I remember an evening in London, 20 years ago: I was staying at Claridge's and my brother, a human rights activist, asked me why I chose to stay in such a place. He clearly disapproved of what he saw as my extravagance. I said, "I like it" and left it at that. In fact, I doted on the place. It was at the Oriental in Bangkok, I think, that I discovered how perfectly at ease a writer can be in a hotel room, without personal possessions, without the impediments of furniture, wallpaper, and pictures of one's own. This perfect lack of precedent—of identity—provides the best environment in which to begin to write something with optimism and inspiration, which on a good day can lead to the start of a new book. At the Oriental I could sit at my little desk, look out at the river, the view of which was framed by a flamboyant tree, and feel things stir in the writerly atmosphere.
But by the end of the eighties, when I spent almost two months at the Hilton in Tel Aviv working on Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ, I should have known that my life was veering toward chain hotels. My junior suite was immense, with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the beach. Every night a chocolate was deposited on my pillow. It was like having a little flat free of worries.
I cannot say that the Hilton in Tel Aviv led to an immediate conversion. No: I continued stubbornly to want to stay only in the grandest of grand hotels or the most central and bohemian of pensions, but a gradual thawing had begun in my opinion of the chain hotel. In 1998, I found myself in Sofia, Bulgaria, for one night and one day, en route to St. Petersburg. I had started the journey at the end of a long and languid summer in Chianti. On the shores of the Arno, in the garden of a friend of my mother's, I had met a young professor from Sofia and asked him where I should go for my one day in his city. He said gravely, "The Shee-ehraton." I was not offended, though I thought he was dismissing me as a silly tourist unworthy of any information more esoteric than that.
In Sofia I had, in fact, been booked into a hotel that was under construction. The lobby was a hell of flying dust and the squeals of electrical saws. The room, when I reached it, was one of the most dismal I have ever been in, with a stained bedspread, dust seeping through the air-conditioning duct, and a bleak view. The solemn professor's words suddenly lit up in my head; I called "the Shee-ehraton." A lovely, warmhearted voice informed me that there was a room, that it was "beautiful," and that I would be "very happy" in it. Yes, she used the word happy. Well, I know the difference between corporate courtesies and the truth—this was clearly the truth. I rushed over in a rickety taxi. My telephonic benefactress, an elegant woman with auburn hair, was at the front desk. She smiled and handed me a key. The room was, indeed, beautiful, and when I pulled the burgundy taffeta curtains aside, I saw that the hotel, once known as the Balkan, had been built around the most ancient remaining church in Sofia. There, nestled in the courtyard, was the fourth-century St. George Rotunda, with a half moon-shaped fresco on its façade. I lay back on cloudlike pillows and awoke the next morning to find that it was still there—my very own enchanted Roman church. That's what the professor must have had in mind, I thought.
My theory about hotels used to be that they had to be elegant, dilapidated dives or classic old establishments: Raffles in Singapore, the Gritti in Venice, the Crillon in Paris, the Tawaraya in Kyoto, on and on—actually, the list was rather short. I have stayed at all of them at one time or another, and would still do so, except that I have also fallen, gradually, for the discreet charm of chain hotels. Why?They're there when you need them and where you need them—near airports and in smaller cities—and without much fuss they take you in, look after you, and don't expect too much in return.
Once, fine hotels were accessible to anyone who wanted to stay in them; you just had to want to. When I started traveling on my own, in the eighties, you could have a lovely room at the Inghilterra in Rome for $60. You could have a vast suite at the Oriental in Bangkok, even the one Somerset Maugham lived in for some time, for little more. This is no longer true; luxury hotels are now very much a luxury. But a whole category of wonderfully comfortable and well-appointed hotels has cropped up to fill the gap for hotel-loving writers and other non-millionaires with expensive tastes.
I was going to Bombay once, flying Northwest Airlines through Amsterdam. There was a 4 1/2-hour layover between flights, and I had the brilliant idea of sleeping them off. That's when I discovered the Sheraton at Schiphol. You simply walk over to the hotel from the airport without even having to brave the elements. The rooms are modern, in blues and reds, and have big beds, crisp white sheets, large windows with a great deal of light coming in, and little noise in spite of the proximity to planes landing and taking off. I slept 2 1/2 hours, took a shower, changed, and got back onto another plane. It's hard to describe the feeling of sheer bliss at being able to slip into a freshly made bed after you've been sitting in an airplane seat and knowing that soon you'll have to do so again. I have since adopted this as a way to fly long distances and feel quite human and rested at the end—it's a class I've devised for myself, somewhere between economy and business.
Another time, I landed in Delhi at midnight and was to leave early the next morning for Calcutta. I asked about an airport hotel and found there was a Radisson nearby. I have been going there ever since. For just over $100 a night you are given a huge room, a large bed, and a travertine bathroom; there is wonderful service, and all the shopping you need is on the ground floor. It happens to look rather stately, too, with its high-ceilinged front hall. The hotel is 25 minutes from the city and if you're staying only a couple of days in Delhi, it's perfectly convenient—plus, the air is cleaner there than in the center of town. (The Dalai Lama apparently stayed at the Radisson the last time he was in Delhi.)
But the place that clinched my penchant for chain hotels was the Ramada Hotel Raj Park in Chennai (Madras). It's a small property set into a busy thoroughfare. I don't think it has more than 90 rooms, which are distinguished by light wood paneling that runs behind the bed and becomes a night table on either side. The views are of rooftops and treetops. At the Raj Park, as everyone in Chennai calls it, the staff seemed to care very much about my well-being, to the point of being comically personal about it. "How did you sleep, Madam?" the elevator attendant would ask, scrutinizing my face as a loving relative might. "Did you have breakfast, Madam?" one waiter inquired, followed by, "Did you like the breakfast, Madam?" and when I replied, "Delicious," he went away muttering happily, "Delicious, delicious, delicious," as though to memorize the word.
The Raj Park feels like a private residence because no employee behaves in a corporate manner. The restaurant is like a private dining room, with a good lunchtime buffet: vegetarian food on one side, non-vegetarian on the other, and salads and desserts in the middle. When my car arrived at the appointed time, the concierge would call and say, formally, "Your car has reported." Every morning I would find the Hindu slipped under my door, and my breakfast, on the days when I didn't have steamed idli pancakes and sambar (stewed lentils), was thick square slices of crisp toast and either the tea I like so well, premixed with milk and spices, or south Indian coffee, which comes slightly sweet and also milky—a large pot of it. That's luxury, no?Only it's a homey kind of luxury. You begin to feel you could live at these hotels, that you could work well in them. That's an important point: they are the hotel equivalent of business class on planes, meant for people who work, so there is an unassuming congeniality about their atmosphere, a collectedness. Maybe it was what Nabokov found a couple of decades ago at Le Montreux Palace, where he lived, and to which he returned after chasing butterflies.
About every charming, cheap hotel I've known I have a vivid memory of the sleepless night spent in it listening to an air conditioner rattling like a hovering helicopter, or of the heat, or of the lack of heat. My experiences have influenced me in favor of hotels that have a few solid guidelines as to what constitutes reasonable living conditions for a person only half-stoical, if that. I've reached the conclusion that chain hotels are the present-day alternative to the atmospheric pensions of yore—and that, often, they are run like grand hotels.