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(The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and three.)

Everything Is Relative

ONCE, I bought a new pair of gloves, and when my mother asked how much they cost, being a young man on my own by then, I told her. Thereafter, when I would arrive at my parents' for a visit, she would greet me with "Here's Beatty in his ten-dollar gloves! It's a wonder he speaks to us anymore." The point is where she set the bar of luxury and pretension -- worlds short of a Rolex. So if I had been told a year ago that spending $350 a night to stay at a swank hotel would ever seem like a good deal, I would have said that such a thing was inconceivable. However, during a recent trip my wife and I made to Los Angeles, the inconceivable happened. How it did is a tale of two hotels.

Illustration by Diane Bigda What I will call "Hotel Hip," which sits on a relatively quiet street in West Hollywood, has its fans, some of them celebrities who stay there regularly. The relevant arbiters consider it chic. Now, call me a clueless tourist, but I do not think that a room like the one we were given, inspired by the notify-the-next-of-kin interiors in Edward Hopper's paintings, is chic. I think it is a nightmare. We had reserved a smoke-free room; the hotel apologized but gave us instead one that smelled like an ashtray. In place of an honor bar was a snack dispensary to which, just like in the better gas stations, one fed money to get food.

I skip over the sliding-glass doors, the kind you see advertised ("Sliders!") in real-estate ads pitched to demolition-derby enthusiasts; the floor-to-ceiling plastoid drapes hiding the sliders; the dank patio ("Sliders to patio") and the Superfund site surrounding it, which wore a necklace of cigarette butts (filters, lipstick) across what appeared to be an AstroTurf surface. Magnanimously, I say nothing against the two-watt fluorescent light in the bathroom except that it made me want never to look at myself in the mirror again. But the three phone calls from someone asking for "Joe" bear mentioning. And the knock at our door at 2:30 A.M. was not the frank knock of a waiter come to stock Charleston Chews in the snack machine but a furtive sort of knock -- and for us it was the last straw. Although our reservations were for three days, we left at first light.

And repaired immediately to the Hotel Bel-Air, in a woodsy canyon just off Sunset Boulevard. The price was only marginally higher, but worth it -- the place has a rustic magnificence. A portrait of Grace Kelly, who stayed there when in Los Angeles, hangs in the main hallway, and grace is the note of the Bel-Air, of the great white swans in its garden lagoon, of the red-tiled roofs of the guest cottages, of the tasteful rooms -- ours was in lemon and white -- that you won't want to leave. Yes, a lunch consisting of a chicken sandwich and a fruit plate for $40 got our attention. And the $15 charge for a jar of peanuts in the honor bar did discourage late-night snacking. But with Hotel Hip -- considered a luxury hotel just like the Bel-Air -- in mind, we paid almost gladly.


Trading Up

COSSET yourself in inch-deep terry cloth all you want, but in the swankest hotel you're still a tourist in that town. With an apartment swap you get in -- and it costs you virtually nothing. Try to find a better deal than that.

In my first exchange last year I swapped my Manhattan apartment for a two-bedroom Amsterdam flat. My host, Marcel Oden, by coincidence also a journalist, met me and my friend with flowers and took us with a crowd of his pals to West Pacific, a trendy restaurant in a former gas factory (and not in most guidebooks). At the little grocery shops to which Marcel directed me, by my third visit the shopkeepers greeted me as a regular, abandoning English for a torrent of friendly if bewildering Dutch.

From the list of acquaintances Marcel left -- the novelist who could get us into parties, Marcel's parents, in the north, who could show us the waterworks -- I called Fred Allers, in Utrecht, who gave us a private tour of his medieval canal house, which dates from 1300. We sipped witte wijn by the water on a werven, a brick terrace along the quaint Nieuwegracht. He also taught us to say "lol" ("great fun"), cautioning us not to pronounce it "lul" (a vulgar male anatomical reference).

Maybe you could learn this stuff from your hotel concierge.

Marcel was a considerate guest at my house, as most home exchangers are. Karl Costabel, who for the past ten years has run HomeLink International, one of the two largest and oldest exchange programs (the other is Intervac), says he only occasionally hears of problems, and most of them are trivial. The members (for an annual fee of $93) are primarily affluent professionals -- professors, corporate officers, and the like -- and two thirds are repeat members, from about fifty countries and every American state. To avoid worry, Costabel recommends locking up precious things or taking them to a friend's house. You can also ask for references. He himself once exchanged his four-bedroom house in Hawaii for a French count's Paris apartment and the use of his Rolls-Royce and Maserati.

Maybe he and I are luckier than most. I don't know. But this year the professor who agreed to exchange his Barcelona apartment for mine decided not to come to New York after all. "Don't worry," he wrote me, "you can still have our apartment. We'll be in our country house anyway."

From the archives:

"On the Big Road," by Matthew Doherty (October, 1999)
The life and times of a truck-driving poet.

"Lewis and Clark and Us," by Cullen Murphy (March, 1998)
The expedition helped to forge a great nation. How does it hold up as a family vacation?

"No Phone, No Pool, No Pets," by Ian Frazier (March, 1996)
"The year I turned thirty, something came over me and I left my apartment in New York City and flew to northern Michigan and walked and hitchhiked to a small town and bought a used van and paid a local mechanic who said he specialized in van conversions to put a bed and a fold-down desk in it."

Related link:

American Automobile Association (AAA)
Travel tips and membership information.


What Could Be Simpler?

Illustration by Diane Bigda GOOD value comes to those who procrastinate. Sometime in late June we'll realize that we never managed to plan a summer trip, so we'll toss the cat into the back of the car and drive out of town. Of course, we have to avoid all popular destinations (notoriously bad values), because they're already booked, so we travel back roads through the kind of places that wouldn't rate one star in the Michelin guide. In this way we've gotten a sense of our country -- seen the light change abruptly in the middle of Oklahoma from the soft, hazy glow of the East to the brilliance of the West, and seen architectures, populations, and accents shift in the South as we travel from low country to wire grass to piedmont to highlands.

If the purpose of a trip is not just to see something new but actually to feel somewhere else, this kind of travel fulfills it perfectly. Sometimes we're forced to eat in Pizza Huts and sleep in unairconditioned cinder-block motels, but more often, as we slip in and out of the everyday life and distinct pleasures of rural towns so markedly different from the urban center where we live, we discover sights and tastes and charms we would never have anticipated: fireworks over the fields of Great Bend, Kansas; a concert on the village green of Oberlin, Ohio; the huge yellow hills of the Walla Walla Valley; the best fried chicken in Arkansas (and therefore probably the best in the world); the shady courthouse towns of mid-Georgia; blue-ribbon pie in Middlebury, Indiana; and tasteful old hotels, sometimes surprisingly grand, in towns like Arcata, California, and Marathon, Texas, and Harrodsburg, Kentucky. No one would think of making a special trip for any of these experiences, but in the end they're the things that make a trip worthwhile.



The online version of this article appears in three parts. Click here to go to parts one and three.

Jack Beatt,y Corby Kummer, and Barbara Wallraff are senior editors of The Atlantic Monthly. Cullen Murphy is the managing editor. Benjamin Schwarz is a correspondent. Ian Frazier, Francine Prose, Francine Russo, and Christina Schwarz are regular contributors.

Illustrations by Diane Bigda.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; Worth the Trip - 99.10 (Part Two); Volume 284, No. 4; page 38-44.