Insider to Insider

The Travel Insider's David Rowell interviews Gemütlichkeit publisher Bob Bestor

Gemütlichkeit Travel Letter
Gemütlichkeit Travel Letter

David Rowell asks: Out of curiosity, I don't see Geneva or Bern on your top 10 list of Swiss locations. That isn't the most astonishing of omissions, but I also don't see Innsbruck on your Austrian top 10. Can you comment on that?

Bob replies: This is all personal opinion. Bern is a wonderful city and I could easily justify putting it the top ten. Geneva is very expensive and, outside of the Red Cross Museum, doesn't get my heart pounding.

I don't understand the attention Innsbruck gets. Last time I was there the old-town, what there is of it, was full of tour buses and homeless panhandlers. Most of the old-town restaurants exist for tourists only and if there are small, charming, family-run hotels, we haven't found them. There are several interesting little towns nearby but Innsbruck itself wouldn't make my personal top 20 in Austria. Skiers may feel otherwise. We get letters in praise of many places but never Innsbruck.

David: Can you tell us about some of the added features you're adding to your Website? When will they come online?

Bob: The new Website will include a lot more free stuff than it does now. What's available to members only will remain the same, although we plan to provide back issues in PDF format as well as the current HTML format (makes it easier to print them out).

Some of the additional public material will include:

  • A hotel of the month, and you'll be pleased to know, we'll include photos, too
  • A "Europe Travel Alert" section, where we will post time-sensitive deals such as Lufthansa's current 2-1 deal (two people can fly, for example, SFO-FRA roundtrip through May 2003 for a total of $802)
  • A monthly report on a major destination. We will probably rotate among Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Salzburg, Zürich, Lucerne, Bavaria, Lake Geneva, and, yes, Bern (I do really like that city and it probably should be in our top 10).
  • Backroads drives: This will also be a rotating feature taken from stories of backroads drives that we've published in Gemütlichkeit over the years.
  • Several "how-to" articles with titles such as "Car Rental vs Rail Pass," "Getting the most from Michelin's great Red Guides," "Taking your laptop to Europe? Read this first," and "Tips on renting a chalet, flat or apartment."

We expect to progressively release this material to the Website starting in February, so keep coming back to check on progress and our new features.

David: I like the material you offer, but still have a hang up about what is missing. For example, you list only four hotels in Geneva. What does this mean about the omitted hotels—deliberately omitted as not being worth consideration? And what does this mean about the included hotels—they are preselected for the best value/whatever, or just semi-random chance?

Bob: We've never advanced the idea that our coverage is complete. Take a look at Rick Steves' "Germany, Austria, Switzerland." Here's the total of what he has to say about Geneva: "This big city bores me. It's sterile, cosmopolitan, expensive, and full of executives, diplomats, and tourists." End of coverage. He calls Innsbruck "state strudel" and leaves out of his book many important cities and regions.

In our case, there are dozens, more like hundreds, of worthy towns we've never written a line about—and probably never will. Like Steves' book, this is a personal publication full of our own likes and dislikes. I see it as a scouting report. We go out ahead and advise people as to the safe and dangerous places to camp, where the water's good, the best trails and where they can find food for the horses.

Of course we are sensitive to what people want, so we return frequently to the popular destinations: Vienna, Salzburg, Bavaria, Berlin, Munich, Zürich, the Jungfrau Region, etc. With that, we mix in some off-the-beaten track destinations that we think are particularly interesting such as Bamberg, Germany, Steyr in Austria, and Sion in Switzerland.

As to hotels and restaurants, from a variety of sources (subscribers, friends, tourist offices, other guidebooks—especially Michelin) we select a cross-section ranging from moderately-priced to the best and then tell our readers about them and why we like them or don't. We're first looking for places to recommend and second for well-known places that don't measure up.

Why there are only four Geneva hotels in the database, I can't say. About 11 years ago I spent two days inspecting Geneva hotels and saw at least 10, two of which I stayed in. In any case, we have reviews of several more coming next month. In that story, by the way, we mention that Geneva has 125 hotels (14 of them 5-star—Zürich has two) and 1,100 restaurants. Michelin lists about 30 of each. So no one has complete coverage and it has never been a goal of ours. But we can and do guide people to very good hotels and restaurants, often of excellent value, scenic backroads, interesting shops, plus provide a lot of how-to information.

David: You give Editor's Choice accolades to hotels, some of which reveal review dates going back to your very first issues in 1987. Don't you think that, particularly for recommended hotels, some type of regular re-inspection is necessary. Most hotels that I visited in 1987 (and many I visited in 1997) have changed beyond all recognition in the interim, particularly when you consider the 3 or so year refurb cycles that most commercial properties work on.

Bob: It is not within our capability to return to every editor's choice every year or even every other year. We see most of them every four or five years and do keep tabs on them on an annual basis. Are they still listed in Michelin? What are readers saying about them? Do they have a Website? If a hotel goes out of business or drops markedly in quality or value, we almost always hear about it.

Many, if not most, of the Editor's Choice hotels of long ago have a devoted following of our readers who visit them regularly. If something goes wrong we usually know right away. We then mention that in Gemütlichkeit and remove the establishment from the database. I can think of many hotels and restaurants we recommended in the late 80s that are no longer in the database. Those that are there, to the best of our knowledge, are still delivering the goods. Neither I, nor any of our other writers, has set foot in the Hotel Petrisberg in Trier, for example, in over 10 years. However, I get three or four rave letters a year about it. And so, Petrisberg stays on our list with its EC designation.

I'll admit there may be some that slip through the cracks but that's true for everybody in the business, even Michelin. The only real way to know a hotel is to stay in it for a few days. In October I was in what at first seemed a lovely hotel on the Rhine that Michelin gives 'red' to. The first impression was dynamite, but once settled in the room, I began to notice the warts; worn upholstery, scuffed baseboards and, while curled up with a book on the elegant sofa, just the barest hint of cat pee. The longer I stayed and the closer I looked, the more this hotel slipped.

Michelin, which I think is the best, says they visit every establishment every year, but I've been in some where their visit must have been cursory rather than detailed. And how about some of the mainstream travel guides? I know from talking to freelancers who have written those guides that not only do they not revisit the hotels and restaurants, they often write the original review based on what the local tourist office tells them, and from printed materials provided by the hotel. They never see the hotel in person!

David: What made you choose this part of the world to write about?

Bob: From 1976 to 1985, I held various, high-stress front office jobs with the Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Association. At the end of each season my wife and I would escape to Europe for a few weeks. We started with France but fell in love with Germany and Austria.

Often our total trip planning was simply to reserve a car at the Frankfurt Airport and make sure the latest Michelin Red and Green Guides were in our luggage. Sometimes we would be in the rental car driving out of the airport before deciding whether to go north, south, east or west. We relied on the Green Guide to choose destinations, particularly small towns, and totally on the Red Guide for hotels, especially those whose symbols are printed in red. In Austria, we'd use Frommer or Fodor but found them not nearly so useful as Michelin.

Over the years we got to know a little bit about the two countries and how to travel in them. We loved using detailed local maps published by ADAC (the German Auto Club) and Mairs to drive the back roads. The more obscure the road the better for us. Occasionally we'd wind up on some gravel or dirt track in the forest. Mid-afternoon we'd pull out the Red Guide and find a likely looking nearby hotel. When we discovered that some of our readers preferred train travel, we began to cover it; the most scenic routes, the how-to aspects and so on.

I had thought for several years of doing some sort of publication about travel in this region and in 1986 my younger brother, Tom, showed me an article in Money Magazine about the success of La Belle France, a newsletter on France. We did a first issue and started a direct mail campaign that got us some subscribers, and here we are now entering our seventeenth year.

Gemütlichkeit, which few of our readers can even pronounce, was chosen as the title because, although it has no direct translation to English, it has to do with hospitality and warmth of welcome. We added Switzerland to the coverage because it's a mostly German-speaking country, and we thought it made a logical extension to our German and Austrian coverage.

David: Can you provide us a closing summary of what you think is special about your publication?

Bob: To sum up, it has been demonstrated over and over that if a subscriber will rely on our top recommendations for hotels and restaurants, and follow our how-to advice when it comes to the mechanics of their trip, he or she will not only have a great travel experience but save a lot of money to boot, far more than the $59 subscription cost.

For example, over the last 16 years, hundreds of our readers have taken a pass on the pseudo-charm of the touristy hotels in the heart of Salzburg and instead followed our advice and booked the 8-room Schloss Haunsperg, about 15 minutes into the countryside. Owners Georg and Erica von Gernerth host their guests in a private little castle, in bedrooms filled with paintings, objets d'art, and antique furnishings that have been in their family for hundreds of years. They explain which are the best local restaurants, plan a day of sightseeing for their guests, all while treating them to a no-charge glass or two of local wine in the castle garden. (Erica and Georg invite every arriving guest to join them for a drink).

Depending on the Salzburg hotel they would have chosen, our subscribers may or may not have saved money, but for many it is the experience of a lifetime. What's that worth?

Reprinted courtesy of David Rowell, The Travel Insider