The biggest check-in ever

I've missed hotels. Here are some of my favourite resorts, boutiques and B&Bs – and least favourite marketing memes the hospitality sector uses

Feeling reflective: Still from the new Fairmont film (see below)

I am down to my last pair of white fluffy slippers. In the bathroom cupboard, the supply of miniature toiletries is running critically low. There are only two hotel pens (Mandarin Oriental, Doha and Radisson Collection, Stockholm) left in the desk drawer.

My career as a hospitality kleptomaniac is on hold. I guess I used to spend weeks every year in hotel rooms, and that was always a chance to top up on comfy footwear and Molton Brown bodywash. Having to buy this stuff thickens the moral fibre but reminds you that your time of exploration and travel is receding ever further.

This set me thinking about all the hotels I’ve loved and missed. I'm going to write about a few of them here. But I’ve also been thinking about how hotels market themselves – and the things they say which they think guests want to hear.  

I love hotels: their variety, their buzz, the sense of occasion and anticipation as you enter the lobby or swipe your door card. Even if it’s an airport hotel in Schiphol or a b&b in Shropshire, there’s always something about a hotel stay: every one is a microadventure.

Not that you'd believe that from the tired, hackneyed phrases hotel greeters and GMs trot out time and time again.

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‘Welcome to your home in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Mr Jones’

I’ve never been to the town of  Council Bluffs, nor Iowa, for that matter. But it’s fair to assume that someone at some hotel reception in that fine town there would greet me thus. I’ve got ‘homes’ in Bangkok, Paris, Birmingham, Da Nang, New York, Geneva, Timmins, Singapore, Ulan Bator…and a hundred other places where hotel people have been told to welcome you ‘home’ even if it’s your first visit (as it usually is).

Here’s why it doesn’t work.

I love my home, but I don’t want a replica of it when I travel. I want somewhere as different as can be. Take my room in The Futaba Hotel in Kazawa. The decor was an oriental spin on 1970s luxe. Outside you had your own, crepuscular, rocky little onsen. I’ve been in plenty more contemporary, certainly better-lit and more nicely furnished ryokans: but that one sticks in my mind for its very weirdness, it’s not-my-homeliness. They even threw in a 3am earthquake. You don’t get those in Scotland. 

I think of the Roxbury Motel in the Catskills, where several suites are done out like an old TV or movie set. Is my bedroom a replica of The Flintstones or the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz, complete with a yellow brick road? It is not. Is it fun to stay in that room for a night? It is.

The Roxbury Motel: no home from home

I guess the ‘welcome to your home in xxx’ ruse was dreamed up for the frequent flyer market after a brainstorm session headed ‘How to increase loyalty among premium business travellers.’

And I guess that works if you’re the kind of business traveller who doesn’t want to think too much when you’re on a familiar trip. Of course, if it were really your home, you’d wander around in your boxers helping yourself to beer in the fridge. Not recommended in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

‘Home’ is not the same as ‘that delicious feeling of familiarity and relaxation you get when returning to a much-loved hotel’. It’s a feeling I get in Le Bristol in Paris and The Connaught in London. They manage to be swanky and intimate at the same time. 

But there’s a home for me in rather humbler places. On our annual cricket tour of Ireland this year, we returned, as we have for three decades, to Helen’s bed and breakfast opposite Jerpoint Abbey. I’ve never written about it, partly because my critical faculties are rarely at their sharpest at Helen’s. A day playing cricket in the scorching Kilkenny sun and a night on the Guinness in Thomastown do not a trustworthy hotel inspector make. In fact, it is only in writing this article that I’ve discovered it’s actually called Abbey House, not ‘Helen’s’ or ‘The B&B’.

But this time (in late June), I tried to look around while still in a fairly conscious state. And I realised that, while Abbey House will not win awards for the nicheness of its toiletries nor the thread count of its bed linen, and that its art curation relies heavily on faded prints of the building you can see out of the window – all the same, Helen’s is a delightful joint and it has a home in my heart. One year, for a change, I stayed at the Mount Juliet up the road. Very elegant, but not the same as Helen’s, despite the undoubted bonus of not having to share a room with a wicketkeeper suffering from obstructive sleep apnea 

Best of all, Helen herself wouldn’t give a stuff whether I big her up on social media or not.

Helen, taking her imminent internet celebrity calmly

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‘Welcome to Paradise, Mr Mark’

You’ll (or rather, I’ll) hear this in beach resorts everywhere in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and, increasingly, the South China Sea. You know it’s coming as surely as you know that someone is going to hang a limp garland of flowers around your neck, give you a sweet non-alcoholic cocktail and make you sit down in a rattan armchair and fill in forms when all you want to do is get to your room and take your socks off.

I can get seriously pompous about the use of the word ‘Paradise’ (and did, here). In Middle East and Mediterranean religions and cultures, Paradise was always gardens and hills, streams and coolness. Thanks to Rousseau, Robinson Crusoe and long-haul jet-powered flights, Paradise is now an empty beach, a few palm trees and maybe a wooden causeway. These images all look pretty dull and desolate to me and whenever I’ve found myself in such a place I’m bored to tears within 10 minutes. 

But okay, twist my arm: if I had to succumb to one of those ‘paradise’ resorts, it'd probably be Jumby Bay off Antigua or Carlisle Bay on it. The Oberoi in Mauritius (‘Paradise on sunset shores’) is very nice as is the Banyan Tree Lăng Cô in Vietnam. The first tropical resort I visited was, as it is for many people, on honeymoon; and so I still have a soft spot for the Taj Holiday Village in Goa. But when I went back a decade later, the dirt roads and shacks selling beer and sarongs had turned into a modern tourist metropolis.   

If it has to be a beach place, let’s have some design pizazz and a big, open, empty stretch of sand anyone can use – and a funky town nearby. There is nowhere better than Halcyon House, at Cabarita Bay near Byron Bay in New South Wales. And even there, after a day on the beach, I was ready to head inland to the magical Tweed Valley.

Halcyon House and Cabarita Bay: an Eden with attitude

Paradise is in the hills or up a mountain as far as I’m concerned, in my little village of Comares in southern Spain – maybe the Molino do los Abuelos is open? – in the Aristi in Zagoria, Greece, in the Como Uma Paro in Bhutan or Mashpi Lodge in the Ecuador cloud forest. 

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‘Mark, we are in the business of selling sleep’

I’ve heard this a few times, often from the GMs of seriously expensive hotels. And I always think £500+ a night is a lot for some reliable shut-eye. Whisky and pills are a lot cheaper. So is the new generation of funky low-cost, no-star hotels like Citizen M and Z hotels. If all you need is a good mattress, crisp sheets and a powerful shower, these places do that just fine with the added bonus of some urban hip in the public areas and neighbourhoods.

As you venture higher up the star rating, you should expect a lot more than a good sleep - which you should nevertheless insist upon as your fundamental right, however keen they are to put you next to the lift, above the kitchens or in the midst of a hen party. 

No, these places need to sell fantasy, adventure and fabulousness. I get the value of a really well-run, discreetly-designed upmarket business hotel. The Park Hyatt in Zurich and the InterContinental at Singapore’s Robertson Quay come to mind (though the latter’s claim to be ‘your preferred luxury address’ strays perilously close to ‘welcome to your home’ territory).

In these hotels, you want to feel you’re close to the thick of things, but slightly annexed and removed, as if you live in an embassy. But for leisure trips - lay it on thick: mind- boggling art and food, sumptuous decor, sparkling lobbies where everyone feels like a celebrity and some actually are.

The Park Hyatt, Zurich: stylish, Swiss and not silly

London’s great traditional hotels always had that (The Ritz less so these days, sad to say). But I really like what The Corinthia did when they got to the party. And I applaud the new campaign from Fairmont. Fantasy, adventure and wowiness. That’s a hotel stay. 

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More about hotels and hotel trends

Best hotels for enforced quarantine

I wrote a big history of London hotels for BA High Life, but like all the articles in that magazine’s distinguished 50-year history, and hence the work of much finer writers, it is no longer accessible to public view. If anyone’s interested, I’ll dig up the Word version. But my review of post-handover Hong Kong hotels survives (or part one does).  

And while we are looking at hospitality history, here’s a piece on how the boutique hotel came about. And the Affordable Luxury for the People revolution.

This goes back a bit, and you need FT access, but it’s quite a period piece: that moment in the Noughties when the British country house hotel got majorly reinvented. I’d go on to review several dozen of them for the FT over the next couple of years. 

And the rise of the super suite.

All geared up

My fellow travel hacks will enjoy this question: best-ever hotel free gift? Not including the rooms and the suites, of course – it costs them nothing to let a journo stay. I mean gear.

For ages, I’d have chosen the light nylon Mandarin Oriental holdall that went everywhere with me . But it has to be the Jumby Bay baseball cap.

Cap fantastic: doing its stuff in Madeira

This is simply the lightest, most effective hat I’ve ever owned; and that includes some I've spent major money on in golf pro shops. It’s a bit frayed these days, but still keeps at bay the intense wind and sun of the Scottish Borders. I hope they still produce them. I might need to go back to Antigua just to find out.

And finally...some very wise and perceptive royal words 

From an interview Prince Andrew gave to Business Life magazine in the days when he was still acceptable.

When I travel I often stay in hotels. I find they’re very geared up to the needs of guests. 

The Duke of York: I always find that if you want to go to sleep, a bed is very useful