Published in The Independent, Monday 07 July 2014
Hoteliers, we are beastly to you, aren't we? We don't just expect you to give us a bed, a shower and a plug socket or two, now we're demanding you lay on unique experiences as well. But what matters more: how a hotel looks, how it makes us feel or what it has us doing?
It's true that they're often inextricable: a lobby that fizzes with character can be the ultimate aphrodisiac. However, I want more than just snappy service, high-quality linens and design worth Instagramming about – provided that the quirks are relevant.
Having just visited Il Salviatino in Florence, I can report that I was smitten before I'd even arrived at this 15th-century Tuscan villa's door, thanks to glimpses of its Italianate gardens and infinity pool as I climbed its leafy hillside. Inside, the suites were so luxurious that the walk-in shower was closer to an art installation. But being invited for a whirl around the groomed grounds with a charismatic truffle hunter and his pooch was what took things up a notch.
After foraging for funghi, we then returned to the terrace to discover dinner that night wasn't the usual table-for-two à la carte affair. La Tavola Toscana is the hotel's new occasional dining experience intended to evoke the atmosphere of a genuine Italian family-style celebration. A parade of traditional dishes served at a long, communal table with all the other guests was the perfect finale to our day.
It's when high-end hotels orchestrate contrived activities that I cringe. Ever been shuttled to a tiny jungle village in an air-conditioned, iced-water-stocked luxury minibus, to "meet the locals" in their thatched shacks? You might feel like an explorer, but it's only a few degrees north of a theme-park excursion.
I salute hotels that offer excursions with integrity, such as Shinta Mani Club's monthly community markets in Siem Reap that sell locally-made goods whose profits go to the Cambodian makers. Malabar Escapes' Serenity even lets you have an elephant for the day: take Laxmi for rides, wash her in the waterfall, feed her bananas. What more special a way to remember your time spent in Kerala?
At Saffire, in Tasmania, seafood-lovers after interactive escapades, can learn how to shuck oysters for no extra charge. The five-star resort not only red-carpets you to nearby Freycinet Marine Oyster Farm, but also gets you donning waders to sit at a white-linened table with champagne, up to your shins in the water. Areais do Seixo in Portugal, meanwhile, invites you to pluck mussels from the beach for supper.
Since time is so precious, why squander holidays on a banal fly-and-flop escape? Crave form, demand function and flirt with doing something new.
Juliet Kinsman is the editor-in-chief of 'Mr & Mrs Smith' hotel guides (mrandmrssmith.com).