Hotel Grips and Quibbles

I admit that I stopped flying around 2000. My husband has flown once since then to California and back. I used to fly all the time. In fact, before and for a few months after we were married, I was in Richmond and he in Boston and I few almost every other week. Flights were pretty inexpensive back in 1994 and I took the same flights so often the attendants knew me by name. But now we road trip. At least one long trip and several short ones each year. Plus 3 or 4 stays in Boston every year. This means we stay in a lot of hotels.

We belong to a bunch of those rewards things for a variety of chains and sometimes gets perks. These are nice for nights on the road, but we still like B and B’s for most longer stays. Today’s New York Times Travel section had a little column of suggestions for hotels by Steve Bailey many of which I agree with and often comment on when asked to “review my stay”. 

My wife and I each travel with a carry-on-size wheeled suitcase and usually another under-the-seat-size bag. Hotel rooms that are clearly set up for couples (two bathrobes, for example) almost never have a second rack for a suitcase. So the room’s chair (and it is likely there’s only one chair) gets used for a suitcase, or maybe the cabinet that the TV or the coffee maker sits on.

One of us often ends up with the suitcase on the floor because we like to use the chair. And that is another one of my grips: Why can’t they provide two chairs or a small sofa so two can sit. I often book a room with a sitting area so we get two chairs, but even then there is only one luggage rack.  I’ve been in rooms where the only chair is the one at the desk.  And I’m not talking about a tiny room where two can barely move – we’ve stayed in those also.

Many hotels and cruise lines are getting rid of these little bottles of bath gel, shampoo and conditioner. I’d rather have those three products in wall-mounted dispensers in the shower.

The last couple of places we stayed had no little bottles which I appreciated although I do like my own shampoo and conditioner and have my travel size bottles of both.

There should be room for at least two toiletry bags on the counter or a shelf in the bathroom. Even the most rustic inns usually have room for a wooden shelf above the toilet or elsewhere in the bathroom. And there should be a rack or shelf in the shower for the guest’s razor or the guest’s own soap and hair products in the shower.

My toiletry bag hangs so that leads me to Mr. Bailey’s next suggestion:

It’s a small thing, but a few wall hooks can be important, especially in the bathroom. Many hotels encourage guests to use their bath towels a second or third time, but give them no place to hang the towel to dry other than maybe a shower curtain rod. And, like the towels, the bathrobes are likely to be folded and on a shelf at check-in. Where do we put them when we take them off? We need hooks, which are also good for baseball caps, shopping bags and other things. Such a small thing can make a difference.

I often end up not using my towel a second day because there are no racks or hooks to hang it on. And I like a rack near the sink for the hand towels which otherwise get draped over the sink and never seem to dry.  A B&B in Annapolis, MD where we recently stayed solved the towel problem by putting a towel rack on the inside of the door to the room.  I did have to remember to take my bath towel into the bathroom when I showered, but when I was done I did have a place to hang it.  I thought the solution was rather clever.

One grip he did not mention was having a chair with no convenient reading lamp.  We’ve rearranged furniture so we could get some light for reading.  Another lightening suggestion is to use lower wattage bulbs in the bedside lamps so the other person can sleep while one reads.

I will keep making these suggestions when I review my stays and, with Mr. Bailey, hope someone is listening.

Belated Presidents’ Day: Calvin Coolidge

Last year on July 4, a friend posted that she was at President Calvin Coolidge’s grave site at the wreath laying ceremony for his birthday.   I asked here where it was and she said “Plymouth Notch, Vermont.”  I looked it up and found that Plymouth is a tiny town in the center of the state; not quite in the middle, but close.


In November, my husband and I were near by and went to visit.  Although the museum and visitor center was closed, the grounds were open for walking and the Plymouth Cheese factory was in full operation.  The views are lovely in all directions.

The Calvin Coolidge Homestead website begins the story this way

At 2:47am on August 3, 1923, Vice President Calvin Coolidge became the 30th president of the United States when he took the oath of office in the sitting room of this modest frame and clapboard farmhouse.  President Harding had died only a few hours earlier.  Coolidge’s father, a notary public, administered the oath by the light of a kerosene lamp; he refused to install such modern conveniences as electricity.  Located in the tiny community of Plymouth Notch in the beautiful hill country of Vermont, the house where he took the oath of office was also Calvin Coolidge’s boyhood home.

Although he grew up in Plymouth, Coolidge left Vermont to study at Amherst College in Massachusetts and later settled in Northampton where he practiced law and got his start in politics.  Coolidge was a Republican and notorious in Massachusetts for breaking up the Boston Police strike of 1919 when he was Governor.  After he became President, he established the summer White House above the family store in Plymouth.


Cilley Store In 1924, President Coolidge established his Summer White House office above the store.

Coolidge served out Harding’s term and one term of his own before retiring to Northampton where he died suddenly in in 1933 at age 60.  He is buried in the cemetery at Plymouth.


Photographs:  Town of Plymouth; Vermont Division for Historic Preservation; and Seth Mussleman on Find-A Grave.


Agatha Goes on a Little Trip

When I was shopping for Christmas books, I picked up what looked like an interesting book on the sale table.  I just finished reading The Grand Tour by Agatha Christie.  In February 1922 Christie, her husband, Archie, and others left on what we would call a trade mission.  They went to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada with a vacation stop in Hawaii.  They got back to England on December 1st.  Christie wrote letters home as a kind of diary.  Her grandson, Mathew Prichard, put them together with photographs (largely taken by Christie) interspersed with excerpts from her autobiography.


The Grand Tour provides the reader with a glimpse of the British empire in the days when change was just starting in the colonies.  People are judged by how “British” they are; natives are treated as exotic.  There are tensions between the members of the mission.  There are injuries and illnesses.  I found her descriptions of the landscapes the most interesting.  For example her description of Wellington harbor:

Great mountains all around coming down to the water’s edge – the far off ones with snow on them.  Blue sky and deep blue water and Wellington itself nestling on the side of the mountain.

But the best part was learning about Agatha Christie as a young woman.  I don’t know about you, but I think of her as either Miss Marple or the older woman in many of her pictures, a little stout and stern.


But on the trip she thinks nothing of going off on an 11 mile hike, she golfs, and, most surprising, she learns to surf.  My image of her will never be the same.

If you have ever read any Christie mysteries and you like travel stories, you would enjoy reading The Grand Tour.


Photograph from


Going around the world without leaving home

I belong to a mystery book group, Malice on Main.  It is sponsored by a wonderful bookstore, Mystery on Main, in Brattleboro, VT.  Each year we pick a theme and the bookstore owner, David, picks the books.  2016 was international mysteries.  We read eleven books (we don’t meet in January) and I enjoyed all but one which I didn’t finish.  Looking back, I think each member had at least one they didn’t care for; sometimes they finished it any way but sometimes not.  Here is the list annotated with my comments.

China:  Death of a Red Heroine (Xiaolong Qui)  A fascinating glimpse of life and police work in present day China.  I really enjoyed this one.

Japan:  The Devotion of Suspect X (Keigo Higashima)  We had quite a discussion about the writer’s treatment of the women in the book and whether the sexism was cultural or just him or just the detective.  I read the a second book by him, Malice, and the woman was more realistically drawn and much more interesting leading me to conclude that the women in Devotion were written the way they were as part of the story.  One day I will have to read it again and see if this is correct.

Venice:  Death at La Fenice (Donna Leon)  This is Leon’s first and, having read everything she’s written, still one of my favorites.  We see her detective Guido Brunnetti as she is just starting to develop him as a character.  Plus it is an interesting death that he investigates.

Cuba:  Havana Red (Leonardo Paura)  More interesting for the picture of Cuba than the mystery.


India:  Case of the Missing Servant (Tarquin Hall)  A lot of fun.

Ghana:  Wife of the Gods (Kwei Quartey)  Detective Darko Dawson is sent to investigate a murder with supernatural implications and solves both the murder and his mother’s mysterious disappearance over twenty years ago.

Austria:  The Truth and Other Lies (Sascha Arango)  What happens when a death causes a life built on pretense to crumble.



Turkey:  Istanbul Passage (Joseph Kannon)  This is more of a spy thriller than a mystery.  Set in 1946 or 1947, the story is wrapped around the Jewish exodus from Europe to Palestine.  I really liked this book.

Ireland:  Elegy for April (Benjamin Black)  The search for April who disappears.  Full of interesting characters including the eccentric Quirke who undertakes to find her.

France:  How’s the Pain (Pascal Garnier)  The one book I couldn’t finish.  I found the two main characters totally unappealing.  One of my fellow book group members thought it was very existential, like a Camus novel.


Argentina:  A Crack in the Wall (Claudia Pineiro)  Totally absorbing with an ending I would never have predicted.  Because it centers around architecture, one can Google the buildings she talks about.

Except for The Truth and Other Lies which could be set almost anywhere, each of these books provides a glimpse of place and culture.  One of the reasons I’m attracted to mystery stories is that a good author includes lots of descriptions.  I often think that much of what I know about England, I learned from reading mysteries.  These eleven books took me to new places and taught me new things.  But I also learned that being a police detective – or an amateur crime solver – is pretty much the same no matter where you are.


I have loved maps ever since the 3rd or 4th grade when I scored really high on a map reading skills section of (the Iowa tests?) a test that ranked us nationally as well as individually.  We could have GPS in our new car, but we don’t.  I am generally the navigator on our road trips.  I used old fashioned foldy maps or a road atlas or both.  Once I was in a car with GPS and it wanted us to take a turn into the Charles River.  This was maybe 12 years ago, but I’ve never forgotten.


So when I saw this article in the New York Times Sunday Review, I knew I had found a kindred spirit in Steven Kurutz.

CALL me a fossil, but when I take a road trip I like to get around by using printed maps. I’ve been licensed to drive for 20 years, and every car I’ve owned has contained a Rand McNally Road Atlas, with the maps of the Northeastern states dog-eared and loosened from their staples. Navigating by map carries over to foreign roads, too. In May my wife and I went to France, where we drove around Provence and dipped a wheel into Italy.

Before we left, I amassed the blanket topographical coverage I imagine the Allied generals had when they stormed the Continent. Collecting the maps was an interminable process. Bookstores have scaled back their selection in recent years. Or stopped selling maps altogether. Apparently, a good number of people think printed maps are pointless nowadays.

I guess you can still go to AAA and get triptiks and maps,  but map stores are closing.  I used to go to the Globe Bookstore for maps and guidebooks.  Now Brookline Booksmith has a small Globe Bookstore travel section.  And you can order maps from places like Barnes and Noble.  But it is harder to just wander into a store and open up a map and wonder what it would be like driving on a particular road.

As part of packing for our move, we have kept a lot of maps of places we have been.  I opened some of them and could remember when we drove to a certain place. As Kurutz says

Consider this, though: Using printed maps requires travelers to work together. You become a team. Driver and navigator. Your ability to get along and solve problems is tested in valuable, revealing ways. GPS removes that entire interpersonal dynamic. It encourages a passive form of journeying: sit back and drift, because the vaguely Australian-sounding computer lady will tell you to turn left in a quarter mile.

Driving by map, on the other hand, engages you actively with your surroundings. It makes you observe road signs, be in the moment. And that closer engagement, I’ve found, imprints the landscape more vividly and permanently on your mind. When I return home, I can unfold my maps and take myself back to a town or a stretch of highway.

Often I’ll buy a map months before the trip, and by studying it try to pull the opposite trick — to transport myself into the place I intend to visit. It builds anticipation. Eric Riback, a map publisher in upstate New York who writes a blog called Mapville, described this to me poetically as the “seeking, dreaming part of travel that you can do with a map.”

That is the joy of a map:  you can dream before and you can remember after.  You can’t really do that with a GPS.

Illustration:  Andrew Ho for the New York Times