The Misadventures of a Travel Writer
In the nearly eight years that I’ve been writing this column, I’ve had several readers tell me they love reading about beautiful hotels and interesting places to visit but are surprised that I never seem to have anything negative to say about them. It’s true, and it’s intentional. With only six issues of mvm a year, our philosophy has always been to use the space to present great weekend getaway ideas to readers, rather than panning subpar accommodations and attractions.
This doesn’t mean that I’ve never had any adverse experiences. In the course of my trips for “Travel Advisory,” I’ve endured a few pretty bad hotel stays and had some hair-raising — and even some funny — moments. Without naming names, here are a few of the highlights, or perhaps I should say lowlights, of those less-than-stellar trips.
About five years ago, a public relations firm that had previously helped me arrange a stay at a very nice historic hotel in Vermont sent me a press release touting another of their properties, a resort on a scenic lake surrounded by mountains. The photographs of the property were beautiful. It had a golf course and what appeared to be a very nice farm-to-table restaurant on-site. It seemed like just the sort of place that mvm readers would want to know about, so I arranged a visit.
I knew I’d made a mistake the moment I walked into the lobby, and it wasn’t just because of the gaudy Reagan-era decor. At the front desk, an irate guest was trying to straighten out some sort of problem with one of the managers. It was several minutes before anyone noticed me waiting to check in, and when a clerk finally came to help me, he seemed irritated that I was taking up his time.
On the way to my room, I had to walk through the hotel’s conference area — a poorly lit space featuring a fraying green carpet — where a trade show of companies in the driveway paving and sealing industry was in full swing. Unable to find the exit, I ended up wandering down a couple of aisles with my luggage and laptop in tow, a tarlike odor filling the air.
Relieved to finally arrive at my room, I was disappointed to discover a dingy cubicle covered floor to ceiling with loud floral wallpaper. There was a veranda, though, with a nice view of the lake, so I stepped outside to get a better look, only to find a crew of construction workers operating nail guns and blasting a classic rock station.
Dinner was the last straw. An older couple seated near me asked their waiter what a particular type of beer on the menu was like, only to have the young man, apparently annoyed by the question, reply, “How should I know?”
I ordered the duck, which arrived largely raw in the center. I didn’t eat it. Nor did I send it back. I decided to go home.
So I packed up my things and headed out to the parking lot, only to find that my car was gone. Trying not to panic, I returned to the front desk, where they informed me that the car had been towed because I had been parked in an “unauthorized” area, which was a surprise to me as there had been no signs.
I didn’t get home until well after midnight.
I once arrived at a bed and breakfast at about 3 in the afternoon to find the person at the front desk — the establishment’s owner — as drunk as a tuna with no record of my reservation or any idea who I was, even though I had spoken to him and his wife about the magazine and my column just a few days earlier.
I’d set up the visit based on a brochure I’d seen of the place. The converted Federalist mansion had looked great in the photos; its website was nice, too. In person, however, the place was pretty run down. The exterior paint was peeling, the furniture mismatched, the plumbing questionable. A faded “for sale” sign, the kind they sell at hardware stores, was jammed into the front lawn. I ended up staying anyway. I really shouldn’t have.
Another time, I was invited to come for a press stay by the owners of a brand new inn in northern New England. The email the couple sent me went into great detail about how they had spent months renovating a large Victorian house on the shore of a shimmering lake, noting that the serene body of water was home to both loons and bald eagles. The email neglected to mention the lake’s very healthy population of leeches, which my daughter, Madelaine and I discovered while searching for freshwater shells by the shore.
If legions of bloodsucking invertebrates weren’t enough, the email had also omitted the fact that the inn itself, while having the potential to be a very nice place, wasn’t in a finished state. We spent our stay ducking under large sheets of plastic, walking across paint-covered drop cloths and trying to avoid interrupting the work of the various tradespeople on the property.
Of course, there have also been times when everything has been just fine, but also sort of weird. Madelaine and I once stayed at an elite all-inclusive resort. The moment we arrived, we were ushered into the dining room for a lovely lunch. When we finally got to our room, not only had our luggage been delivered, but everything we’d brought, from our clothing to personal toiletry items, had been unpacked and put away. I’m all for high-level personal service, but that really was a bit much.
Food and drink have also been challenging on occasion, especially in situations where a chef or hotel manager has tried hard to impress and not quite hit the mark. Out of politeness, I’ve suffered through numerous wilted charcuterie plates and tepid bottles of wine, obviously delivered to my room several hours before I checked in.
Once, at another property, Madelaine and I were served an amuse-bouche of rabbit liver pate. It was bloody, God-awful stuff. I’m still proud of Madelaine, who was about 14 at the time, for eating the entire thing in one bite without making a face.
Upon check-in at one supposedly upscale property, I was asked to sign a waiver stating that I would not bring in outside alcohol. That was a new one. With several craft breweries and wineries nearby, I wondered if guests would be expected to leave purchases for home in their cars? It also made me wonder what other rules the place might have, and led me to question whether it was a good place to send mvm readers after all.
I could go on and on with these stories. Like the time I stayed at a historic property in a small New England city around the holidays and was given a room with a balcony on the top floor, the same room where the extension cord powering all of the property’s outdoor Christmas lights was plugged in. The fat orange cord had been snaked below the balcony door, making it impossible to close the door tightly. That, combined with the daylike brightness of the lights shining though the windows all night, made sleep more than a little challenging. And, man, was it cold.