Hostel Sleepover
With a mix of ages and nationalities, the least expensive lodging can also be the most fun.

By Ellen Perlman
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

We hoof the couple of miles from the Harpers Ferry train station to a white-shingled house on a hill in Knoxville, Md., just across the Potomac River. Wet from the rain, we let ourselves in the front door. The sight of a crackling fire in the stone fireplace is a welcome surprise. Women are busy in the kitchen cooking burritos. People read on the living room couches. We wander through, smiling and saying hello.

Never saw these people before in our lives.

My friend Rob and I, in our thirties and forties, respectively, have arrived at a "youth" hostel. Seventeen dollars each gets us bunks in a dormitory that sleeps 12, the run of the house and a temporary membership in a laid-back, if not particularly youthful, travel subculture.

It didn't take long to become enveloped in the friendly communal scene that weekend last fall. Thanks to some bad planning, all we had for dinner was a box of spaghetti, a jar of sauce and a pint of ice cream. Not an exciting dinner for two, but after meeting two other new arrivals who were hungry and car-less, our provisions became a heartily appreciated dinner for four. That's the hostel way. In return, our guests offered dinner conversation and tales of their travels.

We met a family finishing up at the other table in the large, brightly lighted kitchen: Anda Samson, 23, and her parents visiting from Holland. The Samsons are veteran hostelers, drawn, they said, by the friendly atmosphere.

I'd packed a book, but it remained untouched that night. We talked and laughed for hours. I mentioned a favorite Dutch cookie I'd tasted in the Netherlands years ago. Anda left the room and came back with a package of those very cookies brought by her parents.

Funny, this kind of thing just doesn't happen to me at the Hilton.

Hostels, with their rock-bottom prices, were the dime stores of the lodging trade when I was a student. With little to spend on accommodations, if it wasn't a hostel, it was going to be a campground or a fleabag hotel.

For anyone who ever did the shoestring grand tour of Europe, this common-room camaraderie unleashes a cascade of memories. Instantly, I was back at the St. Paul's Cathedral hostel in London, or in Stratford-on-Avon or at the foot of the Matterhorn.

But when paychecks become steady, hosteling tends to stop. You drive. You whip out credit cards and charge the luxuries. Why share a room with someone you don't know? Or five people? Or 11?

Yet, whenever I see the little house-shaped road signs for hostels, nostalgia sets in. I decided they were worth a revisit.

I found that what I loved about hosteling then remains true today: Personal walls melt; people strike up conversations, offer food, let slip interesting tidbits.

The living room of the Harper's Ferry hostel looks like the rumpus room of a '50's ranch house -- with the addition of an Internet terminal in one corner. The first night, the women's dorm was full. But no one was in the men's dorm, so the manager told us to bunk in there. Soon after, three soaked Boy Scouts and their leaders turned up and started claiming nearby beds. They had just ridden 60 miles on the C&O Canal towpath with plans to camp on the lawn. The kindhearted manager invited them in from the driving rain.

Hosteling is not for everyone. Guests usually have to clear out during the day. Some hostels are dormlike, with stall showers in a row in the bathroom, as they are in Harpers Ferry. If you want to lounge in bed, party hard or make spa appointments, hostels are probably not ideal. But if you're looking for adventure and interaction, they might be.

"You stay at a hostel because you want to stay someplace interesting," said Barbara Yates, manager of Angie's Guest Cottage Hostel in Virginia Beach.

Yates has hosted Israelis and Palestinians who meet at the hostel and end up going to the beach and eating together. "You don't understand why there should be any problems in the world when you see people get along like that," she said.

Youth hostels used to be for youths, but now it's common to see people in their sixties and seventies mingling with the young folk. Seeing those intrepid souls inspired Yates's mother, at 68, to join her daughter on a hosteling trip through England, Ireland and Scotland. "I can see her now, climbing into the upper bunk," Yates said.

Urban hostels also have their charms. Philly's Bank Street Hostel is steps from the Liberty Bell and other key sights.

Recently, some Scottish lads decided to wear their kilts at the neighborhood bars. "Usually we don't have people dressing up in their native clothes," conceded Bryan Weigly, the manager at Bank.

And who knew that my recent $15 stay in Quakertown, Pa., would include a night of Christmas caroling, a bonfire and hot chocolate in front of a stone fireplace?

The managers of the beautiful stone mansion that is the Weisel Hostel invited me to their neighborhood open house. Helen and Laurel Ann, daughters of the managers, said it was quite normal for them to have people from all over the world stopping in and staying in the other half of their house.

As I was the only paying guest that night, the entire upstairs was mine. It was a taste of the high life -- except, of course, for the bunk bed.

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