What it’s like to stay in a hotel in the post-lockdown world

It’s not often I get a five-strong welcoming committee when I arrive at a hotel, but that’s exactly what I find upon arriving at the five-star Taj 51 Buckingham Gate Suites and Residences in London’s Mayfair.

“Ms Coffey? We’ve been expecting you,” says one of the masked aides, and I feel like a mix between a celebrity and James Bond. Well, barring the fact I’m sweaty from the half-hour bike ride and am struggling to hastily apply my own face covering.

The cheering squad is due, in part, to the fact this is 4 July, so-called “Super Saturday”, and the first day the hotel has been able to reopen to guests in three months; and in part to my extensive pre-check in communications with the Taj. I was asked to give as accurate as possible an arrival time beforehand, one of the many new measures put in place in our somewhat dystopian post-lockdown world.

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There is an air of excitement from the staff as I make use of the contactless hand sanitiser and luggage disinfectant stations at the entrance, and I’m almost giddy myself at the thought of a night spent outside the walls of my small, cramped flat (and the chance to eat food I didn’t cook with – get this – no washing up afterwards). What a rush!

As I amble through the hotel’s impressive central courtyard, where I’ll later be dining al fresco, and into reception, discreet but noticeable touches remind me that what I’m experiencing is not “back to normal” but, rather, “the new normal”.

This is what life will look like for the foreseeable: hand sanitisers at every turn (even if they are housed in sleek, matte-silver dispensers); Perspex screens at the reception desk; staff permanently clad in masks and gloves.

One element of this “new normal” beats the old normal hands down though – the check-in takes all of 10 seconds. I’ve provided all possible information beforehand and they just need a signature before sliding my key card across.

A sign by the lift tells me I can only travel up with guests from my household (social distancing not really being possible in a small metal box), but that’s the last coronavirus hurdle before I arrive in my room, where I find a blissful haven untouched by Covid. The only clues here are a complimentary mask encased in a gold envelope and some disinfectant hand wipes displayed as prettily as a hand wipe can be displayed atop the counter. Oh, and the mini-bar is no more, but since I’m too tight to have ever used a hotel mini-bar, it’s of little consequence.

Other than that, I’m free to pretend I’ve never heard the words “novel”, “corona”, or “virus” for an hour while I test out the bed (huge), smell the toiletries (divine) and channel-hop from the comfort of the suite’s chaise longue. God, I’ve missed this, I think while sipping an espresso from the coffee maker, purely for the decadence of not having to wash up the cup.

Behind the scenes, of course, everything is different. All suites are being “rested” in between stays for a minimum of 48 hours, and are fully sanitised prior to the next arrival. Staff get their temperature checked on a daily basis when they arrive at work. And all the hotel’s “high touch points” – lift buttons, door handles and the like – are thoroughly cleaned every 45 minutes. It’s a huge, costly operation, and one that is happening at hotels up and down the country to enable them to reopen safely.

Back down in the courtyard for dinner, tech is being used to facilitate a contact-free dining experience. The waiter reverently presents a golden tray with a QR code displayed upon it – you simply scan it with your phone to bring up the menu. At least, that’s the idea. Always determined to embarrass me, my phone refuses to play ball, and so I get the back-up option: a laminated, wipe-clean menu. It’s not really the Taj’s usual style, but hey – safety first.

It’s a pared back menu for the moment, but I tuck into a rich prawn curry, parmesan truffle fries and a signature cheesecake made with the Indian sweet, Gulab Jamun, without feeling in the least hard done by.

The waiters seem happy to be back whirling around the five or so tables of guests, much as some of them look a little ill-at-ease in their face coverings. One in particular has managed to get the bits that go around his ears all twisted up, and I long to re-do it for him – but as that would be contravening social distancing rules a little too blatantly, I leave him be and put it down to first-day-back jitters.

“It’s so good to be open again,” he tells me as he delivers a perfectly balanced honey and gin-based cocktail to the table. “I was excited to be off work for about three days before I got sick of it. You need purpose in life.”

Everyone who serves us gives off a similar dynamic energy. When you work in the hotel business, generally speaking, you like people. You get a buzz from being around them. I wonder how it must have felt to be cut off from that feeling for the whole of lockdown.

That night, after a bath filled with the kind of fluffy bubbles you only ever manage to create in a hotel bathroom, I fall asleep on crisp sheets that I know for a fact have been cleaned within an inch of their lives, feeling the most relaxed I’ve been since the pandemic began all those months ago.

The next morning, I am forced to confront the thing I’ve been dreading most: a hotel breakfast minus the buffet. Breakfast buffets are one of the single best things about staying in a hotel in this journalist’s humble opinion, and lead as often to genius, previously un-thought of combinations as they do to over-indulgence-induced stomach ache. But alas. Post-Covid, they are a thing of the past.

Instead, another laminated menu (or QR code for the non-luddite diners) sees me order a delightful Mediterranean platter of grilled halloumi and asparagus, mushrooms, vine tomatoes, olive tapenade and baked beans. Again, the experience of eating something I neither had to cook myself nor clean up afterwards is such a luxury, I shelve my buffet mourning for the time-being and lean into the new normal.

I’d usually hang around the day after a hotel stay, sampling the spa and the gym, but those potential coronavirus hotbeds are still strictly off limits. Instead, I content myself with a final dollop of sanitiser for the road and a deliciously lightning-fast check-out. Maybe I could get used to this, I think. I suppose I’ll have to.

Bring on the new normal.

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