Luxury hostels. No, really.
This is a post about how much I used to hate sleeping with people.
Hostels? Hostels? Let me tell you about hostels, mate. Are you ready? Right then.
It’s July 2002, and it’s 3am in Inverness. I awake to find a Korean gentleman shouting at me. The room is dark, but I can tell he’s there because the ladder to my upper bunk is creaking, and I can feel his shouts against the side of my face. Instead of finding this alarming, it’s all rather interesting. Is it the air he’s exploding out of his face that I’m feeling, or is it the sound itself – and what’s the difference? Because of this inward line of inquiry I’m a little disappointed when he stops screaming – in fact, if I could speak Korean, I’d ask him to continue.
Now the room is filled with the kind of silence you only get when a lot of people are listening really hard.
He gets back into his bunk, mutters a few things, and silence – normal silence – falls again. I’m waking up properly now. What just happened? Is he deranged? Was my first encounter with a hostel in 15 years going to end with me being murdered in another language? I wasn’t even going to enjoy the classical Englishman’s death of being slaughtered by a Scotsman. No strangled yell of “This is for William Wallace!” and then the sound of a claymore humming through the air. None of that. Instead, my end would be inexplicable and therefore pointless.
I lay there for hours, mildly petrified.
Then I doze off.
In the morning I find I am not dead, and I reach for my glasses. They aren’t there. I look down at the floor, past the bottom bunk that’s now empty because Mr Shouty has vacated it (maybe for good, maybe to go and find a weapon). I look at the tiny table next to his bunk…and there are my glasses, neatly folded. Suddenly it all became clear. In the middle of the night I’d shifted slightly, my glasses slid off the rucksack they were perched on, slipped down between the back of my bunk and the wall, and fell with full force on Mr Shouty’s face – hence the shouting.
My Rules Of Hostelling
1. Hostels are terrifyingly random places where the rules of natural law, space & time and basic human decency break down.
2. They are places where strangers hurls their spectacles into your face on a whim, places that smell of walking boots that have been walked too far, of bathrooms that would dissolve if they were properly cleaned, and of fear itself.
3. Hostels are for young people. (They can take more punishment).
4. Hostels? I’m terrified. In fact, I’ve been more comfortable sleeping in a field, in the rain. (No, really).
5. Summary: an occasionally necessary evil.
One day I’m contacted by my friend Kash, mastermind behind the Luxury Hostels of Europe project. He has this lovely little hostel in Edinburgh he recommends I try out. It’s full on the Saturday, so I need to find somewhere else. I do so. This second hostel’s reviews are…interesting, and this activates my Travel Suicide Gene, the one that sends me up onto moors in rainstorms, the one that whispers that Hull at 2am would be “an adventure”. Let’s do this – RAAR.
I book Non-Luxury Hostel for the Saturday night (through the excellent Hostelbookers, seamless and efficient – I’m done in just a few clicks), and I have a place in Luxury Hostel for the Sunday. I’m paying for the former, and I’m being offered a free trial at the latter.
REVIEW OF NON-LUXURY HOSTEL
The Hostel, Haymarket, Edinburgh
The people are pleasant. The building is big. There are lots of students here. I feel very old. I’m in a bunk-room of around 65,000 young people and I feel extremely old. No power socket inside, or at least I can’t find one – I charge my phone outside my room, standing guard by it. Bedding is clean but greyed, and has been laundered so much it’s transparent. I take a wander through the building: lots of scuffed-looking rooms with uncomfy mismatched furniture, lighting that tires the eyes. Time to brush my teeth…in the mixed-sex bathroom with the broken toilet stall and the sink that makes you want to wash your hands in another sink afterwards. All of this isn’t bad as such. It’s all fairly bearable.
I’ve been in a fair few hostels like this. They’re designed for rapid turnover. I have no desire to take incriminating photos or do a hatchet-job review. Places like this do the job as advertised. They’re functional. They’re not fundamentally broken, like the room above a pub I occupied in Hexham last year where the window frame gaped enough for the wind to make the curtain billow and crack all night. Things get fixed when they stop working. It’s not supposed to be glamorous. The people continue to be nice. I chat with some students. They’re nice too. I’m not having fun, but I’m also not not having fun. It’s all generally ok. And that’s fine – I’m paying £15 for the night, right?
It’s, you know, a hostel.
REVIEW OF LUXURY HOSTEL
Haggis Hostels, West Register Street, Edinburgh
Well, here we go, up a flight of jauntily-painted stairs. Hey, Kash. Through a door, and…
It’s immaculate and homely (in the “warm, comfy, take your shoes off” way). Everyone is dead friendly. There’s a kitchen decorated with brushed steel and well-stocked with crockery. There’s free tea & coffee, and a complimentary breakfast. Every room has power sockets. The towels are…really towelly. And white. The sheets are white too. I check out the bathrooms, and almost fall on my knees in a Wayne’s World style frenzy of worship. The bathrooms are the Real Deal: the kind of fixed shower cubicles that make you feel you’re in a luxury swimming bath. Good, hot showers. In my bunk room, light and fresh air stream in through a tall window. It’s all very welcoming. I don’t feel like a skuzzy backpacker or a man in his forties pretending he’s still young enough to rough it with the kids. I feel like a guest.
It doesn’t, you know, feel like a hostel.
Then I have a chat to Al, the owner of this Haggis Hostel, and I realise I’ve got my rules of hostelling all wrong.
My New Rules Of Hostelling
1. Hostels are places that put you into closer proximity with strangers than you’d experience in a hotel. There are two ways to look at this. If you’re English, try looking at it the other way.
2. There are varieties of hostels that aren’t just focused on getting the maximum number of heads hitting pillows every night. They’re not just fixated on traffic. They care about quality of experience. Yes, really.
3. Hostels can be places you go if you want to feel part of the human race. They don’t give you a keycard that seals you off in your own little castle. They encourage you to hang out, either to enjoy the buzz in a coffee-shop kind of way, or to swap stories with other people.
4. The bathrooms can actually be really really nice.
5. Summary: The theory of hostelling, which has been tarnished by a little of the reality of hostelling, is a beautiful thing. It encourages people to connect in welcoming, relaxing surroundings, without hermetically sealing them off from one another except for breakfast the next day, which is often too late to make a significant connection. But there are hostels that are doing things right. Places you return to, again and again, feeling like Norm in Cheers. It’s worth hunting for them.
Haggis Hostels – a few facts & figures
- The Edinburgh hostel is about as “in Edinburgh” as it’s possible to be – just a minute’s walk from Princes Street, and a 5-minute stroll from the Waverley train station.
- Prices range from £18 a night. That’s absurdly cheap when compared with the standard UK hotel room. The usual charge for a hostel bunk-bed in the UK is around £15 – and that’s for what is usually a very average hostel, in every sense. This isn’t.
- This time round, I was kindly offered a free stay to test the place out (they didn’t know how much I hated hostels, or they might have reconsidered). I came away a true believer who will be using Haggis Hostels every time I’m in Edinburgh and need a room for the night – and as you can see, I’m recommending it to everyone.
- The shower block: We’re Not Worthy.
- Free cup of tea on arrival. I absolutely cannot stress how important these “little things” are when you arrive somewhere after a long day walking through the cold, especially in Scotland. I simply cannot stress it enough.
- You can book here. You don’t have to – I’m not getting an affiliate link commission or anything. I just thought you might find it handy. Alternately, go to the main website and feel free to do it yourself, where you’ll see I did send you to the right page in the first place and you’re just wasting your own time. Whatever.
- For other luxury hostels, and to understand the message that Kash is trying to spread, go to the Budget Traveller Luxury Hostels Of Europe page and check out the places he’s uncovered on his travels.
My thanks to Haggis Hostels for their hospitality. I’ll see you again soon.