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A Castle is not just for Christmas – You Can Stay at A Very British Scandal’s Inveraray

Paul Bettany and Claire Foy in A Very British Scandal – BBC

It was love at first sight when glamorous Margaret Sweeny the future Duchess of Argyll set eyes on Inveraray Castle on the west coast of Scotland. Understandable, despite the castle’s neglected state, given the romantic looking conical roofed turrets and glorious position in vast parkland edging Loch Fyne.

Rich and spoilt Margaret, debutante of the year in 1930 and the “Mrs Sweeny” namechecked in the Cole Porter song You’re The Top, is said to have become enamoured with restoring the castle inherited by her married lover, Ian Campbell, the eleventh Duke of Argyll.

In the new BBC and Amazon Studios drama series, A Very British Scandal, Ian (played by Paul Bettany) is depicted taking Margaret (Claire Foy) to Inveraray and dismissing it as “a plague pit” and “a pile”. But Margaret responds, “You didn’t tell me it was so beautiful. It just needs love and attention”.

Inveraray Castle

And that’s what Margaret gave it, investing a small fortune of her father’s, self-made millionaire George Whigham, money in restoring it. There was not to be a happy ending for the couple who married in 1951 (his third, her second). The duke was debt ridden, alcoholic and seemingly fond of marrying heiresses, the television drama reveals. When Margret’s father cuts off the money supply he moves to divorce her.  The series shows eyebrow raising behaviour from both the duke and duchess though Margaret’s step daughter in law and royal biographer Lady Colin Campbell says on her youtube channel that the actions attributed to the duchess are erroneous.

An ugly divorce case spanned the late 1950s and early 1960s resulting in Margret being dubbed “the dirty duchess” on account of her diaries and love letters supposedly showing her promiscuity and infidelity. Not to mention an infamous Polaroid showing Margret, recognisable by her trademark pearl necklace, engaging in a sexual act with a “headless man” the identity of who she refused to reveal. In recent years (Margaret died in 1993) Lady Colin Campbell has said the duchess told her it was the Pan Am Airlines executive Bill Lyons.

Inveraray Castle

Today there is no mention of Margaret on the castle’s website. The current duke, Torquhil Campbell, however allowed the cast and crew to film at Inveraray which is about 60 miles from Glasgow. 

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s an important part of our family history. I’m not sure my grandfather will come out of it in the best light, but what happened, happened,” he told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper. 

The story of Inveraray Castle begins well before the eleventh Duke and “Marg of Arg”. An earlier castle on the site was built in the 1400s by the Campbell Clan who date back to 1260. The existing castle was commissioned in 1719 based on a sketch by John Vanbrugh who designed Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard in England. The latter was the filming location for the Duke of Hastings’ fictional Clyvedon Castle.

Armoury Hall, Inveraray Castle

Inside, the striking Armoury Hall has the highest ceiling in Scotland and a staggering display of ancient weapons at every turn. Both the State Dining Room and the Tapestry Drawing Room have walls hand painted by French artists. Behind a secret door is the China Turret featuring a collection of Eastern and European porcelain. The relaxing Saloon includes a Gainsborough and a grand piano on which songs for the musical My Fair Lady were composed. Downton Abbey fans may recognise Inveraray as the fictitious “Duneagle Castle” from the 2012 Christmas Special currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

It was Margaret who first opened Inveraray to the public in 1953 to raise funds. The castle and its grounds will be open to the public from March 28th to October 31st this year with private tours available. Or you can hire the place for an exclusive stay through Scottish castle specialist Loyd & Townsend Rose with use of the State Dining Room for which you can engage a chef, and the Saloon which I can vouch for being a splendid place for a nightcap.

State Dining Room – Inveraray Castle

The six bedrooms all have en suite bathrooms (thanks to Margaret, Torquhil says). I have stayed in the exquisite, Duchess’ bedroom – in a turret complete with floral designs, four poster bed and a view of the grounds from its many windows. As well as the formal gardens, there’s 60,000 acres of estate for stalking, shooting or just walking. And the loch is famed for its oysters which you can sample at the nearby Loch Fyne Oyster Bar.

Margaret was not the first famous chatelaine. Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria’s daughters, married the future ninth Duke of Argyll. The elaborate covered entrance was said to have been created for her wedding to shield the princess and the monarch from the elements and a writing desk given by Victoria on her daughter’s marriage can still be seen here. 

The present day duke and duchess and their children live in the castle but in an apartment tucked away in the former servants’ wing. They are a personable couple, magnanimous about opening their home to around 100,000 paying visitors a year. As the duchess has said, “Thanks to them, I’ve got a roof above me.”

All eyes on Italy: Filming locations of Succession, The Morning Show and House of Gucci

La Foce, Tuscany HBO Go Succession

Italy must have been crawling with famous actors and film crews this year. From television series Succession and The Morning Show to the House of Gucci movie, Italy was the setting for several scenes on the small and big screens. While you may have vicariously been under the Tuscan sun and on a Roman holiday by watching this winter, here are the locations you can visit when restrictions are finally lifted.

Tuscany

The penultimate episode of HBO’s Succession season three sees the super rich Roy family on who the show centres, travel from New York to Italy. The aptly named Emily FitzRoy founder of exclusive travel company Bellini was enlisted to find locations. 

Firstly in Tuscany, or Chiantishire as the episode is called – the region’s portmanteau nickname in the 1990s referencing the red wine and the English home county “shires”. Logan Roy’s (Brian Cox) ex-wife and Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook) and Roman’s (Kieran Culkin) mother, Caroline Collingwood (Harriet Walter), gets re married and the setting is two private estates that are available to rent in real life. 

La Foce between Florence and Rome and overlooking the bucolic Val d’Orcia is where Caroline’s al fresco drinks party takes place. These terraced, formal gardens are open to visitors on certain days from May to November. 

And the yellow hued Villa La Foce is where most of the Roy family stay (and is available to rent from 35,000 euros a week FitzRoy tells me). The estranged Kendall and his children stay at one of the estate’s other properties, Belvedere Piccolo, which includes *that* swimming pool which can be rented at around 1,650 euros a week.

HBO GO -SUCCESSION S3 – Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Mcfayden) at Villa Cetinale, Tuscany

The wedding takes place at 17th century, Villa Cetinale near Siena. The 13 bedroom Baroque style villa is available to rent also from 35,000 euros a week FitzRoy says. The spectacular gardens, where the reception takes place, are also open to visitors by appointment only when the villa is not let.

Caroline’s “bachelorette party” takes place in the pretty hilltop, walled town of Cortona. About an hour’s drive away in Pienza, the Roy siblings are filmed meeting at La Terrazza del Chiostro restaurant where the panoramic views from the terrace are main draw.

HBO GO – Succession S3 – Caroline (Harriet Walter) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) in Cortona, Tuscany

Lake Como

Tech tycoon Lukas Matsson’s (Alexander Skarsgard) luxurious lair is Villa La Cassinella on the western shore of Lake Como. Logan and Roman arrive by helicopter at the villa’s private landing pad and then take a boat across the lake to Cassinella. “They arrived as any guest would, you cannot arrive by car – the only other alternative is by sea plane,” FitzRoy tells me. Although it costs upwards of 130,000 euros a week to rent, Fitzroy says the property gets booked up years in advance.

Villa La Cassinella, Lake Como HBO GO Succession S3 Lukas Mattson (Alexander Skarsgard) and Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin)

Filming also took place along this stretch of Lake Como for Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci movie. Villa Balbiano built in the 16th century stands in for Aldo Gucci’s (Al Pacino) house. Fast forward to the 21st century and the waterside villa is available for private rental at 175,000 Euros per week. Inside are original frescoes, museum worthy antiques and six suites designed by fashionable hotel designer Jacques Garcia.

Don’t look for the villa from Apple TV+’s The Morning Show here though. In the second season shamed anchorman Mitch Kessler (Steve Carell) is seen hiding out in a grand villa that appears to be on the shores of Lake Como where Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston) tracks him down. Filming actually took place at a private school in California however with drone shots of Lake Como added in.

Milan

In the House of Gucci, Rodolfo’s (Jeremy Irons) imagined home is the striking 1930s Villa Necchi Campiglio. Set in private gardens in the centre of Milan it is now a museum. 

On an early date in the film, Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and Patrizia Reggiana (Lady Gaga) visit the gloriously ornate Galleria Vittorio Emanuele 11 shopping arcade between the Duomo and Teatro alla Scala. The restaurant they pass there, Savini, which Reggiana says is “too expensive” has been a Milanese stalwart for composers and opera singers since 1867. When I visited a few years ago there was a quaintly named “Lunch for Ladies in Shopping” set menu and Savini’s website currently states, “an elegant dress code is appreciated”.

Rome

Both Pacino and Gaga’s characters visit the real life Gucci store on Via Condotti, near the Spanish Steps, which is packed with designer boutiques. The Guccis opened their first shop outside their native Florence in Rome although the current day boutique is a few doors down from the original.

Also in Rome, the picturesque Church of Santa Maria in Portico in Campitelli is where the Maurizio and Patrizia wedding was filmed although in reality the couple were married in Milan.

Gressoney

Adam Driver and Lady Gaga as Maurizio and Patrizia Gucci in House of Gucci. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

In the film Maurizio evades the police on his motorbike and crosses over the snowy Swiss border to St Moritz. Filming actually took place in the Italian Alps, at the Gressoney-Saint-Jean and Gressoney-La-Trinite in the Aosta Valley. Although scenic, the resorts are far less glitzy than St Moritz and the runs are for advanced skiers only being mainly red and black as well as off-piste.

Incidentally, founder of the fashion house, Guccio Gucci, was once a bell boy at The Savoy in London. Author of the book House of Gucci Sara Gay Forden says Guccio’s experience of handling The Savoy guests’ expensive luggage inspired him to create the Gucci fashion brand. The Savoy has temporarily restyled its Royal Suite in homage to the Gucci house.

What it’s like to travel on Emily in Paris’ “Orient Express” train

VSOE

In Netflix’s Emily in Paris Season Two, Emily (Lily Collins) catches a train to St Tropez that looks suspiciously like the Orient Express. In reality the modern day version, the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, does not journey from to the South of France but here’s Chopstix’s experience of catching the VSOE from London to Venice via Paris:

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.

VSOE

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. 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 – unlike Emily’s experience of boarding in Paris. 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 – Emily would definitely not have brought her gigantic Rimowa collab aboard). 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. 

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.

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 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.

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 Mr Chopstix 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.

VSOE

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. 

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. 

All Aboard the Wes Anderson express – the film director’s reimagined carriage on the Orient Express sister train

Wes Anderson aboard his reimagined Cygnus carriage

As I sit at a white clothed table, take a sip of wine from a cut glass goblet and watch the countryside roll by through the train window, I feel as if I could be in a Wes Anderson film. Not just because trains are a recurring fixture in Anderson’s productions but because the carriage I’m travelling on has been revamped by the movie director himself. 

Paris-based Anderson dislikes flying and is a regular on the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express so Belmond asked him to redesign a carriage on sister train, the British Pullman, which every year takes one of its vintage carriages out of service for a refresh, a spokeswoman for the luxury travel company tells me. 

The British Pullman loops through the English countryside

From the exterior, Cygnus (all the carriages have names rather than letters) looks the same as the rest of the coffee and cream coloured train waiting at London’s Victoria station. I had been greeted aboard that morning by a friendly, white-gloved steward and shown to my upholstered seat where canapes were waiting on the table and a flute of champagne swiftly poured.

“Are you a fan of Wes Anderson?” the steward asks. I reply that I am. But I am also an Agatha Christie and art deco fan and having been on the train a few times, including this very carriage, I’m curious to see the changes.

The walnut walls and overhead brass luggage racks have been kept intact to which Anderson has added his own touches. He’s brought in angular seating in place of the oversized upholstered armchairs; replaced the traditional, shaded lights with sleek art deco style lamps and the furnishings now all feature geometric prints.

Wes Anderson reimagined carriage with pink ceiling

What catches my eye the most though is the ceiling painted a divine pink. This sugary shade is one of the director’s signatures and it occurs to me that the green and pink colour scheme of the carriage is the same as showstopper pastry from Mendl’s bakery in The Grand Budapest Hotel as well as the main character’s costumes in Moonrise Kingdom.  

Since cygnus means swan, Anderson has played on the waterfowl theme from the marquetry on the walls to the shape of the champagne coolers in the private coupes – like all the British Pullman carriages Cygnus has two private compartments, seating up to four people, at either end. 

Tiny swan in the marquetry
Cygnus private compartment

Unlike the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the British Pullman has no sleeper cars, it is entirely made up of restaurant carriages and so offers day trips from London to various destinations in England and Wales. The inaugural journey for the revamped Cygnus was fittingly to the Welsh capital, Cardiff – Anderson’s middle name is Wales. Upcoming trips next year include Bath, Oxford and Blenheim Palace. I have chosen The Golden Age of Travel which involves a five course lunch onboard while looping through the Kent countryside.

From the tiny kitchen the chef and his team create impressive dishes including duck terrine, roast pumpkin soup, wild sea bass and pineapple upside down cake. The menu is served at a leisurely pace and perfectly timed to be spread out throughout the five hour journey. And all the staff are unfailingly personable and attentive.

Anderson has chosen the tableware for Cygnus, a modern bone china by Royal College of Art graduate, William Edwards who also works with hotels including the Four Seasons, Fairmont and Intercontinental. And the pattern itself – continuing the carriage’s green theme – was designed in collaboration with the owner of Cobblers Cove, Barbados.

Wes Anderson chose the William Edwards china

Like the VSOE, the Pullman is made up of salvaged vintage carriages from the 1920s and 30s. Cygnus was built as a “first class parlour” that was frequented by heads of state. During a break between the main course and cheese, I take a walk through to see some of the other cars. There’s Audrey where the marquetry depicts landscape scenes and Lucille where the inlays feature Greek urns. All the cars are filled with the sound of chatter and laughter. Belmond encourages passengers to dress up and most have which adds to the merriment.

Back in my seat the view turns to farmland with a smattering of oast houses with their distinctive cone shaped roofs that were traditionally used to dry hops. Further on, a glimpse of the sea and the beach huts at Whitstable signal that the train is looping back towards London.

We’re on coffee and chocolate truffles as we edge towards the capital. One last party comes to take a look at “the Wes Anderson carriage”. A train manager catches my eye as we hear the latest proclamations of “Oh wow!” With a smile he says: “Everyone is very jealous of you travelling in this carriage.”

For pricing and to book see: https://www.belmond.com/trains/europe/uk/belmond-british-pullman/

The Play’s the Thing – the Love In Between Hotels and Theatre

Secret Theatre at Felix, The Peninsula Hong kong

[UDPATE: The Peninsula Hong Kong is partnering with the Secret Theatre for The Great Gatsby Immersive Dining Experience at its Felix restaurant. Guests will be transported back to 1920s New York with a theatrical performance directed by Richard Crawford and an imaginative four-course dinner inspired by New York’s Roaring Twenties, crafted by Felix’s Chef de Cuisine Juan Gomez. From 21 October to 27 November 2021, every Thursday to Saturday only at 7pm. Bookings: https://gifts.peninsula.com/hongkong/events/all

And Sight Lines Entertainment is offering the chance to win a one night stay in a suite at Shangri-la Singapore, complimentary passes to play its new Murder at Old Changi Hospital, a virtual escape room murder mystery, and a sumptuous breakfast for two. To enter follow two simple steps:
1. Follow both @wahbananasg and @sightlinesco 
2. Share the post in your IGS and tag a friend and @wahbananasg so they can find your post

The giveaway ends Sunday 10 October 2021, 2359hrs Singapore time]

Raffles Hotel Singapore

Last night I went to Raffles again. I didn’t dream it, and thanks to the delayed Hong Kong – Singapore Travel Bubble I wasn’t actually there either, instead, I watched an interactive play set and filmed at the hotel by Singaporean theatre companies, Double Confirm Productions and Sight Lines Entertainment. 

The Curious Case of the Missing Peranakan Treasure, conceived, directed by and featuring Hossan Leong of Double Confirm and written by Jean Tay, was filmed entirely on location at Raffles with 360 degree virtual reality cameras. So I was able to virtually enter the familiar white façade, “check in” in the lobby and revisit the hotel’s bars, suites and courtyards while watching a mystery enfold through a cast of front of house staff and guest characters. 

Leong who has previously filmed one man performances at the Grand Hyatt and W hotels in Singapore says: “From 2020 there was not a lot of work for us in the arts so I decided not to sit around but to create something for actors and crew. I have always wanted to create a production with the beautiful Raffles as a backdrop and they were very supportive of my idea of having a ‘whodunnit’ set in the hotel.“

Hossan Leong (right) with Pavan J Singh on set at Raffles Singapore

Up until June 30th [2021] you can watch this entertaining tale online and attempt to solve the mystery yourself – there’s the prize of a real life stay at Raffles in the offing. Those lucky enough to be in Singapore can book a Daycation or Staycation package, watching the play on a tablet in their suite and then explore the hotel for clues (as well as being treated to Singapore Slings and satays). Alternatively, Virtual Play allows guests to buy a ticket from ticket agency SISTIC and watch from anywhere in the world.

“Raffles Singapore always had a connection with literary luminaries in our storied heritage with playwrights and authors being very much a part of who we are,” says managing director Christian Westbeld. Suites named after the likes of Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham attest to this and the former suite appears in the production. The hotel did have its own theatre, Jubilee Hall which opened in 1991, although this was transformed into a ballroom in the most recent refurbishment. Westbeld adds: “The virtual interactive play arose out of a business need to pivot, given the current pandemic.” 

Also in Singapore at Hotel Soloha in Chinatown surreal comedy meets murder mystery, The Bride Always Knocks Twice, was also born out of a need to adapt in the current climate. “Arts and tourism were some of the key industries impacted by the pandemic and this project really shows how creativity and cross-industry collaboration can lead to new possibilities,” says Kuo Jian Hong, artistic director of The Theatre Practice, behind the production which streamed in the first week of June.

The Theatre Practice’s Bride Always Knocks Twice


The fourth floor of the hotel, set in a converted row of shophouses, stood in as the mysterious house in The Bride Always Knocks Twice where seven women from different eras of Singaporean history co exist. Reflective of the Lion City the women variously spoke Mandarin, Indonesian, English, Cantonese and Malay with the multimedia platform allowing for sub titles in Chinese and English. 

Split over several nights, viewers watched the first act of the play then had the chance to interrogate the characters by submitting online questions which they answered live to camera. Originally it was intended that the audiences visit the hotel to hunt for clues in act three though due to the heightened measures this had to be changed into a virtual crime-scene investigation. In the final act the murderer was revealed but not before viewers had an opportunity to submit their theories with a chance to win a stay at Hotel Soloha.

Hotel Soloha

One of the first and still existing theatre and hotel synergies was The Savoy in London. The Savoy theatre actually opened before the legendary hotel which it sits adjacent to. Impressario Richard D’Oyly Carte opened the then state of the art venue in 1881 to stage the works of Gilbert and Sullivan. With the success of the comic operas he segued into hotels eight years later. Famous theatrical actors of the day flocked to stay at The Savoy including Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry.

While the venue is now owned by The Ambassador Theatre Group which operates several playhouses in London’s West End, there are regularly accommodation or F&B packages in conjunction with the hotel. A themed afternoon tea is currently being planned in homage to the just opened Pretty Woman The Musical, and starring actors often stay at the hotel.

Grand Hotel Timeo in Sicily also has a theatre adjacent, there’s even a secret entrance from the hotel into Teatro Antico. The well preserved amphitheatre was built by the Greeks in the third century for dramatic and musical performances, adapted by the Romans for gladiator games and now once again is used to stage the performing arts. 

La Scala, Milan

Other hotels are embracing opera and ballet as part of their guest offerings. In St Petersburg, Grand Hotel Europe patrons have access to the hotel’s private box at the Mikhailovsky Theatre. And in Milan, Hotel Principe di Savoia will arrange private guided tours of La Scala including behind the scenes access to backstage areas.

Before the pandemic Shangri La The Shard in London held Theatre in the Clouds, partnering with private theatre concept Revels in Hand to stage three actor plays for a small number of guests in one of its suites. Whether this returns remains to be seen but other hotel projects look to continue whatever twist happens next for the arts and hospitality industries. 

“We believe that arts and hospitality is the perfect marriage and with technology, we are able to not only entertain in-house guests but have international reach,” says Derrick Chew, artistic director of Sight Lines who adds the company is looking to collaborate with more hotels following its successful collaboration with Raffles. And Kuo does not rule out The Theatre Practice staging another hotel play saying: “Our works have never been constrained by genre or format, much less specific locations so never say never.”

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