Sunday, March 12, 2006

Aside #1: That Perfect Hotel Room

We have been asked time and time again how we end up at such "interesting" hotels. The word "interesting" takes on different connotations, depending on who is doing the asking. Some take a genuine interest, that is to say, they like our choices even if they would not choose likewise. Others imply that we must be out of our minds - why wouldn't we want to stay at the five-star chains, like everyone else? At other times, there are those who wonder why we would spend more than we need to, in XXYY City, when accommodation is so cheap there. Well, it all comes down to the several criteria we consider important and the interplay between them.

So what do we look for in a hotel? The first criterion is location, location, location. Firstly, not being able to drive, we need easy access to the places we are interested in, be they museums, boutiques, parks or zoos, or at least easy access to public transport. Secondly, we like having a choice of good eats, from street food to fine dining; we don't like having to eat in all the time. And if all these food choices are within walking distance, all the better.

The second criterion is what I would call the livability factor. A hotel room acts as a home away from home. When we travel, we like having the option of staying in when we want to, to rest between days of activity. Hence, although the room need not be plush, it should have comfortable furniture and not smell like an ashtray. Plenty of light is ideal but also good blackout curtains to turn the room into a "sleep studio". The TV we can do without but the bathroom should come with all mod cons. And of course, the bigger the room the better, so that we have some space to spread out and not get into each other's face all the time, which is why we often end up in a bigger room at a small hotel rather than a similarly priced smaller room in a big hotel. Why would we need a business centre, tennis courts and four restaurants anyway? As long as there is a pool, an indoor airconditioned gym being a plus point, the hotel is big enough for us.

The third criterion is harder to explain, except that it has to do with providing a unique experience of some sort. This could have something to do with the architecture, the interior design, the setting, or even the history of the hotel. That's why we have stayed at a hotel that used to be a favourite location for filming in the 1950s, a hotel set in the middle of padi fields, and many a beach-front hotel where the ocean was literally at our doorstep, all of which had no more than 3-stars I might add.

Linked to this is the people factor - who will we get to meet? Staying where other Singaporeans congregate defeats the purpose of going away at all. In any case, the crass behaviour of holidaying Singaporeans makes us shudder, so no way do we stay at hotels on the typical Singapore travel agency's list. For that matter, we avoid the standard tour package hotel, so that we can steer clear of the herds, whatever the nationality. This means we mostly end up at small hotels with other independent travellers. This suits us fine because we like service with a personal touch anyway.

All this would not be a problem, of course, if money was not an issue. Luxury boutique hotels generally fit the bill, but the reality is, the less we spend on accommodation per night, the longer we can stay. In fact, we have come to think of the money factor as an added challenge. Can we find our choice hotel room for US$50 (SGD $85) or less? We work our way up to about US$75 (SGD $127.5) if need be, and then no more than US$90 (SGD $153). It takes a fair bit of legwork online but then like everything else in life, all the more satisfying when you unearth a rare gem of a hotel that is reasonably priced.

So that's how we ended up booking ourselves into the Grand Hotel. There are by far cheaper options in other parts of HCM City but we wanted to be in the Dong Khoi area for easy access to the shopping, the sights and the restaurants. Then we wanted a pool - that put us into the US$60 and above range straightaway. Then it came down to the aesthetics - why stay in the standard cookie cutter mould hotel when you can stay in a French colonial style building? Anyway, for the same price, the Grand Hotel's rooms looked bigger and less, uh, shall we say tacky, than other comparable hotels. All in all, we were pleased.

P.S. The star system for rating hotels is not always reliable. Although it is supposed to reflect the quality of accommodation, five stars being for luxury, it is not uncommon to find hotels who have since slipped in standards still clinging on to the five star label. Moreover, the standards from country to country can vary quite widely. In addition, the provision of facilities counts for a lot in the star system. Yet, in today's boutique hotel age, there is many a well-run small hotel that provides quality accommodation without the bells and whistles. As they say, caveat emptor.


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