21st February 2018

The Sound & the Fury

Is there anything that annoys like noise? Given the sophistication and substantial investment in most hotel and restaurant designs, it never ceases to amaze us how many places seem to take no account of acoustics.

We have generally been complimentary about The Wolseley in London ever since it opened – great décor, great concept, OK food – but that is hardly the point. How much nicer it would be if you could hear your companions speak without having to lean in so close or constantly ask them to repeat themselves.

As for ROKA, Hakkasan, La Petite Maison and the more sceney, aspirational venues of London’s Mayfair, you can hardly hear yourself speak, much less your interlocutor. But the worst offender on this score is surely Kensington Place, where the combination of hard interiors and that great glass frontage do nothing but heighten the clamour of cutlery and the babble of conversation.

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Thumping basslines and drum beats from the bar were unbearable

In New York, Bagatelle, Barbuto and Le CouCou are no better. Oh, for relatively quiet restaurants, with properly spaced tables, such as New York’s The Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges or London’s Locanda Locatelli. Or Le Gabriel in Paris, where even if you find yourself seated next to a big celebratory party, the design of the room and the way sound travels within it ensures you will not be disturbed.

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But perhaps even more of an irritant are hotels where the rooms are less than adequately soundproofed. Take the COMO Metropolitan in Bangkok, a popular hotel, although not one that would ever get onto our ‘best of the best’ shortlist, but which works well in most respects except when it comes to noise pollution.

Converted from a former YMCA, very stylishly it has to be said, the original structure is one in which sound carries. Thumping basslines and drum beats that rose up to our room from the Met Bar, were unbearable, though nothing compared with the sound of revellers pouring out, which went on into the early hours. Hurrah for Thailand’s social order legislation, we thought, which means that bars outside designated ‘nightlife zones’ must close at 1am. But, especially if you are jetlagged, as you surely will be if you have flown in from Europe or the US, the noise can drive you mad.

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The ringing of the club’s till at Le Byblos takes precedence over guests’ wellbeing

Le Byblos is one of our Saint Tropez favourites, especially in shoulder season and provided you secure the right suite with the best aspect, but it is similarly guilty. If you happen to have a suite in the best-positioned block, in terms of views from its upper floors towards the harbour, you’ve got to contend, even at off-season weekends, and all week long in the summer, with the sound that travels from the nightclub Les Caves du Roy.

We were woken by it at 3am (it goes on practically all night), and though the management were very gracious about it when we complained, all they could offer us were earplugs and a room with a lesser view. The disturbance was bad enough, but what we really resented was that no one had warned us. So our advice is, if the noise is likely to bother you, go midweek off season. It is obvious that Le Byblos makes so much money from the jeroboams of Cristal they shift that the ringing of the club’s till takes precedence over guests’ wellbeing.

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Then, in many places, there is the sound of the other guests and their music, a problem exacerbated by the number of hotels that now consider a set of Bang & Olufsen speakers or at the very least an iPod docking station an essential hotel room amenity. It isn’t necessarily that guests are listening to their music at an anti-social volume. One of our reviewers (jet-lagged) was driven almost demented at the soigné Cheval Blanc, St Barths, by their upstairs neighbours’ penchant for Bill Evans’ normally inoffensive style of piano jazz. Oh, and their footsteps. Every time one of them got out of bed, their footfall resounded through the tiled floor.

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Belmond Hotel Splendido, Portofino is another culprit in respect of unwittingly noisy neighbours. Right at the top of the building with a private terrace, room 474 promises peace and seclusion – in principle – but again the soundproofing between the rooms is almost non-existent. When our neighbours’ breakfast was delivered we went to answer the door ourselves, so loud was the sound of their bell. Their telephone conversations could be overheard and their ablutions were so audible that by the end of the trip we knew way too much about them, much of it details we really could have done without.

In Milan you are highly likely to be woken by the reverberations of your female fellow guests’ high heels click-clacking down the corridor

Sometimes it is the sound of the hotel going about its daily business that gets us. If your room is over the breakfast terrace, or directly above the dining room, there’s a good chance you’ll be woken by staff arranging plates – and chattering as they do it. Ditto if your room overlooks the pool: staff may start the day early arranging mattresses and towels, and shouting to each other across the water as they do so.

And what about the chambermaids who thoughtlessly slam the doors of the service cupboards or begin vacuuming the corridors at dawn? Why must their shifts start so early? Yes, Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo, Taormina, we are thinking of you, even though you remain one of our firm favourites. Also, room-service staff should be trained to heed the fact that just because one lot of guests are ready for their breakfast, the whole floor doesn’t necessarily want to be woken by a loud knock and cheery greeting.

Then there is the very fabric of the hotel. At the Four Seasons Milan, an outstanding hotel in almost all respects, what ought to be the most desirable rooms – Junior Suites numbers 8, 9, 10 and 11 – are marred by a tiled floor outside their doors. This being Milan you are highly likely to be woken by the reverberations of your female fellow guests’ high heels click-clacking down the corridor. We do concede, however, that this is never going to be an easy situation to remedy.

But floors are often a problem. Much as we applaud Olga Polizzi’s way with wood, we have been driven to distraction by our upstairs neighbours, both at the Astoria in St Petersburg and the Savoy in Florence, while they tap-danced and shifted the furniture (or that’s what it sounded like) on the herringbone parquet. (The bathrooms at the latter could have quieter plumbing too.)

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Hurrah for the Four Seasons Hotel des Begues in Geneva, which has insulated each room from the next by putting two consecutive doors between them

Central heating and air-conditioning can also be vexatious. How often have we lain awake at the Carlyle in New York wondering at the burps and gurgles caused by the central heating pipes expanding and contracting? And how noisy does air-conditioning have to be to make one turn it off, even in temperatures above 40 degrees? As loud as the unit we discovered at the Chedi Muscat, Oman, as it happens.

Interconnecting rooms can be another problem. If there’s only a thin door between you and the people in the next room, then there’s a likelihood you’ll hear them. So hurrah for the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues, Geneva, where a high proportion of the rooms in this 19th-century property were intended to open into one another, but which has insulated each room from the next by installing two consecutive doors, with a wide space between them.

Traffic noise is another irritant. The recently made-over Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles is located amid the seeming quiet of Stone Canyon, but if you have a room backing onto Stone Canyon Road, which is the main route to the Bel Air Country Club, all the delivery trucks drive past in the morning. We have not tried these particular accommodations since the refurb was completed but our advice might be to steer clear if you really want to be sure of not being disturbed. And though we know hotels depend on having their rubbish collected, guests shouldn’t have to be disturbed by refuse trucks and the clank of the dustbins.

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The tradition of the general manager spending a night in each of the rooms seems no longer to be practised

Double and triple sound-insulated glass can make all the difference. It seemed to us miraculous when staying in a Hyde Park-facing room at The Lanesborough, London that the traffic was inaudible. Even more so at the beautiful newly revamped Hôtel de Crillon, Paris where top suites overlook Place de la Concorde, which can resemble a very busy multi-lane highway. But again, all is hush inside as long as you don’t open the window.

Of course, in some cases, it may be that the hotel’s management team simply aren’t aware of the problem (the tradition of the general manager spending a night in each of the rooms seems no longer to be practised). But they might do well to consider the implications of sound interference, whether it is from televisions, traffic noise, thoughtless staff, or – hardest to control and correct, we realise – unruly guests. Having made their beds, though, they might occasionally try sleeping in them.