When in doubt, head to the Four Seasons. That used to be my motto. Stepping off a plane in Berlin, early one foggy and cold morning, throat aflame and fever mounting, I instantly felt better as I walked into the lobby of the Four Seasons, where I was greeted by name, fed chicken soup and loaded with free movies. The Four Seasons in San Diego mopped up the tears of a break-up, with incredible aplomb may I add, the staff not batting an eyelid in front of the crazy lady who burst into tears at every interaction. The Four Seasons in Mexico City gave me room to breathe, when on the verge of strangling an artist I was travelling with. The Four Seasons in Milan provided more amenities that could be asked for from a hotel, keeping a straight face.
Boutique and trendy hotels, with white washed walls and impossible to find electrical switches might be thrilling, while the Four Seasons, with its impeccable service, its posh but predictable furniture, its rooms with everything perfectly functioning, are like a motherly warm and comforting embrace. Not that I can afford them for my personal travels – it was all fine and dandy when the expense account stretched a mile long and no charge was too extravagant.
These days, in order to avoid mediocre hotels or quaint bed and breakfasts with stuffed animals on the pink bedspreads, and having grown too old to still savor sleeping in Bedouin tents, people’s garages, musty third grade rooms or, I shudder to think, a tent, I rent. Houses and flats.
http://www.vrbo.com (vacation rentals by owners) and http://www.homeway.com merged a couple of years ago and are the biggest sites for rentals all over the world. Owners, for a yearly fee, post their properties, listing amenities, calendars, detailed descriptions and photos and, after the first enquiry sent through the site, you are on your own to deal with the owners. There are rentals virtually everywhere, either through vrbo or many other smaller or country specific sites. In all the years I have rented, I haven’t had a bad experience.
The first time I took the plunge was in Hawaii, where the guest house of a lovely couple who then became friends, lured me back two years in a row. London yielded a pretty studio in Highgate, on the top floor of a small Edwardian row of houses, right in the middle of a charming neighbourhood tourists are not familiar with. In Greece, I had a three storey spindly house with an open air kitchen and two rooftop balconies, to better savor my Greek coffee overlooking the harbour while listening to tiny black-robed ladies kvetching in front of their coffee. In Venice, I found my dream apartment which has become my home away from home and in Palo Alto I lived for three months on a eucalyptus filled property next to three mad scientists from Stanford.
“I have square eyes!” lamented Sue after spending, no doubt, hours scanning apartments in Rome for our upcoming vacation. It just needed to be perfect, sort of Julia Roberts perfect in “Eat Pray Love” – only with our adventures more fun but still filled with just as much gelato.
The attraction of renting versus cramming yourself in a hotel room (besides the monetary savings), it’s the freedom it affords you to just kick back and go home in the middle of the day to read a book instead of finding yet another cafe, or being able to make breakfast and dinner and not be forced to stuff yourself with restaurant food for days on end. Above all, it’s the experience of being steeped a little more in the local culture, forced to navigate the aisles of foreign markets, interact with the fish monger, the caretaker, unfamiliar appliances and mysterious coffee makers. And maybe, just maybe, feeling like belonging if only for a few days.