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Hotel Bathrooms: Bathing Beauty

Patrick Cariou

Photo: Patrick Cariou

IF NOT A CERTIFIED TRUTH, IT IS CERTAINLY A much-quoted factoid: hotel industry studies show that guests spend as much as two-thirds of their en suite waking hours in the bathroom. This figure seems vaguely astonishing, until you subtract the eight hours one hopes to be in dreamland, and the roughly nine more spent away from the room doing business, getting fed, or scaling K2. Then it makes better sense.

And it provides a reason, in part, why hotel bathrooms, according to architect Calvin Tsao of Tsao & McKown in New York, have become a kind of laboratory for "serving people's expectations on a functional, emotional, and aspirational level." The desire to "romance everything" about hotel rooms is always present, claims Tsao, whose firm has designed hotels as disparate as the Tribeca Grand in New York, the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, and the superluxe Wheatleigh in Lenox, Massachusetts. However, the impulse seems not to have manifested itself at most chain hotels I've lodged in. (The inevitable toilet-facing full-length mirror is not a detail to swoon over, in my humble view.) The challenge for designers, says Tsao, becomes how to assemble the symbols of emotional and aspirational fantasy without sacrificing "the way the room serves basic needs." What do you do, in other words, after you've put in the toilet, the sink, and the tub?

If you are the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco, you place wall speakers hooked up to the TV in bathrooms where you can look out on the Transamerica Pyramid from the tub. If you are the Park Hyatt Tokyo, you specify deep soaking tubs, double sinks, and toilet seats with heat sensors that automatically match the temperature of the sitter's behind. If you are the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay, you install Kohler tubs large enough for two standard-sized American adults or an entire Indonesian family. If you are Singita Private Game Reserve adjacent to South Africa's Kruger National Park, you place a tub by the window in each of the individual lodges, so that guests—or, at any rate, this guest—can indulge in the surreal experience of watching hippos wallow in a nearby river while being pleasurably parboiled.

"A lot of our development is based on increasing the feeling of sanctuary and holistic relaxation," says Nicole Aguirre, a spokeswoman for the 200-hotel Hyatt chain, as she describes the so-called wet bathrooms at the new Grand Hyatt Shanghai. Cylindrical glass "towers" there have three separate showerheads that, as Aguirre explains, "make guests feel as if they're being rained on," or else as if they'd booked a Scotch Douche with Frau Hannelore at Baden-Baden. Either way, the cloudburst effect must be amplified somewhat if you happen to be staying on the 85th floor.

"In many cultures, Asian ones especially," André Balazs says, "bathing is not an afterthought. It's both an intimate and a social act." The considerable influence of Asian aesthetics on contemporary hotel design helps account for a number of welcome trends in the way bathrooms are now being organized and fitted—more soaking tubs, a certain material restraint, less of the Carrara marble acreage so beloved of hotel chains and wedding factories. But the selfsame influence—think Anouska Hempel and Kelly Hoppen—can equally be charged with promoting unwelcome trends, such as the now commonplace gimmick of creating bathrooms in tiny nooks by "borrowing" space from the bedroom. Shoji screens may look serenely beautiful in magazine layouts, but in real life they're no aid to either romance or friendship, unless you find gargling erotic.

THE ZEN GLOW, AS IT HAS BEEN CALLED, is hardly the only design trick being used to bewitch the jaded luxury traveler. There is also the neocolonial fantasy so effectively summoned by the Raffles hotel group in its reconditioning of the once-faded grand hotels of Southeast Asia. At Le Royal in Phnom Penh, reopened in 1997, suites named for visiting dignitaries of the French colonial period are equipped with bathrooms—fog-free heated mirrors, vast claw-footed tubs, miraculously effective plumbing—that would have stunned even a practiced sybarite like André Malraux, never mind a traveler alert to the fact that most Cambodians bathe and relieve themselves in open waterways. There are some hotels that specialize in evoking an imaginary "country house" bathroom, the sort of place nabobs on the Grand Tour might have encountered if flush toilets had been widely known at the time. There are others, replete with thatch or driftwood or rope ladder details, that seek to evoke lodgings for the high-end castaway in an uncaring world. There is, of course, the neo-ethnic bathroom—carved wood stools, tribal shields, awkward basins, and always, it seems, some tortured method for hanging up towels.

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