I once slept in a hostel type of place at the top of the highest mountain in Germany, the Zug Spitz. Sounds kind of impressive, I know, but the truth is that Germany is pretty flat and its highest mountain isn’t so very high at all. Still, it took 12 hours of not too easy work to get up it all. We started at 5am, in the dark, so as to be sure not to have to finish in the dark. The last 2 hours, meaning 10 hours into the climb, were a via ferrata. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, as I was before that day, it means iron way in Italian and refers to paths that have been built into especially treacherous stretches of mountains to make passage possible. Historically they were for military use, now us tourists do them for fun. You have to wear a harness with a bungee cord to clip into a series of wires laid out in places where falling would be simple and awful. Sometimes there’s an ancient, rusting ladder to help, or the odd metal rod in exactly the right place. It’s terrifying and highly recommended.
At the end of this day I was beat. Beat isn’t strong enough. I was in a stupor of exhaustion, knowing I needed to figure out how to eat and sleep and feeling like the logistics of those needs was almost more than I could bear.
The strange thing about the highest mountain in Germany, though, as I discovered that day, is that it’s also home to the highest beer garden in Germany. Which means that the peak that I had spent this epic day struggling my way to the top of, others had taken a little gondola ride up to. And now here we were, together, having a meal in the same restaurant, me afraid that a beer would lapse me into an unrecoverable stupor, them here mainly for the novelty of a high altitude beer, or two, or whatever the night might bring.
I suppose some version of this happens everyday at our little hotel. Maybe you fly in for a meeting, with the stressors and struggles of work on your shoulders, only to find yourself sharing the breakfast room with a gleeful family reunion, for example. The contrast, that night, for me, was jarring. Maybe sometimes it is for you too. In retrospect, though, I guess it’s nice that there’re different paths to the same place.
The eeriest hotel experience I’ve had was in Seattle. I was with a large group and we were staying for a week and we found a place that offered apartment style living. Not unlike the bungalows at our very own Grand Hotel, we thought, and how nice to have the option of cooking, especially when you’ve been on the road for a while, as we had. The photos on the internet looked cozy and inviting and we expected the week’s accommodations to be a kind of oasis.
When we arrived, unfamiliar with Seattle, we found our little hotel to be right on the border of something called Pill Hill, which, turns out to be the neighborhood where all the hospitals are. And this nice establishment that offered short to long term fully furnished apartment stays at reasonable prices turned out to almost exclusively serve patients on transplant waitlists and their families. We learned this on our first day, on meeting a woman from Iowa, or maybe Idaho, who sat smoking out front as her father waited upstairs for a new lung. She was turned out to be a constant fixture, sometimes sitting, sometimes pacing, always wanting to talk. Others we met more slowly, as the week wore on, in the elevator or the parking lot. All these people biding their time, trudging the burden of illness around to the sights of Seattle.
Perhaps all of this would have felt different if the apartments hadn’t been so severely miserable. I will remember that lumpy, springy bed as the worst I’ve ever slept on in my life. The blankets were shamefully thin and even torn, which I have never seen in any other hotel in my life. The rugs were stained. The hot water was scant. The living room furniture was ravaged and, in some cases, broken outright. Thinking of being ill in one of those beds is nearly unbearable to me, and yet those apartments were full of people stuck in exactly that position.
I guess these are the weeks of praising, again and again, our delicious beds. Really, though, the most important thing a hotel can do is to give a traveler a comfortable place to sleep. It seems so simple.
I stayed one night, one time at an exquisite bed and breakfast in the French Alps. It wasn’t grand, this place, more like minutely elegant. Everything was in a kind of ancient order of simple perfection. There were only a very few rooms and so just a few other guests, all either French or British, and all very carefully and expensively dressed. The night we arrived, we were just in time for dinner and were served six courses of the kind of food I had previously only seen in magazines. I was careful not to touch a piece of silverware, a glass or even a napkin until my companion touched his, having absolutely no idea what to do with that much cutlery.
The room, when I finally got to explore it, was like a bedroom from one of the Victorian novels I love so much. Cloth wallpaper, antique furniture. And just in front of the bed, where you normally find a television, was a window that opened out to the Alps. It was a dream, an excursion into a whole other stratosphere of wealth and comfort. Until I went to bed. Turns out the queen size bed was a fake, it was actually just two double beds shoved together, meaning there was a gap in the center. To make matters worse, the fitted sheet trying to breach the gap couldn’t handle the job and so I ended up sleeping on a bare mattress. And, on top of all of that, the beautiful lace comforter was nowhere near warm enough. My one night, then, in the most precious place I’ll likely ever stay in my life was mostly spent awake, cold and not so very comfortable.
Here at this little hotel we do not offer views of the Alps out of our bedroom windows. Our food is laid out buffet style in the morning, and then again in the evening. Your fellow guests will just as likely be wandering around in sweatpants and flip-flops. But our beds are insanely comfortable with plush pillow top mattresses, too many pillows and luxurious down comforters. There’s really no comparison.
The best hotel bathroom experience that I ever had was in Bankok. Pure bliss, I tell you, in its cool whiteness. It’s tiles were so perfect and clean, its water so plentifully hot. This, as you can maybe tell, is a story about relativity. The previous three weeks had been spent in a tiny hut on the beach of a tiny island. Super idyllic, almost tritely romantic. I was very young and it was my first chance to experience the extreme simplicity of actual human necessity. The bathroom, however, was the biggest test of my dependence on suburban luxury. It consisted of a concrete floor, a squat toilet and a hose that ran only cold and served the double function of shower and toilet flusher. I had to give myself a pep talk every single time I went in there.
This beautiful memory of the Bankok bathroom, then, is actually the memory of a Motel 6 kind of a bathroom. All the basics were represented, period. The lights were harsh fluorescents and there wasn’t even soap. But there was toilet paper! And there was the comfort and security of warm water. Most wonderful of all, though, was the gentle ease of taking a seat again.
Imagine what I would have done if that Bankok bathroom had been like one of ours here at this hotel. I may have fallen into a state of shock. A bathtub with jets after three weeks of cold hose-water? That seems like too much for the nervous system to process. I may have just stayed, on accident, unable to get past the pleasure.
You, though, we trust to appreciate the work we’ve put into making our bathrooms a kind of luxurious respite from the world, and then move on. A nice bathroom is a great place to be, and ours are very nice indeed, but please remember to leave each morning and go to your job.
The last time I was in Germany, I stayed at a hotel with a sauna, steam room and pool on its basement floor. Amazing, right? I was with a large group and we took full advantage of it, some of us preferring to go first thing in the morning, others of us liking it better just before bed, and a few of us thinking twice a day was the obvious choice. There was one complication, though. No one could quite decide if we should be wearing bathing suits or not. Germans don’t wear them, or, at least, the German men who were in there on our first trip down were not. We, then, were the prudish, clothed Americans. Next time, in an attempt to fit in, we eschewed them, only to find soaking herself an elderly German woman in a full-coverage one-piece. Yikes!
This is, of course, a story about Americans in Germany and not a story about Germans and their opinions about our spa choices. The Germans, ultimately, do not care whether we wear bathing suits or not. For us Americans, though, nudity is not a neutral subject. Mine was not a shy group, and yet we couldn’t get a grasp on the social convention around nakedness in a co-ed hotel spa and so nothing we did felt totally comfortable. Ambiguity is one of the exciting parts of travel, but relaxing it is not, which is too bad when you’re hanging out in a sauna.
Thank goodness for the simplicity of this hotel of ours. Our pool and hot tub are outdoors. You must wear a bathing suit. And in that bathing suit it’s possible to relax completely, knowing for sure that the facilities are there for your enjoyment and you are enjoying them in exactly the way you are meant to.
We talk a lot about how great our California weather is. We boast about Christmases spent outdoors in t-shirts, Thanksgivings held on patios. It’s a selling point, a bragging point, and very often both at the same time. A “Mediterranean climate,” as ours is called, does have its down sides, though. One of those is a tendency to drought, which is what’s going on right now.
As you may have heard, our governor, the beatific Mr. Jerry Brown, has recently declared this current drought of ours to be a state of emergency. It sounds scary, but this does happen periodically. A lot of why it has to be declared an emergency has less to do with the availability of water to, for example, shower with than it has to do with mobilizing funds to transport water and staff fire departments in the neighborhoods of extra dry hills, with their tendency to ignite. Still, though, growing up in California we all learned to turn the tap off when we brush our teeth, to not be too indulgent with the pleasures of a long hot shower, little things like that. So, attempting to keep all traces of fear mongering or environmentalist shaming out of this sentence, now is a good time to keep water use in mind. Think about not having your sheets and towels changed every day when you’re here with us, though never keep them one day past what’s comfortable. If you like to stand in a very long hot shower to relax at the end of the day, remember that we have a hot tub. But if you’re attached to the ritual, stick with it. Find a couple of little ways to reduce your use while you’re here with us, if nothing else just to feel like you’re participating. This drought will pass. Next year we’ll probably get flooded. All will be well.
There is no snow in the mountains around Lake Tahoe. It’s eerie, driving around up there in what should be a winter wonderland, knowing it’s January, but looking out on a perfect spring landscape. People walking around in hats and gloves seem like they just don’t want to give up their cool weather fashion and are suffering for it. This is not the ideal time to be planning your Northern California ski trip.
Skiing, though, is not the only reason to head to Tahoe. It’s pretty much an out door adventurer’s paradise, whether your idea of an outdoor adventure is a gentle stroll through outlandishly beautiful scenery, or a punishing backcountry trek. Right now, in fact, is kind of a rare and wonderful moment to go for a hike up there because you don’t need to take all the gear and precautions that winter normally demands, but neither do you have to deal with the heat of summer. Plus there’s a little dab of snow here and there to slide around in, the odd snow man standing his ground, and even an occasional frozen lake to tiptoe a few disbelieving steps out onto. We all are, and should be, very concerned by this drought, but so should we allow ourselves to delight in the strange little bits of magic it delivers us. The Tahoe area, in this moment, is one of those.
The other reason to head to Tahoe in these next weeks, if you find yourself with a weekend to explore California, is that they kind of need you up there. More than maybe anyplace else in the state, their economy is driven by the yearly influx of snow sports enthusiasts and so they suffer the most when we get into one of these drought years. That said, don’t go because you feel guilty. Go because it’s an extraordinary place that’s probably on your list of California destinations, or at least should be, and this just happens to be a great moment to do it.
It’s a new year, which kind of means nothing except that time is passing. And, with the passage of time come changes. Luckily the staff update this time around is short on goodbyes because, as you know, we’re not very good with those. This is more a story about the kids growing up.
Jonathan, one of our sales manager, who started working here, as a bellman, when he was in high school is now a married man. It shouldn’t be so very shocking as he was engaged for quite a while and has all the bearings of a responsible young man. Still, though, carrying the shadow of the boy we first met the way he does, it’s a little bit crazy to think he may soon have his own kids.
It’s a similar feeling with Matt, who’s been working behind the front desk since high school. He has, in fact, always used this job as the rock to lean on as he got himself through school. That time has ended. He’s a college graduate. We’re both proud and also bracing ourselves. Now that he’s got that degree, the time may soon come when he’ll want to use it.
Joe, who recently became our front desk manager, also recently became engaged. This is great, light, easy news for us to congratulate him on. Joe came to us as an adult, and adults do things like get engaged. Besides, engagements are the period when all your friends and family get to transition into the idea of you being married. So, great, he’s engaged!
Finally, we have one departure to report. Dave/Pee Wee, who was our bar manager and the week night bartender at the Grand Hotel, has left us. Sometimes the time just comes for a bit of change. We hope he finds what it is he’s looking for.
Hobee’s InteriorThere’s a sweet little chain of diners in the Bay Area that’s so ubiquitous, such a normal, taken for granted part of the landscape up here, that it’s taken years to even remember that maybe you all don’t know about it, and would like to. The chain is called Hobee’s and there are five or six of them in the pretty immediate vicinity, though this is the only place in the world where there are any Hobee’s at all.
Hobee’s, whichever one you end up in, is a good place to eat pancakes late on a Sunday morning, or a club sandwich with fries after work. If you go with kids, you’ll be given crayons for them to draw on the table with. If you don’t go with kids you can ask for crayons anyway. They like to lean into their status as a California diner and so give a lot of space to being “fresh” and “healthy.” Their specialty, though, is giant slabs of blueberry coffee cake, which come on the side of everything you might order in the morning and are heavily encouraged at all other meals as well.
Hobee’s is not exciting. It’s not a fun new place for you and your co-workers to have a work-travel adventure in. I doubt anyone has ever been on a date at a Hobee’s and I’m pretty sure they don’t even serve wine. Still, though, there are plenty of times when you want comfort. This is why sweat pants exist. Maybe Hobee’s is the sweat pants of restaurants. And maybe that’s exactly what you need some nights, away from home, looking for something wholesome, simple and grounding. That’s Hobee’s all the way.
This year, rather than making resolutions, I’ve decided to take a couple of actions. That is, I’ve made a couple of changes to bring with me into the new year. Doing this feels better than making the standard long-term promise to myself that’s inevitably based on some kind of guilty comfort that I wish I were big enough to give up. Every January becomes some kind of exercise in self-torture, impatiently waiting until enough time has passed for me to believe that whatever this uncomfortable new behavior, I could keep it if I wanted to. This time around I decided that I was not going in for all that. Still, it’s a new year and it does feel like an opportunity, so I decided to add a couple of fun new things into my life. It feels like I’m enriching rather than starving myself and I feel excited, actually.
I’m telling you all about this because, I’m sorry to say, I’m assuming that a lot of you are following the old model. I’m guessing that you’re now just about two weeks into some unpleasant diet. Maybe you haven’t had a drink since your New Year’s toast. I don’t even want to keep imagining into all the iterations of self-deprivation you’re going through, and I apologize again for this pessimism, but I suppose that some of you will be falling off the wagon kind of soon-ish. Maybe you’ll feel some disappointment, with the comfy old habits waiting there to suck you just a little bit deeper. If this is happening to you, I have a solution! Chinese New Year is just around the corner, which means you can have a do-over. Take my advice and bring some new thing, or things, into the new new year. I think it’s really the way to go.
And, just in case anyone’s curious, the two new objects in my life are a landline and an alarm clock that’s not attached to my iPhone. Unbundling my technology, a friend said. I’m looking forward to a return to long, soul searching phone calls and not checking my email the moment I open my eyes in 2014.