When you're seeking a place to stay in Reserve, N.M., you stay at the motel. The name doesn't matter because it is the only motel for miles around.
The room was hot, airless, soiled, the mattress swaybacked and the decor random. I took it. I'd been hiking for days in the dusty Tularosa Mountains and the mere fact of a working shower made that motel the best place. I took a long shower, then slept in my camper-van.
The idea of a "best" place to stay depends on where you are and what you need: some combination of locale, access, security, comfort and cost. Criteria for Reserve and for Chicago are not the same. In major cities and resort areas, and along well-traveled routes, it is not difficult to find a tolerable place to stay the night. If cost were no object -- although for most of us it certainly is -- it would be easy to find an overnight place you could not seriously fault. At five-star prices, you have a right to expect excellence.
But a truly memorable place to stay . . . that's another matter. That's a place of comfort, warmth, convenience, character and, yes, even beauty. For me that's a place -- whether hotel, motel, resort or inn -- so appealing that I'd like to stay there, literally. To move in and set up housekeeping. A place that's better than home.
What makes a place that memorable?
First, the basics must be in order. The place ought to be warm enough or cool enough for comfort. Quiet enough for sleep. Secure against blackguards, doorknob rattlers, cat burglars. It should have plumbing that functions unobtrusively. Soap and towels at hand. Hangers and drawers for clothes. One chair with lamp. A telephone that connects promptly with the front desk and the world. A good bed: one firm enough to support the troubled lower vertebrae of backache sufferers -- who are legion; one with clean sheets and a blanket; one solidly enough assembled to remain silent under the bouncings of at least two adult sojourners; and one lamped for late-night examination of maps, guidebooks, the latest Le Carre or MacDonald.
Control of such basics explains the spread of the chain motels, the Holidays, Ramadas, Best Westerns and their ilk. Their rooms may be as alike as franchise-burgers and about as tasteful, but at least you know what you're getting -- a MacRoom. It won't be memorable, but it shouldn't put you at hazard.
This is, I know, massaging the obvious. I mention such basic matters because in my experience (while not in Frank Zappa's class, I once had occasion to stay in 96 different motels and hotels in little more than a year) most hoteliers fail to look after one or more of the basics. Even five-star prices don't guarantee a memorable stay.
*The Bed. Nothing -- no extension phone in the bathroom, no sauna-pulse shower head, no remote-zap color cable television, no complimentary breakfast of styro-croissants -- can compensate for one of those quicksand featherbeds that feels like a hammock with both ends on the same hook and delivers you unto the morning too stiffened to lace your own shoes. Better you should sprawl on the shag.
*The Air. It's as basic as can be, but the air is often foul in lodgings, and motel rooms are the worst offenders. I've opened doors from El Paso to Missoula to greet a motel-smell that put me in mind of Willie Stark's dog, whose breath'd "strip a pine tree."
I asked some chain motel operators to account for the nationwide motel-smell. Some denied it existed, but some admitted it could be a combination of the shampoo used on the shag carpeting and the industrial-strength air freshener with which rooms are misted daily. So it's hard to tell whether we're smelling the problem or smelling the cure. In either case, no truly memorable place ought to smell like the average motel.
*Noise. The archetypal moment is snapping awake at 4 a.m. to the throb of a multi-unit diesel locomotive bearing down, apparently from the direction of the closet. Actual sleep-wrecking realities are more humdrum: I've been awakened by the hallway rampages of an uncoached high school ski team in Steamboat Springs, and by the buzzing of hitherto-somnolent flies that came to when the heat kicked on in an over-rated country inn in Connecticut. In one costly and reputable Cape Cod inn, we learned too late that the walls were, in sonic terms, completely transparent. Some rules of thumb (or ear): Be alert for obvious sources of noise, for adjacent railroad yards or interstates, for kennels and construction sites, for school buses in the parking lot and for any sign of conventioneers.
*Plumbing. Skipping the obvious offenses, I'd plead only for a controllable shower with legible fixtures. Every modern shower fixture, so far as I can determine, was designed by a person with 20/20 vision. No fixture bears a simple "hot" or "cold" that can be decoded from more than six inches without glasses -- which are difficult to use under water.
But beyond the basics, are there any truly memorable places, outside the most expensive hotels? Yes, and in all categories -- motels, resorts, hotels, inns. I've found excellent places to stay, places to which I would happily return -- or never leave. In each case, they have the basics down and offer combinations of convenience and amenities plus that extra something -- call it attitude or character or quality -- that goes beyond MacRoom and that keeps me homing in. Here are a few:
*I stayed at the Littletree Inn in Idaho Falls, Idaho, by accident. It was the motel nearest the VW dealer that was repairing the camper I'd been using. From the highway, the Littletree looked ordinary: a U-shaped modern wood building, two stories high. Once inside, one nicety surfaced after another, starting with the genuinely friendly young clerks. They seemed so truly glad to see me I wondered whether I was the day's only guest, or if they'd mistaken me for someone wealthy and known. Not at all, just good people. They gave me the key, a free copy of the newspaper, some dinner suggestions, then mentioned the lounge, the pool, the coin laundry, the adjacent golf course and the fact that a free breakfast -- bacon, eggs, juice, the works -- would be served at poolside.
In the large room I found contemporary, tasteful, no-frills furnishings, a firm bed, good reading lights, a button telephone and a generous round table -- perfect for paperwork -- adjacent to the room-wide window that framed the meticulously landscaped, Japanese-style garden in the center of the building's U. All was quiet, everything worked, nothing smelled. Next morning the breakfast was free and excellent, and the bill was 22 1980 dollars. (A single is now $36 and there are eight Littletrees in three states; it's enough to reawaken a belief in progress.)
*The location of the Kiawah Island resort is the first thing everyone notices: It's on its own island on the South Carolina coast, and to reach it from Charleston means a drive under tunnels of overhanging live oaks. Across the causeway and through the trees to Kiawah's 10 miles of pristine beach. Uniformed guys who smile unload your car and tote your gear. The inn rooms (they also have suites, villas, houses) are large, and if they don't command the broad white beach then they give you a look at the dunes with waving grass, palmettos, stolid cactus.
Inside the rooms, all materials are genuine, non-ersatz. The balcony and decks are solid wood, the carpeting non-plastic, the furniture hardwood, the lamps brass. Real maps and real art grace the walls. No errant odors here, and no sounds except those of the all-night surf and in the morning the plop of the newspaper landing at your door.
A large resort, Kiawah has pools and gourmet dining, multiple tennis courts, designer golf courses, manicured grounds and wilderness, music, bike paths, shops -- and that grand, grand Atlantic beach. Cheap it isn't -- but competitive with other, much-lesser coastal resorts it is. And someone in charge has a sense of humor, because all the speed limit signs are odd numbers. Why not 37 miles per hour?
*A gentleman in uniform greets you at the stone steps of Quebec's Cha teau Frontenac, too, and it's possible he's been doing just that since before you were born. At this hotel, even the employes stay. Practice makes perfect, and service at the Cha teau is a tradition -- even a way of life.
Canadian Pacific built the hotel in 1898 as a welcome-to-Canada for its transatlantic passengers. The Cha teau literally towers over the old city of Quebec, over the St. Lawrence River and valley. With its dark stone, turrets, coppered roofs, Gothic details, it is the castle you've always wanted to stay in. Drive through the vaulted gates to the inner courtyard on their busiest day, and a liveried doorman appears at carside with a smile (and an umbrella, if need be). He welcomes you, the bellmen welcome you, the clerks welcome you, the housekeepers say "Bon jour."
In the old section (where no two rooms are alike) or the new 1925 tower, the basics are impeccably in place. No gadgetry, mind you, no electric boot-buffers, but all essentials are at hand. A color television faces the beds, but when not in use its dead screen is concealed in a light-wood country-style cabinet.
Many rooms, the Restaurant Le Champlain and the fragrant leathery Bar Saint-Laurent look down from the 350-foot eminence of Cap Diamant to the river. Ocean ships at anchor, the St. Lawrence Seaway traffic -- even the globe-trotting traffic in the panelled lobby -- suggest that this is a world crossroads. Nearly every character of real importance in the 20th century has walked through those doors. If it was good enough for Charles de Gaulle . . .
*The Charlotte Inn, in Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard, might as well be the ideal country inn, the one toward which all others with their candlelight and fireplaces are striving. It is all right there in one place: the grand handsome house, the seamless decor, the cuisine. It is the achievement of the savvy, energetic Conover family, who care about art, antiques, design and this place, and who give it not merely taste and good order, but a sparkling presence that says, "This is the place, we're glad you're here, and you're going to love it."
In terms of scenery, Martha's Vineyard is scarcely a slouch, but we found our room -- with garden views, fragrant fire and sumptuous four-poster -- so appealing that only a sense of duty drove us outdoors, and then only for the briefest stroll.
Staying in a Charlotte Inn room long enough to register details like solid brass door hinges with nary a fingerprint on their polish, one begins to sense that the whole place is a work of art, as much a work of art as each decorated room or as the watercolors in the downstairs gallery. One begins to wonder how they do it. Money is one way, of course. The Charlotte is expensive . . . and worth it. But the money doesn't account for the drive for perfection that is evident here, and that makes this a memorable place.
Not everyone carries the same checklist or gives equal weight to brass lamps and traditions, or to hallway noise and swag lamps. Criteria change along with all else about lodgings: innkeepers die, chefs move on, motels are sold. But just now, these are places to return to: to stay in for fun and comfort, to ease the tensions of travel, to repair the spirit.