Sunday, April 21, 2013

Beyond Condé Nast: Shedding Light on Hotels


For someone whose living depends, in part, on writing about travel services, I feel oddly indifferent toward hotels – to my mind, the point of travel is not where you sleep, but what you do. So long as I have a good firm bed and a hot shower, in reasonably quiet surroundings, I’m pretty satisfied. I’ve never been impressed with five-star rankings as such, largely because to my mind they’re pretty meaningless unless you have no intention of ever leaving the building.
That attitude dates from my earliest trips to Latin America, in the mid-1970s. Before then, I had visited Mexico several times, but really only the borderlands, and had never quite placed the country and the region in any conceptual framework. It was in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, in the state of Chiapas, that I first really appreciated the contrast between the smug comfort of the First World and the Spartan utilitarianism of the Third.

There, on a truly shoestring budget, I stayed in a six-bed dormitorio with five other gringos for five pesos each - at that time about US$0.40 per night. On one particularly dark and drizzly day, most of us remained in the room reading, with the door shut to keep out the cold, and we switched on the light - a 25-watt bulb (approximately four watts per person) hanging from the ceiling. Soon thereafter, the passing owner noticed the faint light escaping the room, opened the door and flipped it off with the admonition that “Electricity is very expensive!” For many years after that moment, I continued to spend much of my travels in what, later, I came to call “George W. Bush rooms” - they all had dim bulbs. Even though, as I’ve gotten older and appreciate greater creature comforts, I can’t resist rating hotels not by stars, but by wattage.

That’s why, when I read trade magazines such as Conde Nast Traveler, I still cringe when, in their annual “Hot List” of the world’s best new hotels, they boast that some of them cost less than US$300 per night (in the current issue, that comes to 62 of the 154 mentioned). Still, I always look to see how many hotels appear from my region of choice. This year’s list features just one hotel from Argentina, but four from Chile.

The only Argentine accommodations on the list is Recoleta’s Hub Porteño (pictured at top) which, though I have not stayed there, I did pay a visit in December. This 11-room hotel is little unusual in the sense that it’s an all-inclusive facility; Argentina’s all-inclusive hotels, of course, are more often guest ranches and isolated resorts than urban enclaves. As you might guess from its Francophile look and location (adjacent to the similarly exclusive but substantially larger Park Hyatt Palacio Duhau), it’s not in the “Under US$300” category.
In Chile, I have in fact stayed at Hangaroa Eco Village & Spa (pictured above) which, however, was in marcha blanca (roughly translatable as “soft launch”) when I last visited Easter Island a year ago. Unfortunately, when I visited Valparaíso in the same month, the recycled Victorian Hotel Palacio Astoreca (pictured below) was still undergoing its transformation from a crumbling Cerro Alegre mansion to an elegant new boutique hotel. It’s one I would be curious about staying at and, astonishingly, it still falls into Condé Nast’s “budget” category (which the Hangaroa most assuredly does not).
One of the Chilean entries is the Hotel Surazo, a modern seaside hotel in the central coast town of Matanzas which, prior to its listing, I had never even heard of. There is also the all-inclusive Hotel Refugia which, apparently, hopes to turn the city of Castro in a luxury gateway to the Chiloé archipelago. I can’t give any of these star classifications, but they’re all upwards of 100 watts.

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