Some people don't care where they sleep as long as the room is clean, the water hot and the price cheap. That's their business, but maybe they don't know what they are missing. Their opposites -- we'll call them discriminating travelers -- prefer to stay in unusual or distinctive lodgings. They like the kind of places that reflect the local character, even if they have to climb two flights of stairs to their room in a country inn.
These adventurous travelers, willing to put in the effort to find something a little different, are the intended market for two expanding series of guidebooks, both of which focus almost entirely on places to stay. They are "Best Places to Stay," currently in nine volumes, and "Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns" in eight volumes. Both series feature the United States, but each has a couple of volumes on lodgings abroad.
Between them, they highlight dude ranches, tennis and ski resorts, historic city and country inns, seaside cottages and guest houses, wilderness fishing lodges, restored mansions, working farms, budget inns, hot springs spas and at least one underwater habitat for scuba divers -- Jules' Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, Fla.
The two series are quite different, but they share one major attribute. For unique accommodations, they are both far superior to this country's two other national lodging guides: the Mobil Travel Guides and the American Automobile Association Tourbooks. The two older series do a satisfactory job of listing and rating standard hotels and motels, but they tend to ignore offbeat places.
Unlike Mobil and AAA, however, the authors or editors of both series accept free lodgings from establishments that are reviewed. "If I could afford to, I'd quit," says editor Sandra W. Soule, whose responsibility includes only the American volumes of "Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns." "But I don't think I'm making the minimum wage on these books yet." She does not believe the practice impinges the reliability of the lodging reviews.
"We do take complimentary lodging," says Bruce Shaw, editorial director and founder of the "Best Places to Stay" series. "There's no way this series could be possible. Most of these books have 250 or 350 places in them." He says innkeepers are told free lodging does not guarantee an entry in the guides, and he urges his authors to pay for their stay if they don't like a place.
Neither series requires that lodgings pay to be reviewed, a condition imposed by some inn guide publishers, according to Soule and Shaw.
The differences between the two new series are important, and you probably will pick one over the other depending on what you are looking for. "Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns" is updated annually, says Soule, which means prices and critiques are more current. Editions of "Best Places to Stay" are updated every other year on a rotating basis, according to Barbara Cave, a spokeswoman for the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Co.
On the other hand, the writers and researchers for "Best Places to Stay" try to visit most of the lodging establishments personally. "My guess is that only 3 percent of the places don't get visited," says Shaw. Soule relies on volunteer contributors for many of the reviews in "Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns."
The two series also differ in organization. "Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns" lists lodgings by state and community, and -- as the title suggests -- many of the places included are small. The entries in "Best Places to Stay" are grouped in categories. In the Florida volume, for example, the categories include "Beachside on the Atlantic," "Beachside on the Gulf," "Eclectic Finds," "Grand Old Resorts" and others, and the lodgings range in size from small inns to larger resorts.
In the Florida introduction, the publisher admits that grouping by category is "unorthodox." The explanation is that "often a person is not set on going to any specific spot for a vacation. Instead, a vacationer often wants a particular atmosphere, a special place to go with the family ... "
Both series do a commendable job of spotlighting America's special places, and frankly, I could not reach a firm conclusion as to which is best. "Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns" is more comprehensive, since it covers more U.S. territory so far. But I rather preferred the descriptive comments about each lodging in "Best Places to Stay," which seem livelier and more insightful.
"Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns." Editor Soule has found lodgings that meet her criteria in 49 of the 50 states. Only North Dakota is absent, but she is considering adding a historic hotel outside Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora.
She is responsible for six volumes in the series, published by St. Martin's Press. They each have the word "America's" in the title, as in "America's Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns." Separate volumes cover New England, the Middle Atlantic, the South, the Midwest and Southwest (together), the West Coast and in one umbrella volume, the United States and Canada. This hefty 900-page guide, the largest in the series, reviews about 900 lodgings (out of 2,000 in the other five U.S. volumes) and costs $18.95 in paperback.
Two other volumes are "Europe's Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns" -- one for Great Britain and Ireland and the other for the rest of the continent.
Initially, the American lodgings appeared only in two volumes -- the East Coast and the West Coast. But they had become so bulky, they were divided regionally in last year's editions. Soule has been the editor since 1985.
Soule visits many of the establishments, she says, but she also relies for evaluations on a handful of well-traveled associate editors and on comments from the general public. Many travelers who use her books regularly contribute critiques of places they like and don't like, and their observations are included, she says, if she believes their judgments are to be trusted.
Obviously, the popular places get the most attention, but not everyone sends in a rave. The beautiful Ventana Inn, on California's rugged Big Sur coast, rates highly approving prose from several former guests, but one writer notes a few minor irritations. In a new wing, the writer advises, avoid the lower floors because the noise from above comes through. That's indeed helpful information if you are booking a week's stay at the Ventana.
Of particular use locally is the 384-page Middle Atlantic volume, which covers lodgings in the District of Columbia, Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. It sells for $11.95.
"Best Places to Stay." My attention was immediately caught by "Eclectic Finds," which in the Florida volume means Jules' Undersea Lodge -- you have to dive 30 feet to get to two suites in a Key Largo lagoon -- and the art deco hotels at the southern end of Miami Beach. Both places, says the guide, should appeal to people "who enjoy the whimsical and the unusual."
The series was launched in 1986 by Shaw, who is publisher of Harvard Common Press. He remains responsible for editorial content although Houghton Mifflin is now the publisher. Currently, the American volumes include New England, Florida, California, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, Hawaii and America's cities. In 1992, planned new titles are the South, the Midwest, the Mid-Atlantic and the Rockies. Foreign volumes are the Caribbean and Asia, and Mexico is due on bookstore shelves this summer. They range in price from $13.95 to $15.95 in paperback.
"Best" does not necessarily mean "most expensive," although a lot of the lodgings tend to be higher priced. The Florida volume also includes a category called "Budget Finds," which describes three small bed-and-breakfast inns in attractive old St. Augustine where nightly rates begin at about $40 for two people.
Each volume has a different author or team of authors, and the authors or one or more researchers have visited almost all of the places included. They provide the evaluations, which I think are more to the point than some of the overly enthusiastic praise guest reviewers heap on some lodgings in the "Wonderful Hotels and Inns" series. In the Florida volume, the observations about the art deco hotels, where I stayed recently, were on target.
"The beach is beautiful," writes author Christine Davidson, "the neighborhood shabbily trendy, and the hotels and their young, arty clientele interesting. But often staying at an art deco hotel is not an ordinary experience. Rooms are small, service is minimal, and a good night's rest can be made difficult by the Ocean Drive action."
One quibble: Organization of entries by category can be confusing if you are looking for a place to stay in a specific community. However, the map pages in the front of each book do list lodgings by destination. I found the category groupings innovative and useful.