Ute Junker in Milan is dazzled by the detail in the world's first official seven-star hotel.
Italian hotelier Alessandro Rosso is not afraid of a challenge. When the owner of the sleek Italian hotel group, Town House, decided to open a new flagship hotel in Milan, he didn't just want to create the best hotel in town. He wanted to create a hotel so good, it needed a whole new rating system. That's how the world's first seven-star hotel was born.
Until now, the best hotels in the world have been awarded five stars. This may come as a surprise to readers who have treated themselves to a stay at a so-called six-star hotel but, officially, there's no such thing. The term was first applied to Dubai's Burj Al Arab when it opened - not by the hotel itself, mind you, but by visitors and journalists as a way of describing the property's extra level of luxury. Since then, the term has been bandied about with increasing frequency. However, until now, there's been no official standard to distinguish an "ordinary" five-star hotel from one that offers an even more indulgent experience.
Rosso found a simple solution - he hired a company to create a new ranking system. Swiss company SGS specialises in management systems, audits and certifications. After analysing various structural and service aspects, it used the findings to create a set of detailed technical specifications that became Rosso's blueprint to deliver the world's first seven-star hotel.
The Town House Galleria is not an experience that everyone can enjoy. For one thing, room rates start at EUR1000 ($2035) a night, rising to EUR3900. For another, the hotel, which has just 20 rooms, seems to be booked out much of the time. As an exercise, I checked availability for 10 separate dates this year and found rooms on only two of them.
Just what is it that makes this hotel so special? I've studied some of the rating specifications. They state, among other things, that each room has to be individually furnished, there has to be a luxury chauffeur service and butler service available 24 hours a day. None of these is in itself a startling achievement - plenty of properties offer such services. So what sets Town House Galleria apart?
At first glance, the hotel entrance offers few clues. It lies inside a narrow, barely signposted courtyard that looks just like hundreds of others. The only touches of glamour are a stand of tall palm trees growing in one corner and, in another, an external glass-walled lift that provides a stunning view of said palms as you travel up to the hotel's entrance.
It's a view that only guests can enjoy. Stationed outside the lift is a single uniformed doorman who checks names to ensure only guests make the journey. It's a neat and simple idea that makes you feel like a VIP before you even set foot inside the hotel.
This, it turns out, is a keystone of the Town House Galleria experience. It's small, exclusive and intimate - a home-away-from-home for those for whom money is no object. Rather than using a room key, you choose a four-digit PIN that lets you into your room. It's personal and very civilised.
It's also simply stunning. What you don't realise entering via the courtyard at the back of the building is that Town House Galleria is located inside one of Milan's most magnificent monuments.
Located next door to the Duomo, the city's famous cathedral, the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II is a place that could only exist in Milan - a magnificent Belle Epoque construction that is part palazzo, part thoroughfare and part upmarket shopping arcade. With vaulted arches, mosaic floors, elaborately carved stone and ranks of statuary looking down upon passing pedestrians, it's as gorgeous as a Renaissance cathedral.
I spend plenty of time perched on my window sill, looking variously up at the ceiling and down into the elegant displays in the Prada shop window, while watching Milan's fashionistas wander past.
The hotel's interiors are equally stunning. As the building is a historic monument, each room has been designed to fit into its existing layout. That means individual layouts, four-metre-high ceilings and windows, and original features that, depending on the room, may include frescoed ceiling borders or stone angels watching over you. Add brilliantly coloured velvet furniture, sweeping satin curtains and a vast bathroom and you've got a room made for cocooning.
There are plenty of mod cons as well, including a laptop with complimentary internet access and (my favourite touch) personalised business cards to use during my stay, which introduce me as: "Ute Junker, in residence at Town House Galleria."
My room also has a loft area filled with exercise equipment and a yoga mat - just the thing for busy travellers. I assume this is a standard feature but a conversation with a staffer reveals the equipment has been installed for me. Whenever a guest arrives, the loft is set up with amenities the hotel considers appropriate. If I'd been travelling with a child, for instance, the area might have been turned into a rumpus room. And if I decided that, rather than a rumpus room, I wanted a personal gym up there, the hotel would simply change it for me.
Now I understand why all guests are asked to fill in a service form before they arrive. The detailed form includes bed preferences, sheet preferences (cotton, linen, cotton satin), pillow preferences (neck roll, goose down and feathers, hypoallergenic, memory foam, eco-lates, polyester and siliconised fibre, anatomic, orthopedic), music preferences, what you'll be doing in Milan and so on, in an attempt to set up your room perfectly for you.
In this hotel, even the meals are designed specifically for you. While there are menus in your room, they are merely indicative. If you decide to have a meal in-house, go to the gorgeous purple dining room and the chef will come out to chat with you about your tastes and your plans for the day and then suggest a suitable meal. He even has ayurvedic training, to help ascertain the type of meal that best suits your body type.
It doesn't take more than a few hours to decide Town House Galleria deserves its seven stars. The hotel is determined to maintain the rating, which is audited several times a year by unannounced "mystery guests" who evaluate the service (you can imagine the fights over who gets that job).
Any hotel can apply for the SGS seven-star hotel specification, so Town House Galleria may not retain its exclusive hold on the rating. Until it does, however, this hotel is definitely a cut above the rest.
The writer travelled to Milan courtesy of Thai Airways.
Thai Airways flies to Milan via Bangkok from $1128 plus taxes (based on an earlybird deal for sale until February 28 with travel to September). See thaiairways.com.
Town House Galleria, Via Silvio Pellico 8, Milan. See lhw.com.