Sunday Mail - Travel/Escape
Stars in their eyes
How do hotels make it to next-level? Try fleets of extravagant cars and hand-picked eiderdown
For those of us who love hotels, it’s thrilling to think Australia now has its very own six-star property, in the form of the harbourfront skyscraper Crown Sydney. Until now, five stars has been the limit of hotel luxury here. Six stars suggests levels of decadence that stir my wildest imaginings. I’m thinking chocolate fountains and karaoke machines in every room. Dedicated sleep butlers to tuck guests in at night. Wardrobe consultants to decide our daily outfits. Perhaps a Botox bar? Would that be too much?
It’s impossible to know for sure what’s in store at a six-star property because the rating doesn’t officially exist. There’s not even a globally accepted five-star hotel ranking, or a governing body in charge of dispensing stars.
Depending on the country, hotel rankings are most often decided by motoring organisations, tourism bodies, local governments or industry associations. By general consensus, five-star hotels must offer luxurious accommodation, a pool and fitness/spa, 24-hour room service and reception, concierge, fine restaurant and bar and high staff-to-guest ratio. Beyond that, there’s plenty of room for interpretation.
The first to jump the five-star bar was the
Burj Al Arab in Dubai, which a gushing British journalist declared deserved “seven stars” when it opened in 1999.
You can see her point. Few other hotels have a helipad, an aquarium restaurant or a fleet of Rolls-Royce Phantoms at their disposal. Not to mention the acres of gold leaf and Swarovski crystals and quilted bedding “comprising feathers hand-picked from abandoned eider duck nests in Iceland”.
I visited the sail-shaped Burj in the early
2000s and, despite its impressive and, yes, iconic exterior, it’s one of the ugliest hotels I’ve set foot in. Inside it’s like a kaleidoscope exploded – not in a delightful way but in a Day-Glo, headachy way. But what would I know? The Dubai landmark has almost a million Instagram followers.
Given journalists are now in charge of elite hotel rankings, I’d like to nominate a few of my own. As a Valentine’s Day bonus, they’re all places of great romance and perfect for some future February 14 when we can once again indulge our love of travel – and of travelling in love, which is surely one of life’s greatest gifts.
In Switzerland, the venerable Baur au Lac has reigned beside Lake Zurich since 1844.
It’s a wonderful address of 119 rooms and suites overlooking 19th-century parklands to the lake and the Alps beyond. It offers guests Michelin-starred dining, a formidable wine cellar and two in-house florists who arrange a thousand blooms every day.
But it’s the service that got me. Everyone from the concierge to the maid was funny and clever and felt more like dream hosts than hotel employees. Based on staff alone, the Baur au Lac’s easily a six-star stay (bauraulac.ch).
In France, hotels that transcend mere five-star status are designated “palaces”. All are legends in their own right, but my favourite is Le Bristol in Paris. Despite being one of only two palace hotels I’ve slept in, I refuse to believe any of the others could better my two balconies looking across to the Eiffel Tower, the rooftop pool with views to
Sacré-Coeur or the Rue du Faubourg SaintHonoré address, just down the road from the presidential palace(oetkercollection.com). Definitely six-star material.
In Bangkok, a city brimming with stunning places to stay, the standout for me is the Mandarin Oriental, the Thai capital’s first hotel and – fresh from a US$100 million makeover – its most magnificent, despite being 145 years old.
Among its myriad highlights: the 11 restaurants and bars, all memorable; the
18-room spa set in lush surrounds on the far bank of the river; and the lavish original suites where writers John Steinbeck and
Graham Greene once idled. I give it 6.5 stars; the extra half ’s for the personalised notepaper
A HIT FOR SIX
Australia’s next “six-star” hotel is set to debut in South
Australia’s Barossa Valley. Pending approvals, construction of the 12-storey Hotel Oscar Seppeltsfield will start this year and its 70 rooms, day spa and rooftop bar will be unveiled in 2022. Part of the historic Seppeltsfield winery, Oscar will join the fabulous Fino restaurant, makers’ studios and a phenomenal cellar of vintage ports dating to 1878. Seppeltsfield owner Warren Randall hopes the hotel will propel his winery into the ranks of the world’s top vineyards. “We wanted to create a national icon for South Australia – a Sydney Opera House for the Barossa.” embossed with guests’ names in gold letters (mandarinoriental.com).
Likewise I’d award an extra star for the 80-plus peacocks that decorate the grounds of the Taj Falaknuma Palace hotel in south India (tajhotels.com) and set its tone of flamboyant extravagance.
Visitors enter beneath a gatehouse archway to flutes of Champagne and golden carriages that transport them to the palace proper, where staff shower newcomers with rose petals as they climb the grand entry staircase.
Should I award extra stars for 101-seat dining tables? For flautists at breakfast?
For jasmine-scented Renaissance foyers? For the chorus of calls to prayer rising up from the city to the marbled terrace of Falaknuma’s
Gol Bungalow as guests gather for dinner beneath a crescent moon? There aren’t enough stars in the sky to capture something like that.
As February 14 rolls around, it’s time to celebrate luuurve in all its glory. It’s also time for hotels around the country to dust off the rose petals they vacuumed up last year, chill that budget sparkling wine they scored in bulk, break out more tealights than a Bachelor date and slug us $350 for the romance package. With late check-out the next day because of the unavoidable subtext that you’ll be getting it on like bunnies being drip-fed Viagra from the time the do-not-disturb sign goes on the door. Yeah, right.
Financial hikes aside, I’m not saying it’s entirely contrived. Like many Aussie blokes, I sometimes need a reminder to make my significant other feel special, acknowledged and, yes, desired. Ewww. At least beyond the regular foreplay pattern of “You still awake?”
What I’m saying is that the experience can feel a touch naff, yet it also deserves recognition as the daily whirr of life can frequently get in the way.
Lemme put it this way: me and my partner have been together for 20 years and at this stage we’d rather have an exquisite degustation than a desultory rut. And in case you were wondering, our safe word is bloated.
We don’t have kids, but we do share the bed at home with two spoodles and at our age the only thing we really want to do in an unfamiliar kingsize covered in high-thread-count napery is lie diagonally. If we’re feeling especially racy, the aircon will be set to 20 and we’ll be covered in mini-bar pretzel dust. While holding hands, of course – it is Valentines Day after all – and laughing about how there’s not enough disinfectant on the planet to get us naked into that red corner spa.
This is not a condemnation of hotels and restaurants seeking to capitalise on a day when roses are more expensive than crypto. Lord knows they deserve some decent cash flow. Although a tip of the hat must go to disruptive chain Ovolo, which last year teamed with Porte-à-Vie for a goodie bag that contained lingerie and things that go buzz in the night. Beats a free breakfast buffet, no?
If you really want to make this a VD – perhaps we should work on that abbreviation – it’s up to us to properly personalise the experience. Here’s what I’ve learned over two decades of experience. First up, it’s not really about the more carnal aspects of romance. Put that on the backburner and make your partner smile. In other words, happy trumps horny.
Here’s a suggestion: instead of settling for whatever films the hotel is offering, take a laptop and re-create the first film you saw together via Netflix. See? Not that hard, right? Then get the concierge to sort you out with popcorn. Believe me, they’ve had way weirder requests. And arrange with the hotel to send up chilled custom-built Negronis instead of the “trying really hard to be like the fizzy wine from France” whose name we can’t use any more.
Here’s another tactic you might want to try. Most every couple has a song that symbolises the time when they got together. If the hotel has live music – many do for Valentine’s – put in a request for it to be played when you’re in the vicinity. Or even on a playlist during dinner. You’ll look like a 24-carat superhero and all without finding dried rose petals stuck to your various crevices the next day.