When you've spent the better part of a lifetime sleeping in strange beds, most fade away into the wallpaper, but some just never leave you. Yes, we are what we eat, but we are also where we sleep.
Places, it turns out, aren't always defined by what you see in the way of churches or monuments. Sometimes, a place is best remembered by where you lay your head. I've always liked to look at it as though I'm off on a visit to stay in a new home somewhere. I don't own it, but does that really matter?
My family was not poor. My father was a lawyer. But he lacked a number of things, including paying clients, so we only went on two or three family vacations. We always went to the same hotel, a small "resort" in upstate New York called Scaroon Manor.
The resort, on Schroon Lake, was a destination for New Yorkers seeking comfort deli food; a full array of activities they would never use, like hunting, fishing, and bowling; and a small theater where musicals would pop up on summer evenings along with Borscht Belt comedians.
The first two years I hated it because every guest seemed to remind me of at least one of my aunts or uncles.
I made do with my time on my first two visits. But then, in the summer of 1957, I went to dinner and fell in love with a young woman at the next table.
Her name was Natalie Wood, an actress, and to my parents' shock, they were filming a movie at the resort that would be titled "Marjorie Morningstar." By the second day, as shy as I was, I was having lunch with Natalie and playing ping-pong with her co-star, Gene Kelly.
It was all shaping up as a glorious summer. Natalie pretended she liked me a bit, and Kelly suggested I move to L.A. when I got older to pursue working in the "industry."
This was to be the greatest resort stay of my life until the third day, when the actor Robert Wagner showed up by the lake where they were filming. He was courting young Natalie, and his visit was a surprise. They were clearly smitten, and my invitations to sit with Natalie came to an abrupt halt. Gene Kelly still played ping-pong with me, but it had all changed. I wanted to go home.
Years later, I realized a dream, spending the evening at New York's famed Plaza Hotel. I sat alone for breakfast at the Palm Court, a breakfast room known as the place where major deals were made. Sure enough, I was entertained by two deals being discussed on either side of me. The tables were close together, and I heard every word about a planned real estate project and a new contemporary art museum. As I was on my third coffee, I was sure I heard the words "send me the script" drift over in the conversational air.
This was 35 years ago, and the breakfast cost more than $20 back then, but it was worth every penny. The next morning, I did a seminar for travel agents. As the coffee cart filled with Danish was being set up in the hallway outside my presentation, about 10 agents got up to go after the pastries.
I can still hear the poor fellow setting it up yelling, "But the coffee is not ready yet!"
Years later, I arrived for a stay at Ville d' Este on Lake Como. This was a long-delayed dream, and I couldn't quite afford the tariff even when I was living in the country. The manager met me at check-in and escorted me to an incredible, upgraded River View Junior Suite in the Queen's Pavilion. I felt I could reach out from the balcony and touch the silky-smooth lake water. Just below me, the swimming pool was literally floating on the lake.
The manager softly inquired if I had ever been to Lago Como before?
Indeed I had, and the memory had never left me. I had stayed at the Lake Como Youth Hostel as I backpacked through Europe on $11 a day. The hostel had group toilets and dormitory accommodations. It also had a policy of which I was unaware: The doors were locked at 10 p.m., so no one could enter after that. I arrived at 10:15 in a heavy rain. My night in Lake Como was spent sleeping in a doorway across the street in the rain, surrounded by three stray cats.
I've done quite a bit of domestic travel, as well. I had to cover 27 states when I was working for a major cruise line.
I was giving a presentation in Minneapolis, staying at the downtown Hyatt. After dinner, I was alone on the elevator until a diminutive young man with a narrow moustache, in the company of two beautiful ladies, used his hand to keep the elevator door from closing. He entered, immediately turned to me and, with a bit of a smile, asked if I could tell him about myself in the time it would take to rise five floors. I did and then he did the same. He told me I was "all right" and asked if I would like to join him for a drink. I declined. I was tired, and I had to put some finishing touches on the following morning's presentation.
That's how I missed getting to know Prince.
The Townhouse at the Galleria in Milan was a total surprise. Management had sent me a press release announcing they were going to be opening as a seven-star hotel, so I went, imagining I would write a piece that would be a tad skeptical. To my amazement, it practically was seven stars.
My several nights there in a room overlooking the small cafes in Milan's Galleria were hectic and professionally rewarding. Each room had a balcony that was custom designed for each guest. They gave me an office, and I could have had a gym, an aquarium or an art studio. No one was asked for a credit card at check-in; payments were handled in advance of arrival.
The chef interviewed each dinner guest in the morning, and that evening he created a personalized "greatest meal of my life" experience. It went on and on, led by an owner who abided by virtually none of the hotel norms I had come to expect. Nowadays, of course, thinking outside the box is a cliche in the hotel industry.
Staying at Dubai's Burj Al Arab was other-worldly. One passes through a gaggle of tourists taking pictures in the lower lobby before heading up into Never-Never Land. Each floor has its own check-in desk, each room its own butler.
The studio-apartment accommodations with views of Jumeirah Beach are obviously impressive, but I was taken by the construction challenges involved in creating the world's third-largest property on an artificial island.
The great irony of this landmark Dubai property is that it was built along an area once known as Miami Beach. Its sits on reclaimed land that sat just off the Chicago Beach Hotel, so named because the Chicago Bridge and Iron Co. maintained floating storage tanks just offshore. The old hotel wasn't demolished until 1997.
Burj management never claimed they operate a seven-star hotel, but much that is written about this property makes the place sound really special. And it was.
Truth be told, I was more taken with the Emirates Palace Hotel, whose conveniences include a vending machine in the lobby that offers gold bars for sale.
My best-ever hotel experience took place at what was at one time the home of some landed gentry and a religious order school that had fallen on hard times. About 12 years ago, the property was a collection of overgrown vegetation and more than a little crumbling architecture. But new owners, a team of award-winning architects and workers whose skills would be hard to replicate in many modern cities, conspired to bring Ballyfin in County Laois, Ireland, back to life as a perfect gem. It reopened in 2011, and we took over the place for our clients on one of our recent annual trips.
I remember so many things about Ballyfin's 614-acre grounds: a monumental wine cellar, a whispering room where ladies would go after dinner to speak quietly of who knows what nearly 200 years ago.
I saw pampered hens being cared for so they would produce the world's finest eggs. This hotel is not really a hotel. It is a sense of place from another era, one's personal Downton Abbey. Hard to imagine that it was also the honeymoon spot of choice for Kim Kardashian and Kanye West.
There are so many more hotel memories. We all have them, and we all need to pause from time to time to realize just how lucky we've been to experience all of these new beds in new places.