14 March 2011

How to survive an American luxury hotel

Some days there is too much news. So today's column will instead, contemplate that peculiar instrument of temptation and torture, the "coffee/tea maker"—finishing this long meal of words with a brisk mention of that other item "featured" in hotel guest-rooms: the refrigerator.

Your correspondent, a citizen of the world, flying into the USA from Australia, recently stayed in a hotel that bills itself as "luxury", though it stoops to offer conference deals to the likes of me, which is why this survival guide exists.

On arriving after an interminable (patience, reader! venting necessary, but this won't be a complete blow-out) plebe-class journey (a large part of it taken up with the big Q: how can an airline legally sell a full-fare ticket to a seat that only a person with one leg can use with any degree of stoicism, the other space under the seat in front being entirely taken up with a metal box stuffed with something useful to something, but not a passenger) err, upon arrival, then three more hours' travel . . .

. . . (finally!) the check-in to The Hotel was efficient, the room pleasantly large and unmusty, the bed firm, the sheets crisp and white; and the shower was hot and beautifully full-strength on the muscles. The robe was roomy enough for the person who must have broken the scale at the unbelievable number it was stuck on, but the scale was only a curiosity to play on after the shower – the Great Necessity at This Point being, of course: that first cup of tea, followed by another with a pile of pre-conference work that had to be faced.

The coffee/tea maker wasn't the plug-in jug that is common to even the commonest of Australian overnight stops. Nor was there a generosity of tea. Only two small one-cup tea bags. The bags, branded "F______ Hotels & Resorts" have airs—one green and one black tea with descriptions including "Jasmine Butterfly #1: Premium early season China green tea - May jasmine blossoms impart an expansive floral bouquet on this premium quality Fujian Province green tea".

And there was not milk, again something that every Australian hotel, motel, and even b & b considers as necessary as sheets. Little pots of non-dairy creamer substitute substituted for the cream for coffee, though the coffee offered has airs (two filter-packets of it, each big enough to make a several-cup pot of coffee).

The real surprise was the maker itself. It took your correspondent 45 foggy minutes to figure out how it worked, because it was impossible to believe the truth. A tea drinker is supposed to drink tea made from water boiled and filtered through the plastic basket that is impregnated with the oils and acids of coffee grounds. The result is a tea made—if one would— with water that tastes as if it's taken from a tumbling stream run down a back flight of apartment stairs lit at night with the sounds of drunks kicking fighting tomcats. Not that I tasted the water. The smell of the plastic basket was enough.

Oils and acids
find homes in
while steel is hard
and mean.
Coffee, ground,
finds plastic sound
& luxuriantly welcoming.
The hotel makes a big deal about tea, and it's not alone. It, like many in cities across America, has "English" teas in its lounge. But if you order tea there, the thought of being offered milk with tea (or even lemon) is as much a part of this hotel's tradition as serving their martinis with a twist of blubber. It isn't even just the English who have milk with their tea. A large part of the civilised world makes milky tea, and it's from them that the English learned refreshment. But even if one drinks green tea, fragrant and golden, the expansive bouquet is best tickled up only with a mix of other tea, for instance, and never with the smell of armpits, old socks, cat spray or the maker that could never be a result of intelligent design. A plastic coffee/tea maker is a plastic coffee or tea maker — and as much an abomination as non-dairy dairy.

Better by far, if a hotel makes a pretense of accommodating the wonts of those from distant shores, as travellers sometimes are: a simple water boiler and instant coffee, or in a luxury dive, a coffee maker and a humble boiling coil, if it pleases the Management. The present state of tea-making expectations vs. reality in American hotels is Ironic, too, since tea has become insufferably precious now there, with tea shops and emporiums (an emporium is a shop which sells premium packaging with some stuff inside) popping up in all cities with any luxury to them. Prices for little bags of tea prove there is always a new field to plough when it comes to people with too much money and no sense. The New Yorker bears ads for an electric jug (so much more efficient than kettles on the stove, but curiously UnAmerican) that heats water to (oh, my thermometer!) precisely X degrees (no more nor less, as demanded by your Phoo Er is Human, which is Divine-brand tea, tip-picked [only the first 2 mm of each violet-tinged leaf] between 2:35 and 4:79 a.m., on the 3d night of the crescent moon when the barometer is at x, windspeed x, in the province of ..., a tea that that is cured for ten years at moisture levels monitored by …) with an exactitude that Phileas Fogg would approve, if he were a pretentious food bore.

So how to survive the cruel disappointment, how to break the spiral of depression that can result from being forced to live in primitive conditions of deprivation when surrounded by so much wealth, including a jumbo bathrobe and assorted citrus-scented toiletries? It's a cruel truth luxury has many meanings — one person thinking that this hotel's suited and hatted bag-carriers mark it out as luxury, while I suspect that many of us who are tea drinkers are more comfortable carrying our own, and would carry a camel's-worth if we could only have our cups of tea in bed. The lack of the means to restore the dead, to provide comfort upon waking in a strange room at 5:30 a.m., or having a quiet escape and a cuppa alone in one's room in the middle of a conference, is sorely felt. I haven't even mentioned the biscuits (cookies) that most Australian hotels still also provide, making a stay in even the worst hotel something that makes you feel at least a bit good, like when you've just given blood (where you always get a cuppa–strong, white and sweet—and two bikkies). Another thing about making it oneself, by oneself. To each, one's taste provided for. I like my tea strong enough to walk on, with only enough milk to make it opaque. Others like theirs weak as a screaming brat's mother's request to her child to be considerate.

Tea at will. Tea in private. Tea in bed. If Americans met it, they might also redefine necessity, like this cruise-chooser. " This is going to sound silly, but it might be that the deciding factor between a cruise on either Celebrity Eclipse or P&O Azura in summer 2010 might come down to in-cabin tea & coffee making."

That is a pick-me-up that no expensive bottle of water, even if it's from an island, can bring. But enough of tragedy. Now for succour. Look in the refrigerator, and have a laugh. I didn't until the next morning.

As early as anything opened, I left the hotel. Shaking with withdrawal, I found a local market where I bought four egg-sized plums to have instead of four cups of tea at various times of the day and night. I ate one, and opened the fridge to store the rest. You probably already know that the fridge was so packed with bottles and other things to sell, that the plums had to be balanced between bottle necks. There wasn't room to do even that.

As for the fridge, here's some tips, gleaned from some well-oiled experts in the lounge, when I asked them if they'd hit this in their rooms.
(general laughter)
"All hotels do that now."
"Don't touch anything in there! If anyone sees your fingerprints the bottles, that's the same as eating or drinking the stuff. You'll be charged for anything you move."

"I always ring ahead and tell them I'm diabetic."
Oh, and there's another way to survive all this luxury. Again, I prescribe laughter. Open the In Room Dining Service Menu. I purchased mine so I couldn't be accused of stealing it.
For your delectation, have a taste of these crumpets:
"Anna, the Duchess of Bedford … experienced a 'sinking feeling' in the late afternoon."
from The Origin of Afternoon Tea

"Honey BBQ Bacon, Honey BBQ Link, Apple Cinnamon Mini Muffins And Two Waffles"
from Breakfast To Go, Business Dogs on the Go, Dog's Delight (they get their own page, which includes Movie Snacks)
Fwah! Rosie has woken from the dead. She's howling!

If only the Duchess of Bedford, or the CEO of this Luxury hotel & resort chain could have seen Rosie's pride at finding her own Dog's Delight one morning — a roo paw of distinguished vintage. What, Rosie? Well, I'll pass on your question about the Movie Snacks. We notice "lollipop" and "banana biscotti" but the only thing to go with sheepdog trials is lamb tails and …. Hello, hello? Sorry, Rosie. I think he experienced a sinking feeling.


neil williamson said...

Anna - this made me laugh this morning. The other problem with American coffee/tea makers - apart from the taste and the scarcity of tea bags - is that they don't actually boil the water. IIRC they heat it to something like 92 degrees. Which isn't enough to make a proper cuppa.

We have actually resorted in the past to travelling abroad complete with travel-sized electric kettle. And a healthy supply of tea bags.

The lengths you have to go to, eh?


>one person thinking that this hotel's suited and hatted bag-carriers mark it out as luxury, while I suspect that many of us who are tea drinkers are more comfortable carrying our own

Personally I hate people doing stuff for me that I can quite easily manage for myself. I never travel anywhere with more luggage than I can comfortably carry, and by the time I get to the stage of checking in to an American hotel, I've already managed perfectly well for a dozen odd hours and several thousand miles. It seems like an insult for someone then to offer to wheel your luggage as far as the lift which is just, you know, OVER THERE.

But I usually let them because I don't want to look like a tight wad trying to get out of tipping.

I love traveling, really.


anna tambour said...

The picture of you carting kettle and tea calls up other scenes. Your hotel door being slowwly opened, the phantom nose, mouth and throat floating in, parched as talc. Tipping is strange. The people who clean up our messes generally get nothing in countries where tipping is the custom. I like the Australian way--pay someone an honest wage instead of expecting them to exist on tips. That is breaking down now, as Australians confuse sophistication and think tipping is the thing, sorta.