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Lodging reviews are new to me. I do know the difference between a good hotel and a dump, but the whole concept of choice is still foreign. Most of my travels to ski resorts have been as part of a team. As with a big family, you learn to take what you get-and to appreciate true comfort. For anyone who spends a significant amount of time on the road, that has little to do with breakfast in bed, fluffy bathrobes, attentive concierges or mints on the pillow. It’s about feeling comfortable and getting your basic needs met, whatever they may be at the time.
For example, I am not ashamed to say that after a long European World Cup trip, I preferred a no-frills Days Inn to the glamorous uber-resort spa hotels. Right off the highway, it had the five stars that counted: 7-Eleven, McDonald’s, a laundromat, a grocery store and a Mexican restaurant.
Comfort also depends on feeling welcome. The smaller European hotels often feel most hospitable, because in many cases they are homes with family members tending the rooms, cooking the meals and forcing their home remedies on you when you’re sick. If you can get past the absence of shower curtains and the presence of bidets, modest European hotels are supremely inviting…although I don’t remember many details. Most of the hotels from my globetrotting days were so pleasantly unremarkable that they blur together in the foyer of my memory.
A few stand out for their extraordinary efforts-such as the pension in Val Zoldana, Italy, where the hotel owner’s son carved me a set of crutches because we couldn’t get to a hospital. And the family owners of a hotel in Obertauern, Austria, who ordered our Thanksgiving turkey and let us take over the kitchen to cook and bake the feast. However, most of the hotels lodged in my memory are there because of their unfortunate circumstances or conditions.An early entry to my Hellhole Hall of Fame was in Mont Tremblant, Quebec, during the frigid December Nor-Am races. Though the resort now boasts a luxurious French village, I recall its more spartan days. Our compound had something about “Plein Air” in its name. Here’s a travel tip: When looking for a hotel in Canada in the winter, stay away from places that tout their “outdoorsiness.” We came to call this place “Camp Snoopy,” as it might have made a fine summer camp. But the barely heated bunk rooms had little ambience in winter, and dinners of American cheese on Wonderbread did nothing to warm the soul.
Another rustic beauty was our commune in New Zealand, a country where the locals are nothing if not welcoming. Though the dorm-like rooms were cramped and the bathrooms shared, the prospect of home cooking, big group tables and a common living room seemed warm and fuzzy. But squeaky doors, creaking floors and loud flushes kept us up all night long, thanks in part to the human-clock-confused time change. Two weeks of rain, sleepless nights and mysterious crocks of soup and we were over the kumbaya-ness of it all. As a parting blow, the “home cooking” had a secret ingredient that followed us home. The team doctor came down with hepatitis and our whole happy Ski Team family had to get gamma-globulin shots as a souvenir of the trip.
For athletes in general, the better you perform the better the hotel you get. Graduating from the Europa Cup to the World Cup is a giant step forward because the local race committees foot the bill. Typically they want to make the best impression on their guests and therefore far exceed the minimum stipulated standard. A move to the World Cup can whisk you from a Bulgarian hotel with cracked linoleum and a rusty drain for a toilet to a world of sparkling five-star resorts. I knew I had arrived when I walked out of my room in Japan to see maids cleaning the walls with toothbrushes. My gut reaction was: “I’m not worthy.”
To be sure, the staffs at the fancy hotels where we descended like locusts agreed wholeheartedly. I can’t say I blamed them for not being delighted to see thee team roll in and unload an entire cargo van full of gear, clothes and loud, hungry mouths.
One place that was clearly non-plussed by our presence was our hotel in Albertville, France, where we were ensconced when the Gulf War erupted. During our brief stay we barely glimpsed the British owner, who spent his days holed away in his suite, seemingly bored with his guests. That is until we were rousted by our coaches in the middle of the night when the bombing began. The hotelier had been glued to the CNN spectacular and emerged while we were packing our bags for a hasty stateside retreat. The tall Hefneresque figure suddenly stormed the halls, swilling scotch in his silk bathrobe and slurring, “It’s over! You bombed the hell out of them. You might as well stay; it’s all over.” He was still ranting expletives from his balcony as we pulled away before dawn. I’m quite certain there was no refund on those rooms.
We did stay in our share of nice hotels, but again the ones I remember are noted for their inappropriateness. Bad Gastein, Austria, is a tranquil spa resort popular with the older set, with white linen and silver place settings at every meal, cavernous hallways and grand curved staircases. It was a particularly unfortunate choice for the last race before the Olympics, where the team selections would be finalized. With nerves and emotions running in hyperdrive and altercations in the hallway frequent, a padded cell would have been more appropriate than a marble palace.
Another problem with nice hotels was the cruel irony they presented. One time a few of us took a break from summer training to relax by a lake outside of Salzburg, Austria. After eating a sumptuous four-course meal in the candle-lit dining room overlooking the lake, I retired to my shared room with its fresh flowers, antique armoire and carved four-post bed. We settled into our chairs on the porch, silently watching evening fade over the lake. After a few minutes, my perennial roommate, Kristi Terzian, sighed and summed up the moment: “No offense, but right now I wish you weren’t you.”
That was about the gist of it. There is a time in life for everything, and the time for fine hotels clearly comes after the time for living out of a duffel bag. Some of us got a sneak preview one spring when we were treated to an all-time boondoggle. Race organizers at Alyeska, Alaska, enticed U.S. Ski Team athletes to participate in their spring race series by offering us an all-expenses-paid trip to their sister resort in Hawaii after the races. The coaches were, of course, all against it-and coincidentally not included in the offer. Imagine this: Ten 18- to 25-year-olds getting turned loose in one of Maui’s premier luxury resorts for a week. Are you kidding me?
That trip stands as the scam of my lifetime. But at least one of our gang felt worthy, and at the time I think I even believed him. Downhiller Kyle Rasmussen, sipping a frosty fruity drink at the manager’s welcome party (again, are you kidding me?), leaned back in his wicker peacock chair, looked at the sun setting over the Pacific and announced, sincerely, “We deserve every bit of this.”
Former Olympian Edie Thys lives in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.