ONE AFTERNOON just before Christmas, every head in the crowded Page One bookstore cafe at Festival Walk turned to stare at a woman drinking tea and chatting away in Cantonese on her mobile phone. They stared initially because she was speaking with such gusto. Their attention was held upon discovering the owner of the voice was not a local, but a tall, blonde American. Daisann McLane, New Yorker, travel writer, author and committed Chinese-language student, was oblivious to their reaction. She was too busy arranging to meet a friend at the cinema to see a new Andy Lau Tak-wah flick to notice. The friend, who is president of Lau's fan club, is Japanese and speaks no English, so she and McLane communicate only in Cantonese. McLane, 48, was visiting Hong Kong last month to brush up on her language skills, catch up with the friends she made during a three-month stint at the Chinese University of Hong Kong last summer, and to promote her new book, Cheap Hotels (Taschen $157, from Page One or www.amazon.com ). Cheap Hotels is an extension of McLane's New York Times column, 'Frugal Traveller', for which she has combed the world for the past four years. Since late 2001, she has also contributed one essay a month to National Geographic Traveler magazine. Prior to becoming a travel writer, McLane worked in the music industry, then wrote on culture, food and world music for publications including the Village Voice, Vogue, and Rolling Stone. She was a history major at Princeton University, speaks fluent Spanish, once worked as a calypso singer in Trinidad, and wrote an unauthorised biography of pop star Terence Trent D'Arby for British publisher Bloomsbury in the late 1980s. During the past four years, she has stayed in more than 200 budget hotels from Berlin to Bali, taking photographs of each room before turning down the covers at night. 'Along the way, I discovered that travel ecstasy usually increases in inverse proportion to your hotel bill,' she writes on the Taschen Web site ( www.taschen.com ). 'Cheap Hotels is a quirky memoir of a life lived under hideous bedspreads, a guide to choosing inexpensive hotels that embody the spirit of a place.' When she first started out with Frugal Traveller, McLane filed copy only. She was, as she puts it, 'anti-camera'. 'I had a chip on my shoulder about photos,' she says. 'I thought there were too many images in the world.' But though the New York Times covered her expenses, including meals, hotels and airfares, the pay was not great. So she bought herself a 35mm camera and added pictures to the Frugal Traveller package, supplementing her income and discovering a new talent with one purchase. Given their subject matter - the low-budget hotel room - the photographs are rarely beautiful. They do, however, provide a compelling insight into McLane's bizarre nomadic way of life. A reviewer in the New Yorker describes them as 'both colourful and plaintive, their glimpses of urban excitement and exotic tranquillity tinged with the inevitable sadness of transience'. When a friend invited her to give a presentation on travel writing at the Smithsonian Institute, McLane put together a slideshow of the quirky shots she'd taken during her travels. 'Everyone has seen scenery shots,' she says. 'So I showed them hotel rooms, in descending order of price.' The talk was such a success, a feature article on hotel rooms in a shelter magazine followed, and then another friend suggested McLane collate the photographs and some of her articles into a book. 'I didn't even know there were niche, photography/novelty book publishers,' she says. 'This woman used to work for one. She said, 'I want to sell your book'.' Within three days, hip German publisher Taschen, described by Britain's Wallpaper* magazine as producing 'the most exquisite books on the planet', had bought the rights to Cheap Hotels. McLane is thrilled with the job Taschen has done with her words and pictures. 'I'm not really good at packaging things,' she says. 'Their designers sliced the pictures up beautifully.' They also translated the text into French and German, so McLane's tales and thoughts appear in all three languages in the book. When researching a destination for her column, McLane uses guidebooks and the Internet to choose two hotels to try. In Hong Kong, for example, she used SCMP.com's hotel guide partner, Asia-hotels.com, via hotels.scmp.com to book two nights at the Kowloon Hotel, and another two at the Bishop Lei International in Mid-Levels. A big fan of hotels that provide Internet access and cable television, McLane recalls the combined computer and television screen in her room at the Kowloon Hotel. She booked in there for the first time at about 10.30pm on September 11, 2001, after taking a United Airlines flight from Japan. She immediately checked her e-mails, stumbling upon the first news of the attacks on the World Trade Centre. The stunned Brooklyn resident spent the next 12 hours switching between the world's news Web sites and cable news channels to track the story. 'Even people in New York didn't have the technology I had,' she says. 'I had all the cable channels from all over the world. I'll never forget it.' The Kowloon Hotel didn't make it into the book, but the Bishop Lei did. It is another favourite of McLane's - the last time she stayed there she upgraded to a harbour-view suite to see the October 1 National Day fireworks. And she stayed in the New World Apartments in Tsim Sha Tsui while studying here last summer. 'I fell in love with my little room there,' she says. McLane will be back in Hong Kong as soon as she can arrange her complicated schedule around it. She says she would like to be based here one day. Of course she loves the SAR. What travel writer wouldn't swear by the Airport Express train and user-friendly Chek Lap Kok? 'It's the most beautiful airport in the world, absolutely, positively the most well-designed in the world,' McLane says. 'Hong Kong is one of those places I've got sentimental about,' she adds. 'I love the Cantonese culture and the people are really open-hearted. It's the most home I've had in four years.'