Category Archives: Motel

Big Sur

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The plan is to drive north up Hwy 1 to San Francisco, taking in the spectacular sights, specifically, Big Sur. Dawn finds us as far as Carpinteria, south of Santa Barbara. Wrestling a bit of sticky curtain away from the window at Motel 6, I see there’s a lorry parked by the pool and, above it, the highway, and over that, slashing rain. It’s an unusual deluge apparently, and there are mudslides and rock falls and whatnot. We have breakfast at the Shoreline Beach Cafe, Santa Barbara, get caught for speeding and can’t see Hearst Castle for the thick fog (although do enjoy the sci-fi weirdness of the announcements echoing through the cavernous entrance hall: ‘ticket holders for the 2.15 tour proceed to Gate No. 3 . . .’, and the marketing: Hearst jerky, Hearst sweatshirts, Hearst wines). Everyone looks wet, cold and miserable except the people in the fuzzy archive film showing in the shop who look merry and rich.

Brave the driving wind to watch elephant seals cavorting by a car park (on a beach, obviously). The first of the big males have arrived from Alaska, says the guide ranger man, referring, presumably to the seals. And then, miraculously the sun comes out and turns everything into steam, just in time for sunset and expensive but, to be fair, great Californian wine at Nepenthe, jutting out over the Pacific. Everyone loves Nepenthe; it’s been a stop between San Francisco and LA for decades. Rita and Orson, Henry Miller and Richard Burton and Liz Taylor all figure in its much-touted history.

After trying one lodge that was charging $550 a night we were kiss-the-ground grateful to spot Fernwood. The Children at Play sign at the top of the dark dripping trail to the Big Sur river was a little creepy late on a December night, but the cabins under the redwoods by the store and Redwood Grill were cosily rustic, and the food, hot and hearty. Lots of wood, chopped and growing. There are tent cabin things and camping sites by the river, camping supplies and maps of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on sale, and while the campers I spotted hunched over their Macs, seeking shelter in the bar didn’t look ecstatic, I reckon this would be a top base for a few days should it ever get warm again.

Nepenthe: 48510 Highway #1, Big Sur, (831) 667-2345

Fernwood: 47200 Highway 1, 831 6672422 Cabins from $110.

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Scottsdale HoJo

Back in February Wyndham Worldwide announced they were going to resuscitate their Howard Johnson chain of motels, news that was met with general scepticism and derision. HoJo, as it likes to be called but seldom is, had been synonymous with cheapest of the cheap, lowest of the low for many years, a victim of brand confusion, sell-outs and red-hot competition in the lowest of the low sector. Speaking to USA Today, CEO Eric Danziger referred to HoJo as a great American power brand, a part of Americana, at risk of going the way of Pan Am (a pretty strong metaphor for down).

Mr Howard Johnson, First World War veteran started out with an ice cream business in 1925, then a chain of restaurants, before expanding into motels in 1954 and enjoying the benefits of a boom in American road travel, expanding coast to coast through the 60s. Obviously it all went swimmingly until it didn’t, hence the Wyndham HoJo system-wide revamp plan which is being rolled out as I type.

One of the early makeover beneficiaries is Scottsdale’s HoJo. On the hotel’s Facebook page, a Sami M nicely captures the general mood of suspicion and cautious optimism among HoJo guests up and down the land: “Our actual room was pretty nice, even had a luxury feel. The decor was not cheesy or dirty-looking, including the nice bathroom counter, shower tiling, a picture above the bed, and decorative mirror above the work area. The bedding was white and crisp, and the comforter was heavy and snuggly. Pillows looked strangely smaller than the pillow cases (maybe this is a common hotel thing so they stay completely covered?), but were clean and firm, with no soft spots or lumps.” Excellent.

Having stayed at a lot of motels (which I’ll be ranking and reviewing in a later post), I can say hand on heart that none had real fruit in bowls in the reception area 24/7. The Arts District location is great, the lobby surprisingly designer cool, and the young receptionist, friendly and helpful (not obstructive, ‘hilarious’ or laconic).  There’s the pool, the palms and the bougainvillea, and then the rooms which are huge, pleasant, well-lit with crisp white bedding on a big, good bed.

I’d estimate the rate per night at around $180 – it was actually just over $40. With free wi-fi, parking, coffee, soap, a confusing number of TV channels and maid service that works out as a lot cheaper than paying a mortgage and municipal pool fees in the UK and the weather is better. Move in, why don’t you.

In true it was the best of times, worst of times fashion, however, I do have to add a caveat. Sitting, working at the one desk shared with desk level sockets and the coffee-making paraphernalia I reached to lift a jug of freshly percolated bubbling coffee and the handle flexed away, the glass broke and ahoy, my Mac was bobbing on a hot brown sea.  It’s my personal opinion that a) a quality jug is strong enough to hold coffee (yes, yes, well under the max fill level) and b) that if it had been standing on a tray with a rim all the liquid would have been contained, and let’s throw in a c) desk-mounted power sockets + coffee: not a great idea. Maybe they should provide one place for working and one place for brewing? Basically, I reckon a little bit of budget design and fitting lingers on in what is otherwise a rightly vamped property.

Emergency Mac diagnosis was quoted over the phone as starting at $750 + $800 for data + cost of new Mac. Turned out I got it repaired (shout-out for Mac Masters, Scottsdale) for just under $500. Great. Spent the day hanging around outside Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and not buying Southwestern jewellery or Indian nicknacks, and celebrated the we can fix it with a margarita at Saucy Senoritas, but lost a day of filming. I do think HoJo were liable, and I’d like to think the next time it happens they upgrade their coffee makers and stand them on proper trays. They didn’t reimburse me the repair costs, but they did apologise and refund the price of the room. I’d probably stay there again, but I’d stick to cold drinks.

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Bad hotel booking experience with Orbitz

Thanks Orbitz for screwing up a trip to New Orleans. What is the point of using a hotel booking company, if that hotel booking company can’t be depended on to book a hotel?

Here’s what happened. I booked a night at Hotel Saint Helene on Chartres St because I liked the look of the street, the newly renovated hotel and its rooms. I spent a lot of time reading reviews and comparing the merits of that hotel with others. I review hotels as part of my job, and I’m picky. This was the one that I liked, but I had my two runners-up. Book direct and it’ll cost you $199 for a queen, $259 for a balcony suite. Orbitz offered a great cut-price rate ($85 for a junior suite) so I booked through them 48 hours ahead of my stay. It actually wasn’t quite as good a deal once they’d added on their $11.44 booking fee (‘in exchange for the services we provide in facilitating your transaction with the hotel supplier’) but hey.  The main thing was being able to relax safe in the knowledge that I was in the hotel I wanted to be in, and the booking was secure.

Except when we got to the hotel after a 7-hour drive and dragging the cases from the car, I was told the hotel was full and we’d been put in another one. According to the receptionist at the St Helene, Orbitz doesn’t have access to their up to date reservations and therefore there is nothing to prevent the company from selling rooms the hotel does not have. Apparently Orbitz had taken my money for a room without checking one was available  and charged a fee for the privilege. They had also, in the confirmation email, been very clear about the $96.64 I would be charged if I cancelled at any point.

I didn’t like the other hotel, its location or the room which was like a cell. And most of all I didn’t like Orbitz making an arbitrary decision for me about where I spent my money. Imagine if this approach to service was taken in restaurants: “Your choice of rare beef on a bed of rocket wasn’t available. You’re getting duck.’ Or online shopping: ‘Your choice of a black cocktail dress in size 10 wasn’t available. You’re getting a smock’.

Aside from coordinating the whole availability / booking thing which, after all, is their raison d’etre, here’s a couple of things Orbitz could have done:

1. They could have contacted me by email on the day the booking was made. After all, I made the booking online and Orbitz took my email details – surely that wasn’t just for their benefit? surely not to just to try and sell me stuff in the future? They could have used this prompt email to offer an apology, and the choice of an alternative – perchance with an upgrade for the inconvenience – at one of a choice of alternative, comparable, and crucially, available hotels.

2. They could have offered me the choice of a full refund. I might have preferred to visit Hotel St Helene on a different night than have my money used elsewhere.

3. They could have called me. Oh wait, they did! One voicemail two days after I made my reservation to say my hotel was fully booked and they were putting me at the sister hotel which I didn’t hear because I was already on my way.

4. This is more something they might have not done, which is to send me this:


Yes, well this is my feedback. And I really would question ‘your feedback helps us provide fellow travelers with a positive travel experience’. That can’t always be the case, and it would be better if feedback was used to help service companies provide them.

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Where every bar has been replaced by a church

We’re in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia on the trail of the lonesome pine. At some point I’m hoping we’ll find somewhere to stay but it doesn’t look imminent. A few miles back in Ohio things were surprisingly buccolic although Hocking isn’t the best name and every other store was selling ‘ammo’. ‘Owing to the price of ammo,’ said a sign outside a store, ‘don’t expect a warning shot’.

In the middle of the Hocking Hills we stopped at a ramshackle cluster of barns with a hand-written ‘Antiques’ sign, almost bought an original Polaroid camera in a box and an Amish chair, and met ladies in slacks and hornrims basking on the sunny porch. They told us there was a sculpture park we had to see ‘with a metal deer.’ ‘A deer, a turkey’ said the other one after a pause. ‘Uh-huh a turkey and a hawk 50 ft high. You put binoculars on that hawk it’s real life like’. At which point the screen door banged open and they were summoned back in by an impatient octogenarian (‘We gotta play some cards’).

Further down the rolling, empty road, there were signs pointing into the forests to trails and cabins (Cherry Creek, Hiding Place Cabin, and the rather alarming, Bear Run Inn). This is hunting, shooting, fishing get-away-from-it-all land. We probably should have found ourselves a cabin, caught some fish for dinner or whatever you do. Instead, having crossed into West Virginia, as it got dark, I had the inspired idea to turn off the Interstate at Beckley and head to Shady Spring because I liked the name. Instinct is really bad on a road trip. This was a really dark place, full of damp wood cabins with trucks and tractors in bits around them. There were probably dogs straining on chains but the only things I could pick out of the gloom on the twisting road were mounds of mud-spattered snow and churches, left, right, everywhere, with Lost? Jesus is the Way signs and dozens of vehicles parked outside. No bars! Every beacon of light turned out to have a Presbyterian spire attached.

Eventually I work out how to use the GPS thing on the new phone and we get to something that looks big, Hinton where we circle the dark streets and settle for the one bar, Pops, eating refried fries cemented by something like cheese. Sweet Home Alabama is on the jukebox, and the other three occupants are playing pool out back. We consider the two accommodation options that stand like barracks in the gloom on the other side of the river. One is shut down. I look the other one up on the Hinton Forum. ‘Anyone have any thoughts regarding the Sandman?’ asks one person politely. ‘Nope’ is the response. Scrolling further down there’s a fairly thorough description:

An hour down the road we see a brightly lit paradise devoted entirely to travellers who do not like to take chances and full of Applebees, Wendy’s, Hardee’s (for the best biscuits in town) Bob Evans, Days Inns and whatnots and check in to some $60 motel, euphoric with relief and gratitude.

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Germantown and a sticky motel, Ohio

We’ve got some dull red car that Dave booked through which sounds pretty dodgy, but we collected it from Hertz. Anyway, I’m off to look at Mustangs, and there’s a world-renowned dealership in Columbus, Ohio, 300 miles away south. It’s election day and Ohio is the battleground state, or at least one of them, and while absolutely no-one here seems to give a toss who wins, who loses, Bill Cunningham and his callers on News radio 700 WLW do. They don’t like Obama who wins the war on terror by not calling it a war on terror anymore. ‘Wey-ell, sorry to burst your bubble, it’s still a war’, who’s responsible for the biggest job-killing tax hike in 4 years, spending and borrowing, and ‘digging your children so deep in debt they may never get out’. ‘If I want to be a horndog no-one gives me money to buy condoms’ says a fuming caller who resents his hard-earned cash subsidising the cost of birth control pills. ‘All over America’ says Bill, ‘Republicans are coming out in droves; American people wanting to take their country back.’

Columbus is the state capital, the usual mix of glassy blocks, flyovers, seedy auto repair and truck parks, all abruptly interrupted by Germantown, a surreally picturesque old world pocket of gentile living that covers a few blocks before the motels, pawn shops, auto repair and truck parks pick up again. Inside Germantown, the streets are cobbled, the brick houses have immaculate gables, lawns (keep off the grass), American flags flutter against blue skies and everyone is a lawyer, an architect or a primary school teacher in a little school. There is of course an immaculate park full of golden Autumn trees and people in good coats walking well-behaved dogs, and picturesque, well-attended churches. There are birds, carved pumpkins, children in jolly boots, little books shops (‘wilkommen’), little coffee shops, craft shops and galleries; even the laundrette is nice (‘Hausfrau’s Haven’) and menu in the bar ‘Max & Erma’s Cafe’ shows Max and Erma happy and in love way back when they opened the place. There’s some ladies who lunch on the next table with perfect hair and teeth talking about babies and decorating in that kind of wealthy, goat growl ‘That’s so bay-you-tay-farrrrrl. Just precious’. I think I’d like to live here and illustrate children’s books.

Dave books the German Village Motel instead of the cutesy German Village Inn.  Everything is sticky. Obama wins the election. On the other channels there’s home improvement partly sponsored by ‘its always sunny in Philadelphia, fat and creamy with jalapeno’ , someones banging on about ceviche in Nicaragua, and a writhing woman who says the only rings she is interested in are wrestling rings.

I tell Dave Mitt Romney’s won, which he believes until 5pm.

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