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1997 Best & Worst

So Many Places, So Many Faces

Our peripatetic travel specialist reinvented himself again and again during his 1997 wanderings. Here are his best and worst moments.

December 28, 1997|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

I don't remember who, but someone once said that every time you step into a hotel lobby, or step off a plane, or step onto a boat, you reinvent yourself. This I believe.

Sure, you travel in large part to look beyond yourself, to encounter different people, unfamiliar geography, history made visible. And of course, you know, to purchase Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts.

But I think it's the prospect of personal reinvention that makes travel so powerfully attractive. I will be calm. I will be bronzed. I will be an athlete. I will be a citizen of the world.

Counting by this measure, 1997 recast me into 31 new hotel selves (counting only the ones I slept in), 44 airborne selves and six seaborne selves. All told, 81 selves. (Next election day, look for us on the voter registration rolls in Chicago, or perhaps an Orange County congressional district.)

Or better yet, look now at the destinations and circumstances that created us.

My favorite hotel room of the year, for instance, required a substantial adjustment of self. My wife, Mary Frances, and I found it in July, after about 11 hours in planes and airports on the way to Bora-Bora. Bright sun, deep blue sea, humidity and jagged island peaks awaited, as did a cabin cruiser from our hotel. We boarded, and a few minutes later we were deposited on the dock of the Hotel Bora Bora. Service was languid, as is customary throughout Oceania, and we knew a whopper of a bill was coming.

But this hotel's rooms--in particular, Room 128, on stilts over the water--seemed unsurpassable: rich-hued wooden floors and walls; high, thatched roofs; white linens; strategically placed tropical flowers; and just beneath the private deck, a few hundred drowsy fish of many colors, waiting for the next casting of baguette crumbs on the waters. On this deck, in this room, and most especially paying this bill, I was not myself. I was, acting strictly for your benefit, dear reader, the kind of guy who casually drops $700 a night for a hotel room.

*

This multiple-identity thing, however, cuts in many directions. One May afternoon in Viana do Castelo, a gem of a town in northernmost Portugal, I slipped into a seat in an umbrella-shaded outdoor cafe at the center of town. I had my cup of coffee, my cheese sandwich (a standard regional snack), and I was utterly happy to munch and observe inconspicuously while the little town went about its daily chores. Then, just as I was congratulating myself on my invisibility, a sudden rogue gust of wind picked up the umbrella from my table and dropped the pole noisily onto my head.

All of Viana do Castelo, or at least everyone in the Praca da Republica, now stared at the unfortunate American doofus in tourist attire, checking his tourist camera for damage while a great round tourist knot rose on the top of his head. I was blameless, I tell you, but it didn't matter: In a year of full-time tourism, this was the most pathetic tourist moment. In Viana do Castelo, at least until my next visit, I am the unfortunate doofus under the umbrella.

In my most recent New York incarnation, conversely, I am a stealthy, vengeful consumer. During my October stay there, the management of the 59th Street Bridge Suites charged me 75 cents per minute for local calls from my room. Eleven minutes from East 60th Street to East 47th Street: $8.25. "It's outrageous," admitted a desk employee when I called to object. "But the owner isn't willing to do anything about it." These were the most offensively high-priced hotel telephone calls I confronted all year in an industry notorious for profiteering on phone bills. Yet management took me and my fellow customers for victims who would sigh and suffer and, in the local language, fuhgedaboutit. Yeah, well, now I'll forget about it.

*

On to the 1997 parade of selves. It began for me on the second night of January along the Las Vegas Strip, on the teeming casino floor of the New York-New York Hotel and Casino. This was the grand opening party. Tuxedoes, slinky cocktail dresses and free drinks on all sides. George Hamilton in the bar upstairs, various celebrities cavorting amid the faux landmarks of an ersatz Manhattan. In the mingling, a moment of opportunity presented itself. I had need of a quote or two, and The Times photographer was seeking an image to document the strangeness of the occasion. So I barged into an adjacent conversation, hand outstretched for shaking, and introduced myself to a Las Vegas legend.

His lips moved, but not his hair. As we spoke inanely about the new hotel, the photographer's camera flashed, and my moment with the carefully coiffed headliner was fixed forever on film. From the photo, it is clear that in this frozen moment I am not my normal self. I am a close personal friend of Wayne Newton.

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