To go, or not to go? That’s the question of 2020 (h/t Shakespeare). Last month, I decided to go—but not far from my home in the Bay Area. And I fell into the deeply sanitized, socially distanced arms of three different hotels.
I was testing out aspects of a new trip—Take the Open Road, a partnership between Black Tomato and the Auberge Resorts Collection—which took me to Auberge du Soleil’s olive tree–studded Napa property. From there, I veered south for a two-night stay at Carmel Valley Ranch, capped by a night at the recently reopened Ventana in Big Sur.
I was thrilled to leave my house—in a legit way—for the first time in five months, but I hadn’t anticipated how complicated it would feel to be back on the road. After having total control over my little bubble for months, I was suddenly making mental safety calculations at every turn. Should I opt for housekeeping? Am I OK with outdoor dining? What do I do about bathroom stops??
Here’s what helped, and why I decided to go at all. First, I followed AFAR’s guidelines for responsible travel. But equally important, I had researched each hotel ahead of time and felt comfortable—more than comfortable!—with the policies each had put in place to protect guests and staff.
At Auberge du Soleil, I discovered sanitation stations, plexiglass partitions, and at the outdoor restaurant, QR codes instead of menus. Among other things, Carmel Valley Ranch offers contactless check-in via the Hyatt app (you can even get a cardless key). And Ventana has limited occupancy to 80 percent and implemented a safety program that includes a post-housekeeping seal so you know you’re the first one to set foot in your room.
All three were adamant about masks, liberal with hand sanitizer, and 100 percent committed to making guests feel at ease in this strange new world. I checked out with peace of mind—and a few tips. Here’s what to look for.
1. Look for a room with a view—and a dedicated entrance
This isn’t possible for everyone, of course. But if you have the luxury of choice, look for a property with outdoor hallways and/or standalone cabins or suites to minimize your contact with other guests. (In other words, avoid places with narrow hallways and tiny elevators.)
At Auberge du Soleil, my room had its own patio and entrance. At both Carmel Valley Ranch and Ventana, I had access to the room via an outdoor entrance. Not once did I encounter a situation where I was in a small, enclosed space with other guests or staff.
It’s still unclear how well COVID-19 spreads via ventilation systems. According to the EPA, “the layout and design of a building, as well as occupancy and type of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system, can all impact potential airborne spread of the virus.”
Most hotels have modern, well-conditioned ventilation systems, so it shouldn’t be a concern. If you really want to get into the weeds, ask your hotel if “engineering controls, like increasing air exchange or HEPA filters in the ventilation system” are in place, reports PBS News Hour.
2. Release your inner germaphobe and research, research, research
Let’s put aside the whole “sanitation theater” thing for now. Sure, some of what we’re seeing in the world is extreme—I most certainly don’t want to be doused with hydrogen peroxide. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a hotel without an enhanced sanitation program in place—and most are broadcast in a visible spot on their website.
To me, those practices demonstrate a hotel’s commitment to safety. Even if the CDC says surfaces aren’t “thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” I’m cool with a few extra wipedowns.
In fact, in May, the American Hotel & Lodging Association launched an industrywide program, Stay Safe, that outlines best practices for cleaning, including frequent sanitizing of high-touch items like elevator buttons and doorknobs.
I found all of those practices in place at Auberge, which is following CDC guidelines and those of the local department of health. And at Carmel Valley Ranch and Ventana—both Hyatt properties—we found that abided by the company’s new cleaning program, complete with a fancy new acronym and accreditation program.
I also discovered that hotels were more than happy to talk about cleaning with me—no one wants such work to go to waste!—so don’t hesitate to ask for clarifications on policies or specific measures.
3. Stay low and go for airflow
If you can’t stay in a hotel with a dedicated entrance, try to find one that allows you to open the windows. Essentially, you want as much access to fresh outdoor air as possible. If none of the above are possible and you must travel, consider bringing a personal air purifier and fan—and opt for the stairs when you can (consider it gym time?).
4. Just say no to housekeeping and valet services
Again, this comes down to your tolerance for risk. While most hotels have strict protocols in place for staff—including wearing masks and gloves while cleaning or valeting cars—if the idea of having another person in your space makes you feel uneasy, skip those services.
All three properties asked at check-in if I wanted housekeeping or turndown services—I said no—and some, such as Auberge and Carmel Valley Ranch, even allowed me to make that choice ahead of time via email or the app.
5. But don’t forget to tip!
Housekeeping will still need to tend to your room after you leave, and everyone is working in a heightened state of discomfort. The current recommended guidelines for tipping are between $2 and $5 per person, per night. (Be sure to leave a note, indicating that the cash is intended for housekeeping.) I tipped for each night I was there, even though I opted out of services—and added a little extra because it felt like the right thing to do.
6. Think about where you fall on the dining scale
Are you still forgoing takeout and sanitizing all your groceries? You might be a candidate for packing all your own food. (If that’s you, make sure your hotel has a minifridge that can hold your groceries.) But if you’ve dipped a toe into the outdoor dining waters, you’ll find that many hotels offer comfortable ways to eat alfresco without sacrificing safety. Just don’t forget to wear a mask when talking with your server.
After being housebound for months, some of my fondest memories of the trip were the meals. At Auberge, where tables are spaced more than six feet apart and menus are available via QR code, I ate salmon and roasted mushrooms while gazing out at the 33-acre property. To top it off, you can order chocolate-chip cookies at midnight.
At Ventana’s Sur House, the elegant restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean, tables are strategically placed to maximize distance AND views. I can still picture the fog creeping over the hills as I nibbled on halibut ceviche and the best little gem salad I’ve had in years. Ventana also offers room service via text for those who don’t want to dine alfresco—you decide whether to have the server enter your room or just leave food outside.
7. Will you swim? Or gym?
I’ve never been so excited to see a pool. According to the CDC, there’s no evidence that the coronavirus can spread through water—and folks, that was enough for me. It helped that at Auberge du Soleil, I was the only one in the water, but even if it had been mildly crowded, I’d have taken a dunk.
If you’re concerned, think of a pool like you would any other space: Maintain at least six feet of distance between you and other swimmers and wear a mask when not in the water.
Hot tubs, given their petite nature, are a different situation. Days before we arrived, Ventana had closed down its infinity hot tub, Japanese hot baths, and sauna in accordance with the local department of health. Do your research before you go to understand what amenities will be available.
I wouldn’t, however, use the gym. Not because they weren’t clean—in fact, Ventana has instituted a one-guest-at-a-time policy in their gym, with a staff cleaning in between. For me, being in a gym—whether I was alone or surrounded by sweaty, exhaling people—wasn’t a risk worth taking, especially given that each of the properties sits on beautiful acreage with plenty of room to hike and walk. If you do want to use the gym—which could increase your risk of infection—pay extra close attention to the hotel’s policies around occupancy level and sanitation.
As with anything related to being out in the world in the Age of COVID-19, it comes down to the individual: What are you comfortable with—and what isn’t worth the risk?
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