Introduction: Roman Holiday
Qatar Airways A350-900 Business Class KUL-DOH
Qatar Airways A320 Business Class DOH-KBP
Waldorf Astoria Rome Cavalieri
St Regis Florence
Interlude: When interlining goes wrong
Cathay Pacific A350-1000 Business Class FCO-HKG
In 1963, Conrad Hilton opened the doors to the Cavalieri Hilton. Perched at the top of Monte Mario hill (the highest point in Rome) and situated along the Via Francigena (the main route for pilgrims to city), it quickly became the place to be seen. Socialites, celebrities and politicians flocked to the hotel’s 15 acres of lush parklands, wining and dining, wheeling and dealing, all with panoramic views of the Vatican and Rome.
The Rome Cavalieri is now 56 years old, but still retains its status as one of the crown jewels in the city’s hotel scene (half a decade, after all, is but a blink of the eye in the Eternal City). A long renovation finished in 2008 with a reflag as a Waldorf Astoria, only the sixth hotel in the prestigious brand at the time.
It’s quite clear the hotel is out to impress. The lobby is decorated with unique artwork and furnishings, including original Karl Lagerfield sofas, rare 18th century antiques, Andy Warhol and Robert Indiana paintings, and a Tiepolo triptych valued at $8 million. On the rooftop you’ll find La Pergola, Rome’s only three Michelin Star restaurant, where the wine list is 130 pages long and has bottles dating back to the 1880s. In the basement is the award-winning Cavalieri Grand Spa Club, boasting La Prairie facials, Roman Baths and a frigidarium, whatever that is.
When planning my trip, I was convinced that the Rome Cavalieri was going to be one of the highlights. But you know how they say there’s nothing more disillusioning than meeting your heroes in real life? That kind of applies here too. On first glance, everything about the Rome Cavalieri seems beautiful and shiny. Get a bit closer, however, and like a celebrity who has several glaring character flaws, you’ll soon find that not all is as it seems on the surface.
Pre-arrival and check in
I suppose there were early warning signs. A few weeks before the stay, I received a pre-arrival email from the concierge.
The enclosed link allowed guests to make restaurant reservations, book spa treatments, plan golf games, book activities, arrange transportation and make special requests.
Some of the proposed activities (Gladiator training, art tour) sounded interesting, so I filled out the form asking to learn more…then never heard back from them again. By that time, I’d already filled most of my schedule so I didn’t think too much of it. Little did I know that would be par the course for service interactions in this hotel.
Our incoming flight from Kiev was 90 minutes late, so we were quite behind schedule by the time our taxi pulled into the driveway of the hotel. Fair warning: the Rome Cavalieri is located outside of central Rome, and it’s roughly a 15 Euro taxi ride into the city centre. There is a complimentary shuttle bus, but it doesn’t run during lunchtime.
A doorman helped us unload our bags as we headed into the lobby.
Make no mistake about it: the Rome Cavalieri is a visual feast for the eyes. It may look like something out of the last century, but that’s by no means a dig. It has a kind of timeless elegance, with marble floors, golden banisters and artwork everywhere.
Case in point: the first piece of art that greets you is The King of Poland’s Commode, ordered for the Royal Palace of Warsaw in 1745 and owned by the Prince-Elector of Saxony, Friedrich August II. This place clearly does not buy off-the-rack decorations.
The Milelioness took out her camera and started snapping photos, only to be accosted by a curt security guard who snapped “no photo!” This would be a recurring restriction throughout our stay, and although I understand the need for guest privacy, you’d think they’d apply some common sense. Even when it was clear there was no one in the photo, the guards would still insist that you put your camera away. It was really off-putting, and judging from the abundance of photos on TripAdvisor, a rule that’s not even consistently enforced.
Suitably chastened, we proceeded to the check-in desk. We’d arrived at about 1.30 p.m, which was technically before check-in time, but as it turned out our room was already ready. The front desk staff apologized but said that since they were running at full capacity, no upgrades were possible.
We would, however, enjoy other Hilton Gold benefits such as daily complimentary breakfast, free water in the room, and access to the Cavalieri Grand Spa. The benefits were spelled out in a small card included with the room key, together with instructions on how to work the air conditioning.
We headed up to our room on the 5th floor. The hotel has 7 floors in total, with an executive lounge called the Imperial Club at the top floor. Unfortunately, Gold members do not get lounge access unless they’re upgraded to a room with lounge privileges.
Points reservations at the Rome Cavalieri book into the 538 sq ft. Deluxe Room category, the entry-level tier at the hotel.
First impressions were…mixed. I know this is the wrong place to expect modern design, and the room certainly had some old world charm to it, but it still came off as worn and dated. It actually reminded me of some of the older Sheratons I’d visited in places like Casablanca and Amman, which must have been grand when they first opened, but just looked way past their prime now.
I wasn’t a fan of the drab blue carpet, the slightly tarnished gold trimmings, or the faded bedhead. As the photo below shows, the Rome Cavalieri does have some much better looking rooms, so it’s not like this is just part and parcel of staying at an older property.
There was a proper work desk (which you can’t take for granted at some hotels these days), although the chair wasn’t very comfortable, offering very little in the way of back support. Fortunately, this isn’t the kind of hotel you coop yourself up in to answer emails.
The room didn’t have universal power outlets, but it did have four different plug types at the desk.
There was a separate seating area with a plush sofa and a coffee table with some local literature.
In a nod to modernity, there was also a flatscreen 42 inch TV, but you’re not visiting Rome to watch the telly anyway.
The King-sized bed was firm and comfortable for sleeping, although a four-post might have suited the decor a bit better.
I guess it’s part and parcel of old world charm that there weren’t modern conveniences like bedside power outlets or charging ports. There was an iPod docking station and a phone, but otherwise you’d have to charge your devices at the work desk.
The room was euphemistically described as having a “deluxe residential view”, which the website convinces you looks something like this.:
In reality, the only view was of a cell tower. On the bright side, data speeds were lightning fast.
The bathroom was slightly more impressive, large enough to host a dressing table and bathtub.
Big as it was though, there wasn’t enough room for his and her sinks.
The amenities in the bathroom were part of the Tuscan Soul line by Salvatore Ferragamo, which can be found on certain airlines like Alitalia, China Southern and Singapore Airlines.
Later that evening the staff left a bottle of prosecco and some chocolate covered strawberries in the room as a welcome amenity.
My overall thoughts were that the room was serviceable, but unexciting. It really felt like any other hotel room you’d find in an old property. Given that rooms can cost upwards of S$760 during peak season, I somehow expected a bit more.
Breakfast is served at L’Uliveto from 7 am to 10 am on weekdays, and 7 am to 11 am on weekends. It normally costs 38 euros per person, but it’s free for Gold/Diamond members, and that’s reason enough to consider getting status, be it through the AMEX Platinum Charge, the Visa Signature fast track offer, or status matching.
On both days, we got there just as the restaurant opened, so we had the whole place to ourselves.
Moments after I took this picture, a wait staff came up to me saying “no picture!” so yes, the Rome Cavalieri is really afraid someone plans to sell the paparazzi exclusive photos of their famous chairs.
As far as the spread was concerned, I thought it was decent but not life-changing. It had nothing on the over-the-top buffet spreads we see in Asia, for example, and I was disappointed that given how cheap wine is in Italy, they didn’t even provide a prosecco for a fun breakfast. There were no live cooking stations, or ala carte menu to order small dishes from.
The menu selection didn’t change on either of the two days we were there. Here’s a sampling of what was available.
The highlight of breakfast had to be the Chinese corner though.
As part of the Hilton Huanying program, selected properties offer “Chinese-friendly” amenities like tea kettles, Chinese tea, slippers, and a breakfast menu with at least two Chinese options.
After all, that’s why you fly 6,000 miles right? To eat food from home 😉
There was a congee option, and also a fried rice which was objectively terrible. The rice was way underdone, as if some chef had opted to do it like a crunchy risotto.
Service at breakfast ranged from very good to completely indifferent. On the first morning we had a server who couldn’t be more eager to please, fetching us additional juice, coffee and water every time she saw the level dip below half full. On the second, refills were often forgotten and plates took forever to clear.
The Rome Cavalieri has four pools, three outdoor and one indoor. The main outdoor pool is just next to the breakfast area, and only opens from April to September. This pool can be accessed by members of the general public for a fee of 40-115 Euros, depending on time of year. I was surprised they’d sell access, given that the pool barely looks big enough for guests of the 345 rooms.
There are two smaller pools elsewhere on the grounds, which I assume follow the same operational calendar as the main one.
The indoor swimming pool is open year round, but it’s part of the Grand Spa. Regular guests will need to pay 20 euros a day to access it, unless they have Hilton Gold or Diamond status, or are staying in an Imperial Club room or suite.
Other facilities included a clay tennis court. I’m a big fan of the game, but didn’t have my equipment with me. It cost 60 euros an hour for a sparring partner or coach, which is more than I was prepared to pay anyway.
With 15 acres of park to explore, you can take some pleasant after breakfast walks that let you appreciate the hotel from further out.
We stumbled upon interesting features like an outdoor pavilion for spa treatments…
…and what looked to be a helipad. I say “looked to be”, because I don’t think a helicopter could land with the trees in close proximity.
For a hotel with as many superlatives as the Rome Cavalieri, I found the service to be sadly lacking.
Upon arrival, I opened the mini-fridge to snap some photos and found a half-eaten chocolate bar inside.
That didn’t bother me in and of itself, although it did make me wonder if the room had been cleaned properly. I mentioned it to the front desk when we left the hotel that afternoon, and the associate looked suitably horrified. He promised me he’d get it fixed, but when we came back it was still there. I mentioned it again that evening on the phone when we requested for water (see below), but the next day, sure enough, the item remained. It was still lurking in the fridge as we checked out.
As Hilton Gold members, we were supposed to get a couple of free water bottles in the room. There were none to be found upon check-in, so I likewise mentioned it on the way out and was told some would be sent up. We returned…and there was nothing there. I made a second call that evening and was told some would be sent up immediately.
Five minutes later, someone knocked on the door and opened it automatically a few seconds later, catching me in glorious undress. Given that we’d just phoned down, there was no reason for them to think the room was empty. I got dressed, took the bottles from the staff member (who didn’t so much as mouth “sorry”), and deadbolted the door.
That proved to be a wise move, because later on I heard another knock- housekeeping was here for turndown. Within seconds, I could hear the keycard being inserted into the lock and the door trying to open, only to be met by the stern rebuke of the deadbolt. It was puzzling that the SOP here didn’t even require the staff to wait a little while before trying to open the door themselves.
I raised the issues to the duty manager during check out. She was extremely apologetic and offered to pay for our taxi to our next hotel. Hilton would later refund 80,000 points, or half the cost of the stay. As far as service recovery goes, that’s good enough, but it’s such a shame given the expectations going in.
I wanted to like the Rome Cavalieri, I really did. But in the end I found the experience quite underwhelming and certainly not worth the points/money. For the price you pay, you’re much better off getting a hotel located within central Rome.