Palatial Grandeur in London and a Coastal California Hideaway
From New York to London, these are the hotels our editors loved in April.
A writer unpacks the complicated joys of seeking out new and unusual accommodations.
IN AUGUST 2022, I looked out my living room window and thought: I gotta get out of here. I’ve never been less original in all my life. We — by which I mean the world — had been living in uncertainty for months, uncertainty and fear and sadness, and in August the uncertainty turned a corner: We were certain that things would remain uncertain.
In some ways, my family and I were built for lockdown: bookish and antisocial, fond of each other’s company and board games, sedentary. Things were terrible out in the world. We could hold still a while. But we missed it: travel. I particularly missed one aspect. My favorite part of traveling is not, I’m ashamed to say, the people I meet — I am a misanthrope with wanderlust — nor the great museums of the world. It’s not what I learn from other cultures or the pleasures of unexpected landscapes. I’m interested in all these things, but what I missed that August was accommodation. I wanted to sleep under an unfamiliar roof with the people I loved and look out unfamiliar windows.
Offering both a sense of exploration and preservation, the island’s cuisine blends...
James Beard Award–winning chef of Annette, Caroline Glover, dishes on her favorite...
Plus, it was hot, and my daughter Matilda wanted to go swimming.
We lived then, as now, in Austin, a city surrounded on all sides by Texas. You can drive for hours in any direction and encounter only more Texas. I resigned myself to the notion: We could leave the house but not the state. So I fired up Airbnb and searched for houses with private swimming pools.
There were a few options in Austin, but they were expensive, smallish, and basically down the street. So I looked further afield and realized we could rent a veritable mansion for a couple of nights. It didn’t really matter where, because once we arrived, we wouldn’t leave. We had two requirements, a swimming pool, and no taxidermy — Matilda cannot bear taxidermy. It is particularly difficult to find taxidermy-free lodging in Texas; I don’t know the per capita rate of mounted deer heads, only that it’s high. Finally, I found a place near San Saba, a town I’d never heard of, 45 minutes away, in the Texas Hill Country. A ranch house on a working ranch. I booked it.
I wanted to sleep under an unfamiliar roof with the people I loved and look out unfamiliar windows.
There turned out to be two stuffed bobcats — I want to say, but they might have been some kind of weasel — mounted high up in the living room, where they had escaped my notice when I flicked through the photos. I’d been distracted by the swimming pool and attached hot tub — I hadn’t known hot tubs could be beautiful, but this one was — both with views over the rolling land of the ranch. I’d assumed it was a cattle ranch, but instead it was a place where people came to shoot exotic animals in other times (historical, seasonal). Not rhinos or zebras, though such places exist in Texas, but rather African antelopes and gazelles. There were no hunters now, though. We moved through the house. A sign said “WELCOME” spelled out in bullets. In ordinary days, it would not have been our kind of place.
We had a wonderful time. We stayed three nights and swam four to five times a day, watched movies on the king-sized TV, cooked on the king-sized stove, and slept like a dream on the exceptional king-sized sheets in the king-sized bed. In retrospect, I understand that anyone with the money and inclination to shoot exotic animals has expensive taste, and the place was kitted out to satisfy them. We’d had to cancel a trip to Edinburgh at the start of the pandemic; now, months later, we were finally elsewhere. We met — and sidestepped — a giant Texas centipede. I cannot say that San Saba is the Edinburgh of Texas, only that our hosts cared that we were happy and comfortable. We had traveled. That it was nothing we’d normally have done didn’t matter. That we only left the ranch once, to get doughnuts, was part of the appeal.
Some people like to imagine themselves as heroes of great literature. I like to feel like a mouse in a storybook: small and modest and capable of sneaking into areas mice aren’t invited, to live in the lap of luxury on what has been left behind. The ranch wasn’t the first time. In the summer of 2009, my husband and I took our very small children, who were nine months and a year and a half, to England. Airbnb existed, but I hadn’t heard of it, and I cast about on the internet to find a place to stay. I don’t know exactly how I found our lodgings: first, a nineteenth-century gamekeeper’s cottage in the woods on the grounds of a stately home, and then a two-story apartment in Bath called a maisonette. The cottage was like a doll’s house, perfect and snug, with supplies for breakfast and no visible neighbors. Lucky, we thought. Then we drove to Bath, to the maisonette, which turned out to be a Georgian townhouse by the Royal Crescent, one of the town’s most iconic attractions. We walked down the hallway into the vast living room; the ceiling was covered in ornate plasterwork, and a wall of sash windows overlooked allotment gardens. It was astonishingly posh, and just half of our quarters, and seemed like a wonderful mistake. I turned to my husband — I had found this place and felt quite full of myself — and asked, “Will it do, darling?”
“Oh, yes,” Edward answered. “It’ll do.”
We called it the summer we were accidental millionaires. We lived in the maisonette for six weeks. We convinced friends to come to Bath so they could see it. Our children were so small we mostly stayed home. “Home” is what I have always called wherever I currently hang my hat, whether it be a hotel, maisonette, or hunting lodge. “Let’s go home,” I say in Florence, Paris, or the Kent countryside. I never mean Texas. Those first two spectacular temporary homes ruined me for ordinary lodging. It’s a problem and a delight.
Alone, I like a hotel, but traveling with my family, I like an apartment or a flat where the four of us can stretch out. Better — much better — a place that’s strange. We have stayed on two houseboats. The second one was only all right. It smelled of whatever fuel was used to heat it, which is not the reason why we accidentally lit fire to an electric kettle by absentmindedly heating it on the stove. But even the only all-right houseboat was moored next to a pub on the Suffolk Coast, and at sunrise I stood on the deck and watched herons over the canal. The first houseboat had two bedrooms, bathrooms with heated floors, and a small sitting room in the old cockpit, and was moored on a canal across from the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. It’s one of the best places I have ever slept. I still dream of that boat. I miss it.
We have stayed in an eighteenth-century fox hunting lodge, and a warehouse near Covent Garden. I regret that we have not yet stayed in a folly or a decommissioned church. We will, I know it. Meanwhile, I travel before I travel. I comb through listings in the usual places, the oddball ones. I examine photographs and try to account for doors. I read reviews. I am exceptionally good at finding interesting spots. My secret? It’s easy. I spend too much time and too much money and never regret it.
The pandemic deepened my devotion to accommodation. In early July 2021, it looked like things were taking a turn for the better. We took our first plane trip in more than a year to the East Coast to see American family and friends before flying to the U.K. to see the English. In New York City, things felt hopeful and open. I got an email from my local paper that said, “Austin 4,000 Vaccines Away from Herd Immunity.” My cousin Frank took a bunch of us to a tiny Sicilian restaurant on the Upper East Side, where the owner sang opera in our faces. Close-up opera! And we sat for it! We were vaccinated, after all.
We flew to England — I had booked nothing ahead in case we flunked our required pre-flight Covid tests — settled in with my mother-in-law in Suffolk for our mandated quarantine, and when we were finally released into society, the Delta variant was going from door to door.
There was nothing for it but to spend too much on accommodation, to let the houses dictate where we went. I sat in my mother-in-law’s kitchen, read descriptions, and booked five places for our trip. We drove to North Norfolk and stayed in a house with five bedrooms for four of us, a walk from the beach. Then we drove to Deal, in Kent, to a Georgian townhouse with jade green walls and one of the best bathtubs I have ever encountered. I remember all the bathtubs of my life. I have ranked them. We stayed near Folkestone in a nice-enough flat, but it had a direct view of the sea; if you sat in the right place in the living room, you saw nothing but water in the windows. I sat in that right place for hours at a time. Then to Norwich, to a tiny wedge-shaped apartment filled with books, enormous windows over the city, and a deck. Finally, we went to a weird two-story flat in London that overlooked the Royal Courts of Justice, with a bell in some nearby spire that rang all night. Each place we stayed was perfect. I visit them in my memory often.
In Hastings, in the summer of 2022, we slept in what had been, in the before times, a small hotel: two bedrooms facing the English Channel, two smaller ones to the street, a cinema room in the basement, an octagonal swimming pool, and tiered gardens down a hill, each with a different view of the water. We had the run of all of it. The living room said “Breakfast Room” in script on the door.
But we don’t always go deluxe. Later that summer we stayed in a medieval banquet house in the Cotswolds, where, I am delighted to say, a sheep got into the kitchen. I heard my son say, “Oh, no you don’t,” but the sheep did, and then Gus, as though he were born to it, herded the sheep out. You normally have to pay extra for that kind of experience.
Yes, I also like monuments and foreign cuisines, dark jazz clubs in European cities, and being elbow-to-elbow with strangers at the theater. I had — we all had — to do without them for so long. But pictures of food, jazz clubs, and even hotels do not set me to dreaming.
I regret that we have not yet stayed in a folly, or a decommissioned church. We will, I know it.
We went to England for Christmas this year for the first time since 2019. We initially stayed on the Isle of Wight with all my in-laws, 13 of us in an enormous house that was nice but not as nice as the photographs. It was a bit preposterous, and everywhere were small, laminated signs informing us how to behave and that bottles of local gin were for sale at what the laminated signs assured us was an excellent price. I had a sense I was a character in an Agatha Christie novel, neither murderer nor detective but prospective corpse. I should have guessed that the owner was unpleasant — the only unpleasant short-term landlord I have ever had — from those little signs. It was impossible to relax. Didn’t he know that this was our home?
But even a preposterous house is a story, and I would rather feel in danger of being found facedown on the drawing room carpet than spend a single night in an unmemorable place.
From there, we went to London and stayed in Huguenot House near Spitalfields Market, which not only had an excellent bathtub, views over the Hawksmoor-designed Christ Church, a cinema room, and wonderful paintings from several centuries, but, in the back, a separate cottage with a roof garden. Every morning I crossed the courtyard to the cottage to sit and work by myself. In the front house, I was the city mouse, and in the back house, all alone, I was the country mouse.
What do I look for in a house? A good bathtub. A working fireplace. Luxuries I don’t have in my Texan bungalow. A lack of taxidermy. Multiple levels are a plus. A roof garden — the Norwich apartment had one; we once stayed in a flat in Rome that had two. Good art. At any moment we might not be able to go anywhere, so you might as well like what’s on the walls. A view. I examine the photographs on my computer; I read the reviews. I hope for the best.
Then: the arrival. It’s always a little different. One of us grown-ups is the first to go in; the other is parking the car, paying the cab driver, or wrestling with the luggage. The inside person goes from room to room, recognizing the sofa from the website but not understanding the real size of the rooms or the height of the ceilings. The children will have dispersed to find their beds. We’ll stay here two days or two weeks; we will be the sort of people who live in a townhouse, or a houseboat, or a Victorian hotel. We will live in history, like the people of the past. At last, if briefly, we will be home.
“How is it?” says the second to arrive.
It’s good, I think. It’s very nice. Oh, yes: It’ll do.
Elizabeth McCracken is the author of eight books, most recently the novel "The Hero of this Book."
Sally Deng creates art for magazines, newspapers, books, and more in her Los Angeles studio. She is the author-illustrator of "Skyward: The Story of Female Pilots in WWII" and "Warrior Princess: The Story of Khutulun." She was selected by Forbes 30 Under 30 for the 2020 Art & Style list and was named a Young Guns 16 winner by The One Club of Creativity. Her art has also been exhibited in galleries across the U.S.
From New York to London, these are the hotels our editors loved in April.
Raised around the city's tables, our editor shares her most beloved spots to eat and drink.
According to this long-time resident, Rome today is an eclectic fusion of ancient riches and...
Offering both a sense of exploration and preservation, the island’s cuisine blends its native...
Eataly cheesemonger Tess McNamara and Ci Siamo chef Hillary Sterling share their favorite food...