Tag Archives: USA

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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On the (Texas) Road

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There’s a well-worn Texan route; a pilgrimage from hipsterville Austin to the far outpost made famous by minimalist artist Donald Judd, Marfa. Hard to credit that the bustling car park of south Austin’s Microtel is in the same country as Prada Marfa, let alone the same state. But Texas is b-i-g. So big, people rush across it in their trucks, breaking the pitifully low speed limits and playing into the hands of state troopers who set speed traps and lurk behind bushes. Speeding tickets are a big revenue generator for small Texas towns – Selma, whose keen as mustard traffic cops raised $10,352,606 for the town’s 4600 inhabitants between 2000-2008 is one of the most notorious, but we have a list of them (although I’ve lost it) and we’re driving west through Texas on Thanksgiving Day.

We’ve only gone a few miles down I-10 before Dave goes funny. It’s Dripping Springs, home to Lance Armstrong, and he starts scanning the pizza places and Mexican restaurant (closed) and parks (empty) just in case he gets a chance to lower the window and shake his fist. “Thanks a lot” he mutters as we leave it all behind, “Thanks for ruining cycling and making your team mates take drugs that cause cancer you tosser . . . “. We put the radio on for a bit.

When US cities have a quirk or a theme they embrace it. There aren’t many of German extraction or descent living in Fredericksburg, but in this little corner of Texas it is forever Deutschland: willkommen to the Marketplatz!  And despite being November and 70 something degrees fahrenheit (we’ve forgotten the old ways and this measure means nothing), for the few minutes we crawl through it, it’s gingerbread Christmas. It’s like Fredericksburg makes it okay to be Christmas because from here on west it’s all Santas and snow in the shimmery heat. Which is just plain weird.

There are vineyards here that look like ranches with massive gates and (lone) stars and American flags, and dry peach and pecan orchards, but also cowboy towns, with cowboys on bucking horses whipping lassoes on the signs for shops, bars and churches. Wild Ride Ministries which I later learn started out as an outreach program by a pastor who tended to the spiritual needs of rodeo riders and ropers, solidified into a bonafide church with land in Harper, and has what is officially the best church sign in the world.

What there aren’t, are many snack snuffling stops because everything’s shut, but next to a barn selling deer attractant there’s a store with a swinging sign ‘hunters welcome’ and a row of long-haired cowboys leaning against the wall in camouflage gear, smoking and squinting into the sun; dogs tacking in the trucks. (“Ask them if they’ve got brioche” I say.)

You basically spend all day on the I-10 getting from Austin to Marfa and you go through, oh, about five towns. The fripperies and nicknack shops drop off the further west you go until for about 6 hours it’s a load of nothing and not even many cactus and absolutely none of those ones that wear sombreros. It’s at this point 80 miles from the next dot on the map that Dave clears his throat as asks whether I think there might be a gas station. This is very annoying as he does have a petrol gauge and I do not have a crystal ball. Anyway I could see for about 10 miles in all directions and there wasn’t, but there was cluster of houses, Sheffield, showing up on the SatNav about 15 miles down a bumpy road to the south. There were three people hanging out in a garden, drinking beer, their kids riding unicycles through the tumbleweed up and down the empty street; the place was otherwise abandoned “What are y’all doing all the way out here” said the man. Turns out they didn’t have any gas either, but he gave us what he had, enough, he said, to get us to I-raan, meaning Iraan, Texas.

Strange, but once you’re so far into the empty plains you’ve forgotten to expect buildings and people, you get your eye in, and the landscape fills up with tones and shadows, mounds and boulders; things that aren’t exactly alive although I did see a haunch and tail of a coyote trotting into a thicket.  And the huge, ever-changing luminous sky provides the drama.

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Cajun country

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Anywhere that gets the party going at 8.30am on a Saturday morning gets my vote. Breaux Bridges, Louisiana, the heart of Cajun country, and everyone’s doing the two-step shuffle, drinking bloody mary’s, and eating crawfish and cornbread at – what by any reasonable person’s standards – would be the crack of dawn. This is good. Donna Angelle at the Zydeco Posse are doing their thing at Cafe des Amis. Shufflers and stompers are aged from eight to ninety. Along the main street everyone’s selling antiques. One shop’s run by a Beatle fan who plays in a rock band, and that’s going against the tide. I’ve checked into a cabin down on the Bayou – at the Bayou Cabins – run by the crowned King of Cracklin’. Newspapers covering the bathroom wall date back to 1955Fiddle and accordion music from Radio Mustang! thumps across the car park. The owners make crackling, boudin and hogshead cheese which I hoped was cheese but isn’t. There’ll be plenty more on the Cajun guide to life, and a short film, but not quite yet. I’ll be posting features and everything other than rough cuts from filming at the end of the American leg. Currently chasing my tail a little further down the road.

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New Orleans Sound

Rough footage (shot by Dave) taken from a lot of filming in Louisiana which I’ll eventually have time to edit. Yes, this goes with New Orleans Vision (see previous post) because the French Quarter is all sound and vision and (and beer and whisky) and sensory overload. Louis Armstrong was born here, learnt the cornet here at the New Orleans Home for Colored Waifs where he was sent for misbehaving (many times), and I wish I could come here again with George who used to dance with me to We’ve Got All the Time in the World when he was about six, and when we thought we had. Jazz is part of the air fizz, along with funk, country, zydeco and whatever. There’s a band every few paces on Royal Street during the day and, at night, live music booming from competing venues on every side, but it was Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers that stopped me in my tracks outside the Krazy Korner bar. Not literally, because he was onstage. He is the crowned King of Accordion, and fantastic. I also enjoyed the frottoir – rub-board – player. Is it ever quiet here? Is there ever a time when people aren’t dancing down the streets? Doubt it.

Dwayne Dopsie

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New Orleans vision

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New Orleans’ French Quarter is a heady, exotic sort of place that feels steamy, even in November on a day when it’s nippy. Best plan is to submit, get lost, drink beer, join in. Try to be at a certain point at a certain time and you’ll miss the best of what this unique neighbourhood has to offer which is spontaneity – someone in a bar breaking into song, a dancing bouncer, the light on a building, a passing oddball, a monstrous loping spiked stilt-walker bending down to pat a whining dog, a zydeco set.

It took me the first night to work that out. Arriving at 9pm to find you are the only sober people in 10 blocks, your hotel booking has been screwed up (by Orbitz) and the restaurant you’ve eventually chosen has just stopped serving didn’t help me feel the love. Bourbon Street is the loudest, the tackiest; live music BLASTS out of every door and, for all the multiple layers of culture, it’s got the feel of a stag or hen night destination – just missing the traffic cones. I couldn’t hear anything, found it overwhelming and confusing. However, I got up early and, aside from the late night-early morning revellers and locals walking dogs, had the place to myself – a chance to admire the backdrop – the architecture, the colours of the houses, their steps, shutters and their leafy and ornate balconies. You can imagine how life might have been here in the past, I thought to myself as a man in a leather skirt and bra walked past. I don’t think it’s changed much. The buildings are old, but so its tradition for eccentricity, energy, passions, noise.

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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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