The first hotel I ever stayed in was The Bay Hotel in the small seaside village of Cullercoats, which is on the Northumberland coast in the far North of England. For most of the 1950s, my family went to Cullercoats every July for our annual summer holidays. We'd spend the time visiting relatives and playing on the beach. Merchant ships with cargoes of coal flowed out of the port of Newcastle. On their return journey they would wash out their empty holds just off the coast and consequently the beach at Cullercoats was always black with the coal dust that the tide brought ashore. All the sandcastles that I built there were speckled black and yellow, and I would return to the hotel at the end of the day, tired and triumphant, looking rather like a coal miner who had just emerged from a hard shift in the pit.
By modern standards, The Bay Hotel was rather primitive. None of the bedrooms had washing or toilet facilities; we all had to use the communal bathroom at the end of the corridor and it was furnished and equipped with the grim post-war austerity that typified 1950s England. But I had nothing to compare it with. The Bay Hotel was my first hotel, and I thought it was absolutely wonderful. Every year I looked forward to re-visiting its shabby, greasy furniture and its frayed carpets. I have very fond memories of our summer holidays in Cullercoats.
Since then I have stayed in hotels large and small, both luxurious and slummy, all over the world. I have learned many things about hotel cultures and I have found that it isn't the condition of the building that matters, it's the ambience that is important and that ambience is a combination of many things, most of them quite intangible.
The So Hotel in Christchurch had ambience down to a fine art. Run by unregenerate post modern hippies, it was the practical personification of new age philosophy. It had homeopathic mood lighting in every room and meditative visual mantras on the television. It was so laid back that it lost its balance in the earthquakes and sadly it no longer exists. That is So upsetting.
Another very ambient hotel, and one of my very favourite hotels ever, now also sadly demolished, was in Suva, the capital city of Fiji. The hotel was an old colonial building and the bar and restaurant area were decorated like a stage set from a 1920s play. I kept expecting Somerset Maugham to wander casually into the bar and order a pink gin. The chef was truly inspired and the meals, full of fresh local produce, were mouth-wateringly delicious.
My bedroom was old and shabby but the sheets on the bed were spotlessly clean and the ladies who did were all terribly proud of their high standards. Every bit of crumbling chrome in the bathroom shone, every stain in the shower was polished to perfection. I would lie in bed at night soothed by the rustling sounds of cockroaches scurrying hither and yon across the floor. Sometimes I'd turn the light on just to watch them run away and hide. Most mornings there were several cockroaches trapped in the toilet. I quickly learned that cockroaches are flush-resistant and I never felt truly comfortable lowering my bottom onto the seat while the cockroaches waited beneath me, eagerly anticipating the treat to come.
It wasn't long before the cockroaches and I were on first name terms. Like all the hotel staff, they were friendly and obliging creatures. One morning, about 4.00am, I was nudged awake by Derek, the largest of the cockroaches. He had huge antennae and was the best scuttler I'd ever met.
Alan, said Derek urgently, something's going on.
Outside the hotel, there was a lot of raucous shouting and rhythmic chanting. These sounds are not commonly heard at 4.00am in Suva and Derek was worried.
Do you think it might be a coup? he asked. Fiji is famous for its coups. They are a national sport. When there's nothing worth watching on the TV, they have a coup. And there's never anything worth watching on the TV...
No, I said. It isn't a coup. There's an important rugby match this weekend and the team are out training on the rugby pitch next door to the hotel. When I had dinner last night, the waiter warned me that this would happen. He's on the team. I'm sorry I forgot to pass the message on to you.
That's all right, said Derek. But why are they training at 4.00am?
Because the temperature hasn't got uncomfortably hot yet, I explained. It's still lovely and cool outside, just perfect for chasing a rugby ball. And anyway, they've all got jobs to go to during the day so they'll be too tired to train in the evening after working hard all day in the sun.
I see, said Derek thoughtfully.
The cockroaches and I opened the curtains and peered outside. On the rugby field, golden moonlight shone on massive men built like tree-trunks who chased and tackled each other with enormous enthusiasm. Crowds of excited spectators urged them on.
This is fun, said Derek, and all the cockroaches nodded their heads in agreement. And so did I.
Some hotels go out of their way to make you feel unwelcome. There is a hotel in Auckland which has this down to a fine art. The reception desk is officially closed during normal check-in and check-out times. If you are ever unlucky enough to find someone at reception during the weird hours when it is actually open, they are invariably surly and uncooperative. Every room has a compendium describing the hotel facilities. Every sentence in the compendium begins with the words You will not... and goes on to describe the dire consequences that will ensue should you dare to commit any of the enumerated sins. Crucifixion is strongly hinted at and impalement is implied. Guests at this hotel suffer permanent scars to the psyche. The ambience is negative.
Most rooms look out over a building site where large yellow machinery makes loud industrial noises at all hours of the day and night. Ear plugs are an extra charge on the room.
After all that it comes as something of an anti-climax to find that the rooms are the size of broom cupboards (but that's all right there's a rule against cat swinging, those caught indulging in the practice are condemned to be nibbled to death by mice).
It is also less than surprising to find that the shower fitting is pulling away from the wall and that it leaks through so many orifices that there is barely any pressure in the shower head itself. But this, being the fault of the hotel rather than the fault of the guest, is not subject to any punishment at all.
Somewhat to my surprise, I found a person sitting in reception.
The shower leaks, I said, and the soap tray is broken and hanging by a thread. Can I move to a room where the fixtures and fittings actually work?
No, he said, and then he nailed my feet to the floor as punishment for my temerity in asking for another room. Anyway, all the rooms are the same. Moving won't change anything. None of the showers work.
I haven't stayed in a hotel since then. It's hard to go anywhere else when your feet are nailed to the floor.