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Happiness is a home from home
From New York to Norwich, bed and breakfast accommodation is becoming the preferred choice of travellers in search of a tasteful, truly welcoming and even culturally enriching place to stay.
But, as Stephen Ferns reports, these are no ordinary B&Bs.

By STEPHEN FERNS
15 April 2006
Financial Times

Are you quiet? A well-travelled, sophisticated, non-smoking grown-up? I don't want to know but Matt and Kevin do. And if you want to stay with them at their Greenwich Village Habitue in Manhattan, you will need to answer "yes" to these questions and several others that, quite frankly, would be of no concern to other hotels.

The GVH is a brownstone on Horatio Street, a cobbled walk away from such sub-zero destinations as Pastis, Soho House, The Gansevoort, the Spice Market and 24-hour trendy diner Florent. Matt bought it in 1975 and has been sympathetically tweaking the interiors in keeping with the building's status as a historic landmark ever since. He has a passion for art deco table lamps and is compulsively acquisitive to the extent that your apartment might contain a lithograph by Delacroix or a painting by Andrew Wyeth. There are four apartments for occasional guests, for whom the minimum stay is four nights. The decor is a melange of the eclectic, the kitsch and the comfortable. Many of the fittings and appliances might not be in their first youthful flush but everything is scrupulously clean. There were no fewer than 11 separate cleaning sprays in the cupboard under our kitchen sink.

Strictly speaking, the GVH is not even a B&B because, unless you make it yourself, "breakfast is NOT included". But given the profusion of enticing West Village restaurants, you'd have only your inertia to blame for going hungry.

Staying in a foreign city, for business or pleasure, can be an onerous and anonymous experience. Hotels created to satisfy the specious aesthetic of design magazine editors rarely induce a sense of place. A Travelodge or Holiday Inn is, quite deliberately, much the same wherever you go. Even the most resolutely upmarket institutions trade on reputations that are conferred but not always earned. Exclusive they may be but much of that which is excluded is the atmosphere, character and conviviality of a true neighbourhood.

Put it this way: would you rather spend about Dollars 500 (Pounds 286) a night plus taxes (which are many and various in New York City) to stay in an impersonal edifice that treats you with thinly disguised disdain, or would you prefer to spend Dollars 190 per night to stay in a cosy town house? Would you like to loll about in a home-from-home that's quiet and impeccably tasteful or would a hip hotel with throbbing, en suite night club be more to your taste? If you'd prefer the cheaper, more grown-up option, now is the time to travel because B&B has had a makeover.

There was a time when "bed and breakfast" conjured up images of titanic matrons in pink housecoats. Bathrooms were dank and shared, decor a riot of worn chintz, beds hewn from granite, toast burnt, tea stewed. You had to vacate the premises by 9am and stay out all day. Lights out no later than 10pm. No TV. No lewd behaviour. No visitors in the bedrooms. Ever. They were where you stayed if you couldn't, or wouldn't, afford a Trust House Forte. Such B&Bs were, by and large, a trial for even the most rigid of stiff upper lips.

Mercifully, things have changed - and not just in the UK.

"We have nine rooms and our occupancy rates are 100 per cent for 11 months of the year and 90 per cent during January," says John Simoniello, general manager of the Abingdon Guest House on 7th Avenue. As with the GVH a few blocks distant, the Abingdon is actually just a "B" in that no meals are served. Clientele is wide and varied and comes mostly from internet searches. Room rates range from Dollars 149 to Dollars 239, the accommodation is as tasteful as any hotel charging twice as much and the nearest coffee shop is a bagel's throw away. Mrs Diesel recently made an incognito reservation for her actor son Vin, and the likes of Jodi Foster and Julianne Moore, who both live nearby, have booked rooms for visiting friends.

"People who stay with us are disenchanted with hotels," says Matt at the GVH. "This house is old, the stairs are crooked and the floorboards squeak but it feels like you're coming home. Everything is on a much more local, human scale. I live here. I clean. I'm on top of everything. Everyone who wants to make a reservation has to talk to me on the phone and I very quickly get a sense of whether this place is right for them."

Such is the demand for accommodation in Manhattan during the four months before Christmas that Matt reckonshe could fill 100 rooms every night. It's no surprise, then, that neither Matt nor Kevin wants their surname or precise address published and that referrals to other neighbourhood houses are common. Marjorie Colt has been taking in paying guests at her town house across the street for 13 years - since her children left for California. The bedrooms still have their names on the doors. "I started doing bed and breakfast as a way to keep my house," she says. "If I'm full up, I send people to a friend of mine on 11th Street. I get 10 per cent for referrals and last year she gave me a cheque for Dollars 790, so I guess she did pretty well out of it."

Aside from warming to the personality and history inherent in Marjorie's home, guests can also make new friends - of Petunia and Sam, a pair of ageing but engaging moggies, and Sophie, the world's pushiest poodle. Not a feature of a stay at the Sheraton.

If it all gets too much and Marjorie decides to sell up and move to the sun, she can thank the increasingly chic status of the adjacent meat-packing district for making her house worth Dollars 6m.

And it's not just property prices that are on the up. In 2004 annual New York hotel occupancy was back to à -pre-9/11 numbers at more than 75 per cent. And by 2007 more than 4,800 hotel rooms will have been added to the current tally of more than 70,000. But these figures do not include B&Bs, which are difficult to quantify given that the owners' only legal obligation is to pay sales tax. As far as NYC and Company (the city's official tourism and marketing agency) is concerned, B&B is the great unknown.

So not all B& Bs were created equal and neither were the guides or websites that tout their various charms while bestowing stars, diamonds, rosettes and golden keys. Conforming to institutionalised notions of "quality" often robs smaller establishments of any real style, personality or individuality. Virtually every entry in traditional B&B guides to Britain contains phrases such as "high-quality, spacious, comfortable and well-equipped accommodation" or "guests are assured a warm welcome" as though these were more than you might reasonably expect. There are doubtless many fine bargain lodgings to be had but it's easy to imagine that the armies of "professional inspectors" are embalmed in a sub-Laura Ashley time warp where waxed pine is mandatory and pastel pinks vie with shades of avocado and swirling floral prints to complement fetchingly Artexed ceilings. Judging from the photographs, several entries could still host Abigail and her party.

If plastic thimble-pots of UHT milk induce quiet despair but you still want B&B in Britain, France, Ireland, Italy or Spain, Alastair Sawday's Special Places to Stay guides are a good starting point. You're unlikely to find a doily or ruched blind in any of them. What you will encounter are owners attuned to the merits of organic local produce, goosedown duvets, home-made preserves and freshly squeezed juice. They usually manage to resist the lure of magnolia and woodchip, foam-filled pillows, dusty fabric flowers and bibles left by the Gideons.

The first edition of Sawday's B&B guide to Britain contained 424 entries; the latest (the 10th) has 675. The French B&B guide began with 471 entries and has expanded in its 9th edition to 761. Such is the clamour to be included that each guide would have to be the size of a breeze block to accommodate all comers.

"If you're getting a really good meal in a B&B, a Vi-Sprung mattress and a gorgeous walk-in beat-me-to-death power shower, why would you go to a hotel?" says Nicola Crosse, editor of Sawday's British B&B guide. "It's a bit like being in a little club. The places are hugely diverse - from the swish to the very basic - but they will all have something special about them: the quality of the beds, the location, the fact that you can do sculpture there or yoga. And if they do have woodchip on the walls, it will say so in the write-up. It's the writing that makes the difference; it's very succinct and leads people away from places they wouldn't like while drawing them to those they would."

One of the least conventional entries in Sawday's guide to British B&B is Miller's Residence on Westbourne Grove in London. It hovers on the border between upmarket W11 and the bedsit jungle of W2, and that it defies categorisation is down solely to the insatiable appetite of owner Martin Miller for acquiring antiques and ephemera. Eccentric Bohemians are more restrained. Walls are daubed in paint the shade of newly spilled blood; every surface groans with bric-a-brac and bygones, from dusty portraits of enigmatic unknowns to ostrich eggs, garden gnomes, stuffed birds and myriad candelabra that flicker softly when daylight fades. (The latter was a feature of Miller's previous hotel adventure, Chilston Park in Kent). It's in the blood, though; Martin publishes the eponymous Miller's Antiques Price Guide and is never happier than ferreting out bargains at Christie's.

"This place just evolved. We call it a Residence, as opposed to a B&B, because we don't fall neatly into any category," says Miller. "We started letting one or two rooms and it grew and grew." There are now eight rooms varying in price from Pounds 150 to Pounds 230 a night plus VAT. Breakfast is served until the last person has emerged and there is a complimentary bar. "If people really take advantage of the free drinks - do a bottle of vodka and pass out on the couch - they don't tend to use their room, so we save on the cleaning," he says.

"We have people who always used to stay at the Ritz and now they stay with us, for no other reason than they like something that's small, discreet and cosy. A guy just left this morning who came for a week and stayed for 31 days. This is now home from home for him."

"In the past two years I've stayed here at least a dozen times," says Monica Anderson, events co-ordinator for the Rolex Sports Car Series in the US. "It's one of London's best-kept secrets; it's small, personable, stylish and warm. It's like staying in your own home or with friends and family but without the hassle."

Guide books aside, the single most influential factor in facilitating the rise of the high-end B&B is, of course, the internet. Canny web-surfing can lead the adventurous traveller to homes from home across the globe and to experiences as far removed from package holidays and cookie-cutter chain hotels as it's possible to get. And because even the highest-quality B&B is a bargain by comparison with a hotel, you can satisfy your curiosity and wanderlust while sticking to the investor's maxim: thou shall not risk thy whole wad.

Martin Raymond works for The Future Laboratory and makes it his business to predict coming trends and point out those that have already arrived. "In Cape Town, local people have realised that a lot of visitors who stay in the big chain hotels make a point of visiting the shanty towns that they just pass through on a tour bus," he says. "So they say 'if you really want to learn something, come and stay with us, come and live with us.' So lots of B&Bs are opening up in shanty-town areas. You pay a fair amount - it's not cheap but certainly less than a big hotel - and part of that goes to support local infrastructure and projects that are taking place in the townships. So you're not a passive observer of someone else's culture. You become part of it."

"I used to operate without the internet but today I couldn't," says Maggie Dobson, whose website www.athomeinlondon.co.uk has more than 80 properties within London Underground zones 1 and 2.

"People wanting to stay in a true neighbourhood, in a house owned and maintained by people who are part of that neighbourhood and have good local knowledge, is certainly a more widespread phenomenon than it was when I started my company 20 years ago," says Dobson. "There's a huge interest now in having a glimpse or an experience of another lifestyle. B&B is known as the Cinderella of the accommodation industry. It's never been associated with really top- quality accommodation but I do think that's changing."

I haven't stayed at any of the properties on Dobson's website but my wife and I have stayed at 3 Princes Street, a Georgian town house in the centre of Norwich with four huge guest rooms, and would happily stay again. I've also been fortunate enough to have B&B'd at some beautiful colonial inns while driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

The Greenwich Village Habitue was comfortable, convenient and a bargain - not least because you pay up front, in cash, making it impossible to accrue a crippling litany of extras - but while blissfully devoid of traffic noise, the squeaky floors mean any private passions become so public they could elicit rounds of applause from fellow residents. We've made good and frequent use of Sawday's guides to Britain, Spain, France and Italy and will do so again. Both The Abingdon Guest House and Marjorie Colt's Rooms to Let are featured in Allen Sperry's New York's 100 Best Little Hotels, but then so is The Kitano (bland, over-priced), The Hudson (how is 1,000 rooms "little"?) and The Inn at Irving Place (pretty but noisy).

You can shop around via website or guide book until your fingers bleed without ever being really sure of what you're getting. Where you see imagination, I might see pretension; where I see chintzy, you might see homely; my peace and quiet might be your dull as ditchwater. But the more individual we each fancy à -ourselves to be, the more likely it is that there will be a B&B out there owned by a kindred spirit who can open their door to new horizons and make us feel at home. Which is, after all, where the heart is.
 
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