My camping days are mostly behind me, and big hotels aren't my style. Forget glitzy lobbies and over-attentive bell hops. At the end of a day outdoors or running around a big city...
My camping days are mostly behind me, and big hotels aren’t my style. Forget glitzy lobbies and over-attentive bell hops. At the end of a day outdoors or running around a big city, give me a cozy bed and breakfast where I can read and relax in a living room over a glass of wine in front of the fireplace.
I like to base my choice of where to stay on the people I’m likely to meet. When traveling alone, my choice is almost always a bed and breakfast. B&Bs give me a sense of having a home away from home and an instant connection with a local.
My first experiences with B&Bs were abroad. For years, whenever I went to London, I stayed in a retired couple’s spare room on a residential street near the village of Hammersmith with its rows of quaint town houses and riverside pubs.
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I liked the feeling of “coming home” to a quiet neighborhood at the end of a hectic day, and I quickly became a regular at the pub next door. The room was spacious, and the price about $25 a night including breakfast made up for the inconvenience of having no shower, only a bathtub with the hot and cold water running from separate faucets. I washed my hair by kneeling on the tile floor, leaning over the tub, filling up a glass with equal parts of hot and cold and pouring it over my head.
Europeans are used to old plumbing, but Americans are more demanding, and B&Bs in the United States have evolved to include all sorts of luxuries everything from VCRs and terrycloth robes to afternoon wine-and-cheese gatherings to tea and of course, private bathrooms.
All of this does not come cheap. B&Bs here tend not to be the budget finds they are in other countries. Many are more expensive than hotels, and some owners run them as businesses with hired managers.
The experience is not for everyone, especially those who would rather not show up for breakfast at an appointed time with a group of strangers. B&Bs give you the same freedom as hotels to come and go as you please, but without the anonymity.
Depending on the owners’ tastes, much of the room might be taken up with impractical antiques, dried-flower arrangements, chairs that look nice but aren’t comfortable, frou-frou pillows and teddy bears. But I’ve stayed in many that were tastefully furnished and in interesting neighborhoods that I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. If you enjoy getting to know a neighborhood and meeting others when you travel, there’s no better way to connect.
Some tips to keep in mind:
The biggest misconception is that you’ll have to share a bathroom. This is common in Europe, but most U.S. owners realize Ameri cans are more finicky. About 90 percent of the B&Bs in the U.S. and Canada have private baths, says Pamela Lanier, an author who maintains thousands of listings on her Web site at www.lanierbb.com and in her book, “The Complete Guide to Bed & Breakfasts, Inns and Guesthouses.” If you do have to share a bathroom, it will likely be with one other room.
Hosts love filling their homes with the smell of freshly-baked cookies or muffins, and they pride themselves on their multi-course breakfasts, but more are catering to guests’ preferences for healthier, lighter dishes. If you have a special request, ask. Some guests view a big morning meal as part of the pampering they expect on vacation. I always request a half portion of whatever is being served and end up with a breakfast that’s right for me.
B&Bs vary in their formality. Some are spacious old mansions that are run more like inns with the owners’ living quarters off limits to guests; others are modern homes with a spare bedroom or two vacated by a son or daughter who’s gone off to college. You’ll be invited to share the family living room and your hosts might join you at the table for breakfast. I find the latter to be a bit more personal, but the trade-off is less privacy.
Ask about steps, wheelchair access, etc. Stairways can be narrow in older homes, but there might be a room on the first floor or a separate cottage available.
Don’t expect maid service or your sheets to be changed daily. If you need fresh towels, ask, and cut your hosts some slack. Some innkeepers hire help, but others are couples who do everything themselves. They are usually wonderful resources on local restaurants and off-the-beaten path activities, but ask their advice in the off-hours rather than in the morning when they are making breakfast, answering the phone and handling departing guests.
Ask plenty of questions before you book. Most B&Bs are non-smoking. Not all accept credit cards, but most will take travelers checks. Clarify the deposit and cancellation policy and ask if they take children or pets.
“Many more inns are accepting children or renovating their facilities to have family rooms, often separate from the main building,” Lanier said. “We’re seeing more of this as younger and younger innkeepers enter the business.”
Don’t assume you’ll need a car. Often all you’ll need is a taxi to and from the airport. I’ve stayed in wonderful mansions in historic areas of Vancouver, B.C., Seattle, Portland, New York, Miami, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, San Antonio, Honolulu and other cities, all within walking distance to town or public transit.
Some B&Bs advertise themselves as “gay friendly.” In most cases, gay and straight persons are welcome, but if you’re uncomfortable or unsure about what this means, ask.
Mingling with other guests is part of the experience, but it’s not required.
You can sometimes ask for breakfast in your room, but it’s more fun to kibitz around the dining-room table. If you’re not in the mood for conversation, a polite “good morning” and short introduction will do.
Other travelers can provide tips on restaurants or shopping finds, but don’t feel trapped by the chatter.
Excusing yourself is as easy as glancing at your watch, feigning surprise at where the time has gone, pasting on your cheeriest smile and bidding everyone a quick goodbye.
Choose to make lasting friends or never see these people again. My husband and I had lunch last year with the owner of the London B&B who has since sold her home and moved to a condo. It had been years since we’d seen each other, but it felt like yesterday, and I realized that some of these hosts have become like extended family.
While in Paris recently, I had dinner with another friend and former B&B host. I stayed in the spare room of her Left Bank apartment for years whenever I visited, and can still taste the warm croissants she fetched from the corner bakery each morning.
She’s since retired and moved to a farmhouse in Normandy, so this time I booked a hotel room half the size for twice the price. Then at the last minute, I reconsidered and contacted a bed-and-breakfast booking service. My host was a warm woman who loved to practice her English.
The location was safe and convenient. As soon as I settled in, I knew I’d found a new home in Paris, one I’ll likely return to again. And just as important, I found a new friend.
Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or firstname.lastname@example.org