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Hotel hopping in Hong Kong

  • Hotel ICON 36 Harbour.jpg

    Standard Harbor View Room, Hotel Icon, Hong Kong (Hotel Icon)

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    Bathroom with a view, The Upper House, Hong Kong (The Upper House)

Hong Kong has some of the best hotels in the world. The two Shangri-La properties, the Four Seasons, the Mandarin Oriental—all are among the finest anywhere when it comes to room quality, amenities and service. 

Recently, I spent a week staying in a wide range of the city's hotels (this was my third visit over a 20 year period) and like many of you I started my selections using Tripadvisor. I was here for a family function and "vacation" (as if a travel writer ever really takes one of those).

So here are my impressions, with Tripadvisor rankings and what my stays cost in U.S. dollars. Since I've stayed in hundreds of hotels in my 25-year career as a travel writer, my comments are naturally filtered through that experience, and yours may differ. By the way, on previous visits I've always stayed in Kowloon. This time, I chose all but one of the hotels (ironically, the only one that I'd stay in on my next visit) on Hong Kong Island.

The Holiday Inn Express, Causeway Bay
Nightly rate: $168
Tripadvisor rank: 130 (out of 548)
This was the cheapest of the lot. One of three Holiday Inn Expresses in the city, the 282-room Causeway Bay is the best located, although I'd recommend the newer, much better and less expensive Soho location (Tripadvisor rank 56), which I toured but didn't stay in. Indeed, the Causeway Bay property is all about location, in the heart of the popular Times Square area, near shopping and steps from the subway. A tiny room, no drawers to stash clothes you'll be living out of your suitcases. Free wifi, but sluggish at times. A great location to be sure, but the rooms were tired. There's no fitness room, however an adequate set breakfast is included in rates. Definitely a case of getting what you pay for.                                                             

Hotel Indigo
Nightly rate: $260
Tripadvisor rank: 17
Just opened six months ago, this stylish (some say the decor is "quirky" but in a good way) boutique property on Hong Kong Island, for $100 more per night than the Holiday Inn, had a lot going for it. The rooms are a decent size, the king-size bed was comfortable. Excellent lighting, including enough light to read in bed (a rarity these days) and enough plugs for electronics by the desk and ergonomic chair with a task light, but the slow wifi was a pain. A small but serviceable gym, and a sleek roof-top pool and bar. But what is up with the trend with frosted-glass-enclosed bathrooms and toilets, something I've seen on a few cruise ships lately as well? My room had a great shower, but the sink was in the room itself and I really prefer a solid wood door rather than a thin pane of glass. Only one glitch during my stay, but potentially a serious one: I was expecting an important call from the U.S. to my room, but the front desk/operator never picked up (the incoming call just rang and rang because it was check-out time and they were busy, but a poor service experience can ruin a trip). The location is great, just a short walk to the subway. All in all, I'd say this was the second best value of the five hotels I bunked in, but service could improve.

The Mercer Hotel
Nightly rate: $459
Tripadvisor rank: 37
My two-night stay here was a disappointment and way overpriced for what it offered. It's in an older white-brick building and most of the rooms are "suites"—but that’s an abuse of the term. My room on the top floor was no larger than the one at the Indigo, but was divided by a large glass window with a shade. Again, the bathroom/toilet was behind a glass door (not even frosted!) with a pull down shade that got in the way when I opened the door. Absolutely ridiculous, even if you're staying by yourself. I had trouble getting the finicky wifi to work (turns out it doesn't recognize Firefox, but I had to go down to the front desk to find that out). Typical poor bedside reading lights. The reception was hardly what I'd call friendly and professional. True, there's a free mini bar with some Cokes and a couple of beers and a "kitchen" with a sink and microwave, but it's barely useful. A terrible value all around.

The Icon
Nightly rate: $232 (non-refundable advance purchase rate)
Tripadvisor rank: 3
My new favorite hotel in Hong Kong. Huge gym (probably the best in the city). Free minibar. Large rooms, even the cheapest ones, 80 percent with those iconic views of the harbor and the island. Ultra-fast free wifi. Excellent lights for bedtime reading (one of my pet peeves about hotels)  is that too many think people don’t read in bed anymore). Six (!) pillow options, unheard of in a hotel at this price range. (I travel with my own super-soft down pillow, but staying at the Icon that's not necessary since they've got me covered). Solid wooden doors in the excellent bathrooms (hello Mercer and Indigo!). Arrivals/departures lounge to hang out in between check in/out and flights. Herman Miller task chairs and adjustable desk lamp. Two notable restaurants worth checking out even if you don't stay here (The open-kitchen Market has the best buffet in the city). The only downside, for some, is that it's in Kowloon ($10 cab ride to the island, and a bit of walk to the subway). But if this hotel were on the island it would cost twice as much.

The Upper House
Nightly rate: $745
Tripadvisor rank: 1
And then there's The Upper House. At over $700 a night, I wasn't about to spend more than a night here, but I didn't really need to linger in order to get the idea. Tripadvisor rates this as the No. 1 hotel in Hong Kong for good reason. Some reviewers say it's the best urban hotel in the world; I wouldn't argue with that. I've stayed in Four Seasons all around the world, but this is of an even higher pedigree. From the moment you approach the front door to the moment you leave (perhaps, as in my case, in a complimentary chauffeured car to my next hotel), it's a peerless experience. It's not just the quality of the sleek decor and rooms (huge, with amazing views and stunning bathrooms), all of which are on high floors; but the service and the atmosphere. When we approached the building, we were immediately pounced upon by a stylishly-dressed young man who seemed to be have been waiting just for this moment; inside we were greeted by an equally stylish young woman who we'd see throughout our brief stay (we later learned that she was Kristina Snaith, "Assistant Director of Guest Experience", a title I’d never come across. Her role seemed more akin to the lady of the house at a luxurious villa than a hotel employee). Anyway, it was, as others on Tripadvisor have noted, like staying in a private home rather than a mere hotel, and it made a marked contrast to the perfunctory reception I received at the Mercer.

What I learned
This was the first time that I'd stayed in so many hotels in such a short time period (some "vacation," right?), and the first that I made all of my selections based on Tripadvisor reviews. And one thing I will say: there was probably no need to read the reviews at all, so closely did the mere rankings correspond to my own experience. Next time I'll just choose from among the top 20 and I’ll be all set.

Note: All prices are what I paid per night including tax and service, refundable rates (except where noted) on Tingo.com in early late October 2013 for stays early to mid November 2013. Rates will vary subject to availability.

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.