Sometimes no amount of due diligence can prepare you for the experience you’ll have at a hotel. Flashy websites don’t always give the full picture, and the mainstream travel press often just wants to be the first to publicize — and gush — about the latest hot new thing. Both conspire against us. But they also prove why a boots-on-the-ground review is so important. While we found many hideaways worth recommending this year, several dashed our high hopes.
Virgin, Utah, United States
Glamping is hardly a new experience for safari-goers in Africa, but in the past few years, the trend has hit a fever pitch domestically. On our recent trip to Utah, we decided to try the glamping experience at Under Canvas Zion because of the limited luxury options near Zion National Park. Unfortunately, our stay did not remotely meet the expectations set by the $660-a-night price tag for our tented suite. On arrival, we were greeted by a spectacular view, but things quickly went downhill from there. The staff member who welcomed us was clearly ill, and she proceeded to cough all over our tent, and us, during the orientation. The tent itself had streaks of mud on the walls, and the canvas was drafty and fitted loosely around the bath. Overall, the design of the camp did not seem to have been properly thought out. And the service was frequently amateurish, which led to unnecessary missteps. Ultimately, Under Canvas left us disappointed by its wasted potential — as well as with a nasty case of flu.
New Orleans, Louisiana, United States
The mainstream travel press has positively fawned over the Hotel Peter & Paul, a 71-room property in New Orleans’ über-hip Marigny neighborhood. It has been lauded as a “spiritual place” and a “heavenly hotel” and named to several best-of lists. So we were expecting great things. After all, the hotel seemed to have all the hallmarks of a hideaway. Converted from an 1860s Catholic church and schoolhouse, it offers a small room count, stylish décor and Old World charm in an off-the-beaten-path locale. But several things went awry immediately upon arrival: A promised text alert stating that our room was ready never came; paint fumes greeted us as we were escorted to our lodgings in the Convent; the carpet in our bedroom looked as if it hadn’t been vacuumed in a fortnight; and most distasteful of all, crumpled old contact lenses and a used lip balm had been discarded on the floor next to the bed. The front desk tried to remedy the situation by reducing our bill by half, but their gesture of goodwill couldn’t expunge the memory or help the hotel earn a recommendation.
Chicago, Illinois, United States
A major travel magazine called The Hotel at Midtown “the most exciting new hotel in Chicago” after it opened in late 2017. That publication needs to employ some fact-checkers. Comprehensive though the fitness and spa facilities were — the 55-room hotel stands atop the Midtown Athletic Club, one of the city’s largest gyms — overall the place was a disaster. Things began badly in the loud, chaotic lobby and got worse. In our Deluxe Suite, the windows had smudges from previous guests, and when we sat down on the linen sofa, we noticed that crumbs speckled the gaps in its upholstery. Downstairs, the restaurant, Chromium, lacked any sense of formality. At breakfast, for example, we watched an Athletic Club member place his foot on top of one of the restaurant’s banquettes, in order to stretch out his hamstrings. It was not an appetizing sight. In short, the experience of the hotel guest is treated as secondary. Currently, The Hotel at Midtown is an unwieldy appendix to the gym below, and it should be radically rethought.
This 32-room gourmet retreat in France’s Alsace region pained us. The staff proved wonderfully warm and friendly, and we very much enjoyed our dinner at its Michelin two-star restaurant. If only the décor had exhibited a modicum of taste. Our awkwardly laid-out Superior Deluxe Room looked like a cross between a nursing home and a house of ill repute. Its thick carpet had a green-gold hue last fashionable in the 1970s, and it clashed with the plum damask wallpaper as well as with the beige-painted wood trim. Our bath looked grandmotherly, with a pink-marble counter and beige wall tile accented by an occasional spray of flowers. The hallway outside our room was clad in zebra-print fabric embellished with silver wire. And, most inexplicably, an attractive lounge downstairs had a vintage plastic donkey children’s ride in the corner. This hotel was especially disappointing because it had such obvious potential.
Krabey Island, Cambodia
Six Senses Krabey Island is a 30-acre microdot, located a 15-minute speedboat ride from Sihanoukville on the southern coast of Cambodia. At first glance, the densely forested island looked intriguing. However, it soon became apparent the resort would not appeal to those who didn’t care to be surrounded by trees. Most of the villas are hidden away in the forest, and many lack ocean views. Our own temporary home was accessible by a steep path — fine going down, much less good on the way back up. It takes just seven or eight minutes to walk from one end of Krabey Island to the other, so we headed out on a tour of inspection. To our considerable surprise, we found only a small artificial beach — if you Google the resort, the picture that appears is extremely misleading — and few places where you could find a way through the rocks in order to bathe in the ocean. Various water activities are offered, but the simple pleasure of swimming in clean tropical sea is elusive. It soon became apparent that the principal reason for a stay is to spend time in the huge spa. For us, however, the lack of the expected beach was a deal breaker. Spa aficionados may arrive at a more positive assessment.
Most American visitors to Cairo stay in one of the large chain hotels downtown. On our recent trip, however, we tried to find a smaller hideaway hotel that might be a recommendable alternative. The Villa Belle Époque is located in the riverside suburb of Maadi, home to wealthy Cairenes, more than a dozen embassies and a community of Western expatriates. Our first impression was positive. A handsome 1920s mansion, it is set amid a sizable garden that contains a swimming pool and several quiet patios. The stylish public areas have antique furniture and a striking art collection. We were shown up a narrow staircase to our suite, which was spacious but came with assertive floral wallpaper and a matching bedspread. The bath proved to be small and old-fashioned, with a single vanity. We were just deciding whether or not we would inquire about accommodations elsewhere in the hotel when the air-conditioning in the next-door room kicked in with noise that sounded like an elderly car in dire need of an oil change. The receptionist didn’t seem especially surprised to see us when we returned to the lobby, and he duly showed us to an alternative room on the ground floor. Once again, our nemesis was the air-conditioning. In the middle of the night, we were awakened by the sound of mice scurrying about in the air ducts overhead — indeed, judging by the din, they seemed to be participating in the mouse equivalent of a Formula One grand prix. It would be futile to enumerate all of the hotel’s failings — although the rocklike fruit at breakfast and the Wi-Fi that worked reliably only in the lobby perhaps deserve a brief mention — were it not for the fact that Villa Belle Époque is a lovely place in many ways and could be idyllic with sufficient investment and competent management.