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.