Ever since I quit my ‘glamorous’ job as a management consultant, I have had to downsize on my vacation budget and double my efforts in finding places to stay. My strenuous travel job came with the joys of free airline miles and hotel reward points. Up until 2011 I had never looked up places to stay for my vacations. I pretty much used my reward points to book stays at Marriott’s and Sheraton’s based on what was available. But those joys are long gone and I have exhausted all my airline miles and seventy percent of my hotel reward points already. Just like the most of you, I also look up “the best deal” for my vacations on the various travel sites that have bloomed in the last few years.
This brings me to the topic I have been craving to write about for so long: the endless joys of bed & breakfasts. Before I proceed, let me mention a few disclaimers. B&Bs are only suitable for adults. I have not yet met a family staying at a bed and breakfast, in the dozen or so stays that we have enjoyed in the last couple of years. Also most B&Bs are not located in the heart of the city. If you are a city dweller, then look up Airbnb. So be prepared to stay a good 15-30 minute drive outside the city, tucked inside a forest or nestled next to a beach. And lastly, you must love people to enjoy this experience. If your idea of a vacation is to stay away from people, then make that Marriott reservation now and sip your Mai Tai by the pool, by yourself. There is nothing wrong with that. I am heading for one of those in about a month from now.
Disclaimers set aside, let us now learn a little bit about B&Bs. Typically, B&Bs are private homes with 4-8 rooms, each decorated aesthetically, along a certain theme and usually come with an attached bath. The highlight of these homes, away from home, is their warmth and welcoming environment. The B&Bs are generally run by elderly couples, who are delighted to serve their customers and attend to their needs and sometimes even their desires. The nightly rate includes a delicious multi course breakfast, hors d’oeuvres in the evening, occasional glass of wine or sherry, along with assorted chocolates, fresh fruits, coffee and tea during the day. The B&B owners are almost always quite knowledgeable about the local scene and offer helpful suggestions on how to best plan your stay in the area. They also have coupons for local activities in the area, which may include wine passes, kayak tours, whale watching tours, restaurant dining discounts and more, depending on the area.
My favorite part about staying at a bed and breakfast is the breakfast. Well of course I am a foodie at heart, and breakfast is actually my favorite meal of the day. But there is something more that makes these breakfasts special. It is the people. Usually breakfast is served at 9:00 and all the guests convene in the dining area and take their seats around the dining table(s). The hosts serve breakfast and along with that stir up some light-hearted conversations to get the guests comfortable and acquainted with each other. These conversations chart their own course eventually and lead to some healthy debates, interesting learning and exchange of contrasting viewpoints. I love B&Bs because of this very reason. I live in Mountain View, CA, a bubble in the Silicon Valley. All the people I meet, work with and dine with are like me. There is diversity in color, race and sex, but no diversity in viewpoints. I work in a tech firm and my friends do too. We all have similar viewpoints, issues and ideas of the world. And I love to step out of the bubble to see other flavors more ideas, thoughts, opinions, lifestyles and choices. That is the joy in travel that I seek, and I find that at these breakfasts, at B&Bs.
The richness of these conversations has to be experienced firsthand. At a B&B in Mt Shasta area, one of the guests we met were foster parents, who had adopted seven children along with having a few of their own. They run a catering business in Redding, CA, and the family lives on a farm that is enough to house that many people. I was left to imagine the patience and grit of the lady sitting across the table from me, as she narrated the stories of her adopted children. Last weekend in Orcas Island, four out of the six people seated at the dining table were government employees. It is through them that I learnt about the true impact of the sequester and furloughs on these employees. At another B&B in Sonoma last fall, I met a couple who had a seven month old daughter, and their parents had offered to baby sit their daughter and let the couple get some quiet time to themselves. I ended up giving the husband a sales pitch on one of my company’s products that we offer to non profits. He loved the idea and followed up with my suggestion the very next week. The sheer presence of people from different walks of life, makes these breakfasts a delight.
If you stay longer than one night, you also end up sharing your plans for the next day, and what you did the previous day with your new found friends. Restaurants, pubs, cafes, bookshops and state parks are evaluated and pros and cons are listed out for everyone’s consumption. Since we have people from all age groups represented on the table, there is always a lot of reflection on how things used to be in the past and how things have changed now. There is also some free advice to be gathered. One of the most interesting one I picked up was how to drive in snow, especially when it snows in Portland. So there is this and much more that gets discussed and shared over breakfasts. And with that everyone leaves for their respective plans for the day. If you are in a small town, you also end up running into your inn mates at local cafes and on trails, and that is always a delight.
Let us move on to some of the cons of staying at a bed and breakfast. The first in my opinion is that you cannot stay there with kids. While there may not be strict rules for this, unlike a hotel where you can ask for extra bedding and towels, it is difficult to accommodate them in a B&B type setting. Secondly, you have to keep your noise levels down to a minimum to be courteous to guests staying next door. Since the rooms are all located close by, you cannot really listen to Led Zeppelin at 3:00 am at a loud volume. I don’t see that as an issue, but I can imagine that being a vacation feature that some folks want to enjoy. Thirdly, the B&B only serve breakfast. So you have to step out to get your remaining meals. Usually you have to drive a little further to get a meal, and that could be a little inconvenient for some. And finally, not all B&Bs are the same. They all follow the same format, but each set of B&B owner lends their own character to your experience. Some owners are very engaged and love to chat with you over a glass of wine. While some might not be as engaged and seem a little distant. So be prepared for the extremes. You can always read up reviews on Yelp. Trip Advisor and Google reviews and get to know your B&B hosts before you get there. But just a word of caution is probably helpful.
In addition to the above mentioned cautions, keep in mind that a B&B is a private home, and hence you have to be careful of not misusing and tampering with the hosts’ belongings. Most of the B&Bs are very tastefully done and you don’t want to dirty the property unnecessarily. Also the sheets are not changed every day, neither are they changed in hotels these days at that frequency. Towels are refreshed daily and all the basic toiletries are provided for. Do make sure you mention your dietary requirement to your hosts before you arrive so they can plan their breakfasts accordingly.
By now you know what to expect from a typical B&B. Now let’s talk about how to find these B&Bs. As much as Yelp and Google reviews can help in finding out more about these places, they are not as helpful when you are searching for one. Your best bets in that case are Trip Advisor, visitor information sites for the destination you are going to and finally, bedandbreakfast.com. These sites provide a list and map view of the B&Bs in the area you are visiting and can help you pick your best bet. Also, if you are a planner like me, then start looking for deals on Groupon and LivingSocial before your trip, so you can get some good deals. Make sure you read the fine print on these coupons and assume that the best rate is only available during weekdays. From a budget perspective, B&Bs are not necessarily cheaper than a hotel stay. But they do come with great breakfasts; ones that hotel cannot compete with. Also what you pay for is the experience and not just a king size bed. You know what I mean.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed telling you about Bed and Breakfasts and hope that you will pick one for your next vacation and enjoy the experience as much as I do! Bon Voyage!
Some of the B&Bs that I recommend in the greater Northwest US are listed below. You can start your foray into B&B experience with any one of these.
Tiffany House Bed and Breakfast, Redding, California
The Inn at Schoolhouse Creek, Mendocino, California
Mt Hood Bed and Breakfast, Mt Hood, Oregon
Otters Pond Bed and Breakfast, San Juan Islands, Washington
Brannan Cottage Inn, Napa, California
Santa Nella House, Sonoma, California