On “Vintage” Hotels

This past winter, when we were in Bangkok and staying at the totally fabulous Hotel Atlanta, I realized there’s a very particular kind of lodging I like.

For want of a better term, I think I’ll call them “vintage hotels.” [Edited in 2014 to add: Now we have a popular common reference point, thanks to Wes Anderson: The Grand Budapest Hotel, circa 1968.] “Antique hotels” might also work. “Nostalgia bivouacs” are what they really are. And the funny thing is that Peter, he of the Edison bulbs and steam trains, thinks I like these hotels more than he does. Maybe he’s right–I sure have spent a lot of time thinking about what makes one of these hotels exactly what it is.

These hotels must be old-fashioned. But not self-consciously so. Certainly, the owner may have a “things were better in the old days” attitude, but he can’t be out scouring yard sales for old telephone switchboards and other doohickeys to create a “ye olde” decorating scheme. No–that old telephone switchboard has to just be left over from the old days, hulking behind the reception desk.

These hotels usually have old and cranky owners. Years of watching standards slip all around them have strengthened their resolve to do things the right way, even if the desert sands are blowing in, the drunken yahoos are crashing into the bars next door or the country in which they’re situated is finally shaking off its colonial shackles.

But enough generalizations. Perhaps it’s easier to explain the concept with some examples.

In Cairo, Pension Roma is the quintessential vintage hotel. The owner is a French woman (despite the fact she was born in Egypt and will die in Egypt), and she rules the place with an iron fist. The sheets are crisp, the furniture is shiny, there is no dust in the corners, and she even sews little cozies to cover up the propane tanks for the hot-water heaters. Of course there are chandeliers and a rattly open elevator.

I don’t have a picture of the Roma, so here’s a photo from the extremely vintage Cairo Agriculture Museum instead:

Fun in the Agricultural Museum

In Bangkok, the aforementioned Hotel Atlanta is at the end of one of the main Sukhumvit sois for sex tourism. The facade of the hotel is covered with cranky “no sex tourists!” signs, but inside, the crankiness is dispersed into all kinds of details: a book full of cynical travel tips, drink coasters with mean-spirited quotes from the previous owner, and a theoretical ‘guests only’ policy in the hotel restaurant. This would all be oppressive, except the writing desks have little fans in the bottom, to keep your legs cool, and there’s a giant swimming pool ringed with photos of it being used in more glamorous times. The rooms are nothing special, but that barely matters, when you’ve got counter help this charming:

Working Phone Switchboard

In Campeche, Mexico, my absolute favorite hotel in the world is the Hotel Colonial. No one’s very cranky here, fortunately, but there is an old patriarch who sits in a chair dozing all day, and the business cards look like they haven’t been reprinted since 1964. The rooms may be slightly smaller than they used to be, because they’re covered every year or two in a fresh layer of glossy paint in Easter-egg colors. And eff Frette–the sheets here are the best ever for hot weather: crisply starched and almost rough like muslin. The owner buys them from somewhere special in Mexico City. Rooms cost less than $20 per night.

Here’s a montage I made last summer, after my at-least-fifth visit:

Finally, I have to give a shout-out to Garden City House, also in Cairo. Long, echoing hallways with patterned tile floors, rooms with high ceilings, dreary salmon-pink paint and enormous bathtubs, and of course the requisite old telephone switchboard–but overall a little too ratty to count as a proper vintage hotel.

Then, the day I checked out, I was sitting by the desk, chatting with the guy there, and the chintzy plastic phone on his desk rings–this little horrible made-in-China ‘tinky-rink-rink’ noise. He answers the phone, nods, and then gets up and walks around the desk to the switchboard…where he casually moves the plugs around to transfer the call to a guestroom!

My eyes nearly fell out of my head.

Damn. If I had known, I would’ve been giving people my phone number there right and left! That’s why I made sure to sit at the writing desk in the Atlanta and write some postcards. Vintage hotels are like museums you get to live in.

Do you like these kind of hotels? Have any recommendations for me?

12 comments

  1. Christina says:

    E and I felt that way about the Hotel Villani (http://www.hotelvillani.it/) in Florence. To get there, we took a rickety old elevator to the 5th floor. Erminio was the host of the hotel, and I swear, the man never went to bed because he was always there to give us the key to our room, no matter what time we came in. Once, I think, we found him snoozing on the couch, but the rest of the time he sat in the dining room near the front desk, chatting softly with a buddy of his that was nearly always visiting.

    The rooms were not fancy, but so clean, so very clean that everything stank slightly of industrial cleaning products. Our room opened its shudders to the Duomo that filled the entire window with its patterns and colors, and a chipping, very old frescoed ceiling floated above our bed.

    It wasn’t romantically elegant or sweetly dilapidated; instead, it was just old in a heavy way, in a way that made it feel like it would never go away.

    I recommend it to everyone.

  2. Daphne says:

    The Winnedumah Hotel in Independence, CA — that’s the county seat of Inyo County, and the Winnedumah is right across from the court house. Hollywood folks who came out there to shoot westerns in nearby redrock canyons used to stay in the hotel in the 20s and 30s. Not much has been updated since then, including furniture and possibly bedspreads, which leads about half the people who reviewed the poor Winnedumah on Trip Advisor to use words like “shabby” or “creepy.” But it’s a clean and charming kind of run-down, and the building itself is lovely. There is a huge lobby with a big fireplace, comfortable couches, a piano, and games — like, they expect guests to spend the evening in there socializing, and they went so far as not to put TVs in the rooms to reinforce the point.

    Oh, dear – and it appears to be for sale. I hope the new owners do right by the place and don’t go putting TVs in the rooms… http://www.thewinnedumahhotel.com/

  3. Susannah says:

    I wish I could remember the name of the hotel in Panama City that fits this description exactly. The sheets were all-different sets from the 1970’s, soft and washed a million times. Walking by the housekeeping cart and seeing them piled up was like a tour through my childhood friends’ bedrooms. Snoopy saying “Who’s going to turn off the moon?”, Star Wars, wide rainbow stripes.

  4. Zora says:

    Parsley, it does not surprise me in the least that you are very pro-starch!

    Daphne, Christina, Susannah–thanks for the travel tips! This is exactly what I was hoping for…maybe I can make a grand world tour, set entirely in 1965.

    We did briefly look into buying the Winnedumah. It’s not that expensive. And _someone’s_ got to hold up standards!

  5. anthony says:

    Try the New Imperial Hotel, just inside the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. Also the Grand Hotel Londra in Istanbul. Both are absolutely decadently fab.

  6. SKM says:

    Have you ever been down to the Wildwoods (just north of Cape May, NJ)? I couldn’t immediately tell how much is proper vintage Space Age and how much is modern “retro-kitsch” — but it’s certainly fun to wander through just before/after the summer season.

  7. Zora O'Neill says:

    Terrible, tragic update: Hotel Colonial is CLOSED! I cried myself to sleep the night I got that email.

    Better update, though it still falls under the category of change, and we all know change is bad: The rooms at the Atlanta Hotel are actually…nice now. They redid some of the bathrooms, and they got some new furniture. I’m a little scared that now that it has no obvious drawbacks, everyone will flock in, but they do deserve to stay in business. You’ll find me there, looking cranky, by the pool.

    Also, since I wrote this post, I’ve read about a couple of promising hotels in Egypt, on the Red Sea, especially Al-Quseir Hotel, which my LP Egypt coauthor introduces by saying, “If you’re looking for atmosphere rather than amenities…” Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

  8. Zora says:

    Two more data points: Hotel Texas in Rome, courtesy of the book “Europe on 5 Wrong Turns a Day,” by Doug Mack. And a “neat old place outside of Nazca, Peru,” where “the owner would circle all ‘willing’ guests in back patio for Inca prayer, according to Liz Wick on Twitter.

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