The mid-twentieth century, some say, was the golden age of the big, bland chain hotel. Vacationers of the 1950s or '60s took out second mortgages to afford jet travel, supposedly to find, as they hurtled from destination to destination, that a hotel room in Melbourne was the same as one in Manila. Innkeepers were accused of rolling out design templates such that no matter where you awoke in the world, the features of your room—the bedside panel, the writing desk—looked identical. Indeed, the very words Holiday Inn or Hilton took on a pejorative connotation: they were globalization's earliest villains, blamed for destroying a sense of place with an imperialist approach to style.

But this is judgment passed in haste. For the fact is that there is another, more conformist time, and that is the present. The perpetrators are boutique hotels. Their seconders are the new breed of travel guides, which don't tell you about a destination so much as how to ignore its realities.

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