Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Travel’ Category

Feeling Like Royalty at Raffles

[UDPATE: Raffles Singapore is now closed for restoration. The hotel is due to open in mid 2018 with updates including three new suite categories and a restaurant under the direction of Alain Ducasse.]

Checking into Raffles is an uplifting experience. When you pull up the gravel driveway outside the white wedding cake of a hotel in the heart of Singapore, you’re greeted by a toweringly tall sikh doorman, bearded and turbaned and wearing an imposing sashed uniform. He ushers you into the lobby, all cool marble flooring and fluted columns that reach up three lofty storeys. There is none of the hubbub of other hotels – only guests or “residents” are allowed inside – so the atmosphere is reassuringly calm and rarified. To borrow from Holly Golightly, you feel as though nothing bad could ever happen at Raffles.

Raffles’ lofty and serene lobbyWe’re shown, not to the Presidential Suite, where William and Kate recently stayed, but to the Somerset Maugham suite, number 102, overlooking the Palm Court. There have been many additions and alterations since Raffles first opened 125 years ago in December but this wing is the most serene. The view invites you to sink into a rattan chair on the balustraded veranda and sip a welcome Singapore Sling brought to you by your butler. So we do.

All the suites (there’s nothing so hum drum as a room at Raffles) are vast compared to modern hotels. They come with a veranda and a sitting room to the front and a huge bathroom to the back. Don’t expect a zen wetroom but instead Victorian tiles, a liberal amount of marble and brass fittings. Number 102 was Somerset Maugham’s favourite and is now the hotel’s most frequently requested suite. As well as the usual dark wooden floors, half tester bed, oriental rugs and antiques, our suite has framed pictures of and letters from W Somerset Maugham lining the walls, a writing desk and a smattering of the author’s novels. I suddenly feel under pressure.

The hotel’s Palm CourtTime for a cocktail. We cross the courtyard into the main building to the Writers Bar. Some people will encourage you to visit the famous Long Bar and throw peanut shells on the floor but the Writers Bar is lovelier; an exclusive little nook off the lobby. Billecart Salmon Ultra Brut champagne is on offer here – an exclusive in Singapore, cleverly chosen for its lightness in the searing Singapore heat.

After the resident pianist plays Noel Coward’s I’ll See You Again at 8pm on the dot, we move into the adjoining Raffles Grill for dinner. An engaging waitress talks us competently through the menu and to start I choose the steamed foie gras which has a delicious salty topping and served with a pear that’s been poached for two hours in red wine.

The halibut main course comes with a nice crust of butter on the skin with punchy tomatoes on the side and is paired with a wonderful minerally Pouilly Fume. To finish, there’s a chocolate souffle which is all that it should be. Eric appears with a gigantic bottle of ’88 Armagnac and it would be churlish to refuse but after that it really is time for bed.

The next morning we climb the Gone with the Wind staircase that leads up from the lobby and head to the swimming pool, tucked away on the third floor. Set in a walled roof terrace with trellises covered in climbing plants, terracotta urns, flowering trees and striped towels on sun loungers, it’s part Italian garden, part beach club. Wonderfully I have the pool to myself save for a dragonfly.

The outdoor swimming pool oasis at Raffles Singapore

The outdoor swimming pool oasis at Raffles Singapore. I’m just about hungry now so we go for breakfast in the Tiffin Room – an airy, colonial style restaurant with white pillars and ceiling fans on the opposite side of the lobby to Raffles Grill. There’s the usual five star buffet arrangement which is very well done but also an interesting a la carte menu. I order the Raffles Omelette – a spicy empire days inspired dish of eggs, peppers and chilli powder. Just the trick after a late night.

We return tot he Tiffin Room for lunch to try Raffles’ famous Indian buffet (while you’re staying here you really should eat inside the glorious main building as often as you can). the buffet is a spread of northern Indian hot and cold starters, chutneys, curries and vegetables with standouts such as cucumber masala salad and vohrnignt cooked black lentils. The highlight though is the chef’s specially prepared curry (on this occasion a rum soaked lamb dish) served as a generously proportioned amuse bounce and mopped up with freshly made naan breads.

The grandfather clock in the lobby is chiming signalling that it’s time to leave. I do so reluctantly. So long Raffles, I’ll see you again.

http://www.raffles.com/singapore

Aman Shanghai to open in January

Antique Villa Exterior_High Res_14959.jpg

Aman Resorts’ fourth hotel in China, named Amanyangyun after the ancient Chinese phrase Yang Yun meaning “the nurturing of clouds” and will open on January 8th 2018.

This “renovation like no other” has been a ten year plus project to save and transplant endangered ancient trees and historic buildings from the flood planes of Jiangxi.

_SSC4131_.tif

Some 50 Ming and Qing Dynasty houses have been preserved and reconstructed by master craftsman in their new home just outside Shanghai. And traditional Chinese architects have added new buildings to blend with the historic structures.

Antique Villa

Pool Deck

Pool Deck

10,000 camphor trees have also made the 800 kilometre journey, overseen by expert botanists. They’ve been replanted in native soil and face the same direction as they had previously. Three years later they are said to be flourishing.

Antique Villa Living Room_High Res_8093.jpg

As well as the historic houses which are now four bedroomed villas with pools, there are newly built one bedroom club suites designed by Kerry Hill Associates the architect behind Aman Tokyo.

Club Suite

Club Suite Bathroom_High Res_12570.jpg

Amanyangung also features several dining options, a Club Lounge, banqueting hall and of course a spa – set to be one of the biggest in the Aman collection.

[A version of this story was originally posted in February 2017]

Dining Terrace

Dining Terrace

Entry to Spa and Club Suites_High Res_12578.jpg

http://www.aman.com

The Orient Express Revisited

VSOE-EXT-SCE-08.jpg VSOE

Now synonymous with Agatha Christie and that infamous journey, the original Euro Night train number 469, monikered the more romantic sounding “Express d’Orient”, made its inaugural journey from Paris bound for Constantinople in October 1883. The train which Christie caught, and placed her fictional sleuth Hercule Poirot onboard, however was the Simplon Orient-Express – one of several luxury sleeper trains that cropped up as an offshoot linking the port town of Calais in northern France with Istanbul (previously Constantinople) and ran through the 1920s and 30s.

Luxury trains fell out of favour with the advent of the second world war and airplane travel. Then American businessman James B Sherwood bought a few antique carriages at auction in Monte Carlo in 1977 which seemingly sparked a quest for him to seek out more vintage carriages. After finding them variously abandoned in sidings and people’s gardens across Europe, used as pigeon transporters and in one case a brothel, they were lovingly restored to their Art Deco splendour and launched as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express in 1982.

One of the carriages bought by Sherwood at auction in Monaco was sleeping car 3425. It is the oldest of the sleeping cars on the VSOE having been built in 1926 and was marooned in a snow drift 60 miles from Istanbul for 10 days in 1929 (allegedly sparking the idea for a certain murder mystery).

And the Venice Simplon-Orient Express (a mouthful but now the official name for legal reasons) is in the spotlight once again with the release of the new Kenneth Branagh film Murder on the Orient Express starring Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfieffer and Penelope Cruz. So what’s it like to travel onboard? You’ll be greeted aboard by your be-capped and white gloved personal cabin steward who’ll take care of you for your entire trip. Firstly by showing you to your cosy cabin where your luggage will already be waiting.

vsoe_1366x570_platform_luxury_travel09 VSOE

The twin cabins come with bunk beds – probably the most deluxe ones you’ve encountered with an upholstered ladder. During the day time there’s no sign of your sleeping arrangements but when you return from dinner your cabin steward will have cleverly transformed your sofa into cosy beds with crisp sheets and fine blankets. After breakfast perhaps while you’re taking a stroll the length of the train, your steward will whisk away the beds and your cabin will once again become a sitting area. In true authentic fashion, each cabin has a concealed washbasin while loos are found at the end of each carriage.

vsoe_1366x400_cabin_luxury_train19vsoe_1366x570_cabin_luxury_train17 VSOE

As well as the famous sleeping cars the train is made up of three dining cars and a bar car complete with grand piano and resident pianist. Each carriage features polished wood, beautiful marquetry, plush fabrics and antique details.

 

VSOE-REST-INT-07.jpg VSOE

The VSOE operates on continental Europe – contrary to popular belief the it does not travel to the UK. Rather, the train is embarked or disembarked at Calais and the journey to or from London is completed through the Euro tunnel and the Belmond British Pullman train once in Britain.

While the most popular route is to and from Venice, just once a year the VSOE makes a five night journey between Paris and Istanbul. The exclusive journey follows the route of the inaugural 1883 train journey stopping in Prague, Budapest and Bucharest along the way.

 

vsoe-acc-cab-36 VSOE

While the Venice journeys have a feel of celebration the journey to Istanbul is about adventure, says general  manager Pascal Deyrolle. The six day journey from Paris Gare de l’Est station follows in the footsteps of the original train route in 1883. As the VSOE journeys towards the edge of Europe passengers stop for overnight stays at hotels in Budapest in Hungary and Bucharest in Romania with the rest of the nights spent onboard.

After crossing the Danube from Romania into Bulgaria the train arrives in Varna, a beach resort town with a surprisingly grand station building with a wonderful Art Nouveau roof. You’ll spot the Black Sea and then smell the scent of the ocean in the air when you disembark, just as the original passengers experienced. On the early routes, passengers would disembark at Varna and cross the Black Sea by ferry before picking up another train.

Crossing the border from Bulgaria to Turkey, the train stops and all the passengers alight to have their passports stamped in person at the customs booth. Pascal admits to being worried about how passengers would react but has found that they think it’s fun and enjoy chatting to their fellow passengers on the platform as well as the passersby who gather to look at the train. “It’s a social element on the platform. It’s absolutely my favourite aspect of the trip,” says Pascal.

vsoe-bar-30

VSOE

Guests are encouraged to dress up onboard so cocktails and dinner is particularly fun with everyone in Art Deco inspired frocks and Black Tie. The bar car can be a bit of a crush with guests crowding in between the two dinner sittings but a Champagne Bar has been created within one of the dining cars. Most importantly, like all the best bars it doesn’t close until the last guest has gone to bed.

https://www.belmond.com/trains/europe/venice-simplon-orient-express/

 

 

 

Amanbagh: a Rajasthani Retreat

Pool and main building at night

Deep in the Rajasthani countryside Amanbagh is the perfect antidote to energetic Jaipur.  The former royal hunting ground turned exclusive retreat is part of the elite Aman resorts. As we draw near the landscape becomes rockier and the road bumpier until we reach the ancient walled grounds of Amanbagh. Within are palm, mango and fig trees and a camel trots down the driveway ahead of us. “He is Babu, our in house camel,” explains our driver. Lucky old Babu being an Aman camel I can’t help but think.

Although Amanbagh is 21st century built it’s classic fairytale India in its design: all romantic domes and archways, colonnades and courtyards, in pink marble and sandstone. Our room is a Pool Pavilion, a standalone villa with its own private swimming pool. We spend most of our time in the terraced garden and are joined variously by families of monkeys and colourful butterflies and birds that swoop over the pool.

Main pathways

Pool pavilion pool

Some guests come to Amanbagh for safari trips to the nearby Sariska Tiger Reserve (further afield Ranthambore may be more well known but Sariska is less crowded and has a high rate of tiger sightings); others book in for the four to 21 day Ayurvedic programmes. And there are easily doable day trips to lesser visited sites such as the temples of Neelkanth, serene Somsagar Lake (good for picnics or meditation) and the abandoned city of Bhangarh where you are more likely to encounter monkeys and peacocks than other tourists. As such it makes for a special place for a yoga session. But one of the unique, unforgettable experiences of Amanbagh is simply to witness rural Rajasthani life around you.

One evening we joined aarti at the local roadside temple where devout locals banged drums, rang bells and chanted to herald the last hour of prayer. Another night we joined The Cow Dust Tour, so named after the Indian phrase for the time of day when the cows are lead home, stirring up dust as they go.

Ajabgarh fort

Just before dusk we head out in an open topped jeep and pass a smattering of chhatri, a hillside fort and temple (once connected by tunnel) and a “haunted” village. In the golden light we pass camel and carts and goats being herded. Long, loopy tailed langur monkeys regard us from stone walls and smaller macaque monkeys crouch overhead in the trees. There’s an abundance of peacocks and it’s easy to see why this area is a bird watchers’ paradise even though at the time of our visit many have already migrated.

Women in brightly coloured safaris and headscarves of orange, yellow and purple farm the fields for wheat or okra, the former impressively balanced on their heads in huge parcels and the latter a local speciality that later we see being sold in the village centres. As we drive through tiny enclaves small children run out waving and calling “goodbye!” to us and we are invited in for chai several times.

Dining Terrace

That evening we sample both okra and goat on the Amanbagh’s superb pan Indian menu. We eschew the pleasant air conditioned dining room each meal for the terrace, overlooking the fabulous swimming pool and serenaded every night by traditional musicians. There are also opportunities for private dining on the lantern lit roof terrace or more intrepid locations in the surrounding countryside.

Experiences Chhatri dinner

As with all Amans there’s a calming energy about the resort that’s hard to leave. And of course the spa is fantastic (the suites are particularly stunning). As well as ayurvedic treatments, following a consultation with a traditional Indian medicine doctor, there’s a range of body treatments on offer such as the Maharaja or Maharani massage which I opt for. The masseuse applied just the right amount of firm pressure to sort out my back tension and I emerged feeling as if I was walking taller.

Spa

And if you haven’t had your fill of shopping by the time you reach Amanbagh, the boutique here has a tight, expert edit from some of Jaipur’s finest including The Gem Palace and Kashmir Loom. This being Aman they promise to fetch more from Jaipur if you wish.

https://www.aman.com/resorts/amanbagh

 

In the Pink at Sujan Rajmahal Palace

Entrance to Rajmahal Palace.jpg

Sujan Rajmahal Palace

In the middle of negotiating the hectic roads of Jaipur our driver suddenly swings the car into a discreet driveway. We pass through a turreted “elephant gate” painted a pretty pale pink and follow the graveled route flanked by verdant gardens before pulling up outside a palace painted in the same sugary shade as the regal entranceway. Jaipur was painted pink for the visit of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, but while the Rajasthan capital is more terracotta toned, this is a delightful, millennial pink.

Entrance Gates.jpg

Sujan Rajmahal Palace

Smiling and smartly dressed men each wearing a distinctive candy coloured turban wait to welcome us. We are greeted – rather fittingly for The Pink City – with a glass of rose sparkling wine. So far, so Jaipur perhaps but inside is a complete surprise. Sujan Rajmahal Palace, now a luxury boutique hotel, may be approaching 300 years old but it has been interior decorated in a refreshingly contemporary way. Each of the public spaces is adorned with fantastically striking, custom made wallpaper from bright pinks and turquoise blues to sultry Art Deco chinoiserie and Indian inspired designs. The chandeliers, antiques and paintings remind you however that you are staying in a royal residence.

Chinoiserie .jpg

Sujan Rajmahal Palace

As palaces go Rajmahal is on the petite side rather than a mammoth mausoleum with just 14 guest rooms – it was commissioned by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II for his wife. Society interior designer Adil Ahmad, recently commissioned to spruce the place up, has achieved a sumptuous cosiness that feels like a private home albeit a very grand one.

Jaipur’s royal family still own Rajmahal (it is run by Sujan the renowned company behind luxury tented camps throughout Rajasthan), the queen mother’s Thunderbird takes pride of place in the entranceway and the princess has an office in the grounds though they reside in the far larger City Palace in old Jaipur (the hotel can arrange a private tour of this palace as well as secure you a set in the royal box at the polo).

While still a royal residence, Rajmahal played host to the likes of Queen Elizabeth the second, the Prince and Princess of Wales and Jackie Kennedy as the framed black and white photographs and the names of the suites attest. Beautiful carpets gifted by another distinguished visitor, the Shah of Iran, hang on the walls as the Maharini magnanimously wanted everyone to enjoy them. The family’s love of “the sport of kings” is also reflected in The Polo Bar, lined with trophies and photographs.

MADHO NIWAS CORRIDOOR.jpg

Sujan Rajmahal Palace

Our Palace Room is reached via a stunning marble staircase and curved corridor and like all the guest rooms and suites lies discreetly behind mirrored doors which adds to the feeling of a private home. Inside our host tells me “A Maharini does not make her own coffee,” before explaining that there are no facilities for hot beverages in the room: “You ring and we will bring you coffee.”

Another special touch is that afternoon tea is served to hotel guests every day between 4pm and 6pm. You may have it wherever you wish but an especially charming spot is on the manicured lawn under a series of charming open sided tents (pink hued of course).

51 Shades of Pink 2.jpg

Sujan Rajmahal Palace

A pleasant surprise for the (relatively) diminutive size of the hotel is that there are three dining rooms, each more strikingly designed than the other: the grand Orient Occident is open for dinner while the cool mint Colonnade and 51 Shades of Pink (decorated as the name suggests) restaurants both serve breakfast and lunch. All offer the same menu of Indian and Western dishes, we stuck resolutely to the former which is excellent.

6O1A3653.jpg

Sujan Rajmahal Palace

We also tried one of the Sujan Rajmahal Palace’s private dining experiences one evening, dining in one of the aforementioned tents on the lawn. At night the scene is enticingly lit by lanterns and makes for a very pretty venue.

Once you’ve ticked off sightseeing inside the old walled city and the Amber Fort; and shopped ‘til you’ve dropped in the bazaars and boutiques, Rajmahal Palace provides a whimsical oasis. We spend our days exploring in the early mornings, after breakfasting on fresh juice and stuffed parathas, and retreating to Rajmahal in the heat of the afternoon.

POOLSIDE.jpg

Sujan Rajmahal Palace

The hotel has the bonus of a large, glamorous looking swimming pool surrounded by inviting sun loungers.  The designer has had fun here too with a shady terrace complete with mirrors and modern chandeliers which looks spectacular at dusk.

And a note for shopping fans: there’s a branch of the revered New Delhi based Kashmir Loom at Rajmahal so you can stock up on the best cashmere shawls without leaving the grounds.

www.sujanluxury.com

 

%d bloggers like this: