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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.”

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Asia hotels with a plan bee

Honey Bee Afternoon Tea at Ritz Carlton Hong Kong

Honey Bee Afternoon Tea at Ritz Carlton Hong Kong


[UPDATE: The Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan has teamed up with local farmers to help save Bali’s bees and produce its own honey for use in the resort. The two Sayan hives (with thatch-roofs and roof-top entries, design of the resort’s pool villas) are tended by chef Liam Nealon who has beekeeping. And the initiative is part of Indonesia’s first bee conservation and community enterprise program, Plan Bee Indonesia. The Wild Sayan Honey harvested from the two hives is supplemented with honey from the Plan Bee farmers’ co-operative for use in food, cocktails, cooking classes and the spa.]

“Is there honey still for tea?”* There is if you go to the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong before the end of July [2015]. The hotel’s Lounge & Bar is offering a Honey Bee Afternoon Tea in collaboration with Bee’s Nest, the only honey maker on Hong Kong island. Among the teatime treats are traditional scones served with clotted cream and raw honey and a nod to Hong Kong with steamed milk custard topped with honey jelly – a twist on the traditional Cantonese dessert.


Steamed Milk Custard with Honey Jelly at the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong

Steamed Milk Custard with Honey Jelly at the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong

The honey is the first batch produced by the hotel’s beehive at Bee’s Nest farm in Tai Tam reservoir. In keeping with the Ritz Carlton group’s quest to support local businesses and environmental issues, the hotel has adopted a beehive there. Tours with one of the founders – Hong Kong beekeeper Gordon Yan and chefs Cedric Alexandra (previously of TWG) and Patrick H Zepho (ex Roka) – can be arranged for hotel guests.

Having set up Bee’s Nest three years ago, the team now has 100 hives and is expanding to 500 next season. As well as being organic (currently the only certified organic honey in Hong Kong) their nectar is mono-floral. Bees at their apiary pollinate from a single flower rather than several, resulting in a more intense taste and aroma.

Bee’s Nest’s colony feast on three types of flowering plant: ivy – an evergreen tree native to Hong Kong from which a medium coloured and fragrant honey is produced, longan (which results in a dark coloured, very sweet tasting honey) and lychee (light coloured and tangy in flavour).

Pastry chef Richard Long has used the longan honey to glaze walnuts on top of mini blue cheese tarts as well as adding it to dark chocolate pralines as he says the fruitiness works well with the richness of both. The ivy flower honey features in a custard filling for Bee Sting Cake – created by executive chef Peter Find as the sponge is a speciality of his homeland Germany and the ivy honey a taste of Hong Kong.

Bee Sting Cake at the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong

Bee Sting Cake at the Ritz Carlton Hong Kong

“Our location in Tai Tam reservoir has an abundance of ivy trees so it’s very difficult for other bee farms in Hong Kong to produce a winter ivy honey as distinctive as ours,” says Patrick Zepho.

Unlike in mass produced farms, Bee’s Nest honey is collected from the hives every seven to eight days. “Each beekeeper has his own personality and method to produce honey that will affect its quality,” says Zepho. “Gordon has learned the trade the traditional way (few beekeepers use this method now) to ensure the highest grade. It is a much longer process that requires breaking down the harvest in steps to remove as much of the moisture as possible which results in a more concentrated flavour and creamy texture.”

Beekeeping is creating a buzz in hotels throughout Asia. The Ritz Carlton Hong Kong plans to keep honey harvested from its adopted hive on the menu for either breakfast, or the lunch and dinner buffets on a continual basis. And The Intercontinental has reintroduced its rooftop beehives. Following on from two years ago when unfortunately the bees did not survive the cold winter and heavy rains, three new beehives have been installed.

“This time we are using a bee farming concept with planter boxes where the bees can pollinate rather than the bees needing to fly within a 5 km radius for food as they did last time,” says a spokeswoman for the Intercontinental Hong Kong which is working in conjunction with the Beekeeper Association of Hong Kong.

The hotel has also set up nine hives at its own garden within the New Life Farm in the New Territories. First harvest of the rooftop honey is expected at the end of this month [June] and there are plans to incorporate both honey batches in some way in the hotel’s F&B outlets from September.

Fairmont Yancheng Lake hive and honeycombs

Fairmont Yancheng Lake hive and honeycombs

Over on the south west coast of Cambodia, at Song Saa island resort, the strongly flavoured honey served at its restaurants is sourced from the north of the country in Mondulkiri province. “Mondulkiri honey is very famous in Cambodia because only in north Cambodia do we still have strong jungle and forest,” says food & beverage manager Chenda Nem. “And the [beekeepers] always produce real honey, they never mix their honey with any syrup.”

The countryside of northern Thailand also provides rich pickings for bees and subsequently honey making. The Four Seasons Chiang Mai has an impressive selection of locally produced honey on its breakfast buffet.

“Our honey is not bought in bulk from industrial distributors but hand created by local beekeeping tribes in the surrounding forests, using a distinct species of regional bees,” says a Four Seasons spokesman. By sourcing honey this way, the Four Seasons is also helping ensure the tribes’ trade stays alive.

Depending on the time of year, the honey bears the flavour of flowering plants in the area such as rambutan, sunflower, sesame, sabsua, longan or lychee. “Our selection is based on seasonal availability with the honey being brought fresh from the farm to the resort,” say executive chef Stephane Calvet.

“Wild flowers honey is typically fresh and aromatic with a liquid texture and matches very well with plain yoghurt. Longan honey is more refined with a runny texture and is a perfect match to goat’s cheese. Lychee honey is slightly bitter with a thick texture; it matches very well with Thai food.”

Fairmont Yancheng Lake Honey

Fairmont Yancheng Lake Honey

The Fairmont hotel group has developed a Honey Bee sustainability programme, designating some properties Honey Bee Hotels including two in China, to both help the environment and provide honey for its guests. The Fairmont Beijing purchases honey from Shangrila Farms which has apiaries in Yunnan province and teaches locals in rural villages the skill of beekeeping.

At the Fairmont Yangcheng Lake in Kunshan beehives have been installed on the hotel’s namesake lake. The hives are tended by a local, highly experienced beekeeper whose brought in wild bees from the West Mount in nearby Suzhou.

“The bees we keep are an Italian breed not local Chinese,” says the hotel’s general manager Jeff Cheng. “They are larger and less sensitive than Chinese bees which means they come out of hibernation and begin harvesting honey earlier, in late March or early April, when the outdoor temperature reaches 12 c.”

The 2,500 bees thrive on the hotel’s 200 acre organic and vegetable garden. In good weather conditions, they can produce up to 50 kg of honey a day in peak season which is used in desserts and entrees at the hotel’s restaurants and also bottled for sale.

Fairmont Yancheng Lake honey

Fairmont Yancheng Lake honey

“The taste of their honey varies over the season, according to nature’s flowering,” says Cheng. “In early springtime, their honey is light and coloured with the overwhelming fragrance of spring flowers. But I personally prefer the light perfume fragrance of petite chrysanthemum during May. Honey in September and October when Osmanthus blossoms is also delightful. It has a faint and refreshing scent with the distinctive fragrance of Osmanthus and goes perfectly with Chinese pastries and cakes.”

The hotel’s pastry team has created a version of the local Steamed Rice Cake, made without sugar, and served warm with Osmanthus honey. “It really is heavenly for afternoon tea,” Cheng says.

*With apologies to Rupert Brooke

A Trip You’ll Never Forget

Four Seasons Tented Camp, Golden Triangle

Four Seasons Tented Camp, Golden Triangle

Sitting on top of an elephant, I look down over Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meeting at the Mekong river as the sun begins to rise. I’d ridden the gentle giant, called Thong Kam, up the mountain to watch dawn breaking over the Golden Triangle and now she’s taking a well deserved break and snacking on banana trees. Her foot effortless crushes the tree trunk into smithereens and she eats enthusiastically – it’s time for me to dismount and breakfast myself on fresh fruit and coffee the guide has set up for me.

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Stars and Spas in Macau

Robuchon restaurant at Hotel Lisboa, Macau


[UPDATE: Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2018 will be held at the Wynn Macau on March 27th 2018.]

Something is stirring in Macau, the sleepy colonial backwater turned gaming mecca on the southern tip of the China mainland just a 40 minute ferry ride from Hong Kong. For amongst the glitz (and sometimes seediness) of the mammoth casinos and five star hotel complexes are some of the best restaurants and spas in the world.


Spa at the Mandarin Oriental Macau

While Macau, as a former Portuguese colony, offers any number of rustic bistros that Portugal can be proud of, it’s the fine dining that’s attracting attention.

Robuchon a Galera

Joel Robuchon has a new outpost there in the colourful Grand Lisboa hotel on the Macau peninsula. Newly unveiled as Robuchon au Dome – replacing Robuchon a Galera – the restaurant has just moved to an even flashier spot under the glass atrium at the top of the sky scraper hotel. With its Swarovski chandelier, Steinway piano and Baccarat crystal the place is almost a pastiche of a three Michelin starred restaurant (an honour it has secured four years running) but purists won’t be disappointed with the cooking. Under chef Francky Semblat [UPDATE: Chef Francky Semblat has been succeeded at Robuchon au Dome by Julien Tongourian] the bread and butter trollies and signature dishes such as caviar jelly with cauliflower cream all prevail. As well as new, Asian inspired creations.

Oriental jelly with spices and caramel

In Las Vegas – which Macau is often deemed an Asian version of – Robuchon sits alongside Thomas Keller and Nobu. Perhaps they will follow him to Macau but for now it’s the Chinese cuisine that really shines. Zin Yat Heen is one of a number of Cantonese restaurants with a deservingly high reputation. Tucked away within the Four Seasons on the Cotai Strip, a main drag for gaming and shopping, the two Michelin starred Zin Yat Heen is a tranquil haven away from the bling with laquered wall coverings and paper lanterns and a prominently displayed wine selection rather than the garish or downright dull décor that often comes with Cantonese dining rooms.

Zin Yat Heen

Chef Ho Pui Yung, originally from Hong Kong the heartland of Cantonese, specialises in seafood and the freshest of top quality ingredients for his exemplary cuisine. Diners flock here for the crab claw stuffed with shrimp and the crispy chicken in particular.

Wing Lei

And there are other contenders gaining credence. Over at the Wynn hotel back on the peninsula, fellow Cantonese restaurant Wing Lei has been elevated to two Michelin stars this year. Next door, Golden Flower at the Encore hotel has received its first star. What differentiates the Golden Flower is its emphasis on the elite Tan cuisine; created in Beijing and defined by detailed preparation and subtle flavours.

Golden Flower

Chef Liu Guo Zhu who moved from Beijing to Macau bringing seven apprentices with him says, “Tan cuisine is an exclusive school of cooking and hard to understand because of the labour intensive cooking methods involved.” In reality, that means dishes such as stewed fish maw in a rich chicken broth.

Tim’s Kitchen is another of the more interesting Michelin starred venues. Originally a private chef for HSBC executives, Tim Lai’s cooking is a sophisticated and contemporary take on Cantonese. Dishes such as simmered pomelo peel and goose meat roll practically have their own fan club.

While the Hong Kong branch is a chi chi affair in trendy Sheung Wan, Tim’s Kitchen Macau is found incongruously inside the Hotel Lisboa in the heart of the peninsula’s gaming area.

Mandarin Oriental Maca Vida Rica Bar

It’s no surprise that these fine dining establishments are housed within the casinos and hotels. Where the high rollers flock, it follows that high class restaurants will open. Though whether the gamblers are really interested in what they are eating is another matter. It’s not unheard of to see groups of women dining together while presumably their husbands are at tables of the gaming variety. At the Mandarin Oriental I saw a group of wives enjoying cocktails in the bar while at the hotel’s spa I saw a succession of well groomed young men. For spas are another draw for Macau – not just for WAGs but increasingly metrosexual mainland men (China is said to be the only country where men outspend women on beauty). As such the standards need to be high-roller high and many have scooped up awards.

Mandarin Oriental spa

Whoever the customers are, and whatever their tastes, their presence will continue to feed the trend for more high quality restaurant openings. The latest, Guincho a Galera, is the first foreign foray for a Portuguese Michelin starred restaurant. So perhaps Portugal will be landing on the map in Macau again very soon.

Hotel spas

The Mandarin Oriental – mercifully free of bling, boutique sized and without a casino attached. The compact spa is in keeping with the intimate size of the hotel and makes much of its view of the peninsula. Voted best spa for men but definitely will appeal to women too.

The Four Seasons

One of the largest spas in Macau, it has a botanical theme so really feels like an urban oasis in the middle of the mall madness. Large choice of treatments.


Emphasis is on exclusivity with eight private treatment rooms featuring their own steam, sauna and hydrotherapy as well as dressing room.

Banyan Tree

Incongruously located within the gargantuan Galaxy complex but including a massive spa. The Banyan Trees reputation for spas is huge and this one is no exception.


Robuchon au Dome

Zin Yat Heen

Wing Lei

Golden Flower

Tim’s Kitchen

Heavenly Hangzhou

West Lake, Hangzhou. Pic: Ken Seet

“Hello foreigner friends!” a cheery man greets us alongside one of the picturesque canals that feed into West Lake. “How do you like Hangzhou?” A few days later at a busier spot right alongside the lake, while we are dodging coach parties and marvelling at pagodas and weeping willows, another local stops us: “Hello, welcome to China! Where are you from?”

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