I've passed 20 of the last 30 nights in hotels. Thoughts about hotels are threatening to crowd everything else out of my brain, so I'm going to need to vent here a bit. Not vent in the sense of complaining; I just need to let some of these observations find expression.
Those 20 nights were spent in 11 different hotels in three different countries.
And I saw evidence of bars being raised.
Let me begin where I began, at the ITC Maurya, a Starwood Luxury Collection property in New Delhi. The ITC group is not as well known in the U.S. as the Oberoi or Taj, but its five-star properties can be just as impressive. The Maurya, its flagship, is in New Delhi's somewhat bland Diplomatic Enclave, far removed from the colorful atmosphere of most of Delhi.
Its facade is not particularly interesting, but its lobby contains extraordinary art, and it's home to what are arguably the best two Indian restaurants in the country.
Importantly, its suites capture the opposing/complementary Indian and British styles beautifully, with a resulting look that transcends its components. The overall atmosphere of the Chandragupta suite, where I stayed, initially struck me as simple and elegant, but the more I looked around, the more I appreciated the detailed sense of the designer's vision. The carpeting and rugs, the artwork, the furnishings and their coverings and accessories -- there's a lot going on here, yet the balance felt perfect. The service, too, was notches above expectation, even for a five-star property.
It has also attained the highest Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating of any environmentally retrofitted hotel in the world (but details on its LEED certification will have to wait for another column).
The Rambaugh Palace in Jaipur, India, was a knockout, as well. It's part of Taj Hotels, Resorts and Palaces, and it feels every inch the maharajah's palace it once was.
The 75-room property has a grander presentation than resorts with many times that number of rooms. It has a majestic feel throughout, from its extensive grounds to the hallways lined with historic photos or, in some instances, beautiful figures, done in the "miniature" style, hand-painted on the walls.
Though traditional in atmosphere, everything was in like-new condition. It's as if they had found a store of untouched traditional fabrics and decorations along with a time machine to bring in craftsmen from bygone eras to install it all.
Another extraordinary property, located just outside of Paro, Bhutan, was the Zhiwa Ling, managed by the local Yangphel group.
It was the only five-star I stayed at in Bhutan, and it exceeded my expectations by a wide margin, in no small measure because I found the nation's star rating system to be inconsistent.
The lobby and public areas are beautifully executed in traditional motifs, and the grounds, with a vegetable garden, spa and meditation room, demonstrated that the Bhutanese know how to please finicky Westerners.
I was given the Royal Raven suite, which had a feature I'd never before encountered and doubt I ever will again: a private shrine room.
The shrine was not a reproduction, but was intended for use by finicky Bhutanese (or very curious visitors). Both my Buddhist guide and driver performed rituals in it, and my 8- and 10-year-old sons reverently mimicked what they had seen in temples we had visited.
A week later, I was literally and figuratively half a world away, in Las Vegas. I stayed in one of the suites in the recently refurbished Tropicana. The Trop seems to be succeeding in raising its image from midscale to upscale, and my suite was comfortable and spacious. It, too, contained a surprise: a small sauna and a large shower that doubled as a steam room. (These were features in some suites before the refurbishment, too.)
I had recently been thinking that innovation at the luxury end had stalled somewhat. "Amenity creep" had set very high standards in terms of room size, toiletries, service levels, fixtures and furnishings, and for the past 12 months or so, all I had seen were variations on themes.
But my recent stays underscored that execution can still make a difference and that a hotelier's ability to come up with creative surprises, whether a steam room or a shrine room, indicates there is still a significant amount of space above the bar.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.