So, from restaurants to hotels. I have stayed in a fair few over the years, ranging from the grand to the grimy, sumptuous to sleazy. The wildly varying budgets of myself and my employers mean I’ve experienced the full range, from the fabulously luxurious Four Seasons in Mumbai (wow!) to a small guesthouse in Margate where we were sent for a “teambuilding” weekend one November, and bonded not over Belbin Team Role assessments and building skyscrapers out of newspaper and Plasticine, but over set mealtimes with over-boiled vegetables from the freezer, and an interesting packeted dessert that tasted like toilet duck.
Putting this together, I stumbled over these reviews and figured that, in the grand scheme of things, I’d actually got away fairly lightly. But nonetheless there are a few things that, older and wiser, I would bear in mind now (money-permitting) when booking a hotel.
- Location, location, location: Being in the centre of town isn’t everything. I’ve stayed in some lovely hotels just outside the centre and as long as there’s reliable public transport this isn’t necessarily a problem. I have stayed in far nicer hotels in expensive cities such as Zurich by picking something a few tram stops away, where the equivalent in a touristy area would have cost double and probably been pokier and altogether less pleasant. I proved my own theory a few years ago when, feeling rich, we popped over to Copenhagen for a romantic weekend and treated ourselves to a hotel right next to Tivoli Gardens. Our “hotel” turned out to be a hostel (though it claimed otherwise), and our “double room” looked more like something you’d find in an army barracks, with two small, single metal beds positioned as far apart as possible (which in a tiny room admittedly wasn’t far) and which creaked disconcertingly when you moved. We tried to move them together, but they seemed to be nailed to the floor, and anyway, that would have blocked the door. So it turned out to be not quite as romantic a weekend as we had hoped. In Prague we stayed in a hotel that billed itself as being “close to the action”, but we had foolishly not done our research as to what action that was. In this context “action” meant “Irish bars and stripper joints”, and the hotel was thus populated entirely by loud British stag groups. One night we came back to find them having what can only be described as a “Widdle Off” outside the entrance, each with his flies undone seeing who could go on the longest. For the rest of the weekend I pretended to be French.
- “Quirky” hotels: if a hotel, in its write-up, claims to be “quirky”, you might want to find out exactly what that means. Generally I don’t like my hotels quirky. I like them to be clean, with soft beds, a good lock on the door, a decent shower and somewhere to get a drink. “Quirky” in my experience often translates as “disconcerting” or “expect mild peril”. By far the oddest hotel I ever stayed in was a James Bond themed hotel in Milan called the Admiral. It was a little way outside the city (see 1) and housed in a 1970s building that possibly looked mildly more inviting in the 1970s. Everything – and I mean everything – was Bond-themed, for no discernible reason – there was Bond soap and shower gel in the bathroom, and in the entrance hall there were display cases full of collectible cars and dolls and replica guns. The bar sold vodka martinis (shaken, not stirred) and the barman (the only staff member we saw the whole week, who also checked us in and out) looked like he could kill you with a neat flick of his hand. I presume it was just owned by a particularly eccentric man with a Bond fetish – even the rooms were named after the films and painstakingly yet not altogether accurately decorated. At the same time, we appeared to be the only guests and it was, at the very least, a little bit weird to the point of creepy.
- The gimmick: in the last couple of decades a whole range of hotels has sprung up across in the worlds in places you wouldn’t immediately think of as being conducive to a comfortable night’s sleep. Not content with a simple bed in a nice, grounded building with four walls, you can now dangle from the treetops or bed down in a cave, ex jumbo jet or sleep in what is effectively a human gym locker in one of Japan’s Capsule Hotels. While some of the hotels on this list look truly amazing (a hotel in a library? Yes please), do nonetheless beware of the gimmick. Gimmicky hotels tend to charge extortionate sums for you to do something which (they proudly proclaim) “you can’t do anywhere else”, but there’s a reason you can’t do it anywhere else: nobody in their right mind would want to do it. Take the Ice Hotel in Sweden. it has spawned a couple of poorer imitations in similarly offputtingly cold places, some just for show and others which welcome in paying guests. We went to the one in Québec, though this one was called Hotel de Glace, because calling it something French makes it sound somehow more sophisticated and less bollock-tinglingly cold. They market their stays not as “nights”, but “experiences”, because you could sue a hotel for a truly terrible night, but nobody could deny that hypothermia is one heck of an experience. Yes, they are beautiful and breathtaking pieces of art;; yes, sipping warming spirits from glasses made of actual ice is indeed quite cool for a while; and yes, going to sleep with a massive Doctor Who-esque snow angel etched above your bed is certainly something new. But when you’re given an industrial sleeping bag and told proudly that in it you could survive at -40, doesn’t a normal person think “perhaps, but why would I want to?”
- Soundproofing: insist upon it. I stayed in a rather grand hotel (the Fairmont Royal York – it’s been in numerous films) whose glamorous era-gone-by opulence is worth every penny BUT I was unluckily put into a room with a (locked) connecting door to the adjacent room’s bathroom. This would have been fine, except that the occupant of said room had evidently had a rather heavy night, and/or a bad curry, and was experiencing a not inconsiderable level of discomfort at five o’clock the next morning. We involuntarily lived through every painful second of the next hour with him as he groaned, squeezed, gasped and sighed and (I’m pretty certain) at one point wept, accompanied by other, bodily noises which, having thus set the scene, I will leave to your imagination.
- Local Wildlife: this could be anything. A friend of mine went to Bali and, having left the terrace door open overnight, woke up to find a monkey looking quizzically at her from the dresser (to be fair, she was staying on Monkey Forest Road, so that was a bit of a clue); in Greece, elaborately-decorated little green lizards somehow found their way into our apartment; in South Carolina, passive-aggressive signs warned you not to leave your towels drying on the balcony, or passing pelicans would pinch them. Usually, though, it just means cockroaches. I’ve had two major cockroach experiences that really stand out over the years. In Sydney, innocently getting up to go to the loo in the middle of the night, one scuttled across my bathroom floor that was so large that in my sleepy state I momentarily concluded to myself that it was a crayfish that had somehow mysteriously found its way into my apartment. But worse than this were those I encountered in Hong Kong, which in addition to being generally other-wordly and capable of surviving an apocalypse were apparently suicidal and could fly. All night long I was kept awake by that horror film sound effect palpitation of their wings as they persistently hurled themselves at the elderly wall fan in the corner of my room, flutter-flutter-flutter-flutter-SMACK-SMACK…. The following morning after no sleep I found halves of cockroach all over my room. Turns out they’re not invincible after all.
- Read between the lines: what YOU think something means isn’t necessarily what the owner of the hotel thinks it means, so do more than a little cursory research before booking. In Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria – not necessarily an obvious tourist spot for the travelling Englishman at the end of March – we patted ourselves on the back at the marvellous deal we netted booking a “luxury suite” which, the hotel website claimed while describing said room next to a picture of some champagne chilling in a bucket, was “suitable for 4 people”. It cost us £27, and it turned out there was a reason for this: what we thought was a plush VIP suite turned out to be the kind of room which you used to get in a Travelodge in the 1980s: a standard double bed and a clunky pull-out sofa bed intended for your child. We were a married couple travelling with our best friend, which made for an awkward couple of nights during which we lay rigidly still in our double bed, and he tossed and turned uncomfortably in the kid’s bed about a foot away. (And to top it all, the bar was shut while we were there.)