Hostels can be ‘lux’ for just a few bucks

West Coast accommodations debunk myths and welcome families

TOFINO, B.C. — It’s a characteristically wet, winter day and, as a Whalers on the Point Guesthouse visitor, you find yourself faced with a difficult decision so early in the day. Should you sip rosehip tea and watch for whales in the solarium, curl up with a thick West Coast guidebook in front of the massive stone fireplace or bake a batch of chunky cookies with some new British, Aussie and Brazilian friends in the kitchen?

Life is good at this exclusive, award-winning Vancouver Island hostel and — for the nominal cost of a hosteling membership — it’s yours for only $22 a night.

A hostel?

“A lot of people in North America are still unaware of hostels,” says Shelbey Sy, from Hostelling International’s Vancouver office. She and other staff realized that, despite its century-old history as a member-driven, not-for-profit association, Canadians still have a lot of misconceptions about hostels.

The staff started hosting workshops regularly called “Hostelling 101” to debunk myths, share hostel basics and give “locals” the scoop on what five million worldwide travellers already know: hostels can be “lux” for not a lot of bucks.

Now, Sy doesn’t deny that student backpackers still fill the hostel’s dormitory beds but she points out that hostels aren’t just for “youth” anymore. Thirty to 40-year-olds, couples, families and even “people in their 50s and 60s who want to do something adventurous” are discovering the hostels’ amenities.

Walter Kalyn has been an H.I. member since he retired from teaching high school almost 12 years ago and a hostel volunteer for eight. He’s stayed in hostels throughout Canada, the U.S. and Mexico and says he joined H.I. because, well, he didn’t want to stay in “those motels.” He leads members on a weekly “Rainforest” tour through Vancouver’s Stanley Park and agrees that hostellers come in all ages.

Most Canadian hostels now offer private rooms for couples and family rooms for parents and kids. H.I. even offers up entire dorms for ski, cycling, school and other groups-on-the-go. To make a group’s stay more enjoyable, staff can cater meals, book city tours, escort hockey games and even reserve group-rate ski passes.

The idea is that all visitors feel comfortable, whether you’re from another town or another country. The benefit, says Sy, is that “you’ll be with an eclectic group of people of all ages, all cultures and everyone’s welcome.”

That, for better or worse, leads to another pervasive myth that, in Sy’s opinion, needs serious debunking: that hostels are for “poor and homeless people.”

“We get a lot of people who think that,” admits Sy. “But it’s happening less as the education continues.”

Unlike the cliched transient flophouse some people associate with the word “hostel,” H.I. accommodations are regulated to maintain standards of “cleanliness, safety, privacy, friendliness and affordability.”

With 5,000 hostels in more than 70 countries (73 in Canada and 18 in B.C.), H.I. is the largest provider of travel accommodation in the world. Almost every hostel is linked by an International Booking Network (IBN, http://www.hostelbooking.com). A phone call or mouse click reserves you a cozy bed anywhere from Tofino to Tasmania.

Plus, you may find that cozy bed in some pretty unconventional places.

One of the most unusual features of H.I. hostels is some of their non-traditional locations. In B.C., for example, adventurous visitors can sleep in a “courtroom” in Kamloops’s old courthouse, a converted CN caboose at Shuswap Lake or a teepee or treehouse on Saltspring Island.

If you prefer something a little more conventional, H.I. also maintains affordable accommodations in the world’s most popular tourist destinations. In Banff National Park alone, the H.I. guide lists six facilities ranging from a rustic cabin near the Columbia Ice Fields to a luxurious lodge right in the Banff townsite.

Maryse Dubreuil of Montreal discovered the Banff hostel when she travelled to the West Coast to celebrate her birthday. She’d never travelled alone, never been to Western Canada and had never hostelled. Now she considers herself a convert. “I love it,” she swears. “It’s cheaper than hotels and you always, always make friends.”

“There is a commonality you share,” agrees Shelbey Sy, “that isn’t present anywhere else. That, and the friends that you make.”

Back at the Tofino hostel, new friends have gathered in the dining room and the rain’s eased up just enough for manager Rob Cooper to suggest a fourth option: zip on some rain suits, climb into a Kodiak and spend the afternoon soaking in the steamy pools over at Hot Springs Cove. This vacation-closer-to-home idea has its attractions.

IF YOU GO HOSTELLING

Like American Express and coffee cards, Hostelling International membership has its benefits. A $35 regular membership card is currently good for 25 months; $175 gives you a lifetime of cheap sleeps; and junior memberships (under 18) are free. Accommodation prices vary from hostel to hostel but, in Canada, dorm beds (usually two or three bunks per room) range from $11 to $22 and private/family rooms start at about $50.
And don’t forget your card works for you even when you’re home. Benefits include a subscription to Outpost Magazine, discounts on attractions, tours, car rentals and restaurants; reduced prices on travel gear and free admission to local H.I. events such as “Hostelling 101” (the next workshop is Jan. 9, 2002).

Published in the following CanWest newspapers Dec2001/Jan2002: VictoriaTimes-Colonist, Vancouver Province, Prince George Citizen, Edmonton Journal, Regina Leader Post, St-Catherines Standard, Montreal Gazette.

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