Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Boutique hotels – getting 'quirky' right is an exact science

"Good morning, Twiggy," I said, undoing my trousers and preparing to answer the call of nature in front of her. As usual, she says nothing but simply stares back at me in a disinterested way. What else could I expect from a framed black and white print of the sixties fashion icon that will stare at me every morning this week whenever I enter the bathroom of my hotel room? Because the framed photograph of the model's head is life-sized – and nailed to the wall directly above the toilet – it is mildly disconcerting as the eyes follow me around the bathroom and they're even staring at me when I'm in the shower. It's one of the perils of staying in a 'boutique' hotel where the concept of 'quirkiness' is always taken to another rather irritating level and the guest – or me at any rate – has to suffer, endure, put up with, deal with, accept, the 'joke' and laugh along with it, silently and in good humour. Why else would I choose to stay in such a hotel if I wasn't prepared to be amused by the proprietor's sense of humour or the absurd? Why else indeed.
Friends Hotel, Dusseldorf, Germany

I have a problem with boutique hotels because, very often, they are the living embodiment of the phrase 'you don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps'. They are the one place where interior designers forget themselves and ignore the golden rule of 'function before form'. How many times have I fallen victim to this? Too many times – and the problem takes many forms.

Oddly, the most common area where designers fail to follow their own rule – that of 'function before form' – is in the bathroom. That framed photograph of Twiggy is a case in point, but there are other things I can moan about. The over-sized soup bowl sink doesn't have a plug for a start. There's no way of stopping the water running away, which is both annoying and not very good for the environment. It's no good asking your guests to hold on to their towels rather than expect them to be changed daily if you're just wasting water.

I've stayed in 'quirky' hotels where they've had a mannequin in the room on which the guest can hang his or her coat. The only problem being that when they wake up in the middle of the night – as I did once in Didsbury, Greater Manchester – they get the shock of their life and would be forgiven either for having a seizure or lunging at said mannequin and wrestling it to the ground before realising that it's (ahem) just a mannequin.

In another 'quirky' boutique hotel in Leeds the porter carrying my bags to the room asked me if I required any help with 'operating the room'. I hadn't the foggiest idea what he was talking about and said no. Later that night, after eating out nearby, I returned to my room and spent most of the night trying to turn out the bedside lamp. There was a control panel on the wall that dimmed the lights, switched on the television, moved curtains up and down, everything BUT switching off the bedside lamp. I remember growing increasingly impatient and was on the verge of calling reception when I discovered that the switch was on the lamp and not in any way connected to 'the system' operating the room. I felt an exasperated fool but I was alone so it didn't matter.

There's nothing worse than quirkiness. It's slightly more bearable when you've only travelled a few miles by train in the UK from London to Manchester or Leeds, but when you've endured a transatlantic flight, say, or a long haul in premium economy to the Far East, it's the last thing you want to deal with – a prankster proprietor insistent on making your stay 'entertaining' and unforgettable. To be fair, it will be just that – 'entertaining' (in inverted commas for good reason) and certainly unforgettable and perhaps that's a good thing.

As always, there are places that get it right and one place that springs immediately to mind is the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon, USA, where they've taken the idea of the beatnik hotel – the sort of place that Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy might have frequented back in the late forties and fifties – and transformed it into a wonderful space that is far from annoying – in fact its a sheer joy to stay there and I only wish I had an excuse to pay another visit.

The Ace gets it right on so many levels and mainly because its quirkiness is understated and it's coolness is subtle enough almost to go unnoticed.

There was a time when the Ace was not as it is today. There was a time when it was like its neighbour across the street. The Joyce is very much a modern day 'beatnik' hotel that some travellers have described as a dangerous place to be avoided at all costs as it houses some of the city's undesirables. Some have described it as a hostel for winos and streetwalkers and a local paper even published an article based on spending a night in the place where fights often break out in the hallways and the best policy for self-preservation is to keep your head down and keep yourself to yourself.

During my stay at the Ace I had a room that faced the Joyce and I could see into one of its rooms where a guest watched television 24/7. I could pick out graffiti on the walls inside the room and there was never a time when the TV wasn't on; I was so intrigued by the place I even thought about spending $15 to stay the night, just to say that I did it, but in all honesty I couldn't drum up the courage and remained instead in the comfort of the Ace hotel where I could live out my Kerouac/Neal Cassidy/William Burroughs fantasy safe in the knowledge that I wouldn't be making headlines the following morning.

It's been eight years since I checked into the Ace, Portland, and I've been missing it ever since. Here's hoping that one day soon I'll have a legitimate reason to make a return visit and, who knows, I might just wander over to the Joyce for a nerve wracking night to remember – or, perhaps, forget.

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