as they did for their room. The next day I moved just six blocks to the Hotel Seattle, at 315 Seneca. I was prepared for a let-down, but what I found was a budget gem. When it was built in the 1920s, the 12-story tower was a landmark at the north edge of old downtown. Since then it's been swallowed up by new skyscrapers, stretching ever higher in search of a water view. In the process, the old hotel has been mostly forgotten. Lucky for those with long memories. Behind the unassuming façade is a classic European-style city hotel. No fancy lobby, no pool, and no fern bar-just spotlessly clean, tastefully appointed rooms within walking distance of everything. My room, on the sixth floor, cost $86 a night. That was just $1 more than I'd paid a few nights earlier at a dreadfully dull chain motel some 15 miles out in the suburbs. The Hotel Seattle enjoys a near-perfect downtown location. Just check out the surrounding real estate: Three trendy boutique properties surround the Hotel Seattle, offering beds at $200-plus per night. And catty-corner across the street is the Four Seasons Olympic, perhaps the city's most expensive place to sleep. Walk out the front door of the Hotel Seattle and down the hill, and you hit the waterfront in four short blocks. The Hotel Seattle has other advantages as well. Local calls cost just 35 cents, compared to 75 cents at the Inn. (That's right, $250 a night, and you still pay to use the phone.) And while no one is going to mistake Bernard's, the hotel's dark, English pub-style restaurant, for one of the world's best, it does offer one of Seattle's best breakfast deals. Order two eggs, bacon, French toast, and coffee, pay with four dollar bills, and they'll give you back a quarter to tip the very friendly, efficient waitress. The drawbacks? There's no view, of course, since you're surrounded by taller buildings. And because the hotel doesn't have a parking lot, if you're driving you'll have to use a public garage ($18!) one block up the hill. But overall, the city is every bit as enjoyable at $86 as it is at $250. But that last sentence is true only because the Hotel Seattle is such an outstanding value. If you're on a budget and can't book one of its 80 rooms, beware: The dingy little cellblocks that surround the Space Needle are neither charming nor convenient. Don't be fooled by their "downtown" location. They are literally on the wrong side of the (monorail) tracks, and you won't want to walk to the good stuff. It's better to avoid downtown entirely and head for one of the city's interesting neighborhoods. Belltown, Lake Union, First Hill, and the University District all offer distinct charms and bargain prices. Dining with the stars
For decades local sports stars have invested in eateries, often near ballparks, but over the past decade movie stars have begun lending their names. That's particularly apparent in Los Angeles, where Jennifer Lopez, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and many others are trying to make it in the crowded and fickle restaurant market. The concept makes economic sense: Stars provide restaurants with "buzz" and restaurants provide stars with bragging rights. More often than not, though, the celebrity is merely an investor, not an active, hands-on partner. Servers at some restaurants report that they haven't seen their famous owners in months. And celebrity-owned eateries aren't all as painfully hip as you might expect. Sure, there are self-conscious excesses like Woody Harrelson's O2, with its raw organic fare and "flavored oxygen," but they seem to be in the minority. Here are experiences in five restaurants:
- Mulberry Street Pizzeria (240 S. Beverly Dr., Beverly Hills) is an earthy eatery near Rodeo Drive, the world capital of pretentiousness. Set well off the street at the back end of an enclosed courtyard, this local favorite owned by actress Cathy Moriarty is easy to miss. Rolls-Royces or Mercedes seem to take up most of the angle spaces along Beverly Drive, but pizza is the great equalizer: Stars camouflaged with baseball caps and ratty T-shirts line up with the Regular Joes at the black-and-white tile counter. (They don't seem particularly glamorous as they scarf down their big, floppy New York-style slices.) Accents behind the counter sound authentically Manhattan, and the rude servers seem to be refugees from Rudy Giuliani's newer, nicer New York. At just $4.50 for a slice and soda, though, not even the stars would expect white-glove treatment.
- Ago (8478 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood) has only 20 or so tables, many of them taken by creative types from nearby movie studios who flock to owner Robert DeNiro's authentically Italian enclave on the corner of Bill Clinton Ave. The servers here are not actors and models waiting to be discovered, but middle-aged Italian guys who know their food almost as well as the chef-and have little patience for food Philistines with stupid questions. The clientele is cookie-cutter beautiful; the décor is Italian rustic meets SoHo sleek; and entrees in the low $20s (both for lunch and dinner, where it's harder to land a table) emphasize fresh seafood: salmon, whitefish, monkfish, sea bass, and so forth.
- Cicada (617 S. Olive, Los Angeles), the archetypal celebrity eatery, owes its start to famed songwriter Bernie Taupin and its cuisine to Italy-celebrities seem to favor that flavor. Fashionable folk actually drive downtown just to eat here-something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. The two-story space, with its massive pillars of carved wood and its ornate, gold-leaf ceiling, was built in 1928 as a men's clothing store. Dark wood display cases still line the walls, and rows of small drawers are labeled with men's shirt sizes. The heroic-scale murals in the balcony area, the numerous Lalique crystal accents, the overall art deco look, and the flawless but haughty service tend to elicit a reverential hush from diners, as if they were eating lunch in a temple. Lunch entrees run from the teens up to $24; come dinnertime, pastas run about $20, entrees upwards of $30.
- The Little Door (8164 W. Third St., Los Angeles) has Laurence Fishbourne as its celebrity investor, but the glitterati would probably seek out the unmarked entrance even without a marquee name. Lift the iron latch on the rough wooden door that gives the restaurant its name, and inside you'll find a cozy Mediterranean hideaway complete with bamboo ceilings, hanging vines, and splashing Moorish fountains. The constantly changing menu seems to be based on French country cuisine, with Greek, Lebanese, and Moroccan influences. Hearty dinner entrees run $20-$30, and early reservations are necessary because with its warm, convivial atmosphere and laid-back service, customers tend to settle in for a long evening.
- The Original Pantry Café (877 S. Figueroa St., Los Angeles) became Mayor Richard Riordan's entry into the restaurant business a few years ago, and this 24-hour, downtown diner has a populist flair. If you go, wear comfortable shoes: The line is usually out the door, with diners coming for giant portions at rock-bottom prices. I had two eggs, two huge, thick slices of bone-in ham, two slices of toast, a mound of hash browns, and coffee for $5.35. The service is as no-nonsense as the food: no menus, just a grimy, orange-and-white menu board hanging on the plywood wall above the green linoleum floor. Try for a table in the back, next to the plexiglass kitchen windows that let you watch some of the fastest short-order cooks in the business, but don't plan to linger: "No-nonsense" means quick service, and that line at the door encourages quick table turnover.
If only all travel were pleasure travel-the kind where you get to pick your hotel based on the kind of mints placed on your pillow or the amount of marble in the bathroom. That's a luxury many business travelers don't have. The big American hotel chains long ago realized that business travelers, by and large, weigh just two variables: price and location. That makes for a predictably good product, but sometimes road warriors yearn for a change. Maybe the solution lies in the foreign hotel chains trying to muscle their way into the lucrative U.S. market. Can they compete on price and location while offering décor, service, or food that sets them apart from the clones? WORLD recently put three foreign-owned hotels in Chicago to the test, and results were all over the map. Most disappointing was the Swissotel, a landmark triangular tower rising 42 stories above the Chicago River and Lake Michigan and offering a price to match; rooms start at around $250 per night during the summer. Aside from Lindt chocolates at the front desk, almost nothing was recognizably Swiss about the place. The little country in the Alps is known for its neatness and precision, yet the reception area felt worn and dirty, and the front desk got my reservation wrong. Promotional materials touted the hotel's "European-style lobby," but the obviously European feature I found were ever-present smokers clouding the air. In the basement, Café Suisse, described as a "European-style bistro," looked like any other upscale hotel coffee shop; the menu was thoroughly American, except for the breakfast muesli. The bottom line: Choose Swissotel for the views, not for any European-style ambience. At the other extreme was the Sofitel, a French gem next to busy O'Hare Airport. Like most airport properties, the Sofitel from the outside is bland and colorless, but inside, management has created a French-country atmosphere that trumps the dismal surroundings. And the Sofitel's airport location makes it considerably cheaper than hotels in the Loop: At a base rate of just $100 a night, it's 20 to 30 percent cheaper than the nearby Hilton or Radisson. The Sofitel's rooms are furnished in a light knotty pine, and linens had a watercolor floral look. A small box of Lenotre chocolates adorned the desk, and bathroom toiletries were from the upscale French maker Roger & Gallet. At night, the maid left a single red rose and a bottle of Evian water on the nightstand. Gestures like that add up: Roses alone cost the hotel $21,000 a year, according to Pierre-Louis Giacotto, director of sales and marketing. Chez Collette, the lobby restaurant, is a cheery, Parisian-style brasserie with unfinished wood floors and lots of brass (though it's scheduled for complete renovation this year). The menu was decidedly French: Nicoise salad, croque monsieur, bouillabaisse. The Cassoulet Toulousain, made with white beans, bacon, two kinds of sausage, and duck confit, was hearty and warming-and certainly something you won't find on the average hotel menu. The food was some of the best I've had within five miles of an airport, and the hotel as a whole was the best I've found within five miles of an airport-proof that the strategy of trying foreign-owned properties just might pay off. The Fairmont Chicago landed somewhere in the middle of the pack. Owned by the luxury Canadian-Pacific chain, it caters to executive travelers. Both the guest rooms and public spaces have a luxurious Old World feel, but that has nothing to do with the 1999 Canadian buyout, according to General Manager Kevin Frid. "We made a mistake if people noticed anything different," he said. "I suspect they didn't." Rather than try to be specifically Canadian-"whatever that might mean," a spokesperson said-the Fairmont (starting at around $250 per night during the summer) tries to position itself in relation to its main American competition, the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons brands. The lesson from Chicago: Foreign-owned chains might help you break out of the cookie-cutter hotel routine, but they're hardly a sure thing. Try overseas chains like Sofitel, Le Meridien, Millennium, and Jury's, but don't automatically assume they'll be a whole lot different from the domestic variety. After all, even Holiday Inn is now a British company. Foot-and-mouth discount
As I stepped off the train in the quaintly named English village of Moreton-in-Marsh, I knew something was wrong. At 5:00 in the afternoon, the station was locked up tight and the platforms deserted. Not a taxi in sight. No buses, either. The Monday after Easter is a bank holiday in England, and life in these little villages comes grinding to a halt. With no transportation in sight, I called the number of a taxi company posted on the side of the station: Could I please get a ride? "Now?" the voice on the other end of the line wanted to know. "It's a holiday. Everything is closed." He half-covered the receiver and said something to his wife. I heard something about "tea." I started thinking about hitchhiking. But five minutes later, there he was, tossing my bags into the "boot" of his white Toyota. I started to apologize for interrupting his holiday, but he held up his hand. Tourism had all but ground to a halt, he explained. He needed every fare he could find. That pretty much sums up the attitude in the English countryside these days, where tourism is looking as wobbly and uncertain as the lambs just finding their legs on the rolling green hills. At the first hint of foot-and-mouth disease, Prime Minister Tony Blair practically shut down the countryside in an effort to salvage farm exports. Anyone caught walking off a paved road faced a fine in the thousands of pounds. Tourism officials in London discouraged visits to the countryside, fearing the disease might be spread by vacationers traveling from county to county. But the disease spread anyway. As the carcasses of sheep and cattle continued to pile up, so did the losses in the tourism industry. Bookings at manor-house hotels in the country, already down as much as 50 percent this spring, are now being canceled for the crucial summer months of July and August-and even as late as September. Bad news for British hoteliers is good news for American tourists willing to act fast. With vacancy rates at unheard-of levels, managers are slashing prices, offering room upgrades, and throwing in freebies such as meals and tours. But even at bargain-basement prices, England is a long way to go for a vacation. With foot-and-mouth restrictions still in effect, is it worth the trip across the pond? For most Americans, the answer will be a resounding yes. British travelers are canceling their countryside plans largely because of the closure of rural footpaths. If they can't tramp across the fields, many urban Brits would rather stay in the city or visit the chilly beaches. Americans, generally, are looking for something else in the English countryside: castles and cathedrals and the peaceful little villages that seem to have been frozen in time. Few will resent having to leave their hiking boots at home. If anything, Americans will probably enjoy the countryside even more this year, since they'll have it largely to themselves. On my visit to Gloucestershire, in the rolling Cotswold hills near the Welsh border, I was able to roam picturesque towns like Moreton-in-Marsh, Stow-on-the-Wold, and Lower Slaughter without being run down by diesel buses full of Japanese tourists. (The Japanese, like the Americans, have been canceling in large numbers.) Acre for acre, the English countryside has probably the finest hotels in the world. Ancient manors and abbeys and barns have all been converted to wonderful inns offering character and atmosphere the big American chains could never match. I chose Lords of the Manor, a rambling, 17th-century country house built with the honey-colored stone native to the Cotswolds. Outside, eight acres of formal English gardens opened to views of the lush green hills. Inside, fires burned behind intricate limestone mantels while the staff served tea to guests scattered throughout the grand formal rooms. It was exactly the relaxing and refined experience most Americans would hope for in an English country house. The Lords has had to resort to free room upgrades, even though the Cotswolds have largely escaped the foot-and-mouth epidemic. In disease-ravaged counties, the incentives are much greater: Nightly hotel discounts range from 15 up to 50 percent. Look for country houses in Devon (the southwest "tail" of England) and Cumbria (the Lake District near the Scottish border). Both are beautiful rural counties with wonderful old hotels and no tourists to fill them. Summer in the English countryside may never be this affordable again.