When in 1962 my father took his first long-haul flight, from Paris to New York and on to Mexico City, he wore his best suit for the journey. There was only one other person in the first-class cabin of the Air France 707, and he was carrying three suits to wear at different times on the flight, including black tie for dinner over the Atlantic. My father felt distinctly underdressed.

While modern travel dictates a little less formality and a lot less luggage, I share my father’s (and his travel companion’s) view that one must always look smart. Travel light and always travel unrumpled — it just makes you feel better. A healthy mind in a well-pressed outfit.

Hotel laundries are an essential tool for the traveller wanting to follow this maxim — they are as important structurally as the perfect wheelie bag or the right adapter plug.  And, rather like a hotel restaurant, a hotel’s laundry service can be either a grim necessity or a reason in itself to stay there.  

There is a bewildering variety in these laundry services. At its most extreme, the laundry can be a place for saying goodbye to one’s clothes. Once, at a hotel in Maputo, I found myself having to share my socks and underpants with a colleague, an incident of enforced and excessive office bonding. In some parts of the tropics, I have found my precisely cut Turnbull & Asser collars refashioned into something better suited to Fun in Acapulco than to the solemn meeting I had come to attend.

Then there are those hotels whose laundries imbue one’s clothes with a “nose”, no doubt due to the proximity to the hotel’s kitchens, or even subject one to passive smoking — laundry as a health hazard. And inevitably, every visit to the laundry seems to engender a minor ecological disaster: three yards of slippery plastic wrapping for every one of Sea Island cotton.

A good hotel laundry needs to understand one’s clothes, listen to instructions (amount of starch, sharpness of crease, etc), and be reliable and punctual. Luckily, most good hotels manage this.

Every now and then, however, one comes across a laundry service that is so good as to lift one’s mood, make one love life despite one’s jet lag.

Two hotels stand out for their laundry services: the Palace Hotel in Tokyo and Le Bristol in Paris. Each elevates the act of cleaning clothes into one of sartorial ablution.

It is hard to describe just what happens to one’s shirts at the Tokyo Palace Hotel. No matter how old and tired they may be when one arrives, a few hours later they are returned as if they had just spent three weeks on Lake Constance. It’s all in the starch, I think — pure corn starch, generously applied but also incredibly light, giving the cloth volume, hold and smoothness but never stiffness. The collars and the cuffs also seem to undergo a rebirth, rekindling the three-way love affair between shirt, tie and cufflinks.

At the Palace, laundry is returned wrapped in lightly, yet precisely, folded Japanese paper loosely fastened with a ribbon. (The paper also lends itself perfectly to packing.) I must admit to, once, having saved a Palace-laundered shirt for a special occasion at home.

The Tokyo Palace laundry is also a very Japanese phenomenon. When I asked the hotel about its laundry service, I was told that, “to have a request for laundry means that we are trusted to jump into the guest’s very personal and private space (and some Japanese guests hesitate to use the laundry service), so we take full care to respond to the trust that the guest has given us”.

In Europe, Le Bristol in Paris does laundry best. Always immaculate, with buttons replaced and repairs effected; the sense of personal and thoughtful attention which pervades every aspect of the hotel tangible in its laundry service as well. Entrusting one’s clothes to Le Bristol’s immaculate (and perfectly starched) housekeeping staff is a profoundly reassuring experience: here is my beloved garment, I know you will treat it as if were your own.

Le Bristol achieves this level of service by having its very own in-house laundry beneath the hotel (sometimes glimpsed from the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré) run with the precision of a grand kitchen. As Aurélie Martin, the hotel’s head of rooms, explained, the laundry employs no less than nine people: six teinturiers to take care of the different items received and three “runners” who work on the preparation and delivery of the cleaned garments. Here too, the beautifully finished laundry reappears shrouded not in plastic but in tissue paper.

New York hotel laundry, in my experience, is never memorable. Perhaps that is because, when I stay at The Carlyle or The Sherry-Netherland, I am charmed by the residential feel of the Upper East Side and so cannot resist the temptation of the multitude of independent (and also reasonably priced) laundries. I almost feel like a local when settling into the twilight luxury of Bemelmans Bar wearing a shirt fresh from the nearby family laundry.

The pleasure of hotel laundry need not be reserved for travel, however, as I recently found out when visiting my very dependable local dry cleaners, Mayfair Cobblers and Laundry Service in White Horse Street, just off Piccadilly, in London. There, to my delight, I saw all manner of clothing from local clubs and hotels — gold-braided uniforms, striped trousers, shirts and dresses — tidily hanging and awaiting collection. For a moment I was able to dream of being on the road again.

Illustrations by Agathe Bray-Bourret

Have we left anywhere out? Let us know your favourite hotel laundry service in the comments below

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