Mike Thiel, 63, is founder/president of Hideaways International (www.hideaways.com), a luxury travel company with a travel club. Thiel, of Rye, N.H., has been dubbed “King of the One-Night Stands” because his duties include staying at and inspecting high-end hotels – as many as 60 hotels per research trip, four or five trips per year.
Q. Tell us about a “tour from hell” experience.
Believe it or not, with Disney. We spent a whole day checking out their top hotels in the Florida heat and humidity and their (public relations) person couldn't or wouldn't answer any questions.
We were looking at the pool at the Floridian Hotel and it seemed busy. We asked about the current occupancy rate there: If it was close to 100 percent and the pool was this busy, that's one thing. But if the resort was 40 percent occupied, I'd hate to see the pool when the resort is full.
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Their answer? “It's top secret.”
After seeing three of their properties in the area, we said, “Can we stop and get a drink?” The PR person said, “There's a men's room over there; help yourself to the tap water.”
We do enough research beforehand that we don't have a “worst overnight stay.” Some places disappoint a bit, and there have been places we wouldn't go back to, but we've been to no place that was truly awful.
Q. Where have you had a surprisingly good time?
I had a great time on a recent trip to Thailand. I was visiting a place in the region of Khao Lak. This is on a beach north of Phuket, an area worst hit by the 2004 tsunami: It took a 30ish-foot tidal wave that washed several kilometers inshore.
Three years later, you wouldn't know it happened. The resort is called The Sarojin and has a staff-to-guest ratio of about 2- or 3-to-1.
Talk about their doing anything custom you want! In terms of experiential things, they put me in one of those long-tail Thai boats that has a big car engine and is designed for shallow water. The guide went around these fishing villages to show the markets and all this great stuff. Then I was taken to this beautiful bank of a tidal river, and on the shore, from out of nowhere, appears this luxury vehicle with a table, white tablecloth and a full lunch setup – beautifully served, with wine and seafood and salads – the works. Dining there and watching the beautiful river traffic go by. … It was too cool.
They'll do this for any guest. Tell them what you want – whether an elephant trek or snorkeling – and they'll work it out. The resort is very service-oriented.
A place I really love is the Cipriani Hotel in Venice, Italy; I‘ve been there several times. It's just a wonderful, tranquil setting that looks back at Venice, as opposed to being in the middle of the city.
What I like the most are their vintage, polished mahogany launches which provide shuttle service. Every time you go from the hotel to the heart of Venice to do something touristic, you're taken by these launches to their private dock at Piazza San Marco. The captain of the launch is all dressed in nautical attire. It's a romantic touch and makes for a cool experience.
Q. The luxury hotel chains: Are they the same?
Our company takes pride in picking places that are a little unusual and give you a sense of place.
Historically, Ritz-Carlton has wonderful service, but they don't tend to have a sense of place. Walk into any of them and they look like English men's clubs.
Orient Express hotels always have something a little unique.
Kimpton popularized the concept of urban boutique hotels in the U.S., usually paired up with a top restaurant – like how their Prescott Hotel in San Francisco is paired with (Wolfgang Puck's) Postrio.
For unusual degree of service, one that jumps to mind is the Peninsula chain. I went down to the lobby of their hotel in Hong Kong and asked, “How do I get to the subway? I need to get to Kowloon.” The concierge said, “Let me walk you there,” and he took me through the lobby, out the door, and practically to where the underground station was.
Q. And you probably run into celebs at the fancy hotels you check out.
Once we were standing outside the Athenaeum, in London, dictating notes and shooting video, oblivious to our surroundings. And (film star) Michael Douglas comes pushing out the hotel door headed for his limo and practically knocks us over.
My wife's favorite celeb story came from a visit to Zurs, Austria. She was getting a tour of the hotels while I was skiing. She was videotaping in the street and bumps into Princess Di, who was literally standing 5 feet away. The princess breaks out crying, thinking my wife is a paparazzi.
I had finished a downhill run and I'm sitting at an outdoor pub down the street. My wife runs up and yells, “I need your still camera!” She takes it and goes into the next hotel, which had this view down into the restaurant courtyard where the princess and her kids were having lunch.
The princess's security people see my wife taking photos and start chasing her. They didn't catch her but we didn't do anything with the images. Maybe we should've packed them off to the National Enquirer.