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Posts from the ‘Travel’ Category

The only way to visit the Taj Mahal

Oberoi Amarvilas

 

 

 

If like the Trumps you’re planning a visit to the Taj Mahal, there’s only one way to do it in style and that’s by staying at the Oberoi Amarvilas, Agra.

Not only does this glamorous, film set of a resort have a bird’s eye view of the iconic monument from most of its rooms and terraces, it’s also the only hotel in Agra to have private access via golf buggy right up to the gates.

http://www.oberoihotels.com

A Hotel for a Happy Year of the Rat

In celebration of the Year of the Rat we bring you the University Arms where copies of The Wind in Willows, the tale of Ratty, Mole and Badger written by Kenneth Grahame, are in every guest rooms and a recording of Alan Bennett reading the book is transmitted in the restaurant/bar loos…

University Arms exterior

University Arms, Cambridge, UK

What’s the story?

Cambridge’s oldest hotel, the University Arms which began life as a coaching inn in 1834, has reopened following a four year, £80m refurbishment. The original classical façade overlooking Parker’s Piece (a green space that was the scene of Queen Victoria’s coronation banquet) has been retained but the interiors have been rebuilt and an out of place 1960s extension has gone. In its place the new building is in keeping with the original style.

 

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University Arms, Cambridge lobby

It looks so authentic…

Architect John Simpson has worked on such grand projects as Buckingham and Kensington Palaces and a couple of Cambridge University colleges so knows a thing or two about classical refurbishments. His design for the University Arms includes a striking porte cochere – a columned, covered carriage entrance, for cars rather than horses these days and a grand lobby inside. It’s hard to believe the new addition to the hotel building hasn’t always been here.

What about the interiors?

They’re down to Martin Brudnizki, designer du jour (responsible for the new Annabel’s clubhouse in Mayfair and the refreshed Ivy in Covent Garden). Overall the feel is of a contemporary private members’ club: Farrow and Ball painted walls, reclaimed wooden floors, antique rugs, on trend ottomans and armchairs and sofas that beg to be sat on.

 

University Arms suite

A suite at the University Arms, Cambridge

What about the rooms?

They span cosy (19-22sq ft) to superior plus there are 12 suites named after Cambridge alumni including Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf and Stephen Hawking. All the bathrooms have black and white tiles, underfloor heating and DR Harris of St James’s products. Twenty six of them have (roll top, claw foot) baths as well as showers.

 

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Parker’s Tavern restaurant, University Arms

What’s the food like?

The hotel has cleverly recruited talented local (by way of London and Mustique) chef Tristan Welch. With the restaurant, Parker’s Tavern, taking inspiration from a college dining hall with stained glass windows and leather bench seating, the menu offers a modern take on traditional British fare using East Anglian produce including smoked trout, potted shrimp, a daily roast trolley and pie of the day. Don’t miss the Cambridge Burnt Cream pudding – a British take on Crème Brulee.

Is there a bar?

As the name suggests, Parker’s Tavern is split between a restaurant and a sizeable lounge bar where the members’ club atmosphere continues. The bar itself is lined with vintage style leather stools plus there are plenty of velvet sofas, a vast spirits list and strictly no beer on tap.

University Arms bar

Parker’s Tavern bar, University Arms

What about my fellow guests?

Visiting academics, students being treated by their parents, tourists from the US and China and tech people (Cambridge is becoming known as the Silicon Valley of the UK).

What is there to do?

The hotel is on the doorstep of the city centre so the historic colleges are a short stroll away – or take one of the hotel’s bicycles in signature light Cambridge blue. Tours as well as punts on the river Cam can be arranged. The hotel will even whip up a picnic for you. If you’re looking for the willow tree celebrated in Xu Zhimo’s poem, Second Farewell to Cambridge, it has recently been removed but a cutting has been planted nearby at the newly opened memorial garden in the poet’s alma mater King’s College.

 

University Arms library

The Library, University Arms

Anything else I should know?

Playing on the learned location the hotel has made books a feature. Rather than the usual untouched, artful collection the hotel’s guest sitting area, The Library, has a selection intended to actually read curated by the renowned Heywood Hill booksellers in London. Each of the suites includes literature by or about the namesake while the other bedrooms each has a copy of The Wind in the Willows, Porterhouse Blue and Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Verses.

What’s the bottom line?

Prices for rooms start at £205 for cosy rooms and £505 for suites.

The hotel is on Regent Street, Cambridge CB2 1AD Tel +44 1223 606066. http://www.universityarms.com

[A version of this piece was originally published in the South China Morning Post in 2018]

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).

Last Christmas secret garden

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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