What do you look for in a hotel? Do you have any boxes that always need ticking?
It might seem obvious, but true hospitality. For me that means being shown to my room and not handed a key card at reception; treating me as an individual, not a number. I hate a turndown service that puts a weather card on my pillow with a chocolate and ignores the glasses that need to be cleared away or the wet towels that need to be changed. Hotels are a people’s business, and that is where the smaller hotels get it right by looking not at a rule book but at the person standing in front of them. Having said that, the giant Four Seasons chain still has the best service out there.
What have been some of your most memorable stays recently?
People make your stay memorable. I arrived at the Goring Hotel in London not long ago, exhausted after a trip, and one of the managers took one look at me and said, “I am sending up a glass of wine” – a small gesture, but it makes you feel looked after. The new Amanemu in rural Japan stands out for its utter tranquillity. Sitting in a hot onsen outside their beautiful spa, under a night sky lit by a full moon and a multitude of stars, in complete silence, was unforgettable. And Amansara in Siem Reap has something special about it – it’s hard to pinpoint, but if I close my eyes, it’s my go-to comfort place.
Are there any experiences that still make you cringe or laugh out loud at how bad they were?
A long time ago, I was staying with my family at the Çırağan Palace in Istanbul, on holiday. When we returned from dinner, the reception couldn’t find our key, so they let us in with the master key and said they would look again in the morning. At some early hour of the morning, a rather passionate couple opened our door and fell in giggling. My husband and small son slept on while I challenged the invaders, who said they had been given their key and told this was their room. Luckily, they left without a fight, but I had just got back to sleep when reception rang to apologise. I felt it could have waited.
How are the best hotels approaching food these days?
I don’t think there is one particular hard-and-fast rule, as the location of a hotel often dictates its approach to food. But hotels are definitely divided between a local approach and a celebrity one. The Mandarin Oriental chain delivers a culinary quality that is unique in the hotel industry, with often two or three fine dining, Michelin-starred experiences under one roof. Its Tokyo location, for example, is astonishing in its range of gastronomic experiences and as such is very in tune with the city.
For Cheval Blanc too, food is paramount, and even in the far-flung Maldives they seamlessly deliver an authentic, gastronomic taste of Italy or France or Japan. Other hotels opt for a local, understated menu – grown-up comfort food – or decide, like The Temple House in Chengdu, to create the best Italian in the city rather than compete with the many excellent Sichuan restaurants.
If a hotel has a spa, what makes it stand out to you?
Most important are the therapists, and one has to trust the quality of the hotel to invest in excellent staff. So, from that point of view, it is important to know if the spa is outsourced or owned by the hotel. Secondly, the products – there should be more than one brand, ideally an organic line and a result-driven, more scientific one. I also love to experience whatever is local. The Mandarin Oriental in Taipei has a treatment at their spa called Formosa (after the original name of Taiwan) in which they draw on all the island’s ingredients, polishing your skin with sea pearls blended with salt, rehydrating it with white mud, using a butterfly (they are famous for their butterflies) massage technique and scraping, a Taiwanese facial therapy, before offering you a cup of their oolong tea. I love that total immersion.
What are your top What Not to Dos for hotels?
I know it’s a sad necessity, but I hate when the first words I’m greeted with are, “Can I have your credit card please?” I find it an affront to assume I will drain the minibar dry and leave in the dead of night. And I think there can never be too much emphasis placed on having the right friendly porter on the door. When I’m greeted by an efficient, smiling presence who removes all my luggage before I’ve taken two steps out of the taxi, my heart soars.
What’s the fate of the star system, now that some hotels are eschewing it entirely?
I think it has become irrelevant. Brand image is much more powerful than how many stars a place might have, and true hospitality has nothing to do with having that fifth star because you have a lift, swimming pool et cetera.
What role do you think social media plays in how hotels operate?
I don’t think it changes how hotels operate on a daily basis, but obviously it is a vital marketing tool that every hotel is chasing. The visually led Instagram puts hotels in front of people and reaches a far wider audience than many an editorial can do. And whereas a website informs, Instagram tempts.
How do you feel about TripAdvisor?
I hate it, and I never look at it. I simply cannot understand why someone would trust a review by someone they don’t know. How can they know whether or not they are like-minded people? The only positive is that it’s definitely made hotels much more careful about how they treat their guests, but a good hotel doesn’t need the threat of TripAdvisor to know how to look after its guests.
What hotels are you dying to visit?
Six Senses in Bhutan and Six Senses in Fiji, the new Swire House in Shanghai, The Silo in Cape Town, on a continent I don’t know at all, and Alila in Cambodia, a chain that seems to be doing all the right things but which I’ve never stayed in.
If you could stay in only one hotel for the rest of your life, what would it be and why? (Possibly an impossible question!)
Yes, impossible! I think it would depend on the seasons as much as anything, and my need to constantly keep up with evolving styles, but if time froze right now, Barnsley House in the Cotswolds is up there in terms of home comforts. And for abroad, Amankila in Bali is a gem – over 20 years old and still up there with the good and great. But my absolute first love is the Cipriani in Venice. Spoiling in the extreme, it comes with memories of being there with my parents as a child and more recently of taking my own children there, so I have an enormous emotional attachment to it. And the icing on the cake is the wondrous city of Venice glinting across the water for you to feast your eyes on. Impossible to get bored.