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Matthew Brace talks about his book Hotel Heaven

READERSVOICE.COM aims to give people a few good reading tips. For this issue I contacted Matt Haynes, the publisher of Smoke: A London Peculiar, a magazine of imaginative words and images inspired by London. In this interview he describes the origins and running of the magazine.But first up, Matthew Brace, a foreign correspondent who has just written an account of his luxury hotel experiences, in Hotel Heaven (Random House).

READERSVOICE.COM: Do you do a lot of reading of travel books, and if so could you recommend a few of your favorite titles and maybe say what you liked about them?

MATTHEW BRACE: My inspiration has always been the late Eric Newby. He was the epitome of the gentleman travel writer and foreign correspondent: generous, courageous, inquisitive, smartly dressed, and a wonderful writer. A good starting point is Newby’s classic A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, but his Love and War in the Apennines is equally striking. His writing was experiential, observational, and genuine.

RV: For anyone interested in getting into travel writing, could you give a couple of tips on writing travel pieces and books?
MB: Don’t! It’ll take you away from home for months at a time, and leave you broke and in debt. I don’t even break even from travel writing and have two day jobs (copywriter and science journalist) to pay the rent. But if you’re serious about it, then the main piece of advice is don’t just go on holiday. Travel! Get lost, miss trains, get into drinking games with Mongolian yak-herders, take invites to fiestas, travel in the cheap seats as well as the most expensive. Live every minute of it and never miss a trick.

RV: How has travel writing changed, if at all, over the time you’ve been writing travel pieces and travel books, in your opinion?

MB: Massively, and not necessarily for the best. A lot of it has been dumbed down and vulgarised. Some papers around the world are using non-writers (for no money) to email or blog their tales from Kathmandu and Kinshasa. It saves the paper a fortune but it is invariably dreadfully badly written. That’s not travel writing – that’s dull and mindless jibber-jabber.

Real travel writing is a skill; a profession. It’s not something anyone can just turn to when they fancy a change of scene.

RV: Does writing about luxury hotels for a living take the enjoyment out of staying at such places on your own holidays?

MB: No, it’s always fun but I can never afford to stay at these places on my holidays so it’s always work when I’m there. The best holiday I have had for years was renting a holiday home right on the beach on the mid-North coast, with no phone and no TV, and doing nothing for a week but watching the waves and eating local oysters and crab. Oddly enough it’s where I got part of the idea for my book Hotel Heaven.

RV: Does a hotel reach a certain point of luxury where it becomes superfluous, or even reaches some kind of critical mass of luxury where it becomes almost sickening to stay there? Do you think a more understated, tasteful hotel is better than an ultra-luxurious one?

MB: Some hotels are definitely over the top: luxury gone mad. Rainbows of colours everywhere and staff who ask ‘How can I enhance your hotel experience today, Mr Brace?’. If I had the money to choose, I would almost always go for an understated hotel but it would still have to be luxurious. That may mean white walls and minimal furniture, but the service and food still have to be impeccable.

RV: Overall you’ve been to a variety of hotels, like pods in the snow in Switzerland, sci-fi looking buildings in Dubai, eco-harmonious African safari lodges, as well as the traditional hotels from the first golden age of hotels, like the Savoy in London and the Algonquin in New York. Do you have a preference for one style of hotel, and if so, why?

MB: It depends entirely on my mood. I have described the wonders of a wide range of different hotels in my book, Hotel Heaven, from big, bold desert safari lodges to intimate urban hideaways. I love them all but in different ways.

Sometimes I like dressing up smart and having martinis in Manhattan, and at other times I get the old mouldy safari shorts on and head out on foot to look for wildebeest.

RV: Say someone won about $20,000 in a lottery and wanted to go on a three week tour of the classic hotels of London and New York, staying for a couple of nights at each of three golden age hotels in London and the same number of hotels in New York. Which hotels would you recommend and what would the total accommodation bill be, roughly?

MB: London: The Goring is really the only hotel you need to know in London. It’s just about perfect: impeccable service, truly spectacular food (the Scottish kippers for breakfast are the cat’s pyjamas), and slightly eccentric. If you have to leave, get a cab straight to The Ritz on Piccadilly, and then for a few nights of Art Deco heaven head down the road to the charming Savoy.

New York: First pick is The Algonquin in Midtown, the home of Dorothy Parker and the Round Table, and where The New Yorker magazine was born. Then head east to Fifth Avenue (preferably in a big platinum-coloured stretch limo) and hit the massive and awesome Waldorf=Astoria. Finally, after you have dined and danced your way through Manhattan, hide away and relax at the super-cool City Club.

Total bill: for the hotels you won’t get much change left from A$9,000, and the flight will cost you about A$3,500 (round-the-world economy for one person), but you’ll still have plenty of cash left from your winnings for oversized martinis, gourmet meals and some snowdomes for the godchildren.

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