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Roar into the new Twenties with a trip on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express like Kate Moss

 

Our first sight of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express is the smartly uniformed staff lined up alongside the gleaming navy train to greet us. We are welcomed aboard by our personal steward in blue and gold livery complete with cap and white gloves who’ll take care of us for our two day trip. He leads us along the narrow corridor of our designated wagon lit (sleeping car) to our cabin where our luggage is already waiting.

It’s the same trip Kate Moss recently took with her friends actress Sadie Frost, model turned nutritionist Rosemary Ferguson and Dave Gardner (Liv Tyler’s husband and David Beckham’s best mate) for her BF and celebrity hairdresser James Brown’s 50th birthday and amusingly documented on Instagram.

 

 

Our journey had begun that morning at London Victoria. It’s a popular misconception that the VSOE travels between the UK and mainland Europe. In reality its sister train, the equally plush and storied Belmond British Pullman, covers the English leg. Emma “Baby Spice” Bunton, Holly Willoughby and Christine Lampard recently enjoyed a Christmas lunch day trip on the day train.

 

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Christine Lampard, Holly Willoughby and Emma Bunton boarding the British Belmond. Credit: Holly Willoughby Instagram

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Emma Bunton onboard the British Belmond. Credit: shishib Instagram

 

After enjoying a three course lunch on board the Pullman while travelling through the countryside we disembarked at Folkestone on the south coast, met with terrific fanfare by a brass band playing on the platform. We were then transferred by coach onto another train, Le Shuttle, that passes through the Eurotunnel under the sea into France.

Safely aboard the VSOE at Calais station we settle into our cosy Art Deco cabin. We’ve booked a twin which comes with bunk beds though during the day there’s no sign of the sleeping arrangements. Instead there’s a luxuriously upholstered banquette seat – perfect for taking in the view through the large window. While our cabin is lovely it’s small so we’ve brought overnight bags only (more luggage can be stored but not accessed on the journey). In true authentic 1920s fashion, there’s a wash basin concealed in a smart wooden cabinet but no shower and the lavatories are at the end of each carriage.

 

VSOE during the day with banquette seating and concealed washin basin cabinet

Twin cabin by day on the VSOE

 

Although often mistaken for the Orient Express, the train service synonymous with Agatha Christie that ran between Paris and Istanbul, the VSOE is a collection of vintage carriages bought by businessman James Sherwood (who launched a luxury travel group, now called Belmond, on the back of it). Each carriage has been exquisitely restored, all polished wood and richly coloured upholstery, some feature marquetry and some Lalique glass panels. Combined they make a beguiling luxury train of several sleeper cars positioned either side of the dining and bar cars.

Once we’re off an ever changing view unfolds outside the window. When we pass families out for a stroll or bike ride it’s lovely to see their faces light up at the sight of the handsome train.

 

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Dining car on the VSOE

 

We opt for the later sitting for dinner (there are also two sittings for lunch) and request a table for two rather than a shared table of four. Beforehand we make our way to the bar car for an aperitif. It’s a bit of crush with passengers crowding in either before or after dinner but luckily we find a seat. You’re encouraged to dress up on the VSOE and evening is particularly fun with most of us in glitzy frocks and dinner jackets (tuxedos).

Serendipitously our dinner coincides with the train crossing Paris so we’re treated to a view of an illuminated Eiffel tower from our upholstered arm chairs as we tuck into the four course set menu. The table is beautifully laid with fine china, crystal and silverware perfectly framing the lobster lasagna followed by fillet of beef, a cheese course then bitter chocolate and pistachio and souffle. We finish off with coffee and petits fours then retire to the bar for a night cap.

 

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Twin cabin converted into bunk beds on the VSOE

 

Back in the cabin we find our steward has transformed the banquette into inviting beds with crisp sheets and warm blankets. An upholstered ladder leads to the top bunk which I leave my husband to clamber up. Our passports are with the steward so when we cross the border into Switzerland during the night we won’t be woken.

In the morning we open the blinds and see the snowy mountains of the Alps. It’s a magical backdrop for breakfast in our cabin. We spend the day walking the length of the train (a half mile each way), browsing in the onboard boutique and simply watching the scenery as we pass into Austria and then Italy. Punctuated by eating of course. The three course set lunch is as impressive as dinner: seared scallops, roasted rack of lamb and a poached pear with salted caramel.

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Venice Simplon-Orient-Express

 

As our journey comes to a close in the late afternoon we return to our cabin. Our steward opens our door so that the window in the corridor is visible and tells us to make sure we look out of both sides. What follows will remain one of my favourite travel experiences: the train crosses the Venetian lagoon and we have an expansive view in each direction. It’s a stunning arrival in the floating city.

One caveat, back on firm ground we weren’t prepared for the rocking sensation, similar to how you feel when you’ve been on a boat. Even so as we checked in at Venice airport, how we wished we were returning on the VSOE.

 

 

Our Best and Worst Hotel stays of 2019

Two hotels in New York for this year’s pick. One a legendary grand dame undergoing a gentle nip and tuck that more than lived up to its reputation, the other a new, much hyped opening that failed to deliver.

 

The Best of Times: The Carlyle

 

The Carlyle entrance

The Carlyle, New York

 

We booked a three night stay at The Carlyle to celebrate a special occasion and the whole experience was superb. The hotel embodies wonderful Upper East Side New York glamour, just as we’d envisaged. A discreet entrance just off Madison Avenue leads to the small, elegant lobby decorated in Art Deco monochrome with splashes of golden velvet. While the hotel is exclusive we found the service friendly and attentive throughout. And everyone seems to be greeted with “nice to see you” whether it’s your first or hundredth visit.

The Carlyle is being subtly refurbished in parts but cleverly all the classic features that make it special are still there including the famous Bemelmans Bar and the elevator attendants. Our room was one of the recently refurbished ones and successfully blended classic with contemporary. There were some lovely touches such as Central Park murals and quirky rabbit objects reminiscent of the Bemelmans bar downstairs. The room wasn’t huge and the bathroom a bit tight but that’s usual for New York and the beautiful décor made up for it.

 

Bemelman Bar

Bemelmans Bar at The Carlyle, New York

We enjoyed fabulous breakfasts every morning in the chic Carlyle Restaurant. And dinner there was the icing on the cake of our stay. We were given the type of table we’d requested beforehand (a corner banquette) and the classic menu and slick service matched the stylish setting perfectly.

For exploring the Upper East Side the hotel’s location was also superb. We had the Met museums and Central Park right on our doorstep and of course the shops of Madison Ave. There are newer, trendier hotels in more fashionable parts of New York but for sheer class this is hard to beat.

 

The Worst of Times: TWA Hotel

 

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TWA hotel, JFK, New York. Credit: Max Touhey

 

When we heard the TWA Hotel opening was coinciding with a trip we had booked to the US, changing planes at JFK, we switched our onward flight so we could stay the night at the hotel. We wish we hadn’t.

The problems started when we looked at the website a few days before our arrival and noticed that the hotel’s only sit down restaurant was fully booked for the evening of our stay. We contacted the hotel direct to ask if they were keeping any tables back for hotel guests and were flatly told no by the Assistant Director of Front Office. He suggested we try the “grab and go” take away outlets in the lobby instead. As we’d been looking forward to an elegant dinner in a “Jean Georges Vongerichten” restaurant it was hardly the experience we hoped for. He also confirmed as per the website that the restaurant was fully booked for breakfast – something we have never encountered in a hotel before.

On top of that, we’d booked the hotel some three months ahead of time and had not been advised then to reserve a restaurant booking as we have with other hotels with popular eateries. When we pointed that out the Assistant Director replied: “reservations didn’t start being booked until mid April.” He did not respond when we questioned why we hadn’t been contacted at that point – still a month before arrival.

The hotel was easy enough to get to when we landed at JFK and the architecture is truly stunning so we still hoped to enjoy our stay. However we were surprised to be told when we tried to check in at 3pm that the room wasn’t ready and that check in wasn’t until 4pm. It seems puzzling to have such a late, inflexible check in at an airport hotel when guests are arriving at all times. After an early start and a transatlantic flight the last thing we wanted to do was hang about for the room.

When we eventually checked in the room (we had booked a Deluxe King with a Heritage View) was very attractively designed. Small, but we expected that in New York. But the lack of wardrobe and the fact that my husband could barely walk around one side of the bed was an issue. There was no room for chargers on the bedside tables either. The floor to ceiling windows gave us a great view of the stunning Saarinen building but it also meant we were completely on show to everyone inside that building.

We tried to find the much publicised roof top swimming pool and bar but were told that they weren’t yet open. This too was disappointing as pictures of the roof top had been heavily promoted as part of the hotel’s appeal.

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Sunken Lounge, TWA hotel. Credit: Max Touhey

On the plus side the Sunken Lounge was fun for a cocktail (at Manhattan prices). Plates of olives ($10) and cheese ($20) were not enough for dinner and nearing 8pm we were hungry so went in search of the “grab and go” only to find most of the stalls closed. We managed to buy some gyro from the Halal Guys just minutes before they too closed. No offence to the Halal Guys (they were the only reason we had sustenance that night –there’s no room service) but a donor kebab was not what we had envisaged after our martinis. On returning to our room we found the television didn’t work.

In the morning we checked out first thing and headed to the airside of Terminal in search of breakfast, we’d had enough of the TWA experience. To add insult to injury when we looked at our bill we had been charged $10 plus tax (note this is payable per room per night) “facility fee”. This purportedly covered “free” wi fi “complimentary” access to the fitness centre and luggage storage on arrival/departure. Leaving the wi fi aside, we have never before been charged for fitness centre access (which incidentally we didn’t use plus the pool wasn’t open) or luggage storage in any hotel.

The following week we needed to travel through JFK again and then on to Upstate New York. It would have been ideal to check into the TWA hotel and then travel upstate the following morning. Based on our experience we chose not to – instead we took a cab to Manhattan to stay the night.

Aman set to Become Even Bigger in Japan

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How Aman Niseko on Mt Moiwa, Japan will look

Just when we thought Aman in Japan couldn’t get any better, the luxury hotel brand has announced plans to open a fourth property in the country.

Aman Niseko will be a retreat situated on the high slopes of Mt Moiwa on an untouched nature reserve in Hokkaido’s Niseko region.

The Niseko region is known for abundant snowfall and long ski runs. The resort will be all season and the mild weather in the summer months make the area appealing for hiking, mountain biking and river rafting.

 

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An Aman Niseko Villa

 

Again designed by Kerry Hill Architects the resort will be made up of just 30 guest rooms and an extensive spa.

 

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Aman Niseko Entrance Reception

The Aman Spa will feature single and double treatment suites, pre-treatment lounges, relaxation pods and extensive thermal spa areas, including saunas, Watsu treatment chamber, cold plunge pools, steam rooms, hammam, experience showers and onsen.

An indoor lap pool and an aqua fitness pool will overlook an outdoor terrace with forest and mountain views.

You’ll have to wait until 2023 to check in though.

 

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Aman Niseko Spa Swimming Pool

For more details visit http://www.aman.com/niseko

 

 

This Christmas you can follow in Henry Golding’s footsteps across London

Last Christmas ice rink close up

Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding at Alexandra Palace ice rink Credit: UPI

Critics may have been divided about Last Christmas the movie (for the record, Chopstix loved it) but one thing they agreed on about Henry Golding’s new film co starring Emilia Clarke and Michelle Yeoh is that it makes London look wonderful. Director Paul Feig is a huge fan of the British capital and says the film is a love letter to London. The movie was actually filmed last Christmas when all the city’s festive decorations were in place. A lot of scenes took place in the middle of the night for maximum light sparkling and minimum crowds. Here’s where you can find the most scenic locations.

Tom and Kate’s Meet Cute, Apple Market

Last Christmas meet cute

Henry Golding and Emilia Clarke at Apple Market Credit: UPI

Flakey Kate (Emilia Clarke) first spots suave Tom (Henry Golding) through the window of Yuletide Wonderful Christmas shop where she works in Covent Garden Piazza, owned by Michelle Yeoh’s character “Santa”. Alas the shop doesn’t actually exist. IRL the site is a covered walkway cutting through the neo classical buildings of the former fruit and vegetable market. On the plus side it’s flanked rather deliciously by Ladurée tea room and Godiva chocolatier. And you can visit the spot where the two meet outside Yuletide – underneath the blue metal arches in Apple Market where a certain incident involving “looking up” seemingly brings them together.

Meet Cute Part Two, Covent Garden

Last Christmas Brydge's Place

Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding in Brydges Place Credit: UPI

When Kate and Tom run into each other again it’s also in the Covent Garden area. Though it looks like a film set, this quaint lane is real life Cecil Court. Linking Charing Cross Road with St Martin’s Lane, the pedestrianised street is lined with independent stores selling books and artworks. “London’s narrowest alley” where Tom takes Kate as part of his magical mystery tour of London is real too. Keep a close eye out for Brydges Place next to the Coliseum theatre on St Martin’s Lane – the alley measures only 15 inches across. As for Tom’s “secret garden”, it’s The Phoenix Garden an urban retreat hidden away between Soho and Covent Garden (the entrance is on St Giles Passage).

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Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding in The Phoenix Garden

The two part company at a bus stop on Regent Street which has just turned 200 years old – well worth a visit to see the wonderful illuminated Angels flying above the length of the thoroughfare at this time of year. Tip: the scene was not actually filmed at real bus stop as it’s opposite Hamley’s toy emporium and outside Hackett where no stop exists.

St Mary’s, Marylebone

Emilia Clarke outside St Mary's

Emilia Clarke outside St Mary’s Credit: UPI

The gorgeous honey stoned building depicting the exterior of St Benedict’s homeless shelter in Last Christmas can be found in Marylebone, north of Oxford Street. While the photogenic Georgian columns, festooned with twinkling lights, provide a backdrop for several scenes featuring Tom and Kate, the ornate interior is the setting for the Christmas concert.

The Savoy Buildings

Last Christmas Simpons on the Strand

Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding outside Simpson’s in the Strand Credit: UPI

Kate’s calamitous audition takes place inside the Savoy Theatre, an Art Deco jewel tucked away next to The Savoy hotel’s main entrance on the Strand. It’s worth buying tickets to anything showing here just to see the interiors. Nearby is the spot on the river Thames where Tom gives Kate another pep talk, opposite The Savoy’s riverside entrance on the Embankment. The pair sit on the steps next to Cleopatra’s Needle, where the Thames bends at just the right angle to have the London Eye over on the South Bank appealingly illuminated in the background. Simpson’s, a restaurant owned by The Savoy, outside of which Kate and Tom sit with their skates on (see below) is back up on the Strand. There’s no bench outside Simpson’s but there is a bus stop should you wish to catch a double-decker like Kate.

Alexandra Palace

Last Christmas Alexandra Palace

Emilia Clarke and Henry Golding at Alexandra Palace ice rink Credit: UPI

While the ice rink where the couple have an illicit late night skate appears in the movie to be a short skip from the Embankment, you’ll need to visit far flung north London. Alexandra Palace is a vast Victorian era building known to locals as “Ally Pally” which houses a huge indoor ice rink among other venues. The rink is in a stunning high ceilinged space lined with French windows and it’s open all year round not just for Christmas.

Tom’s Flat, East London

Tom’s tiny, ultra neat flat is located on the corner of Brick Lane and Cheshire Street in East London. Brick Lane has long been famous for its curry houses and more recently for cafes, shops and street art. By coincidence Henry Golding actually used to live in a flat here, just around the corner from his character’s fictitious one. How’s that for a twist of fate.

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6 Christmas markets to visit in Europe

It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas with the traditional European markets opening from mid November. The chalet style wooden stalls selling gifts and edible goodies, perhaps with the addition of ice skating rinks and carol singers, put the magic into the festive season. Here’s Chopstix pick of the best.

Prague Christmas market - credit Prague Tourism

Prague Christmas market credit: Prague Tourism

Prague, Czech Republic

Held, appropriately enough, in Wenceslas Square as well as the Old Town Square, a fairytale backdrop for the stalls selling local handicrafts such as Christmas decorations, carved wooden toys and glasswork. Treats included trdelniks (a distinctive looking dough rolled around a stick then grilled and coated with sugar), barbecued sausages and hot honey wine as well as Czech beer. A highlight is the nativity scene in the Old Town Square featuring live animals where children can stroke sheep and a donkey.

November 30th 2019 – January 6th 2020

Nuremberg, Germany

Nuremberg is known for making gingerbread so you can literally smell Christmas when you visit here (along with roasted almonds, gluhwein and rum punch). Possibly the most famous of all the markets, the Christkindlesmarkt here has been going since the 16th century and now spills throughout the charming medieval streets selling arts and crafts from the region. Take a ride around the market on a horse drawn, bright yellow stagecoach. Nuremberg is also well known for its bratwurst so you can sustain yourself with grilled sausages served with sauerkraut or potato salad or both.

November 29th  – December 24th 2019

Brussels, Belgium

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Brussels Christmas market © visit.brussels – Eric Danhier

Belgium’s biggest Christmas market covers various squares throughout the city centre with some 200 stalls as part of its Winter Wonders festival. It also features a giant Christmas tree and sound and light show at the stunning Grand Place, an ice skating rink at Place de la Monnaie and traditional fairground rides such as a carousel and huge ferris wheel as well as choirs singing at the Black Tower. There’s plenty of Belgian grastronomy to sample too including warming waffles and hot chocolate of course.

November 29th 2019 – January 5th 2020

Vienna, Austria

Elegant Vienna has Christmas market stalls sprawling throughout its pretty squares with the biggest and most colourful outside the town hall (Rathausplatz). As well as Christmas gifts and decorations to buy expect sweet treats such as pastries and doughnuts, roasted chestnuts and confectionary to feast on and plenty of hot punch as you listen to the carol singers. In the adjacent park the trees are draped with lights and a 3,000 metre squared ice rink is in place. For the little ones there’s a reindeer train and sleigh rides.

Dates vary for each market, the Rathausplatz is November 15th – December 26th 2019 and the ice rink is open until January 6th 2020 (closed December 31st.)

Copenhagen, Denmark

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Copenhagen Tivoli Gardens Christmas market Anders B ggild

Copenhagen is another city that goes large on the festive period and is home to several Christmas markets. The best is considered to be at Tivoli Gardens, not hard to imagine when you consider this picture perfect Victoriana amusement park which is lit up after dark inspired both Hans Christian Andersen and Walt Disney. As well as the usual rides expect countless fairy lights, snow covered trees, and Santa’s reindeer. Better still, among the decorated wooden huts, there are Scandi-chic gifts to buy plus honey cake and mulled wine.

November 16th – December 22nd 2019

Strasbourg, France

Strasbourg in the Alsace bills itself as “the capital of Christmas” and has the oldest Christmas market in France. Held over several locations including beneath the striking cathedral, it goes all out with over 300 stalls, a huge Christmas tree and shows and concerts. The area is also known for vin chaud and Bredele cake – biscuits that are traditionally baked at Christmas. They come in different shapes and flavours such as almond, orange or cinnamon and are given as gifts or even used to as tree decorations.

22nd Nov – December 30th (closed December 25th) 2019

A version of this story was originally published in the Robb Report Singapore

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