Daily Pampering: Betrothal Butlers at Woodlands Inn help you pop the question

Betrothal ButlersPlanning to pop the question? Woodlands Inn, a five-star, five-diamond Salamander Hospitality property in Summerville, South Carolina (just a short drive from Charleston) has enlisted a team of Betrothal Butlers to be at your beck and call as you plan your perfect proposal.

This special service is launching for Valentine’s Day, but will be available throughout 2011, so if you’re considering an “engagement-cation” this year, but overwhelmed by the planning it requires, this may be exactly what you need! Here’s just some of what the Betrothal Butlers can do to help in this gorgeously traditional setting:

  • Provide expert advice with all aspects of proposal planning. People propose at hotels all the time. These guys know what’s up and what works best.
  • Special delivery of the ring. Hiding the ring can be hugely stressful when all you’ve got is a suitcase. Let the Betrothal Butlers help you out — they can even deliver the ring in a glass of champagne, movie-style.
  • Creative dinner menu choices. Obviously, you want your beloved to have pretty much the best dinner ever. Inject extra romance with personalized selections.
  • Capture the moment on camera. So many of us wish the moment of our engagement could have been captured on camera! The Betrothal Butlers are totally on this. And they’re discreet.

The Betrothal Butler service is complimentary for dining and overnight guests of Woodlands Inn — and we love its formalization as a “service;” sometimes you feel like you’re driving a hotel crazy or like you’re the first person who’s ever requested help with a proposal when asking for help. This is one of those few situations where you do deserve special treatment, and so does your intended!

If you are intending to head to Woodlands Inn for Valentine’s Day, they have a Romance Package for Febraury 11-14, which includes overnight accommodations, champagne and chocolate upon arrival, a three-course dinner for two with wine, and breakfast for two the next morning (in the room or the resturant) starting at $599. Not too shabby. Call (800) 774-9999 to book the package.

Are hotel star ratings getting out of hand?

At one time, staying in a “four-star hotel” meant you were experiencing the peak of luxury. Luxurious rooms, top-notch accommodations and plenty of amenities. But increasingly a four-star hotel is no longer enough, with uber-high-end properties in Europe racing to claim six or, in the case of the Burj-al-Arab in Dubai, even seven-star ratings. At what point do the hotel stars become meaningless? The BBC took a look at the hotel-star “ratings game” in a recent article, noting the jumble of competing systems and confusion it causes for consumers.

According to the BBC, the ratings have become a subjective measure of amenities depending on the place. In much of Europe for instance, stars are assigned based on random factors such as whether the property has an elevator or includes breakfast, not by factors like building age or cleanliness. There’s similar confusion in the United States, where competing organizations like AAA and Forbes Travel offer customers conflicting systems. Those in the hotel ratings business acknowledge the confusion, though minimal steps have been taken to change the process.

The next time you check into that “Five-Star Hotel,” make sure you know what you’re paying for. In a world of increasing hotel rating inflation, there’s still plenty of room for debate.

France gets a fifth star

France has a new way to define luxury. A new five-star category has been added to the country’s hotel ranking system … as if you’d need the extra star to pick one of these properties out of a lineup! The marketing ploy, of course, is to use the extra etoile to draw big spenders and entice them to open their wallets a bit wider. France had to amp up its ranking system, as it was the only country in Europe lacking a five-star category, despite its reputation as a destination. You can now find 13 five-star hotels in Paris.

While France has resisted the worst of the travel market slump in Europe, according to a report by Deloitte, it has lost some British and American tourists. The French government hopes the fifth star will help invite them back. Visitors to France have fallen 7.5 percent this year to 15.9 million, according to the Paris Tourism Office. And, the market has suffered a 14 percent drop in revenue per available room night for the first half of 2009, thanks to shrinking demand, shorter booking times and competitive pressures.

Yet, Paris did have the highest occupancy rate in the euro zone (74 percent) and the second highest average room rates (after Venice) for the first half of the year.

[Photo via MigrantBlogger]

Hotels lowering standards, prices and star ratings

It won’t come as a surprise to hear that hotels all around the world are suffering. The hotel industry is becoming a survival of the fittest, and as some hotels simply close for good, others are taking a more practical route to get out of trouble.

Luxury hotels have been lowering their prices, but many of them have hit a limit on how low they can go. Most have tried adding creative promotions, and even handing out dining coupons or other incentives, but eventually they’ll need to cut other corners to make ends meet.

By removing amenities like fresh flowers, free drinks, newspapers, magazines and free gifts for elite guests, hotels are saving a fortune. At the same time, the removal of these amenities means the hotel can no longer hang on to its current star rating. What used to be a four or five star hotel, suddenly becomes a three star hotel, with a three star price.

I’m sure this solution may work for the short term, but by removing a star (and the services attached to that star), hotels will also drop out of view of people looking for a luxury hotel. Removing services that used to be included with a room will also annoy loyal returning guests who expect a certain level of luxury. And finally, turning your once upscale property into a not-so-luxury hotel also damages your brand, something that may take years to fix. Then again, I’m sure it beats the alternative of having to fire everyone and close.

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Luxury Hotels of The World: The Lalu Hotel (Taiwan)

To fully experience Taiwan’s natural beauty, there’s one destination that is universally praised: Sun Moon Lake.

It’s the largest lake in Taiwan, and is so beautiful that Chang Kai Shek, Taiwan’s first president, built a house there to vacation.

In 1997, after an earthquake destroyed his house, the lot was purchased and after five years of construction Taiwan’s only six star hotel, The Lalu Hotel, was built. Shortly after it joined the ranks of Design Hotels, a premiere group of international boutique and luxury hotels.

I recently had the chance to stay there for a few nights and meet with the manager of the hotel to get the full tour.

When, after waiting a full six months, the chairman received the blueprints from the architect, he was furious. They showed a very simple design with long straight lines and no curves at all. For what would become the best hotel in Taiwan, it didn’t seem very fancy.

The chairman was calmed down and after some convincing agreed to build the hotel according to the blueprints. The result, as it stands today, is a building which relies on high quality materials and workmanship, rather than gimmicks or fancy veneers.

This attitude doesn’t stop with the architecture, but rather is echoed throughout the entire experience of staying at The Lalu.

Instead of waiting to be checked in, we were ushered to a couch in the lobby lounge, where we were served tea and almonds. When the room keys were ready, they were brought to us and we were led to our room.

The hotel is built on a hill which leads down to Sun Moon Lake. All of the rooms have huge balconies with tables, chairs, and daybeds on them, allowing you to enjoy the incredible view of the water whenever you’re in your room.

The stained Cambodian teak floors of the room extend out to the balcony, creating a seamless transition when the full width sliding glass doors are opened.

Restaurants

The restauraunts were excellent. They have a Chinese restaurant, a Western restaurant (confusingly named “The Oriental Brasserie”), and a Japanese restaurant.

Our first visit to the Chinese restaurant was solid, but not noteworthy other than the view of the lake. The second time we visited was amazing. Particularly good was the eggplant and basil dish, which was so tasty that we ordered another plate of it after we’d finished the first.

Dinner at the brasserie was also excellent. My friend’s steak was among the best he’d ever had. I couldn’t find anything on the menu that meshed with my vegan and whole food diet, but the chef prepared a fantastic vegetable and pasta dish for me which was surprisingly well thought out and inventive for a last minute diet-appeasing dish.

Complimentary breakfast is also served buffet style at the brasserie. The huge selection ranged from sliced local fruits to grilled fish to traditional Taiwanese porridge. Even as a vegan the selection was so great that I had to get multiple plates to try everything I was interested in.

The Spa

I’m so ticklish that I usually avoid massages. However, the Lalu offers Indian Ayurvedic massages which sounded so interesting that I had to try one.

I chose the strangest sounding one, which consisted of a head, neck, and shoulder massage coupled with twenty five minutes of pouring warm oil on the forehead.

The prologue to the massage was is adventure in of itself. When we arrived at the spa we were guided to the locker room.

Calling it a locker room is a gross understatement. Besides the usual array af lockers, the facility contains Japanese onsen style sit-down showers, a huge black stone hot tub with adjoining cool plunge pools, a cedar sauna, and a steam room.

After a quick shower and sauna I changed into my robe and was led to the massage room. Once there I was seated in a chair with my feet soaking in a cedar bucket full of warm water, smooth stones, and rose petals. Next to the chair was a pot of tea and some biscuits.

After a quick fifteen minute visit to the steam room in the massage room I got on the massage table for the Ayurvedic massage. I enjoyed the treatment a lot more that I thought I would, and even considered braving being tickled and going for another one the following day. The warm oil on my forehead seemed strange, but I was undeniably relaxed by the end of it.

The Teas

I should take a minute here to talk about the tea. It seems like everything at the Lalu is accompanied by some sort of tea to match the activity.

At the spa the tea is light and refreshing, at the pool it’s a sharp energizing ginger tea, and at check in it’s sweet and satisfying.

My favorite tea by far, however, is the green tea delivered daily to the room. I’m a bit of a tea snob, especially with green teas, and I can easily say that it was the best green tea I’ve ever had. The best way I can describe it, which totally fails to do it justice, is to say that it tastes something like fresh steamed artichoke heart.

Every day I found myself using the room’s electric tea kettle to heat up more water to resteep the leaves.

My only regret at the Lalu was that I didn’t have a chance to visit the tea house next to the pool. I tried to go one day, but the rain had closed it down.

Activities

It would be easy to spend your entire trip within the confines of the Lalu, but this would be a serious injustice to the Sun Moon Lake area.

The landscape around the lake is a verdant mountainous jungle, punctuated by a temple and nine story pagoda atop a mountain across the lake from The Lalu.

In the middle of the lake is a tiny island which was once the top of a mountain before dams built during the Japenese occupation raised the water level of the lake. At any given time during the day there are a handful of boats docked around the island, with a few more coming and going.

A road leads around the lake to its various attractions: temples, hiking trails, fishing, a tea research facility, and a peacock garden.

We rented mountain bikes from the Lalu and made it to the Wen Wu temple and to the peacock garden. Even if you’re a jaded traveler who has seen more than his share of temples, the Wen Wu temple is still worth visiting for its intricate design and breathtaking views.

The peacock garden was also interesting, although the peacocks were in cages due to the cloudy weather.

The next day, sore from biking and a visit to the Lalu’s adequately equipped gym, we went down the street and rented electric scooters to get around.

Visiting the pagoda, built by Chang Kai Shek as a tribute to his mother, is a must for it’s 360 degree view as well as the fun of ringing the giant bell at the top.

The Service

The service at the Lalu can best be described as perfect. The service is friendly and attentive without ever being overbearing. This comes as no suprise after Joe Tsang, the general manager, told us about the thorough training every staff member goes through.

Almost all of the staff speak English, despite the fact that only 5-8% of the visitors are from the US.

A perfect example of the service was a staff person named Mondo. I’m not sure what his actual job was, but when he saw us about to go biking he ran inside and got us water bottles and maps. Every time we saw him he would happily tell us about the area, ask about our bike ride, or apologize for the bad weather.

Having interactions like that really made us feel like we were guests, rather than customers that had to be catered to.

Attention to Detail

The attention to detail at the Lalu is legendary. More than just trivial afterthoughts, these considerations create an uninterrupted experience of genuine luxury and decadence.

A few of the more interesting things:

  • The shampoos, conditioners, and other shower acoutrements are housed in handmade ceramic jars
  • Two cages of songbirds hang near the entrance. At night they are replaced by lanterns.
  • The swimming pool, which is the longest in Taiwan, is cleaned daily by a scuba diver.
  • Honey served at breakfast drips from an intact honeycomb into a pot.
  • The mountain bikes for rent are perfectly washed and presented on a wooden floored showroom.
  • Chang Kai Shek’s house was reconstructed on site complete with his office furnished with his original furniture.
  • Everything smells amazing, including the balconies which are supplied with incense that’s lit at turn down service every night.
  • Fresh orchids are potted in every room.

Final Thoughts

After visiting the Lalu Hotel I understand why almost forty percent of their business is from repeat customers. Staying at the hotel is overwhelmingly relaxing and taking advantage of the activities in the surrounding area makes for a substantive and satisfying vacation.

My one complaint? The free internet in the room was distractingly slow. Then again, not being able to sit in front of my computer all day pushed me to get out of the room and enjoy everything the Lalu and Sun Moon Lake had to offer.

To read more about the Lalu or to book a room, visit their site at http://www.lalu.com.tw/