Welcome to day 3 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society. (More about heterotopias and liminal spaces.) Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.
There are six motels/hotels that we (spouse and I) stay at over and over, in Savannah, Boston, Middlebury VT, Orleans MA, Boothbay ME, and Ogunquit ME. I’m not sure exactly what their appeal is. Prices per night range from $89 to $250, all fairly mid-range for their locations. The locations themselves are great but they differ — two are in the heart of cities, two are in the heart of towns — all four very walkable to the things we want to walk to — and the other two are on the outskirts of town, though still walkable into town (a mile or two each way, which we enjoy), and one of those is a few blocks from the ocean. Three accept pets, which mattered to us until a few years ago.
I’m going to highlight one of these hotels today, The Holiday Inn Express-Historic District, Savannah, GA. We’ve stayed here at least four times and would have stayed more but they were booked twice when we travelled and we had to stay at other hotels, including the Cotton Sail, which sits just above River Street, chic, modern, expensive, and the Planters Inn, on Reynolds Square, which is old-fashioned, falling apart (when we were there, the elevators didn’t work, almost the whole time!), and the staff was unfindable and not helpful. There was a complimentary bottle of wine in the room for my birthday, which was a lovely surprise, but things went downhill from there, and at more than $300 per night, things needed to be pretty perfect.
But I love the HIX. Yes, it’s a Holiday Inn — which, when I was growing up in the 70s, was “the nation’s innkeeper” and its iconic sign was everywhere (my family stayed in family-friendly Holiday Inns and Howard Johnsons on our once-a-year vacation) —
(above, not my photo)
— but this one is on the corner of E. Bay and Abercorn, one block from River Street, a few blocks from the City Market, a block from Reynolds Square. The location can’t be beat. (Shown below with red tag. You can also see the Cotton Sail Hotel and the Planters Inn on the map.)
We come into town on the train,
take a cab to the hotel, and we don’t rent a car (from the airport, miles away) until we check out and leave for Jekyll Island, an hour and a half away — often via the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens:
Somehow the HIX feels like a sanctuary from the moment I enter the wide, whooshing automatic sliding doors, usually for the first time each visit at 6:30 a.m., more than 24 hours after having fallen out of bed in New Hampshire at 4 a.m. to catch the 5:50 a.m. bus to Boston, then the 9:30 a.m. train from there, through a change to a different train line in New York’s Penn Station in the afternoon, with evening and overnight on the Silver Meteor (which continues on to Miami), to be awakened early again, at 5 a.m., for disembarking.
And just about always, our room is ready when we stumble in, bleary eyed, at 6:30, both needing showers and some sleep on a real bed before hitting Huey’s on the River for beignets, cafe au lait, and grits:
Nothing says “welcome” like the availability of the hotel room in the wee and exhausting hours of the morning, and check in staff who seem happy to provide it more than 8 hours before their normal check-in- time. (They also give us bottles of water and sometimes fruit.)
Chilling out on the bed in your hotel room watching television, while wearing your own pajamas, is sometimes the best part of a vacation. — Laura Marano
We’re usually at this hotel at Christmas and New Year’s, when it’s decorated cheerfully and simply.
There is something especially wonderful, for me, about spending big, culturally significant holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving away from home, and it is precisely because of the heterotropic feel of it: I like the way time passes differently when travelling, when staying in a city or town where I don’t know anyone except the person I am travelling with (and if I’m travelling alone, even more so). Time is open, the future is unknown rather than proscribed as it often is when surrounded by family or friends, when in one’s usual place, taking part in the same interactions as always on these occasions.
We often spend a day or two before Christmas in Savannah, then drive to Jekyll on Christmas Eve or Christmas itself, and we return to Savannah on New Year’s Eve or the day before, spend that night there, and take the train home on 1 January. I love subverting the procession of what is often treated as “sacred” time by making it feel ordinary (ordinarily holy) through the mundane activities of packing, picking up a rental car, driving on the interstate, unpacking, finding take-out Chinese food someplace or just nibbling on snack food when most others in our culture are buying, wrapping, feasting, gathering in groups. I like interacting with cab drivers, rental car agents, restaurant staff, hotel staff on these set-aside days; I feel I am part of an underground community in some way, and at the same time I know I’m not. Our schedule and plans for Christmas Eve and Day and the days before involve not decorating a tree, not wrapping and unwrapping gifts, not making holiday foods, not meeting family/friends for a meal, not going to church, and so on, but rather just checking out of a hotel and picking up a rental car on time. Then? Nothing is certain; time could unfold any way it will.
We exchange only one or two small gifts during this period and I make some rough decoration for the room from shells, branches, sand, rocks, ribbons and rope, a few shiny things. If we were at home, I’m not sure we’d scale down to this extent, but even if we did, I don’t think it would feel the same to me, because there is something about the usual place, home, that exerts a kind of sway on time, on plans, on what’s expected to happen when, and it really does seem like it’s the place itself that has this effect.
Michel Foucault says (slight paraphrase) that “the heterotopia begins to function fully when people are in a kind of absolute break with their traditional time.” To make “an absolute break with traditional time” — by travelling away from home, by staying in a hotel or motel that superimposes and confuses public and private space, that functions as a temporary and transitional way-station, that allows personal (and perhaps “couple” or “family”) identity to float free of its boundaries in an anonymous environment — removes or rescues us from prevailing norms, allows time and self to dissolve and re-order to some extent, blurring the boundaries of time and self as the boundaries of meaning in the space itself are blurred (public/private, familiar/strange, feels institutional/feels like a retreat, etc.). And what period of time is more traditional in American culture than Christmas and the weeks before it? (Rivaling Christmas for traditional celebration, Thanksgiving is the other time we tend to travel each year.)
Some years, we do feast on Christmas Day at the Jekyll Island Club Hotel buffet extravaganza, and New Year’s Eve is often a special dinner in Savannah. We may attend the Christmas concert at St. John the Baptist in Savannah, or take a nighttime walking tour with a sort of Christmasy Dickensian theme (a fund raiser for the local food bank or other charity in Savannah). Even those time-appropriate, traditional “Christmas” events, however, take on a different feel, because we are in the space of a heterotopia, where multiple realities are juxtaposed. We’re in a place that’s both familiar (we have been to Savannah and Jekyll before, we have certainly stayed in Holiday Inns before) and unfamiliar, even exotic, a place where the weather is mild enough that we can dine outside at a cafe table on the sidewalk in mid-winter, when there are feet of snow piling up on our driveway at home. We are among palm trees and camellias blooming everywhere. We are wearing light clothing. We are among other tourists, also enchanted and bewitched by their surroundings and how they feel in these strange surroundings, unmoored from the usual family, community, daily household tasks. It often feels surreal, disorienting in a mostly good way.
Instead of spending Christmas morning unwrapping gifts, we light a candle or two, open a card and a gift or two, and then take a long walk on the quiet beach, admire the shore birds, maybe walk in the woods and look for stinkhorn fungi. On New Year’s Eve in Savannah, we often eat dinner fairly early, walk about on the Savannah streets a bit as festivities are starting to gear up, then head back to the waiting hotel room, where we can perhaps hear a car horn, fireworks, carousers from inside the small impersonal space.
Back to the hotel: The room itself is simple, like the lobby, with just what’s needed: good wifi, a refrigerator, a microwave, a desk and chairs, comfortable bed(s), well-functioning bathroom, some space, some quiet.
The staff are always attentive, and the place just works well. I don’t feel in any sense that I am home there, but I feel benignly looked after without feeling watched or intruded upon. I can be anonymous, I am unknown (even after four or more visits), but I also feel the tenuous and privileged connection that being a “guest” confers.
While in Savannah, favourite spots besides the hotel and Hueys are the Paris Market, with their unusual toys and stuffed animals, good-smelling things, jewelry, books, household goods, fantastic displays, and the macarons, especially at an outside cafe table …
… the fabulous Arches Bar in the Olde Pink House …
And the tavern there for dinner, by the fire …
… and then there is the estimable Gryphon Tea Room, serving tea sandwiches and brunch, staffed by the Savannah College of Art & Design students …
Oh, and Savannah Bee honey, with two (maybe more?) locations in Savannah (and one on St. Simon’s Island) … Free samples of honey there, plus mead tastings, lots of lotions and potions …
… and the River Street Sweets and Candy Kitchens on River Street and at City Market (all with free praline samples) …
Other favourite food places are Jazz’d Tapas Bar for tapas and romantic atmosphere; Moon River Brew Pub for casual eats (big outdoor space); Churchill’s Pub in the wine cellar for special occasions; Rocks on the River and Rocks on the Roof at the Bohemian Hotel for a fun, hip nosh (Rocks on the River was open one Christmas morning when nothing else was, bless them); Vic’s on the River for great view and a comfy traditional spot. Once we get the car, we usually head to the Crab Shack on Tybee Island for seafood and cocktails. I’d love to get to the Crystal Beer Parlor next time; we walked there last time but they were unexpectedly closed that day.
Then there’s hours spent strolling on cobblestone streets, along tree-lined streets dripping with Spanish moss, beautiful and interesting architecture everywhere …
… and the parks, gardens, squares, Colonial Cemetery …
… the stairs that are so fun to climb …
… the whimsical creche and the glorious Christmas concerts, with organ and choir, at The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist …
I almost forgot the Telfair museums — which includes the Telfair Academy, part period house, part art gallery …
… the Jepson Center (a more modern art gallery) …
… and a tour of the Owens-Thomas House (no inside photos allowed) …
And after walking, eating, drinking (cocktails on the street!), attending events and taking tours, enjoying tea, (mostly) window shopping, sampling gobs of pralines and honey, pounding the cobblestone and climbing up and down the stairs, it’s so nice to retreat to the unpretentious Holiday Inn Express at the corner of E. Bay and Abercorn for a little quiet, some privacy, a few Zots candies, and some moments or hours of down time in an uncluttered, embracing room, possibly overlooking a pocket garden behind the hotel.
Even after a long train ride and early morning wake-ups, no shower, gritty eyes, I always perk up a bit when I see this ….
When you get into a hotel room, you lock the door, and you know there is a secrecy, there is a luxury, there is fantasy. There is comfort. There is reassurance. — Diane von Furstenberg