Where is the best hotel in the world? Fay Sweet locates six of her favourites while travel experts give their low-down on the hotel scene
I have no problem nominating the worst hotel of my life. It might have been the scummy backpacker hotels of Cairo where ten people shared one basin and crunching on weevils in your bread was the norm, or the hut on stilts in northern Thailand where I couldn’t sleep due to hard floorboards and the night-long thunder of livestock underneath, or perhaps the frosty Scottish guest house where I was told to take a walk before tea and refused sugar on my porridge.
But it wasn’t. Worse by far was the State Hotel in Weinegerode in former East Germany. Set on the edge of town, the hotel was approached over two sets of unfenced railway tracks, and along a pot-holed driveway with craters that would have gobbled a Trabant whole. The overflow pipes on the front of the Sixties grey concrete slab building had done little but overflow, and had left a smear of green slime down all ten storeys. I carted my bags up six floors to my room – no sign of a porter and an electrical fault with the lift. The furnishing consisted of a single bed with a lime-green bedspread, a brown table, a lamp with a torn orange shade and brown linoleum flooring – and the shower was fixed high on the wall above the loo – both of which dripped.
The hotel’s one telephone sat on the reception desk. For supper I was to meet the tourism representative Herr Dresser (no kidding). I wait- ed for him in reception, an ashtray of a place, filthy nicotine brown and fag-burned. He eventually turned up in knitted mustard-coloured trousers and the same half dozen words in English that I had in German. Our supper – grilled pork chops topped with half a tinned peach, eaten under a fluorescent strip light – was excruciatingly embarrassing for both of us.
I feel disloyal describing the State Hotel so cruelly. Almost everyone I met in Weinegerode was charming and hospitable. The medieval town was an extraordinary example of the preservative effects of the Communist time-bubble, but – oh dear – that hotel. The problems were manifold: the depressing decor, of course, but more than that it was the totally disinterested staff, lack of amenities – in particular, no phone – the terrible food and the hotel’s location far from the town centre.
Much harder than choosing the worst hotel is shortlisting the best. We all like different hotels at certain times for specific reasons. The backpacker hovels in Egypt were fine at 5 a night because you only stayed one night and there was always a stall round the corner selling decent bread and coffee. The Thai hut was a tolerable adventure, and the dour Scots at least provided a feather-soft bed.
Hoteliers constantly strive to broaden their appeal – The Mountcalm in London, for example, is promoting its new low-allergy room, and the renovated Radisson SAS Portman Hotel, also in London, offers rooms in different decorative styles – Classic, Scandinavian, Oriental and British. But the very best hotels emerge as a happy mixture of efficient service, excellent food and wine, comfortable rooms, phones that work, a good location and, if you’re really spoilt, a great pool. Quite unable to select just one, here is my choice of six of the best…
Al Bustan Palace Hotel, Muscat, Oman
One of the world’s most extraordinary hotel buildings – vast, imposing, lavish – it was built to host the 1985 Arab Co-operation Council Summit. It has 80ha of private beach sheltered by a stunning mountain backdrop, a ballroom for 800 people, countless reception rooms and Oman’s best concert hall, seating more than 600 people. Built in true Omani style with Arabic decoration and acres of marble, this is glitzy with a capital G.
It’s even mentioned in Alan Clark’s Diaries: “With all my traveller’s experience, I still think this is the best hotel in the world, with its incredible hall, like the new mosque in Islamabad, and a thousand minions to bring room service at any time of the day or night. There is a French restaurant, and an Italian restaurant, and an Arabic restaurant, and always the sound of wavelets caressing the soft sand of the beach.” My visit included a massive outdoor banquet where 200 of us decamped to a garden full of striped tents to eat delicious Omani food and be serenaded by musicians.
Cour des Loges, Lyon, France
An utterly different experience from the Al Bustan. The understated facade in one of the narrow streets of Lyon could easily be missed, but walk along the corridor and the place opens to a small glazed atrium – an atrium that really works. The staff are charming and happy to talk food and restaurants for as long as you like. The hotel serves breakfast only, but staff are conversant with Lyon’s famous restaurants and will make reservations for you. My room was a suite, which had a six-foot log burning in the grate. The bathroom, with a massive sunken jacuzzi, sported matching stainless steel washstands with incredibly annoying wobbly handles, by Philippe Starck. Best of all, a clarinet quartet, promoting the manufacturer of their instruments, played in the atrium on Sunday morning.
Malmaison, Glasgow, Scotland
I enjoyed this much more than Ken McCulloch’s more splendid 1 Devonshire Gardens, also in Glasgow. The latter, with its deep, dark, formal town house style, was rather too self-conscious to be my cup of tea. Malmaison, however, was just perfect. The rooms were simple – plain walls and plain bed linen, with a faultless basement brasserie. And all tucked inside a converted Grecian Episcopalian church right in the heart of Glasgow.
Cheating a little, I’d also like to squeeze in a mention for The Victoria Hotel, Bradford. Opened by Jonathan Wixs, also owner of the excellent 42 The Calls, in Leeds, this former railway hotel has been born again and now boasts extremely comfortable, modern-style rooms and is well-priced. The restaurant is a little bit too fussy, but as soon as the food calms down it will be great.
The Dolphin, Disney World, Florida, US
Was architect Michael Graves taking the Mickey when he presented his drawings of The Dolphin before the Disney committee? This monumental turquoise- and terracotta-coloured monster must be seen to be believed. I found it gloriously mad. The exterior sports plaster dolphins spouting water, and the interior is equally over the top – there’s a vast tented lobby with a massive, multi-tiered fountain, generous rooms, and an extraordinary cafÃ© and restaurant with unbelievably slick, smiley staff. It was like stepping into a cartoon – real kids’ stuff for grown-ups.
Royal Bay Resort, Pangkor Laut island, Malaysia
This is the ultimate romantic hideaway hotel. The Resort Bay is built on stilts which go out into the sea in the style of a traditional Malay village. It is a magical place with an unspoilt forest and perfect beaches – Emerald Bay to the west was recently voted one of the best 100 beaches in the world – and it has all the comforts, services and sporting facilities you’d associate with the best hotels.
Necker Island, British Virgin Islands
For location, service and exquisite food, I’ve never seen anything to beat Richard Branson’s Necker Island. It’s a sort of private hotel with boatman, chef and tons of staff at your service. If money were no object, this is undoubtedly the hotel to beat all hotels.
The design isn’t particularly stunning – the main building is a Balinese-style log mansion paved with York stone (imported, of course, from York), but it’s extremely luxurious, with huge comfy sofas and a couple of massive dining tables for you and your party. The island sleeps around 22 people.
The best touches for me were the outdoor bathrooms and the pool set into the edge of the hillside garden.
What the travel writers say…
Paddy Burt, hotels reviewer of The Daily Telegraph
“Design matters a great deal to me, but no matter how nicely designed an hotel might be, if the proprietor is not welcoming, all design efforts go down the chute.
“It is difficult to distil what makes the best hotel – but it is the mixture of housekeeping, service, food, design and lighting. I’ve stayed at the grandest French chateaux and found them chilly with sloppy housekeeping, while the most basic small French hotels are a delight.
“The best of late are all in the UK and include the Blackaller Hotel, North Bovey, Devon, which is in a converted seventeenth century wool mill. Bedrooms are very plain but they are made up for by the cosy bar and great food.
“Very few modern hotels make the grade, but for a modern style I’d choose 42 The Calls, Leeds, owned and run by Jonathan Wixs. In a converted warehouse, the inside has black walls and modern furniture. It also has an excellent restaurant, on which there seems to be a much greater emphasis now. Another hotel that springs to mind is Belle Epoque Brasserie in Knutsford, Cheshire, which has an extravagantly designed, excellent restaurant. This must be a reflection of our growing interest in food.
“A large number of readers’ letters are from single people angry at having to pay single supplements – I can understand their annoyance, but I can also sympathise with hoteliers on that one. Heating often comes up too – hotels can switch off their boilers too early. Another gripe is about untrained staff – if an hotel is running a smart restaurant and charging high prices it must have staff to match. And finally, clocks – I hate it when there is no clock in the room.”
Mike Toynbee, editor of Executive Travel
“A few years ago the big hotels tried to be all things to all people, which inevitably led to them all having the same bland look. More recently, we have made moves away from the blandness and towards a segmentation of the market; for example, many of the chains have copied the airlines by introducing a business class. For a premium of between 10 and 15 per cent there is a fast-stream check-in and check-out service, entire floors cater for the executive, and larger rooms have a big desk and plug-in fax.
“For the executive traveller the pool and health suite have now become standard – even though no one ever seems to use them. On a recent trip to T’ai pei, Taiwan, I swam with one other person in the pool that took up almost the entire 40th floor.
“The latest ideas are by Marriott and Westin. Marriott has launched the Room that Works in the Philadelphia Marriott. Developed with AT&T and Steelcase, it features a large console table with power outlets, a modem jack and an ergonomically designed chair. And from Westin is Room 2000 – still on the drawing board – but aiming to provide executives with a desk and communications technology, a fitness area and disappearing beds to make way for meetings.
“As a general guide, I think the executive wants good food. Deluxe hotels have really been trying hard to keep custom by offering a whole range of restaurants, and excellent service – they also like to be greeted warmly and well looked after. The success always boils down to having a good manager.
“My own favourites include, for business, the 30-year-old Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong – a stunning place with outstanding service in a league of its own. For leisure, I’d choose the Oberoi in Bali, which is in a fabulous location. The last time I stayed there I had a private villa in the grounds with its pool and lily pond, brilliant service and excellent food.
“Readers are fairly vocal about likes and dislikes – and recently I’ve noticed more and more comments about unwelcome noise – not just inconsiderate neighbours, but things like the sound of air conditioning and lifts. I experienced this recently in T’ai pei where I was very aware of the noise of the lift mechanism.”
Susan Marling, travel editor of Good Housekeeping
“I think that it’s not generally acknowledged that what tourists want is hotels which stir the imagination. How else can we account for the explosion of enthusiasm for the English country house hotel other than to remember that the trend began when we were all staying in watching Brideshead Revisited on telly? What some hotels can provide is a simulation, a sense of what it must be like to be an invited, rather than a paying guest, just arrived for a weekend.
“Hoteliers conspire to help this illusion by removing the reception desk, decorating rooms in different and highly personal styles, and providing country pursuits where guests may dress in suitably squirearchical fashion. The ultimate expression of this can be found at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire – which is a stately home run as an hotel.
“The fantasy element is not limited to England either – Scots Baronial is another well-loved backdrop for the hotel business north of the border.
“In Lebanon recently I looked in at the Palmyra Hotel, which is opposite the spectacular ruins at Ba’albek. The hotel was dark and a bit dusty, but had beautiful casement windows, kilims at the doorways and an old man making cardamom coffee over a small charcoal brazier in the hall. It was like a scene from a David Roberts picture. We were captivated. There, among the ugly blocks for which the Middle East is sadly notorious, was a small slice of old Arabia. Under these circumstances no one asks why there’s no hairdrier in the bathrooms.
“Even in modern hotels the imagination is at work. If the place is ultra-modern, then that too is a style, a game almost, that people want to play to the full. How many times have we descended upon our hotel room and wandered around like children pushing buttons and pulling cords to see just what they do?
“As for letters from readers, they rarely mention hotels – more often I get asked what sort of clothes they should pack. I always say you can’t go wrong with navy.”