The private pool on the private, 2,500-square-foot terrace of the new $11,200-a-night Presidential Suite at the InterContinental in Hong Kong is constructed in the popular "infinity" style, and thus appears, from certain angles, to share water with Victoria Harbour. If it had regular edges, a man could rest his scotch and his elbows on one of them, gaze through the mist at the jostling skyscrapers of the city, and ponder the condition of humanity in these luxurious early moments of the Third Millennium. As it is, I rise dripping from the pool and pad across the talcum-soft sandstone to my Jacuzzi, the one with the black-glass tiling, not the Hansgrohe Pharo Whirlpool Lugano 340 in my cavernous bathroom. The panorama erupts in Hong Kong's nightly Symphony of Lights, lasers and neon smeared by the tropical humidity, and I busy myself with wondering how it came to this. Who are we?Where are we go—
It's Tatsuo, one of my two 24-hour personal butlers. (The other, Pang, is inside—upstairs, to be specific, as opposed to downstairs—infusing the other Jacuzzi with aromatherapy oils.) Is it possible, Tatsuo wants to know with a bow, that my $6 Hanes T-shirt had a hole in it before I sent it to be laundered?Otherwise he bears tidings of an incident that is as regrettable as it is mysterious. I set his mind at ease. Tatsuo bows and departs. I resume my cogitations.
The concept of the presidential suite dates back to 1880, when Ulysses S. Grant, despite no longer being the president, despite such a thing not even yet existing, apparently demanded he be housed in one during a stay at the New York hotel that later became the Hilton. The experiment was a success, and over the course of the next century other hotels built presidential suites, some of them acquiring individual reputations for extraordinary opulence. One thinks of the Presidential Suite at New York's Waldorf, or the 6,000-square-foot Penthouse Suite at the Fairmont in San Francisco, where Secretary of State Edward Stettinius holed up during the drafting of the UN charter back in 1945.
But in the past few years a new beast has emerged: the purpose-built, insanely extravagant "supersuite." Commonly sprawling over many thousands of square feet, if not an entire floor, and leaving the occupant, usually, with no change at all from $10,000 a night, these lavish new spaces have become de rigueur for the world's best hotels. "It's a curious thing, to tell you the truth," says Priscilla Alexander, travel agent to the super-rich and a T+L A-List All-Star. "There were always top suites, but this emerging group of people, who are spending money in a fashion that's quite"—she pauses—"exemplary, is a new phenomenon."
To Jean-Jacques Reibel, managing director of the InterContinental Hong Kong, whose 7,000-square-foot Presidential Suite opened in January, the supersuite phenomenon is about uniqueness. What customers seem to want for their five-figure-a-night investment is not merely luxury, but unique luxury. "People are looking for an original and exclusive experience," he tells me. "They want to have something that not many people can have."
For Reibel's guests, this means a living room in which you could inflate a hot-air balloon, a truly IMAX view of Hong Kong, a private office where one works overlooked by nine specially commissioned Kowloon dragons wrought from backlit sculpted glass, the aforementioned sprawling terrace, a conference/dining room with video communications facilities, toilet seats that rise automatically when one enters the room, an en-suite gymnasium, an en-suite sauna, and an en-suite steam room. (It's embarrassing to admit but I didn't actually know there was a difference between a steam room and a sauna until I saw the two of them side by side, leading away from my upstairs bathroom. I almost had to lean on one of the hand-carvedfrom-a-single-block-of-marble sinks, I was so taken aback.)
Given the intensity of the supersuite arms race between hotels, however, these outrageous features are merely the price of admission to an increasingly crowded pantheon. At the Westin Excelsior in Rome, residents of the $24,000-a-night Villa La Cupola suite have, since 1998, been availing themselves of a private en-suite cinema. In the $23,000-a-night Imperial Suite of the Hôtel Président Wilson in Geneva, they've been riding a private elevator, enjoying a game of billiards, and then gazing serenely at the Alps through a set of bulletproof windows.
For these are the kind of people who do occasionally get shot at. All the hoteliers interviewed for this article were commendably tight-lipped on the question of who's actually renting these suites, but all agreed the trend owes a lot to that segment of the population one might inelegantly call Newly Rich Foreigners. Of whom there are a lot. This year's Forbes survey unearthed a record 793 billionaires, up from 476 in 2003, many of them hailing from such hitherto unluxurious corners of the world as "Asia" and "Russia." For this sort of client, Priscilla Alexander says, it's often the Presidential Suite or nothing. The matter doesn't even need to be discussed. And why should it be?If you're the kind of person who has recently come into possession of the Russian steel industry, there are far better uses of your time than inquiring aloud whether the toilet seats in the suite you're booking raise themselves automatically when you enter the room. And so, of course they do. Once an oligarch has had his first taste of supersuite living, furthermore, a return to the tawdry world of mere bridal or executive suites is unthinkable. "It's like flying in the front of the plane," Alexander says. "If you've done it enough, the experience is so corrupting that ever returning to the back of the plane is an assault on the senses."
"Luxury is back," says publicist Leslie Lefkowitz of the Four Seasons in Manhattan, showing me around the two already legendary I. M. Peidesigned supersuites that opened last year. Stylistically, the suites are as tasteful as my spread at the InterContinental was showy. Chocolate-upholstered couches beckon you to spark up the gas fireplace and get lost in a first edition of some late-period Dickens. When eyestrain sets in, you can go tinkle a little Chopin on the baby grand or rest your head against the woven leather paneling of the walls. Or simply stare out at New York through the enormous bay window. On a clear day, of which this happens to be a spectacular example, you can even see the Statue of Liberty, glinting tinily away to the south between the torsos of the skyscrapers.
But the low-key residential feel of the Pei suites is somewhat deceptive. In the company of a guide as well informed as Lefkowitz, every cozy, comfortable detail suddenly morphs into a unique and superluxe selling point. Those aren't just couches, apparently. They're couches by Peter Marino, who did all the interior design, and who famously doesn't design for hotels. What appears to be a spacious but merely functional bathroom is apparently a one-off celebration of special "ginger-onyx" marble, the seams and striations of which have been painstakingly lined up to provide continuity around corners and throughout alcoves. Indeed, Lefkowitz informs me, every single scrap of fabric and furnishing is "one of a kind," available neither in stores nor in any other Four Seasons room.
One can't help but feel that to the vast majority of potential occupants, this is—almost literally—gilding the lily. With the glaring exception of Martha Stewart, and just possibly that Swedish guy who owns IKEA, it's hard to see who could have learned enough about interior design to appreciate the detailing of the suite and still have had enough time left over to amass the kind of fortune that lets you spend $15,000 on a room for the night.
Which is, come to think of it, an extremely naïve observation. As well as housing the handful of 10-figure oligarchs and paradigm-shifters whose plaything this world of ours has become, an obvious second function of the supersuite is to impress the stuffing out of lowly journalists with holes in their T-shirts and checking-account balances in the very high two figures. In fact, if anything, supersuites function better as promotional showcases than they do as actual living spaces. By day three at the InterContinental I was starting to wish that the television at the foot of my bed didn't insist on gliding silently from its invisible hiding place whenever I wanted to watch it, but rather just stayed out in the open, immobile, somewhere I could—you know—look at it. Would I feel differently if I were a billionaire?Yes, I think I'd find it even more annoying.
But there is, I discovered, a hard-to-define pleasure to staying somewhere unique, and ultimately this may be what the supersuite phenomenon is really about, from Lefkowitz with her one-off sheets to my butlers Pang and Tatsuo, who took pains to explain that not only did I have the best possible view of Hong Kong, but also that "no one else has this view." Plasma TV's and en-suite gymnasia are all very nice, but on this rapidly standardizing, increasingly globalized globe, it may be that the most valuable commodity has suddenly become something that most of our ancestors, moneyed or otherwise, took for granted: the simple feeling of being different. It may be hard to put a price on such an ineffable sensation as that, but as the reception desks of the world's best hotels will be only too happy to tell you, it's not impossible.
Bruno Maddox is a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure.
Where to Stay
Four Seasons Hotel, New York
57 E. 57th St.; 800/332-3442; www.fourseasons.com; Presidential Suite $15,000.
Hotel Cipriani, Venice
Giudecca 10; 800/237-1236; www.hotelcipriani.com; Palladio Suite from $8,000.
Hôtel Meurice, Paris
228 Rue de Rivoli; 800/223-6800; www.meuricehotel.com; Belle Étoile Suite $12,000.
Hôtel Président Wilson, Geneva
47 Quai Wilson; 800/745-8883; www.hotelpwilson.com; Imperial Suite from $23,000.
InterContinental, Hong Kong
18 Salisbury Rd.; 888/424-6835; www.ichotelsgroup.com; Presidential Suite $11,200.
Mansion at MGM Grand, Las Vegas
3799 Las Vegas Blvd. S.; 877/225-2121; www.mgmgrand.com; Four-Bedroom Villa $15,000.
Setai, Miami Beach
2001 Collins Ave.; 800/223-6800; www.setai.com; penthouse from $25,000.
Westin Excelsior, Rome
125 Via Vittorio Veneto; 888/625-5144; www.westin.com; Villa La Cupola from $24,000.