According to Mae West, too much of a good thing can be wonderful. Well, not always. And certainly not in a hotel. Too much attention from the staff and too many things to choose from can add up to a stressful stay. Yet in an effort to redefine themselves as the last word in luxury, and to stand out in a crowded market place, top-rated hotels seem bent on introducing ever more preposterous extras and services.
Now, perhaps, is the time to say: enough; to demand fewer options, restricted choices, simpler concepts, pared-down menus. To ask for less, not more. Less can certainly work. It's a way of thinking, for example, that's been successfully adopted at Hotelito Descondido, an idyllic resort on an estuary on Mexico's Pacific coast consisting of thatched "palafitos", some on stilts built over the water. With a winter rate of £415 a night (excluding service), these "master palafito suites" are not that simple, of course. But prospective guests should note that there's no electricity except the intermittent power generated by solar panels, so no televisions, videos, DVD players or air-conditioning. And no telephones. If you want room service, you hoist a red flag using a rope that hangs by the bed.
Francis Ford Coppola has taken a similar tack at his two hotels in Belize (Blancaneaux and Turtle Inn). Instead of telephones, each room has an antiquated "conch phone" - actually made from a conch (very Lord of the Flies) - through which you can summon room service. At Blancaneaux, there's not even a swimming pool; what's wrong with the river? And there's not a lot on the menu: much of the good but simple food is grown organically on site, so it depends on what's ready to pick. And the only wines are those Coppola makes in Napa Valley, some of them great, some of them not so, but how lovely not to be faced with a wine list the size of telephone directory and an unctuous sommelier calculating his commission or tip.
But for all these calculated and apparent deprivations, there is also a real sense of perfection, so that everything, from the textiles and soap to the knowledgeable, self-assured staff, is as good as it gets. You're paying for someone's impeccable taste and exacting standards, and that feels special. After all, if we're prepared to rely on stockbrokers to manage our portfolios and personal shoppers to pick out clothes for us, why shouldn't we demand the same degree of expertise from hoteliers?
While some hotels have been wise enough to remove telephones in the name of luxury, most have done the opposite, installing phones by the bed, on the desk, in the bathroom, next to the lavatory... And they are there not so that you can stay in touch with the outside world, but so that the hotel can contact you, at all times of the day and night. If, for example, a guest orders breakfast for a specific time, he or she should be able to sleep soundly in the knowledge that it will arrive at the requested hour. Yet how many hotels have taken to calling the guest to warn them of its arrival? Invariably the phone rings as you're in the shower. You stumble, dripping, to answer it, only to be told what you already know. Why don't hotels understand that an order for room-service breakfast is just that, not a coded request for an alarm call?
Equally irritating are hotels, such as The Samling in the Lake District, that install phones only in impractical places. Here the management rings you a lot: to warn you breakfast is on its way (15 minutes earlier than specified in my case) or that they're coming for the tray or to know if you'd like a table for dinner. Yet in its most expensive room (£415 at weekends), the telephones are placed in the bathroom, which adjoins the living room, and under the eaves on the sleeping platform up a steep ladder staircase. If they expected me either to be in bed or washing when they called, why disturb me in the first place?
It's not just calls that we resent. The surplus-to-requirement paper-pushing and message-leaving at the Four Seasons New York, to name but one culprit, is equally annoying. Every request you make to the concierge desk would seem to be subsequently manifested as a memo pushed under your door, or a message on your voicemail, often deposited during the night. You stir and notice the light blinking or something on the floor, ominously spot lit by the light spill from the corridor (don't get me started on the issue of inextinguishable illumination in hotel rooms), and start to fret that it's something urgent. With mounting dread (how much more intense is nocturnal anxiety?), and now awake, you read or access it, only to learn that "Your umbrella is waiting for you at the concierge desk". Which you know anyway, because that's where you left it.
It's too much information, a phrase that might also be used to describe the knowledge imparted by hot-chocolate sommeliers, a recent innovation at the Ritz-Carlton in Bachelor Gulch near Beaver Creek, Colorado. By all means offer a choice of hot drinks. Insist, if you will, on making Hershey's available as well as Valrhona (what, no Charbonnel &Walker ?), but why humiliate some poor staff member by making him pretend to have "expertise" in the matter?
The same goes for water sommeliers. Last summer, the admirable Adlon in Berlin, in its self-styled "quest to offer the ultimate in luxury", engaged one. "The sommelier," the hotel proclaims, "will be delighted to assist guests in their choice… an exotic spring water with a delicate bouquet from Japan [Rokko No], or a full-bodied water from France?" The descriptions of the 42 different waters from 18 countries available are an object lesson in pretentiousness: we were especially amused by the fact that Châteldon from France, and a big seller in Berlin, was apparently Louis XIV's preferred water. How many brands did they stock at Versailles? Do you suppose there was a sommelier d'eau by royal appointment?
Delighted with this novelty, the same hotel has recently appointed a tea sommelier, Kathleen Winkler, who was sent to Sri Lanka to perfect her knowledge and has passed exams in the subject. I don't question her accomplishments, but really, sometimes all I want is a cup of tea.
Still, better that than being expected to brew it yourself, for it seems the tea-maker is back in vogue, or at least the Braun espresso maker. Even the most chic, most generously staffed establishments - the Metropolitan in Bangkok, for instance - are installing kettles, crockery and tea bags in their rooms again. Clutter, if you ask me. When I want a cappuccino, I'll call room service; I wouldn't froth milk in my bedroom at home.
Then there are pillow menus, an innovation that has become almost standard in five-star hotels. I was tempted to request an organic millet pillow at the Plaza Athénée in Paris last time I stayed there, just to see what it was. But how to choose between it and the oreiller de beauté, which promised some kind of morning radiance?
Decisions, decisions. So I stuck with the down pillow provided and - of course - it was just fine. But what if it hadn't been? Would housekeeping really have been able to conjure exactly the one I wanted even long after midnight?
Mind you, that was preferable to the hotel in Stratford visited by a colleague. Sure, it was a handsome, 18th-century building facing the Avon and close to the RSC. But as in so many English hotels, the rooms were gloomy, the scent of meat and two veg pervaded the air, and the bed had only one pillow. On her way to the theatre, she asked at reception for an extra one. It was there when she got back, but not in a pillowcase. She rang reception. "Oh, but you didn't ask for one," came the reply.
Anyone who's suffered jet lag ought to be well disposed to something to "help guests enjoy a perfect night's rest", such as the service offered in the Rocco Forte Hotels' Lowry in Manchester, launched last year. But why call it the "Sleep Doctor Menu", when all it involves is bedding, masks, earplugs, suggested spa treatments and hot drinks? As far as I know, a "sleep doctor" incarnate isn't actually on the payroll, but if there were, the way things are going, I wouldn't be surprised.
Like its sister hotel, the Balmoral in Edinburgh, the Lowry also employs bath butlers and offers a "Bath Time Menu" that purports "to add an extra dimension" to the experience of staying there. In case you were wondering, all a bath butler does is "run your bath at the ideal temperature and add your choice of Molton Brown bath-time products", having first encouraged you to order something from the room-service canapés menu - "which allows guests to indulge in chocolate-dipped strawberries and Champagne." At bath time! Yuk! But apparently, it's the "definitive word" in personal service.
You think bath butlers are the limit? Not so: the Ritz-Carlton South Beach in Miami has just introduced tanning butlers. Really, not necessary, however good the glorified pool boy looks in trunks and a "holster".
Actually butlers in general I find an irritant. For what do they amount to beyond being staff members whose names you know and whose chief responsibility, at least in the tropics, is to trace your name in rose petals on the bed and sprinkle bougainvillaea about the bathroom? No, I don't want anyone to unpack for me, thank you. And I'm perfectly happy to polish my own sunglasses. One&Only, another resort chain big on bath butlers, I'm thinking of you.
Of course, it's perfectly obvious why hotels introduce such gimmicks. It gives them a reason to issue press releases, and journalists something to write about. But why pretend these are innovations in the name of luxury? Real luxury is relief from petty annoyances and constantly having to decide. We want to be attended to by confident staff who instinctively know what we desire and, equally, can tell when to leave us alone. What we absolutely don't want, ever, is having to hang around, unable to undress, while some poor, embarrassed bath butler faffs about with blossoms waiting for the tub to fill.
A version of this article appears in the latest 'Nota Bene' review (0870 240 4089; www.nbreview.com), an independent publication offering travel advice on the world's favourite cities and resorts.