|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Spring - Summer 2007|
HOMES AWAY FROM HOME
Now that I just turned 65, I figure I’ve done, if not most, at least well over half of my traveling. And during those 65 years, I have been fortunate enough to stay at some of the more memorable hostelries on Planet Earth. Since I play to cut back on the traveling a bit during the next 30 years, I thought this might be a good time to share my memories of those accommodations with you.
We've stayed in places that were far more famous, but the most luxurious hotel accommodation we ever had was when I was Toastmaster at the 1988 Worldcon in New Orleans. The pro and fan Guests of Honor -- Don Wollheim and Roger Sims -- had first choice, and both chose suites in the Marriott, which was across the street of the Sheraton and hence 40 yards closer to the French Quarter...so we "settled" for the Presidential Suite in the Sheraton.
It had a living room with a 60-foot window wall overlooking the Mississippi, a dining room with a mahogany table and matching chairs for 24, the master bedroom had a gorgeous 4-poster king-sized bed on a raised platform and two walk-in closets, there were 3 other bedrooms (once we found out how many bedrooms we had, we filled them with Laura, a friend of Laura's, and my father). There were 6 bathrooms, each with its own phone and television. There was an express elevator that went from the lobby to our front door on the 49th floor and nowhere else.
I've stayed in my share of 5-star hostelries in the US, Europe and Africa (and the Sheraton isn't one; even before Katrina it only had 4 stars), but I've never experienced an accommodation like that one.
The contract between producers and the Writers Guild stated that we must be flown first class, driven by limo, all meals paid for, and housed in 5-star hotels. The most luxurious of them was the Beverly Hills Four Seasons. We had a penthouse suite, which is to say, a bedroom and a sitting room. (Well, once we had one penthouse; a couple of other times we had the same floor plan but not on the top floor.) It was spacious without being overwhelmingly so. What made it worth the money (not ours, thank ghod!) were the furnishings: a bed, chairs, chaise lounge, tables, desks, that must have cost upwards of $40,000 for the two rooms...and the wallpaper probably went $75 a square yard. Elegant bathroom, too. That was the Capella International hotel.
The Miramax hotel was a little less in-your-face elegant but far more interesting. We had the same suite each time, at the Beverly Hills Nikko Inn. It was exceptionally high-tech. Every desk and table, even the nightstands, had rows of buttons that controlled everything in the suite. Push this button and the drapes would open or close; push that one and they'd open or close in the next room; push this other one and the water would start running in the bathtub; push another and room service would speak to you on the intercom so you didn't have to fumble for the phone. There were actually two bathtubs: a normal one, and one that was maybe three feet on a side and six feet high. Of course they had high-speed computer connections (before 99% of the hotels did), and state-of-the-art widescreen flatscreen TVs, stereos, DVD players, you name it, in each room. The furnishings and overall ambience were not up to the Four Seasons, and every time we had a business dinner they drove us to the Four Seasons' restaurant rather than eating at the Nikko, but as I say, it was a lot more interesting suite.
(We never saw anyone in the Four Seasons reading anything except Daily Variety and the Daily Hollywood Reporter; they were also the reading matter of choice at the Nikko, but at least a couple of people in the lobby were furtively peeking at the Wall Street Journal.)
When we went to Botswana in 1990 as part of a 6-week safari that included Zimbabwe and Malawi, we knew we wanted to stay at the luxurious Chobe Game Lodge when we visited the Chobe National Park, and we reserved a room. When we landed in London, prior to getting on a plane that would take us the rest of the way, the agent who had arranged the trip to our specifications was waiting there to greet us, and mentioned, in passing, that the honeymoon suite, the one where Richard Burton and Liz Taylor had spent a week after their second marriage, had just had a cancellation, and would we be interested? Ordinarally I'd have said no, but I'd just made a few foreign sales I hadn't anticipated, and we were only going to be at Chobe for 3 days, so I agreed.
By the time we got there two weeks later, we'd been staying in tented camps in the Okavango Delta (for "Delta" read "Swamp"), and some dry, dusty areas on the edge of the Kalahari, and we were ready for a little luxury. The suite was composed of a bedroom and a parlor, each about twenty by twenty feet. Beautiful tiled floors, lovely stucco walls, glass doors from each room leading out to a balcony. More important, the suite was air-conditioned -- the only air-conditioning in the whole country other than in the capital of Gabarone. And it had a ceramic tile bath -- the first enclosed, indoor bathroom we'd seen in ten days. Very comfortably furnished.
We walked out onto the balcony and saw that we were only about thirty yards from the Chobe River. We were also at the very end of the building. The balcony lead around to the side, and we couldn't imagine what there was to see there, but we walked around the corner and lo and behold, there was our own private swimming pool, built and positioned in such a way that no one not on our private balcony could see in. We used it maybe eight or ten times while we were there, and never wore a swimsuit.
Each morning we were served a huge breakfast on our deck, which we ate while watching maybe two hundred elephants drinking and frolicking in the river a short stone's throw away. (And when I wrote up my favorite meals in an article a few years ago, I stated that the best single dinner I've had in my life was at the Chobe Game Lodge.)
I know why Liz and Dick stayed there. What I don't know is why, with their money, they ever left.
We stayed in another luxury lodge on the same trip. About a week after leaving Chobe we found ourselves at Hwange, the biggest and best game park in Zimbabwe. I'd reserved a room at the Hwange Game Lodge, but instead we were given a huge suite, each room sporting numerous pieces of native Shona and Mtabele artwork and weapons (spears, not AK-47s.) Had a private balcony overlooking a water hole, too. Not as luxurious as Chobe, but awfully good for Africa.
But I hadn't asked for it, and I didn't want to pay the thousand a day or so that it must cost, so I went down to talk to the manager about getting the room we'd reserved, and he said not to worry, it was a gift of the management.
Just out of curiosity I asked if the lodge was full and he had no choice but to give us a free upgrade, and he said no, the lodge was about half empty. Then why did he give us this gorgeous and obviously expensive suite at no cost, I asked. He grinned, pulled out a copy of Paradise, which was my science-fictional allegorical history of Kenya, and mentioned that when he saw my name on the guest list a few weeks earlier he'd decided that he wanted to make a good impression on me, that he never wanted me to say anything bad about him or the lodge if I ever wrote a novel about Zimbabwe. (Which I did -- Purgatory -- three years later. Actually, I never mentioned the lodge in the novel, not from any ethical concerns about my suite, but simply because, unlike Kenya's Norfolk Hotel, it played no part in the country's history.)
Still, it was a hell of a nice surprise, and a hell of a nice suite, too.
With one exception (Chobe), all the places I’ve mentioned so far, while luxurious, were paid for by someone else. But on our first trip to London, we stayed at the fabled Ritz, and paid for it ourselves.
(Why? Well, it was 1984, and a small suite -- bedroom and "sitting room" -- cost 150 pounds...and at the time the pound was worth $1.05. And since every room in or near Picadilly cost 90 to 100 pounds, we figured what the hell, why not splurge for a few days? I'm glad we did, That same suite today costs over a thousand pounds a night, which seems more that a little bit excessive.)
It was a nice, elegant suite, not up to the Four Seasons or a couple of others I'll get around to mentioning, but nice. But what made it memorable were the public rooms on the main floor. Of all the high teas we've ever had, at hotels, at Harrod's, everywhere, none ever approached the Ritz for quality. The lobby was as luxurious as you'd expect a Ritz lobby to be, the one dinner we had there was excellent, and they had a casino as formal and classy as one expects (and never finds) in Monte Carlo.
A hotel in Manhattan that was every bit as good as the Ritz, at least when we were going there, was the Plaza, where we stayed maybe a dozen times, back in the days when I had to travel to New York a couple of times a year to meet editors and solicit work. The rooms made you feel like a small child: the doors were ten feet high, the doorknobs were almost at eye level, every chair could easily have held a typical 450-pound fan, the bathtub almost needed a small ladder to climb over the side. It wasn't that expensive for a 5-
star Midtown Manhattan hotel back then -- maybe $150 a day throughout the 1970s; these days I'm told it’s $600 for a room, $700 if you want a view of anything besides the brick wall of the adjacent building. (I can't remember the number of the room we always requested back then, but it overlooked Central Park.)
The lobby, like the Ritz, went out of its way to impress. Your pupils would contract from all the gilt on the furniture. They don't serve high tea in the States, but every night, on the way home from the theater (I don't think we've ever spent a single night in Manhattan without seeing a play), we'd stop in the lobby, sit down at a table, order coffee and a dessert (or sometimes Carol would order brandy or wine), and we'd be serenaded by a tux-and-tailed string quartet. Very nice way to end an evening.
The Mount Kenya Safari Club is one of the three or four true luxury resorts in all of Africa. Initially a private club created by William Holden and some partners, the first few members included Lyndon B. Johnson and Winston Churchill.
It's at 8,000 feet altitude, not quite halfway up Kirinyaga (i.e., Mount Kenya). The sweeping lawns contain a huge swimming pool, a few ponds for water birds, and some bowling greens. There's an animal orphanage on the premises, and a private reserve, specializing in the rare bongo, within a mile. There's also a truly fabulous set of gift shops, which deal not only in the ordinary tourist items, but exquisite bronzes and paintings by East Africa's best. And there's a stable for those who like riding through wild mountain territory. Best of all, there's the main lodge, with a restaurant that's world-famous. Members in the private dining room (we had a few meals there with our guide, who's a member) order off a menu, and get a 7-course meal...but it's the general dining room that's garnered all the fame. It's an endless buffet -- there are 6 meat tables, 4 dessert tables, 22 tables in all. If you choose to take your meal out to the patio, you'll be entertained by local dancers and drummers.
We've been there a number of times, and always stay in a private cottage -- there are 8 of them, about 200 yards from the main building. Each cottage contains two large bedrooms, each with a walk-in closet and each with its own oversized bath, and a living room, complete with television (rare on the safari trail), wet bar (even rarer), and fireplace. Sliding doors lead from the living room to a patio with chairs, tables, and umbrellas, where you can sit and watch whatever's happening on the sprawling lawn, or just enjoy the peak of Kirinyaga in the distance.
A few miles around the mountain from the Safari Club, on the other side of the town of Nanyuki, is Ol Pejata, an elegant private estate formerly owned by Adnan Khoshoggi. It's 110,000 acres, filled with game -- including the increasingly rare black rhino -- and you either stay in Khoshoggi's main house (it's got four huge, elegant guest rooms plus an unbelievable bridal suite and bath), or, as we did, you stay in a private cottage that is even nicer than the one at the Safari Club. The food is excellent, served on a large dining patio, and there is a swimming pool available to all guests (which never number more than 12.) And of course you never have to leave the property to spend a couple of days driving around observing game.
And believe me, when you get to the Mount Kenya Safari Club or Ol Pejata after a couple of weeks of tents, outdoor bathrooms, and ostrich egg omelets, you think you've died and gone to heaven. There's not much in the States or Europe that can match either of them for luxury. (Though the Chobe Game Lodge in Botswana can, and I'm told that Londolozi, a private reserve in South Africa, also can.)
A few years ago we took a trip to Jamaica and stayed at the Royal Caribbean, which has since been sold to (yucch!) Sandals.
It had the nicest beach in the Montego Bay area, some 600 yards of white sand, plus a couple of swimming pools for those who didn't like the ocean. We stayed in a 3-room cottage, furnished in Island Expensive, with a shaded patio facing the sea. Breakfast was served on the patio every day, lunch -- on days we were at the resort; we took a lot of day trips -- was served right at the ocean. Dinner -- and it was formal: tuxes and strapless gowns every night, just as Ian Fleming would have wanted -- was served on a series of tiered patios and decks that surrounded a large dance floor. There was live entertainment every night, specializing in songs Harry Belefonte had made famous. (You wouldn't believe how quickly you can become sick of "Island in the Sun" and "Jamaica Farewell".) The clientele was about 1/3 American, 1/3 British, and 1/3 Canadian.
There were tennis courts and pool tables, with bars and bartenders everywhere, as well as wandering calypso bands everywhere. In the morning a staff of maybe 40 would scour the manicured grounds, picking up any leaf that had had the audacity to fall off a branch during the night. The place owned some glass-bottom boats, and rented sailboats of various sizes. You could also rent a van and driver and plan your own day trip to Dunn's River Falls, or Ocho Rios, or the rum distillery in the middle of the island, or the extensive nude beach at Negril, or even distant Kingston. At night, after the dinner and the dancing, you'd sit on your patio and watch the brilliantly-lit cruise ships passing by.
If there's a nicer way to spend a couple of weeks in January, we've never found it.
Down in the Grenadines, at the Southern end of the Caribbean, there's a little island, maybe 3/4 of a mile in diameter, called Petit St. Vincent.
It's not easy to get to. We flew from Cincinnati to Miami, changed planes, flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico, changed planes, flew to Barbados, changed to a little 5-seater, flew to Union Island, and from there took a motorboat to Petit St. Vincent.
Carol had read about it, but we didn't know anyone who had been there. Evidently some Cincinnati-based cargo pilot flew over it -- it was uninhabited -- weekly during World War II, and promised himself that when the war was over he'd buy it. And he did.
It's a very hilly island, surrounded by a coral reef. There's a main office/restaurant building in the center, and it's got the only electric power on the island. Scattered around the edges of the island are 11 luxurious villas, each two huge rooms, with an equally large bath, and with both covered and unshaded patios. Outside each villa is a flagpole, with two flags: raise the red flag and no one will approach the villa under any circumstance; raise the green one and someone will be there on a moped (a concrete walk for mopeds surrounds the island) within 2 minutes.
You have beautiful views of the sea, but you can't see any other villa from your own, which means they can't see you, either. You can wander around naked for a week, or sleep naked on your deck, and as long as you've got the red flag up no one will ever know. (Not that anyone cares in the first place.)
Great dining. They serve fresh shellfish -- you can walk around and see them unloading the traps each morning -- and there's filet and prime rib for those who don't want fish. I don't drink, but Carol assures me they have a top-of-the-line wine list.
Not much to do but relax and unwind. There's an obstacle course that no one uses, and there's great snorkeling, and that's it. You come home tanned, rested, and well-fed.
Some hotels were witnesses to history. A precious few, like the fabled Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi. were part of history. We've been to Kenya four times, and whenever we've been in Nairobi – the start and finish of each safari, and twice for a day or two in the middle -- we've always stayed at the Norfolk, which, though far from large, has housed royalty from perhaps 50 countries, plus a goodly number of Presidents and Prime Ministers.
The main hotel has about a hundred rooms, but there are also a dozen two-and-three-room cottages on the grounds. At various times we've stayed in cottages that had been home to Robert Ruark, Elspeth Huxley, and Bror Blixen. (Never did stay in Teddy Roosevelt's cottage, damn it). Each cottage, in addition to its one or two bedrooms, tiled bath, and living room, has a shaded patio overlooking the two large, colorful aviaries. The hotel's restaurant, the Ibis Grill, is one of the three best in town, and the waiters are more than happy to serve you on the patio of your cottage.
Everywhere you look there are plaques commemorating some event that took place there, or some person who stayed there. In 1981 the main hotel was rocked by a fanatic's bomb on New Year's Eve; it was rebuilt in exactly the same style and colors, and by mid-1982 you couldn't tell there'd ever been an explosion. Unlike, say, the Mount Kenya Safari Club or the Chobe Game Lodge, the Norfolk wouldn't be a 5-star hotel anywhere else in the world; it might not even get 4 stars in the US, England, France, or Hong Kong. But it is so steeped in history and tradition that there is simply no place else to stay when starting or concluding your East African safari.
And a final batch of better accommodations:
- Chicago's Palmer House. We stayed there, in a small suite, after moving to Cincinnati. It's Chicago's answer to the Waldorf, and in my opinion is even nicer/ (When I was a kid I used to go there all the time. There was a magician's supply shop on the second floor -- I have no idea if it's still there; I'm talking half a century ago -- and as long as you bought a trick, no matter how inexpensive, the guy who ran the place would dazzle you with tricks no kid could afford. It was a great way to see a half-hour professional magic show for maybe $1.25, and I never missed the opportunity when I was in the Loop.)
- San Francisco's Mark Hopkins. Nice, but not quite world class. Same with its famed restaurant, Top of the Mark; nice, but there are a lot better.
- Miami's Fountainbleu. They held the 1977 Worldcon here. It was in receivership at the time, and not at its best. Fabulous lobby, capable of seating 1,500 people in comfort, and a world-class swimming pool. Rooms and restaurant were nothing special.
- Orlando's Peabody. Not five stars, but as nice a four-star hostelry as you could want. Fine restaurant, great 24-hour coffee shop, wonderful lobby with its own 30-foot-high waterfall, large comfortable rooms. Home to the 1992 Worldcon.
- Nancy France's Grand Hotel. Every city in Europe's got a Grand Hotel (we hated Brighton’s in England), but this one really was grand. Spacious rooms, huge bathrooms, excellent restaurant.
OK, so much for the good stuff. And just to show you I don’t always luck out:
In the early 1990s, the Nebula Banquet was held in New York. I flew up alone. Just as well; Carol would have taken one look at the room and insisted that we move to the Plaza or the Waldorf.
Some genius booked us into the Roosevelt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. At a time when the convention rate for most Midtown hotels was maybe $250 a night, the rack rate for the Roosevelt was $88.
It was overpriced.
The room was small. It smelled of mold. There were exposed wires along the baseboard on three of the four walls. The sink leaked. I killed a roach while I was unpacking. Never saw another roach; I think the rat I saw the next morning ate them all. Two of the three lamps had burned-out lightbulbs.
It's possible that the Roosevelt is still standing. If so, I don't know why.