B&B Ramblings: Seeing the World Through Clubs of Like-Minded Travelers

Buckstaff Baths in Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

“What!?” my daughter exclaimed after hearing that we had joined a bed and breakfast club for those over 50. “You’re going to stay with people you don’t know?!” Well, yes, actually. People like us: trusting, outgoing, friendly, open to new experiences, people who love to travel and to talk about where they have been and where they are going next.

It sounded like a good idea when my friend Carolyn told me about it. Her parents had used it for years. You stay with a club member. They give you a bedroom, usually a private bathroom, a lovely breakfast the next morning, and you go out to dinner together the night you arrive (Dutch treat, of course) if that is agreeable—all for $15.

You host members when you can, three days maximum. Membership cost? Only $75 per year—the cost of one motel stay (with less noise and windows you can open). One of my favorite authors writes that if she were to have a family crest, the motto would be “Why not?!” Amen, I say.

The First Guests

My husband gave me that “What are you getting us into?” look, but I persevered. The first guests in our Florida home were snowbirds from Canada, the husband a retired Canadian Royal Mounted Policeman with a brush haircut. His wife was shorter than I and loved to shop. The first day of their visit she went off to Goodwill and brought home bags of clothes for them and their grandchildren. He rolled his eyes—their car was already full up to the roof. But they were fun and we had a good time.

A few more snowbirds passed through, with great success, and then it was time for our annual trip north to visit friends and family in Iowa. We’ll use the club, I assured my husband. More looks and eye rolling. I planned out the trip and lined up the stays.

First we headed for Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Late afternoon as we apprehensively approached, a lake came into view, then a golf course and lovely homes along the lake. We drove along tree-lined avenues and stopped at a beautiful house surrounded by flower gardens.
“Take a picture,” I asked my husband. “We’ll email it to the kids and show them everything is all right.”

And it was. Don and Mim showed us to our elegantly furnished suite. Don was a retired IBM personnel executive and Mim was the first woman to get an accounting degree from the University of Southern Mississippi. We went out to dinner at a restaurant run by a famous local chef, a place we never would have found on our own. They were older than we were, but we found plenty of common ground and chatted away. I told her about our daughter’s fears, and Mim laughed. “That’s just what our son says—You’re going to let people you don’t know stay in your home?!”

This turned out to be a pretty common experience. We were having fun getting to know each other and appreciating the local wisdom and guidance, and our children were generally suspicious and uncomprehending. Not all children, though. We stayed with one couple in Rolla, Missouri, who had been given the membership as a gift from their kids. They were too disabled to travel, but they enjoyed hosting and meeting people from all over the country. They took us to the campus of the engineering college in Rolla and showed us two remarkable monuments built by the engineering students: a half-size replica of Stonehenge and a huge replica of a Mayan sundial. We’ve talked to other travelers who passed through Rolla and never knew such things existed.

The Best and the Worst

crystal bridges museum

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas

Best breakfast? How about a spinach quiche, grilled tomatoes topped with cheese, a fresh pineapple filled with berries, kiwi, and other fruit, homemade cinnamon buns, juice, and coffee, with a wood fire crackling in the background. That was in Springdale, Arkansas. We stopped there so we could visit the museum built with Walmart money. In nearby Bentonville, Alice Walton has outfitted what is now the premier collection of American art: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, free to all visitors. We spent a full day there.

Worst stay? The TV room in a small Florida town. The couple’s recently divorced grown son who had been sleeping there was forced to move to an air mattress in his mother’s art studio. He gave us dirty looks, but his parents were okay with that. They wanted him to be uncomfortable so he would consider moving on.

Overseas B&Bs

When the chance came to travel around France, I searched the catalogue of our club (www.evergreenclub.com) but found very few foreign members. Some of our Evergreen hosts had told us about Affordable Travel Club (ATC) and I found several members along our route in France. We spent two weeks with a college friend at her chateau in the Dordogne. Then we headed east toward Provence and the Cote d’Azur. Our first stop was in Narbonne, where our ATC hosts offered to cook a special dinner for us with the regional specialties and wine for 25 Euros (and 25 Euros for the night). We were on! Lovely home, lovely dinner, great presentation, interesting people.

Next we headed for Marseilles. Alain and Myriam insisted on taking us to see the calanques around Marseille. Like the fiords, calanques are steep hillsides descending into the sea, making narrow inlets favored by fisherman and recluses. The best was Morgiou, which is only open to outsiders after the summer season. During the summer, the inhabitants and a few renters are the only ones allowed to drive the steep and windy roads and enter this little paradise on the Mediterranean.

When Myriam offered to prepare a snack for us, she surprised us with several kinds of paté, French cheeses, fresh fruit and vegetables, baguettes, and wine. I said I preferred something sweet, so Alain rummaged in his 600-bottle cave and brought up a white desert wine, long ignored by his sophisticated guests but perfect for my unschooled palate.

In Nice, our ATC host offered us a room opening onto a balcony filled with flowers. Host Mireille was saving for an upcoming trip with her daughter, so the $150 for our five days was welcome to her. She told us how to take the busses to the Matisse Museum, Chagall Museum, and Monaco, all for one Euro a trip! She also provided us with wonderful French breakfasts.

Iowa to Florida

“Are we heading directly back home?” my husband asks as our Iowa stay draws to a close. Well, we could, I mumble, but there’s an ATC member in Branson, Missouri, with a house on a lake and we could take in one of those famous country-western shows. A short trip away is Eureka Springs, where Victorians used to go to take the hot springs. And that’s only an hour from Springdale and the Crystal Bridges Museum where we didn’t get a chance to walk the trails before. If we headed on to Hot Springs, and Dean and Kathe haven’t gone back to Texas, they would take us out in their houseboat onto Lake Ouachita. And maybe we would visit the baths again in Hot Springs, where a 90-minute treatment costs about $65 (www.buckstaffbaths.com).

You know, life is short, and the road is calling. Why not?

After a long academic career, Frances Bonney has turned her attention to memoirs and travel writing. Reach her at ms.francesbonney@gmail.com.