There was a time when bigger meant better: hotels with 7,000 rooms; restaurants with 18-course tasting menus; music festivals where you and 100,000 of your closest friends could roll around in the mud underneath amplifiers that looked like jet engines. And then the phrase “too big to fail” became a punchline rather than a selling point. Maybe all the blogging and the tweeting helped us remember that we’re individuals, or maybe we’re just tired of letting companies think of us as interchangeable consumer units.
What hasn’t gotten any bigger is your vacation budget, so it’s time to take yourself some place small and unique, somewhere that won’t make everyone say, “Oh yeah, I did that, too.”
Seth Godin, bestselling business writer and author of Small is the New Big, sees big benefits for travellers who go small.
“The biggest win is that someone actually cares,” he says. “The boss is closer to you. She won’t say, ‘It’s just my job,’ because it’s not.”
Travelling small doesn’t have to mean settling for chintzy or unpolished, but you do have to choose your spots carefully, lest you end up at a “hotel” that’s actually a tool shed. Here are a few suggestions to help bring you down to size.
There’s a fine line between a small hotel and a quirky B&B. Not that B&Bs can’t be nice, but sometimes you don’t want to listen to the owner talk about his sciatica over breakfast, or read little signs like “Please jiggle toilet handle…or else!” A small hotel can have all the professionalism and privacy of a big one, but you won’t have to fight your way through the dental hygienists conference clogging the lobby.
The name says it all for Montreal, Que.’s Le Petit Hôtel. The stone columns might make you mistake the place for a bank or an upscale clothing store. Instead, Le Petit offers 24 surprisingly large rooms spread over four floors. The décor is as chic as the location in the heart of historic Old Montreal. And, since the concierge doesn’t have to worry about telling 800 people an hour where to get the best poutine, he can concentrate on helping you find the very best of Montreal’s niche culture.
Since we’re thinking small, the name “Le Petit” is too good to waste. So check out Le Petit Hotel in the Caribbean destination Saint Martin, which has no connection to the one in Montreal beyond the fact that staff at both front desks speak excellent French. Built literally on the sand of Grand Case Bay, each of the 10 rooms is uniquely decorated with teak furniture and lanterns. While the sailing and diving are great here, don’t be afraid to kick back on the beach—the bitsy umbrella in your rum drink counts as going small.
Toronto, Ont.’s Drake Hotel is tiny—only 19 rooms—and yet has so much activity it feels like it occupies several city blocks. Start with the onsite restaurants: a corner café, a sushi bar and an exclusive private dining room. And don’t forget the covered, rooftop Sky Yard, a “climate-defiant” patio where the drinks come from a very grown-up lemonade stand. The Drake is a cultural hub, with an underground concert venue featuring some of the hottest indie bands and an “in-house curator” to manage the art. The Drake is small, but it contains multitudes.
Of course, you can’t stay in your room all the time, no matter how nice it is. But small dining presents a bit of a problem: there’s simply nothing sadder than dining alone at a fancy restaurant. Fortunately, that’s not what we mean by small dining (but if you are antisocial, then maybe this is perfect for you, too…). A small restaurant needs to feel big in terms of service, ambiance and food that doesn’t taste like it came off a hot plate.
You can do no better than by getting out of the city and onto Eigensinn Farm, arguably Toronto’s best restaurant. It only has 12 seats…because there just isn’t enough food to go around, and because star chef Michael Stadtländer grows all the ingredients onsite. This is the opposite of mass production; the wild leeks come from the forest floor and the ducks and pigs squawking around the farm are destined to have short, but very delicious lives. The prices are astronomical, the service is indifferent and there’s no liquor licence. But all that stuff is what you go to a mega-resort for. You come here for hyper-local micro-cuisine that’s grown and cooked just for you.
If 12 seats in the middle of nowhere feels too crowded, you need to seek two things: intensive psychotherapy and a reservation at Luuur Restaurant in Miami, Fla. Where in Miami? Well, that’s hard to say. It’s an undisclosed location, specifically the kitchen table of Alan Hughes, one of the city’s best chefs. Sure, he’s got his own restaurant, consulting business and string of awards, but when he’s cooking for you, he’s really cooking just for you (and three or four of your friends). The prices are reasonable—maybe US$75 for four courses—and the menu changes monthly to reflect whatever inspires Hughes at the time; this is the guy’s back porch, after all. The only way Hughes could make this experience smaller is by getting rid of one (or maybe even two) of the U’s in the restaurant’s name.
Entertaining Gigs in Tiny Venues
Photo by Doug Hamilton
If you’re one of those oddball travellers who wants to do something more than eat and sleep on vacation, the mini-mindset can also help you entertain yourself. Feeling adventurous? Check out Circle Bar in New Orleans, La. We won’t lie to you: this place is a straight-up dive, but in the best possible way. Located inside an old Victorian that’s almost certainly haunted by multiple bayou ghosts, the Circle hosts great local bands almost every night. While only a dozen or so people can actually see the stage at any one time, the amps are loud, the drinks are stiff and you can’t dance long in a place that small without making a lot of new friends.
Not the club type? Try Theatre for One in New York City, which is, quite literally, a fully operational, plush, velvet-lined theatre with space for one performer and one audience member. Tony Award-winning set designer Christine Jones conceived of this little box as an antidote to the nonstop neon performance mill of the Theater District. (Yes, we know private booths and Times Square have a sordid history, but we swear this is different.) You know how you’re always saying you should go see smaller, experimental theatre? It doesn’t get any smaller than this.
And remember, small doesn’t have to mean urban. Sometimes the biggest advantage of going small is that there’s just no room for anybody other than the few people you most want to spend your time with. If you’re trying to bring the great (crowded) outdoors down to size, then your dream destination is the personal infinity pool on the veranda of each suite at Jade Mountain resort on St. Lucia. This upscale lodge offers three-walled open-air “rooms,” each with its own private watering hole just for you (and whomever you care to share it with). And while the pools may be small enough to fit in your room, they still offer the biggest, best view imaginable: the great wide blue of the open Caribbean. Let’s face it, small really IS beautiful.