In 60 years of perpetual motion I have stayed in countless hotels of every imaginable -- and unimaginable -- description. But when asked which is the most noteworthy hotel in the world, I am hard pressed to single out just one.
The evaluation of any establishment is always subjective. It's not so much how good the hotel is as how well it suits your needs at the time, or even your personality.
Over the decades I have stayed in all the Meurices, Bristols, Vier Jahreszeiten, Hiltons, Inter-Continentals, Mandarins, Oberons and Peninsulas on six continents. Usually I arrive to fulfil an assignment or conduct other business, which often involves being well taken care of by the public relations staff. Needless to say, I have loved the luxury, efficiency and savoir-faire of these grand establishments. Who wouldn't? To be pampered in a Ritz or a Richemond and like it is only human.
Nevertheless, my personal inclinations are for the so-called "hotels of character," where a homey room tends to induce oblivion to the outside world. The Connaught in London and the St. Regis in Paris are splendid (if super-deluxe) examples of just such exceptional hostelries. But sometimes less is more. When I am thoroughly caught up in the pursuit of an unusual story or absorbing place, I'd rather the hotel be in character with the objective of my trip.
On those occasions luxury and the good life take a back seat (or no seat at all) to genuine local flavor and I become thoroughly captivated by such hotels as Aggie Grey's in Apia, Western Samoa; the Bali Hai in Huahine, French Polynesia; El Mamounia in Marrakesh, Morocco; the Ouro Verde in Rio de Janeiro; the Palais Schwarzenberg in Vienna; the Cala De Volpe in Sardinia or the Hilton (yes, the Hilton) in Budapest. I'm even tempted to include on this list the mammoth, Catskill-like resort Kanko in Ibusuki on Kyushu Island in Japan because of its weird touches -- such as requiring all 1,000 guests to dress in loud uniforms of shirts and shorts, not unlike prisoners who've been sentenced to have a good time.
But if it really came down to choosing one hotel as my most memorable, it would have to be the Hotel Pantheon, at 19 Place du Pantheon in Paris.
This was my first Latin Quarter residence when I arrived in September 1924 at age 18 to study at the Sorbonne. My sixth-floor walk-up room was bare of decor, as was the norm in Paris' student hotels. But it overlooked the dome under which most of France's "immortals" (the members of the Academy Franc,aise) and other greats were entombed. The day I arrived happened to coincide with the state funeral of Anatole France. This was my introduction to French pageantry, and I was deeply impressed by the pomp and circumstance accorded to the deceased writer.
The next day a compatriot I met in the hotel showed me around the Quartier Latin, Montparnasse, St. Germain-des-Pre s and Les Invalides -- the best of the Left Bank. He was a knowledgeable guide and a charming companion, and he turned my introduction to Paris into an unforgettable event. His name was Tibor Dery, and he later became one of Hungary's greatest novelists. While we sat at the terrace at the Cafe Do me, he introduced me to two of his sculptor friends, whose names at the time meant nothing to me. They were Brancusi and Giacometti. And later he took me to the Olympic games and the finals of the 1,500-meter swimming contest.
During the exhilarating weeks that followed, the rundown walk-up room became my home base, and I explored all of Paris. After three months, I moved to another residential hotel. And since then I have stayed in innumerable hotels, and more.
But the most exciting and memorable was the Hotel Pantheon.