By Derryn Heilbuth
Some years ago I was asked to write a piece for the Australian Financial Review’s “AFR Traveller”. For those who don’t know the format, it’s a brief Q&A where business travellers are asked to name their favourite hotel, restaurant and travel experience and provide travel tips.
For someone who travels a lot, on business in my own right, as an occasional travel writer and the spouse of The Siteseer, naming the hotel was the most difficult part of the assignment.
What hotel did I choose? Well, two actually, equally memorable but completely different. The first was The Mayflower Renaissance in Washington DC, a perfect setting for the global speechwriters’ conference I was attending. It was here that Franklin D Roosevelt worked on his “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” inaugural address.
The hotel, which will be 90 years old next year, was said to have had more gold leaf when it opened than any other US building except the Library of Congress. It was also a favourite of President Truman’s, who proclaimed it to be Washington DC’s second best address after the White House. Not surprisingly it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and Historic Hotels of America.
He mobilised the language and sent it into battle
After the conference I stayed on for a couple of days to visit the city’s museums and the Library of Congress. It was hosting an exhibition of the manuscripts of Winston Churchill’s speeches, the workings of which were real evidence of how, as JFK put it when granting Churchill honorary American citizenship, he “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”. Returning each night to the Mayflower, exhausted but happy, I was reminded why I love old style American hotels. No one does that understated lamplit elegance quite like the US of A.
My other favourite, the Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok, which I visited 14 years ago as a conference spouse, is a world away from the Mayflower. In those days, The Siteseer was Editor-in-Chief of Reader’s Digest. The Peninsula had recently opened and the Digest had managed to get a special deal for a meeting of its Australasian editors. It was my first visit to Southeast Asia and the hotel on the banks of the Chao Phraya River introduced me to everything I’ve come to appreciate about this part of the world: the delicate beauty of the orchids, the rich colours of the silks and textiles, the complex flavours of the food, the faultless taste you find in places like the Jim Thompson house or the hotel’s restored rice barges that ferried us across the river into central Bangkok and, most of all, the warmth of the Thais.
A useful reminder
My father-in-law was a newspaperman with printers’ ink in his veins and an almost childlike curiosity he never lost. A favourite saying of his was Shakespeare’s “To thine own self be true”. Authentic people, leadership, experiences are what we – increasingly – crave. In a world dominated by global brands and chains it’s a useful reminder that what travellers look for is difference not ubiquity. It’s certainly what the management of these two hotels remembered. Despite the fact that they are part of large groups, it’s why they stand out above the rest.