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8 Dyer in Provincetown, Massachusetts (via 8 Dyer)
"Please take your shoes off and wear these," said the owner of an attractive bed and breakfast (B&B) in Banff, Alberta. It was October and already cold in the Canadian Rockies. My husband has gunboats for feet. He looked at the miniature-sized slippers and shot me a beseeching look that inquired, "Why aren't we staying at the Fairmont Banff Springs?"
We were splurging for an anniversary, so we'd considered the iconic hotel once owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Friends in Calgary, however, recommended this place and it looked charming online. That greeting was the beginning of a dreadful stay where we felt as if we were intruders; it continued with Post-It notes admonishing against leaving cookie crumbs on the counter, water on the bathroom floor and finally reached a nadir with my polite decline of the hot breakfast entrée because we wanted to get out and hike.
My husband quickly dubbed the place the "Anal-Retentive Inn" and we hightailed it out of there except for sleeping. Unfortunately the owners' first floor apartment was near the guest entrance and they seemed to be lurking whenever we returned. Since that experience my first question when booking a B&B is: "Do the owners live on-premise?" If yes, I say thank you and graciously end the conversation.
We cherish historic properties and want to support innkeepers who have adapted old structures or perhaps even saved them from the wrecking ball. And we love waking up in distinctive settings and meeting other guests at breakfast, during afternoon tea or at wine and cheese gatherings. So how do fans of historic accommodations avoid feeling like a home invader, sleeping on Victorian mattresses or finding a list of rules and regulations more complicated than the National Football League's draft? Over the years I've developed a set of questions that usually yields the 411 we need to have a good B&B experience—all other things being equal:
1. How many guest rooms do you have? (If at least 10, the B&B usually offers some boutique hotel services, such as free Wi-Fi, professional housekeeping staff and constant access to coffee, tea, etc.)
2. If the inn's been operating for a while: when was its last renovation? (If they don't remember or can't describe it, be prepared for cathode ray tube televisions and possibly landmarked mattresses.)
3. Does our room have a private entrance? (That's not a deal breaker but it means we can avoid chatty owners when booking a romantic getaway.)
4. Are there pets on-premise and/or is it a pet-friendly property? (Many guests are allergic, but we've generally found pet-loving owners to be less fussy about guest dirt and accidents.)
5. Are there additional amenities not mentioned online? (That's always a plus.)
6. What's for breakfast? It's trendy these days to offer multi-course, sumptuous breakfasts. But if you're catching a whale-watching excursion and can't afford to wait for that fresh berry cobbler parfait, does the inn have a grab-and-go alternative? Some polished owners spell that out on their websites or as soon as guests check in.
There are a host of individual considerations too: if you'll be on the run all day, do you want a full service restaurant on-premise or options close enough to walk? If a luxury B&B is the destination itself, do you want special programs such as cooking classes, on-site spa or wellness classes—or someplace that offers plenty of privacy including separate dining tables or in-room breakfast delivery?
B&B Breakfast (via 8 Dyer)
Provincetown is bustling with historic guesthouses, so we asked successful proprietors Steve Katsurinis and Brandon Quesnell, owners of 8 Dyer—an upscale, contemporary B&B with a history dating back to the late 19th century—what they think creates an ideal guest atmosphere. Katsurinis says their over-arching approach is "This is a shared space, so please be thoughtful of other guests."
That message gets communicated in thorough sections on their website's FAQ and Policies sections, plus at check-in. They're not big fans of "do not" signs or Post-its, but if a guest is adversely affecting others' enjoyment, they will speak directly to him or her.
Quesnell is a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef who worked at Whole Foods Market for more than a decade before embarking on his current career. He's taught his staff to anticipate customers' needs through "observation, diligence and patience". And while their breakfasts can cause guests to linger, it's a buffet that can be savored or slurped.
If it sounds as though my husband and I should be staying at Hiltons for uniformly professional lodging experiences: not necessarily. History buffs like us can indulge our architectural fantasies without sacrificing a welcoming ambience or privacy when we want it.
So control-freak innkeepers take note: savvy shoppers will ferret out your peccadillos (even if only via TripAdvisor reviews) and book where the history's interesting and the owners get the shared space concept.
Select Registry (also known as Independent Innkeepers of America) publishes a directory covering B&Bs plus small luxury hotels in the U.S. and Canada. Their imprimatur has never steered us wrong.
Bedandbreakfast.com provides searches by region, inn name, amenities, special offers, pet and kid-friendliness plus a range of other criteria.
Historic Hotels of America is a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation that includes properties that are at least 50 years old, have historic status designation and significance. Their website even allows searches by the era in which the hotel was constructed. So if you're a 1840s freak, click on "timeline" and check out the pre-Civil War possibilities.
Sarah Jaquay is a travel writer based in Cleveland, Ohio. She writes for AAA Journeys Magazine, TheWineBuzz Magazine, Currents, Country Living and many other publications. She occasionally stays at chain hotels, but only if it's within walking distance of historic landmarks.