Someone posed the question in a national newspaper the other day “What is the best hotel you’ve ever experienced?”
The gut reaction is that “best” equals luxury – the sort of environment and opportunities for pampering that you’d never get at home. Bit like the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong – where, lest you get entirely the wrong idea, we spent just the one night because the loo in the son’s apartment was blocked. Huge hotel room, big stone-tiled shower area with smart lighting, a bed the size of Australia, flat screen TV the size of a door, under-cupboard lighting ( popular in the Far East though why you’d want to crawl to the loo or lie and read a book under the cupboard is beyond me) and a drawer with a cable for every conceivable techie device stored neatly in their own little labelled pouches.
And yet…and yet… Is it all about smoothest sheets and thickest-up-to-your-ankles shagpile? Is luxury a sufficient benchmark? While it might knock your socks off with its smooth, no-expensive spared glitziness initially, I think luxury gets a bit corporate, and embarrassingly OTT. I’m thinking hotel desks and antiseptic lobbies where everything is shiny and there are beautifully lit objets yet it all seems alien; there’s no comfort, no friendliness and to be honest, it makes me feel a bit guilty. A little voice in my head is saying “So you can afford to stay here and eat at exhorbitant prices? So what about the little children in Africa, huh? Actually aren’t you spending money on self-indulgent pointlessnesses to make hotel chain fatcats even richer? Think that’s a good plan?”
I watched a short vid yesterday of a glossy upmarket Chinese hotel featuring a wall of water, a pool and cascade in the foyer. I think it was in the foyer. It could have been a very posh urinal but there weren’t any visible Percys or porcelain to point at so it was difficult to tell. I distinctly remember seeing a grand piano in the corner of the room, though. It may be that’s the origin of the phrase “a tinkle on the ivories.” Apologies if you’re having breakfast but I hope you’re still following my stream of consciousness… that ultra-decadence leaves one cold. Buckingham Palace isn’t officially a hotel so this anecdote has no place here, really, but when I took my mother there on a visit, she noted “Too much gold leaf on everything. It just looks tacky. I’d rather be at the Brighton Pavilion.” You can take the woman out of South Wales…
Returning to hotels though, it can be the small things that make the difference between average and jolly lovely. Staff at a hotel in Barcelona – fabulous architecture (see pic of stairs below) – had the good sense to put a bottle of chilled cava on the breakfast table. Capt Sensible said you were meant to add it in your orange juice but he was surely just kidding. Breakfast is much improved with a bit of sparkle.
Some hotels earn brownie points by having the good manners and consideration to provide your dog with biscuits on arrival in a little bowl in the room. Look, I know what you’re thinking and no, it wasn’t the kennels. The Calls hotel in Leeds did that too – provided a nice bowl of luxury chocolates on the coffee table which Rolls the springer fell upon with enthusiasm before we had even got our cases into the room.
So I’ve had a good think and the gong for the best hotel I’ve ever visited goes to a little place in Cumbria at the head of the Langdale Valley. It started out as a farm and in the 19th century became an inn. It’s built of local slate and the converted cowshed which adjoins it is the Hikers Bar. The big timbers of the cattle stalls are still there and there were old black and white pics of climbers hanging on the walls, which is appropriate because that’s what climbing types usually do.
There are no fancy interior water features or artfully arranged rocks inside The Old Dungeon Ghyll. There’s a crystal-clear water-crowfooted stream running under a humpy-back bridge 500 yards from the gate and the hotel stands at the foot of a magnificent slab of rocky cliff where you might see climbers clinging precariously very very high up.
When we stayed there about eight years ago, it got nil points for stylish fripperies. No ‘Molten Brown’ sic (I love hotels mis-spellings) in the bathroom, no nicely-lit objets in the hall – just a grandfather clock ticking loudly. It had no pretension to be anything other than homely, hearty, relaxed and traditional.
Our room was on the second floor more or less up in the roof. We lugged our cases up several flights of patterned Wilton carpet that had seen better days. The room was the smallest we’d ever stayed in. There was hardly space for the dog basket beside the wardrobe. The ensuite shower, washbasin and loo had been shoehorned into a corner.
The bed had a big brass bedstead and a patchwork quilt. Fantastic. Just like sleeping in my nan’s old bed, which was so high that when I was a nipper, she had to give me a leg up. No chamber pot beneath this one, though. I checked.
There was Victorian-style flowery wallpaper on all the walls and a picture rail with a few faded views of the Langdales. There was no room to swing a World Traveller Executive Suitcase but I didn’t give a stuff when there was a stunning view of green pastures, the streamand the soft contours of the lower Langdales. You could see it all while sitting in bed with the morning cuppa. The ridge, I knew, led along the valley to the more challenging Pike O Stickle, Pike O’Bliscoe, Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and the daddy of them all, Scafell Pike.
What’s more, when I took doggo out into the early dewy fields, I could see our little bedroom window from at least half a mile away, there at the top of the solid slate square beneath the fell. Getting nearer, I could wave and see Capt Sensible waving back from the comfort of the bed.
But the view wasn’t the main thing. The big thing at the ODG was breakfast. Breakfast at the Mandarin Oriental was a restaurant full of smart people dressed down in expensive smart clothes or dressed up for business meetings. There was a big buffet and a chap making omelettes to order with diamond-encrusted chipolatas on the side if you so wished.
At the ODG you got fantastic doorstops of wholemeal fresh-baked bread, fragrant, yeasty and hot from the toaster and pots of coffee and tea to be going on with while the kitchen prepared the best cooked breakfasts I’ve ever tasted including excellent quality sausages and really good bacon. The tables were generous enough to be able to spread your OS map out while you started on the second pot of coffee, planning the activities for the day ahead. All around us there were discussions and negotiations and comparings of notes on the local walks, climbs, expeditions. The weather – posted daily in the hallway – was the most important consideration.
People were friendly, comparing notes on where they’d been and interested in hearing about the routes and exploits of others. There was an easy sense of cameraderie. These were people who were anticipating a moderate to strenous day of adventuring – for some a little too strenous.
One guy talked about doing the whole circuit that included Crinkle Crags, Bowfell and Skiddaw while we were only thinking about tackling a couple of Pikes or preferable, pikelets. He made me feel a little inadequate, to be honest and I though maybe we should be stretching ourselves a little more but Capt Sensible often refuses point blank to be stretched.
Just as well, really. Much, much later – around 7pm that evening – we sitting at a picnic table outside the Hikers’ Bar, in recovery with a pint of cider and a pint of Black Sheep recalling the highlights of the Stickle O’Pickle or the Harrison Pickle or whatever those scary-high places were called, when a lone figure appeared in the gateway and trudged slowly up the driveway. It was the Keen Hiker.
He politely refused our offer of a drink and something to eat and wasn’t in the mood for good-humoured banter. He looked totally wiped out.
“I can’t sit down. I won’t be able to get up. I think I’ll just go straight to my room.”
His face said it all. Sort of pale as if on the point of collapse. Capt Sensible was quite concerned.
“He needs to eat. He hasn’t even taken his rucksack off.”
“Never mind him, what about me?” I said. “Our room’s on the top floor. I’m going to have real problems making it up there…”
I had been fantasising about an elevator but fat chance of that at the unpretentious ODG. If you were capable of climbing the Langdales, they assumed you’d be more than capable of four flights of stairs.
“Why? Are you that knackered?”
“Iss the cider..” I admitted.
“Gone straight to my legs. Any chance of a fireman’s lift?”
Gratuitous Roly picture. Butter wouldn’t melt but he’d burgle your picnic hamper as soon as look at you.