Some of the West's best places to stay are also the cheapest, but don't expect room service
When it comes to questions of travel, my wife and I generally agree. Sheridan, Wyoming, and Siena, Italy, are good. Italian restaurants in Ireland are bad. What differences we do have involve lodging. I'm a cheap date - give me a tent and I'm happy. Nancy's ideal is some place where they slip Belgian chocolates onto your pillow and treat you like the Princess of Wales, without the wiretaps or tabloid headlines.
So when I mentioned that I wanted us to stay in a youth hostel, I was prepared for trouble.
"They're like women's prisons," said my wife, looking as if she was about to cry. She had, it turned out, stayed at many a youth hostel back when she was, well, a youth. Her memories sounded like a description of a disastrous high-school dance. "I'd walk in and there were all these teens there, and I knew none of them would like me."
The hostel theory is simple. In return for dorm-style sleeping and eating arrangements, and (often) the obligation to perform some minor household chore, you get a very cheap place to stay: average price is about $15. You don't have to be a member of a hostel association to stay in most hostels (although membership makes it easier to get reservations in popular hostels and often gives you lower rates). And you don't have to be young. Says Sandra Barnett of Eel River Redwoods Hostel in Leggett, California, "We've had people up to 88 years old stay with us."
While Americans think of hostels as European institutions, they've been in this country for a long time - the West's oldest, Hidden Villa Hostel in Los Altos Hills, California, started in 1937. Still, as Toby Pyle of Hostelling International-American Youth Hostels says, "Despite the fact that we've been around as long as we have, the fact that there are hostels in the U.S. comes as a surprise to a lot of people."
It shouldn't. American hostels occupy interesting buildings in interesting locales. Santa Monica's hostel lies a block from the city's lively Third Street Promenade. In Estes Park, Colorado, the H-Bar-G Ranch Hostel has taken over an old dude ranch near Rocky Mountain National Park. And American hostels are friendly to grown-ups. Many now accept credit cards and reservations. They've added private rooms for couples and families, and even a few luxuries. "We have saunas and hot tubs and fixings for nice breakfasts," says Barnett. "It's not camping."
"See?" I told my wife after listing all of the benefits of a hostel stay. But she was unbending. "It is just like summer camp," she said, "but without the s'mores." So I went off to my first hostel on my own.
A DORM-STYLE HOSTEL
Fisherman's Wharf-San Francisco is one of HI-AYH's flagship hostels. It's large (150 beds) and popular, and it boasts a lovely location in Fort Mason on the edge of San Francisco Bay.
Still, the moment I walked in the front door all of my wife's fears of social rejection were upon me. Twenty-year-olds bustled around, lugging backpacks, scanning bulletin boards for rides to Yosemite, chattering away in Swedish. I felt ancient and dull.
Upstairs were two common rooms, downstairs an institutional kitchen whose stainless steel sinks were bedecked with advisories in different languages: Wash/Abwasch/Lavar/Lessive. Also downstairs was my dorm, with eight bunk beds arranged in a not-very-large room. As busy as the whole place was, all of it looked very clean.
Many hostels force you to leave in the middle of the day. The one in Fort Mason doesn't boot you out entirely, but I left anyway to play tourist. After a few hours strolling the nearby Marina District, I found myself not especially wanting to return. I wanted a glass of wine, but the hostel, like all HI-AYH hostels, had a no-alcohol policy. I fixated on what chore I was going to be assigned. The thought of pushing a mop across a kitchen floor didn't accord with my idea of a day off. …