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Travelers Find Happiness in a Hostel Environment

Some of the most popular and inexpensive overnight accommodations in Los Angeles are virtually undiscovered by American tourists to the area. They are full all summer long, but 80%of the people who stay in them are tourists from such far-flung corners of the world as Burma, Finland, Argentina and Zimbabwe.

For thousands of foreign travelers to Southern California every year, the six American Youth Hostels in the area provide lodging of a type that is commonplace throughout the rest of the world, especially in Europe, but rare in the United States.

“It is the best way of meeting people and one of the most reasonable ways of traveling,” said Gary Johnston, 33, a South African who recently stayed at the Harbor City hostel on Palos Verdes peninsula.

Beginning about 4 every afternoon, visitors from all parts of the world begin arriving at the hostel, which caps a quiet 50-acre plot of land overlooking San Pedro Harbor. Men and women--most of them in their early 20s and most of them Australian--gather to prepare their dinners. “We’re former travelers ourselves, so we know what they want when we see them trudging up the hill with packs on their backs. They want something clean, something cheap and something friendly,” said John Estrada, executive director of the Los Angeles Council of American Youth Hostels, based at the Harbor City hostel. Most visitors to the Harbor City hostel are Australian, Estrada said, because of that country’s proximity to the West Coast.

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Strangers get acquainted over the mingling aromas of foods from varying cultures.

“Everybody’s really friendly,” said Kim Millard, a 24-year-old Australian. “If you’re standing next to someone cooking your dinner, you just start talking to them. You wouldn’t do that anyplace else.”

The purpose of American Youth Hostels, which are affiliated with the International Youth Hostel Federation, is to provide students inexpensive access to the world and the opportunity to get to know each other, Estrada said.

Chance to Meet Others

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“It is a chance to meet others in the dining room, whereas if you were staying in a motel or a hotel, you wouldn’t meet anybody,” Estrada said. “What’s fun is to watch people meet down at the bus stop, go off to Disneyland or the beach together, come back friends and cook a communal meal.”

Los Angeles has three hostels--one in Hollywood with 35 beds, one in Westchester that can accommodate 50 travelers and one in Harbor City with 60 beds. A new, small hostel with 15 beds in Fullerton tries to handle visitors to Disneyland and a 38-bed hostel can be found in Huntington Beach.

Big Bear has a hostel with accommodations for 22 persons. It is filled most weekends with private groups from schools, churches or other organizations, according to manager Bob Block, but most guests during the week are foreign visitors. Big Bear seldom hangs out the “no vacancy” sign, Block added, because many foreign travelers have difficulty getting to the mountain resort.

The Harbor City hostel has 15,000 visitors a year and its rules are typical: Visitors cannot check in until 4 p.m.; lights are out at 11 p.m. Alcoholic beverages are not allowed and there is no smoking in the buildings. Men and women sleep in separate dormitories, wake-up time is 7:30 a.m. and visitors must be out by 9:30 a.m.

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Up and Out Early

“The hours are designed to get them up and out early so they can find out about the country and meet the people,” said Greg Smith, public relations assistant for the Los Angeles council.

The cost of American Youth Hostel membership is $10 per year, $20 for families, and members receive a handbook containing a directory of hostels in the United States. Overnight stays range between $6 and $10 a night for members throughout the country. For example, Harbor City is $6.25 and Hollywood is $8. Non-member fees are higher.

Part of the hosteling ethic includes doing a small job, such as taking out garbage or picking up chairs before leaving.

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“It’s part of our philosophy to always try to leave a place a little better than you found it,” Estrada said.

The Harbor City hostel, rated superior in the handbook, has three dormitories--former U.S. Navy housing--two for men, one for women. Each dorm has large rooms filled with bunk beds. Showers and laundry facilities are available, as are cooking utensils and refrigeration.

“It’s like camping out--without the bugs,” Smith said.

All Ages Welcome

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The name may be part of the reason for the apparent anonymity of youth hostels, but they are not limited to students or the young. People of all ages are welcome to join and stay in the hostels, according to Estrada.

“I enjoy talking to the older travelers in hostels,” Brett Fox of Australia said. “They’ve had more experience. One man told me about his trip to Australia. I didn’t even know they had hostels in Australia.”

The United States has 275 hostels and there are 5,000 in 62 countries throughout the world. American Youth Hostels has 100,000 members, while almost 4 million belong to the international organization.

“We traveled through Europe for 15 months and never saw an American in the youth hostels,” said Peter Cahill from Australia.

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But there are some indications of American interest in hosteling. Los Angeles residents have discovered the new budget travel workshops sponsored by the Los Angeles council and held at the Harbor City hostel. Run mostly by volunteers, the workshops provide practical information for planning trips through Europe, Asia, Australia and New Zealand and North America. They also discuss bicycling and hiking trips, as well as trips for the mature traveler.

International Foursome

One of the groups at Harbor City on a recent weekend vividly demonstrates what hosteling is all about. A young woman from Sweden, Marit Lisell, and one from Norway, Tone Skuggevik, went to school in Illinois last year and decided to discover America before going home. They bought a used car and arranged to meet a friend of Lisell’s--the Australian, Brett Fox--at the Grand Canyon. Moving on to a Las Vegas hotel, they met Sigrid Muenzing from West Germany who was traveling alone by bus. Splitting expenses, all four made the trip to Los Angeles.

“You can meet so many people. It’s cheap and it’s safe,” Muenzing said. “Especially if you’re traveling alone.”

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More than half of the American Youth Hostels were developed with the assistance of federal, state and local agencies. The Harbor City facility rests on land belonging to the Navy and will soon be used to build new Navy housing. The Navy, however, has promised to help the organization move.


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