"Welcome Archie, Cheddar, Leo, Bruno and King!" reads a small chalkboard outside a ritzy hotel in Miami where I've been painlessly talked into spending a week. After I've checked into my room, I remove the mint from my pillow and plonk down a glass of water and a contact lens case squarely on to the breakfast room-service menu on the nightstand. Designed to hang from the doorknob, its fate is now to lie still and dejected for the duration of my stay, buckling artistically over time with moisture from my saline solution and countless water refills. Since I assume I'll never use it for ordering food, it gets employed instead as a trusty bedside coaster.
The continental breakfast, which I've never been tempted to order, is a meal offered typically in hotels around the world. The term, being British in origin, refers to continental Europe, where meals much lighter than a traditional full English breakfast are taken before noon. Normally, a continental breakfast is a carb-lover's fantasy that includes juice, coffee, milk, hot chocolate if you're lucky, a bagel or a croissant, some jam or marmalade, a few pats of butter, and maybe some sliced fruit, cold meats, or cereal and yoghurt.
Nowadays, personalised service in hotels has taken lavishness to a whole new level. I may have got a mint on my pillow to welcome me, but the cacophony of Archie, Cheddar and friends yapping through the night reminds me of my active urban neighbourhood, and I feel uncomfortably at home in an insomniac half-slumber that I paid good money to escape.
When I stumble downstairs in the morning to take my morning walk, I notice a huge bowl of doggie biscuits by the hotel's main doors; edible rewards for the hellion hounds whose barking kept me up. The valet smiles when I complain to him about my night's sleep. "Are you on the 21st floor?" Nope. "The 23rd?" Nope! "The 19th?" I nod sleepily. "We had a few complaints last night," he explains. "We're giving them just one more chance. After that, we won't let it happen again." I realise the hotel gives the benefit of the doubt to a Bichon Frise more readily than I would give it to most high-functioning people.
When a hotel stay is dismal, it makes you long to be at home, in your own bed. But when a hotel stay is wonderful, you don't miss home at all - that is, until you run out of clothes, out of steam or out of money. I'm in the unlikely position of spending a week in Miami when the city is mobbed with spring break college coeds. Since my idea of a good time doesn't involve beaches, shopping, crowds, pools, or dance clubs (but does involve Cuban culture, fishing, wildlife and live performance), I find myself spending a lot of time at the hotel, which means I'm eating a great deal of hotel food.
The difference between running a chef or management-owned restaurant kitchen and running a hotel kitchen - especially when that hotel is part of a corporate chain - is astronomical. Hotel restaurants are notoriously difficult to run, and that includes the entire roster of fine-dining restaurants in the UAE, all of which are associated with hotels. Hotel dining can be an opportunity for hotels within a chain to make a mark, or for individual and boutique hotels to express their autonomy.
Room service is an added perk for which not everyone has a weakness. Sometimes it's pathetic, sometimes it's wonderful, and sometimes it comes complete with its own custom awkwardness, free of charge. For instance, some believe that Hastings House on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, Canada, serves guests the world's greatest alternative to breakfast in bed by discreetly tucking a basket of freshly baked pastries inside your door in the mornings. Maybe I'm just a curmudgeon, or maybe I've watched Fatal Attraction too many times, but there are few things more creepy to me than the thought of awakening to the realisation that there has been an ambulatory human being in my room while I was dead to the world - and there's just no muffin big enough to make me feel better about that.
Every InterContinental in the United States famously serves meat loaf and mashed potatoes. I suppose that the frequent business traveller might appreciate a little downhome cooking before kicking off the shoes at night, but much of the romance of room service to those of us who use it sparingly is that it's such a treat. As with many things in the hospitality industry, there are relative costs - and then there are those pesky hidden ones that can sneak up on you: the delivery charge that's shoehorned on to the gratuity; the inflated room service prices; the incalculable cost of having crumbs on the bedspread.
And as much as I love the idea of eating in private, I can do that at home. With rare exceptions, if I'm staying in a hotel, it's not in an attempt to approximate the domestic experience. Ironically, the most extravagant room service expense of my life - just a few grams of Oscietra caviar at Dubai's Fairmont Hotel - was incurred in an attempt to feel better about myself after an injury earlier in the day left me flat on my back on the suite's couch, forcing me to cancel my attendance at the event for which I was in town, and in too much pain to take off my evening gown or run a hot bath. I ate my little caviar and blini at a snail's pace, while reclined, and then fell asleep on the couch.
But let's face it: although the luxury of eating in one's hotel room is delicious, waking to the vision of dinner's remains is distinctly less so. I try to be mindful of rolling the cart outside as soon as I'm done eating, but worse things have happened at sea.
One thing that's so wonderful about hotels, besides the white terrycloth bathrobes and the turndown service, is the assurance that anything you could ever need is a mere phone call away. W Hotels offers room service through its Whatever/Whenever department, which means that guests can order whatever floats their fancy, 24/7, and the hotel will do its best to provide it.
Similarly, Chicago's Ritz Carlton will make you whatever you want at any hour.
It's absolutely nothing like real life, but it sure is a nice vacation. The greatest luxury of all is the illusion of being taken care of.