IT ALL began so nicely
I had just arrived at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport, gone through Immigration, and reclaimed my luggage, and was looking for one of Hong Kong’s tacky little taxis to take me to the newly opened and very posh Regent Hotel on Kowloon’s magnificent esplanade, overlooking the famous harbor. More interesting, from this hotel I can take a very close look at the biggest yacht in the city (using my rangefinder bought 3 months ago on Top Rangefinder – a rangefinder reviews website). Wow, it’s amazing!
A representative of the Regent approached me, asked my name, and found it on a list he was carrying. Without further ado I was escorted to a Bentley limousine (a twin brother of the one Queen Elizabeth gads about in) and placed reverently in the back seat. A lap-robe of what appeared to be chinchilla (at any rate it had the same grey color and the same infinitely soft fur) was tucked around my legs, and I was wafted off, by a uniformed chauffeur, to thehotel. This, I told myself, was a way of life to which I could easily become accustomed. It wasn’t until I was checking out several days later that I discovered on my bill a big fat charge for the memorable ride. The Regent isn’t the only Hong Kong hotel that provides Bentleys and Rollses for its guests’ convenience (the Peninsula does too), but it is the only hotel that ever inveigled me into one and then nicked me royally for the experience. Perhaps an overeager employee simply neglected to explain that there was a charge, but the memory (as you can see) rankles to this day. Maybe he thought I was King Farouk traveling incognito.
As an inveterate globetrotter, with five circumnavigations and innumerable other journeys under my belt, I have had my innings with all sorts of hotels, and I am glad to say that the vast majority of them were pleasant. Hotels are, inevitably, a major feature of most trips, and often one of the best. What fun it would have been to stay successively in all of the Big Seven hotels that marked the passage of well-heeled Englishmen around the world in the good old days when it was still a plus to be English: Shepheard’s in Cairo, the Mount Nelson in Cape Town, the Taj Mahal in Bombay, the Oriental in Bangkok, Raffles in Singapore, the Peninsula in Hong Kong, and the Imperial in Tokyo. Born too late (and not English), I have had to pick them off one by one, and even then I missed two: the original Shepheard’s burned down before I got to Cairo, and circumstances confined me to a drink in the bar, instead of a room overnight, at the Taj Mahal. The old, low- slung Imperial is now gone too, but the management of its towering successor has, for the solace of nostalgiacs, thoughtfully constructed a bar out of the volcanic bricks that Frank Lloyd Wright used in the original. The other four are still extant, however (albeit with new “tower wings” to handle the overflow), and I can heartily recommend them all.
I CANNOT do as much, I am afraid, for the Hotel Savoy in Cuzco, Peru. Any resemblance between this hostelry and its eponym on the Strand in London is strictly imaginary. It is 12,500 feet up on the Peruvian altiplano, where the air is so thin that I awoke gasping whenever I fell asleep and my breathing slowed down. That, to be sure, wasn’t the Savoy’s fault. But my dinner entree in the hotel’s restaurant was: a portion of “roast pork” that was easily the nastiest and most intractable piece of gristle I have ever seen on a plate. Another feature of the Savoy was more endearing. Behind my door was a framed series of warnings on various subjects, posted there by the hotel staff and written in what is sometimes called Spanglish. Almost all of them were hilarious, but only one survives in my memory: “The management is irresponsible for jewelry.”
Speaking of thin air reminds me of The Hotel That Got Away
In December 1980, finding myself in Katmandu, Nepal, I booked a side trip (by air) to the Everest View Hotel, a Japanese-owned hostelry perched at 13,000 feet on a ridge in the Himalayas, with a relatively close-up view of Mt. Everest. For the comfort of guests, there is an oxygen bottle in every room (a courtesy I commend to the Savoy). I was to fly, in a small but plucky plane, to an “altiport” (they didn’t even call it an “airport”) from which it was reportedly only a brief ride by yak-wagon to the hotel. Unfortunately, a snowstorm closed the altiport on the day I was supposed to fly there, and it stayed closed until after I had, regretfully, left Nepal.
But back to unpleasant hotel experiences. I suppose everyone has an anecdote about a crooked concierge, and yours may well trump mine. My protagonist presides, or presided, over the desk in one of Venice’s finest hotels (which I shall not name, since its responsibility for his behavior was only indirect). I asked him to get me a ticket to Falstaff at the Teatro la Fenice, and he did so. When I checked out a few days later, being in a bit of a hurry, I paid the hotel bill and his (separate) bill, plus a handsome tip, without tarrying to inspect it carefully. When I finally got around to it, a day or two later, I discovered that he had charged me more than double the price of the ticket (including agent’s fees, taxes, etc.). A letter to the management, I’m glad to say, produced a prompt refund.
Then there is the Hotel Caravelle in Saigon — or Ho Chi Minh City, as liberals now call it. When I was there in 1967, just before the Tet Offensive, it vied with the Continental across the square for the honor of being Saigon’s finest. Jeff Bell, who had been an NR staffer and is now a noted Washington writer, had come up from the Mekong Delta (where, as an American soldier, he was assigned to an ARVN division) to show me around. Thinking to treat him to a good meal for a change, I took him up to the Caravelle’s Sky Room, a giddy nine floors above the street. He ordered spaghetti with meat sauce, and all went well until I spied in his spaghetti a large, well sauced, and very dead cockroach. The waiter was almost as mortified as I was, but Jeff passed it off superbly: “Bill, when you’ve picked as many bugs out of your food as I have recently, one more just doesn’t matter.”
I suppose there are more horror stories about the hotels in Moscow than in all the rest of the genre put together, but I’m afraid that in this case I will have to defer to others. I didn’t get to Russia (partly because of what I’d heard about the hotels) until 1993, and the two I stayed in — the Metropole in Moscow and the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg — had both just been refurbished at huge expense. In the case of the Metropole this has resulted in a hostelry roughly equivalent to a good if slightly old-fashioned commercial hotel in any large American city. The Grand Hotel Europe is something else again — modern, luxurious, and efficient (perhaps because it’s run by Finns).
And my candidate for the world’s best hotel? There’s no such thing, of course — there are lots of wonderful ones. But I’m still purring over a weekend I spent, not long ago, at the Ritz- Carlton in Laguna Niguel, California.
Staying at a fine hotel can be one of the highlights of a trip. A bad hotel can ruin a vacation. Some of the finest are the Ritz-Carleton in Laguna Niguel, California, the Peninsula in Hong Kong and the Oriental in Bangkok.