A Tale of Three Hotels
What Sets One Hotel Apart from Another? People!
When planning a trip, once you’ve chosen a destination, the most critical travel decision you have to make is your hotel. Guess who gets the responsibility for that little decision? You got it: Moi!
In our family, everyone has his or her own criteria and agenda when it comes to lodging – and it’s my job to take these sometimes competing needs, sift through them, weigh the relative pros and cons of each hotel, and present Jim and Yao Yao, my husband and daughter, with three to five viable options in each location – and factor in that we may be changing locations a couple of times, we’re talking a lot of options. I’d rather present to the board of directors of a major corporation any day!
That was the dilemma facing us for our summer trip to Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot. Jim and I been there before and loved it: It’s largely agricultural but dotted with lovely whitewashed hill towns somewhat reminiscent of Greece, with many stretches of unspoiled Adriatic beaches. And you may be familiar with trulli, the traditional conical structures indigenous to the area, whose original purpose is lost to the mists of history. (Kids think these places look a lot like hobbit houses, so they’ve got that going for them.) And Puglia’s tourism levels are manageable, for now – all of which makes this region a wonderful destination, especially if you’ve already done the Grand Tour.
However, I’m always looking to extend our vacations in either direction, or both – and that’s just what I did. I had some work to do in Stockholm, and that was the perfect opportunity for a three-day layover there for the whole family. But that meant we had to push our Puglia stay three days later as well. And halfway through the Puglia leg, I decided Yao Yao and I deserved a little Roman holiday, too. So the logistics of choosing and booking a hotel, in three separate venues, late in the game, was a little bit dicey. But I think we got very lucky.
And really, so much of our enjoyment of a hotel is not just in the amenities but in the advice and expert counsel you get from the people the hotel employs. It’s funny – almost everywhere we go, we find a concierge or a front-desk person who will give us the straight scoop about off-the-beaten-track spots to visit or have a meal or both. That certainly was the case with these hotels – and these hoteliers.
Miss Clara Hotel
Front Desk – Pieter
We were having a little trouble getting Stockholm booked online – as soon as I checked off the box for “one room, three people,” much of the available stock would magically evaporate! Anyway, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, an online service for finding and booking small boutique hotels, was able to locate a room at the lovely Miss Clara. (The building was once a girls’ school, and it’s named for one of the teachers there, in case you were wondering – you know you were!)
Anyway, Pieter at the front desk checked us in, and once he knew we had three days of unplanned time ahead, he had the map out and was giving us the benefit of his sage advice. Best place for gravlax and other seafood delicacies for lunch? He recommended Hotorgshallen seafood market and restaurants, just a few blocks away from the hotel, easily accessible by foot – and with incredible gravlax. Best museums? He somehow knew that Yao Yao would love the Vasamuseet, a maritime museum built around the Vasa, a fully intact warship that sank in Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage in 1628 – and he was right, she loved it, and we spent hours gazing at the magnificent hulk. Best place to window shop? Södermalm, the southernmost district in Stockholm, the city’s Soho. Best breakfast place? Café Wiener, a lovely Viennese-style café where Yao Yao enjoyed her large stack of pancakes. And when asked for recommendations for a quick getaway outside of the city, he suggested the half-hour ferry ride to the island of Fjäderholmarna, where we enjoyed a delightful lunch of fried herring, gravlax, and local caviar.
But his best piece of advice? “Don’t worry about tipping service people in Sweden – we make enough money as it is.” And in a city as expensive as Stockholm, that tip was priceless!
Relais La Sommità
Front Desk – Vito
Ostuni is one of the most beautiful of all the White Towns of Puglia – others within a short distance are Martina Franca, Locorotondo, Alberobello (a whole town of trulli), and Cisternino. And just as the name implies, Relais La Sommità inhabits the summit of this lovely hill town. The old center is entirely closed to car and truck traffic, so the hotel asks you to call when you arrive in town, and they send a Piaggio three-wheeler to bring you and your luggage from the parking facility to the hotel.
Needless to say, arranging transportation to your transportation could get a little annoying, but Vito at the front desk made it fun. His English was impeccable – often we’d say something a little off the wall, and he’d look at us from behind his large horn-rimmed glasses and a big smile would break across his face. He had a wicked sense of humor – and an encyclopedic knowledge of the area.
He sent us to a couple of his favorite beaches, and recommended restaurants along the way where the seafood was pristine. Getting our taste, he knew we’d enjoy a visit to Otranto to see the cathedral’s breathtaking mosaic floor, and a trip to the fortified seaside city of Gallipoli for a seafood lunch al fresco on the city walls. And he recommended the culinary highlight of our Puglia visit, an eight-course dinner at Masseria il Frantoio outside of town. There’s one seating per night at 8:30, but you come at 8:00 for a quick view of the inner workings of a real masseria, or walled farm. As Vito got to know us, and we him, his recommendations got better and better.
But his best move was arranging to have our laundry done at a local Laundromat – probably saving us about $300 in hotel charges. Plus, the hotel picked the laundry up in that trusty three-wheeled Piaggio when it was done!
Inn at the Spanish Steps
Front Desk – Sara
As is often the case, as the trip winds down, I start weighing the possibilities of extending it – and it just so happens that this time it was practicable. Thank heaven for WiFi, because I was able to do some quick research and find the wonderful Inn at the Spanish Steps, on Via Condotti. The Spanish Steps area is one of my favorites, with lots of restaurants and shopping and fun things to do, including hanging out on the steps themselves and watching the mass of humanity go by. (Unlike Puglia, Rome is awash in tourists this time of year.)
Anyway, the Inn has a beautiful terrace with a view and serves breakfast each morning and cocktails in the evening. I had read about its lobby, which really is . . . well, unprepossessing would be an understatement. It’s tiny. But it was ably manned by Sara. She was smart and funny – and frankly, anyone who compliments my Italian language skills is all right by me. The problem is, whenever I said something quickly and correctly, here would come a blistering soliloquy from Sara, who assumed I understood what she was saying.
Sara also had some great ideas of things to do in Rome with kids, especially in the intense heat and humidity of July: A hilarious Segway trip through the streets of the Eternal City; an equally hysterical golf-cart trip through Borghese Gardens; and a cooling sortie on the hotel’s rooftop terrace. All the while she kept her easy, humorous manner. But then again, she was spending her days in her tiny – but air-conditioned – lobby.
Side note: Yao Yao came to the epiphany that the three hoteliers really shaped our vacation this summer. We’ve stayed at far more expensive hotels without the connection or joy we encountered at these three. Though each was wonderful in its own right, Pieter, Vito, and Sara made them extraordinary.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith
Mr & Mrs Smith and Miss Clara
Miss Clara by Nobis
New York Times article on Miss Clara
New York Times Article on Miss Clara Hotel In Stockholm
Inn at the Spanish Steps
Inn at the Spanish Steps