The first time I stayed at the Peninsula Hong Kong, in spring 2011, it seemed pretty great. A weather station on the roof dispatched temperature and humidity readings to the rooms, front-desk messages arrived by silent fax, and a "valet box" allowed freshly shined shoes and newspapers to be delivered inside rooms each morning without even having to open the door. Of course, there was also the fleet of 15 chauffeured Rolls-Royce Phantoms, including a vintage one from 1934, to assist with departures or arrivals (unless you preferred using the hotel's twin helipads). Inside the oldest hotel in Hong Kong – and the first in the small luxury chain – my room overlooked the Hong Kong Cultural Centre in Kowloon and faced the skyscrapers across Victoria Harbour. It was hard to complain.
And yet, for some, this wasn't enough. So in January the hotel began a $58-million campaign to modernize the rooms, essentially turning the city's oldest hotel into its newest. After closing for seven months, the hotel reopened its 132 rooms and suites in August. Once again, it's hard to complain.
The hotel’s decor was inspired by items of luxury: yachts, private jets, and motorcars (no doubt including those Peninsula-green Rolls-Royces). The burlwood cabinetry has a high-gloss finish – with enough sheen to require a new training system for housekeeping and maintenance because it's so easily scratched. Items that aren’t always needed – like electrical outlets on the walnut desk or vanity mirrors – sink out of sight with a gentle push. Of course, the Cassina sofas and Poltrona Frau dining tables and chairs don't go anywhere at all. It’s an odd choice, perhaps, to design a room around luxury vehicles, when plenty of inspiration exists in the form of elegant mansions and opulent estates. But the Peninsula’s point is you are a traveler, and streamlined grace, lavishness and novelty are what compensate for the faraway comforts of home.
Technology, however, is what makes the rooms stand out, and it's reason to stay in the Peninsula in the first place. Each room harbors 3,000 feet of concealed fiber-optic cable to keep it running and is kept humming by a well-staffed tech department. Secured in a secret location on Hong Kong Island, the Peninsula has its own Electronic Services Department, a 27-man team of electronic, hardware, and software engineers, which designs and tests proprietary in-room tech systems. The main controls are three tablets in each room – souped-up Samsung Galaxy tablets with custom tweaks. Preset in one of five languages, not only can you control humdrum basics like the lights, curtains, and air conditioning, but you can view the hotel's restaurant menus, see real-time airport arrivals and departures, and watch 90 TV channels (or listen to 460 radio stations) with noise-canceling headphones, just in case your partner wants quiet (or is viewing something else on the room's 46-inch LED TV). You can also use the tablet to order 3D movies and request 3D glasses from housekeeping, if the Hong Kong views from your window suddenly seem a little flat.
Cordless phones sit alongside the tablets, which can be used to make free VOIP phone calls to anywhere in the world, and the radio and TV volume automatically lower when they're in use. Another 10 LED panels are distributed across the walls for controlling curtains and lights. There's even one to operate the room's Nespresso machine, which seemed like overkill because you still have to manually insert the coffee capsules. The technology took a little getting used to on a September visit, particularly when I had to ask a housekeeper how to turn on my tablet.
With the tower rooms back open, another 168 rooms and suites in the Peninsula's original building are now closed for renovations, so that the entire hotel will be refurbished for 85th-anniversary celebrations in late April or May. The updated technology will also show up in the Peninsula's new Paris hotel, when it opens in November 2013 in the 16th Arrondissement, off the Champs-Élysées.