Hotel Heaven…or Hell

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, 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.

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Actually my favourite hotel in the world – chic but understated, Singapore’s Park Hotel Clarke Quay
  1. 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. Conversely, and feeling rich, a few years ago 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, and our “double room” looked more like something you’d find in a bail hostel or 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 unfortunately the only way to do that meant blocking 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 it was 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.

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    Where “close to the action” translates as “a bit like being in King’s Cross”
  2. “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.

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    Not a theme hotel, although it somehow reminds me of the Senate in Star Wars
  3. 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 (the one in the library is calling to me as I type), do nonetheless beware of the gimmick. Gimmicky hotels tend to be charging 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 Quebec, 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?”

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    This room was heated to a balmy -5. It didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off.
  4. 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.

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    “Quirky”, or “101 Ways For Insects To Get Into Your Room”
  5. 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 block. 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.

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    Where baboons are apparently a substantial part of the clientele
  6. 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.)
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    View from our “luxury” suite, Veliko Tarnovo

     

 

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Foodie Heaven…or Hell

I’ve recently been binge-watching Supersizers Go…, not because it has anything remotely to do with travel or indeed my regular job, but because I’m a little bit in love with Giles Coren. (OK, I am really a lot in love with Giles Coren.) The format is basically: Giles Coren and Sue Perkins spend a week “living” and eating the food of another era, invariably washed down with copious quantities of alcohol, and hilarity ensues. It’s actually rather marvelous. I wish they’d do a travel version.

One of the most fabulous things about travel is the opportunity to try different foods in their far more authentic forms than the often poor imitations we’re served at home. In Mumbai I was dazzled and delighted not by chicken tikka masala (invented, I think, in Glasgow?) but by spiced basa fillets and smoked hilsa (it’s a bit like a big, angry-looking herring), and in Hong Kong by various bits of animal I couldn’t identify, and was probably grateful not to. In Bethlehem I had one of the best meals I have ever experienced – mouth-watering hummus and falafel and lamb in a restaurant called Afteem.

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Meat on a stick, Marrakech.

But eating abroad also has its downsides. Imagine coming to the UK and eating what you thought were traditional British dishes – you’d have permanent indigestion, and mushy peas would be enough to give someone who hadn’t grown up with them some form of mild PTSD. I’ve had a number of similar experiences abroad, and am not informed enough to know if I was unlucky or having the sort of “experience” which will allow me at parties to pretend I was posh enough to have a gap year and get away with it. Here’s a rundown.

 

  1. Delhi Belly: you’re actually not allowed to go to India and not get ill. I think you sign something that says as much when you get your visa, and if you manage to stay well for your whole trip they don’t let you leave again. Nobody can put their finger on what it is – street food and ice cubes and generally delicate western constitutions all get the blame. The woman with whom I was working confidently blamed watermelon juice, and went into a slightly-too-graphic description of how bugs can get into it via tapwater, which every traveler knows will BRING INSTANT DEATH. Convinced I was nearing the end one night I texted my husband the words “I love you” from my hotel bathroom floor, and when pleasantly surprised to wake up again the next morning still relatively intact and very much alive. Surreptitiously warning my supervisor that I was a little unwell and may need to nip out occasionally, she lavishly presented me with my own toilet (“On the western-style toilet there is now a sign that says Out of Order, but IT IS NOT OUT OF ORDER! IT IS FOR YOU!) and every time I came back 20 people asked if I was OK
  2. Moving swiftly on, we come to offal. Pretty much every local specialty seems to involve parts of an animal you wouldn’t willingly/knowingly eat, and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s a ruse of the rest of the world against us. In Hong Kong I was given what I was told (this must have been lost in translation, as I have looked it up since and am assured nobody eats such a thing) “chicken bladders”. I went towards these tiny little things with my chopsticks to be told “don’t pierce them! The juice will escape”! Since you ask, it was like chewing a condom full of chicken gravy.
  3. Trying to please the tourists: one of the funniest and least inviting “meals” I encountered was the “English Breakfast” in a Spanish hotel, which was apparently provided “in response to customer demand”. It looked as though the chef had had an English breakfast painstakingly described to him but had never actually seen one, and the result was previously-beautiful Serrano ham fried to within an inch of its life and sitting in a centimeter of fat, dry scrambled eggs and baked beans made from scratch by mixing haricot beans with an improvised tomato sauce. We stuck to the pastries.
  4. Durian fruit. There must be someone somewhere who likes it. It must be something peculiar to particular cultures, like marmite, which you might possibly like by default if you are brought up with it. I tried durian once, and it was like eating vomit, only with an even more disconcerting texture. And what on earth possessed the first person to ever discover it was (in the loosest sense of the word) “edible” to take something that looks like a mutated porcupine and smells like a sewer, and think “I’ll see what that tastes like”. It’s banned on aeroplanes for a reason.
  5. National delicacies: snails, etc. I actually like chicken feet, one of those rites of passage you’re supposed to try in China; obligingly I have also tried snails in France. They taste of nothing. Rubber, at a push. This is why they’re served swimming in garlic and butter – so that there is something to taste. In this category fall countless other things, usually insects (scorpions, I’m told, are lovely and crispy, but I’ve never had the chance to try them) or snakes. So much still to try, so much disappointment still to come.
  6. Local booze: this really depends on where you are. In South Africa the Pinotage was, of course, fabulous, and in Canada the white wines of the Niagara region came as a pleasant surprise. In Europe, however, every country seems to have an obligatory “local” spirit that you could either clean your teeth or strip the paintwork from your walls with. Here’s a tip: if the guidebook tells you it was previously used for “medicinal purposes”, avoid it, as this translates as “will kill everything it touches”.
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The national drink of Latvia. No. Just no.

Dining Out On Pretension

Last year, in Lisbon, I did something very rare: I visited a Michelin starred restaurant. I love good food, but restaurants of such quality, and the inevitable accompanying pageantry, not to mention strain on my wallet, take me so far out of my comfort zone that I can’t even see my comfort zone any more. As a child, “going out for dinner” meant you stayed IN the restaurant for your fish and chips, rather than taking them away wrapped up in paper. This usually only occurred in the event of a birthday or a wake. Frankly, the mere presence of cutlery that wasn’t plastic made us feel we were getting a bit above ourselves. Nowadays I’ve just about got over seeing Pizza Express as decadent, but nonetheless this was still a rare treat.

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“Eating out”

So, how do you know you’re having a world-class dining experience rather than a standard Friday night at your bog-standard tandoori or local Wetherspoon? Here are some indicators:
–          The “tasting menu”. This is where you’re charged a set (usually large) amount of money for what is ultimately a series of canapes presented as mini courses which you need a magnifying glass to see.

–          The dishes feature mysterious ingredients or are so incomprehensibly titled that you can’t work out what they are, but are too afraid to ask. What, for example, is a Mahogany Clam? And how does he differ from a Standard Clam? Suddenly you find your tiny portion of meat comes with “jus” (as my dad calls it, “crap gravy”) and pea puree (substandard mushy peas). Other parts of your meal sound decidedly unappetising, but to admit this would be to show your lack of culture, so you keep quiet and eat your smoked salmon with “a smear of liquorice gel”, even though this sounds like something you’d rub on a mouth ulcer, and your “shaved fennel with birch syrup” (I promise I’m not making this up) even though, as far as you know, fennel isn’t particularly hairy and birch syrup sounds like a hippy remedy for a hangover.

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Jus

–          Each staff member has a designated job, and is apparently forbidden stray onto a colleague’s territory. You must not ask the person who puts the napkin on your knees (posh diners evidently being above doing this for themselves) if you can order wine, the wine waiter (sorry, sommelier) if you can order your food, expect the person from whom you order your food to actually be the person who then brings you your food, or ask the person who brings you your food for the bill. At the restaurant we visited, there was one waiter whose sole job seemed to be to replace pieces of cutlery, and he looked positively excited when the woman next to us dropped her knife, swiftly replacing it with more aplomb than was strictly necessary.

–          You are not allowed to eat or drink until the content of each course has been explained in extravagant detail. With each course, the sommelier appeared at our table and we were treated to a very informed description of the wine and why it was the best wine for what we were about to eat, and we had to nod sagely as we learned about the different types of grapes that grow along the Chilean/Argentinian border, feigning interest. We then had to go through the same charade with the food, with the waiter whose job it was to describe the food giving us an elaborate overview of what, owing to the tiny portions, would take us less time to eat than it took him to describe: “Here you have gently grilled, fresh shrimps which were caught just this morning off the Sussex coast. Their names were Barry and Derek, and they are served on a bed of fluffed quinoa with a light drizzle of menstrual jelly.” (OK, I made that last bit up.) When the Ballad of Barry and Derek was complete the first waiter whipped off the lid to reveal with a flourish their remains in all their small, overly-decorated glory.

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No, I don’t know what this is either. I think it might be sandpaper and some fairy dust

 

–          Once you have the wine, great care is taken that you do not pour this yourself. Instead, it is placed just out of reach, thus ensuring that the Head Wine Pourer stays in secure employment until retirement and you remain thirsty and increasingly concerned that the staff are passive-aggressively judging the speed of your alcohol consumption in their insistence that you wait a while being allowed more.

–          At the end of the meal, it is obligatory that you try the recommended “digestif”. This invariably tastes a bit like cough mixture.

–          The evening ends with a phone call from your bank querying if your card has been stolen or if you really did just voluntarily spend over £200 on coffin-roasted Trafalgar Square Pigeon with deadly nightshade compote and goat-sick glaze followed by organic blackcurrant soufflé sprinkled with locally-sourced vanilla-infused orphan tears.

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Duck with “popped corn”. Yes, Genuinely. There were no vegetables.

*Pictures from a range of dining experiences.