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We were in love and we were in Rome, lucky circumstances on both counts, and it happened that we knew the heir to a cough-syrup fortune who lived in Umbria. That was our excuse. We rented a car on the spur of the moment and drove to Orvieto without a clue as to what we’d find in the town’s narrow streets. (This was in the dark age before smartphones.) A sign led us to the faded Hotel Reale, in a former palace near the Palazzo del Popolo. The elderly clerk at his reception desk seemed surprised to see us—it was midwinter. We might have been the only guests, in fact, because when we asked for a double room—camera matrimoniale, the Italian term so suggestive of rumpled sheets— he did us one better. Up the main staircase with fusty formality, with the room’s key on a passementerie fob, the clerk led us to the royal suite. An antique bed reclined in a frescoed alcove; a marble bathtub stood like a relic from ancient Rome. Later, we submerged ourselves in its depths, and having exhausted the suite’s matrimonial possibilities, we lounged in upholstered bergères beneath a high ceiling. It was a honeymoon without the bother of a wedding. It was my ideal of hotel living: an enclave of indulgent privacy within a public frame of formalized hospitality.
To state the obvious, a hotel meets an itinerant’s need for overnight lodging away from home. Hotels matured out of a timeless tradition of inns such as those used by Chaucer’s pilgrims, out on the road to save their souls, and by visitors tending their bodies at a hot spring near Mount Fuji, where for more than 1,300 years the Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan guesthouse has offered accommodations. (My own house in Massachusetts was another type of proto-hotel: an 18th-century tavern where Revolutionary War soldiers billeted.) At the most basic level, a hotel enables guests to attend to private biological functions, beginning with sleep and reaching an apotheosis in the honeymoon suite. That’s half the equation.
A hotel also offers guests a public arena for satisfying their social needs. Like the modern restaurant, the modern hotel spans the overthrow of the old aristocracies and the emergence of a new world order defined by industry, commerce, and politics. Hotels grew splendidly throughout the 19th century, from the 1812 debut of Claridge’s in London to the opening, in 1900, of the Grand Hotel des Bains, the setting for Death in Venice. The whipped-cream elegance of the Belle Époque solidified into five-star luxury at Vienna’s Hotel Sacher, while colonialism exported the grand style as far as Bangkok’s Oriental, a precursor to the Mandarin Oriental. With vast lobbies, gilded dining rooms, and elegant terraces, the palace hotels of the 19th century beckoned guests to rites of conspicuous display: A corridor in the original Waldorf Astoria on New York’s Fifth Avenue was known as Peacock Alley.
Skip ahead to this century on the Sunset Strip, and the lobbies of the Sunset Tower and the Chateau Marmont see no less head-swiveling on a Saturday night. The current vogue for hotel lobbies as places to work and network has been credited to the hipster generation’s favorite gathering place, the Ace, but only by people too young to remember the high-stakes social melodrama of Manhattan’s Royalton lobby in the 1990s. What Ace added is the laptop: encouraging a WeWork mentality to colonize the lobby, an area no longer clearly distinguished from the business center.
Hotel lobbies have a sense of potential because anything could happen at a hotel and probably has. They are perfumed with intrigue, and the clean, starchy scent of an unimpeachably correct staff, who see all and say nothing, never entirely disguises the animal musk of erotic escapades and shady business. Director Wes Anderson distilled a continent’s worth of secrets into The Grand Budapest Hotel. (Apart from the obvious inspirations, he also cites Louis Malle’s daring 1971 lark Murmur of the Heart, in which a mother and her teenage son, because of a mixed-up reservation, share a room at a seaside resort and wind up in a tryst.)
Depending on your point of view, a hotel is either a way station, as for Chaucer’s pilgrims, or a destination in itself. A couple I know take up residence at the Cipriani in Venice every summer to rest, read, and host daily lunches by the pool. Another couple, an L.A. power duo, flee to Big Sur’s ashram of the one-percent, Post Ranch Inn, to re-center themselves with clifftop views. And friends who honeymooned at Porto Ercole’s Il Pellicano return periodically to renew their bond, both with each other and with the hotel. Some hotel brands inspire a cultish following. I know a musician who will fly any distance for an Aman—and barely leave his room until checkout.
I tend more toward the pragmatic view that a hotel is an incidental necessity, akin to the way frugal fliers smugly remind you that the front of the plane doesn’t arrive any sooner. Left to my own devices, I prefer outdated city hotels like the original Gramercy Park, a dusty gem before it was spoiled by a rhinestone redecoration. I also look for rustic country hotels in scenic places, like the Chesa Grischuna in Klosters, Switzerland (chesagrischuna.ch), not far from the former sanatorium in Davos that inspired Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain.
As a travel writer, though, duty has called me to explore more than my share of high-end accommodations. The best of them fulfill a promise of luxury within a polished decor I would take home if only I could afford to. Like watching Luca Guadagnino’s movies, staying at a fine hotel bestows the passing illusion of belonging to a more stylish reality. When I moved to Paris 20 years ago, I venerated the Ritz as the Frenchiest of the grandes dames. More recently, the crafted and curated perfection of COMO’s Treasury in Perth, Australia inspired me to outlandish behavior that would never in a thousand years occur to me at home: having my morning coffee in bed before putting on my clothes. My favorite stay ever was at the dramatically secluded Shepherd’s Cottage at Annandale Lodge in New Zealand, a meticulously restored bunkhouse surrounded by thousands of acres of sheep pasture. A close second is my longtime New York City haunt, Lafayette House, a Greek Revival mansion filled with mismatched antiques and working fireplaces. With a toothbrush and a few books, I could make either one my permanent home away from home. Still, neither place is quite a hotel.
What they lack is a lobby. Both Annandale and Lafayette House essentially become your private residence for the night, like an apartment swap arranged with friends of impeccable taste or, for that matter, like a short-term rental via Airbnb. What makes a hotel a hotel is something else: The thrill depends not just on the opportunities embedded in the room itself but also on how closely the private experience abuts the public one. You toggle between a bedroom where anything can happen and a lobby peopled by polite staff and stylish strangers. Crossing the normally inviolable private/public border charges the air with incipient drama, the way water vapor condenses into rain when clouds cross a mountain range. Everyone’s imagination expands a bit in that moment.
What keeps things from turning seedy are the lobby’s manicured decorum and the ritualized displays of hospitality, like the desk clerk in Orvieto with his antique room keys and equally antique manners. A hotel’s social trappings are what make it stately, transforming a place of lodging into an institution. By checking in, you subsume the whispered tales of your stay into a larger narrative that outlasts you. The hotel first makes an impression on you, and then you leave an impression on it.