Writer-at-large Suzy Banks on what she likes best about staying in a hotel.
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texasmonthly.com: Why a story on hotels right now?
Suzy Banks: The past couple of years have seen a growth spurt of boutique and luxury hotels in the state. It’s like Texas finally woke up and noticed that travelers want hotels that break the mold, places so packed with personality that they become destinations in themselves. The Hotel San Jose, in Austin, and the Derek, in Houston, were two vanguards in this new movement. Houston now boasts a handful of hip hotels in downtown alone, with more on the way. A W Hotel is due soon in Dallas. San Antonio has two new spots on the River Walk that certainly take advantage of their touristy locale, but are also so posh and cool that they could be stuck in suburbia and still be inviting. The owners of the San Jose are redoing two old fifties-era motels in Marfa. The new places just seem to keep coming. And what’s really great about that is that the old standby luxury hotels in the state realize they can’t just rest on their laurels, which, frankly, some have been guilty of in the past. They have to keep improving to compete with all the flashy upstarts.
texasmonthly.com: There must be hundreds of really great hotels in Texas. How did you approach this story? How did you come up with a list?
SB: I wouldn’t say there are “hundreds” of “great” hotels in this state, but there are certainly a lot more than I could fit onto my all-too-short list. To whittle down the possible candidates, I decided to concentrate on just hotels—not motels, not cabins, and certainly not B&Bs. (I think there are an estimated one thousand of the latter in the state; I’d be in the Travel Writer Loony Bin if I’d tackled that beast.) At first, I tried to approach this as objectively as possible by creating a chart where I could numerically rate a hotel’s various details, like the thread count of sheets, the size of the rooms, the time it took to get breakfast delivered to my room, the exclusivity of bath amenities (“amenities” is hotel-speak for shampoo and lotion and such), and how crowded the bar was on a weekend night. Well, I soon discovered that that was yet another way to wind up in the loony bin.
So out went the chart. Instead, I zeroed in on about fifty hotels, going on my past experiences and the experiences of others whom I trust, as well as Web sites for the individual hotels and Web sites like tripadvisor.com, where guests (at least they pose as guests) post rants and raves about places they’ve stayed. And then when I visited a place, I went on nothing more scientific than my feelings. Sorry, but it’s true. Can you tell I feel guilty about such blatant subjectivity? Well, I do. For instance, I keep thinking about the Lajitas Resort, in Terlingua. Gazillions of dollars have been poured into the place. It is really lovely, but I couldn’t get past the fact that it is so geographically inappropriate. And, maybe because it’s so desperate to be thought of as exclusive, the room rates are astronomical for what you get. The whole place offended the egalitarian and the eco-warrior in me, but was that any reason not to include it? Or I think about the Houstonian or the Derek, both great places to stay in Houston. But I couldn’t ignore the seemingly eternal construction on Loop 610 right next to the Derek. And when I learned that the wonderful pool area of the Houstonian, which recently opened a beautiful new spa, would be under construction beginning about the time this article would come out, I felt like that would exclude it from the “now” list.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this story?
SB: Both too long and not long enough. I felt like a jaded little snot picking on a hotel because the reading lamp wasn’t very good or the sheets only had a thread count of two hundred. That’s when I felt like I’d spent way too much time away from home. But on the other hand, because of the limitations of both time and money, I didn’t spend the night everywhere I would have liked to.
texasmonthly.com: In your article you say that all of the hotels are your “favorites.” If you had to pick one, which would it be? Why?
SB: Actually, they are my favorite places to stay “now,” which was really a contrivance cooked up by the editors. But if I had to pick my favorite place that I stayed, it would be the Hotel Icon in downtown Houston. It was simply lousy with that pop and sizzle that I mentioned in the article. I really wondered how long I could soak in the bathtub there before I’d require skin grafts. But if I wanted to go somewhere and be pampered to death—without being intimidated by a bunch of ritzy other guests—I’d pick the Lake Austin Spa and Resort as my favorite.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
SB: I learned that frogs live in Marathon. I was there during a thunderstorm this summer, which has been a very wet one after ten years of drought, and when the rain stopped, I had never heard so much croaking and squeaking in my life. Frogs—and I mean frogs, not toads—were hopping all over the roads, and there were snails everywhere. It was a Marathon I’d never seen before.
texasmonthly.com: Did anything unusual or funny happen while you were reporting?
SB: When I stayed at the Lake Austin Spa, the publicist signed me up for a class called the “S” Factor. I had no idea what it was and for some reason got in my head that it was a lecture class. So I show up in my nice canvas dungarees with notebook in hand to find out that it’s an exercise class. And not just any old exercise class, but one taught by a Hollywood actress who had been so smitten with the freedom she experienced “pole dancing” during a role as a stripper that she’s developed an exercise routine based on exotic dancing. The exercise room was dimly lit, the music was deafening, and she shouted things to a bunch of old ladies like me about how she gave us permission to touch our breasts and how she wanted us not to dance “to” the music but to dance “through” the music. She had us down on our hands and knees, rolling the tops of our heads (a very erogenous area, according to her) and wiggling our rear ends in the air. I’m actually glad the music was so loud; it drowned out my hoots of laughter.
texasmonthly.com: You’ve been a travel writer for many years. How did you become interested in that type of writing? What do you find most challenging about it?
SB: You know, I’ve lain awake many a night in some creepy motel in the middle of nowhere while drunken frat boys party all night in the room next door asking myself how the heck I got into this. And I really don’t know. It seems like it happened by default. I don’t think I could ever write about crime, politics, sports, or music, and well, travel is all that’s left. What I find most challenging about it—besides the difficulty of convincing people that it really is work—is searching for travel surprises in a state that I feel like I’ve trampled every square inch of. But at least I’m not the travel writer for Rhode Island Monthly.
texasmonthly.com: After staying in so many hotels, do you have any suggestions for hoteliers?
SB: Yes. Provide some kind of white noise. For some reason, the new efficient air conditioning units that are being installed won’t let you turn on the fan to create that soothing roar that can drown out all kinds of audio intrusions—street traffic, loud neighbors, noisy ice machines, bumps in the night. It doesn’t matter that your linens are from Italy and that your bath amenities just got off the boat from France; if I can’t sleep, I’ll hate your hotel. A few places go the extra mile and provide a white-noise machine and ear plugs. Another suggestion: Get rid of the florescent light bulbs in the bathrooms! That’s all I need to face when I get out of the tub—me in all my splendor under glaring florescent lighting. It makes me feel like I’m having a psychotic episode. And make sure your front desk clerk is cheerful. If medication is necessary, dish it out freely.
texasmonthly.com: What do you like best about staying in a hotel?
SB: At home, I have two dogs and eight cats. Most of them have free range of my house, bed, couch, desk. It’s a luxury to get away from all that hair. Oh, and to have someone else make the bed.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything you would like to add?
SB: I wish hotels wouldn’t act like they’re doing me a favor by not putting a phone or a television in the room. I’m a big girl. Just because there’s a phone and television available to me doesn’t mean I’m forced to be glued to either. Be honest. You didn’t put in a television or a phone because you’re too cheap.