Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Surreal Hotel Experience

The Sofitel Boao is a giant 78,000 square meter complex very close to the venue for the annual Boao Forum for Asia. It's definitely a place to escape to for a few days and very secure, as there's a check point a few kilometers away that keeps unwanted or unqualified people from entering.

The hotel is merited its five-star status in terms of the rooms, with bed linens framed with gold threading, a marble shower stall and a stand alone bathtub, shiny wooden floors, and a nice small balcony to enjoy the view outside.

But other things don't quite make this place world class, or are efficiently used.

Surrounding the hotel is a gigantic landscape featuring a long winding swimming pool called Jade Belt, which is actually covered in dark blue tiles and the edge of the pool is so subtle that it looks like it merges with the ocean to create a great view. However it's a pity that the pool water is so cold, despite pathetic efforts to warm it in patches. Or maybe it's too cold to swim in it in January. So why not have an indoor pool available too?

Anyway, my friend and I were lucky to have a sunny day there and decided to pass the time by the pool. While there were beach towels for us to put on the lounge chairs, there were no refreshments available -- we had to refill our water bottles at the fitness center, even though there is a sunken bar in the pool, but no one manning it.

There were washrooms by the pool -- both squatting and sitting toilets, but when I went in, one of the taps at the sink was running and no staff member had come by to turn it off. One wonders how long that had been running.

In terms of dining, there aren't many choices -- there's Le Mistral, a western-style restaurant that offers either buffet, or a la carte. On our first night there, we inquired about dining off the menu, but the staff told us the kitchen was busy so we'd have to wait. Scanning the room and seeing the buffet barely set up at almost 7pm, it was a strange excuse that was hard to accept.

We did eat there the night after, with a plate of smoked salmon, a garden salad, and then an overcooked beef tenderloin when my friend wanted it really rare, and the seafood boullabaisse had frozen prawns and overcooked mussels. The best part were the fresh clams and scallops. The banana split was OK except for the re-frozen scoop of vanilla ice cream that was completely tasteless. However, the chocolate butter cake was very good.

Symposium is the Chinese restaurant, and it turns out most guests prefer dining there. Not only is it comfort food for the mainly Chinese clientele, but also reasonably priced relative to Le Mistral. We had a fantastic garoupa that was perfectly steamed, braised eggplant, sweet and sour spare ribs, steamed pumpkin with lily bulbs, and stir-fried rice with shrimp.

The other restaurant is Asiana, which is also buffet-style for breakfasts and offers an array of Asian-style dishes. One complaint from my friend is that for breakfast there aren't many western-style dishes, but then again, most of the guests there are probably happy with fried noodles and congee.

None of these restaurants was outstandingly good, which made the dining experience short of satisfying. Also, why haven't the food and beverage department taken advantage of the fact that the hotel guests are practically stranded in the hotel and encourage them to eat more during the day? Why not follow the lead of cruise ships and other top hotels by offering afternoon tea, dessert buffet in the evenings or even an ice cream stand for kids?

The reason I suggest this is that there isn't much to do at the hotel unless you want to swim in the cold pool and while there are 37 different hot springs (probably completely manufactured), you can only soak in so many a day. There is a small exercise gym and a spa for massages and facials, but other than the billiard tables, table tennis and tennis court, there isn't much else to pass the time. Also there were many families staying at the hotel -- why not organize activities for children to do, or have more spaces for them to play in?

The hotel complex is absolutely huge -- it's like being in a Las Vegas hotel but without the large numbers of people everywhere. While it is great there are bathrooms in various areas of the hotel, the place was hardly full, which makes one wonder how they fill the rooms on a daily basis. There are golf groups as there is a golf course across the street, and a few conferences, while the rest of the clientele were family groups.

Service from staff ranged from incompetence to the perfect hotel employee. When we dined at Le Mistral, we asked for the dessert menu, but the waitress didn't seem to know what to do. Some had decent English, but preferred not to use it. When we asked about the hotel arranging transportation for us to go back to the Haikou Airport, a haughty man at the front desk said the only way back was the hotel limousine and that would cost us 650RMB ($95).

We didn't take that for an answer and the next day asked another man named Reuben at the front desk. He said we could get a taxi at less than half of the cost of the hotel car and helped us book the taxi too. And when we checked out, he escorted us to the car to see us off. First class.

It's so strange seeing such diverse standards at this one hotel. While it is understandable due to the secluded location that they would receive few guests most of the year, but when the Boao Forum comes in April, the hotel has to quickly ramp up to give tip top service to high-powered international guests who are extremely demanding. Saying "this is China" is not acceptable.

And while the Boao Forum talks about pressing issues like the economy and environment, it's ironic that the permanent site for the event was practically built for it... in the middle of nowhere. How is that sustainable?

Sofitel Boao
Dongyu Island
Boao Aquapolis
Hainan Province
(898) 6296 6888

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