Although I am often told that I have the “best job in the world,” inevitably a proportion of the properties that I visit proves a disappointment. Here are a few examples of the times when my carefully constructed plans went severely awry.
Ambergris Caye, Belize
True to its name, this visually striking resort on Ambergris Caye in Belize had secrets. There were the small surprises, such as the $4 fee for each small cup of black coffee at breakfast and the fact that a staffer had to turn on our hot tub’s heater two hours in advance of when we wanted to use it. Sand fleas attacked guests who made the mistake of lying out on the beach. But most irritating was the secret that the hotel allows non-guests full run of its facilities. A group staying in San Pedro monopolized the main pool’s hot tub, calling for loud reggae music to “get the party started.” After too many frozen margaritas, they decamped to the sofas in front of the check-in desk, where three of them proceeded to pass out. In short, El Secreto is unlikely to be a Harper recommendation anytime soon.
Fairmont Heritage Place
Ghirardelli Square, San Francisco, CA
The waterfront Fairmont Heritage Place, Ghirardelli Square describes itself as a “private residence club.” Accommodations feature Bosch washer-dryers, Sub-Zero wine fridges and fully equipped kitchens. As the bellman put down the bags, our first impression was positive. A chic open-plan living room with minimalistic décor was augmented by picture windows with scenic bay views. It all seemed so promising, until we began settling into the room: The velvet chair in front of the window was worn and tired; the carpeting throughout the residence had stains; the leather headboard of the bed was frayed; and the large poorly designed bath lacked towel racks and shelving units. The stale bagels and cold egg wraps at breakfast rounded out our unsatisfactory experience. The convenient location and beautiful water vistas are not enough to compensate for this hotel’s dire need for refurbishment.
House of Jasmines
I used to recommend this lovely hideaway outside Salta, Argentina, but service standards have plummeted under the current owners. The confirmed driver did not meet us at the airport. During Mrs. Harper’s massage in the poorly maintained spa, the therapist’s cell phone buzzed no fewer than six times. Meanwhile, I went to the pool where the three tables were topped by a giant rust stain, a dirty rag and the aged remains of a lunch, respectively. When I ordered a glass of Torrontés in the restaurant, the waiter produced a bottle that had stood open for a week (the date was written on the label). The Wi-Fi in our suite also failed to work, which the front desk offered to fix three days hence. When I calmly enumerated our complaints — not limited to the above, alas — the staff did nothing to try to salvage the situation. We checked out early, forced to pay for the entire stay. It broke my heart to see this once-wonderful hotel driven into the ground.
During our otherwise happy stay, we encountered one surprising deficiency: the food. For a resort of this caliber, it was sadly lacking. For example, the salad I ordered one night appealed to me because the ingredients were said to be locally sourced. Unfortunately, the burrata was rubbery, and the tomatoes were tough and flavor-free. And given our proximity to the ocean, the fish soup should have been richer in seafood and in flavor. At lunch on the beach one afternoon, I ordered the fish burger, anticipating a patty of ground seafood with all the trimmings. Instead, it was a piece of overcooked fish on a bun. There was a total lack of finesse.
The Langham in London opened in 1865 and was billed as Europe’s first “Grand Hotel.” Over the past year, I have stayed in Langham hotels in Sydney and Chicago and was favorably impressed on both occasions. On my recent trip to Boston, I decided to try The Langham there, which is housed within the former Federal Reserve Bank building in a downtown location that overlooks Post Office Square and is close to Faneuil Hall. On arrival, the large and rather soulless lobby was full of flight crew. Having just driven from New York, I headed to the lobby restaurant, The Reserve, for a late lunch. There, the service was dilatory, and the clam chowder was cold. In the evening I decided to try BOND restaurant, but the noise was so cacophonous that I turned and fled. The next morning the breakfast buffet in the Café Fleuri was littered with crumbs, and the scrambled egg was elderly and congealed. Rooms have a staid traditional décor and tend to be on the small side; suites are much more desirable. The hotel’s indoor pool looks striking in photographs but is less impressive in reality; when I went for a dip it was full of unruly children. To be fair, the concierge was consistently friendly and helpful. Overall, however, a return visit is not high on my list of priorities.
The Château d’Ouchy, a 50-room property housed within a neo-Gothic castle, is set on the Lausanne lakefront, and it was extremely pleasant to stroll directly onto the promenade to watch the ferries and gaze at the mountains. Alas, this proved to be the hotel’s principal merit. On arrival, the lobby turned out to be decorated in a glitzy contemporary style. As there had been no porter at the entrance, I asked the receptionist for help with my suitcase and received a look of incredulity. He didn’t actually say “I’m sure it has wheels,” but his sentiments were sufficiently clear. I decided to fetch it myself. My Junior Suite had an attractive view along the northern shore of the lake, but the bath was tiny, with a shower over the tub and only a single narrow shelf. At lunch, a crayfish terrine was heavy and gelatinous, the delicate flavor of my fera (whitefish) was overwhelmed by the accompanying pine nuts and olives, and the cheese board offered a bizarre triumvirate that included manchego (Spanish) and Roquefort (French) in addition to the expected Swiss Gruyère. I checked out with a degree of relief.
Hotel by the Red Canal
Mandalay was the seat of the last rulers of independent Burma, King Mindon and King Thibaw. The walls of their great palace, 1.2 miles on each side and with a moat 210 feet wide, still stand at the heart of the city. In an attempt to find a hideaway hotel, I had chosen to stay at Hotel by the Red Canal, a 25-room property close to the eastern edge of the vast 1,000-acre palace compound. Alas, contrary to my expectations, the surrounding area proved scruffy and unappealing. Although the hotel’s public areas are quite attractive, with expanses of natural wood and local artwork, our rooms and bath were both too small for comfort; the Wi-Fi was painfully slow and unreliable; and the restaurant served almost exclusively Indian, rather than Burmese, cuisine. The staff were friendly and the gardens were pretty, but the kidney-shaped pool was cramped. I moved on without regret.