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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.
One of the NYTimes reporter has been to Barcelona Urbany Hostel, you can read his article and thoughts at this two links: Newspaper Article
Clockwise from top left, Oops! in Paris, the Urbany in Barcelona and the Circus in Berlin. More Photos of Barcelona Urbany
In Europe, Hostels Grow Up. New York Times, 16th April 2009 .