From my last article, I probably left the impression that the better cultural experience is likely found by staying at a two-star hotel, rather than in fancy five-star digs. This is reasonable assumption for a reader since I bashed the new Westin in Santa Fe in Mexico City (I had my reasons) and did not counter with a better five-star examples. Trust me, there a loads of great five-star places worth considering.
The way I look at it, travel falls into one of two categories, traveling and vacationing. Traveling is more about a place or a culture and the hotel may make little difference to the traveler. A traveler is not going to cancel his or her trip to Paris because a favorite resort or hotel is booked solid.
Vacationing is different. I just returned from a five-star place Fiesta Americana in Los Cabos whose staff went out of its way to provide superior service and creatively invented memorable dining experiences. For four days, I was completely content and stuffed to the gills with incredible food without having to leave the property. However, had I wanted to leave I would have had to take a cab twenty or thirty minutes to get anywhere, and walking was not an option.
The reason most resorts and major chain hotels frequently attempt to become the destination unto themselves rather than just a place to sleep is about money. If a visitor stays several days and never leaves the resort all the money spent at the resort will remain at the resort. In all fairness the hotel or resort spends tons of money on aesthetics, convenience and luxury. This is not bad within itself, it is just a different type of experience. Less culture and more luxury and amenities, versus more culture and less amenities and luxury.
However, I can have both. My days of youth hostels are over. Not only have I stopped being young, I also grew tired of the three German guys that seemed to be at every youth hostel I visited. The three would not stop drinking, screaming, running about, fighting and always came equipped with their own bad techno music. This means I have more work to do in planning my trip. To find a little luxury in my culturally based travel.
I stay in the center of town whenever possible. I ask myself, are there local bars restaurants, attractions within walking distance. As an example, on my last trip to Santa Fe, it would have been much more worthwhile to stay in the Zocalo area of Mexico City than in an area with nothing to do and nowhere to go. Location means not having to source long rides to be where I want.
A few great, ideally located hotels that come to mind are the swanky Opus Hotels of Montreal and Vancouver that have great food and beautiful hipsters but are situated in greats areas of town leaving me to explore on my own. The San Juan Marriott is on a gorgeous beach, has a casino, spa, fine dining and is a twenty minute walk to Old San Juan. Of course, these are only a couple of examples of thousands of great options. How can you find these places when looking for a travel/vacation combo?
Work with a travel agent
Most good agents have a geographic specialty. A place that the agent has personally been to numerous times and will have solid suggestions to neighborhoods and attractions worthy of your time. As an example, I know several agents who have been working in Mexico City and know numerous places to stay that would have been more charming and practical in making my trip memorable.
Phone a friend
Some hotels really do put their customers first. The most reliable information I get is from friends who have stayed at the hotel before and can offer an unvarnished opinion.
Call the hotel
Find out directly from a hotel concierge what is in walking distance including: bus stops, restaurants, Internet cafes, museums pharmacies, and markets. Ask them to get specific, then plan accordingly.
For the record, I always prefer travel. It was the natural progression of things when I took a rucksack out into a foreign land with not a lot of money. I had to stay downtown, near train stations, and walked a lot. However, as I wrote more professional travel articles, I learned to appreciate the vacationing aspect as something meaningful by experiencing both the good and the bad of luxury travel. I found the places that created experiences, which is, for me, what travel is all about.