A Tour of the World's Grand Hotels

What makes a great hotel great? Architecture, history, service and, of course, staff. You can find out a lot about the world's great hotels online, but if you really want to know what makes a great hotel great you have to dig deeper to find their stories.

Photography by the authorsWhat makes a great hotel, um, great? Well, location of course by the proverbial times three; architecture; history; service and, absolutely, staff. In fact, it’s interesting to ask hotel managers, “What makes your hotel special -- excluding staff?” and watch them squirm because you’ve denied them the very response they wanted to give.

Simple things can make or break a hotel. A hotel manager in Italy once told us ruefully, “What use is a chocolate on the pillow if the plumbing doesn’t work?”

We’ve been lucky enough to stay in hotels where more than the plumbing works. In fact, the hotel sometimes became the story. You can find out a lot about the world’s great hotels from their advertising and their websites, but you have to dig deeper to find their stories. Their history may be the best part because who can afford their prices or how, these days, they pad charges with resort fees and WiFi bills, expenses that cheaper hotels seem to accept willingly. But the great old dames surely have had their adventures. You shared those events when you stayed under their roofs as would happen in the good old days when glossy magazines picked up expenses for travel writers.

The Ritz Hotel in Paris certainly took the cake for how it welcomed guests. You draw up to the curb and the doorman approaches immediately (and is as quickly replaced at his entrance station with another). He looks at you and greets you in English although you are driving a Peugeot 505, a French car. “Good afternoon, sir, may I see how many suitcases you have?” he asks.

You pop the trunk and get out of the car. He walks you and your wife to the entrance of The Ritz. It is before the days of cell phones and you do not see him use any walkie-talkie device. He passes you though the main door where a man in full morning dress is standing. He smiles and indicates you should step to your right. You do. The manager is walking towards you with your room key. He speaks: “Monsieur Anderson, what a pleasure to have you stay with us.” He turns to your wife and makes a short bow. “Madame” he smiles, “May I show you to your room.”

French savoir faire. He is cautious in his address; the lady may not be Mrs. Anderson!

Room 36 is attractive. Quilted and cosy but not large. The bathroom, however, is spacious and the bathtub enormous. Herein lies the tale. Cesar Ritz had the bathtubs replaced with much larger ones when the Prince of Wales, (a notorious womanizer even when, especially when, he became Edward VII of Great Britain) got stuck, literally, in the tub with two fair ladies.

Huka Lodge in New Zealand is, literally, a world apart. The Ritz is formal, famous -- and knows it. Huka Lodge, on the other hand, brings its understated style of luxury living in a typically low key fashion. We were there a month after its refined experience with British royalty. Queen Elizabeth II was making one of her rare visits to New Zealand, this time to open its parliament. She had asked for a suite at this elegant remote lodge to rest the weekend before the political meeting. She enjoyed the experience so much she told her staff to ask Huka if she could stay the following weekend, too. This was unprecedented. The lodge was ecstatic. The Queen arrived with her retinue and her famous Corgi dogs and afterwards told everyone how pleasant it was to stay at there.

Problem? How does a classy resort capitalize on this visit without being guilty of crass, bad-taste commercialism? There are standards, y’know. Solution? The lodge borrowed some Corgi dogs from surrounding owners, stood them around a silver bowl filled with milk and photographed them lapping it up happily. The ad appeared with the caption: “If it’s good enough for her dogs it should be good enough for you!” Everyone knew what breed of dogs the queen had and where she had stayed but the reminder was very effective and in ma’velous good taste.

The Grand Bretagne in Athens has another famous Brit in its legends: Winston Churchill. At the end of the Second World War Greece was in anarchy, a country that 25 centuries before had been the cradle of democracy. While refugees streamed into the city, the British army tried in vain to restore order. Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, announced he would go to Athens to help end the civil war which was tearing Greece apart -- even though he had previously denounced the Greek communists in Parliament as a “gang of bandits.”

He flew in to meet with Archbishop Damaskinos, the Greek leader, at the Grande Bretagne Hotel on Christmas day 1944. Amidst the din of communist warfare British army engineers crawled into sewers below the hotel to conduct a routine safety check and discovered three tons of dynamite below the hotel! They defused it. Seemingly Churchill was not popular with Stalin and his Greek communists.

We had stayed at the Grande Bretagne once before and were back in Athens to do some city photography for another magazine. We wanted some long lens shots of the changing of the guard outside but had no vantage point. We came into the hotel and told an employee we had previously been guests and were back to ask if we could shoot some pictures from an upstairs front room. We were led graciously to a room that met our needs and ushered out to a balcony. This was, of course, before 9/11 and the world was different then but it reflected the policy of upscale lodgings as explained to us once by the public relations director of the Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Beach, California. “All our employees from the lowest up are empowered to solve a guest’s problems without punting the problem upwards,” she said. We tell our staff: ‘If you meet it, you eat it.’ Solve the problem to your guest’s satisfaction.”

The Cape Grace Hotel in Cape Town believes in giving satisfaction, too. All the best hotels do. It was a tiring flight from New York City to Cape Town via Johannesburg. “Second longest flight in civil aviation,” the pilot had announced, “So settle down and get squared away for the ride.”

It was a long time before we stumbled into the lobby of the Cape Grace. “Your room is ready and we’ll send a masseuse up in ten minutes,” says the receptionist. “Masseuse?” we mumble “Yes. At this time we like to offer all our guests who’ve come such a long way a complimentary neck massage when they check in. That is: if you’d like that.”

"What’s not to like?" we think, and head upstairs -- fast.

Maybe for hotels it really is location, location, location — for first timers; but surely for repeat customers it’s service. The kind of service one British family got when their 9 year-old left his Christmas present behind at the Cape Grace, a stuffed lion he had chosen to call “Nelson.” The mother found out on their way to the airport they’d forgotten the stuffed animal. They called the hotel to ask if their furry lion could be mailed to them in Britain. Unbelievably, just as the doors closed in the terminal bus for the drive to the aircraft a security woman jumped aboard carrying it and shouting, “Here’s Nelson!”

The Pan Pacific, Singapore is a similar haven at the end of a long journey. It has a distinguished, quiet almost subdued central foyer with futuristic elevators that go to special floors including its Pacific Club level with its own dedicated check-in on floor 33. Americans who have not traveled and enjoyed the service in Asia’s hotels have a treat in store for them especially in the five star hotels of, say, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore. In the current downturn special promotional prices may be found online even for the most exalted hotel and its Executive floor. Such business class levels may actually be bargains with the availability of complimentary drinks and snacks in both the room mini bar and the lounge.

An Australian couple told us they had “arrived early morning, about 6am after a ‘midnight horror’ flight.” At first the receptionist couldn’t find their original reservation because they’d been upgraded to the Pacific Club to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary. Said the wife, “They greeted us in the morning with roses in our room. Pre-dinner drinks and canapes were served in the Sunset room -- that’s where we were every night of our holiday!

“The swimming pool had chilled water and fresh towels laid out and waiting and staff periodically handed out chilled face clothes, again a wonderful luxury in the heat and humidity. I can't wait to go back to the Pan Pacific, Singapore.”

Red Carnation Hotels in London have had a similar response from their guests. Their patrons’ enthusiasm has enabled the group to expand to 13 luxury hotels world-wide with six in London. We have stayed at two of their properties: The Milestone and 41 (so called because it’s at 41 Buckingham Palace Road) at a time in 2005 when its London hotels had a most generous offer to Americans: a program to treat the US dollar as equal to the British pound and charge Americans in dollars, a stunning concession. We’ve also had afternoon tea at Rubens, its sister hotel beside 41, at prices that weren’t so generous but afternoon tea is always expensive in London.

Discounts and promotions are unusual in London but Red Carnation Hotels is now offering special deals: Guests over 60 years get a 20 percent saving, kids under 12 eat free if sharing the parents’ room, and on weekends and some weekdays through the end of the year a two-day package offers a full English breakfast and a choice of several treats including a champagne afternoon tea or a three-course dinner. And a four-night stay gets an extra night.

That said what we remember from staying at these two London hotels is how very, er, London-like they are. They are boutique hotels with all the ambiance of an English club or luxury English home. They are little gems: 41 -- with only 30 rooms the smallest 5-star luxury hotel in London -- was created at the end of 1999 in the 5th floor of the grand ballroom of the Rubens hotel next door. And because they are small the service they give guests is personal and the comfort they give at the end of a day of sightseeing is endearing. And you will be sightseeing because London has such magnificent art galleries and museums -- and the London Eye, the gigantic Ferris-like wheel gives such a bird’s eye view of one of the world’s most beloved cities.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the American Society of Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called "The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life."