Monday, 8 May 2017

Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby

Our friend "the purple hotel" in Newcastle

I don't get to stay in amazing hotels. I get to stay in Premier Inns. They're fine - more than fine, in fact - but they don't tend to come with a rooftop infinity pool. And you don't get much foraging for wild partridgeberries outside a Table Table. But that's OK. Needs must. Sometimes, however, it's fun to see how the other half (or much tinier fraction than that) live.

Giles Coren and Monica Galetti are off to explore some of the world's more unusual hotels. Because they work for the BBC, they don't just get to gloat at us from a sunlounger, they're expected to pitch in to cover the cost of their board and lodging. No problem for Monica, deputy chef to Michel Roux Jr and capable of doing a full Haka of facial expressions when overseeing a skills test on Masterchef. But Giles has no apparent talent for anything, apart from winding people up. I would just like to extend a sympathetic hand to his sister Victoria, for managing to do rather well in life despite having such an annoying tit for a brother.

Giles can't take a single task seriously. Expertly feng shui interiors? He deliberately moves objects off diagonals. Help with the laundry cart? He hitches a ride on the back of it. Help with the valet parking? He nearly crashes a Ferrari like a boy racer in a multistorey. (And a valet parking job is a real privilege, since it costs 55,000 dollars to own a car in Singapore, which none of the staff can afford.) And then Giles is useless when he's not even trying. Check in? He can't find the reception desks, he says, though they are clearly in shot behind him. Deliver valets back to reception? He can't work his walkie talkie at the same time as driving a golf buggy. Iron the pool towels? He can't insert them into the machine. But he's full of smart alec comments about it all, as though it's all terribly beneath him. He also wants his mum to take in his trousers for him. Giles, it seems (and this becomes even more apparent in subsequent episodes), is quite the male chauvinist. Monica, on the other hand, soon gets stuck in, rolling up dim sum and enthusing about the chocolate room and the uniform delivery system. Take note, Michel, for she will soon be demanding her chef's whites be sent by conveyor belt direct to her wardrobe.

Their first hotel is the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, which opened in 2010. It consists of three towers with what looks like a giant surfboard perched on top of them. The cathedral-sized lobby is full of Antony Gormleys. The suites have their own karaoke rooms. It's a far cry from Raffles.

The surfboard is actually a rooftop garden and swimming pool, whose water somehow manages to not tip out 55 storeys on to the streets below whenever someone dives in. It's all to do with 500 finely balanced jacks, the architectural plans tell us. In reality, the pool is used as one permanent giant selfie shot, and while the programme is quite to give us lots of hotel statistics (cost to build, room rates, uniform numbers, casino wins, towels laundered, kilos of cauliflower consumed), it doesn't mention how many iPhones get dropped and drowned in its waters. But I'm reckoning on several hundred a year.

The hotel didn't exist when we went to Singapore en route to New Zealand in 2006, not that it would have been within our budget. Our visit there is a bit of a jetlagged blur of sweaty heat, temples and office blocks, colonial mansions and cocktails, expensive shopping malls and wonderful street food, and a cable car and a dolphin show on Sentosa Island. I remember getting off our flight from London and feeling like I'd been punched into a bowl of cloying soup. The humidity left you limp.

Everything was terribly clean and ordered.  If this was Asia, it felt like a terribly sanitised version of it. The Disneyland edition. There were a lot of rules about how to behave on the MRT. No chewing gum, no flammable liquids, no durians. (For more on durians, see Dara O'Briain and Ed Byrne on the Road to Mandalay, broadcast last night.) I don't remember much about our hotel (a Swissotel overlooking Boat Quay) other than the air conditioned bliss of its bedroom. I remember Raffles more, where we called in for the obligatory sling, if only because the floor of the bar was covered in discarded monkey nut shells. Very crunchy.

The rest of it was a strange mix of technology meeting tradition, and distinct cultures and religions (Muslim, Hindu, Chinese, Buddhist), all in a tiny (and literal) melting pot. We spotted the same Victorian floor tiles from our flat in Crouch End used in the Thian Hock Keng temple, a touch of the colonial British that Dara O'Briain also noticed in Penang last night:

We didn't have nearly enough time to explore in our brief sojourn before it was time to catch our onward flight to Auckland. We had even less time in Singapore on our return leg, a mere six hours in orchid-filled Changi airport, which also has a swimming pool. We used the time purely to grab some sleep in the airport hotel, where you can rent a room by the dodgy-sounding hour. It was a blissful interruption - complete with shower - to 29 hours of flying in economy. But even further removed from anything the Marina Bay Sands has to offer. Unless you can rent a sunbed by the infinity pool without paying the extortionate overnight rate.

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