Homes away from home
This is a love letter to my homes away from home—the hotels, hostels, Airbnb apartments and little capsules that became my temporary refuge back when traveling here and abroad wasn’t just a post-pandemic dream.
There were all sorts of them—big, small, expensive, affordable—but they all had one thing in common: they were a place to lay my head and rest my tired feet after a day of working or exploring.
Whenever I travel for work, the choice of accommodations is never up to me so there have been plenty of surprises over the past two decades.
Sometimes you get billeted in a hotel so fancy that check-in will be done in your room, a butler will give you an extensive tour of your room and, when it’s time for you to leave, they will take you to the airport in a limo, take care of your luggage and stay with you until you’ve checked into your flight and you’ve gotten your boarding pass. True five-star service.
Sometimes you’ll stay in a hotel so old that when you call guest services to ask how you can adjust the temperature in your room because the heater is turned way up and you’re about to melt like a popsicle in hell, they’ll tell you to “just open the door.”
Sometimes you’ll stay in a suite with a bathroom bigger than your room at home, with a tub that’s more like a little pool and massive windows that offer a fantastic view of the city. And you won’t have to worry because the bellhop will tell you, “You can see out but they cannot see in.”
Sometimes you’ll stay in a room so small and so dark that when you send a picture to your mother who is thousands of miles away, she will reply, “Kawawa naman anak ko, na-bartolina.”
But there is so much more to the hotel experience than space and a bed to sleep in. The food is so important. You can tell so much about a hotel by the quality of bacon at breakfast and the room service fries that they serve. (Don’t you just love hotel breakfast and room service?)
Secret burger joint
At the lobby of Le Parker Meridien Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, there’s a secret burger joint hiding behind a red curtain. Their burgers and fries are good and the milkshakes are even better. But Burger Joint isn’t the only delicious stop at that hotel—Norma’s serves great breakfast and brunch and if you’re staying at the hotel and can’t be bothered to wait in line (because the lines do get crazy), they actually deliver room service. Their chocolate French toast is so good.
At the Park Hyatt Tokyo, I got to live out my “Lost in Translation” fantasies. I recreated scenes from the Sofia Coppola film and went to New York Bar on the 52nd floor to watch the jazz band and have the L.I.T. cocktail (sake, sakura liqueur and peach tree).
Don’t confuse it with the Grand Hyatt Tokyo though. Because there, I stayed in a room that I am convinced was haunted—and not by the ghosts of Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. I didn’t sleep very well on that trip.
Staying in haunted hotels isn’t new to me though—it happened in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami and it happened in New Orleans, too. But, as a hotel waitress said, “Here in New Orleans, you should be scared of the living.”
Ghosts can’t scare me away from hotels—I enjoy them too much. I love the little touches—the teddy bears and rubber ducks at Conrad Hotels, the little chocolate mints on your pillow, Mickey Mouse doing your wakeup call at Hong Kong Disneyland’s hotels, Westin Kuala Lumpur serving teh tarik for everyone at the lobby.
But it isn’t just big and fancy hotels that go the extra mile.
Scrimping on accommodations
I should know because here’s a confession: when I travel alone and when I travel for leisure, I scrimp on accommodations. I’d much rather spend my money on food and experiences.
I’m very flexible when it comes to choice of lodging. And so on one trip to Hong Kong with my cousins when we ended up squeezed into a hostel, I was very chill about the whole thing (and even slept really well) while another cousin kept looking for hotels to transfer to up until the very last day of our trip.
Sometimes, my choice in accommodations make my friends worry about my sanity. Like how I booked an Airbnb room in a guy’s apartment in Hawaii—except it wasn’t really a room, it was just a curtained partition (What? It was cheap!). He was a great host though—a full amenities kit was waiting on my bed when I arrived and he was always nice without being overly friendly. That trip is still one of the best trips of my life.
In Tokyo, I booked a Pikachu-themed Airbnb room in some dude’s house in the very rural district of Nerima. It’s pretty funny considering that I’m not really a Pokemon fan. (Three words: it was cheap!) And again, I had a blast on that trip, I even enjoyed seeing all the grandmas and grandpas walking around the neighborhood in the morning. It showed me a very different side of Tokyo.
Capsule hotels are my new favorite. I loved Book and Bed Tokyo where you get to sleep behind bookshelves. I also enjoyed staying in a regular capsule hotel surrounded by Japanese salarymen and backpackers—I think it helps that I’m not claustrophobic at all. And that capsule hotel had everything I needed. I wasn’t left wanting for anything. They even had bikes you can borrow (but I can’t ride a bike).
It became my pre-pandemic mission to look for capsule or pod hotels in other cities and I found my last one in Los Angeles. It was pretty cool except for one thing—the people staying in that LA pod hotel got pretty loud, a stark contrast to my very quiet capsule friends in Tokyo. One night, after midnight, a bunch of girls started getting ready to hit the clubs and one of them kept moaning about how she needed eyeliner. I knew I had an unopened one in my bag and eventually I got so tired of the noise that I got out of my pod, rummaged through my bag, handed her the eyeliner and told her she could have it just so they’d finally leave.
It’s true. The people matter so much in your hotel experience, too—whether it’s hotel employees, your AirBnB host or your fellow guests if you’re in close quarters. They can make the difference between a bad stay or an unforgettable experience.
I’ll always remember the good ones. The jolly bellhop in London who allowed me into the backroom and helped me stuff into my already bursting luggage the crazy amount of chocolates, Percy Pigs and Wotsits I bought. Ratna from Somadevi Angkor Hotel who always had a smile on his face and made sure we were equipped with bug zappers to battle against Siem Reap’s mosquitos. The concierge in New York who looked and sounded exactly like Ray Romano and who flirted with all the female guests. The room service guy who let me have buffalo wings and fries for breakfast even if it wasn’t on the menu. Maria who was my Google Maps before Google Maps existed. Kiran, the friendly front desk guy at Wellington Intercontinental (which, at the time of my visit 15 years ago, was the only five-star hotel in Wellington), who took such great care of us and even surprised us with a spread of desserts during one dinner. The bowtied hotel manager in Jakarta who used to be a long jump champion and had dinner with us until 3 in the morning. The staff at Man Wah at Mandarin Oriental Hong Kong who didn’t judge me when I tried to eat half a Peking duck alone. Elvis, the front desk guy, who told me to eat my roast pork with XO sauce. The many, many Filipino hotel employees around the world who are always thrilled to see a kababayan.
I may usually be a hotel Scrooge but I become more willing to splurge when it comes to staycations—when the hotel isn’t just a place for sleeping at the end of the day but your actual destination. I’d pay good money for a bed that’s always freshly made, no mess in sight, a bathroom with a tub so I can toss in a few bath bombs and relax, and delicious food that’s always just a quick phone call away.
After seven months of sleeping in the same bed, finding a new home away from home sounds like an absolute dream.
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