The hotel terrace in Rome overlooked the Pantheon and the square housing Bernini's famous elephant sculpture. Scanning over the ancient rooftops, it felt as though we could reach out and touch the Pantheon's dome.
Could the setting be any more perfect?
It had been a long, wonderful day walking all over Rome and touring the Forum and Coliseum. I was glad to finally sit down. That we were in such a spectacular spot, the rooftop of the historic Grand Hotel de la Minerve, was a bonus.
A hotel can be a big part of the travel experience -- from check-in to the bountiful breakfast buffet, in our case with fresh mozzarella, fresh ricotta, fresh fruits, croissants filled with cream and chocolate, cheeses, salami, ham, eggs and cappuccino.
The Grand Hotel de la Minerve, built in 1620 for the Fonseca family, was converted to a hotel at the end of the 18th century. It later became popular with young, well-heeled travelers and their chaperones embarking on their "Grand Tour." In 1891, a winter garden was built in the inner courtyard and today it has a spectacular crystal ceiling, along with a statue of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and war. Guests gather there for tea or coffee.
I tried to imagine all of the young Americans with their chaperones and all of the intellectuals, high-ranking prelates and artists sitting around the hotel. Were the teens bored with all of the Great Sites and grown-up conversation? They were probably just as glad to meet other young Americans or English speakers -- as we are today when we trade travel tips with other guests.
Where you sleep, eat and meet other travelers can be just as memorable as what you've seen that day. The hotel doesn't have to be the most expensive one in town, either. For traveling college kids, it might be a hostel overseas. It might be a tent in Tanzania or a remote camp on Lake Yellowstone, where we had to navigate over fallen trees to the privy. The kids thought it was a terrific adventure. Some of my kids' fondest childhood memories are of the weeks we spent ensconced in a cabin at Ludlow's Island Resort on Minnesota's Lake Vermillion.
The right environs can prove the antidote to bad weather that could derail a trip. When blizzard conditions kept us off the slopes, we huddled together during a frightening thunderstorm in a cozy cabin at Grand Teton National Park and watched the rain fall from a Big Sky Montana condo.
We've stayed in a castle in Wales (where the owner invited my 5-year-old daughter to watch cartoons with her granddaughters while we went out to dinner) and at bed and breakfasts in Maine, where the company of other travelers de-stressed the college hunt. A charming apartment in Paris let my 12-year-old daughter and her friend scope out the best place to buy croissants.
We've certainly had our share of duds, like the place in Australia that looked nothing like its website photos and where my son's laptop was stolen while my daughter was asleep in the unit. Scary! We decamped the next day.
Of course, sometimes it's more about the occasion and who you're with than the hotel, as I discovered when my husband's family gathered in Champaign, Ill., recently for a nephew's wedding. We all stayed at the local Homewood Suites by Hilton (www.homewoodsuites.com) -- ideal for families because of the roomy suites with kitchens and the complimentary breakfasts.
The hotel was comfortable, not fancy, and it was perfect for our gang. Those breakfasts gave the aunts, uncles and cousins a chance to catch up without fretting over who was going to pick up the breakfast check. Before the official festivities -- the rehearsal dinner, the wedding -- we were all able to gather in our suite for conversation and cocktails. We joked that, as is so often the case, the informal gatherings were the best part of the weekend.
And just like in Rome, the hotel proved more than a place to sleep -- a lot more.