Hand-luggage only

Whenever I can, I enjoy picking up a copy of the New York Times from the Air France lounge. In addition to the in-depth reporting (and I also have to admit the comics), I like the weekly travel column. One of the instalments this year was dedicated to hand luggage. Apparently a cohort of self-righteous US travellers have taken to photographing and shaming those that travel with oversized hand luggage.

Without resorting to such extreme tactics, I can only sympathise with this worthy cause. Whether it is tourists eager to save a few euros with the new Air France “prix minis” or businessmen keen to advertise they are so busy they cannot possibly spare a few minutes to wait at the luggage carousel, I have too often found the luggage rack full to the brim.

The hand-luggage crowd is definitely one I cannot associate with. Over the past couple of years, I have flown about 70 times and only encountered two problems with my suitcase in the hold. Both times my case arrived at its final destination a few hours later or the day after, with an apology and a voucher or nothing (but I was travelling with Alitalia). It is also very rare that I have to wait more than a few minutes for my luggage to show up. In the meantime, I have been able to enjoy a stroll through the shops, a walk up or down the stairs to the quieter bit of the lounge, and have been able to find my own seat without rolling on somebody’s pair of Lobbs. and crushing that neatly folded Dormeuil jacket in the luggage rack. Speaking of which, when I travel for a few days, I usually carry one or two suits in my luggage. How they could be properly folded in the tiny piece of luggage that you will wheel aggressively towards the taxi rank, Blackberry in hand, remains to be seen.

I know my rant may make me sound like I am from a bygone era of leisurely travel, but I wish we could at least retain at least some of the spirit and conform to this simple rule: “hand luggage” means you can carry it by hand.

Albergo Cantine Ascheri, Bra, Italy

The location

On a tour through Piedmont, it is most in the spirit of the trip to stay in a hotel where the local industry pervades your visit – and on this count, the hidden treasure of the Albergo Cantine Ascheri does not disappoint. Located in the amusingly-named town of Bra, in Italy’s Barolo region, the hotel is quiet even in what might be considered high season by most (although in fact the area is busier during the autumn months), which at least virtually guarantees a good night’s sleep. The hotel is situated atop the Cantine Ascheri winery (of which we were lucky enough to receive an excellent tour), and across the courtyard from the Osteria Murivecchi, a restaurant serving high-quality local fare. A short walk away from the town of Bra itself, the hotel also comes with its own ample (free) parking.

The room

The wine theme starts off directly in your room thanks to a gift of a bottle of wine from the Cantine Ascheri winery, with glasses and a corkscrew made available should you wish to start drinking right away (although you are of course welcome to take the bottle home with you as a souvenir). Apart from this, there are sadly no tea and coffee-making facilities in the room, which are easy enough to provide and greatly appreciated (although it’s easy enough to see that this wouldn’t fit in so well with the Dionysian feel of the place). The rough wooden finishes (such as on the chest of drawers where the wine bottle is placed) are accompanied by more modern touches, including an appropriately equipped bathroom (with power shower), comfortable bed, and generously-sized wardrobe. If you don’t feel like relaxing in your room, the plush reading room (with its generous selection of Italian and English reading materials) and the sunny terrace (both on the first floor) are also available.

The breakfast

Quite good by continental standards, offering a selection of locally-sourced cheeses and cold meats (including the Bra sausage…underwiring not included :p ), decent espresso, and a variety of delicious cakes. Quality did vary in some respects, with the juice and chocolate (yes, there was chocolate at breakfast…no, don’t ask me why) falling short of expectations. As there were few guests in the hotel, we suspected that some of the food had been left in situ for a while, as indicated by (for example) the stale bread; however, there was more than enough to make up for this in the way of other dishes on offer. Bizarrely, breakfast is served in a sometime conference room, as indicated by the screen and projector equipment. At other mealtimes, there is always the self-service bar outside the breakfast room, which functions using an honesty box-style system. The breakfast room itself is also sometimes used for dining at other times (perhaps during their high season) and, as mentioned, there is always the popular local restaurant across the way, which is managed by the same family and from where it is easy to charge meals to your room (we even had our dinner included in our package for the first night).

The price

At €128 per night for two people, including a dinner for two (with a generous wine allowance), a winery tour, and breakfast on both mornings, suffice it to say that this oasis of calm, rooted in terroir, represents an absolute steal in terms of value. Would undoubtedly return.

Via Piumati, 25
12042 Bra (Cn)

http://www.ascherihotel.it/welcome_eng.lasso

Mercure Biel, Switzerland

The location

Conveniently located for visiting the numerous watch emporia of Biel (or Bienne, if you are a French-speaker), the Mercure at Biel is easy to find and is within walking distance of the town’s cafés, parks, and picturesque stream that flows through the centre. This functional yet slightly swanky establishment plays host to helpful staff, a restaurant named Barrique, a jazz club with smokers’ lounge, and underground car park.

The room

Quite Spartan in some respects, and overall had a slightly dated feeling (as many Mercures do), but with a comfortable bed and a wide offering of TV channels on the flat screen (including the BBC).

The breakfast

Totally forgettable and generally mediocre, excepting perhaps the fresh fruit on offer. Included in your room rate. The same could be said of the hotel’s restaurant, Barrique, where we ate dinner: food was mediocre and overpriced, even though portions were generous (some would say oversized).

The price

€200 for one night, including breakfast and dinner. Not the deal of the century, but adequate for our needs. At any rate, it enabled us to discover beautiful Biel, which we would definitely revisit, even if not specifically using this hotel.

Rue du Marché-Neuf 40, 2502 Biel/Bienne, Switzerland
+41 32 328 68 68

http://www.mercure.com/gb/hotel-6166-mercure-plaza-biel/index.shtml

Novotel Geneva Centre, Switzerland

The location

Once you’ve conquered the intricacies of Geneva’s one-way traffic system, the Novotel in the city centre is actually quite easy to locate. It’s also conveniently situated: within a few minutes’ walk you can have what feels like the world at your feet thanks to the city’s multicultural mixture of ethnic restaurants and world-renowned brands. Public transport is also easily accessible from the hotel, with tramway stops and train stations just moments away. Finally, there are plenty of museums and monuments close by. In short: you have all you need, and then some. Just one point to note: if you do have your car with you, then be aware that parking – at the rate of 30 Swiss francs per night – is not included in the room rate.

The room

Spacious and well-equipped, the executive room also had a delightful sun-kissed balcony that was a most pleasant attraction in the mornings and early evenings. Other highlights were the coffee machine, which produced high-quality beverages at the touch of a button, minibar stuffed with complimentary drinks (still and fizzy water, juice and Coca-Cola were all free), and encouraging water pressure in the shower. However, the bathroom was arguably the weakest point: the shower/bath combi, lack of storage space, and sink that was slow to drain meant it could do with an upgrade.

The breakfast

The food on offer was mostly mediocre, with the cooked options not worth your time. The best part was perhaps the cereal station, which offered plenty of dried fruit and seeds to mix with your bran flakes, granola or whatever. At €25 a head, it was also very expensive (even if you took on the hot dishes), so you’re perhaps better off going down the road to Starbucks on this occasion.

The price

We got our rooms as part of a “buy one night – get one night free” promotion, so we only paid €180 for two nights, which included breakfast and a room upgrade (thanks, Accor loyalty points program!). This represented exceptional value, but was perhaps not the norm. Its central location is to be highly prized, and if we could access a similar offer again, we would undoubtedly take it. Would recommend.

Rue de Zurich 19, 1201 Genève, Switzerland
+41 22 909 90 00

http://www.accorhotels.com/gb/hotel-3133-novotel-geneve-centre/index.shtml

NH Santo Stefano, Turin

The location

Conveniently situated a few minutes’ walk from Turin’s buzzing city centre, the advantage of the short walking distance lies not only in being able to burn off some calories from the gelati you’ve consumed, but also in the fact that it’s significantly quieter at night. To help you relax upon your return, the hotel does have a steam room (although it was sadly closed during our visit). During the day, all of Turin’s main attractions are easily accessible on foot from the NH Santo Stefano, and it also faces the attractive San Giovanni cathedral. Turin’s strong architectural history is reflected in the unique wooden beams and circular structure of the hotel itself. Furthermore, the establishment offers a convenient underground car park (albeit for a nominal fee), meaning that you can be on your way again straight away when you need to, confident that in the meantime your vehicle has been stored securely.

The room

Despite its slightly confusing Keycard system (which is almost too secure; you practically have to throw your entire body weight at the door to get in), the rooms are of a good enough size with comfortable beds, which draw you in thanks to their clean white linen. Wifi is easy to set up and is reliable once connected. The bathroom was also modern, even if the hairdryer was one of those annoying types where you have to hold down the button to keep the air flowing. However, this was compensated for by an excellent rainforest shower that had good temperature and water pressure.

The breakfast

Despite the selection of weirdly luminous panna cotta and jellies on offer, there was also a reasonable variety of cereals, pastries, cold cuts, beverages, and cheeses; in short, what you would expect of breakfast in Europe (although parents who don’t want their children hyped up on E-numbers to start the day may wish to look elsewhere). This was convenient and the price was included in the room rate too. For those who fancy eating later in the day instead, the hotel bar is open for drinks and nibbles, and there is also a restaurant (although we sampled neither of these).

The price

Including parking, breakfast and tax, this came to €170 per night for two people. For the location and hotel atmosphere, this to us represents good value for money, meaning we would certainly return during a repeat visit to this beautiful Italian city.

Address: Via Porta Palatina, 19, 10122 Torino, Italy

Only you hotel & lounge, Madrid

The location

This new hotel is located in a trendy area of Madrid, just off Gran Via, thereby ensuring easy access to the city centre and the museums. First impressions are good thanks to a porter, and a lobby making the most of the building’s architecture. Reception is equally nice, but I am not sure guests really want a glass of champagne when checking in.

I also notice the hotel was not quite finished, and workers could be seen about the dining room. Drilling also started relatively early in the morning – not so nice when you are trying to listen to a conference call. It is also not very nice to have visitors poking about when you are having your dinner.

The room

Quite compact, but I enjoyed its cosy feeling. The bed is supremely comfortable, an iPhone dock is provided, and the phone is stylish. I also enjoyed the large shower. On the downside, you can see that some things are still in progress: there is for instance no laundry bag, and no plug in the bathroom. Despite the room being quite silent, you could hear people having loud conversations in the lobby. Maybe a door to separate the bedroom would be an idea. Finally, there are more lights flashing at night than on an A380.

The breakfast

I really enjoyed it, with tasty orange juice and nice Nespresso coffee. It is cooked to order, the ingredients are of good quality and you can actually order quite a lot. Be aware that you need a bit of time though.

I also enjoyed one dinner in the rather cool dining room. I found it tasty but a bit expensive for what it was and I felt a bit heavy during the night.

The price

389 euros for two nights, two breakfasts and a dinner. Despite the few faults, I thoroughly enjoyed this stay and may return.

Babylon Hampshire hotel – The Hague

The location

The hotel is right next to the central station, which is itself within easy reach of Amsterdam airport. The city centre is also very close, as are the ministries. I enjoyed a nice lunch with a Dutch colleague at the nearby Lavina.

On the whole, The Hague looks like a fairly pleasant city, although it was cold and wet when I visited.

The room

It felt dark and cold; I had to take a hot shower and get to bed with my laptop to work that night. The carpet looked a bit tired, and the (empty) fridge was so noisy that I had to unplug it. The bathroom was spartan, the soap was in a dispenser, the shower lacked pressure and the temperature was so variable that I burnt my hand.

The breakfast

Five letters: S-U-R-L-Y

The price

For two nights including breakfast and an overpriced meal at the restaurant, €350. I will look for other options should I visit The Hague again.