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Posts from the ‘Travel’ Category

The Orient Express Revisited

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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

 

In Singapore for business or the F1 or both?

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View of Singapore skyline from the Lantern Bar, Fullerton Bay Hotel

Then follow Chopstix’s guide to Singapore’s CBD and beyond…

The small city state island of Singapore is immaculately clean and lusciously green with gleaming new skyscrapers juxtaposed by colonial era buildings and plenty of glossy shopping malls and restaurants. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find traditional shophouses with shuttered windows and fronted by undercover walk ways in Chinatown and Little India and a melting pot of cuisines in Singapore’s signature hawker centres.

Being practically on the equator The Lion City has two types of weather: hot and wet or hot and wetter. Although the “wet” season is around September to February there is no bad time to visit. Carry an umbrella with you at all times anyway – either to protect from the downpours or the sun.

 

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The Lantern Bar, Fullerton Bay Hotel

If you’re doing business in the CBD you’ll be spoilt for choice for lunch spots after work hang outs in this compact area bordered by the Singapore river and the bay. A perennial favourite is The Lantern Bar, a glamorous pool side terrace on top of the chic Fullerton Bay hotel and overlooking the water.

The art deco-esque Black Swan is great for salads and surf and turf in a sultry but casual while a short hop over the river, Gunther’s in a charming shophouse serves contemporary French fare to the expense account set.

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Odette at the National Gallery Singapore

The city’s Civic District has recently been spruced up with the main gem being the National Gallery, a stunning monolith that’s actually two colonial structures conjoined with some clever modern architecture. Inside holds the largest collection of Southeast Asian art and the F&B outlets are equally impressive including French fine diner, Odette, and National Kitchen by Violet Oons, the doyenne of Singa’s dining scene with her Peranaken cuisine – a hybrid of Chinese and Malay cooking. Smoke & Mirrors on the top floor is a terrace bar that overlooks the Padang, the bay and CBD

Further afield on Orchard Road is Iggy’s. Owner, wine connoisseur and convivial host, Ignatius Chan was at the forefront of bringing fine dining to Singapore. Newer names have come on the scene but Iggy’s still holds its own with a recent refurb and new chef. 

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Iggy’s, Singapore

A short taxi drive away is the glorious Singapore’s Botannic Gardens. This sprawling tropical eden includes lakes, secluded pathways and the famous Orchid enclave. Go early in the morning or late afternoon like the locals do when the heat is less oppressive. 

Uniquely Singaporean are the Hawker Centres – food stalls grouped together in covered settings and complete with health and safety ratings – so essentially street food for softies. The centrally located Lau Pa Sat is the prettiest with its Victorian wrought iron carousel design. If you’re only going to order one thing make it the satays

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The Warehouse Hotel

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Singapore’s most talked about hotel opening of the year is a converted riverside warehouse among the busy eateries of Robertson Quay. The space retains its industrial design flavour with some quirky details thrown in. 

Parkroyal on Pickering

Based on the fringes of both Chinatown and the CBD the hotel has a spectacular, verdant design and includes an infinity pool with city skyline view.

Five Luxury Family Holidays in Asia

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Villas overlooking the rice field at Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai

Luxury resorts catering to multigenerations have evolved enormously in recent years offering children’s cooking classes and spa treatments to wildlife excursions and cultural activities for the whole family. And multigenerational or 3G holidays where grandparents, parents and kids holiday together, are on the rise fuelling even more demand for a great family getaway. Here are five of the best luxury resorts in Asia that offer more than the usual kid’s clubs.

Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai

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Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai

This northern Thai resort resembles an impressive film set of a Lanna style enclave. A paddy field at its heart is surrounded by two storey teak villas some with their own pools. Both kids and adults can ride on the paddy’s resident water buffalo and learn about rice planting (above). Over at the rustic Arts and Crafts Village families can try out traditional Lanna skills such as rice pounding, bamboo weaving and paper cutting. There are also child specific activities including meditation and yoga in a one hundred year old wooden house. Leaving parents free to visit the stunning spa.

http://www.dharadhevi.com

The Datai, Langkawi

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The Datai, Langkawi

With its enchanting rainforest setting, The Datai has access to mangroves and waterways as well as being close to the sea. Accommodation spans rooms in the main house to Rainforest or Beach Villas. There’s a variety of restaurants too most beguiling of which is the treehouse like Pavilion, on 30 metres high stilts and shaded by the forest (above). Monkeys roam freely around the resort. Resident naturalist Irshad Mobarak guides complementary morning and evening walks through the rainforest pointing out plants and wildlife such as flying lemurs. Families may book a number of adventures including kayaking through the mangroves to spot kingfishers and eagles, trekking though the jungle and swimming in natural pools.

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Children’s Beach Combing at The Datai

http://www.thedatai.com

[UPDATE: The Datai closed on September 4th 2017 for refurbishment and will re open July 2018]

Cheval Blanc Randheli, Maldives

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Teens’ Club at Cheval Blanc Randheli

Part of the prestigious Cheval Blanc stable, Randheli has been slickly designed by the starchitect Jean-Michel Gathy. There are trademark romantic over-water pavilions but also family friendly Island villas which have two bedrooms and a large outside dining area. No details have been overlooked with specially designed mini furniture and food and drink menus for kids. As well as dedicated play areas for children and teenagers with wall to wall activities, the resort organises Mini Olympics where the whole family can take part in swim races, volleyball, beach football and rope pulling. Finished off with a barbecue on the beach.

http://www.randheli.chevalblanc.com/en

Soori, Bali

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Pool villa at Alila Villas Soori

Soori, on the quieter West coast of Bali, is an all-villa resort, all of which with plunge pools and most have direct access to the beach. The pared back, modern design carries on in the restaurants (though in villa dining is very popular here) and the spa (which has children’s treatments). Journeys for the Little Ones offer children an insight into local life and culture. Choose from visiting a nearby bat cave, traditional Balinese kite making (and flying), creating terracotta pieces with a local craftsman, learning to bake with the pastry chef or dressing up and learning to dance like a Balinese princess. Move over Disney.

http://www.sooribali.com

Amanpuri, Phuket

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A pool villa at Amanpuri

Set in a coconut grove on an isolated peninsula of the island, Amanpuri is designed to appeal as much to Aman Juniors as Aman Junkies. Two bedroomed pavilions overlooking the sea come with a private swimming pool and outdoor dining area. With their parents present, Aman Juniors may try spa treatments, snorkel and kayak in the Andaman Sea or take a dingy out to an ocean platform to feed the fish. Amanpuri also has its own fleet of boats from sleek yachts to a Chinese junk for swimming, snorkeling or scuba diving or a cruise to nearby islands.

http://www.aman.com/resorts/amanpuri

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