Originally published in Travel + Leisure, February 2014
A FRIEND AND HER HUSBAND just returned from an African safari. The trip was fabulous, by all accounts, save one: on their final night, the lodge arranged a “sleep-out” under the stars, on a bed set up in the dunes. The brochure promised “unaparalleled romance”; the reality was something else. A cold wind swept in from the desert, but under their plasticene waterproof duvet (“it felt like vinyl siding”) they were soon engulfed in sweat. At 2 a.m. a biker gang of mosquitoes roared through and terrorized them till dawn. “The only stars we saw were from slapping ourselves in the head,” Laura recalls.
Hotels and resorts spend countless millions and meeting-hours devising ever-swoonier “romantic moments” for guests—yet so many of those moments wind up backfiring. If industry love gurus paid closer attention, they’d see we’re not batting our lashes, we’re rolling our eyes. So, at the risk of coming off as an ungrateful crank, here are 10 Valentine’s/honeymoon/anniversary surprises that beg for reconsidering.
1) Private dinners on the beach. To the uninitiated, this sounds perfectly delightful—so much so that people will fork over an extra hundred bucks for the privilege. Here’s the actual scene: Your chair is permanently tilted at 45 degrees in the cool damp sand. Beach fleas nip at your ankles. It’s too dark to read the menu (as if there were any real choices), let alone make out your entrée, or the moth in your water glass. You could ask for another, but your server is 100 yards up the beach, sneaking a cigarette, and the kitchen’s even farther. The wine is warm, the grouper is cold, the night is interminable. It starts to rain.
2) Couples’ massages. “Good afternoon, sir and madam! We’ve taken the liberty of booking you two in our Spa Romance Suite, so you can enjoy your treatments side-by-side!” chirps the receptionist, handing you robes and slippers. Oh, joy! Now you get to spend the next 85 minutes trying not to listen as your partner whimpers, gasps, and moans “Me encanta, me encanta!” while her strappingly fit masseur grunts in tandem. Oh, boundless joy!
3) Rose petals in the bed/bath. Sure, it looks sensational: a trail of crimson flowers leading to a foamy tub. Except the bath was drawn hours ago, so now you’re shivering in a chilled fruit salad of soggy rose petals, their gunk clogging up the drain. When you finally give up and get out, you navigate a perilous path of wet flowers across a marble floor. (A rose is a rose until it’s a banana peel.) But the bed, too, is covered in crimson petals, and you’re too cold to bother removing them before climbing in, so all night they cling to your skin. When you wake up and throw back the sheets, it’s like the horse-head scene from The Godfather: white linens stained a garish blood-red, and a sense that something’s gone terribly, terribly wrong.
4) “Star beds.” A friend and her husband just returned from a safari. On their final night, the lodge arranged a “sleep-out” under the stars, on a special bed set up in the bush. The brochure promised “unparalleled romance”; the reality was something else. A cold wind swept in from the desert, but under their tarplike waterproof duvet (“It felt like vinyl siding”) they were soon engulfed in sweat. At 2 a.m. a biker gang of mosquitoes roared through and terrorized them till dawn. “The only stars we saw were from slapping ourselves upside the head,” our friend recalls.
5) The ignored amenity. Complimentary champagne and a plate of petits fours? Wonderful when they first arrive; unspeakably sad 48 hours later when the ice has melted, the wine label has disintegrated in the water, and the half-nibbled stale bon-bons are now congealed to the plate—yet Housekeeping refuses to take it away, thinking they’re being considerate.
6) Chocolate-covered strawberries. Speaking of amenity snacks…has anyone ever had a truly delicious chocolate-covered strawberry? No, we haven’t either. Those gigantic strawberries hotels tend to serve are dry and flavorless, and the low-grade chocolate hardly improves the taste—even worse if it’s white chocolate. Not to be total cranks, but Yecchh.
7) “Private” poolside cabanas. People! Poolside cabanas are NEVER actually totally private. Alas, this does not stop some horndog occupants from behaving as if they are. You know we can hear you, right?
8) Serenading musicians. These should not exist, period, but if they must, let’s limit each performance to verse, chorus, and out. Anything over 37 seconds feels like three hours. Meanwhile, you and your partner politely nod along with frozen smiles, wishing they’d just go away so you could finish your now-lukewarm coffee.
9) Turndown music. Hotels, maybe it’s time to rethink the skull-numbing, sub–Kenny G, soft-core jazz fusion you leave playing on the alarm clock (or worse, the TV) at turndown? First of all, it freaks us out to walk in the room and find the television on. Second, there’s nothing remotely sexy about that soundtrack—maybe schmoove sax solos put you in the mood, but to us it just conjures up mullets, hairspray, and big satin shoulder pads.
10) “Naughty sundaes.” On the subject of turndown surprises: we’ll never forget the time we returned to our hotel room to find the bed sheathed in plastic, a tray of ice creams and sundae toppings on the beside table, and a note from the staff saying “Enjoy, you two!! Call us after—and leave the cleaning up to us!!” So let’s get this straight: we’re supposed to roll around on this plastic-wrapped mattress dripping hot fudge all over each other? And then we’re gonna call you guys to come clean it all up? Call us vanilla, but that’s just lunacy. •