Daybook · On Culture & Trends · On Places & Travel

“Rough Luxury” & Our Strange Travel Fantasies

Yesterday, Hotel Chatter brought me word of a new "anti-five star" hotel in London, called Rough Luxe.  The hotel bills itself thusly:

"Half rough, half luxury. A little bit of luxury in a rough part of London. A little bit of rough in a luxurious London….Guests at a Rough Luxe hotel might share a bathroom or have a small room, but the luxury is in the choice of the wine, the bed linen, the art on the walls and the people looking after you…Our look is a mix of old and new, furniture and art; combining colours and beautiful fabrics with cheap materials and existing distressed original walls."

It's in Kings Cross, an area that Diana, my buddy and guide to all things London, explains was once considered red-light dodgy. 

Well, I've always thought travel was a way of playing dress up –trying on a life that's not yours for a few days or a few weeks, before you slip back into your everyday skin.Most of these fantasies are easy to understand.  All-inclusives allow us to try on the costume of "money is no object", cruises, the costume of "no calorie can ever stick to me".   On another level, safaris give you a taste of what your life would be like as a naturalist, and of course, there are many, many ways to pretend you're royalty.  One of my favorites is in Edinburgh: rent Queen Elizabeth's last yacht, the Britannia, where you can be bag piped up a red carpet upon boarding, have the table set to strict royal protocol, with a ruler, have the seats height-adjusted with a level, while a pianist tickles the ivories of the Queen's own baby grand. This is aimed at corporate events, I think of it as fantasy camp for Masters of the Universe.

So what's the fantasy at Rough Luxe? It seems to me that the fantasy is of some romanticized version of poverty, slumming it –everything not perfect-beautiful! A small room! Maybe you have to share a bathroom!   –but not ever really getting uncomfortable, as you would if you actually had few resources. (Like, I'm sure there's no officially arranged faux trick-turning amenity at the hotel, although what you do with the person you check in with, is, I imagine, your own business.)

I'd like to make the point that it has something to do with nerves about world economic meltdown, but the interest in getting close to what scares us on holiday is nothing new.  "Slum tourism" has been a buzzword (and creating controversy) for some time: there are tours of Dhavari in Mumbai, favelas in Brazil, bus tours of Katrina-damaged areas of New Orleans.  The difference between "slum tourism" and what's on offer at Rough Luxe is that there's no actual reality of poverty at this new "anti-five star hotel". The privations are all surface level, the luxury is below the surface, the "rough" part is all make-believe. And here's my prediction: travelers will like it better that way.

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