Rooms to Write Home About

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 11th May 2006.

When I was a child my parents took my sister and me on holiday to Cala Rajada, then an unspoilt seaside village in Mallorca with a handful of hotels. An expat English couple owned the one where we stayed: imagine Fawlty Towers, with real Spanish waiters called Manuel - and real violence - and you have a picture of the place.

My abiding memory is of eating lunch while listening to a slanging match in the kitchen, whereupon the proprietor rushed into the dining room, swiftly followed by his wife who was brandishing a carving knife. Chairs flew; guests had to intervene. As quickly as it had arisen, the storm subsided, the crazy couple kissed and made up and peace descended.

Similar eruptions happened regularly, and yet, guess what? We returned to the hotel four years running. Despite its shortcomings, it had charm (bizarre though it seems in retrospect), a lovely location and character. Forty or more years later, we still remember it with affection.

I've always loved staying in hotels: soaking up their atmosphere; meeting my fellow guests; living, albeit temporarily, in a relaxing, pampered world very different from my own. But many hotels are an expensive - often very expensive - luxury, and, like anything special, need to be chosen with care so that hard-earned money is not wasted on second-rate, sometimes even downright unpleasant places. I may be a hotel inspector (ghastly phrase) by profession, but really I'm just like you: someone who wants to find the perfect place to stay.

I never set out to be a hotel inspector. It can be a horrible job, confusing in the early morning (where am I?) and ruinous for the waistline. All right, I'm joking: I'm constantly amazed at my luck....

It all began in 1986 when my husband suggested we publish a new series of guides, the Charming Small Hotel Guides, covering Britain and Europe. We would discover the best and most characterful small hotels and write about them. I told him at the time it was a lousy idea, but 20 years later they are still published, in Britain, the US and Europe.

Somebody had to research and write those books and those somebodies were myself and my colleague and great friend, Leonie Glass. Off we set over the years on our inspection trips around Britain, France, Spain and Italy, callously abandoning our growing children, working hard but also hugely enjoying ourselves.

We were already travel writers - of city, regional and country guides, with titles to date including London, New York, Paris, Amsterdam, Tuscany and Umbria, Normandy, Spain, France and Britain on Backroads for such publishers as Dorling Kindersley, the AA, Insight, Duncan Petersen and Globe Pequot. One way and another we've stayed in a great many hotels, and we are happy to carry on. This being the digital age, we're also shortly launching a website of personal, impartial recommendations, The Hotel Guru.

Perhaps that experience in Mallorca kindled my interest in hotels - an interest as much in their psychology as their amenities and service - and helped me form my preferences. I certainly don't want histrionics and I prefer staff to be in the background, but I dislike staying in hotels that lack personality, however comfortable. Ones that hit the spot for me tend to be sympathetic reflections of the people who own them. Attractive, intuitive personalities are behind the best hotels, large or small: it's as simple as that.

When I visit a hotel I look for value for money, charm, commitment, individuality and noteworthy location. I'm amazed how little attention some hotel reviewers pay to these elements. They seem obsessed by the temperature of the bath water, the sheets or the arrangement of light switches, but fail to mention that the hotel has a memorable setting, or an old-fashioned charm, or that it is now in the hands of the fourth generation of dedicated owners, who charge a modest price to reflect its signs of age.

I like to put a hotel in the context of its surroundings, to discover the story behind it, meet the owners, hear about new plans and see all the bedrooms (or as many as possible). It's important, too, to relax in a hotel and let it work its charm - if it has any - and to allow a few days to pass before making final judgements. That said, my first impressions are usually correct: I can generally sniff a good hotel before I've stepped over the threshold.

Location is vital. Hotels are all very well but, for me, destination comes first, hotel second. Resort hotels cut off from their surroundings leave me cold. Five-star luxury hotels in fascinating far-flung cities can also leave me cold because I prefer my accommodation to echo its surroundings. In Paris I want something stylish and bohemian on the Rive Gauche; in Venice a palazzo with a dazzling view; in Ravello, it must overlook the Med; and in Marrakesh only a riad will do.

And in my own country? No palazzos or riads here, but still a wonderful variety of buildings from which to choose, from thatched cottages to recycled factories. There are hotels in castles and mansions, hotels with beautiful gardens, seaside hotels, child-friendly hotels, golf hotels, spa hotels, country house hotels and remote hotels at the farthest corners of the land.

And there are ever-increasing numbers of hip, design-led hotels, in increasingly unlikely settings. Beware the designer hotel: it may look cutting edge, but is it all PR, packaging and high prices? Beware hotel hype in general: how many times have I been taken in by a lyrical description of the latest, must-go place, only to find slack, hands-off management, bad food and a bill that makes you weep?

Has the British hotel scene changed in the 20 years since I've been writing about it? Yes, of course, for better and for worse.

For better? Well, in general, standards of food, furnishing and housekeeping are higher than ever. Those dreadful chi-chi places with flouncy curtains and a musty atmosphere, where food from tins was brought to you under a silver dome and no one spoke above a whisper are being swept away in favour of hotels that are airy, clean and genuinely laid-back. And while many of my favourite hoteliers have gone, others are still there, subtly changing with the times while retaining the charm of their establishments.

For worse? There's far less continuity. Private hotels rarely stay in the same family from one generation to the next; new owners take over at frequent intervals, some bringing flair to the enterprise, others failing spectacularly on the flair and many other fronts. Hoteliers find it increasingly difficult to recruit locally, and must rely on hard-working but often poorly trained foreigners whose impermanence can create a disjointed atmosphere.

Some hotels charge absurdly high prices for what amounts to a night's sleep. These include once fine hotels that have lost their edge; and contemporary ones where poor standards are masked by gimmicky gadgets and eye-catching design. Oh, and spas: so many hotels think that the answer to their prayers is to stick in a spa. It isn't.

But that's just my opinion; it may not be yours. All I can do as a reviewer is to describe hotels as they seem to me; if you like the sound of some of them, maybe you will go there, too. I can only hope that you won't be disappointed.

As for my own favourite hotel, the name of which I'm often asked, maybe it's still out there, waiting to be discovered. Or maybe, in Britain, it's somewhere like Bark House, a low, thatched house in Devon's Esk valley, smothered in wisteria, with five cosy rooms under the eves. Modest and welcoming, it's run with great courtesy and attention to detail by Justine and Alastair, who produce a wonderful breakfast in the morning. Or maybe it's Driftwood, a clifftop Cornish house full of panache and personality, with a perfect crescent of private beach and views that could be the Côte d'Azur.

In Europe, perhaps it's the Locanda Cipriani (not to be confused with Venice's Hotel Cipriani) in Italy. With a handful of rooms, in one of which Hemingway wrote Through the Woods and into the Trees, it's as much about its situation on the lagoon island of Torcello, cradle of Venetian civilisation, as it is about the inn itself, which has a charm and simplicity that perfectly matches its surroundings.

To my mind, hotels such as these give you something more than just a place in which to relax, eat and sleep. Where else those places might be in Britain, I'm off to find out.

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