Island life: Luis Pinheiro with Vanessa Perry and Michael Winner (Brito Figuaira)
I decided to visit the revered Reid's Hotel in Madeira for along weekend. It's difficult to get there, so I took a private jet at £18,000 return. Within five minutes of leaving the airport in Madeira I had that sinking feeling. Nothing looked interesting. I drove through Funchal, the capital city: boring beyond belief. I passed a group of hideous, modern hotels. Suddenly we turned into the small driveway of Reid's. Then things got worse. After less than 24 hours I phoned Marwan (he of the Lear-jets) and said. "Get me out of here!" Three hours and 10 minutes to Italy, thus to Portofino and the Splendido and I was back in hotel heaven. The extra cost of all this I will not tell you, because enough shame covers me already.
Now, back to Reid's, supposedly legendary, in fact my most awful hotel experience ever. The key to buying property, and the same applies to hotels, is you need three things: "Location, location and location." Reid's is set in a row of horrid modern hotels that loom over it. You look out the windows of the suite, that's what you see. Sit by the pool, that's what you see.
The public rooms had the faded desolation of a Bournemouth hotel on its uppers. It meant nothing to me they were to be redecorated. The suite was small with that awful hotel view. I asked to see something else. The general manager, Anton Kiing, escorted us to a larger suite which didn't face the ghastly hotel cluster. I was considering it when I noticed a large air-conditioning vent, in it some fibrous white material was crumbling and exposed. That'll shoot rubbish into the room, I thought. Vanessa called me to the bathroom. The bath had a dirty watermark, the surround had been filled in with Polyfilla, a black line of dirt ran along the top and bottom of it. We decided to stay put.
We went down for the famous Reid's tea. I had received a severe letter from Mr King instructing me not to wear jeans, T-shirts or track shoes in any part of the hotel. I counted five T-shirts in seconds. I have never seen a worse dressed group of people in my life. They wore shoes as if bought at a reject store in the poorest part of an American city. "They're mostly locals," advised Luis Pinheiro, the genial manager. He'd recently arrived from the excellent Mount Nelson in Cape Town. The sandwiches were adequate, the scones good, the cakes utterly dreadful.
For dinner in the main restaurant, Mr King had informed me, in writing, the dress code was suit and tie; on the phone he said dark suit and most people wore evening dress. I started counting. There's a man in a light brown sports jacket, there another in a pink jacket with grey trousers, there . . . I gave up. Mr King should learn that if he has a dress code, keep to it. Don't write telling people you have to dress a certain way when clearly you do not.
The wine waiter poured hot water into the decanter before decanting the wine. I found that odd. Not as odd as the wine list, which gave no date for any of the named wines. "Have you ever seen this?" I asked Vanessa. "Yes," she said. "In Pizza Express." My tartare of tuna was bland and tasteless, Vanessa's smoked salmon tired - she left most of it. My soup was wishy-washy, Vanessa's okay. Of her John Dory fish she said: "I don’t think this is very fresh." It clearly wasn't. I had ham which I was told was a locally reared item. It was not a patch on the ham at Sandy Lane, or most other places. The chocolate cake dessert was even worse than the one at tea. The brown bread for Vanessa's smoked salmon stayed on the table until halfway through the dessert course when I asked for it to be removed.
At breakfast the next day, we ordered earl grey tea and got some undrinkable slush. They changed it for earl grey. Vanessa ordered mixed stewed fruits. Prunes arrived. The orange juice was the worst I have ever tasted. "Is this squeezed here?" I asked room service. The man said: "It's fresh. I'll squeeze you some." What he brought was of a different colour, texture and taste to the nonsense I had been given. It was all a nightmare. I shall recount even more another day. The brochure refers to "Attentive but discreet service, an unspoilt coastline, the last word in luxury and civilised elegance".
The last word it is. But not a word I care to mention in polite society.
On two separate occasions, Michael Winner has, I feel, been unjust to the Grand Hotel Park in Gstaad (Style, April 12), which he refers to as the Park Hotel. I have stayed at the hotel at Christmas and New Year for a number of years and always found the general manager and every one of his staff to be a delight and very helpful. The food is second to none, the interior and the bedrooms luxurious, the views magnificent from my bedroom. Poor Michael. I guess he was just short of copy each time he wrote about the hotel - or was he in a different hotel and his memory failed him?
Pamela J Lane, Paignton, Devon
Jeans are a uniform. If you must wear a uniform, Mr Winner, wear one with ribbons - if you have earned some. No other uniform should be permitted in good restaurants.
Peter Black, Bishopthorpe, York
While I admire British restraint and reserve, I do agree with your attitude that "customer service" here suffers from the lack of complaint over poor service, bad food, etc. While I think my American compatriots overdo it, I am really pleased that someone is able to pipe up. Incidentally, I always read your column and if my husband ever carries his creativity in the kitchen over into a restaurant, you will be the only food critic we allow in.
Jennifer Taylor, West London
Following your recommendation, I took my husband to Harry's Bar in Venice for his 60th. The service was superb, the food fantastic. But where can he take me for my 60th in two years' time? It will have to be something out of this world to beat our day in Venice.
Gladys Spedding, Carlisle, Cumbria