About 20 years ago, I was backpacking around the world, happily staying in grimy dorms and seeing bedbugs as a nuisance rather than a red flag. And then my friend and I arrived in Mui Ne, a charming little fishing village on the east coast of Vietnam. We clambered off the rickety bus (Westlife’s greatest hits still ringing in our ears) and asked a local where we could find a room. ‘How much you want pay?’ he asked, and we said US$10. ‘OK, I build you room, you leave bags’, he replied. Slightly stunned, we did.
As we relaxed on the beach, we heard the sounds of banging and drilling behind us, and at 4pm he came to tell us our room was ready. Sure enough, he had actually built us a tiny cabin amongst the greenery in his garden. A four-poster bed draped in mosquito nets, a little electric fan, even an ensuite shower room with running water. ‘You like?’ he asked politely; ‘We love’, we replied, still incredulous. And rather than the one-night stopover we’d planned, we stayed for 8 days, doing karaoke with his family every night.
This sweet, clever man taught me a real lesson: if you want to create something special and memorable, you need to prioritise the right things. Rather than cramming in four bunkbeds and whipping up an on-site bar with an eye on future profit, he instead produced a little sanctuary for two. His priorities for us were privacy, clean sheets, running water and a fan: exactly the ‘luxe’ we needed after a year on the road. And by doing that, he made his garden into a lovely sort of homestay, and a real world-of-mouth destination; we told everyone we met to go there. He wouldn’t have made big bucks from it overall, but it probably brought him a lot more joy.
Fast forward to the 2000s when I was the Editor of i-escape.com, and two tiny hotel groups totally disrupted the travel scene. The Artist Residence collection, and the Beckford Arms stable. Their USPs were affordable luxe and their whole ethos exactly chimed with what I’d learnt in Vietnam. Rather than serve up marble bathrooms and valet parking for a massive price tag, they delivered gorgeously quirky interiors and genuine, friendly service for way lower prices – and still included little luxuries like Bramley toiletries and brilliant breakfasts. And although I was lucky enough to stay in some incredible 5* hotels around the world for work, these really personal properties were where my husband and I went for minibreaks. Largely because of price, yes, but actually I’m not all that comfortable with formal restaurants and obsequious staff. I love a laid-back vibe.
During the same period, little rentals began really upping their game, too. Thanks to Etsy, trendy reclamation yards, and an explosion of great-value interiors’ sites, people were creating the most incredible self-catering hideaways. The first I discovered in time for my 5th wedding anniversary: a boho-beautiful yurt for £90/night, with a whole field of buttercups to ourselves. The following year, we stayed at an exquisite Welsh cottage with wonky old beams and a handmade Shaker kitchen – utterly gorgeous and just £110 a night. And the joy with rentals is that you get masses of space and privacy compared to a hotel room.
So my perfect escape will never be satin sheets and butler service. I want somewhere unique, with real style, created by inspirational owners who care that their guests have a memorable and special stay. For a price that feels more-than fair.
In fact, I can recommend some amazing ones!