Are minimalist hotels outmoded? Well, if they aren’t, they should be. Nowadays, you check into a hotel and you could be anywhere: Bangkok, Budapest, Mumbai, Bermuda or Boston. They all look the same. There are no distinctive decorative features to indicate a sense of time and place. The black-clad staff doesn’t help either. Every luxury hotel, it seems, has adopted minimalist chic as its décor motif, with the Aman Resorts leading the pack. Frankly, I am a bit tired of it.
Minimalism has its place. Japan, for instance, is traditionally minimalist in terms of its cuisine, art and design. This is a culture, after all, that gave the world raw fish, bonsai, Tadao Ando and Isamu Noguchi. Reducing elements to their purest essence is a Japanese obsession and it reflects in the hauntingly minimal Japanese ryokans that cost a bomb, but also convey the look and feel of Japan. India, in contrast, is an exuberant land. Rather than conforming, our hotels can afford to buck the trend and embrace the colour and craft that are our heritage. Many hotels do it, of course, but increasingly, there is a paring down of the décor and muting of the colours so as to appeal to the pale Western palette. This distressing trend is particularly obvious in the top-tier luxury chains. They may offer the best of amenities: Porthault linen, Bvlgari toiletries, French-pressed coffee and Egyptian towels, but none are distinctive.
Don’t get me wrong, I love hotels. There is nothing like a hotel to take you to another place and time. You walk in through the doors and can transform yourself—like Eliza Doolittle—into anyone you want to be. You can, to paraphrase Emma Lazarus, leave behind your tired, poor soul, your huddled masses of laundry, the wretched refuse of your teeming home and take your tempest-tossed body into the cool confines of a mercifully quiet room.
Beyond the service and environs, what sets a hotel apart in my mind is its character. Décor has something to do with it, but it is more than that. A distinctive hotel takes risks. Rather than appeal to the greatest number of guests, it puts a personal signature out there, like Anoushka Hempel does, albeit with mixed results. Good hotels celebrate their history, which, alas, cannot be created on a deadline. I think the Raffles Hotel in Singapore is terribly stuffy and the service is atrocious, but it has history in spades. Similarly, Singapore’s Fullerton has thankfully retained the architectural elements of the post office it once was. In contrast, the Shangrila, the Four Seasons, the Ritz-Carlton and the Pan Pacific are all good Singapore hotels, but not distinctive in my mind.
One of the most memorable hotels I’ve stayed at was in Urgup, Turkey. It is set in a meticulously preserved cave dwelling, which is typical of the Cappadoccian countryside. Ten rooms, each decorated according to the whims of the owner who actually lived on the property. When you had breakfast on the terrace and looked over the glowing red countryside, you knew exactly were you were. Similarly, in Luang Prabang, Maison Souvarnaphoum is a recently opened hotel. An erstwhile palace that has been converted into a hotel by the Banyan Tree Group, it still retains the charm of a home, even if that home is actually a palace.
Most American hotels are supremely comfortable, but horribly cookie cutter. The luxury chains, especially, do their best to provide understated elegance in order to allow their dignified guests to blend in. Both the Hay Adams and the Ritz-Carlton in the D.C. area are hotels I love for their old-world charm, but they could well be in Boston, Naples or Charleston in terms of a sense of place. The one exception, however, is Las Vegas, a city I love to hate. Most hotels there are overtly faux, trying to duplicate Egypt, Venice or Paris. But their over-the-top kitsch, while repulsive, is also unique for America.
Europe is lucky. Blessed with history and character, all that its hotels need to do is clean up a bit. The pokey chateaus in the Loire Valley of France stay in the mind much longer than the pricey Hotel du Cap. The inns at Zermatt have wonderfully carved ceilings that are a perfect foil for the bright snow outside. And the castles of England feel strangely familiar to an Indian, perhaps because of our shared, if bloody, history.
And so we go around the globe and return right back to India. I have to confess that I haven’t travelled much within our fair land, having spent the bulk of the last 20 years abroad. I haven’t even visited Rajasthan, having put that off for the time when we “go back home”. But now I am home. It is time to take stock and make lists. As someone who reviews hotels for a living, I have my own slightly quirky rating system for what makes a hotel tick. A single bad encounter with a staff spoils it for me and, I would wager, scores of other guests. Yet small things—such as the temperature and pressure of the hot shower, the water-absorption of the bathrobe and the girth of the pillows—add up very quickly.
I want to start my travels in India at a distinctive hotel—one that has history and character; one which reflects the space it inhabits; one which is most definitely not minimalist. Suggestions, anyone?
Shoba Narayan loves the colour purple. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org