Haute Hostels Put to the Test

By Seth Sherwood

With the wine tasting in the lobby bar approaching, I rinsed the green-tea shampoo from my hair, grabbed a towel from the queen bed and settled into a Philippe Starck chair, espresso in hand. A flat-screen TV flickered in the next room of my suite, but I was more captivated by the view that lay just beyond the glass doors of my balcony: the orange tile roofs of Lisbon, washed in the glow of a setting sun.

It was hard to believe that these expansive private quarters and this late 19th-century town house that was formerly the Swiss ambassador's residence really belonged to a genus whose name evokes backpacks, bunk beds, shared showers and the amenities of a local jail.

The business card on the vintage writing desk dispelled my doubts. "Hostel," it read, just underneath the name of the two-year-old establishment, the Independente. "Hostel & Suites," to be precise.

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The two seemingly mismatched words are a testament to the astonishing evolution in European hostels. From London to Lisbon, from Iceland to Istanbul, hostels are undergoing a classy rebirth.

A rooftop Jacuzzi at Bunk in Istanbul; a cinema room at Design Hostel Goli & Bosi in Split, Croatia; a sleek basement nightclub in One80° Berlin: Whether they bill themselves as "design hostels" or "boutique hostels" or "hostel and suites," these new accommodations are striving to raise the standard of an institution that was once the lodging equivalent of a Greyhound bus.

"We need to redefine hostels," said Carl Michel, the executive chairman of Generator Hostels based in Britain, whose mission statement declares its intention to "dispel the hostel myth with boutique hotels that are stylish and contemporary, central, safe and affordable."

Once a family business with two traditional hostels in London and Berlin, Generator was bought in 2007 by a European private equity firm, Patron Capital, and now exemplifies the haute hostel boom. With an iPhone app and a brand-name chief designer in Anwar Mekhayech (whose résumé includes clients like Soho House), the group has opened splashy hostels in Copenhagen, Dublin, Venice and Hamburg over the last few years. Barcelona and a second Berlin site will make their debut this year, and more locations are in the works.

"The idea is to roll out about 12 to 15 hostels by 2015," said Mr. Michel, a former commercial director for British Airways.

Other hostel enterprises are building at a similar clip.

"We are in the watershed period at the moment," said Kash Bhattacharya, the author of a guide to high-end hosteling called "Luxury Hostels: Europe," which will be downloadable as an e-book from his site, budgettraveller.org, next month.

The catalyst has been Europe's slumping economy, which, Mr. Bhattacharya explained, "has led to falling commercial property prices and plenty of vacant building spaces in key city-center locations."

Simultaneously, he said, the recession has created new types of travelers.

"The rise of mature backpackers means that hostels are no longer the preserve of 20-something backpackers," he said. "Hostel owners are now realizing that they can upgrade their facilities to cater to a wider audience."

Four years ago, my colleague Jennifer Conlin reported on these "mature backpackers" and the upgraded hostels that had trickled into Europe. The trickle is now a flood. During a whirlwind week, I slept in and sized up haute hostels in Paris, Lisbon, Barcelona and Berlin: palatial suites and shared cramped rooms; immaculate bathrooms and group showers; convivial communal dinners and lonely solo meals; elegant welcome gifts and unwelcome odors.

The goal was to travel incognito and put each haute hostel (indeed the whole concept) to the test. Could these new crash pads provide classy, comfortable, affordable alternatives to hotels? Were "design hostels" worthy of their grandiose labels?

On a January afternoon, I ambled past the Asian grocers and halal butchers of the Belleville neighborhood in Paris when a gigantic work of urban art on the side of a building flashed into view.

There's more… continue reading page 2 (of 4) of "Haute Hostels Put to the Test" on the NY Times website.

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