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New York Times, 16th April 2009 .
ALMOST three decades after the fact, I can still recall with frightening clarity my first time at a youth hostel. What was billed in my “Let’s Go Europe” book as a “historic” Irish hostel in a “castle,” turned out to be a crumbling tower with no heat, stone floors and mildewed mattresses. I vowed never to stay in a hostel again.
Yet having heard that the hostel scene, while still being unbelievably cheap, had changed significantly over the years, I decided to try again — only this time, rather than being accompanied by a cute male hitchhiker, I had my teenage daughters in tow. And so it was with great trepidation that I approached the London Central Youth Hostel on a Friday evening in mid-March.
“Will there be sheets and blankets?” asked Harriet, my 17-year-old. “Please tell me there will be a TV,” said Florence, her 13-year-old sister. They have never stayed in anything but a full-service hotel, and usually one with a minibar, room service and a power shower.
“Of course,” I answered, entirely unsure. I wondered if we, clad in urban outfits with rolling suitcases in tow, should have been wearing rain ponchos and carrying huge backpacks.
Moments later we were standing in front of a stylish, modern building with gleaming plate-glass windows. I was certain I had the wrong address. Though I had read that YHA Ltd. recently invested about $8.4 million to renovate this hostel near Regent’s Park, it seemed too good to be true. Where was the peeling paint? Why wasn’t laundry hanging from the windows? Why wasn’t there a drunken student passed out on the stoop?
Instead, as we walked through the sliding glass doors into the entrance hall, I admired the floor-to-ceiling illuminated map of the London Tube system, as well as a good-looking 40-something man with a briefcase getting off the elevator. Already, things seemed different.
The girls quickly disappeared into what in my day would have been called the common room — typically a gathering place for grubby guests, complete with threadbare springy sofas, a rattling tea cart and a makeshift library of discarded travel books in every language but your own.
I braced myself and followed behind only to be shocked by the scene before me. The room could have been a model set for the Ikea catalog with brightly colored sofas and chairs arranged around sparkling white laminated tables.
One wall was decorated with enlarged photos of London landmarks — a red mailbox, an Oxford Street sign, the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Flanking the wall was a blackboard with information on the latest museum exhibitions, food and clothing markets, and shows. Mounted to the ceiling were several flat-screen televisions, including one showing a slide show of people partying in the hostel where we stood; Florence was mesmerized.
At one end of the room was a sleek, well-stocked bar. (In my day, most hostels had strict no-alcohol policies, hence the need for the big backpack.) Opposite was a line of computers, where Harriet was already logged on. Two older women with trendy haircuts and rectangular-framed glasses were enjoying their drinks at one table, and at another sat a family playing cards. There was not a single poncho in sight.
Most of the room was filled with young hipsters in low-slung jeans and tight T-shirts who did not seem to care that a parent was present, let alone a grandparent or two.
Watching my girls as they sang along to the background music of Coldplay, I couldn’t imagine them being any happier at the £250-a-night Mandarin Oriental hotel across town. Instead, we were going to pay £89 ($133.50 at $1.50 to the pound) for a room that slept four, complete with a private bath.
“I love this place,” Florence announced, ready to check out our room upstairs. I peeped over Harriet’s shoulder and saw her update her Facebook status. It read: “Harriet is hanging out in a cool London hostel.”
In the world of hip city hostels, who cares if your room has nothing but a bed (often a bunk), a simple bath (a shower with no bath products) and a small cupboard with no hangers? Common rooms, meanwhile, are often minimally — but stylishly — furnished with Scandinavian-style sofas and tables.