The Weasel: In which I leaf through some of the world's hippest hotels, try to answer some extremely stupid questions and make a total April Fool of myself

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The Independent Culture
IN PRINCIPLE, I love the sybaritic decadence of hotel life - the arousing click of high heels on a marble floor - but too often the reality turns out to be somewhat different. The worst meal I ever endured was in a hotel (Scarborough), as were the noisiest night (Venice), the thinnest mattress (Barcelona), the grubbiest sheets (Athens) and the greatest number of mosquito bites (Antigua). Still, I suppose they had the merit of being memorable. These days, most British hotels are bland machines for transmuting sachets of Nescafe, microscopic bars of soap and pallid prints into a torrent of dosh.

Hip Hotels: City (Thames & Hudson, pounds 18.95), a new photo-book by the euphoniously-named Herbert Ypma, is devoted to 30-odd hotels that can "turn a boring business jaunt into a stylish and stimulating experience". I suppose this is his way of hinting that you require an expense account to stay in them. One of the four London hotels he singles out is the Hempel (rooms from pounds 175 per night, suites from pounds 350), modestly titled after its designer-owner, Anouska Hempel, otherwise Lady Weinberg.

"You'll have to take us as you find us," says Lady W, her cheeks lightly dusted with flour after a dumpling-making session. Somehow, she manages to squeeze yet another ornament on to a cluttered mantelpiece. "The place is in a bit of a two-and-eight, but as long as you're comfy, that's the main thing." Ah, if only... In fact, the Hempel looks so white and pure that only ghosts could stay there without leaving a blemish, while the proprietrix is described as "bordering on the fanatical in her attention to detail". Even the pale-leather-bound volumes in the hotel library are carefully arranged in a pyramid. What happens if you move one? Another of Mr Ypma's selections, an arty joint in Basel called Der Teufelhof, prevents guests succumbing to this temptation by cementing the books on to the library shelves.

Not every hip hostelry aims for such Zen-like minimalism. An Amsterdam hotel named Seven One Seven is cluttered with "African masks and classical torsos, books and walking-sticks, Murano glass and cast-iron urns - exactly the eclectic, unpredictable mix that might be found in an old English country house". I wonder whether the owner, Kees van der Valk (a perfect name for a Dutch hotelier), got the idea from Evelyn Waugh's description of Shepheard's Hotel in Vile Bodies: "Inside it is like a country house... croquet mallets and polo sticks in the bathroom... and an archery target, a bicycle and one of those walking-sticks which turn into saws..." It is to be hoped, however, that Seven One Seven does not imitate Shepheard's in having ladies of the night swinging fatally on chandeliers.

The antiquated notion of service has been junked at some hip hotels. Since there is no lobby at the Pelican, Miami Beach, you have to lug your suitcases through the restaurant. "A few days later, when you see another pasty newcomer undergo the same initiation, it suddenly feels like an in-joke," chortles Mr Ypma. "According to the hotel, dragging your bags through the restaurant helps break down `traditional expectations'." Oddly enough, the Pelican maintains the tradition that its guests should lash out $160 per night for the privilege of staying there.

The louche Phoenix in San Francisco has dispensed with the idea that hotels should be places of peace and tranquillity. Mr Ypma notes that this gaudy lodging has "earned quite a name as the bad boy of Frisco hotels". He adds that neighbouring rooms may be occupied by the Beastie Boys, Hoodoo Gurus, Sonic Youth. "Guests can make a lot of noise and their roadies won't have to worry about where to park the rig." Irresistible.

Those of a literary disposition may prefer another San Francisco establishment called the Hotel Rex. "It feels like a hotel for writers and that was exactly what was intended." Instead of in a restaurant, meals are served in the library. In one of Mr Ypma's photos you can read a title given pride of place in this bookish den: James Herriott's Yorkshire. Well, you can't get hipper than that.

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IT'S QUITE painless and will take only half an hour," said the desperate- looking market researcher, so I relented. At first, I quite enjoyed the experience, since the questions that appeared on his lap-top concerned my deepest love (with the possible exception of Mrs W): gastronomy. Unfortunately, things went awry when he asked me what I'd last eaten in a restaurant. "Poulet noir with polenta," I replied. "Is that a sauce?" he asked, before presenting me with a very long list of possible accompaniments: "Which of these did you have as well: chips, peas, onion rings, tomato ketchup...?"

The next set of questions, about how often I ate in McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Little Chef, etc, was rapidly disposed of, since the only chain that I ever visit is Pizza Express. What kind of food did I eat there? "Hm, that's a tough one." I was equally astringent regarding his enquiry about which savoury snacks I bought. "To tell you the truth, I am not a frequent purchaser of Doritos."

Unabashed by my tartness, he plumbed my knowledge of car-tyre brands. As a man of the world, I assured him that I was familiar with Michelin, Pirelli and Firestone. Another sudden switch took us to the world of finance and my views on the euro. Finally, he taxed me on a further burning issue of the day: athlete's foot. "Yes, I have suffered," I blurted out, snuffling back a tear, "but Mycota powder was my salvation."

When he departed, I contacted one of my cronies who works in market research, for an explanation of these weird non-sequiturs. Cackling at my perplexity, he explained that "omnibus surveying" is commonplace. It enables a number of disparate companies to query customers at modest cost. Of course, the notion of reimbursing interviewees for the half-hour they give up to enhance the bottom line of Doritos or Pizza Hut is quite out of the question.

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WE'RE UP at Weasel Villas North, on the Yorkshire coast, for Easter and there seems to be change and upheaval all around. Filey's seafront is being ripped apart by mechanical diggers. Hard-hats mingle with paddlers, while the arm of a vast crane swings out perilously over the beach. As we drove over to Scarborough seafront last Thursday, Mrs Weasel revealed that more disruption was about to happen here. "Take a good look," she said. "It's the last time you'll be able to see it like that."

"Why?"

"The local paper says the harbour lighthouse is being dismantled and moved to a nautical museum in Portsmouth."

"What!"

"Yes, it was the lead story this morning..." She hesitated for a moment, as realisation dawned, "...but you know what today is."

Across the harbour, the lighthouse stood unmoved.

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