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:
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:
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?