I’ve spent my fair share of nights in 5-star hotels. Apparently I have Starwood Preferred Guest Lifetime Gold status due to my 307 nights spent in Sheraton, Westin, Le Meridian, and W hotels over the years. (More than 1 Year of work days!) They are wonderfully convenient and predictable.
Public spaces are warm and inviting, beautifully decorated with plenty of natural light and artwork you would expect to find in a museum. The interior designer is well known by those who know interior designers.
Rooms are spacious and comfortable, with large heavenly beds and lush pillows. The sheet thread count is at least 4 digits, and the complimentary bath robe is something you would happily wear all weekend. The shower experience is certain to make you consider a home bathroom redesign (and 10 million times better than our shower in San Pedro, Guatemala.)
The staff is friendly and remembers your name. “Welcome back, Mr. & Mrs. GCC.” When was the last time anybody called me Mister? Anything you need, they deliver with a smile.
Indeed, 5-star hotels are very nice. But I don’t love them. On our list of preferred places to stay, they are last.
For our recent trip to Kyoto, Japan, a rare thing happened. Every hotel in town was completely full! We had inadvertently booked our flights during a Japanese holiday.
Often we use Booking.com to explore hotel options, and it reported 99% occupancy. The only option was some villa 2 hours outside of town for $2k/night. Then I looked on Airbnb, which showed 95% occupancy. There were a few places that looked great for a single guy who wanted to travel on the cheap, but nothing that looked like a good fit for a family.
This is where some flexibility and a stash of Starwood Points comes to the rescue. Instead of 8 days in Kyoto we stayed 3, followed by 5 days in Osaka. We used a mix of cash and points for the Kyoto hotel, and all points in Osaka. 5 nights is the ideal length of stay for Starwood hotels since they have a 5th night free redemption bonus.
There are 3 Starwood hotels in Osaka, but the only one with availability was the St. Regis at $651/night. Ouch. With points, we paid $0. It is absolutely gorgeous.
One cool thing about the St. Regis is you get a personal butler, just for you. They will press your suit, shine your shoes, and help with reservations and recommendations. Unfortunately my suit and shoes were donated a few years ago and all I had were some T-shirts and flip flops.
Normally when we stay in smaller local hotels, we love to chat with the staff. “If you were going to get lunch nearby, where would you eat?” is a question that has led to some amazing dining experiences. But in the high end hotels, the staff seldom lives nearby, nor can they afford to eat in the neighborhood. They recommend the Michelin Star restaurant in the building next door as opposed to the hole in the wall noodle shop.
We like food. Michelin Star restaurants are great! But not every night.
Case in point, I was looking for a small coffee or tea shop where we could meet up with fellow blogger Tawcan and his family. I wanted something that was a real Japan experience. The sheet of recommendations that was slipped under the door was a list of nearby Starbucks.
We were also looking for a grocery store to get some fruit for GCCjr, just a few grapes and maybe a mango. Our butler was happy to help, and provided a map to a nearby establishment with amazing produce.
Based on the exchange rate of ~120 Japanese Yen to US Dollar, one bunch of grapes cost $54. Two mangoes… $224! Amazing!
I guess GCCjr is eating at the Michelin Star restaurant tonight to save us some money.
And lest I forget to mention, the directions we were provided to a “very local area” brought us to a shopping area filled with Chinese tourists buying tax-free luxury brand luggage, rice makers, and vacuum cleaners. All made in China.
By day 2 we decided to blaze our own trail.
There are definitely more 5-Star hotels in our future. I absolutely need to spend a day or two swimming in the rooftop pool at the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. And I could probably be convinced to spend a week or two in a floating villa in the Maldives, Fiji, or Tahiti.
But there is something I love about the authenticity of the grit and rough edges of small and local places, where the smiles are genuine, the suggestions based on first person experience, and the language not your own.
That’s what we experienced in our rental with a private pool in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, where we went mango picking with our neighbor. And our Airbnb rental in Antigua, Guatemala with an awesome cat and a host who had the best dining recommendations.
Our 5-star hotel in Japan was great. But these are the places and memories we love.
Where do you love to stay?
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