By Timothy R. Smith
Sunday, February 27, 2011; F01
The first time I stayed at a hostel, I feared waking up enwombed in bedbugs. Before that trip, in 2008, I'd heard lots of tall tales: that hostels are dank shanties filled with thieves and voyeurs, and that they're sometimes converted into torture chambers (according to that 2005 horror film classic, "Hostel").
Despite my forebodings, I desperately needed a cheap place to stay in New York for a weekend. My wallet was light and I couldn't afford more patrician quarters. The warnings, it turned out, were false.
Since that trip, hostels have become my preferred vacation lodgings. They're cheap and fun, with more entertainment than you find in humdrum hotels. It's easy to make friends and to enrich your understanding of the world. I've learned, for instance, that Canada has a Thanksgiving holiday (second Monday in October) and that there are no squirrels in Buenos Aires. I've brushed up on my anthropology and improved my language skills. I once had breakfast with eight people from five continents.
Hostels do have their downside. Yes, there's the occasional bedbug. Or a roommate or two can snore so loudly that they'd topple the walls of Jericho. New York last year abruptly closed a popular Harlem hostel, citing fire safety concerns with its design and no doubt miffing European travelers stranded stateside by a belching volcano in Iceland.
Gone, though, are the days when hostels, many of which once had age restrictions, mostly attracted young backpackers who needed extended lodging on a shoestring budget. Nowadays you can run into people in their 50s or older taking advantage of the inexpensive accommodations: Prices range from very cheap to moderately so, starting as low as $15 and going up to $60, usually for a private room with a shared bath.
Over the past few weeks, I stayed at four New York hostels to check out their offerings. Some were good, some less so. But I'm happy to report that as usual, I found no bedbugs, creeps or disembodied heads.
891 Amsterdam Ave.
Beds from $39.
This hostel on Manhattan's Upper West Side is billed as the largest in North America. With more than 600 beds, it's almost a village. A recent poll by the Web site Hostelworld.com ranked it No. 10 among the top 10 hostels in the United States.
Peckish after a long bus ride, I was glad to find a sandwich kiosk where I snapped up a buffalo chicken hoagie for $5. I ate it while watching three guys play pool in an alcove across the way. They invited me to join them, but I demurred. I'm totally inept and usually skin the table felt with my cue. I'm sure I saved myself some damage charges.
Exploring the hostel, I discovered a basement theater with sofa seating where local comedians perform several times a week. The nearby kitchen, bustling with a dozen people, featured eight stoves and cafeteria seating. Most hostels have kitchens, but I'd never seen one this grand.
Coming back upstairs, I was attracted by the sound of dulcet jazz notes floating toward me from down the hall and made my way to the first-floor New York Room, which becomes a bar/club on Fridays. A Brooklyn-based trio was playing in one corner while an employee served free beer, wine and Coca-Cola. I took my drink to a standing table close to the band and introduced myself to two 23-year-olds, Shou from Tokyo and Fabricio from Buenos Aires. This was the first day the three of us had been on the same continent at the same time, yet we made friends instantly.
At 9 p.m., the jazz ended and Rory Biscette, a local actor who volunteers with the hostel, announced that he was about to lead a Chinese New Year pub crawl. I'm not much for clubbing, so I invited Fabricio and Shou to my favorite New York jazz bar. We made a stop at Times Square to take photos, and after jazz, we ate pizza. On the back of a paper plate, Shou and I outlined the rules of baseball for Fabricio.
The next morning I bumped into Fabricio as he was setting off on a 12-hour, $10 hostel-sponsored walking tour of the city. Since I was checking out and didn't want to lug my Yeti-sized backpack around for most of the day, I decided not to go along.
Instead, I walked around the city on my own for most of the day. Lugging my backpack.
Jazz on Amsterdam Avenue
201 W. 87th St.
Rooms from $45 with a six-night minimum.
I chose this hostel for one obvious reason, but sadly, there was no jazz trio playing when I arrived.
The Amsterdam is part of an international chain that includes three hostels in New York, and the first I've stayed in that also houses apartments. Pink doors signify dorms, brown doors apartments. I stayed in a six-person room, although the hostel is currently converting to two-bed rooms.
The common area was the kitchen, a title I found slightly misleading. There was a refrigerator and a microwave but no stove, just a hot plate. Several people, most hunched over laptops, sat in silence at some tables. Others were watching news coverage of the wilting regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on a communal TV. That was largely the subject of discussion until I went to bed.
At some point during the night, I was awakened by a loud clanging coming from an exposed black pipe that ran floor to ceiling next to my bunk. At first I thought that a devilish brat was banging a broom handle against the casing. After five minutes I adjusted to the sound and went back to sleep. Moments later, the clamor started again, jolting me awake. And so it went for more than an hour.
Finally fed up, I left the room to shower. The bathroom near my dorm was occupied, so I went to another. I flicked the switch, but no lights came on. Hmm. A large window let in enough natural light, so the extinct bulb wasn't a problem. But the shower had no handle. Hmm. I went upstairs to a vacant bathroom, where I couldn't get any hot water. Hmm. I proceeded to another very dark bathroom, with no window, and flicked the switch. No light.Arrgh. Back in the first unlighted bathroom, I washed my face, put in my contacts and went out for breakfast.
New York Loft Hostel
249 Varet St., Brooklyn
Rooms from $20.
The New York Loft in East Williamsburg was more up to par. Ranked No. 8 in the country by Hostelworld.com, it's housed in a nearly century-old factory building near Brooklyn's rich arts scene.
Painted on each door is a two-tone New York scene. My 18-bed dorm, a spacious loft (hence the hostel name) with brick walls and wooden beams, was named after the Ramones, who originally hailed from Queens.
After dropping off my gear, I went to a nearby deli for victuals and discovered a wondrous elixir: espresso cola. Why hadn't I known about this in college? I took a bottle of the mysterious fluid back to the hostel kitchen, where at least eight people were working around the cooking island, speaking three different languages.
I opened the bottle and the cola immediately erupted, coffee-scented foam sloshing across the tabletop. While I scrambled for paper towels, a young woman ran into the bathroom and grabbed some toilet paper.
"What's that?" she asked after I cleaned up the mess.
"It's espresso Coke," I said, taking a sip. "It's really good."
She considered the bottle for a second. "Can I try it?"
"Sure." She took a sip.
She and a friend were university students from Luxembourg who were vacationing stateside for a few weeks. For the rest of the evening, I sat and chatted with them and with an aspiring Formula One engineer, two teenagers from Copenhagen who spoke flawless, idiomatic English, and a former ATA flight attendant about to reset his life in the music and film business. Everybody reminded me to be up by 9 for breakfast.
The next morning, the cooking island in the kitchen was a cornucopia of breakfast foods: jugs of milk, bags of cereal, apples, bananas, toaster waffles, butter, bread. It was the most bountiful breakfast I'd ever seen at a hostel (not all offer them). And it was free.
At checkout, I bumped into a young Frenchman who was asking the concierge for directions to the subway. Since I was heading that way, I offered to show him where it was. That's what hostel friends are for.
Tone on Lex
179 E. 94th St.
Rooms from $15.
The interior walls of this hostel in a brownstone on the Upper East Side are painted with murals of the Brooklyn Bridge and people riding the subway. In the kitchen, images from Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham" scamper across the walls.
My 10-bunk room had a sensible bathroom setup: the toilet in one room, the shower in another and the sink in the main dorm. It greatly improved occupancy times.
Exploring the hostel, I found a back door through the kitchen that led to a courtyard, which closed at 10 p.m. out of respect for the neighbors. In the basement, I found a washing machine. The space seemed more grotto than basement; turning, I thunked my head on a girder. I'm a stately man at 5-feet-6, so this is a rare occurrence. I introduced the European travelers to a few new English words.
Back in my room, I met a group of Spaniards who were shocked to learn that I'd once lived in Spain but had never learned a word of Spanish. (I was on a Navy base.) They invited me out for pizza, but having just eaten, I declined.
"New York has the best pizza in the world," I told them as they took off.
"Some might say it's in Italy," someone said once they were gone.
I looked around. Where did that voice come from?
From the bunk below me, its occupant an American student at the University of Kentucky.
"I went to the University of Tennessee," I said.
"Gross," he replied.
That effectively ended our discussion. I read for a few minutes and then went to the kitchen to watch TV, but when I felt my brain shriveling into a prune after a few minutes of "Jersey Shore," I left to explore the city. Of course, I went to a jazz bar.
Standing in line to get in, I chatted with two jazz students from New Jersey and mentioned why I was in town. Well, as it happened, they were planning a trip to New Orleans and were going to try out the hostel thing. Did I have any tips?
"Watch out for the bedbugs!" I quipped.
Ugh, they said.
"I'm just kidding. Hostels are always clean," I assured them. "They're much better than you think."
As I can attest.