Wow, Hotel ‘Pillow Menus’ Can Really Make Your Head Hurt

Smart hotels are so determined that you sleep well, they have created a range of different pillows to suit every weary head and sleep type.

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Many moons ago, before we got distracted by the manifold pleasures of in-room surround sound systems, personal plunge pools and ever-more extravagant mini-bars, providing a good night’s sleep was the sine qua non of the great hotel.

The writer Ludwig Bemelmans, in his brilliant reflections on hotel life that preceded his children’s Madeline series for which he is most famous, describes how staff at the Hotel Splendide (a fictionalised version of the Ritz-Carlton, where he worked as banqueting manager) would be instantly fired if caught making any excessive noise anywhere in the building after 9pm.

Oh, happy days, the modern hotel traveller, besieged by winking smoke alarms, the clink of ice machines in the hallway and the whirring of the elevator in its shaft might be inclined to opine.

All too often the most exciting modern hotels, the ones found in the glossy magazines, are so focused on the flash and the extras that the simple requisites of a good night’s sleep—namely a dark, quiet room with a comfortable mattress—gets forgotten.

Increasingly, however, hotels are again attempting to sell sleep as the ultimate luxury.

Some hotels, such as The Benjamin in New York, now even retain a dedicated “Sleep Concierge” to make sure guests get the perfect 40 winks.

For many country house hotels in Britain and Ireland, set in sleepy bucolic surrounds, sleep is a key part of the offering. Lisnavagh House, for example, a Gothic revival mansion set in the south east of Ireland, runs weekend ‘sleep retreats’. Ancient wooden shutters and thick granite walls keep out noise and light.

However, what has become one of the most fashionable ways for hotels to telegraph that they are serious about sleep these days is to provide guest with a so-called ‘pillow menu’, and the humble pillow has become the unlikely battleground on which a new battle for top-flight luxury hotel bragging rights is being fought.

More and more five star hotels around the world are now offering these ‘Pillow Menus’, giving guests a choice of up to 12 different pillows, filled with everything from spelt chaff to moulded foam.

Upon checking into a room at the Ananda Spa, up in the Himalayas near the Indian town of Rishikesh, for example, guests are immediately presented with a ‘pillow menu’ which features a choice of seven different pillows, including the aforementioned Spelt Pillow—filled with chaff from the spelt grain.

It is perhaps not entirely surprising to find such an outrageous luxury at The Ananda—Prince Charles stays here when he is in the area and guests begin their stay with an ayurvedic consultation so that their diet can be specially tailored to suit their ‘dosha’ (type).

But the pillow menu is a trend that is now spreading all over India and the world. The 12-pillow menu at the Leela Palace, Udaipur, begins with a quote from the Dalai Lama: “Sleep is the best meditation.”

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I’ll snore to that.

In the interests of research, the housekeeping staff at the Leela provided this reporter with all 12 of their pillows (they arrived in about three minutes in a gigantic cart) for a rest test (not the most arduous of assignments, I agree).

(Trying to work out where to put twelve plump, fresh pillows just delivered to your room is a luxury problem, but it is a problem none the less.

You feel kind of bad on the staff requesting 12 pillows. In an attempt to solve this issue, the pillow menu at the Banyan Tree in Phuket comes with ‘testers’--little mini-pillows presented on a tray with lotus flowers.)

Here’s my full report from the Leela:

Spelt Pillow: This environmentally friendly pillow is extremely firm, with remarkable elasticity and bounce.

Neck Supporting Pillow: Moulded, contoured pillow for cradling the neck. Good if you sleep on your back.

Horse Hair Pillow: What childhood would have been like had you grown up in a Victorian orphanage. Flat, thin and very noisy, a crinkle in the ear each time you roll your head.

Down Special Pillow: 100% goose down, perfect if you like a squishy-squashy head-resting experience (I do).

Non-allergy bolster: The bolster, a roll-shaped pillow, was, along with the bidet, one of the wonders of holidaying in France as a British kid. How do you use them? Do you sleep on them? Are they for decoration? Je ne sais pas.

The Smoker Pillow: A fire resistant pillow, designed, presumably with drunk smokers in mind particularly. Uncomfortable and lumpy, but with smokers already used to being made to stand outside in the rain to indulge their disgusting habit, it’s good to know we ex-smokers can continue to persecute them in other arenas of life as well.

Standard Duofill Pillow: A cool, plump pillow, workmanlike and suitable for all sleepers.

Supersoft Pillow: A 100% cotton pillow, handy for those with allergies to duck or goose feathers.

The Chimera: Who’d expect a “fire-breathing female monster with a lion's head, a goat's body, and a serpent's tail” to be used in sleep imagery? Yet this moulded pillow was the best of the firm synthetics.

Firm Pillow: A reliable journeyman pillow, good, but, couldn’t compete with the Chimera.

Contour Pillow. Something of an eye-catcher in the pillow world, this little baby aims to reduce postural stress.

Slim Pillow: As the name suggests, this pillow is half the depth of a regular pillow. It’s the pillow equivalent of one of those little wedges you slip under the table leg at an outside restaurant table.

Pillow menus are an easy way for hotels to add an extra layer of luxury, and they can make a big difference to a guest’s overall experience for a minimal investment on the part of the hotel.

For this reason, expect to see pillow menus breaking out of the luxury bracket and popping up in mid-price hotels soon.