Darjeeling in the foothill of the Himalayas, October 2003. Candles flicker in the gloom of the Windamere Hotel's dining room. Potted ferns and chintz curtains droop against apricot walls. White-gloved waiters carry trays like the footmen in Downton Abbey, from which guests serve themselves with dishes out of 1930s Britain: watercress soup, chicken in sherry sauce, trifle that wobbles like the chins of a dowager duchess. An elderly Indian gentleman ("Call me BP") sips on his gin-martini and pokes at a steamed vegetable pie.
"I'm so glad you came in," he keeps repeating. "Otherwise who would I have talked to?"
BP's company, now run by his three sons, has jute, sugar and tea interests across India. He owns tea plantations nearby and first started coming regularly to the hotel in 1954 for business; now he comes twice a year just to relax. He's a vegetarian who still jogs two miles every day. He recalls how the hotel always used to be full, and hosted terrific New Year's parties.
"Though the owner didn't serve cocktails for fear the single ladies would get carried away."
I return to my room to find a hot-water bottle tucked between the sheets, the coal fire stoked, the curtains drawn. At the Windamere Hotel, I feel as if I'm a character in an EM Forster novel. The walls are lined with photos of sahibs in pith helmets and Thomas Cook advertisements for tours of India and Ceylon. Beside the Bakelite telephone is a message lamenting its unpredictability.
"The last expert, 12 years ago, did some serious repair work and, as a consequence, when certain numbers are dialled, three phones rings simultaneously in separate rooms, causing alarm to guests who value their repose. We have been keeping this deficiency under review and, meanwhile, crave your indulgence." I resist the temptation to make prank calls.
The Windamere Hotel oozes British upper-class nostalgia. It's a hotel of snuggeries and photos of governor's wives in ostrich-feather hats, claw-foot baths and breakfast kippers. Yet in the morning, in a magnificent confusion of cultures, I awaken to bells and Buddhist chants. Beyond the windows, the valley plunges with tea plantations. Mist swirls through pine trees where monkeys squabble. Fortune-tellers, improbable dentures clacking in their wrinkled brown faces, crouch along the pathway beyond the garden gate.
Looking up my records, I know I stayed in many more hotels in 2003, in India and in China, in Singapore and Syria and Egypt. I don't remember any of them. In decades of travel, the Windamere is exceptional, if just because I've never forgotten its faded elegance and fragrant cups of Darjeeling tea, served in Daisy's Music Room. ("Do not play the piano. It is in a delicate condition, and very easily put out of tune.") But would the Windamere appear on a list of the world's best hotels? According to the criteria by which we usually measure these things – by thread count, swimming pools and Aesop shampoos – certainly not.
My conclusion is that luxury hotels seldom provide the most entrancing stays. My job has provided me with the privilege of staying in hotels with gold-plated taps, glass floors that peep onto tropical reefs, butlers who appear with champagne buckets. This is all terribly agreeable, but I've never really understood the fetish some travellers have for luxury hotels as a destination in themselves. To be honest, who is ever really at ease in such places, unless one has been born silver-spooned? And who remembers them? I do not. As the years pass, they become a blur of vaguely remembered creature comforts and posh nosh.
Even 20 years on, however, I can distinctly remember a certain hotel in Kolkata (India is particularly well endowed with eccentric hotels) whose owner sat in the lobby like a James Bond villain, stroking a white poodle and shouting orders. The plumbing clanked like a poltergeist. There were aspidistras and antimacassars in the lounge. Chicken liver was listed in the dessert menu of its dining hall. Between courses, the chef banged away at music-hall ditties on an upright piano. The waitress wobbled on too-large shoes and mixed up orders. It was a wonderful Bengali version of Fawlty Towers.
It's such places that jolt me from the preconceived travel notion that the more sophisticated the service and luxury, the better the hotel. Cookie-cutter hotels don't retain my interest for long, and don't create stories I can relate years later. This doesn't mean I go out of my way to stay in a converted drainpipe, jail cell or converted jumbo jet – though all those things are possible. It's just a reminder that quirkiness, friendliness and character are, in this increasingly commercialised travel world, the greatest luxuries of all.
None of these can be deliberately created. Besides, who can really say what creates a memorable stay? It's often inconsequential things that one might recall about hotels, long after the brand of toiletry and corridor artworks have faded in the memory. It might be the mini Penguin classics left in the beside table, so you can read Murder in the Rue Morgue under the covers as thunder rolls. Or the cats Latte and Chocolat who take swipes at my slippers as I pass along a corridor; and besides, and who wouldn't remember a hotel where slipper-wearing is encouraged?
Truth is, many of my most memorable accommodation experiences come from stays long ago in my backpacker days. When I was 20 years old I stayed in Cherating on the east coast of peninsula Malaysia, where a room in a straw hut, breakfast and dinner included, cost $10. Breakfast was all you could eat: delicious roti chanai dipped in curry sauce, fried bananas, slurp-worthy mangoes. As I ate, goats climbed the steps of the veranda and laid their chins on the table, fluttering their long lashes; hooves clattered on the floorboards in pursuit of discarded banana peels. It sticks in the mind just because it was different. You can eat 50 bacon-and-scrambled-egg buffets at resort hotels and never encounter a goat.
This isn't to say that I peddle the ridiculous backpackers' conceit that their form of travel is somehow more authentic. I do, however, think cheap hotels often give you the chance to encounter other people in the way big or luxury hotels do not. You cannot linger over discussions of life with a receptionist at a fancy hotel, and have little chance of encountering fellow guests except (awkwardly, eyes averted) in the lift. Such hotels spruik their "personal service" standards but, for me, that shouldn't refer to a butler proffering Valrhona chocolates or a concierge with her predictable Michelin-star dining recommendations. It ought to refer to a meaningful connection with our fellow human beings: that's what the best travel is really all about.
And so I'll never really forget a hostel in Bukittinggi in central Sumatra, where I met receptionist, waiter and dogsbody Tony: 22 years old, fiance to his cousin whom he only saw once a year, aspiring English teacher, whistler of Bob Marley classics. He's among a string of memorable characters that make certain hotels stick in my mind. Like Ross, who burnt his air-force uniform, fled America and cycled to Kathmandu; or Kemal, a wild-eyed Libyan who roomed next to me in Valletta and with whom, despite lacking a language in common, I got on like Laurel with Hardy. Or Dawn, Scottish owner of a Cappadocia hostel in central Turkey, who gave me her baklava dish to scrape clean, beat me endlessly at backgammon, played the lute and had a pet tortoise called Sebastian.
It's now nearly 30 years too since I first met "Mummy" on a roadside in Kota Bahru in Malaysia. She stopped her car as I was walking from the bus station and asked me if I needed somewhere to stay. And that's when this eccentric Taiwanese woman briefly entered my life and provided me with my most memorable hotel of all time – even if it was little more than a shack. Mummy had worked as a cabaret singer in the Philippines, a hairdresser in Singapore, and now ran Mummy's Hitech Hostel. She had purple hair and make-up caked on like a noh mask. She talked incessantly in atrocious English, punctuated with a contagious, screeching laugh. "Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy!" she yelled at her guests, as she plied them with tea, coffee, rambutans, mangosteens, slices of pineapple and cold bottled water.
Mummy loved Pakistani soap operas, but tore herself away from the television on Saturday nights, when she donned skin-tight, sequined leggings and two-dozen bangles and headed off to the town disco. We were encouraged to come with her. Local girls were keen on western men (she claimed), but watch out: there were dire punishments for those who committed "jig-a-boom" with Muslims in Malaysia. And so, chastened, we were back later at the Hitech Hostel playing cards until the wee hours. Bats flapped, cockroaches scuttled, lime-green geckoes gulped on the ceiling. We caught a toad in the garden and fed it beetles.
Sometimes, when I'm in Paris or Hong Kong, sitting in my hotel room all alone, surrounded by all the things you'd imagine a top hotel ought to have, I still think about Mummy's Hitech Hostel in Kota Bahru in the summer of 1989. And truth be told, I'd give up my Frette linens and flat-screen in an instant if I could just be back there for a night, young and unspoiled and giggling in the dark.