Do Not Disturb



December 9, 2004 -- This week I am writing about soap and some of the other stuff you get in great hotel bathrooms and which, as I've mentioned before, we all pilfer.

I'm not talking about those half-ounce slivers of soap that Mr. Marriott and the like so generously give you along with a bottle of shampoo whose contents are less generous than the old airline liquor miniatures. Nor am I talking about hotel brands with fancy fake British names such as Gilchrist & Soames, which, I recently discovered, is the trade name of a company headquartered in Indianapolis.

No, I'm talking about the "good stuff." Real bars of soap that are gutsy and weigh at least 4 ounces and those bottles of hotel toiletries that you'd never normally purchase and which are not available at your local Rite-Aid.

I have a huge basket of the better soaps that I have helped myself to over the years. Many have high-falutin' names in French, Italian, and, in one case, Portuguese. But which are the best? My collection runs to more than 20 brands, some of which I've tried and would never use again. Still others are great for the guest bathroom or giving to the postman or the local women's shelter.

In truth, there are only three criteria for great bathroom soap. The first is scent: You don't need a smelly soap where the odor clings to you all day and has people thinking that you've just spent an hour with a lady of ill repute. According to its label, Rancé is a "pure, delicate perfumed soap." But I'm not sure of the Rancé interpretation of "delicate" because the stuff stinks and its 5.5-ounce bars can be smelled out in the corridor.

The second criteria is size: Rinky-dink bathroom bars are useless if you want a good lather. Floris of London, found in the Palace Hotel in Manhattan, almost passes the great-soap test. But at 1.7 ounces, Floris bars are just too small.

The last criteria is ease of opening: Even a great soap is useless if you can't open it. Bulgari, for example, makes a great line of soaps, but just try unwrapping a bar. You need a knife and crowbar and then some. Bijan is used by a few celebrity hotels, but it pongs to high heaven and it's also impossible to open. Manufacturers take note: Shrink-wrapped soap doesn't work when you're trying to open it in the shower with wet hands.

So which products pass the great hotel soap test? After years of lathering up in luxury hotel bathrooms around the world, I choose the following.

In third place is Lady Primrose, a Dallas company. It supplies Rosewood Hotels with a 4-ounce bar called Royal Extract. It's perfect, but I don't know what, exactly, has been extracted and from which royalty. The company also supplies Las Ventanas in Cabo San Lucas with a "nectar soap." One-half of the bar is a regular, frothy and creamy soap and the other half is plain, transparent and politically correct. Lady Primrose's "pearlized honey soap," available at The Lanesborough in London, is a winner, too. It weighs in at 5.25 ounces, doesn't smell and lathers well. And since it's shaped like an (American) football, it can reach all those places that a rectangular bar will miss.

Second place goes to a brand called Dahlmeyer, which I encountered at The Adlon in Berlin. It is a liquid soap in its own plastic (and easily opened) bottle. It's good for hair and body (How Teutonic!) and the 6-ounce size lasts for at least four washes.

Top marks, and by a long stretch, go to L'Occitane en Provence. Its 5-ounce oatmeal-and-honey bar is proudly stocked by the Four Seasons Biltmore in Santa Barbara. I can't swipe enough of them. Of course, you can spring for a bar at the L'Occitane boutiques located most upmarket shopping malls as well as at Neiman Marcus and Barneys. At $6 a bar, it certainly makes your room rate look cheaper. (L'Occitane also has a wonderful range of soaps and mystic lotions made with everything from lavender to olive oil.) Most importantly, My Bride agrees with this recommendation although she has dissented from my opinion about several of the other brands mentioned here.

Why haven't I mentioned the terrific array of soaps and shampoos, all weighing in at 5.5 ounces, at the Beverly Hills Hotel? Simply because there is no manufacturer's name on the bottles. Maybe they make them in the basement.

Some final notes: A five-star or luxury hotel will spend between $8 and $10 per occupied room for guest amenities. That includes the cost of slippers, pens, writing paper and all the toiletries. Each bar of soap, and there are sometimes more than two in a luxury-hotel bathroom, costs between 51 cents and $1.25. (A bar of soap that costs a hotel $1.25 will certainly sell for about $6 if it is available at retail.) In any given year, a 400-room luxury hotel will spend more than $250,000 just on soap for the guest bathrooms.

Where does the soap that you've used only once go after you've checked out? That's a trade secret.

This column originally appeared at

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Michael Matthews. All rights reserved.