Hotel Paradise: Five Writers’ Stories

Hotel Paradise: Five Writers’ Stories

Maira Kalman The Heathman Hotel Portland, Oregon. Maira Kalman
Maira Kalman The Heathman Hotel Portland, Oregon.
Maira Kalman

The Heathman Hotel

Portland, Oregon

By Gary Shteyngart

Holly Golightly believed that nothing bad could happen to you at Tiffany’s, but allow me to respectfully disagree: many bad, expensive things have happened to me there. The delightful Heathman Hotel in the über-delightful city of Portland, Oregon, however, is the place where I feel the safest and most welcome in the greater world. I usually go there under frightening circumstances: the coast-to-coast book tour. I am especially nervous about speaking before an audience of knowledgeable, meticulous readers, and Portland, with its exhaustive Powell’s Books (one of the largest bookstores in the country, if not the world), provides scores of these brainy specimens, willing to pick apart my work and my person.

But after checking into the Heathman I leave my beta-blockers and other anxiety meds in the suitcase. The well-brought-up Pacific Northwestern staff welcomes me with casual smiles that say “We’re here to help…but, you know, within reason.” The standard rooms are on the smallish side and have a quaint yet modern feel. I lie on the couch and order a plate of British Columbia oysters—the plump, creamy Effingham; the adorably tiny Gigamoto; and the salty Imperial Eagle, with its ancient-looking giant shell that’s just fun to hold in your hand—which I follow up with whatever serious Oregon microbrew they have on tap. And then I call room service and order up one of the 400 movies from the Heathman’s film library, my usual choice being the 1999 documentary American Pimp. The combination of fine oysters and beer, along with the flamboyantly dressed street hustlers on the television, puts me in a strangely docile and contented frame of mind. I feel partly urban, partly relaxed, and partly really weird, which is exactly the mood the city of Portland projects.

With the television still blaring that slow, melancholy pimp jabber, I’ll heave myself onto the bed, maybe score another beer from room service, maybe call an ex-girlfriend who happens to live in Portland and whom I haven’t seen in 10 years, because everything is calm and right and without malice or recrimination at the Heathman (Truman Capote put it so much better). Looking out the window, I can’t catch sight of the snowcapped peak of the city’s iconic Mount Hood, but I do get the shoulders of some commercial buildings that project the quiet industry of a midsize American city fallen on good times. Before leaving for my reading, I’ll check the Heathman’s other library, the 2,000 books signed by authors who have stayed at the hotel. Feeling myself embedded in a mighty Northwestern literary tradition, I’ll sail off to my reading at Powell’s, happy and chemical-free.

The next morning I’ll head downstairs to the Heathman Restaurant & Bar, where the chefs do pretty good things with sturgeon and eggs and downright amazing things with Dungeness crabs and eggs. Then, I’m off to a day of drowsy wandering around this compact, bike-happy city. Perhaps I’ll run into somebody from last night’s reading and they’ll invite me to a three-hour midday coffee session. We’ll sit beneath a rain-splattered canopy and get all caffeinated up about the state of the rest of the country, while Mount Hood floats ethereally somewhere in the far distance. A waiter approaches: “Can I top you off there?” Hey, why the hell not?


The Oriental

Bangkok, Thailand

By Guy Trebay

On the map that exists in all travelers’ minds, there are cities one pines for and occasionally even dreams about. And there are others that register less vividly, even when you are in their midst. Each time I exit the crumbling (now finally under renovation) Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi and breach the throngs of curbside luggage porters and touts, and then drink in the smoggy, dusty, generally unwholesome, and yet, to my nose, perfumed, air of India, I feel at home.

Strangely, I never have this feeling in Bangkok, although I have stopped in that gaudy, implacable capital city a lot since the early 1990’s, on my way in and out of Cambodia and Vietnam and other Asian outposts for which it is the transportation hub. On the cusp of 2007 I found myself there again awaiting permission to enter Burma, a gorgeous and benighted country whose political equilibrium, always fragile, would be shattered before year’s end.

In Bangkok I have tended to pass my time in well-cosseted transition, at a place I often think of as the hotelier’s rendition of paradise: the 130-year-old Oriental, perennially cited at the top of magazine surveys naming the world’s finest hotels. Paradise can be interpreted in many ways, of course, but I prefer to think of it in terms of the root meaning of a word first written in the archaic language of the Zoroastrians. In Avestan, pairidaeza is a walled enclosure, and it is primarily in this sense that the Oriental hotel feels like paradise to me.

A too-little-appreciated function of any hotel is that it provides a line of defense against the buffeting and nuisance of the world outside its walls. The more one travels, the more crucial becomes that sense of enclosure and the feeling of being kept safe, not merely from real or imaginary external threats but also from the rootless malaise that sooner or later causes every traveler to bolt awake in a cold sweat, wondering where the door is and what the time is and even which city one is in.

Once, in a New Mexico thunderstorm that cracked open the sky from heaven to horizon, I stumbled upon paradise at a $29-a-night motel on Route 66. Once, I experienced the same relief in a hulking Transylvanian inn where a colleague and I took shelter as Romania underwent a violent revolution. Unlike the Kuwaiti hotel where we would later pass nervous weeks during Operation Desert Storm, the door to our chamber in that Dracula’s castle had both a knob and a working lock.

Regardless of whether there is actual peril beyond a hotel’s precincts or just the clamor and din of a city like Bangkok, making passage from the street and into the embrace of a hotel lobby is vital to the experience of travel. In Bangkok, of all the blaring, tumultuous, confusing, and polluted cities I know, there is everything to be said for the ability to escape. And that is my main ambition when I am there.

The aura of poshness and the clockwork service at the Oriental may be squandered on me, since what I ask of a hotel from a practical standpoint is fairly simple: enough hangers and hot water, a place to stack the books and objects I accumulate on the road, a proper reading light, a flat surface for a laptop, and the assurance that a Do Not Disturb sign will not be locally translated as “Please Enter Immediately and Bring Every Person You Have Ever Known.”

If I do not get much use from the now-ubiquitous in-room cable, CD player, iPod dock, and mini-bar, or from the plush robes that are inevitably cut so that, on a tall man like me, the belt creates an empire gown effect, I accept that these things are considered the baseline of what constitutes fanciness in hotels.

At the Oriental, I always request a room on a high floor overlooking the Chao Phraya River. I am aware that there is a fine garden pool and a spa reachable by ferry across the water and a cooking school and also that the slightly too recognizable person in the lobby is Brad Pitt. I don’t care.

I am not there, as a rule, to meet movie stars or wander Chinatown or visit Wat Pho and the Emerald Buddha or to scald my mouth on incendiary street food or to ogle the sex workers in sad, seedy Patpong Road. If each time I leave the Oriental I am eager to return, it is not because the building itself is impressive or because the bartender at the Bamboo Bar has perfected anachronistic cocktails like the Singapore sling.

Neither is it because of the hotel’s literary heritage. True, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene, Noël Coward, James Michener (and, let’s not forget, Barbara Cartland) all stayed at the Oriental, yet I doubt that they were drawn there in the hope of encountering others in their trade. They came, I tend to think, for the hotel’s exceptional quiet and nearly otherworldly sense of remove, and because they recognized that, in a culture where hospitality is deeply rooted and tolerance widespread, few requests will be found too curious to accommodate.

Is it saying too much to suggest there is a kind of paradise in that?


Campbell’s Resort

Chelan, Washington

By Marie Brenner

It is America in slo-mo that draws me to Washington State Apple Country to check into Campbell’s Resort, an Ozzie-and-Harriet sprawl on the shore of Lake Chelan. For a city girl, Campbell’s, in Chelan—population 4,700, a town frozen in time since

Eisenhower—is an unusual Shangri-la. “Are you kidding?Campbell’s again?” my husband, the five-star business traveler, says. I have my reasons.

I’ve stopped trying to explain Campbell’s peculiar magic, but it is conjured by kids jumping in and out of pools, a heady mix of chlorine and Coppertone, bags of potato chips brought back from the grocery store, and barbecues by the lake that stretches 55 miles, fringed by mountains and emerald orchards. The buzz of boats, the swarm of boys casting for salmon from the pier. The chaise where I flop and unrev, surrounded by vanilla families, gathering as they have for almost a century. Up the lawn are the guest quarters and my room, a charm-free cocoon with sandpaper towels, where, on the hottest afternoons, I turn the air-conditioning up high, take to the bed, check out the classifieds in Wenatchee World, and relive Texas childhood summers in the lakes of the Hill Country, down a rabbit hole of memory.

The apple country, tucked away in the Cascade Mountains three hours east of Seattle, was the DMZ that brought me closer to my older brother, Carl: a Texas trial lawyer turned orchardist, red state to my blue state, yin to my yang, a Republican and fierce defender of the National Rifle Association. “Apple Man!” we called him soon after he bought these orchards. “Is that a joke?” Carl said.

On the hotel’s Pub and Veranda deck, Carl and I have tuna melts and fries and watch the town of Chelan stroll by. It is here that Carl zones out and dreams of developing a new breed for the area: the Honeycrisp, the caviar of fruit. We were up at dawn to walk the lanes of his orchards. The pickers on their silver ladders looked like koala bears. Baskets of dozens of varieties of apples for sale lined the side of the road. Before us was every kind of green, from moss green to the green of a gentleman’s club.

I remember the different colors of my first trip, at harvest time, when I saw from the tiny plane the astonishing panorama of orchard after orchard, a pointillist mirage. welcome to the apple capital of the world was the sign that greeted me in those tense days after 9/11, when I landed in Wenatchee, 30 minutes down the Columbia River valley from Campbell’s and my brother’s orchard. “You’ll calm down here,” Carl said, soon after I arrived. “Nothing much has changed in fifty years.”

Campbell’s has recently undergone a renovation, but when I return my routine will be the same. I will take a chaise by the lake. And decide once again not to wander over to Leavenworth to check out the Bavarian Village, or see Twisp, the sunflower capital of the state, or spend an afternoon in Walla Walla and its trendy vineyards. I will close my eyes as the babble of lake noise washes over me, my cell phone off, my BlackBerry ditched. Carl was right. Everything I need is there, especially my images of him and his apple trees.


Grand Hotel Sofia

Sofia, Bulgaria

By Mark Leyner

I arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria, in the brightest midday sunlight I’ve ever experienced. I was there for an extended working sojourn—I had cowritten (along with Jeremy Pikser and John Cusack) a movie called War, Inc., and we were about to begin shooting.

In the Blu-ray high definition of the Sofia sunlight, everything seemed extraordinarily vivid: the refulgent gold onion-shaped domes of the Orthodox churches, the sex shops with Cyrillic and English neon signage, the Communist monuments, the bright yellow peppers stacked into towering pyramids at open markets, and—what would be my home for the next two months—the glass-and-granite Grand Hotel Sofia.

I was, for those ensuing weeks, a kind of privileged guest worker. The days were long and exhausting. I’d usually get back to the hotel at about eight or nine at night and shuffle into the marble lobby, the genteel manners of the liveried doormen and bellhops sometimes disconcertingly contrasted with the truculence and baleful glowers of the muscle-bound, buzz-cut bodyguards who’d colonize the hotel bar in advance of some celebrated Balkan mobster.

After cleaning up a bit, a bunch of us would usually reconvene for dinner in the elegant dining room of the hotel. This group would consist of some combination of the cast (Cusack, his sister Joan, Hilary Duff, Marisa Tomei, and Ben Kingsley, among others) and various producers. Each night, I’d order exactly the same thing. First, a scotch. Then I’d get a shopska salad (fresh tomatoes, red onions, cucumbers, sweet peppers, and grated white cheese) and a plate of lamb stew.

This was the ritual meal that sustained me through the next two wildly entertaining months here. But as the weeks passed, I began missing home, and really longing to be back with my wife and daughter.

The night before I was scheduled to finally return, I lost a bet and got stuck with the dinner check for the entire table. I lingered alone a bit, transposing my loss from levs (the pre-EU Bulgarian unit of currency) to dollars. An odd figure floated into the periphery of my vision—a raven-haired guy, mid-thirties, dark eyeliner and mascara, Gypsy features, a lavender polyester disco shirt unbuttoned down to the navel, and a long canary-yellow scarf. He paused to survey the table’s accumulated detritus. With a theatrically effeminate sweep of his arm and a gleaming, ingratiating smile, he said: “Maybe none of you vant to leave Sofia…” And then more ominously, “Ever.” With that, he disappeared.

I returned to my room and packed.

The next morning, I awoke to find that an impossibly thick, supernaturally dense fog had enshrouded the city. Someone phoned from the front desk to inform me that all flights out of Sofia had been canceled.

I refused to believe it. I went downstairs, threw my bags into the studio’s hired car, and Pavel (the patient young Bulgarian driver) dutifully drove me to the airport. I don’t know how he was able to drive. It was literally impossible to see anything in front of the car. Once we got to the airport, Pavel waited with me for the next five hours until I resigned myself to the fact that no flights were leaving. And then we drove back to the hotel.

This exact sequence of events would repeat itself for the next five days.

And each time, we’d return to the hotel and I’d withdraw to my room, leaving my packed bags in front of the door. There’d be no more dinners with everyone. I’d already said my good-byes and I was too disgruntled to socialize. For five days, I wore a thick terry-cloth Grand Hotel robe and drank scotch and ate shopska salad and lamb stew alone in my room.

It’s a testament to the comforts of that room and the unstinting amiability of the hotel employees who’d bring me food and drink and towels, and stand around commiserating with me, that I remember even those days with such fondness and nostalgia.

The morning I was ultimately successful in leaving Sofia began as inauspiciously as all the others had. I opened the curtains and there was The Fog. I doffed my robe, got dressed, took the elevator downstairs, and tossed my bags into the waiting car. On the way to the airport, I confided to Pavel that I thought a disco Gypsy might have put some sort of spell on me. Pavel was skeptical. “Sometimes we have fog,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

At my gate, as I said my final good-bye to Pavel, I realized something: As much as other people and places beckoned, it was naïve of me to assume that I could simply pack up and decamp without enormous regret and resistance. The Grand had been home. I’d found my comfort foods. I’d become happily habituated to a set of quotidian rituals—to laundry schedules, to particular routes and hallways and elevators. I’d found solace in the indecipherable conversations of maids and bellboys as they passed my room—a muffled obbligato, a white noise soothingly disengaged from meaning.

In the end, it was a sort of reciprocal haunting. I haunted the hotel and it haunted me back. What else can explain the spectral appearance one night of the disco Gypsy in mascara, and the thickening fog of memory and nostalgia?


Mizpe Hayamim

Rosh Pina, Israel

By Daphne Merkin

For a tiny country like Israel, it’s a long, dusty way by car (nearly four hours) from Jerusalem to the eastern slopes of Mount Canaan, and, having gotten lost on the road as my sister, who lives in Jerusalem, squabbled over directions with her daughter, we were all a bit grumpy. That mood wore off almost the minute we stepped through Mizpe Hayamim’s doors and inhaled the smell of jasmine and honeysuckle. Instead of a massive monument to marble and gilt—the more aspirational but less inspired aesthetic of most of the country’s other hotel spas—the lobby was intimate, its tone set by terra-cotta floors, a fireplace, and small vases of wildflowers. From the welcoming receptionist’s “Bruchim habaim,” the usual, somewhat strident Israeli style of communication gave way to serene voices and an unhurried pace.

It has always been hard to associate Israel—a country marked by violence, a nightmare rate of car accidents, and an aggressive, cigarette-smoking population—with the luxe, calme, et volupté of spa life. However, staying at Mizpe Hayamim, Hebrew for “view of the seas,” is a stark departure from daily existence in a part of the world that is always on guard. The difference is underlined by the resort’s setting, near a tiny artists’ colony in the verdant Galilee—an area that has enjoyed good relations between Jewish residents and their Arab neighbors since the 1880’s.

There are dazzling pastoral views everywhere you turn. Nestled high up in the hills 1,870 feet above sea level, Mizpe’s vistas encompass the Mediterranean Sea, the Hula Valley, and the Golan Heights. The views close at hand aren’t bad either. Walking around the resort’s 37 acres, you take in ponds and streams running through small groves of fruit trees and herb and vegetable gardens. Goats and cows populate the pastures, providing the hotel’s yogurt, milk, and cheese; chickens are given free range. The farm is run organically, and among its produce are olives that are cracked and pickled in a nearby bedouin village. Neighboring kibbutzim provide whatever cannot be grown right here.

The room I shared with my sister—like the one my daughter shared with my niece—had an expansive, airy feel, a kind of spartan chic. The wrought-iron bed was a bit crowded for the two of us and, to reiterate my usual beef with hotels the world over, the reading lights might have been stronger. But we had a sofa and comfortable chairs and windows that opened out onto the hotel’s lush green grounds.

The main draw for many of the hotel’s guests is the spa, which features treatments of every variety as well as the unusual opportunity to chat with an aesthetician about the Middle East impasse. I had only two sessions, a facial and a failed attempt at learning Feldenkrais. For me, the spa wasn’t the main draw, in any case; it was the nongimmicky elegance of the hotel, the feeling that you were part of an indigenous culture rather than someone who’d come all the way to Israel to experience a tacked-on American style of glitz.

The second day of our stay, we stopped at the tiny organic bakery so I could study the hand-labeled jars of jams and honeys. I must have spent at least half an hour examining the different varieties, as if everything depended on it; I finally decided on a jar of strawberry jam and one of the honeys that came with the morning’s lavish buffet. My sister and the two cousins headed for the lobby, planning to do nothing more ambitious than watch the guests go by in their white terry robes and help themselves to herbal tea from the tea corner. I took a swim in the large, blessedly under-chlorinated indoor pool and walked out to a terrace above a rocky expanse of dips and rises, undulating into the horizon. And then I did what Mizpe encourages you to do, which is to wrap yourself in its timeless landscape and give yourself up to the elements, to communing with the blue sky and warm sun. I felt as peaceful as I had in years, and managed, for a while, at least, to block out thoughts of the jolting dose of Israeli reality that awaited me back down the mountain.

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