The past 10 years or so have come to see an overbranded grandiosity characterize the smart hotel. During this time we have come to misunderstand luxury travel as an agglomeration of celebrity name checks: the design, the décor, the restaurant, the spa. This mania for branding everything from lunch to light fittings threatens to turn hotels into nothing more than complex webs of interconnected and self-reinforcing names that do little to enhance the quality of one's stay.
When this hyper-hotel experience began around the turn of the century with the rejuvenation of such revered inns as Claridge's in London, it was intriguing and fresh. But success brings imitation, and what was a clever idea soon became a business model: lease out your restaurant to a celebrity chef, call in a well-known designer, give the bar a makeover and engage a trendy "mixologist." In the words of one friend who is a veteran of the hotel industry, it all went very Las Vegas. I began to shudder when I found myself contending with another sub-Starck, dumbed-down Ducasse–like experience, or the horrific riot of décor and jarring dining options that, rather like poor plastic surgery, risk disfiguring a much loved grand hotel.
I suppose that I am every hotelier's nightmare guest, in that I am fussy, snobbish, conservative and yet also believe myself to be an iconoclast. Oh yes, and I am careful—downright tight-fisted—with money; just watch me quibble over those extras. However there is a method in my meanness: I think the test of a really grand hotel is how it does the simple things, not the fancy ones.
For want of a better name, I call it the pizza principle. If faced with the choice of a swanky, multiple-course dinner or a pizza, I will usually take the pizza, as long as it is a good one. In addition to liking pizza, I prefer my luxury travel to be understated, rather than pompous.
Of course it need not be a pizza. It could be a plate of spaghetti. One of the most enjoyable things about the lavish all-night parties I have attended in Europe during the summer is not the gala dinner, but rather the spaghettata: the plate of pasta supplied at 3 o'clock in the morning by a thoughtful host hoping to fortify his or her guests until dawn.
For a long time I worked as a restaurant critic and, eating in fancy restaurants for a living, I acquired a highly developed taste for the simpler things, albeit served in ritzy surroundings. As a young man I was fortunate enough to stay in the south of France as the guest of friends. I was keen to visit the legendary hotels of the area, but one good lunch at La Colombe d'Or would have wiped me out financially. So I would do the grand-hotel thing on the cheap, like have a sandwich and a glass of beer at the Eden-Roc bar of the Hôtel du Cap on Cap d'Antibes: same real estate, same view, same vibe, just more relaxed and less expensive.
The pizza principle plays well almost anywhere, but especially on the Amalfi coast. A couple of years ago I wrote a travel piece about Ravello and the Hotel Caruso. The setting was magical, but for me the best thing was the pizza I ate at the poolside restaurant. I did not have to have a gastronomic "experience"; instead, I was able to enjoy eating a really well-made pizza, with snowy white proper buffalo mozzarella, accompanied only by the sun and the view.
The pizza principle can be applied to city hotels too. In New York, when staying at the Carlyle, I like nothing more than a plate of pancakes for breakfast and perhaps, straying off menu, a tuna sandwich for lunch. On assignment in Paris once, I reported from luxury's front line at the Plaza Athénée, where I was hunkered down in the Royal suite, a set of rooms so sprawling that it should have come equipped with a bicycle (from Hermès of course). I was invited to sample the hotel's Alain Ducasse restaurant, but instead I asked for something simpler and was directed to the Relais, an art deco brasserie that reminded me of pictures I had seen of the dining rooms on the Normandie.
It was the Maurice Chevalier of restaurants, serving authentic French food of the sort you want to eat rather than appreciate as a science or engineering experiment. I was rather gratified to notice that I was not the only person to feel more at home here: at a nearby table I spotted Yves Saint Laurent, a man of taste and discrimination who could probably have afforded to have Ducasse come and cook at his home, but who instead preferred the simpler, more traditional and most likely cheaper pleasures of the Relais.
The truth is that when it comes to a luxury hotel, a simple experience—provided it is well executed—often opens up new vistas of appreciation. It is not my intention to get all philosophical and use the fallout from the economic crisis as a platform from which to deliver a homiletic address on how the current bleak outlook is part of some Old Testament–style revenge on humankind for our recent sybaritic spendathon. But some of the so-called simpler things really are more enjoyable than pretentious and often poorly carried out attempts to live up to a set of standards with which many of us are not comfortable.
After all, the grand-hotel boom of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, for which César Ritz and Auguste Escoffier created the template, was predicated on delivering a facsimile of what it would be like to live in the palaces of the nobility. For those unfamiliar with such places, figures like the sommelier and the grand maitre d'hotel were toweringly important and rather alarming. Almost without realizing it, a new generation of equally aloof hotels has arisen in which self-consciously edgy design, too-cool staff and baffling restaurant menus have become just as off-putting as a solemn tail-coated manager and snooty wine waiter.
My favorite era of hotels is the early jet-set period of the 1950s and '60s, a time of informality and exclusivity, when hotels like the Marbella Club in Spain, the Cala di Volpe on Sardinia's Costa Smeralda and Il Pellicano in Porto Ercole, Italy, were founded. These hotels embody a time when enterprising individuals of taste and means could start up glamorous yet relaxed hotels in what were then off-piste locations, and still have the beautiful people turn up for the summer holidays.
Of course these hotels have all moved with the times, but have not caved in to them. They are careful to preserve their charm.
I must admit here to a bias; on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, I wrote the history of the Marbella Club and was fortunate enough to spend time with its founder, the late Prince Alfonso Hohenlohe, who effectively invented Marbella with little more than the power of his personality, a well-stocked address book and the natural benefits of the climate. I also spoke at length to his lieutenant, Count Rudi von Schönburg, who recalled that the highlight of a week's stay at the Marbella Club in those early days might be nothing more than a donkey ride into the hills, or an impromptu party around an open fire.
In retrospect it seems strange to think that sophisticated people, as they undoubtedly were, could take real pleasure in simple things. When was the last time you saw a billionaire—and contrary to whatever you might think there are still quite a few people with a great deal of money—going for a donkey ride or a world famous movie star dancing shoeless by a fire on the beach? It's time they rediscover the joys of eating pizza on a picnic blanket.