Confessions of a luxury hotel reviewer

Was I trapped in a bad horror movie? As I did a quick survey around my room before checking out of the luxury resort, just to make sure I didn’t leave anything valuable behind, I noticed something moving in the ensuite bathroom.

Is that... a snake?

When I stepped through the door of the stylishly decorated room – in which I’d showered only minutes before – I froze, completely aghast. Writhing inside the pristine porcelain toilet bowl was what looked like an enormous green python, its body the thickness of my forearm.

The creature’s head floated up into the room. With a piercing gaze it looked around, tasted the air with its tongue and hissed. Thinking better of slithering out onto the floor, it pointed its scaly face downwards, dived back into the bowl and went back to where it had come from. Its tail almost seemed to wave me goodbye as it disappeared around the S-bend.

Frantic, I rushed out of the room in search of a staff member to report what I had seen. The woman I found was, understandably, horrified.

A Luxury Guest’s Big Secret

“Thank goodness that happened to you and not the [fabulously wealthy] American couple who just jetted out,” she said, implying perhaps that I could handle such a scene while they may not have been able to. I wondered about that. And then I wondered whether she would have said the same thing to me had she known who I was and what I was doing there.

Here is my secret: I was on assignment at this expensive, spectacular resort. Over the past few years, I have secretly reviewed virtually every top hotel and resort that has opened in this region of the world.

I work for a wealthy company that advises its well-heeled clients on where best to spend their money. The company’s strategy for working out if a high-end property really is what it claims to be is to send someone in to stay – undercover.

Why? Because experienced travel reviewers are mostly upfront about their identities, and so do not always get treated the same way as does the paying public.

Instead, they are invariably squired about, often with all of their expenses being paid. If there are problems at a place, even a five-star resort, these correspondents will be steered well away from them. No, to find out what a place is truly like, you have to experience it for real.

What could go wrong?

The snake episode was not the most frightening thing that’s happened to me. That took place early one morning at a brand-new tropical resort, which had probably opened its doors to guests a little too soon.

I’d promised myself an early-morning swim. The pool looked gorgeous and nobody was about. As I got ready to plunge in, a staff member happened to be passing. He raced up to me.

Not a good idea, he said. They were having serious problems with the electrics and it was possible that the water was “live”.

What? As I turned and went back to my opulent room, all I could think was, Well, a sign would have been nice.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea. The vast majority of hotels and resorts I visit are well up to scratch, from their extensive pillow menus to their mouth-watering food. Plus, every now and again I’ll visit a place where things seem to go almost super-naturally right.

And when it goes right…

Take Southern Ocean Lodge, on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island. Set in a stunning cliff-top position, it charges the equivalent of R15,000 per person per night, twin-share, and ticks every box in terms of customer service, attention to detail and sheer hedonistic bliss. On my visit, even the wildlife seemed to be queuing up to greet guests, from a koala and joey snuggling into a tree as we were driven in, to a large lizard sunning itself outside the lodge’s front doors. It was like something out of Central Casting.

Of course, things can go wrong in the best-run establishments, and there’s no accounting for bad luck. Even so, when you’re paying upwards of R9000 a day, you might be forgiven for expecting most of the wrinkles to be ironed out.

Try telling that to the British couple who were taking the trip of a lifetime to an expensive, idyllic island in a remote corner of the South Pacific

Locked up in paradise

They had taken the precaution of securing their passports and airline tickets in their suite’s room safe but when they tried to get the valuables out, the safe refused to open. Not for them. Not for anybody.

At first, the guests thought it funny. But with departure day looming and flights to Europe to be caught, the stress levels spiralled. A spare part that would release their hostage passports was being specially flown in, and if that didn’t work, or if it failed to arrive on time, management was getting ready to blow open the safe. Wouldn’t it have been better, the British woman asked me plaintively, when I met her trying to combat the stress with a session in the hotel spa, to have tested it properly in the first place?

A nightmare waiting to happen

Gremlins are one thing. Misrepresentation is quite another. Take the boutique tropical hotel selling itself as an upmarket retreat. An anonymous visit found the rooms not only cramped but disastrously noisy, while room service was virtually non-existent. And management was relying on late-night trade from a nearby bar, even slashing room prices for anyone who decided they needed a room after a certain time.

Or the lovely five-star resort that entertained and ushered through the travel journalists, then replaced many staff with backpackers. They were amiable enough but unfortunately lacked five-star training.

These aren’t the stories you read in newspaper and magazine travel sections. So when you flick through those pages, beware. The images may be lush and the copy gushing, but whether it’s the full story is quite another thing.

To avoid being landed in a luxury nightmare, take a look at this guide to the swankiest luxury hotels in the world!