I don’t know about you, but most of the traveling I have done in my life has looked something like this: five girls squeezed into two double beds in a budget hotel room. Or sleeping three feet away from snoring stranger at a hostel. Or a ten-hour bus ride from Amsterdam to Berlin following the ingestion of an ill-advised pot brownie. Which is to say, a lot of fun, but not exactly the height of glamour and sophistication. So when I was offered the chance to fly business class to Hong Kong and spend four nights at the storied Peninsula Hotel, I immediately packed my suitcase. (Okay, fine, first I asked my boss, then I waited until the day of my flight, and then I packed my suitcase. And I checked it, too, because that shit is free in business class.)
Among other things, the Peninsula’s claim to fame is that it’s the only hotel chain in the world to have five stars in all of its 11 locations, which include New York, Paris, Beijing, Shanghai, and Beverly Hills. They’re all famously chic, but the Hong Kong outpost was the first, and is therefore, arguably, the best. And, having opened in 1928, it’s also the oldest hotel in the city. Room prices range from up to $3,000 a night for the most lavish suites — we’re talking floor-to-ceiling windows, chandeliers, and sweeping views of the Victoria Harbour — to about $600 a night for the more diminutive (but still very plush) room I stayed in. There was also a ride on the hotel’s private yacht, and dinner at its Michelin-starred rooftop restaurant, Felix. The hotel even has its own jet, on which you can be transferred to and from the airport to the tune of about $4,000. It was booked solid during my stay, a fact I feel like gives you an idea of the caliber of client the Peninsula typically serves.
Not only were these once-in-a-lifetime experiences, they made for great Instagram fodder. I’m sorry, but it’s true. I felt like Kendall Jenner, or maybe, like, a female version of Dan Bilzerian. But what made my trip truly remarkable was something I actually had a hard time getting used to: the hospitality.
I’ve had enough really, really bad flying experiences over the past few years that I was recently prompted to investigate why, exactly, air travel is so awful. But what I have come to realize, after spending a total of 39 hours in the air with Cathay Pacific, is that it’s actually not. Well, it is, for most of us, but not for people who can afford to throw down for business class or first class. (I’m not sure of the exact cost of my seat, but according to Google Flights, it could go for as much as $11,000.)
This reality became apparent the moment I entered JFK Airport, a place I have been many times before. But this time was not like the others. As I approached the Cathay stands, I was informed that of course they’d be happy to check my 40-pound bag free of charge! They’d also like to offer me an invitation — a printed-out piece of paper with my name on it — to join them in the airport business class lounge. And join them there I would, but first I just had to breeze through security via the special business class lane.
The Peninsula lobby can only be described as majestic, with vaulted ceilings and thick columns accented with intricate gold moulding. I was immediately whisked up to my room on the 25th floor — at no point did I actually “check in.” I was instructed that, should I need anything, I could request it using the same iPad that controlled the lights and temperature in my unit.
The thing about good hospitality is, you have to be prepared to accept it. As a person with acute social anxiety and a chronic fear of imposing on others, this was harder than it sounds. On my first day in the hotel, I spent a solid 20 minutes going back and forth with myself over what I should do with the room service tray after I was finished with it. I didn’t want to pester the housekeeping staff, who were probably really busy, so maybe I should just put it in the hallway? But this is such a nice hotel, what if one of the other guests saw it and were offended by its presence? I even Googled what to do, but the results were inconclusive. Eventually, I called and asked if someone could come up to retrieve it. I would do this several times over the next four days, and never feel less ambivalent about it.
A few other things that vexed me: Whether it was annoying to press the button to summon the flight attendant for a snack when all the lights were out during the middle of the flight. Whether I was supposed to throw my towel in a bin somewhere I couldn’t find or just leave it on my chaise after using the pool. Whether I was supposed to tip was also a big one — and something I learned several Hong Kong dollars later is not necessary there.
I realize all of this is a bit silly. While part of it comes down to being intimidated by an environment that is more upscale than I’m used to — and also feeling like my knowledge of etiquette leaves something to be desired — at some point I realized that it may also be about the fact that as women, we’re used to making ourselves smaller whenever possible. We don’t want to trouble anybody, and sometimes that instinct actually ends up making more trouble. Or just making us freak out over nothing. It’s hard for me to imagine a man, even one who knows less than I about how to behave properly, worrying as intently about offending someone or making a fool of himself.
On my final day at the Peninsula, I found myself sitting once again in the gleaming, palm-embellished lobby, this time for afternoon tea, a Peninsula Hong Kong staple. Because they don’t take reservations, a line formed around the edge of the sumptuous carpet beneath my little table. Because we were “with the hotel” — I know, I hate me too! — my group got to skip the line. As I sat nibbling my tiny, crustless sandwich, it dawned on me that perhaps I had grown accustomed to the pomp and circumstance — to cutting the line and gorging myself on free snacks and having someone arrange all my serums in a sweet row for me while I was away. And that’s how I knew it was time for me to leave.
I returned to my room to retrieve my aforementioned 40-pound suitcase, which has a sticky handle and can be hard to pull. As I wrestled it into the elevator, a man asked me why I hadn’t just called the bellhop to come to get it. “It just didn’t occur to me,” I said, which was true. And then I headed to the airport seven hours early to take advantage of all the free stuff, figuring it might be my last time to feel like a VIP.
Travel and accommodations for the author were provided by The Peninsula Hotel for the purpose of writing this story.