Stars. Diamonds. Rosettes. Are these classifications much cop? I first came to question their relevance when a pal booked us a luxury girls' weekend and we ended up at a charmless chain hotel off an industrial estate. Yes, it was "five-star", but only thanks to a phalanx of fax machines, a soulless chlorine-fumed pool, a strip-lit restaurant, and a lot of meeting rooms packed with cheaply suited salesmen. Sexy.
The sea change in the relevance of traditional classifications came with the new wave of Nineties boutique hotels, when fancy facilities were superseded by a hotel's soul. Certainly, style is subjective, whereas quality shouldn't be, but it has become harder than ever to trust the so-called rankings when there's no globally recognised system. Somewhere "superior" might well be decked out in doilies and Royal Worcester figurines, but still meet requirements to be given the nod by the old guard of hotel inspectors.
I have heard this from many frustrated owners of stylish self-catering stays. Venn Farm in Devon opened a new converted barn with Ercol and Eames chairs, Timorous Beasties wall coverings, and very cool graphic design pieces this autumn. The reason this architectural triumph missed out on the tourist board's top category? Because its designer teacups didn't have saucers and there were no ramekins.
Similarly in Sorrento, Maison La Minervetta is fairly "basic"; this Italian guesthouse built into the cliffside has only 12 bedrooms, a sitting room, a pool and not much more. But what you can't express in stars is that this colourful majolica-tiled cutie, resplendent with modern art, has a jaw-dropping Bay of Naples view from every window and the most spectacular buffet breakfast. Just don't expect a Corby trouser press, fine dining or a bell-boy if you need one at 2am.
Don't get me wrong – stars can be useful. You may even have had your interest piqued by all the recent six- and seven-star shenanigans. (Remember how the sail-shaped Burj al Arab in Dubai with its self-appointed seven stars?). In Asia, hotels' stars certainly aren't a nonsense. Proud of their high star rankings, and rightly so, are the Sukhothai in Bangkok, the Fullerton Bay in Singapore and the Landmark Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong, where amenities and service are polished, with the ambience to match.
Then there are the special stays that meet all the on-paper requirements, and so much more. The hard-to-rival wow at Southern Ocean Lodge, on Kangaroo Island, South Australia, comes from all-inclusive first-class food and drink, the nothing-is-too-much-trouble attitude, and surprise treats in the room. But it's the 180-degree uninterrupted view of the aquamarine sea and powdery white beaches fringed with wildlife-rich bushland that really made me swoon.
Then there are the glamorous, world-renowned grandes dames that are above gimmicks and modern makeovers thanks to intuitive, experienced service, or a remarkable heritage (as John Walsh describes at Claridge's on the previous pages). My advice? If it's top-star, then terrific – but I'll still be doing my homework too.
Juliet Kinsman is editor-in-chief of Mrandmrssmith.com