Psst, I’ve got a few secrets and I’m willing to share them. It’s a natural during a discussion with travellers that eventually the subject turns to hotels and leisure activities. It becomes a fencing game of pre-empting who stayed where and did what. During my many journeys, I’ve had the good fortune of hanging my hat and the rest of my stuff, in some of the best and often unknown hotels in the world then taking off and having remarkable diversions. Some are in far off lands about which we often fantasize. Others are closer to home. But the list below contains my very favorites.
All these 10 hotels have my vote and let me tell you, I’ve been around. It always comes down to service and what to do when you’re not in your comfortable room.
1. CAPE TOWN A HOME AWAY FROM HOME AND MALT TASTINGS TO BOOT.
The famous scribe, George Bernard Shaw once said..”the great advantage of a hotel is that it is refuge from home life.”And after staying at Cape Grace Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa, it isn’t difficult to understand why this relatively newcomer to the hotel industry which opened in 1996 in the posh Victoria and Alfred Waterfront area, has already been voted as one of the best I the world, by Conde Nast. There’s nothing overtly different at first glance. The reception area has chintz covered sink-in chairs and the floral arrangements are major. Dazzle starts down the foyer in the only- to- the- major- born library which overlooks a marina, has fireplace seating and a staff member who mans the espresso machine beside the sideboard of English crust-less tea sandwiches and fruit tarts for most of the day.
Then there are the “Convenience rooms”on the main floor, for those early arrivals. Shower, change of clothes, nibble in the library, all while the housekeepers are busy upstairs. Throughout the hotel there are tiny touches that make the difference – artwork in the elevators, house staff that tidy up twice daily, and doormen who really enjoy their work. The larger- than- most rooms either face the water, some with the backdrop of Table Mountain or a working harbour and grand yacht-filled marina.
Heated towel racks, fluffy towels, robes slippers, large jars of potions and lotions and a tray filled with always fresh water in the electric kettle, choices of coffee and Roibos tea, only available in South Africa…pity
A mini bar with whole lemons, small jug of milk and come the evening, always a small sweet surprise.
New is the Spa the Cape Grace, located high atop the hotel. Their signature, “African Cape Massage”is inspired by native Kho-San culture with essential oils form the Snowbush and African Shea tree.
And the Bascule Bar, where there are twice weekly malt tasting, has 360 different whiskies and over 8000 bottles of wine.
And like its rare wine, even on my second visit, Cape Gracy Hotel only got better.
2. KENYA – WILDLIFE IN RITZY COMFORT
“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills,”wrote Karen Blixen in her book, Out of Africa. One sentence but it always left me feeling great empathy for the Dane who loved Kenya but was forced to return to Denmark.
As the 19 seat Twin Otter left Wilson Airport and flew over the Ngong Hills (Knuckle Hills), from Nairobi, I understood her sadness having to leave the undulating land, sparsely spotted plains, unique views, the bluest sky and the animal.
In 45 minutes, I was in the surrealistic ambience of Bateleur Safari Camp on the western border of Masai Mara –a testimonial to nature’s unspoilt beauty.
As I settled into my luxurious tented room, when I looked out through the screened-in area, playing among the Red Oat grass were impalas and zebras. Each of the 9 tented units face the wilderness. The friendly staff, however, was adamant about guests never leaving their lodging on their own.. ”Never before dawn or after dusk”.
Although the entrance has a hard wood door, the zippered part of the tent must always be closed in this wild animal area.
Isiah, my butler greeted me each morning at 5.45AM with a wonderful smile and a welcomed tray of coffee and cookies before the first of the day’s safari. We happened to hit the jackpot as we bumped over dusty red clay road and saw a dazzle of zebras, a pack of hyenas, a journey of giraffes, a raft of hippos, some elephants and a lioness coddling her babies.
Feeling much like a cinnamon covered doughnut after this amazing open car drive, I rushed into the modern glassed-in shower where the walls resembled a topi’s skin. The accommodations may be a tent but that’s where the similarity ends. The shingled banana leaf thatched roof keeps the coolness during the day. Local mahogany flooring, shelving and fine linens can be added to the list among the painted cement in various Masai shades of ochre and rose. When the temperature dripped dramatically in the evening, returning to the room to discover a hot water bottle between the sheets was an extra bonus after a typical dinner under the acacia trees where I sat on Masai beaded studded antique leather benches and chairs. Vintage trunkswere the side tables and made this a perfect African movie set.
3. AMSTERDAM – CANALS, HERRING, ART AND ARCHITECTURE AT ITS BEST
Ambassade Hotel on the Herrengraft Canal, one of the three in Amsterdam, is a series of 9 narrow tradition 17th century houses. From the moment you step down into what is known as the group floor (our basements), the inviting antique décor and the warm welcome from the desk staff is ingratiating without being intrusive. Having arrived too early in the morning, the check out time being noon, they suggested breakfast and coffee in the chandelier cozy dining room overlooking the canal.
About ½hour later, knowing that the overseas flights can be exhausting, I’m led up to my room sooner than expected.
I’m convinced that the Dutch stay in shaped by walking through the charming streets and then climbing steep narrow stairs in all the houses. To get to my room, the curved narrow staircase could have had a Sherba out of breath, but then that’s the fun of living in and seeing these slender houses.
The spacious marble bathroom includes large shower heads with serious sprays, just the right energizer to propel me into the streets.
However, staying in, would not have been a hardship. Two comfy armchairs, a coffee table laden with current magazines, work desk, good lighting, down duvet and pillows, a colour scheme of laid back tones of yellow and green which didn’t have me racing away from loud chintz.
Downstairs, a book lined library with original shelves, was the place for taking tea and ‘noshing’on stroopwafel, the delicious Dutch biscuit. Since the hotel is attached to several other houses, the twists and turns to get to the various rooms is an intriguing trip.
All said, I couldn’t wait to dine in airy bright breakfast room for the morning meal of fruit, yogurt, cheese (all Dutch, of course) array of bread, various hams and salamis. Strangers, all fellow travellers, obviously felt quite at home as everyone greeted each other with a cheery good day…and it was.
4. CHICAGO – A TOP CLASS HOTELWITH A FIVE STAR SPA
Years ago, Hong Kong’s The Peninsula Hotel raised the bar for dedicated service with Rolls Royce limo service and butlers. Now reaching into the high spots of the USA, Chicago’s ‘Pen’as it’s affectionately called, hasn’t changed their operation one iota. Opened on one of the best locations, just a few metres from the Windy city’s magnificent Mile, this H shaped building’s entrance is flanked by two extremely large lions, larger than he ones in Hong Kong. The 339 Room establishment is the handbook for what every hotel should strive for. Pure perfection.
The contemporary technically advanced hotel is a wireless state- of- the art complex. Every bedside has a panel with buttons for climate control, TV and radio, housekeeper service. And in the bathroom’s panel, should the phone ring while you’re soaking in the tub, located just below a window overlooking the city if you’re watching the small TV on the facing wall, just a press on a button and ‘look Ma, no hands”. At the room’s entrance, there’s another panel stating the outside temperature and humidity, important in this breezy metropolis. It’s placed above the box for the morning newspaper and shoes left for shining. Subtle colours don’t throw client into a spin should they awake in the middle of the night from too much of a good thing perhaps after some time in The Bar on the main floor.
Ah, the main floor. It really isn’t the first floor. That’s where the concierge desk is located. The lobby is up on the 5th where a fast elevator deposits you for a quick paced check in service. It’s a new wave in design and economics since the floors below are swanky retail and prime office space. The flip side is that because the rooms are high, the skyline is better.
Throughout the hotel, there are commissioned art and multicoloured stained glass installations. Although workmen are always on the property one is never sure where they are, so quiet are they. And for the crème de la creme spa, pure hedonism is at the two story glass ½size Olympic length pool and spa.
5. YANGON (RANGOON) MYANMAR (BURMA)- IF ONLY THE WALLS COULD TALK IN THIS HISTORIC HOTEL
For decades the once elegant white stucco turn- of- the century building, The Strand Hotel, in Yangon Myanmar, had rats skulking through the shabby, down at the mouth edifice. However, during the years of British colonization, The Strand was where the elite would meet, a place where gentle folk would enjoy good conversation, drink in hand and have an acceptable meal.
Fast forward and suddenly, the hotel situation in Yangon has changed dramatically with the curiosity of strangers. The Stand, gutted and reopened in 1993, is now a mirror of its old self- stunning. Only in the past few years has the Myanmar Government opened its doors to tourism and the opportunity to see this beautiful (but still politically strained) country- a no-brainer to bring in dollars and Eruos.
Even before stepping into this rare teak wood detailed structure, built in 1901, there’s still a definite look of British colonial grandeur. The lobby is thick with helpful uniformed staff members, unusual colourful flowers tumble out of extra large Burmese lacquered vase. If there is any downside, it is that there just isn’t enough time to linger in the huge high ceiling bed rooms decorated with Burmese flair. These accommodations feature local artifacts, a reading area, two poster bed, polished teak floors, a decorative but useful ceiling fan that quietly moves the air, large tiled bathrooms with the most up- to- date everything,(however, with so many taps, it left me confused) and best of all, a valet at your service with just the press of a button. (He helped unconfused me re: the taps). It’s on the sofa near the window where I was served tea on a silver tray. How much more colonial could one get.
The 32 suites are almost identical and there’s always a butler present who takes your key to unlock the room when you return.
The Strand is an oasis in a city that still trying to get the moss gowing out of the mansions and fix the peeling stucco of the estates. However, The Strand Bar, still with the original pool table, has a full range of drinks where in time past, only Mandalay beer was likely to be the one drink available.
And even a two piece jazz band plays every Friday night. Still one of the most elegant dining rooms in this city is The Strand Grill with large black lacquer prints from Bagan, the city where lacquer ware is a definite art form . The colonial style rattan chairs, add to the timeless charm as the light comes in from the big teak framed windows. Look out onto the busy Strand Road and realize that the Yangon River is just on the other side of a small green park.
6. QUEBEC CITY- A WALK THROUGH THE FOYERS IS A WALK THROUGH CANADIAN HISTORY
Away from the razzmatazz of glamour puss Montreal and her plethora of smart, small luxury hotels is Quebec City and Auberge Saint-Antoine where modern meets old charm and amenities are stellar in a city that is a World Heritage treasure.
Originally, the Auberge had 31 rooms, then the building merged with 18th and 19th century buildings and now completed, has 83 rooms and 12 suites spanning three centuries from 1690-1991. The façade from 1850 was kept in tact.
The lobby is an indicator of the look the owners were so keen on creating. Red painted tree trunk tables are glass-topped, red crested velvet wing back chairs are juxtaposed to Phillip Starck’s clear plastic Louis Ghost chairs. The mixture is perfect in the barrel vaulted lobby dining room as are the hallways. The unique red lettering with the alphabet going upside down and sideways (much like reading a doctor’s chart) on beige, trims the grey middle section of the corridor carpeting.
Each of the 6 floors is dedicated to a different period with small lit plastic cases filled with ‘objets’of the period and named after men who made a difference at that time.
In #601, there’s a two glass fireplace, arched windows, stacked plastic tables and a chic headboard with matching drapes, while #516 is so different with ultra modern chairs, a patio and a majestic view of Chateau Frontenac.
Lighting in most hotels seems to be an afterthought. But here the contemporary floor lamps, the bedside lighting and wonderfully original set in small, floor pot lights are an example of good planning and research into new technologies.
Most unusual is the glassed in extra large bathroom with a ‘rain ‘shower head outside the tub. The amazing designed floor never floods as the water comes down and runs directly into the drain. Molded white porcelain counter tip sink, brick shaped ceramic wall tiling (reminiscent of the Paris Metro) is complete with an ecologically friendly toilet from Japan. And then there are the luxury linens, safe box at waist high located in a drawer, n-no-fog bathroom mirrors and the perfect Quebecoise ambience.
Reservations at 1888 692 2211
7. TANZANIA – ANIMALS ROMP IN THE GRASS AS GUESTS’JAWS DROP‘
New Yorkers, Liz, a magazine executive and Chris, a Wall Street financier, were holding hands over a table at breakfast when I met them. They were on their honeymoon. Sitting here in a remote part of Tanzania at the luxurious tented Grumeti River Camp, they told me it had taken months of researching various global destinations before they decided on this idyllic valley in the western corridor of the Serengeti National Park. And they couldn’t have chosen a more romantic and private spot in the world.
I had just caught up to my stomach after the 15 seat Twin Otter had made five short and swift ups and downs at various small air strips before landing.
From a blanket of Nile Cabbage leaves in the Grumeti River, just past the long narrow garden, out popped a huge hippo, exhaling and inhaling before submerging again. More discreet were the crocodiles which keep a lower profile at this time of day, also hidden away under the cabbage leaves.
The ochre coloured sand and cement dining-sitting area, my viewing perch for the moment, was whimsically decorated with inlaid glass tile flooring depicting crocs and other jungle designs. The upper level cleverly divides an eating area from the bar/snack section, decorated with unexpected colourful cushioned, modern stainless steel backed chairs.
In another mode, the reception/lobby is adorned with totally beaded chairs done by hand by the Masai women and plush sofas and tables piled high with books and native handicrafts. However, all I wanted was to get to my tent, one of 10 canvas beautifully furnished ensuite accommodations, so that I could dash into the outdoor shower.
Soaking wet, when I looked up, staring down at me from the tree above was a monkey. Among the décor is a Phillip Starck inspired conical sink, quite a departure for a tent in the bush.
During the night, I expected jungle sounds and my suspicious were confirmed in the morning when one of the staff showed me a clump of Nile Cabbage leaves, a souvenir from hippos, who had almost been my room mate. A lion, roaring about 100 metres away, seemed next door. Sounds seem louder in the nightly silence of the secluded valley.
The day centers around game viewing drives. And this being the heart of Africa’s greatest wilderness, a sighting of dazzle of zebra, pack of hyena, journey of giraffe, crash of rhino, raft of hippo, herd of buffalo, troop of baboon, made for an exciting journey before heading back to my sumptuous deluxe tent.
8. TANZANIA – A STEW OF STYLES ON THE EDGE OF A TWO MILLION YEAR OLD CRATER
It would be impossible not to include Ngorongoro Crater Lodge while in Tanzania. The only way to describe this accommodation is ‘over the top’with a stew of styles and where bush meets Baroque. Silk drapes cascading down from thatched ceilings, gilt regal crests on off-white cement walls, elaborate glass chandeliers mixed with damask covered chairs and African artifacts are a triumph of interior design.
The crested and in-laid pink ochre curved, sensuous, sumptuous private rooms and buildings all sit overlooking the 2 million year old, 126 square mile Ngorongoro Crater. After seeing the public area, there are no surprises and one only expects rooms will be equally innovative.
Carved wooden closet doors, when open, become a room divider, Dozens of red roses in a vase on a table near the bathtub sit in this over sized bathroom. Nothing is left to the imagination- an ultra modern in-laid with porcupine quills purple lucite vanity table, two sinks separated by a curved mosaic open shower and little peek doors which when opened, are small windows for more viewing of the crater, even from the loo.
After the long, hot game drive, tired and dusty guests are in for a surprise. Awaiting them in each room, is a blanket of rose petals, scattered on the floor, a pathway to the ready, hot bubbly and oil bath, also topped with colourful petals. A soak in that tub, the stunning ambiance, memories of the day, no TV or computer, no phone only a whistle to blow if needed, made the world’s problems disappear like the flurry of birds, if only for the few days.
9. IRELAND – AH, THE LUCK OF THE IRISH TO HAVE THESE GEORGIAN TOWNHOUSES AND A MICHELIN GUIDE RATED RESTAURANT
The entrance to Dublin’s Merrion Hotel is so discrete, I had to ask the taxi driver if this was the correct address. So unpretentious is this stylish 7 year old hotel, that any other in this class which has won as many international awards would have huge brass signage. The Merrion Hotel is made up of four Grade 1, original Georgian terrace townhouses, and kept their 5 star rating low profile. Built in the 1760s these chic digs are located in the heart of Georgian Dublin opposite the Government Buildings, the home of the Irish Government. Dublin is considered one of the finest Georgian cities in Europe and this quartet of buildings is an architectural triumph. Imagine the surprise to find, hanging in the front foyer, major canvases, two Jack Yeats (poet John Yeats’brother). Through the historically important doorway of #22 into what could only be described as traditional Irish Georgian drawing room, is the reception desk. Here the Irish woven fabrics cover the antique sofas, the fire is blazing and more at fill the walls. In fact, the independently owned Merrion Hotel has what is considered, the most important 19th and 20th century art collection in Ireland. Georgian houses were designed as homes and are known by their large doorways, sashed windows that get smaller towards the top handsome but plain exteriors and beautiful door fanlights and interiors with large public areas. The Merrion’s 18th century buildings have maintained their architectural and decorative integrity especially with the intricate rococo plasterwork ceiling moldings. Where needed the reproductions were skillfully restored by a master stuccador. The ceilings of my room #180 in house #21 are approximately 5 metres high, the moldings simple and angular. Sage green walls and the have woven light ecru and sage curtains are an usual colour palette for an hotel room but stunning in a toile de Jouey pattern which would have been de riguieur in the homes of the period. The Garden wing, relatively new and contemporary, is built behind the original townhouses. The interiors have a blend of fabrics and textures in a neo classical acanthus design with curtains woven in fine wool. Old meets new with all the modern conveniences- fax, voice mail, air con, TV, carara marble bathrooms and amenities by ken Turner. And to add to all this luxury is Tethra Spa ( Irish for The Land of the Young) and an 18 metro swimming pool set in French limestone and a spectacular trompe l’oeil neo-classical landscape mural. A feature of this hotel is that it’s environmentally friendly with ozone filtration system. One would think the only thing missing was a fine restaurant. Ah but within the Merrion Hotel at #21 is Patrick Guilbaud’s two star rated Michelin restaurant.
10. INDIA – A SEVERAL HUNDRED YEAR OLD FORT WHERE EVERYONE IS A RAJAH AND A RANI AND A STONE’S THROW FROM THE GREAT THAR DESERT
Driving in India is a life-threatening affair. Many roads are unpaved, single lanes but the adeptness of the drivers, as they miss by inches oncoming trucks, is unquestionably a great talent.
On the road to Khimsar Fort, established in 1523, the honking horns weren’t out of rudeness, I soon discovered, but a warning to the hoards of trucks who have signs on their rear stating to ‘please honk’. As the truckers move over to the side to let cars pass, I’m amazed there are no finger signs or hostile looks to which we in North American are accustomed.
Two old cannons at the entrance of the fort are the perfect adornment on this 11 acre property. Smartly, turbaned and uniformed guards salute guests and within nano seconds, you’re hooked on the spectacle of this unexpected resort. Perched on the edge of the Great Thar Desert in a very rural area, this was the ancestral home of Rao Karamsiji who was the 8th prince of Roa Jodhaji, Maharaja of Jodphur. And Khimsar Fort was one of the head houses of the Karamsot Rathors.
On the property are a few shops but one of great are a few shops but one of importance is the Nila Moti Trust which was set up by a Swiss woman and encouraged by the Maharani. A few dozen local women make wonderfully crafted clothing which doesn’t stay in stock very long. The proceeds go to these women and the village people.
Facing a rectangular garden and the pool is the remnants of the old grey-stoned fort, now the convenient location for dinner. Dark intriguing niches are set up with tables lit by candles.
A narrow stone rampart leads to another part of the fort, the domed terrace, part of the fort’s observation area. Breakfast is served here and is pure perfection on the constant sunny days. It isn’t difficult to spend hours lingering over the delectable choices from the buffet, good book in hand.
The accommodations of this 50 rooms hotel/fort are massive. My bathroom was large enough that in most hotels it would be a perfectly good bedroom space. Dressing and sitting areas and the huge bedroom with scalloped Rajahstan architectural arches, have all the modern conveniences.
About 15 minutes away is another property of the Singh family. Ten wonderfully designed clay, sand and cow dung round thatched roof huts will soon become 16 since these have become so popular –stay a few nights at the fort and a few here.
Sitting, one coolish evening in the midst of the Great Thar Desert with all the creature comforts, the sky is invisible since it’s blanketed with stars. One wonders if there are any left for the rest of the world. Camel rides, evening meals around the bonfires on the desert are an unique experience.