Confessions of a hoteloholic

Lifelong traveler and award-winning writer Jan Morris reveals her addiction to grand hotels -- and to the rituals and theatrics she always finds therein.

Published September 3, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

There are some psychological disorders that one prefers to keep to oneself, but after decades of concealment I have decided to make a public confession of my own deviant condition: I am a lifelong hoteloholic -- one who suffers from an uncontrollable and incurable craving for expensive hotels. Of course my friends have noticed odd symptoms down the years -- Why do I never accept invitations to stay with them on my travels? Why are my bathroom drawers full of unwrapped soap cakes from Mandarins, Regents and Palaces around the world? -- but nobody except a fellow sufferer can appreciate the depth and complexity of the neurosis.

Like most addictions, it is full of pleasure -- and like most neurotics, I feel I have it in hand. I consider it a branch of art appreciation, but of a particularly subtle, interactive kind, for in my view a hotel and its guests are engaged in a kind of minuet of mutual inference, each responding to the other's vibes and gestures -- a little like the mating dances of exotic birds, as they strut and preen about one another, lasciviously grunting.

Before he takes a sip, the alcoholic sniffs the bouquet of his claret or eyes the color of his malt whiskey. I get my preliminary frisson simply by walking through the revolving door of a hotel. It may be the sort of hotel where a young woman in a tailored blouse offers a sickly training-school smile and says in a phony accent, "Good evening, how may I assist you?" Or it may be the sort where a fawning assistant manager in a dinner jacket comes intensely bustling across the lobby -- he has been so looking forward to seeing you ever since he noticed your name in the reservation book, and he slips his visiting card into your hand just in case there is anything you need during your stay in Suite 111 (same old suite, you see!). Either way, it is performance art, and the practiced hotel addict responds in kind, instantly demanding non-smoking accommodation with discount as per special offers, or exclaiming "Giovanni, my dear, what a delight to see you again!"

This is the touch of theater that is essential to the nature of expensive hotels. These people are play-acting, and are tacitly inviting people like me to join the cast. It is conceivable that I really have met Giovanni before (though more probably I have just snatched his name from a sly look at his card). Most people I meet in hotels, however, are total strangers to me, companions in illusion, and just as the hotel itself is living in perpetual pretense, so just for a day or two I may inhabit whatever character I fancy -- pompous or slinky, shady or respectable, dowdy or modest or flamboyant. For us addicts, staying in a hotel is joining a communal charade -- far more fun than accepting a bed in Clarissa's guest room and having a nice long chat after dinner.

Oddly enough, too, the hotel can often seem more sympathetic, more collusive, than Clarissa and Simon's place, where I would also be obliged to admire the holiday photographs, drool over the baby, put up with bath water that is less than scalding and even, at worst, help with the washing-up. The hotel requires nothing of me (except hard cash or credit card), yet I have only to check in to feel that I have become a member. If it is one of the mammoth modern kind, perhaps on the top 20 floors of a skyscraper, I feel I have become a citizen of a private city. If it is smallish but trim, I feel I have joined the crew of a ship. And when I am taken upstairs in a creaky gilded elevator to my poky room high on the attic floor of some superannuated European chateau, I feel I am being welcomed into a family of aristocrats, if only as the upstairs maid.

The other day in Chicago I walked out of a hotel without paying my bill.
"Of course we never dreamed it was anything but a mistake," said the
manager when I called to apologize, but he was lying. The seductively
familial feeling of expensive hotels is all a sham. Hoteliers and guests
love, hate and distrust each other in about equal proportions. This gives
an irresistible tang to my addiction -- a delectable craving for sweet,
sour and deceptive.

For example, I detest the sort of hotel that carefully calls itself an
Inn, often An Historic Inn, where Mine Host (formerly a chartered
accountant) envelops me in bonhomie and asks half a dozen times in the
course of dinner whether Everything Is All Right. I detest it, but I love
it. I relish the exquisite pretension of it all, and actually look
forward to meeting the Innkeeper on the stairs to endure another dose
of his traditional hospitality. I even -- almost -- like the potpourri
smells, like the smells of touristy Gifte Shoppes, with which Historic
Inns like to perfume their low-beamed, quilt-eiderdowned, four-posted and
traditionally uncomfortable bedrooms.

In a way, you see, I make up my own hotels as I go along -- it is part of my
disorder -- but then they are seldom quite what they seem anyway. Hotels are
arcane and secret places. Next time you walk down a hotel corridor,
look through the open door of the next room, and then through the bedroom
window beyond, and what will you see? Not the view that you have from your
own window, oh dear me no. You will see a landscape totally unfamiliar
to you, a magic landscape specific to other peoples' hotel rooms. Only
hoteliers know how this is done, and if you ask them they will disclaim all
knowledge. It is part of their grand craft and mystery.

Myriad hidden passages lie beyond the guest quarters of a great hotel,
leading who knows where and patrolled by security men with beepers. All
night long there is rustling movement through them, and the elevators --
you must have heard them? -- rise and fall with muffled whirrs. If by chance
you run into the concierge in the street one day, dressed in
T-shirt, jeans and trainers, it is like seeing through a disguise -- and his
response to your greeting will be strangely sidelong and reluctant, as
though he is disconcerted to be recognized. I love these esoteric
suggestions, for the hotel addiction is not unlike an obsession with
conspiracy theories, or mystic convictions about UFOs.

There are aversion treatments for my condition, and for a time they work.
Prolonged and repeated residence in airport hotels is one temporary cure. A
long weekend in an Historic Inn can help. A drastic device called a Hotel
Chain Reactor consists of a cassette that you put under your pillow at
night that plays over and over again, in a false and artificial
voice, "Good evening, how may I assist you? Good evening, how may I assist
you? Good evening, how may I ..." But the effect even of this appalling
mechanism does not last. Before long I find myself pining once again for
that inexplicable view through the next room's window, for the whiff of
dried rosemary and lavender across the patchwork quilt, for dear Giovanni
bounding over the lobby floor with his card in his hand.

It is then that I go to my secret cache in the bookcase, hidden behind
Gibbon's "Decline and Fall," and pull out my hoard of brochures. Ah, as I thumb through their shiny pages, all the romance of the old
addiction bewitches me once more, the Spacious and Comfortable Guest
Rooms, the Ideal Facilities for Executive Conferences, the Cafe Polo for
Less Formal Buffet Meals, the Elegant and Historic Inn Offering the
Perfect Escape from the Pressures of Modern Life. I am ensnared again by
the temptations of Health Spa With State-of-the-Art Equipment! The
wicked promise of Remote Control CD in Every Room once again has me in its

Hang about, Giovanni, I'm on my way.

By Jan Morris

Salon Travel Contributing Editor Jan Morris has written more than 30 works of travel literature, including "Fifty Years of Europe," "The Matter of Wales," "Hong Kong," "Venice" and "Spain."

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