These days, luxury hotels treat private swimming pools as the new big thing. Once upon a time, hotels put smaller pools into their top suites and treated those suites as more luxurious. When Jaipur’s Oberoi Raj Vilas opened (in 1997, I think) three suites had their own pools and this was such a big deal that the industry could not stop talking about it.
Now pools are much more common. Every resort of consequence in the Maldives has private pools with every room. And the big success in Jaipur is the Leela Palace which works as a destination in itself mainly because it has around 50 villas with pools. Guests drive down from Delhi for a break with their families to enjoy the pool villas. Other hotels are planning to add private pools to upgrade their properties and luxury properties no longer treat pools as fit only for the top suites. The Oberoi Sukh Vilas, the newest of the Vilas hotels has a far higher proportion of pools than Raj Vilas or the early Vilases.
I am all for pools for those who can afford them. But frankly, I wish hotels would concentrate on something more basic as well: The bath tub.
There was a time when nearly every hotel had a bath tub in its bathroom. Even the shower was an add-on, placed on top of the tub. Then, hoteliers noticed that a new generation of guests was complaining about how awkward it was to have a shower while standing in a bath tub. They wanted real showers, the angry guests said.
So, a whole orthodoxy developed over what hoteliers liked to call four point and five-point bathrooms (no, I don’t know what that means either) which had separate shower stalls and bath tubs. This pleased guests so much that many migrated to the shower stalls, leaving the tubs unused. My wife, for instance, will not stay in a hotel room unless it has a standalone shower stall. We once had to turn down the offer of a wonderful suite in a historic, heritage hotel in Spain because the only shower was placed on top of the tub.
I got it. Most people do not have the time to luxuriate in a bath tub. They prefer the efficiency of the shower. And perhaps showers are much more hygienic because the water flows off you while in a tub you lie in water tainted by the dirt that has come off your body. (Horrible image!)
It has now got to the stage when surveys show that in India at least, something like 95% of guests prefer to use the shower over the bath tub. (I am sure that there are similar figures for the United States though tubs may be more popular on the Continent).
As a consequence, new hotels are now built with joke bath tubs. Hoteliers still feel obliged to put in tubs (though not necessarily at three star and budget properties) but they know, even as they are approving the designs of their bathrooms, that so few people will use these tubs that it is not worth taking trouble over them.
Many tubs are so small that even a five-year-old child would have difficulty stretching out in one. Some are so narrow that they feel like fiberglass straitjackets. And a few are so shallow that you could not drown a rat in one.
Nor are they looked after. I have stayed at five-star hotels where there are dirty yellow streaks around the walls of the tub (from the minerals in the bathwater) only because housekeeping could not be bothered to clean them every day. Something like 40% of hotel tubs have stoppers that do not work so you can’t really fill them up. Nobody ever bothers to check the tubs when they are turning the rooms around.
I always judge the calibre of a hotel’s housekeeping by how the tub’s hand shower is treated. At nearly every hotel, the hand shower will be used by housekeeping to clean the tub. Which is fine. But once the housekeeping guy has finished with the cleaning, he should re-adjust the controls so that water starts flowing out of the faucet again. At around 70% of five-star hotels, housekeepers do not bother to do that. Nor do they replace the hand shower correctly. So, when you turn on the tap, water flows into a badly placed hand shower and then spurts out to hit you in the face. I used to complain about this sloppiness. Now I don’t bother because it happens all the time and, in any case, hoteliers think I am some kind of weirdo to want to use the tub and not the shower.
For all the lack of attention to bath tubs, luxury hotels still spend a lot of money on them presumably because they think that a fancy bath tub makes the bathroom seem more premium. But even then, the utter lack of attention remains. I have seen luxury bathrooms with high, massive bath tubs that no guest can climb into unless they have won Olympic medals in the high jump or at least, the hurdles.
I have seen bath tubs with fancy jacuzzi nozzles that don’t work — again, the management doesn’t notice because the tub is there only for show.
And in keeping with the global trend of turning the taps at every hotel bathroom into spaceship controls, it is getting more and more difficult to work out how to use the tubs. (What is it about hotel designers? Do they think that guests will be delighted if there are really complicated controls for the showers and bath tubs? Are they all frustrated rocket scientists?)
If you are a tub fan as I am, then staying in a hotel can be a frustrating experience. I have stayed at hotels where it takes over 20 minutes for the tub to fill up. I have stayed at others where the water is not particularly hot to begin with so, by the time you fill the tub up, your only option is a cold bath, because the water has gone cold.
The Oberoi is the only chain that pays attention to bath tubs. Right from the sunken baths in the Raj Vilas bathrooms in the 1990s to the stand-alone tubs in other properties, they have thought their bathroom through. But it can’t have been easy. I remember asking the expat chief executive of the company why they placed their shampoos only in the shower stalls and not near the tubs. “Ah, but nobody washes his hair in a tub”, he said. I asked him if he ever had tub baths. It turned out he was a shower man and had no clue about tub baths.
All of the above may lead you to ask the obvious question: Why am I so obsessed with tub baths? Is a fetish of some sort?
So, I’ll tell you. I grew up in an India where we had small geysers in our bathrooms. You got, at the most, a bucket of hot water out of those geysers. It meant that baths were possible but were never fun.
I went to boarding school in India where hot water was a luxury. Most baths were cold water affairs. Even in the Ajmer winter (which could be chilly) all you were entitled to was half a bucket of hot water. I then went to boarding school in England where, in the 1970s, at least, nobody had a bath in the mornings. The only time you could have a bath was the afternoon and even then, it was twice a week. I was regarded as an oddball because I wanted to bathe every day.
So, whenever I went to a hotel, I treated a bath as part of the luxury experience. That’s still true. I create bubbles in my bath. I use fragrant bath salts or bath oils and I spray the bathroom with something nice. (A fragrance meant for human beings not some rubbish air-freshener.) For me, a bath becomes a way to destress, to relax and to let my mind wander. (I apologise to all of you macho men if you think that this sounds too childish or even girly.)
As I grew older, I realised that I did my best thinking when immersed in a bath tub. Sadly, this coincided with the time when builders began constructing smaller and smaller bathrooms in flats. But in the last three apartments we have lived in, we have managed to install bath tubs along with geysers that are large enough to ensure that we have enough hot water.
It isn’t that I get into the bath tub every day. If I have a busy morning or if I have meetings when I am travelling then of course, I will take a shower. But if I don’t then there is no substitute for soaking in a warm bath and using the time alone to think. Nearly everything I write (including this column, of course), first comes to me in the bath. And once I have thought it through, the writing is quick and easy.
So, hoteliers, I love that you are building so many private pools. But hey guys, would it be such a big deal to pay a little attention to your bath tubs?