Travel Spring Training: The Rites & Delights of a Hotel Stay
In early May I wrote about a revelation I had on a day trip to Sonoma, an historic town an hour north of my Northern California home. On that trip I was touring sites and shops around the town’s 180-year-old central square, and I suddenly realized that for the first time in a year and a half, I was traveling like a tourist—and that this simple act, which I had been doing for decades, felt familiar and yet unfamiliar at the same time. It occurred to me that this was really my version of spring training: travel spring training, practicing how to be a tourist again.
Last week I decided to take this notion one step further. I realized that the idea of staying in a hotel, one of the most fundamental of travel experiences, had become foreign to me—my last night in a hotel had been 18 long months ago—so I decided to make a travel spring training trip to a nearby hotel.
The place I chose for this quest was the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa, located in that same historic town I had visited in May. I chose the Fairmont partly because it is a luxurious and venerable property comparable to the kinds of hotels I stay in when I travel as a tour leader for GeoEx, and partly because I will be staying at this same hotel in August, when it will be the venue for the Sonoma Valley Authors Festival, where I will be speaking (along with such beloved authors as Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, Dave Barry, Walter Isaacson, Wade Davis, and many others). I thought it would be a great idea to have a practice stay at the hotel before the festival, so that I might avoid embarrassing myself in front of all these luminaries.
So I made a reservation for last Sunday and Monday nights, and on a cloudless, blue-sky Sunday afternoon, drove through iconic Sonoma County countryside: golden meadows and rolling golden and green hills, neatly latticed vineyards, and an occasional wooden farmhouse or stone winery set in poignant isolation.
As I drove, I was filled with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. And questions. Two weeks earlier, California had announced that people who have been vaccinated do not need to wear masks (except in a few specified settings), and that regulations for unvaccinated people were at the discretion of the individual establishments. So I wondered: What will it feel like to share a space with so many unfamiliar people again? Will they be wearing masks? And will I remember how to stay in a hotel?
When I arrived at the Fairmont, I was heartily greeted by a smiling attendant, who helped unpack my bags and put them on a trolley to take them to my room. He told me that the hotel had not yet re-established valet parking, so guests were asked to self-park, and he showed me the outdoor and underground lots where I could park.
He walked away with the trolley, and I parked and walked toward the lobby. As I glanced around the grounds, I could see two dozen guests and staffers; none of the guests were wearing masks, and about half of the staffers were. A sign posted near the entrance to the hotel said, “FACE MASKS REQUIRED. In compliance with State regulations, all unvaccinated guests must continue to wear a face mask or covering in all public spaces within the hotel.” Inside the hotel lobby, there were about 20 guests, some chatting in groups on the sofas, others waiting in a loosely social-distanced line, and none of them were wearing masks.
After a year and a half of meticulous mask-wearing in public (both prior to and after being vaccinated), I was momentarily disconcerted by this sight, but to my surprise, that feeling quickly passed. By the time I got to the front of the line, the fact that the two staffers there were not wearing masks felt almost nostalgically wonderful, as if I had time-traveled to pre-Covid days.
I rustily re-enacted the rituals of check-in–handing over my driver’s license, sliding my credit card, receiving my plastic room key cards–then followed the hotel map out of the lobby toward my room. A pristine walkway wound between salmon-colored adobe-style hotel walls on my left and deep green stands of evergreens on my right, through manicured lawns with Adirondack chairs and fire pits arranged here and there.
When I reached my room, I pulled out my key card and advanced it like a talisman toward the door’s black entry panel. For a breathless second, I waited, then a green light flashed! The muffled click of a door unlocking sounded. Magic!
A little frisson shivered through me as I swung open the heavy door and beheld my room. My world! The first thing my eyes fell on was a four-poster queen size bed that dominated the far side of the room. To its right were a plush easy chair and a couch arranged before a fireplace. To their right were a desk and comfortable desk chair. To my left was a terracotta tile-floored sink area, and beyond that a very tastefully tiled shower and bathroom. Arranged on the sink were vials with mouthwash and hand lotion, and a variety of other toiletry items, and in the shower were miniature containers of shampoo, conditioner, and bathing gel. Between the sink area and the bed was a gleaming white oblong bathtub, large enough for me to submerge in.
All these touches and accoutrements, which I hadn’t experienced in a year and a half, suddenly seemed marvels. How beautiful were the yellow, red, and blue tiles artfully inlaid above the sink! How elegant the copper faucets and taps! How spectacular the tub! How remarkable to be spending the night in a home away from home! What a concept!
I felt a slight reservation when I considered lying on the couch—but that dissipated after five seconds and I found myself kicking off my shoes and sprawling along its length, then settling into the easy chair, then sitting at the desk, then finally bouncing onto the bed, a traveling Goldilocks exploring her new home.
I opened the closet and exulted at the clean, uncluttered space. I marveled at the coffee maker with its tiny dispenser pods. A bottle of cabernet sauvignon was discreetly positioned next to two gleaming wine glasses. A plush bath towel beckoned from its rack and I pressed my face into it, losing myself in its softness.
Anyone watching me would have thought I had never stayed in a hotel before. And in a way, they would have been right.
Then I noticed that my room had a balcony. I flung open the grand glass doors and stepped out, and was immediately enchanted by the scene: massive green oak and fir trees, salmon-colored hotel walls and towers, terracotta roof tiles and beyond them the blue sky and bright sun filtering through the branches, and all this beauty threaded by the chirps of birds from the trees and the cries of children from the swimming pool.
Along one pathway a wedding ceremony was about to take place, and I watched the choreography of waiters preparing tables laden with bottles of champagne in buckets and trays bearing glinting champagne flutes, and guests finding their seats and waiting expectantly for the bride to enter the scene. Their celebratory spirit married mine.
For dinner I decided to order room service, because I could. The gracious staffer who took my order explained that the traditional cart and table service had been replaced with takeout-style picnic baskets, and that seemed just fine to me. After a half hour, a masked staffer arrived with my picnic basket, which contained takeout cartons filled with slices of beef fillet, mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus shoots, and a garden salad. Two small plates and a napkin wrapped around silverware were nestled among the cartons. I arranged my picnic on the plates, placed these on the filigreed wrought-iron table on my balcony, opened the bottle of cabernet sauvignon, and tucked into a leisurely feast, toasting the setting sun, the rising moon, and the stars that sparkled over my spring training stay at the Sonoma Mission Inn.
The following day I awoke to sunlight streaming through those grand glass doors—and elected to roll over and sleep in, because I could. When I finally did get up, I luxuriated in my room, then strolled around the graceful grounds. It was disarming and delightful to walk down a path, see unmasked strangers approaching from the other direction, and then—rather than seeking an escape route or furtively scurrying past with downcast eyes—to greet them and be greeted with a nod, a smile, and a bright “Hello!” How heartwarming! How soul-soaring! How brilliant is the human smile!
Later I slathered on sunscreen, ambled to the pool, grabbed a couple of the hotel’s festive green-and-white bath towels, ensconced myself on a chaise longue, and lazed for an hour, or two, because—well, you know why. Kids splashed and thrashed and gleefully cried “Marco!” “Polo!”; the scents of suntan lotion and chlorine mingled nostalgically; and from the poolside restaurant, the chatter of conversation, lilt of laughter, and clink of cutlery on china transported me to blissful pre-Covid times in France, Greece, and the Connecticut of my childhood.
That afternoon I joined a wine tasting in the lobby. With a dozen other unmasked people I had never met before, I sampled sauvignon blanc, pinot noir, and cabernet. Our hosts talked passionately about tastes, terroirs, and the hardships and delights of the wine-making life. We laughed and swapped life-tales and afterwards, as I walked back to my room, passing families playing on the grass and couples sipping and sighing in the Adirondack chairs, I realized that my face had been transformed into one huge grin.
That night I sat on my balcony and scribbled in my journal, listing the small delights of staying in a hotel room: a clean fresh space to move around in; a big, beautiful bed to sleep in; lovingly selected local art—an oil painting of a golden Sonoma hillside, black-and-white photos of adobe walls and windows—to savor; the beauty and tranquility of the world outside the room; the pure joy of seeing and interacting with friendly unmasked fellow humans; the wonder of waking up in a new setting, and the frisson of freshness that imparts to the entire day.
“Thinking about these,” I wrote, “makes me incredibly excited about the reopening of the world and the restarting of travel. I feel myself overflowing like a fountain with excitement and wonder. There is something very healing and expansive about getting out of your common everyday environment and encountering new landscapes, creations, people, cuisine—the vast diverse mosaic pieces of the world.
“I am finding this here in Sonoma an hour from my home, and I’m sure I will find it even more richly when I’m traveling many hours from my home to other countries and other continents in the months to come.”
Now, three days later, reflecting on that short spring training stay, I think that this outing surpassed my wildest dreams. I reconnected with the joy of human community, continuity, and connection that had been cut off during the pandemic. I remembered what it is that I love so much about travel: the exhilarations of beauty, tranquility, peace; the expanding encounters with culture, art, cuisine; the pleasures of seeing people strolling, eating, drinking, talking, enjoying themselves in an unfettered way.
For me, just being able to sit on my hotel room balcony, to relax and enjoy, was profoundly powerful after a year and a half of not doing so. It was fantastic to feel the possibilities of the world thawing and blooming, sending out fresh green tendril-shoots again, to feel the world’s intellectual-sensual-visceral pleasures leaping to life once more. The thought that the wonders of the world were again becoming accessible made my mind tingle and my soul burst into fireworks.
My celebratory stay at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa made me fervently convinced that the wonders of the world will shine even more brightly once we are able to wander widely anew.
May all your spring training outings reward you with this same celebratory certainty too.
Yours in abiding wanderlust,
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Have you been able to make a travel spring training outing? Have you rediscovered the mundane marvels of traveling too? We would love to hear your tales! Please share your experiences and reflections in the Comments section below. Thank you!