The old Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong may have been small but, much like the city itself, it punched well above its weight. While the hotel’s unprepossessing entrance was overshadowed by the elite Hong Kong Club building and the Rolls-Royce showroom next door, extraordinarily gracious doormen more than made up for it. The hotel’s Italian restaurant, Toscana, was widely regarded as the best in Asia before the hotel had to close, in January 2008, to make room for yet another office tower.
The new Ritz-Carlton, which opened on Tuesday last week, is the architectural antithesis of its avatar. The 312-room hotel extends from floors 102 to 118 of the International Commerce Centre across the harbour in Kowloon. And everywhere you go in the hotel, from the lobby to the rooftop bar, the staff intone: “This is the world’s tallest hotel, the highest spa, the highest bar ... ”
On Tuesday night, I was checking in when I bumped into a friend and her husband also staying at the hotel. When we met at Tosca, the Italian restaurant on the 102nd floor, we had to make our way past rows of glass cabinets filled with mirrored red and silver Perspex lit from the bottom and the top. The neighbouring lounge had two chandeliers with clear and red glass that looked like enormous chimneys.
In the centre of Tosca hung a chandelier so large it ought to feature in the Guinness Book of World Records. Sitting just below it that morning at a press briefing, the Ritz-Carlton’s president, Herve Humler, had said that the hotel’s décor needed the “wow factor because we are in Asia”.
My friends and I were seated by the window with an unimpeded view of the harbour, but metaphorically we turned away from it to reminisce about the old Ritz-Carlton and Toscana, whose chef Umberto Bombana has left to run the most celebrated western restaurant in Hong Kong.
In a sense, this is the challenge Ritz-Carlton faces in Hong Kong. It must measure up to its own high standards – and the service, style and sophistication of its rivals, the Mandarin Oriental, the Peninsula, the Four Seasons and the Upper House. Like the city’s first hotel, the Hong Kong Hotel, which described itself in the 19th century as “the most commodious and best-appointed hotel in the Far East”, all these hotels could justly lay claim to being among the finest in Asia.
Everywhere I went in the new Ritz-Carlton, I encountered staff trying to be as obliging as the old Ritz staff used to be. (About 30 per cent of the hotel staff are from the original property.) The doormen were reassuringly just the same. One dissuaded a departing dinner guest, who was carrying no cash, from walking to the ATMs in the adjacent shopping mall. Instead, he gave the taxi driver precise instructions to the most convenient ATMs on the guest’s way home.
When I remarked that the sofas in the Lounge restaurant where breakfast is served were too far from the tables to eat comfortably, an energetic restaurant manager said she had heard this from other guests. The tables would be extended, she said, but it would have to be done overnight. “Overnight?” I asked incredulously. “We need the restaurant to be open every day,” she explained simply.
As I left my room to check out, I encountered a diligent staff member roaming the corridors with a little notepad crammed full of notes. Had I had any problems, she asked as I stepped into the lift? (Incidentally, this wasn’t special media treatment: I had checked in incognito.) I mentioned just two – the irritating refusal to serve water unless it was bottled and could be charged for and the minor problem of there being no moisturiser in the men’s changing room adjacent to the swimming pool.
I did not mention my problems with the hotel’s design. There is the pool, for instance, which features an LED screen on its ceiling and at one end of it that flashes scenes of the beach and the sky while you do your laps. Taken unawares, I thought a typhoon was approaching when the “clouds” briefly turned black. At breakfast, however, I reasoned that one person’s hall of psychedelic hallucinations is another man’s pleasure palace. (Indeed, a couple of guests I spoke with loved the design.)
Nor did I speak about the half-a-dozen pillows that lay on my bed, a couple of which were so large an elephant would have found them suitable. They took up half the bed, which meant getting into bed made my room look like it had been the scene of a messy pillow-fight.
If the new Ritz in Hong Kong is anything to go by, a mixture of Beijing bling married with the excesses of Dubai – even the toiletry wrappings are gold-coloured – will be the prevailing hotel aesthetic of the 21st century. The hotel’s main designer was the Singaporean firm LTW, which has undertaken hotel projects across China, India and south-east Asia for the likes of Shangri-La and Oberoi. The bombardment of one’s senses in its restaurants was deployed by the Japanese design studio Spin. A more elegant modern Asian aesthetic is represented by Hong Kong’s gifted Andre Fu who designed the Upper House and the Jia in Shanghai, but for now the maximalists are well ahead.
Design aside, the main problem with the new Ritz-Carlton is, surprisingly, its biggest bragging point – that its highest floor is 490m above sea level. From my room on the 109th floor, I felt like I was looking at the model of a city far below. I have never felt so removed, exiled even, from Hong Kong’s bustling street life and the unforgettable night-time vistas of a modern-day Atlantis rising out of the sea. Being the tallest hotel in the world turns out to be, like so many of the marketing world’s superlatives, the most empty boast of all.
Double rooms start at HK$4,088 (£328); www.ritzcarlton.com
Rahul Jacob is the FT’s south China correspondent