Ian MacLellan

On vacation, it’s all one big gimme.

May 06, 2015

Midway through the waiter’s dramatic recitation of the desserts on offer at London’s Waterside Inn—the raspberry soufflé, the champagne-poached peach, the blackberry crème brûlée—my usual resistance began to crumble like a shortbread biscuit with apricot mousse.

Typically, sugar and carbs are on my forbidden list. But then, so is that plate of fried halibut and tails of langoustine in grapefruit-juice emulsion I just put away. But never mind that. Today is not just any day. Today I’m on a vacation.

Let’s make it the whole dessert sampler!

There are innumerable rationalizations for this dietary lapse. The most potent is that in short order I will be stepping onto a plane for the return flight home, and to eat less than heartily is to tempt fate. I have to have dessert, you see, because otherwise I will almost definitely find myself, a few hours hence, bobbing in the icy Atlantic thinking of nothing else and cursing myself, my old self—reasonable, prudent, cautious, wise—for my abstemiousness. That idiot! When I’m floating there, burning my last calories, that delicate crème brûlée will assume totemic significance. It will represent every opportunity not pounced upon, every road not taken, every last failure to simply seize the day and live.

Over my years of traveling, I’ve developed a split identity: There’s At-Home Me and there’s Road Me. Road Me does things that At-Home Me tends not to do. He smokes, of course, because he often passes through Duty Free, and as every seasoned traveler knows, cigarettes that are not subject to levees by a governmental entity aren't harmful in the slightest. They are as pure as cherubs’ breath.

Road Me drinks too much, but then, how can he not when the minibar is so damnably convenient and the hotel room just stumbling distance from the cocktail lounge? He also uses enough fresh towels to outfit a traveling circus and leaves them all over the floor.

You see, it was Road Me—that wastrel—who succumbed to the masterful indulgences of Waterside pastry chef Alain Roux. And it was Road Me who the previous afternoon made a little side trip to luxury boutique Browns in Mayfair, only to emerge with a tan leather messenger bag by Maison Martin Margiella, based on a 1967 design and aggressively priced at a smidge under 800 pounds sterling, which worked out to a reasonable $160 in U.S. currency. (Did I mention Road Me is hopeless at arithmetic?)

Road Me doesn’t get hung up on the details. He’s on a trip, you see. None of it really counts at all. From the moment he drops his bag in the car-service trunk till he slips the key into At-Home Me’s apartment door a week later, it’s all one big gimme. Think about it: Years later, will you remember the meals you didn’t order, the perfume you didn’t buy, the shark cage you didn’t climb into?

Sages of the hospitality industry have long understood this dynamic, and despite being charged with the often thankless task of cleaning up after us, many encourage it. “The rigidity of routines that might restrict you at home become unhinged and irrelevant when you’re on a trip,” notes superstar hotelier André Balazs, whose properties include the Standard Hotels and the famed Chateau Marmont. “That leads to some people blowing off their diet or exercise routines, or just doing things they wouldn’t normally do in their own usual settings. It’s one of the joys and surprises of traveling.” An essential luxury provided by the best hotels, Balazs adds, is a “true and honest suspension of judgment.”

Such discretion will be familiar to anyone who has ever stayed at the Chateau—in one of the homey cottages, for example, in which Road Me recently holed up for a few days. On his last night, in a typical fit of exuberance, he invited a few friends (as well as several affable strangers) over for cocktails and certain stimulants that At-Home Me hasn’t encountered since the ’80s, after which the whole group wandered down to the pool—a little salt-water gem of sapphire that is surrounded by bamboo, Japanese arielas, and fern palms, and, as usual, proved utterly irresistible, despite the fact that At-Home Me neglected to pack a pair of swim trunks. As you might imagine, Road Me doesn’t really need trunks to have a swim.

Even lesser hostelries tend to engender a certain sense of freedom. “Whoever you are, when you walk into that hotel room, the rules are off and you will take chances and say things and do things you’d never do at home,” says Jeff Candido, part of the team behind the blockbuster “What Happens in Vegas” ad.

The reasons behind our susceptibility to on-the-road indulgences are not mysterious. The familiar things that make you feel safe and secure have been left behind, and therefore you must compensate by coddling and treating yourself. Whatever it is, whatever it costs, you deserve it precisely because you are not at home. And the road serves up treats of all kinds. The shopping, the food, the sex—or at least the possibility of sex. This explains the lighting in the room, the reason those shower walls are see-through, the water jets located here and there. Asked how much thinking about sex goes into good hotel design, Balazs laughs. “It’s fundamental,” he says. “You’re in the business of selling bedrooms!”

“The old adage is that a hotel is a home away from home,” Balazs adds. “But a good hotel is actually the opposite. It creates a feeling of being liberated, first by making you feel safe and taken care of, and then by providing a depth of experience that transports you from the familiar.”

By the way, if you’ve never donned one of the bathrobes at the Chateau, they are exquisite. Cotton terry cloth on the inside, and microweave fiber on the outside, loosely belted at the waist, they are at once extraordinarily comfortable and powerfully, intoxicatingly liberating. Road Me loves them. At-Home Me, for his part, is okay with khaki.

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