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by Subhasish Chakraborty
The penchant of the average Bengalees for travel is legion and they appreciate the stark and desolate landscapes that are far removed from the rather supple topography of Bengal. For close to two decades, if not more, Bengalee tourists have been visiting the desert state of Rajasthan in ever increasing numbers, thanks to some aggressive publicity by Rajasthan Tourism.
A group of life members of the local Kalyani Adventure Club decided to do something unusual rather than embarking on the usual Golden Triangle circuit of Delhi-Agra-Jaipur, which has off late been the standard itinerary for the average Bengalee tourist. Instead we chalked out an interesting itinerary and bargained with one of Jodhpur’s most renowned heritage hotel- Fort Chanwa Luni that offered us an unputdownable package complete with boarding, lodging, desert escapades and other miscellaneous activities.
Why Jodhpur? Well, first of all it is the largest city of Rajasthan after Jaipur and the city is an interesting jumble of winding streets with the formidable Meherangarh fort being the most impressive fort in the whole of Rajasthan. Secondly, Jodhpur is the home of the Rajputs, a group of warrior clans who have controlled this part of India for more than a thousand years with a code of chivalry and honor akin to that of the medieval European knights. And last but not the least, the heady concoction of royal history, colorful people and superb scenery along with its authentic Rajasthani architecture makes Jodhpur an ideal destination to explore in the desert state of Rajasthan.
From Kolkata we traveled by an Indian Airlines flight to Delhi and thereafter by train to Jodhpur. There was a cab waiting to pick us up from Jodhpur Railway Station and the first sights of this marvelous city with its narrow lanes and alleyways, its bustling bazaars replete with unusual Rajasthani handicrafts and the quintessential Jodhpur Tongas provided us with a Rajasthan we never knew existed.
In 15 minutes we reached our hotel – Chanwa Luni and were ceremonially welcomed by the hotel’s charming lady escorts, dressed in all their finery. After exchanging pleasantries with the hotel’s warm and friendly staff, we were escorted to our rooms. Each of the rooms of this outstanding hotel breathes with a dignified royal Rajasthani ambience. The rooms exude with the elegance of Rajasthani architecture and the entire hotel has been built of the finest variety of Red Sandstone.
Legend has it that the erstwhile king of Jodhpur – Maharaja Jaswant Singh II was principally responsible for making the Marwar region of Rajasthan prosperous through his visionary approach. The Maharaja was ably assisted by Kaviraj Muraridanji – one of his trusted lieutenants known for his shrewd administrative zeal and foresight. In the year 1894, Kaviraj was bestowed with the “jagirdari”or ownership of the remote and secluded hamlet of Chanwa and the visionary in him took the decision of building a magnificent fortress, which today is known as Fort Chanwa Luni.
If historical records are anything to go by, in the year 1948, the hamlet of Chanwa was bequeathed to Maharaja Dalip Singh and unfortunately due to lack of patronage, the impregnable fortress was left uncared for and in utter ruins until the year 1992 when the desert state of Rajasthan saw an unprecedented mushrooming of heritage properties, which led Maharaja Dalip Singh to convert the fortress into a heritage hotel, thereby offering the discerning international traveler with the option of staying in one of Jodhpur’s most awesome royal fort.
The hotel owes a lot to the visionary zeal the present Maharaja – Dalip Singhji, who happens to be the youngest son of Maharaja Umaid Singhji. The manner in which the hotel’s courtyards and impeccably landscaped gardens have been laid out deserves kudos. The quintessential Rajasthani “Jharokas” here are particularly very eye-catching and recreates the royal magic of Jodhpur’s rich virile past.
What makes the hotel so exceptional is the splendid and elaborate Rajasthani architecture and its total compliance with local Jodhpuri sensitivities, so much so that the age-old Jodhpuri architectural heritage have been replicated and embellished extensively both inside and outside this magnificent heritage hotel. All the minute details like the antique wooden furnishings, the curtains and the overall ambience in each room reverberate with a regal Rajasthani charm, thereby making the entire hotel experience a harmonious one.
The unprejudiced eye of the architect echoes in every nook and corner of the hotel. Here at the Fort Chanwa Luni Hotel the virtually impossible seem graceful and easy and I think that’s what architecture is all about. Be it the towers, the stables, passageways and out of the blue stairways to the surreptitious pavilions and breathtaking roof top views of the adjoining village, the hotel is a supreme adjustment to opportunity and local conditions. All attention has been concentrated on, not collecting art, but on creating art, like one beautiful picture.
For the connoisseurs of art, the innovative manner in which the traditional Rajasthani paintings have been arranged inside the hotel not only offers a peek into Jodhpur’s regal past but is also reflective of the high degree of craftsmanship.
Surrounded by royal designs, designs that are unusual and brilliant, designs that celebrate, which do not necessarily conform to any set pattern, finishes that are playful – is the joy that this outstanding heritage hotel breathes into her spaces. Be it the floors, walls, ceilings, doors or even the simple framed windows, the hotel manages to evoke in the most mundane things a vibrancy and a happy mood, that reaches out to greet you the moment you step inside.
I wasn’t surprised when the hotel’s suave and courteous manager shared a few praiseworthy references of the hotel viz-a-viz publications like the Tatler, Le Guide Du Routard, Society and Saison magazines, all of which heaped praises and raved about the hotel’s sense of innovation in blending traditional Rajasthani architecture with the contemporary hospitality landscape.
During an impromptu conversation with Maharaja Dalip Singhji over a sip of my favorite tipple at the hotel’s central courtyard, I was told that the Government of India stood as the watchdog during the course of the hotel’s renovation, which meant that much of the original façade of this stupendous heritage property remained unchanged. As we conversed at the courtyard, the ramparts wore a dazzling look with the floodlights coming on. Also, the fact that it was a full moon night and with the hotel’s band playing some soul-stirring ballads made for a truly ethereal setting.
The hotel in its bid to entice the discerning international traveler had come up with a novel entertainment product in the form of traditional Rajput weddings and we were fortunate to witness the marriage ceremony of a Canadian couple from far away Toronto who after a lot of soul searching decided to conduct the ceremony in the fascinating backdrop of Fort Chanwa Luni.
The ceremony was an exact imitation of a traditional Rajput marriage ceremony with an equal number of guests being allotted to form the bride and groom’s side. From our entourage, which numbered around ten, a majority of guests choose to be on the groom’s side as most of them were male and the fact that guests from the groom’s side are treated royally as per Rajasthani customs.
The hotel’s ever-attentive support staff dressed us up in all the regalia of a Rajput wedding complete with spotless white “Kurta Pyjama” and the quintessential Rajput turban. The women guests wore traditionally embroidered Rajasthani “Salwar Kameez” with tiny mirrors skillfully embroidered on the fabric.
The entire hotel was splendidly lit up at dusk and the “Barat” or groom’s cavalcade with the groom riding on horseback followed by other guests on camelback with their quintessential blazing torches and native musicians performing soul stirring Rajasthani melodies made for a kaleidoscopic vignette. As we (groom’s cavalcade) made an entry into the marriage venue, each of the guests were royally welcomed by absolutely gorgeous looking Rajasthani ladies.
The hotel’s impeccably landscaped garden was the main venue of the wedding and the manner in which the entire area was decorated – complete with royal tents, flowers and other Rajasthani paraphernalia was to be seen to be believed. As our Canadian groom – John Gloster, looking cherubic in his heavily decorated Rajasthani wedding attire was escorted by a group of ladies to the main “Mandap”, his stunningly beautiful wife –Katherine followed him and waited with bated breath for the “Pundit”(priest) to arrive.
Over the next hour or so, all the rituals associated with a Rajput wedding was conducted by the “Pundit” and we guests sat encircling the “Mandap” in a cross legged fashion on comfortable “Gaddis” or seating mattresses and were served the choicest of liqueurs and snacks. Once the ceremony was over, we were escorted to the dining hall where a gala dinner was served with enough variety – Continental, Indian and the very best of Rajasthani cuisine. The grand finale was in the form of a spectacular fireworks display that lit up the night sky and the bride and groom were then escorted to their private suite.
Among the many activities that the hotel encourages, the traditional Indian Mehfil celebrations are an outright hit with the hotel’s guests, particularly the foreign visitors who find this entertainment truly mesmerizing due to the inherent passion that permeates the Mehfil party. To entice the hotel’s discerning guests, the entire hotel premise is innovatively illuminated by expert electricians, which transports the guests to a make belief world of fantasy.
Guests are provided with traditional Rajput attires and welcome drinks are offered to guests, while the Mehfil artists and dancers take the center stage. The party begins on a somber note, gradually reaching the crescendo with every passing hour. Hats off to Maharaja Dalip Singh, the present owner of the Chanwa Luni hotel, who has been instrumental in reviving the Mehfil theme parties.
An exclusive dining zone is set up and guests can choose from a wide array of culinary delights. From Rice Specialties to Chicken Entrees and Tandoori Breads to Lamb Specialties, the very best of India’s gastronomic delights are on offer at the hotel’s Mehfil parties. The resident chefs rely on fresh ingredients and from my own experience I can vouch for the fact that the spices that are used are amongst the best that India has to offer.
From the regal confines of Fort Chanwa Luni to the fascinating city sights of Jodhpur in itself is a once-in-a-lifetime’s experience. Jodhpur actually stands at the edge of the Thar Desert and the colossal fort topping a sheer rocky promontory, which rises right in the middle of the town, totally dominates the city of Jodhpur. Maharaja Dalip Singh was courteous enough to provide us with 10-seater cab along with a well-informed guide for our city sightseeing trip. From many of us in the group, it was their first encounter with the Desert city of Rajasthan and naturally they were all very excited.
We ventured to the old city precincts, which is conspicuous by a wall 10 Kms. long reportedly built about a century after the city was founded. We climbed to the top and from a vantage position saw glimpses of the Old City.
Next on our sightseeing agenda was the iconic Meherangarh Fort, which is regarded as one of Rajasthan’s most formidable nay impregnable fort. We took the meandering road that leads all the way up to the fort’s entrance. Inside the fort, there are a whole series of courtyards and palaces. You will be stupefied by the rather evocative names given to the palace apartments like the Moti Mahal (Pearl Palace), the Sukh Mahal (Pleasure Palace), the Phool Mahal (Flower Palace) etc…
To make the atmosphere joyful, a couple of native musicians struck up a merry Rajasthani folk number to herald our arrival. On the hindsight, this really set the mood for a visit this outstanding fort.
As we advanced further ahead, we entered a museum-like room, which was well stocked by a rich collection of trappings belonging not just to the Jodhpur’s royalty but India as a whole. As far as I am concerned, the most outstanding collection must be the Elephant Howdahs used by the erstwhile Maharajas who traversed past the city in glittering processions in the days of yore.
For the art connoisseurs, the collection of miniature paintings belonging to varied schools are on display in the fort’s parapets that still hypnotizes art lovers from across the globe.
Basically the stupendous Meherangarh Fort is kind of a one-stop shop for everything Rajput. Be it the traditional musical instruments, the ubiquitous Rajput armoury, antique palanquins, furniture and costumes, this impregnable fort is a must visit site for every visitor to Jodhpur.
Time permitting, you would do well to venture to the southern part of the fort where a collection of old cannons are still impeccably preserved on the ramparts. What makes the southern part of the fort so magical is that you can clearly hear voices and shouts carrying up from the houses far below you. The sight of hundreds of blue colored houses that essentially means houses belonging to Brahmins is very conspicuous.
Even as we recuperated from the sheer grandeur of the Meherangarh Fort and took the downhill road, the majestic sight of “Jaswant Thada” made us spellbound with its magnificence. It is basically a memorial to Maharaja Jaswant Singh II, one of Jodhpur’s favorite son of the soil. Inside the cenotaph one can view a collection of portraits of the erstwhile rulers of Jodhpur.
Since it was a sunny day and unbearably hot, we decided to venture to the colorful Sardar Market and on the expert advise of our well-informed guide – Suresh Jhunjhunwala, decided to have glassful of chilled “Makhania Lassi”, which happens to be Jodhpur’s signature drink. This variety of “Lassi” is churned out of thick cream and is known for its ultra refreshing quality, particularly in the scorching heat of Jodhpur. A few of us even indulged in the “Mawa Kachori” and “Mawa Ladoo”, two of Jodhpur’s trademark desserts.
After filling our belly and with renewed zest we headed for the magnificent Umaid Bhawan Palace. This stupendous palace is built of the finest variety of red sandstone and according to our guide the architectural design of this palace was done by the British Royal Institute of Architects. This palace is also popularly referred to as the “Chittar Palace” because of the extensive use of the locally available “Chittar” sandstone that has gone into the making of this magnificent palace.
If you are looking for some idyllic retreat that would take you out of the confines of the city, you would do well venture 7 Kms. to the outskirts of Jodhpur where the magnificent Balsamand Lake Palace is located. This lake dates back to 1159 and the palace was built in the year 1936 that stands on the lakeside.
On the penultimate day of our eventful stay at Fort Chanwa Luni, the hotel’s courteous manager arranged for an out-of-the-world outdoor experience – the experience of a direct encounter with the pastoral tribes of Rajasthan. We woke up early and after refreshing ourselves, hopped into the cab that led us to the outskirts of Jodhpur city where the fascinating Bishnoi, Moila and Prajapat tribes dwell.
The landscape was desolate, no doubt, but our tribal hosts more than made up for any discomfort we might have experienced from the elements. Each of us lived the life of the natives, at least from dawn to dusk and took part in the daily grind – washing utensils, preparing breakfast, looking after the camel herds and even bathing the tiny tots just like their mothers would do.
I would never forget the joy of a cherubic nine-year-old Bishnoi child – Samiran, when I dangled before his eyes a crisply packaged 5 Star chocolate bar. Probably he had never even seen the stuff before, leave alone relish it. At first he didn’t know what to do with the chocolate bar and so in utter innocence he began flinging the stuff amongst his friends. By the time I intervened, the chocolate bar was no longer crunchy and became somewhat soggy. I carefully opened the packet and distributed it amongst Samiran’s friends and once the thing melted in their mouth, there was a an unbelievable gasp. They wanted more and I had to comply.
Here in the stark and desolate desert landscape, we found there was more authentic innocence, as compared to the cities, which look Dickensian. From this eventful trip, we took back home memories that will linger on for a lifetime and not just snapshots.
Traveler’s Fact File:
If You Go:
Spice Jet operates regular flights to the capital city of Rajasthan – Jaipur from cities like Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabd and Ahmedabad. If you are traveling by road, the distance from Delhi is 627 Kms. and from Jaipur, the capital city of Rajasthan, the distance is 370 Kms. You need not be perturbed about the condition of the road, which is excellent throughout.
Many visitors to Jodhpur also travel by train from Delhi and other cities of India. Some of the important trains that can be availed are Jodhpur-Jammu Exp, Jodhpur-Kalka Exp, Jodhpur-Kota Pass, Jodhpur-Bhatinda Exp, Jodhpur-Bikaner Pass etc
For any further information and reservations, please feel free to contact –
Fort Chanwa Luni
VPO: Luni, Distt. Jodhpur
Tel-Fax: 91-2931284216,91-2931-277246, 0291-5131233
by Barbara Kingstone
When I was told by my daughter who spends time in Dubai, that for two nights we would be in the desert, I mused, thinking I’d be in a tent. Okay, I thought rationally, I could do 48 hours in the sand and whatever ants and animals were around. However, after passing great sculptured-like sand dunes of golden and red sands with tuffs of wild grass here and there, off the well paved four lane highway, and a 2 1/2 hour drive from Dubai, my adventurous spirit, often well hidden, come out.
From a distance, Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort, it look liked a beachside playground for kiddies who had skilfully built sand castles.
But there was no sea to wash this fickle edifices away when the tide came in. However, the nearer we got, the more majestic and magical this property appeared.
The 206 room five star resort with luxury suites and villas was beyond anything I could have imagined. Here, on the Liwa Desert (also known as as the Empty Quarter), we passed over a bridge filled instead of water beneath, was sand. The entrance wirh Moorish styled lanterns filled archways was where we were greeted by a staff member who served us a refreshing yogurt drink and wonderful, thick, fresh dates.
The following days, that longed for pampered and stress-free feeling was omnipresent after days in bustling Dubai. This hotel also had a beautifully designed spa although that said, the facial, about $200, just wasn’t up to snuff as I needed to ask for the deep cleansing. This was the only misstep in this entire experience…not bad.
Our spacious suite overlooked a garden and pool, and since there are no guest rooms in the main building, there are 25 buggies that, with only a click of the zero on the phone, these wondrous machines were outside awaiting to take us anywhere on this vast property. But within hours, I discovered an arch filled tunnel which lead us, in just a few minutes, to the main building. Everything was well thought out and easy, just what a guest wants at a unique destination
Archery, one of the main sports in the Emirates (there are 7 in the UAE) is one of the popular activities as is falconry. That said, it is the early morning desert walk that was the perfect way to feel, touch, and sense the sand. There was a degree of difficulty navigating the fine sand which looks so deceptively easy.
And surprisingly was the great the variety of flowers and the sounds of the birds, a cookoo clock of sorts, had us on our feet by 6.30AM. I’m no Lawrence of Arabia, but I could see the attachment one could develope as I watched the color of the sand with its shadows go to various golden hues and aware of the constant movement of the dunes during the night and day.
The difficulty was leaving the room and our terrace. I was smitten with our suite, The Garden Suite, which had all the earmarks of an Arabian room but modernity came in the form of an espresso machine and good coffee wi fi, a great oval tub, a wide counter with double sinks and enough room for toiletries and cosmetics a separate shower and gratefully a lime stone, not slippery marble flooring. (I’ve experienced wet marble bathroom floors when I slipped and fell, banging my head into unconsciousness in a sleek, chic, newly renovated Italian hotel’s bathroom). The supply of towels, were rolled for displaying the touch of visual interest and here just seemed like a natural instinct.
Beamed and tatami decorated ceiling, a Moorish-styled alcove for the head board, the wonderful Moroccan styled chandelier which threw great designs when turned on in the evening and created wild designs.
As for the food, from the enormous choice at the breakfast buffet which we always had el-fresco to our choice of Arabic meals at lunch and evening, we were delighted that we could go ‘native’ . In fact, one evening the chef, knowing our preferences created a surprise and delicious Middle East meal. Nothing seemed too much at Qasr El Sarab.
And suddenly it was late, and as if by some movie magic, every evening there was a marvelous picture perfect sun set. In this oasis, I felt content and yearned to return to my villa in the desert..some tent !!!!!
Maybe if I pray to Allah, I could come back again
by Jacqueline Swartz
Hotel Yountville, a luxury property in the middle of California’s Napa Valley, reopened late last year after major renovations. The hotel is country elegant, a series of stone buildings nestled in nature. The rooms are enhanced by a variety of textures: wooden floors, filmy white bed canopies, woven rugs, fireplaces. The cathedral ceilings are painted a rustic white. The bathrooms run the length of the room, with windows opening to the bedroom. The outdoor deck looks out on trees and a stream.
Step outside your room and you’re outdoors. The upstairs decks are in the midst of trees and birdsong. Close by is an elegant outdoor pool and Jacuzzi that look like something out of a dreamy symbolist painting.
Just beyond is Spa Acqua. The treatments combine techniques from around the world – the signature massage includes hot stones with Thai stretching – with Napa Valley grape seed body products.
Adjacent to the check-in area is a large lounge, with a fireplace and enough easy chairs, it seems, for every guest in the hotel. Newspapers are provided.
The restaurant, Hopper Creek, serves breakfast and lunch in a light and airy space with wrought iron chandeliers. Just about every ingredient on the menu is attributed to a local farm. The breakfasts are luscious, enough to get you through a day of wine-tasting. One choice features cured king salmon, cherry smoked ham, Mt. Tam goat cheese. and an assortment of homemade breads and croissants. The French toast is a brioche with Asian pear compote, mascarpone cheese and hot cinnamon sauce.
What makes this a destination hotel is the proximity to some of the best wineries in the valley. Hotel Yountville is geared to wine-tasting, and will provide a list of nearby wineries, many of which offer discounts to hotel guests.
The other benefit is the charming low-rise town of Yountville, barely two blocks away. There are stores with serious wine cellars, and an upscale shopping area that sells the local products: olive oil, artichoke tapenade, lilac soaps and potions.
There is a surprisingly good art gallery run by artist Steven Gordon, (www.thegordongallery.com).He paints landscapes of the area that are impressionistic, and surprisingly not kitsch.
But the real draw is this: Yountville has more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other place on the planet (of course the town is tiny). The French Laundry, with three stars, tops the charts, but you have to drive, not to mention booking months ahead. Much less expensive, but definitely satisfying, are the one Michelin-starred eateries in town, a short walk from the hotel. Redd (www.reddnapavalley.com) features minimalist decor and an intensely creative menu. Bouchon Bistro (www.bouchonbistro.com), The French Laundry’s cousin, is a classic, with marble tables, an oyster bar and a menu that features bistro food that well deserves its Michelin star. The Poulet Roti($26.50) is roast chicken with caramelized sunchokes, melted leeks, black trumpet mushrooms and chicken jus. For dessert, don’t miss Bouchon’s take on Ile Flottante, a meringue with vanilla, creme anglais; here chocolate caramel sauce on the side and friend crisp almonds set off the egg whites and cream.
There are also in-town places for wine-tasting, for those who prefer to drink and walk, rather than drive. The Hill Family Estate offers free tastings for guests of Hotel Yountville. To visit nearby Domaine Chandon (www.chandon.com), you can borrow a bike from the hotel, then stroll the Domaine Chandon gardens, taste the many sparkling wines, and have a full course meal at Etoile, the on-site Michelin-starred restaurant.
Or, for a more close-to-home experience, have a drink at the Hotel Yountville bar, or take a bottle to your room, along with crusty local bread and creamy goat cheese. There are a lot of ways to experience your very own Napa Valley
By John and Sandra Nowlan
We love authentic Indian food but didn’t expect to find it at an all-inclusive resort along the Mayan Riviera in Mexico. However the five-star Excellence Riviera Cancun that hugs the soft, white sand of the eastern Yucatan peninsula was full of pleasant surprises for the palate andfor all the other senses. Their intimate Indian restaurant (called Basmati with a chef brought in from India) is just one of eight ethnic a la carte dining areas available for guests in a series of low-rise buildings on the immaculate 55,000 square metre property. In a week that passed too quickly we were able to sample them all – Mexican, Asian, French, Italian, Seafood, Steak and a Pizzeria. Reservations are never required. We expected great Mexican food but the adults-only resort clearly puts a lot of effort into creativity and authentic taste in the other venues. All the restaurants also have vegetarian and gluten-free dishes. Our only complaint was with the soggy French fries at lunch. They clearly needed some input from Canada!
On arrival in the spacious modern lobby, guests are greeted with cool towels, glasses of sparkling wine and a genuine welcome from all the bilingual (English-Spanish) staff. All the 440 air-conditioned suites at Excellence Riviera Cancun are large with full marble bathrooms, a Jacuzzi tub, large-screen satellite TV with DVD player, bathrobe & slippers, a complementary mini-bar stocked with water, juice, soft drinks and beer plus a furnished balcony or patio.
We were able to enjoy even more luxury in one of the Rooftop Terrace Suites. In addition to our oceanfront room and balcony on the 4th level (with a Jacuzzi inside and out), a staircase led to a private terrace overlooking the beach and the azure Caribbean Sea. In addition to a comfortable sofa and queen-size sunbed there was a shower and an eight-foot by ten foot HydroSpa pool. It was big enough for several couples! It was a special treat to lie on the lounger at night and gaze up at the star-filled Caribbean sky.
The unique Rooftop Suites are part of the Excellence Club, several areas of the resort that offer a concierge service, daily hors d’oeuvres delivered to rooms and access to a private lounge with snacks and premium drinks. All suites in this section of the resort are also supplied with a variety of premium spirits. When we arrived we looked for a bottle of single malt scotch, our favourite for sipping. The concierge who showed us to our room said he’d be right back and returned shortly with an excellent bottle. We’re not sure where he got it because none of the 10 bars scattered around the resort carried single malt. We were impressed!
The whole layout of the resort was carefully planned for maximum privacy with a style that management calls “Classic Luxury”. The lawns and gardens are well groomed and spacious. The low-density of the buildings promote a laid-back and uncrowded feeling even when the resort is full. Six large serpentine swimming pools meander throughout the property and cover almost 20% of the resort. In many of the suites you can just open the door and go for a quiet swim.
For those who prefer the adjacent beach, the amazing powdery white sand is cleaned each morning and the warm Caribbean is very inviting. You can safely walk for kilometres along the firm sand licked by the waves. In fact the small town of Puerto Morelos is less than an hour’s gentle walk south of the resort and has several great shops for Mexican souvenirs or silver (bargaining is expected). The town also boasts its own leaning tower – a tall beachfront lighthouse that was battered by a hurricane several decades ago.
This was our second stay at one of the impressive Excellence resorts. The Spanish-owned chain is small and low-key (just three properties in the Caribbean – two in Mexico and one in the Dominican Republic – with a fourth now planned for Jamaica) but they clearly aim to be among the leaders in the upscale, adult-only, all-inclusive holiday and romance segment. The Food and Beverage Director even told us that part of his job is to visit top hotels and resorts around the world to be aware of culinary trends and activities that would enhance the Excellence brand.
We were naturally reluctant to fly back home after a week in this heavenly retreat but the final happy surprise was the Cancun airport, just 25 minutes from the resort. It’s large, very efficient for check-in and has a waiting area with great shopping, restaurants and one of the best duty-free areas we ’ve ever encountered. It even had a talented mariachi band to leave lasting musical memories as visitors with great tans and long faces headed back to northern climes.
John and Sandra Nowlan are travel and food writers based in Halifax
by Barbara Kingstone
After leaving the very mysterious lanes and narrow streets of Siena, I couldn’t imagine enjoying Florence as much as I did with the view of this wonderful terra cotta roofed city. But no sooner had I checked into the 400 year old building,now part of the Royal Demeure Group of hotels, I realized how fickle I was.
This ancient building is perfectly located. Less than a few minutes walk to the magnificence Duoma, this hotel has the charm that Italy is known for. Old charm doesn’t come cheap but it is worth the comfortable and ambience.
With only 65 rooms, all filled even in late September, the suite we had was interior decorated in a very Italian style… yellow and orange patterned stripes, drapes trimmed with similar colored roping. Molded closet doors like these would cost a fortune to purchase if you could find them. The small ante room even featured a Murano chandelier, a small desk, dresser with drawers, a dark burnt orange sofa and floor to ceiling doors leading to the small balcony overlooking, boutiques like LouiLouis Vuitton and Fendi.
With the inner doors closed, surprisingly there’s not a sound from the busy street below but once opened, it’s Italy at its best. Busy, chatty, frenetic traffic but strangely devoid of honking even though one has to hold one’s breath to drive here.
Open the large door, the entrance to the bedroom, though not large,is most convenient with a sizable walk in closet, similar coloration. and a small marble bathroom. One inconvenience is the lack of shelving for someone like me who travels with a pharmacy and a cosmetic section.
The concierge and staff are so pleasant that you enjoy listening to their suggestions, their enthusiasm for their city. The public areas may sound cliche, but really they are like a posh, private residence or palace’s living room and library. It wasn’t unusual to see a few people sitting in front of the extremely high fireplace, (unlit in this steaming weather as the sun streamed into the lobby) reading their newspaper while reclining on the brownish maroon studded leather arm chairs. It’s so elegant that makes one want to do away with white, sleek, shiny, stainless steel decor. which I may add, is my favorite look.
Although small, the dinning room doubles as a bar and the breakfast room. It’s the brass and crystal chandeliers that captured my attentions. Upturned and fluted, they were works of art. The small and covered outdoor area it so typical of how well outdoor space is used. Italians love eating el fresco and no matter size, if only 5 tables, it works This small area right off the hotel, abutting the quiet road and sidewalk seems to be favored but the there are so many outdoor cafes, always filled, that it isn’t a surprise when the hotel’s tables are filled.
I’ll have to rethink and digest my digression about decor, since everything was obviously well thought out and perfect for the building’s architecture and grandeur. Actually, sleek and stainless steel wouldn’t have had the same Italian elegant effect.
All in all, for location and service, elegance and stately majestic ambience, it wouldn’t be too awful to call this home.
by Barbara Kingstone
The very first time I stayed at Montreal’s Vogue Hotel (not a Loews at that time) was during the annual Montreal Grand Prix race. That was about a decade ago and the screeching of fans out side made it necessary to rope off an area for them so that the drivers could exit and enter.
Most recently, when I had to be in Montreal, it didn’t take long to make my decision of where I wanted to stay. Vogue is so well located, across from the legendary Ogilvy Department store where bagpipers start the day,where many of the salespeople have been there for decades, where being polite and friendly is part of their daily work.
Also, the location is within walking distance of some of this gourmet city’s fine cafes and restaurants and window shopping is a bonus with the variety of chic boutiques between St. Catherine Street, the main street, to Sherbrooke Street, the swanky ‘rue’.
The former corporate business office building has been most successfully re adapted into this fine and so stylish boutique hotel.
I wasn’t surprised when I arrived to see a mob of young people, again mulling about in the front and screaming with enthusiasm as a singing group then a hockey team, made their way in and out.
However, once inside, the first greeting and calling card, is one of the largest, most impressive large, seasonal colored floral arrangement the lobby’s round table, lobby central, actually arranged weekly by the florist at Agility. The smart, discreet reception desk is staffed with caring staff and just off to one side, under a circular industrial looking staircase is a small but always busy bar and cafe. Alfredo and Rasheed, immediately asked my name and during my stay remembered it, making me feel part of this very posh family atmosphere. A larger restaurant was almost completed and ready to open.
However, I think when I return, I’ll ‘take’ my breakfast at the cafe since it’s just a great perch for seeing what’s going on outside from the large windows.
I mentioned on my first cup of coffee, while waiting for my room (only 15 minutes since I was early), that if possible I would want a table for 6 on Saturday morning. This is a bit of a challenge since the tables are for two and with a push, three. However, come Saturday, in a corner, without feeling cramped, there was my table ready and waiting as I was greeted by these two wonderful and humorous wait staff men, one from the Middle East, the other from South America.
Safety is prime although Montreal isn’t known as dangerous. However, it seems to be the policy of the hotel that guests feel safe and with the cache of celebrities, it’s very wise of the hotel to keep a close eye at all times. For instance, to enter my room, I had to use my plastic swipe card to get into the foyer area that led to the small cluster of rooms. (There are 99 in the hotel). The sizable rooms were immaculate however, the view could have been better given that all I had to stare at in this city of mountains, were gravel stones roof and energy units outside the window.
But with this great service, all is forgiven.
Loews Vogue Hotel is so well located, so fastidious, so roomy that I know where I’ll stay when next in this lovely, tres charmant’ bilingual city.
by Barbara Kingstone
Some tourists sigh when they hear the word Roma, I take a deep breath and exhale with pleasure at the word Siena, now a UNESCO World Heritage city. This truly glorious city has it all and most is within walking distance with all roads leading to the exquisite Duomo with the tolling bells. So it was special to discover our hotel, Grand Hotel Continental was the best location.
There on via Banchi Di Sopra 85, on a pedestrian street surrounded by terrific shopping and the joyous non stop talking and exaggerated hand gestures, this five star hotel has a long heritage and certainly emits a feeling of being part of the street scene. Of course, the twice yearly Palio is a busy and very crowded time and the streets are even fuller and the noise level like a lively opera chorus.
It is the first and only five star hotel within he ancient walls of Siena . A relatively ‘new’ hotel, it opened on February 2002 although originally designed by the Baroque architect Giovanni Fontana. The 51 room hotel was once a palace built in the 17th century. What is so remarkable is that the clever modern architects chosen for the renovations, placed glass and stainless steel elevators amidst the antiquities, near the once courtyard that is now covered with a glass covered roof over the hotel’s fine restaurant.
But equally impressive is that while renovating, well preserved,15th century frescoes were uncovered. Also, where there were once windows, when designing the hotel and needing more space for each room, they had removed the windows only to be replaced with most effective trompe l’eouil windows matching the real ones beside them. All this seen from the glass elevators.
But with so much to see nearby, one could get a guilt complex if they dallied and didn’t take advantage of seeing the shell shaped Piazza del Campo, the Duomo and the nearby Palazzo Pubblico. These attention grabbers make Siena one of the most visited cities in Italy.
The hotel’s concierge staff were so very helpful that after the long flight and train ride from Naples, I was having a really bad hair day and in this very chic city, I felt I owed it to myself to do something about the frizz. No problem, as I was pointed to various salons to choose from. And I was delighted with the outcome. Although certainly not a splashy salon, (the other side a barber shop), it was unexpectedly expensive as was almost everything in Siena. Perhaps the best deal is the gelato stores, always filled, always the need to make a decision which of the dozen flavors you would like to taste. Those shops have the most imaginative ways of displaying gelato, certainly worthy of a snapshot.
The Grand Continental’s grandeur extends to the rooms with deluxe heavy draping and bed covering, grand curved and carved headboards and deep luxe seating. There are touches of modernity but what one wants when they choose The Grand Continental is the grandeur, service and location which is certainly there for the taking. One of the unique features is the superb, modern wine cellars where you can reserve the area for an evening of fine wine tasting.
Breakfast was a treat every day with tables laden with fruit, cereal, salamis, a variety of bread and rolls and some hot dishes, giving you the energy to discover the small lanes and alleys with their cobble stone walkways. (See Cuisine section for Chef’s recipe of his choice)
Although there is constant competition between Florence and Siena’s arts, certainly, even for the connoisseur, there is a plethora of museums, monuments and public art that won’t and don’t disappoint the most knowledgeable.
And best of all, after a day of sightseeing, heading back the The Grand Continental is always something to look forward to.
For more information contact Barbara3@rogers.com
by Barbara Kingstone
It took some navigating of car and twisting and turning the city map trying to discover the discrete signage of Residenza de Ripetta. But once located after driving past it for at least three times, it was well worth the effort.
The former monastery turned 5 star hotel now part of the deluxe Royal Demeure Hotel Group, has a lot going for it so little wonder that it was fully occupied, most surprisingly, at the end of September.
Firstly, the location is minutes from the famed Piazza Del Popolo and Piazza di Spagno. And then there’s the entrance to this 15 century former monastery. It is so cool Roman-chic yet still with major old guard grandeur -a hard combination to make work, but this hotel has done it.
To one side of the lobby there’s a perfect, well used, serenely decorated, quiet library with shelves of books and deep, comfortable chairs and well chosen artwork. However, the nearby bar is obviously a trendy hang -out for the well dressed- to -the -hilt trendy, obviously wealthy Roman youths who love to laugh and, of course, talk and talk and talk.
One evening at least 150 ‘twenty somethings’ were there for an engagement party and suddenly the sophisticated area would have had the monks rolling in their graves as the group grew larger, louder and happier. There was no way the hotel staff could do anything about it, this being a pre- reserved party. La Dolce Vita is alive and well in Roma. It certainly had a few New Yorkers, who should be used to boisterous activity, bothered to the point of complaining to the sole receptionist. But a bit after midnight all was as it should be…complete quiet and nicely grand again. I saw this as a manifestation that the Italians, of any age, still love to have fun. Financial problems be damned!
This baroque building is up on modernity and convenience with all the necessary up to date needs from air conditioning to non smoking rooms and internet accessibility. However,I’ve never seen so many young people smoking on the streets and in any open area as I saw during my stay in Roma.
Within the confines of the hotel there are enough sights such as grand ancient sculptures and a superb garden with ivy (fake but looking like the real thing) neatly trimmed around all the windows of the rooms that overlook the garden, to enjoy. Brunch on Sunday is a hard ticket to get. It’s so civilized to see casual chic locals as only Romans know how to do, line up at the well ladened buffet table discussing the offerings. Food seems to be second only to opera, a constant part of conversations.
The garden bar section has colorful pillows on dark rattan sofas under a canopy and the area near the restaurant, also covered, has tables and chairs suited for eating. The taupe and beige linen place mats and napkins should be on sale, they are so stunning.
Now to initial impressions of the rooms. I must admit that on first sight of my down- the-hall, hidden away room, I wondered how Residenza could this be a five star rated hotel. Happily, the best part is the space was painted and decorated in white. Any pattern would have made this small ‘cell’, really confining. Had it been for two very tiny people or one slightly large person, it would have sufficed. The size was one obstacle, then the surface of the cupboard doors could have produced a handful of splinters if rubbed and to complete this dismal picture, the bathroom was so small that if you tried to swing a cat,it would be headless and the shower stall was akin to what one finds in most roadside motel rooms.
On the other hand when I visited my daughter’s suite, I couldn’t believe we were in the same hotel. Here I was standing in a lovely, elegantly decorated large suite. Bottom line? Just stunning. So what was the reason? No vacancies. I just happened to get the ‘runt’ of the litter. Apologies given by the staff, were profuse, and we were offered another room. However, since it was the last night, the thought of repacking after two weeks of packing and unpacking, didn’t seem worth the effort. My daughter loved every minute of her stay, her room, the food, the bar, the garden, the staff and everything else that was within sight. And except for the room, I concur with all her conclusions.
Residenza Di Ripetta is a most conveniently located, stunning building, accessible by walking to almost every city treasure and shopping areas and for me, worthy of another stay.
Just thinking of sitting in the perfectly manicured garden and dining in their restaurant where we did have one of the best meals in Rome, (and that’s a mouthful of credit since almost every restaurant is wonderful) is a stamp of approval for this fine grand residence.
via di Ripetta 231
For more information contact Barbara3@rogers.com
by Barbara Kingstone
Over a ‘ladies lunch’, the quartet discussed their recent travels. Then the destination, the fabled, Isle of Capri came up. As a peripatetic travel writer who has been around the world several times and to the most exotic destinations that most people just dream about , I blushingly had to admit that I had never been to Capri. However, timing is everything and I was about to embark, with my spouse, on a two week trip to Italy, including that famous Isle of Capri.
Naturally, the next question was about my accommodations. I had already booked at a well known property near the bustling Piazetta, the heart of this island, since I like to feel the pulse of a city, meet the locals and see the activity.
However, Shaenea, one of the chicest woman I know, suggested an hotel where she and her husband stay annually, I hadn’t heard about it..
Her description so intrigued me that as soon as I returned to my computer, I Googled J.K. Place Hotel Capri. Although all brochures, publicity pamphlets and photos look glamorous, they often don’t come close in reality. But the relatively newly opened J.K. Place had all the markings of a unique hotel so that’s where my husband and I opted to stay.
Once a private villa turned hotel in 1891, when it was finally sold to the present owners, it was a deteriorating edifice. Now, not only has it recaptured the essence of true luxury, it has all the fabulous statements of the decor and needs of today as J.K. sits majestically overlooking the Gulf of Naples.
The 45 minute hydrofoil (15 minutes by helicopter) ride over the waters of the Bay of Naples went smoothly , even giving us the opportunity to see the silhouette of Vesuvius . And just as we were in sight of this renowned island, I knew it would be one of my great travel highlights. Just seeing the cluster of white estates, some clinging to the hillside, others perfectly perched on the hilly terrain plus the greenery and the colorful florals is reason enough for the constantly filled 22 room hotel. Just a ‘baby’, in the hotel industry on this revered isle where the famed singer, Gracie Fields gave it legendary recognition and Jackie O was known to have her sandals and shoes made, J.K. turned out to be even more than expected.
Waiting for our room, away from the ‘madding crowd’, mulling the location, sitting on the stylishly decorated terrace overlooking a panoramic view of the port and restaurants, but far enough away not to be aware of the hoots and various noises, the vista was astonishing.
As for the hotel, I’m picky and very attentive to detail but obviously so was the architect/designer, Michele Bonan. He turned this estate into an incredible mix of modernity without grandeur and tossed in some historic statues and exemplary two 3 metre Oriental vases which seem to be the centre of attraction in the JKitchen Lounge and Restaurant. The menu is definitely authentic Italian, essentially Caprese cuisine.
At first glance, the stunning simplicity is the first impression. But soon the details become visible. The Library was adorned mainly with art and stylish books creatively placed as though no one would dare to touch the shelves they were on. But in fact, the room is the perfect venue to read and many of the tomes were taken off and then neatly set back by the staff as though the room was never touched.
Crisp white is the dominant color but then deep blue has a place as though it is part of the sky and the sea. Some walls are artfully decorated with great black and white vintage photos of well known guests and along the curved stair case wall there’s a colorful break with a portrait of Portrait of Lady Ashley. The staff member I spoke with didn’t know how it became part of the collection of if the Lady was a frequent guest. Anyway, it’s placement and color plays off the stair carpets. Well chosen is the color oyster grey, in one of the public rooms where the trimming is pure white and one wall is adorned with a sensational series of white framed inserts of small photos.Perfect design everywhere made guests aware of how perfection could add to any venue.
Each morning brought more gushing from us since one doesn’t get tired of beauty. Even the slight sprinkling of rain drops seemed to be a great background for a film. The short spray couldn’t keep us from walking to the heated pool and one of the only private beaches on the island.
The staff was in a class of its own. There was nothing that you asked for that couldn’t be done. ..phone for a dinner reservation at one of the top restaurants in the center-done. Ask where to find great Italian linens or the famed designed jewelry (I disclose this fact that since I also write about jewelry and openly admit that it is an occupational hazards) – and of course, a few suggestions although there are so many jewelry shops in the city, one wonders if there are more than even leather wear stores. Need a lift to the city? The hotel’s shuttle service is always available to take you down the hill for the approximately 5 minute trip and then meets you for pick up whenever you call or have pre planned.
And we learned that on ‘never on Sunday’ applies to Capri. There are masses of day trippers and cruise liners from Naples that it becomes elbow to elbow along the streets and square. One Sunday while we were there, 20,000 tourists had descended here, making it an ideal day to return to J.K. as quickly as possible.
It was pure joy to return to a cup of great coffee, sit on the terrace watching the activity at the Marina Grande and know that J.K. Place would offer us the serenity and the warm greeting on the return from all our excursions.
So for Shaenea, I thank her for suggesting this small, exquisite truly boutique hotel with the finest staff and decor that made me want to return home and renovate my house.
For more information contact Barbara3@rogers.com
by Barbara Kingstone
“Naples, you’re going to that city of crime and mugging?” I was asked by a friend. It wasn’t defiance that my spouse and I had decided to return after decades but to visit a city that had history, surrounded by sparkling water. O.k. I left my jewellery at home but now having been there, it certainly wasn’t necessary. However, all that talk about crime so over done. It just is not so. Of course, I’m sure it exists in various parts of this large city but that’s true in every major city in the world. It’s just a matter of thinking smart.
What we discovered was a very civilized destination, absolutely beautiful old ruins, great shopping and informative trips on the “On/Off buses, especially the coastal trip. What is so very impressive- better still skilful – is even though the traffic is as bad as it could get, cars buses and trucks squeezing into a inch of space,there was little honking. More clever drivers were those on the thousands of motorcycles and bikes that whizzed this way and that, nerve making for any foreign onlooker but very natural to the locals.
However,that said, after a long flight to Rome then the train to Naples, we hit the golden target with our hotel, The Excelsior Hotel. The location can’t be beat. At a corner, it overlooks the marina,seaside promenade, ancient monuments and well known mountains like Vesuvius and the facility to walk to transportation, cafes, the Galleria and other notable cited sites.
The lobby of the Excelsior Hotel is the perfect introduction of what to expect. Grand in the most traditional way yet still with all the modern conveniences. This massive entrance with the always present and helpful concierge and luggage handlers, gives way to a small, discreet reception area with the very well informed staff. And one can’t overlook the amazing slightly curved staircase with the marble balustrades and ancient bust.
If the walls of this century old building could tell tales, they’d be gossiping about the aristocrats, royals, celebrities who have stayed in this regal oasis in the heart of the city. This isn’t usually the case. One has to go far out of the core to get the serenity but The Excelsior exceeds in the quietude. A great addition is the view the top floor’s intimate outdoor small La Terrazza Bar which by 5PM is always filled, to the turn of the century charm of the rooms. The grandeur is in being there with the stunning Murano glass chandelier, the burnt orange striped damask padded silk walls, the completely redone sizeable fine brownish marble bathroom. That said, any sprinkle of water on those shiny luxe marble flooring would have a guest take a terrible tumble. After all, Naples is not the city one wants to spend in an emergency hospital rooms. What is so unusual in older buildings is the availability of handicapped accessible rooms and The Excelsior has one. The balcony off the room offered a view of the marina and not until we crossed the small bridge did we discover a village of some of the city’s finest restaurants, all bustling with locals, usually with freshly caught fish as their secondi after the pasta order. However, if you’re exhausted after a day of sight seeing, then the hotel restaurant has a perfect menu even for the fussiest eater.
Breakfast was always a treat to be able to sit outdoors and just stare at the marvellous view.
The name Excelsior is perfect. In Latin it means the best and it is.
Address via Partenope 48
For more information contact Barbara3@rogers.com