Want Fries With That McDonald's Room?

Sunday, September 1, 2002

They forgot to supersize the shower.

Otherwise, McDonald's, with its two new Golden Arch Hotels in western Switzerland, may have found the formula for serving up beds along with burgers.

I tried one of the hotels -- outside the picturesque town of Estavayer-le-Lac -- during a visit to Swiss Expo.02, the national fair in the lake district of western Switzerland. (The Expo, which runs through October, has brought dramatic architecture, including the much-publicized "blur building," to four cities in the region.)

Encouraged by Expo officials to begin my visit in Biel, a city known for watches (Rolex and Swatch are based there), I made a reservation at the Golden Tulip hotel, part of a usually reliable Dutch chain. But my drab, un-air-conditioned room, which faced a lightwell, wasn't worth the $250 per night I was paying.

Although the breakfast was delicious -- one of those buffets that satisfies every imaginable craving -- I decided to try someplace different.

I didn't know how different until, on the drive to Yverdon-les-Bains (another Expo location), I spotted the Golden Arch Hotel, a yellow building with all the appeal of a roadside warehouse. I was wary, but later that day, exhausted from sightseeing and still without a place to stay, I called and made a reservation. I was given a price of about $120.

My companion and I arrived at the hotel about 10 p.m. Since it was late and we would be leaving early the next morning, $120 suddenly seemed like a lot. "Do you have a better rate?" I asked the woman behind the desk. She left to confer with a colleague, and then told me that since I hadn't guaranteed my reservation, she could give me the post-9 p.m. walk-in rate of about $55. (Remind me never to guarantee a reservation again!) Breakfast, she told me, was available for $9 each; I purchased a pair of breakfast coupons.

For $55, we weren't expecting much. But the room, though garishly painted (picture Ronald McDonald's rec room, mostly yellow and red), was exceedingly cheerful. Large windows, excellent air conditioning and comfortable furniture made the room seem like a bargain. Better yet, at the touch of a button the beds (twins pushed together) adjusted to every conceivable position. Plus, there was Internet access, via the TV, with a wireless keyboard -- so I could lounge in bed and answer e-mail. (At the Golden Tulip, Web access was via a public terminal in the corner of the lobby.) There were subtle reminders that we were in a McDonald's hotel, including headboards shaped like the Golden Arches, but I found them witty rather than cloying.

The bathroom was well-designed, and the shower, a capsule of frosted glass projecting into the bedroom, was positively futuristic. But from the inside, with water steaming it up, the glass tube was claustrophobic.

Needless to say, in this temple of efficiency, our wake-up call came right on time. We headed down to breakfast and discovered that the ground floor of the hotel was the closest thing we'd seen in Switzerland to a mall: a deli, a cheese shop, a travel agency, a cute Italian restaurant and -- of course -- a McDonald's lined a wide hallway down the center of the building. Our coupons entitled us to choose from the breakfast menu at McDonald's.

Although we had the option to eat on a terrace, with views of the Swiss Alps, we were dejected. From the very first bite of my Egg McMuffin, the illusion was shattered. We had gone to sleep in a hip new hotel, and woke up in a McDonald's.

-- Fred Bernstein

Golden Arch Hotel, Estavayer-le-Lac, Switzerland, telephone 011-41-26-664-8686, www.goldenarchhotel.com. Rates start at about $105 a night, single or double occupancy.

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