I couldn't say exactly what age I was when my love affair with hotels began—I’d guess six—but my memory of the trip is clear. We’d gone as a family to Mackinac Island, a speck of a place on the Michigan side of Lake Huron where people get around by horse-drawn carriages, and stayed at the Grand Hotel. The Grand is one of those relics of 19th-century American vacationing, famous for its white-columned, 660-foot-long porch (“the world’s longest”) and its starring role in the cheesy but beloved Christopher Reeve–Jane Seymour vehicle Somewhere in Time.
I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, and for young Nathan, whose travels at that point had taken him not much farther afield than his grandparents’ farm near the border with Minnesota, the Grand Hotel was a world of wonders. That porch, with its bright yellow awnings and rocking chairs and flower boxes overflowing with geraniums. The ice cream parlor, where you could hop on a stool and order a malted milk. The huge, curvaceous swimming pool, in which the amazing Esther Williams had once made a film! And the dining room, where each night you put on your best clothes and ordered a multi-course meal from a card the red-jacketed waiter presented specially to you, along with a pencil for marking your preferences.
There is a family photo of us from this trip that’s always been hanging around somewhere in my parents’ house. And the thing I notice most about myself in it is not my terrible haircut, or the baby-blue jacket-and-vest combo I’m sporting, but my smile. The Grand Hotel was a portal for me to another world, one that was more novel, more glamorous, more exciting than my own. The Grand Hotel gave me a glimpse of something thrilling. And I wanted more.
I’ve never done a formal count of the number of hotels I’ve stayed in—my best guess is somewhere around 2,000—but in the years that followed that trip to the Grand, I never passed up a chance to try a new one. Even places that I would not book today were interesting to me, and in some cases formative, in one way or another. A mega-resort on the beach in Kona gave me my first taste of falling asleep to the sound of the ocean surf, an experience I would re-create at home with recordings for years to come. A bland Ibis in one of the less desirable arrondissements of Paris was, to 16-year-old me, an intriguing exploration of how a microscopic space could be packed with functionality, and proved to be helpful to me later on in a succession of tiny New York apartments.
Not long after I graduated from college, I landed a job at one of the country’s top travel magazines. Suddenly, I was going to luxury hotels I could never have afforded on my entry-level salary. The magazine I worked for had a strict incognito policy for its reporters, which made things even more interesting. How was a 22-year-old traveling alone meant to explain his presence at Cap Juluca on Anguilla in high season? While I was educating myself in the finer points of hospitality I was also trying on new personas—a jilted lover, a wunderkind entrepreneur, a dandy trustafarian—that allowed me to slip into environments that seemed to want me to be more than I was. (The whitewashed Moorish fantasy of Cap Juluca, by the way, taught me that great hotels don’t always need to be “authentic” to be effective.)
It’s one of the things that I’ve always loved about hotels: the way that they allow you to try on different ways of life, and in that sense connect you with what you love (or maybe don’t) about your own day-to-day. In Paris my ex and I used to stay at the Hôtel Duc de Saint-Simon, a small townhouse on a quiet street in St.-Germain, in a diminutive and awkward but utterly charming room tucked away on the top floor under dramatically sloped eaves. I do love the grand palace hotels of Paris with their knockout views and sumptuous suites, but the Saint-Simon remains my favorite, because it embodies a fantasy I have of a Parisian life, one in which I’d sleep late and have a glass of wine (maybe even dessert!) at lunch and dress with effortless chic and love more fearlessly than I do—my bourgeois-bohemian dream of a path not taken.
Part of why I love hotels so much is that my relationship with them—like any good relationship—has evolved over the years. In those early days of high-flying travel, it was about learning how to inhabit them, which, for me, meant acquiring the sophistication needed to shape-shift based on the demands of the place. The Delano, all gleaming white and gauzy scrims billowing around leggy models and views out to Miami Beach, wanted an expensive T-shirt and a slouch and knowing looks, while Dukes in London required the suit and tie and confidence of a Master of the Universe who knows exactly how he likes his martini. I liked knowing I could play both parts (I wonder now whether I genuinely did).
Somewhere along the way I stopped asking what hotels wanted of me and started learning what I wanted from them, in particular great style and those thoughtful services that make you feel looked after when you’re thousands of miles from home and discombobulated by the time change and not looking forward to tomorrow’s meetings. I still get a thrill when, at the Peninsula in Hong Kong or Shanghai or Beijing, my shoes come back not just with a shine but with monogrammed shoe trees. I still swoon when I notice someone has brought a fashion editor’s eye to the staff uniforms—I’m looking at you, Rosewood London, with those tartan waistcoats. And when I glance around my house today, I can spot all the renovation ideas and decorating moves I’ve taken from hotels the world over: the bar setup I copied from Villa Feltrinelli on the shore of Lake Garda; the artist I discovered at Bahia Vik in Uruguay; the India-inspired nook in my bookcase populated with bits and bobs acquired at the Oberois and Tajs across the subcontinent.
Especially after I became editor in chief of Travel + Leisure, I was often asked, “What’s your favorite hotel?” I’ve never had a good answer, because there are so many that I love. Of course, there is a difference between “favorite” and “great”—it’s not perfection that makes me cherish a place but usually some memory that it inspires. Like the time I hiked up the hillside behind Eolo in Argentine Patagonia, and the resident pooch followed me all the way and sat beside me when I got to the top: as I admired that expansive view I knew I wouldn’t be truly happy until I got a dog. (Which took me more than a decade to do.) Or the twice-daily Thai massages at the beachside spa Chiva-Som that made me understand my body in a whole new way. Or that bathtub with a view at Australia’s dearly departed Southern Ocean Lodge. Or that joyful walk on New Year’s Day as the sun rose over the beach at the Wickaninnish Inn on Vancouver Island. Or, most memorable of all, the night my husband, Charles, and I settled in to our ryokan-style room at Twin Farms: in the hushed silence of a snowy Vermont night beside a lit fire, a bottle of wine, and a jigsaw puzzle, I knew I’d found the love of my life.
I went back to the Grand Hotel only once, as an adult, after many trips around the world and a whole lot of pretty incredible hotels under my belt. And while it didn’t hold the same magic for me as it had all those years ago, I recognized in its myriad dining venues and activities and room categories (First Lady suites!) and carpet patterns what had captivated me as a child: possibilities. And I suppose that’s what’s made me a hotel junkie for life. I know on the other side of every check-in is a whole new set of possibilities, to spy or smell or feel something entirely new. The hotel offers it. What you make of it is up to you.