Traveling Alone: Making Your Home Away from Home

Last week, I talked with two friends about choosing hotels and remembered again what a intensely personal – and important – process this is.

My very first trips abroad were with wonderfully organized tour groups, before I turned 20, packed with activities.  I loved the comfort and welcome of a grand hotel at the end of each day, walking into a cool lobby, a warm room, the perfect bath.  And it was my first life-changing experience with towel warmers.

Most of those days were spent with a pack of other young people and the return to the room was that magic quiet time.

When you travel alone, it’s different. Choosing where you stay is part of caring for Pensione Pendiniyourself. Your hotel will be home base; the staff your problem solvers; the neighborhood your start and end for exploring.

On an early trip, I learned that where I am staying can extend the social part of my day.  You know that moment when you can’t take another step but it’s not time for dinner and you don’t want the seclusion of your room?  I like being able to relax in a beautiful bar for drinks or finding a nook in the lobby where I sit on a rainy night and watch the best view in town.

Once in Italy, I had a great deal through a hotel group I usually can’t afford. OK, that I never can afford.  The lobby was the best of old school with a black and white marble floor, a wall of mirrors, an inordinate amount of red velvet, and library spaces tucked everywhere. I used reward points for a drink in the bar overlooking the water every afternoon at sunset. They had a fireplace, a pianist and even brought olives, crackers and nuts with my drink. (hello, dinner.) It was the most relaxing part of every day, recounting my adventures in my journal, watching the parade of travelers wander in as the sun set or appear again down the staircase in dinner finery…and killing the entire bowl of olives.

It’s easier for me when I travel to be in a place that is, in itself, a travel destination. I love hotels that are unique or historic.  Then, I’m enjoying being in Rome even when I’m back in my room with my toes up. But, what are your priorities?  Ask yourself a few questions

  • What are your budget priorities – is this an experience where your hotel is a part of how you see the city? Or do you plan to visit excellent restaurants or do serious shopping – and just crash somewhere safe and clean? Where does your lodging fall on your list?
  • What makes you comfortable? How important are helpful and available staff or a central location?
  • Do you like big hotel amenities like a restaurant, bar, room service or unique quirky smaller hotels?
  • How about the cozy personal charm of a B&B or the anonymity of a bustling business hotel?
  • Do you want to blend in with the townspeople or is it ok to be in a place frequented by foreign travelers (like you)?
  • What will you trade to have the experiences you want?

Those trade offs are a big deal. I made my own list. I want  to feel safe. I want to be able to experience the streets around the hotel in the evening – safe to wander and near interesting areas.  And, very important to me, I want some serious historic atmosphere. But I will give up space, a business center, room service and breakfast.  Budget-wise, I will pay for the atmosphere even if I have to skimp on restaurants and shopping. Of course, a different trip might have a different list. Oh…and most important, I have to have a seriously great bathroom. With a tub.

Your First Moments in Your New Home: Or, This is it? Seriously?

The first time I went to Paris on my own, I wanted to stay on the Ile St. Louis. I was there with a goal of learning the city and I have a tendency to get turned around. A tendency to get completely and irrevocably lost.  An island, in the middle of the Seine, behind Notre Dame seemed like a good bet. This is a place I could find my way home to from anywhere in the city.  The idea of waking up on a residential cobbled street, surrounded by the river, next door to people who really lived on these streets, sounded fantastic.

This part of the city is pricey so I booked a small single and secretly hoped for an upgrade. No such luck.  I arrived full of bravado. Tired, dusty bravado but bravado. When the bellman finally escorted me to my room, he threw open the door and then we had a very tricky, Twister-esque experience getting me, my luggage and the bellman into the room. Beautiful French windows opened onto the cobbled street but the room was about as wide as those windows.  There was just enough room for a single bed and four feet of walking space leading to a little table in front of the windows.

I was discouraged, tired and wondered how I was going to survive five nights. On my side of the windows, there was no Parisian charm. This wasn’t my idea of a cozy home on a medieval island.

Give it a night.

Over the next twenty-four hours, I made friends with that space. The oddness of the tiny television mounted from the ceiling and all the strange switches baffled me. After some trial and error, I realized everything in the room was designed for my convenience. A panel with all the switches for lights and TV was at my elbow in the little bed. The bathroom with its hand-painted tile shower was sparkling, spacious and even big enough to store my suitcase. Those windows opened onto the perfect street and brought in the sounds of the river. It was so residential and safe that at the end of any evening, if I felt the day wasn’t quite spent, I could throw on my jacket and walk a block to the quay and watch the bateaux mouche go by while I had my pear and cheese. And the best ice cream in Paris, Berthillion, had a location directly across from my window.

I was the first person each and every day to know the feature flavors on the chalk board of Berthillion.

What I Learned

Think about how you start and end your day — your morning, evening and bedtime.

Know what you need and what you can live with.

Luxury or autonomy?  Services or anonymity?

and I really like the big fancy keys you have to leave at the front desk.


In Honor of Iceland’s Performance in the UEFA Euro 2016

The whole world seemed taken with the Icelandic soccer team and the fan presence last week. The skill, the fervor, the number of people who flew over – but perhaps more we were fascinated with who they are.  That the co-manager is a dentist who worked full-time in his practice on the island of Heimay until he took the national team (now it’s less than half time.) Or the players with their many jobs from videographer to youth coach.

The people and their whole approach to life, education, work and history felt fresh and intentional and honest. The woman in the gas station treated me as if she owned the place and I was important. The fellow selling the best hot dogs from a stand in downtown Reykjavik spoke perfect English, had a wry humor and an opinion on U.S. politics.  Both had other jobs and other passions as well. Their identity it appeared was their ‘self’ and not their job.

In honor of the team, I’m reposting a piece from my second day in Iceland, the Golden Circle day, in November 2014!

Iceland 2: No Theme Parks

This was a confusing day. I drove the Golden Circle to see three big sights: the Geysir (where the name came from), Gullfoss the massive double waterfalls, and Pingvellir. Pingvellir is a deeply significant place geologically and in Icelandic history.  It is where North America becomes Europe – where the plates that form the Eurasian and North American continents can be seen creating a slowly widening rift. It is also where the law-making body of Iceland met for 900 years starting in 930, always meeting during the same week of summer.

The GPS landed me in a dreary isolated car park. I had not had enough coffee and I am embarrassed that, in a stereotypical American whine, I asked the couple parked next to me “where is it already??” Where is the Information Center.  This they told me was just the hut with the maps -over there – no constantly looping video, no interactive displays. I actually had arrived. They trekked off politely.

Here is the thing. This place is sacred to the country. No gift shop or café. They don’t want to build on this place and don’t want fumes from buses and cars on the site.  If you want to see it, you hike up the valley, stand on the spot, and see the sites as close to natural as possible.

You are not left uniformed.  There are wooden placards with great stories.  In fact, I learned that thieves were the most vile criminals and were beheaded or drowned. With murder, apparently, they left room for two sides to every story.  About the drowned thieves, I wonder if centuries of this practice is why everyone from the rental car agent to the desk clerk says, ‘who locks up? It’s Iceland!’

With Pingvellir and other sites, I think they have something important figured out. The site where their government started, where the 1000th year of Christianity was celebrated in 2000, beside their biggest lake, a World Heritage site, is free admission. Open to all. There is no theme park atmosphere to make sure it’s worth the ticket.

Four Things I Learned About Iceland

Iceland was the first democracy to elect a female head of state, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who served as president from 1980 to 1996.

They have a 100% literacy rate and love publishing. Every year, all the publishing houses release lists of new titles for the holidays at the same time called the Christmas book flood.

Progressive, they elected the first openly gay world leader, their prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.

Plus, just as a bonus, there is a list of approved first names for babies. This is important because children’s surnames are their father’s first name and ‘sson’ or ‘dottir’. Crazy trends like Apple or Moon Unit just start a decline of dignity.