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To B&B or not to B&B: David Whitley

When the ‘charm’ and ‘personality’ of your B&B means an exercise in enforced sociability, the ‘impersonal’ hotel suddenly seems a lot more appealing

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One look at the breakfast table makes my heart sink. It’s a communal affair, with everyone sat around the fruit and jam pots in the middle. And loitering just behind is my nemesis, the B&B owner, striking up her endless concerto of small talk.

We’re not allowed to just eat in peace — as any sane person would surely prefer to do at breakfast time. We have to chat. Then, when the B&B owner finally realises we may want something to eat, we place an order, which, of course, will arrive half an hour later, after some more chat.

This protracted trial by enforced sociability is a great reminder of why, whenever possible, I avoid B&Bs. Especially posh ones that cost way more than a hotel. I can see why they appeal in theory — they’re less impersonal, they’ve more charm, they’re smaller and sometimes give a better sense of whatever destination you’re in. But impersonal is an underrated attribute in accommodation. Being able to glide off to your room unnoticed to enjoy a few hours of uninterrupted downtime is hugely important if you don’t want to turn into a gibbering wreck while travelling.

Contrary to appearances at times, I’m a relatively sociable person. I like to talk to people. But it’s a percentages game. The sad truth is I can really take or leave about 85% of the population. There may be 10% I find odious, and 5% I click with. And if I’m going to be sociable, I’d sooner be so with that 5% rather than killing time making polite but broadly indifferent chat with the 85%.

B&Bs, alas, tend to be a magnet for people who just love talking about anything to anyone, savouring a continual junk conversation diet. This particularly seems to apply to B&B owners, who never fail to grotesquely overrate the appeal of their own personality. And, in this instance, this extends to constantly hovering around, waiting to ask how your day’s been and break into anecdotes about why she moved here. It’s impossible to walk through any door without her being there, primed with tourist information that’s covered far better in the guide book I’m clearly holding.

If impersonal is an underrated trait in accommodation, then charm and personality are overrated. Usually, such descriptions are shorthand for ‘maddeningly and needlessly inadequate facilities’. Frankly, I’m happy to trade a friendly welcome for black-out blinds; a willingness to share local knowledge for easily accessible plug sockets; and distinctive character for wi-fi that works properly.

And it’s the latter that finally makes me flip. After an hour of failing to get my emails to load, I resolve to charge downstairs and ask why they thought it was OK to only have a one-bar signal in guest rooms. I reach for the door handle, then hear shouting. “Why can’t you just get something done when you’ll say you’ll get it done?” hollers the owner. “I’m sick of your mouth. You just never shut up,” snaps back her husband. This is excruciatingly awkward. They clearly don’t realise I’m back in the house, and seem determined to exercise their right to have a loud, shouty domestic while their guests are out sightseeing.

If I want to leave the room, I’m going to alert them to my presence, and cause them the mortifying embarrassment of knowing every word of their slanging match has been overheard.

That’s another problem with staying somewhere that has personality. Personalities belong to people, and people aren’t happy and composed all the time. Sometimes they lose it. And you really don’t want to be hanging around, asking where the wi-fi signal is stronger, when they do.

So I’m left with two options. Either march out stridently, ask about the broken internet and happily write off any embarrassment as their problem. Or stay in my room all evening, putting the laptop away and reading a book, in the hope that everyone can save face. On the plus side, in hotel rooms, I hardly ever get the opportunity to do some reading…

Published in the June 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)