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NEWS Four Seasons Resort Hvar to open in 2019

The resort island of Hvar in Croatia has long been a spot where the Euro-elite like to holiday. So it is good news that the illustrious Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts are planning to open a resort here in 2019. The resort will be located on the waterfront at Brizenica Bay on the sparsely populated Kabal Peninsula just north of the historic town of Stari Grad,  home of one of Croatia's seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the Stari Grad Plain. The luxury development built by Arqaam Capital will feature a 120-room Four Seasons hotel and a luxury residential community including 60 Four Seasons Private Residences ranging in size from one and two bedroom residences to three to five bedroom villas. The resort will have its own private bay; multiple swimming pools and private infinity pools; a state-of-the-art spa and fitness centre; a selection of restaurants, cafes, bars and retail boutiques; and conference and banqueting facilities. Riad Meliti, Chief Executive Officer of Arqaam Capital, commented, “We are creating a natural retreat within a stunning, secluded enclave in one of the Dalmatian Coast’s most beautiful and private bays. Four Seasons was the natural choice for us as they share our commitment to elegance, unrivalled service and luxury. They have a long history, a strong and undiluted brand and an uncompromising dedication to the highest standards.” www.fourseasons.com


NEWS Crystal Cruises takes to the air in April

Crystal Cruises has revealed the newest addition to its fleet, not a new ship but a luxuriously outfitted Bombardier Global Express XRS jet.   The lavish aircraft will enter service on April 3 and accommodate just 12 guests in what promises to guests offering the option to fly privately on their Crystal vacation. It is also envisaged that the jet will be used by businesses. The aircraft has been refitted with three spacious cabins, designated as areas for business activities, relaxation and sleeping quarters. The forward cabin boasts four wide club seats with foldout tables; mid cabin is configured for conferences, with seating for five; the aft cabin has a three-person divan that can be transformed to a large bed. There is also a galley with an oven, microwave and Aerolux Nespresso machine. “Crystal Luxury Air will open tremendous possibilities for luxury travellers seeking the next level of ease and exclusivity during their journeys,” says Crystal president and CEO, Edie Rodriguez. 
 Chartered flights aboard Crystal’s Global Express jet are now available for booking and will fly guests virtually anywhere in the world, with a max flight range at just under 12 hours per leg. The line also intends to add a Boeing 777 to its fleet in 2017 and 787 Dreamliner in 2018.  Crystal Cruises has recently embarked on a massive expansion program, including a river line scheduled to debut in July 2016, Crystal Yacht Cruises which is currently underway and three new ocean ships in 2018. Hence its new marketing slogan, "All Exclusive”. 
www.crystalcruises.com, www.wiltrans.com.au

NEWS Chef Mangan aboard the Eastern & Oriental
Belmond has partnered with leading Australian chef and restauranteur, Luke Mangan. To dish up contemporary menus aboard the Eastern & Oriental Express Asia’s most luxurious train With 19 restaurants and key partnerships with cruise lines, an airline and now a train, Luke Mangan has firmly established himself as a leading figure on the international culinary scene. Alongside E &O’s Executive Chef, Yannis Martineau, Luke Mangan, and his team based in Singapore, will showcase his considerable culinary skills as they serve up their signature clean and fresh menus aboard the train.  In Singapore passengers can als  join Luke for a morning tour of the food market before boarding the train for a  three day, two night journey that will travel through Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. Once on board the train, Luke will meet with guests as well as hosting a book signing of his latest book ‘Salt Grill, Fine Dining for the whole family’. On day two of the journey, Luke takes up the challenge of serving the specially created menus from the train’s galley kitchens to guests in the elegant dining cars.
The first hosted journey takes place on 28th October 2016 from Singapore to Bangkok on board the Eastern & Oriental Express train in Asia.
www.belmond.com
NEWS Cook Islands spread the love

A new creative identity for the Cook Islands is aimed at distinguishing it from all its beach-and-palm-tree island neighbours. An eye catching new logo (think bright pink, turquoise and navy) tells us to “love a little paradise”. We’re pretty enamoured of the unspoilt Cook Islands any way so no problem there but the emphasis here is also on ‘little’ because one of the charms of the Cook Islands is that size-wise you can get round. Add to this the rise of a number of exclusive and luxurious properties (but not too many) - and we think this one is a no-brainer. The tagline was “inspired by the beauty of the landscape and the innocent, earthy and playful character of the people of the Cook Islands.” www.sale.cookislands.travel, www.airnewzealand.com.au

NEWS Azamara Quest sails into Sydney

Australia’s astounding harbour is a popular port for international cruising ,no wonder then that more cruise lines are choosing to base a ship or two in Australian waters. Boutique cruise brand Azamara Club Cruises, Australia’s newest resident cruise line, will make its maiden call to Sydney when the 686-passenger Azamara Quest arrives on Thursday 14 January 2016. "Since its inception in 2009 our destination-focussed cruise line has proved very popular with Australian cruisers in Asia and Europe – so we are delighted to finally welcome Azamara Club Cruises to Australian waters for the very first time”, said Adam Armstrong, regional commercial director.

Guests sailing on board Azamara Quest will have longer or more overnight stays in some of the most unique and interesting destinations around Australia and New Zealand.  They will also be treated to to a signature, AzAmazing Evening event during each cruise that showcases the destination. www.azamaraclubcruises.com

NEWS A new restaurant for Grand Resort Bad ragaz

Three-Michelin-star chef, Andreas Caminada, will be opening his new restaurant, Igniv, at Grand Resort Bad Ragaz in time for Christmas on 16th December 2015.  Igniv, means ‘nest’ in the ancient Graubünden language of Rhaeto-Romanic, and the concept is to create a space where guests share  culinary ecperiences in a warm and friendly atmosphere. Andreas Caminada is known for his vision and innovation within the culinary world so this new restaurant promises to be good.  A native of Switzerland’s Graubünden region (which faces Grand Resort Bad Ragaz across the Rhine). The new restaurant will allow guests to experience an entirely different gastronomic concept to that of his current restaurant Schloss Schauenstein in Fürstenau. Igniv’ s philosophy will be based on the idea of sharing and coming together to enjoy and share exquisite cuisine, creating a more social experience for guests. The menu is also designed to fit into this concept, with meals consisting of either 14 or 18 different sharing plates. “We want to bring people together around the table, to get them eating together, speaking to each other, sharing ideas while enjoying some of the same meals and dishes,” said Andreas Caminada. www.resortragaz.ch

NEWS Hamburg gets a new five star hotel

Hamburg is to have its first new five star hotel in 18 years.  October 2016 sees the debut of The Fontenay,  a 131-room contemporary hotel on the  banks of Lake Alster. The Euro 100 million project is designed by Hamburg architect, Jan Störmer (of Störmer Murphy and Partners) who has envisioned sculpture-like architecture that mirrors the fluid lines of the lake and surrounding parkland. The aim is to make The Fontenay an urban oasis, creating the perfect balance between the natural and the urban. Featuring a gleaming façade of white ceramic tiles, the hotel evolves from three fusing circles that form two interior open spaces, including the impressive 27m high atrium, which will be flooded with natural daylight.  The rooms and suites will have lake views parquet wood flooring, with 2.6m high ceilings. A rooftop bar will be the perfect place to watch the sun set over the city. www.thefontenay.de.


MORE ON THE GORGEOUS FALAKNUMA PALACE LUXURY HOTEL
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Lunch by the private pool

One happy family staying at Taj‘s luxury hilltop hotel outside Hyderabad, Falaknuma Palace, was so happy with the 60-room beauty that they extended their four-suite booking twice, cutting out Delhi. The gal can understand. This is a theatre that just feels right. After yet another early start and lots of driving and flying, lunch was needed. A room service meal, specially designed, just fitted the bill. It was set out on the balcony of 203, the two-floor Nizam Suite. Lightly-poached halibut, resting atop a mixed salad with baby asparagus, was cooked absolutely à point.


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Versace china

The Nizam Suite is top of a brilliant class, here. Downstairs there is an octagonal salon, with Indian and other antiques. The central circular dining table is set, with Versace porcelain – the hotel’s interior designer is Ruya Muan, cousin of the palace’s current owner, London-based Princess Esra Jahl, first – of five – wives of the current Nizam, His Exalted Highness Rustam-i-Dauran, Arustu-i-Zaman, Wal Mamaluk, Asaf Jah VIII, Muzaffar ul-Mamaluk, Nizam ul-Mulk, Nizam ud-Daula, Nawab Mir Barakat ‘Ali Khan Bahadur, Sipah Salar, Fath Jang, Lieutenant-General, Faithful Ally of the British Government (born 1939, Harrow and LSE, ran a giant Australian sheep station but when all his wives sued him he fled to Turkey...). He seems to be out of the picture as far as Falaknuma is concerned


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The main pool

I am beginning to see why that family staying here has extended its stay. On my way to the gym I pass an ancient Japanese garden, being renovated. I skirt the main swimming pool, which looks like a basin along a winding river. A couple of bikinis are sunbathing and reading. This is a recovery, rejuvenating place but when you need education you can head for Hyderabad to learn its history, or stay here and simply walk the public areas. Look at early likenesses of visitors of yesteryear, of the calibre of Lord Curzon, 1903, a year before the celebrated Durbar; and the 1903 visit of a Russian Grand Duke, and the 1911 arrival of the Crown Prince of Germany.


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A beautifully-painted wall in the spa relaxation area

It is all too overwhelming, like trying to do a History PhD in one day. I will concentrate right now on feeling pampered, and head to the Jiva Spa, past a delicately-stencilled wall. One Canadian couple, on their fourth visit to this luxury hotel, are staying this time for a month, which would just allow one at least to check the spine titles of the books in the many libraries, and perhaps check out some of the sites in town. For me, I am merely staying put.

THE AMAZING LUXURY FALAKNUMA PALACE HOTEL
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Girish Seghal welcomes a new guest to his palace

There is only one way to arrive at Taj Falaknuma Palace, half an hour outside Hyderabad – by 19th century carriage. The gal is helped out of it, and one of this extraordinary luxury hotel’s lovely staff members offers a variety of soft drinks, all home-made and infused with cinnamon, or lemongrass. Then, as the newcomer, preceded by a turbaned flunkie bearing a traditional brass stave, mounts the 34 stone steps of the main outside staircase, fresh rose petals flutter down from an unseen hand.


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Looking up at the main building

You are immediately in another age, back in the late 19th century. It was 1884 when the Diwan to the 6th Nizam of Hyderabad asked London architect William Ward Marretti to design a palace in his favourite scorpion shape. The Diwan ran out of cash so in 1901 the Nizam, the world’s richest man, took the palace over (he used the amazing Jacob Diamond, now held by the Government of India and said to be worth $130 million, as a paperweight). The Nizam’s dining table, the world’s longest, at 108 feet total, seating 101 with perfect acoustics from one end to the other, is still there.


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Tea time

We preferred to sit on the front terrace of the 60-room hotel, and take traditional afternoon tea as we watched the view. A three-tiered tea stand held savouries through to sweet bites, both veggie and non-veg. Our choice of 12 teas, Silver Needle, from leaves of course, not bag, was poured from a long-spouted pot (the glorious floral china is bespoke). A Sufi group, playing assorted instruments in a wailing manner, had been booked but actually they are even better when you are fortified with a really stiff drink inside you.


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More arrivals

It is still daylight and we hear others arriving. We look over, to see the carriage disgorging incredulous first-timers. You can read all about this Taj-run luxury hotel forever but, even so, when you you are here, and you see it dominating atop 32 acres of mostly-barren hillside, you get a rush of adrenalin, and the instinctive urge to scream WOW...

MORE ON DELHI’S NEW-AGE LUXURY HOTELS
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Posing with the ‘other occupant’ of suite 545

The gal is always trying to find unusual photo poses, which turn into hotel memories. There was the hotel where kayaking was order of the day, that kind of thing… at Surajkund’s only luxury hotel, Vivanta Surajkund by Taj on the outskirts of Delhi, ‘someone’ was already waiting in suite 545, a 2,200 sq ft beauty with terraces. That someone was a lady who looked as if she had been contentedly lying there for centuries, so she made an ideal pose. The 287-room hotel had opened in 2009 as Claridges and it turned to Taj management in 2013.


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Figurines in 545

Why is this hotel unusual? Many hotels change management and brands, but this one is, regardless of who is in charge, rare because of its enormous overall footprint. Its lobby flows around an open central courtyard the size of two tennis courts. Flow from lobby and round and through the Oasis all-day restaurant and round again and you get back to where you started, which is as good exercise as going to the gym. Next feature. You are in India but many of the room decorations, chosen by the Bangkok-based firm PIA, seem more Thai – these little gold figurines in suite 545 are a case in point.


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Looking into the working pottery

There are shops down in that lobby walkaround, and one of them has been turned into a pottery studio. Three days a week a potter works there, and classes are held, and I am told by the hotel GM, Rajeev Khanna, that he plans a commercial pottery workshop in the hotel (the only other in-hotel pottery that instantly springs to mind is at Vivanta by Taj Madikeri, Coorg, and that is in the grounds rather than leading off the lobby). Rajeev Khanna tells me it was his grandfather, as Municipal Officer in Shimla, who had given permission for two hotels to be built, The Carlton, which subsequently became Oberoi‘s Clarkes, and the other Oberoi in town, The Cecil, where company scion MPS Oberoi started working as a clerk.


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Last night’s sunset, seen from 545

Rajeev Khanna had evolved this luxury hotel from Claridges to Vivanta, and he has been busily building up its wedding business. He had, earlier in his own working life, set up Taj’s butler programme (they were a new phenomenon in India then, he said). Although this hotel does not have formal butlers as such, the crew is remarkably well trained. My five o’clock breakfast was immaculate. I left before the sun I had seen set last night had time to get out of its own bed.

TOURING DELHI’S NEW-LOOK LUXURY HOTELS
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Each ‘pyramid’ shields a relax bed, in the spa

It is difficult to find design that is honestly different. The gal thinks back to the giant half-cloches that are in fact bankette seating in Restaurant Alain Ducasse, at one of Paris’ finest luxury hotels, Plaza-Athenée. Here in Delhi are what look like mini pyramids. Each provides a privacy screen for a heated bed – this is the relaxation room of the about-to-open Vivanta by Taj Dwarka. (Dwarka is at the end of one metro line, at the rear of Delhi international airport: it is one stop, three minutes, from the airport, and less than 20 minutes to downtown.)


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Bedrooms have origami ceilings, and bedheads ‘run around’ to become window seats and then desk tops

Dwarka is one of the growing IT and young achievers’ suburbs. Locals living nearby must be hungry for this hotel, which seems to have no competitors. Everyone will love the 1,000 foot-long building, six floors high, which the Japanese architects have made into one giant sculpture of unique geometric blocks. Similarly, Japanese designers have introduced origami elements to the 250 bedrooms. Ceilings and walls have fan-shaped parts, and a continuous wall line, at varying heights, runs from bedhead, underneath the window and all the way to the opposite wall, to form a long desk.


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Approach to Vivanta by Taj Surjkund...

I visited two Vivantas by Taj that day. From the sensational futurist Dwarka, it is over an hour’s drive to Surajkund, on Shooting Range Road near Tughlakabad Fort. The surroundings here are positively rural – I expected to see wild animals roaming – and there is no metro in sight. There is, however, an adjacent giant office block, with big international brands as tenants: it is owned by the Nanda family, who, via The Claridges Hotels & Resorts, also own the hotel (they ran it themselves until they brought in Taj, as management, in 2013).


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...and a feature in its vast, open-square, lobby

Outside the mughal-looking building is a line of fountains. And in the vast lobby of this somewhat unusual luxury hotel there is a water feature that, at night, turns into a candle-lit celebration. Why is this hotel unusual? Dear reader, you are about to find out.

BACK TO TAJ’S TOP LUXURY DELHI HOTEL
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Floral display just inside the door of suite 930

Flowers are more and more becoming differentiators in luxury hotels, and those in the Taj Mahal Delhi seem softer, and more delicate, than before. This is the arrangement just inside the main door of suite 930, an enormous and tastefully decorated Presidential Suite that has a jogger, running machine, in the office. How lovely, thought the gal. One can read about Lutyens while burning calories – unfortunately the three, yes three, pistachio-coloured tomes on Lutyens here on the capacious lined bookshelves are all coffee-table heavies, impossible to move.


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Satyajeet Krishnan, in the hotel lobby

I was dining with the GM, Satyajeet Krishnan, and as we walked down one of two, 35-step, curving staircases from lobby to lower level I noticed how a decorative water feature has been turned into a green-plant mini-garden. We were going down to Varg, the modern-Indian restaurant that gets much acclaim – and not only because designer Theo Nicolaou has incorporated a havali wall as you enter. I had a small tower of tangerine-infused black cod bites, and a plate of duck four-ways – and if they were to market the hot naan with camembert and truffles it would be a best seller.


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A harpist plays, evening long

We drank The Wolftrap 2013 from Boekenhoutskloof, Franschhoek, which made me think of a lovely sibling hotel, Taj Cape Town (one of the advantages of ILTMs, always same destination, roughly same time of year, is that they give me the chance always to be in certain places annually). I hear about the Ch Margaux dinner that was held here at the hotel, hosted by the vineyard’s owner, Corinne Mentzelopoulos, who inherited it from her Greek father. As we walk back up the stairs I am introduced to the harpist, new since my last visit.


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Presentation of today’s newspapers, outside your door

I love luxury hotels which are constantly upgrading themselves. Before, when staying here, I found a plethora of daily newspapers outside my door, and all the others. This time, I had satellited Financial Times and International New York Times in my rack. Taj Mahal Delhi is now hosting Christie’s first-ever Delhi office, and it is working with Delhi Art Fair. This March, there are sessions for the hotel’s Chambers Club members to talk with the Dalai Lama, and during the polo season it hosts in its own marquee at the Indian Polo Association and Army Polo and Riding Club’s Jaipur Polo Ground, ten minutes’ drive from the hotel.

WHAT AN AMAZING LUXURY HOTEL IN THE HIMALAYAS!
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View from the Lord Kitchener Suite

Oh what a view. No wonder, in the days of the Raj, the British would retreat up to the Himalayas, perhaps here, to the Simla (Shimla) area, to escape the heat, and admire the scenery. This is the view from room 545, the Lord Kitchener Suite, in one of Oberoi‘s luxury hotels, Wildflower Hall, at 8,692 feet above sea level. It is a gem, set in 22 acres, some of it cultivated but mostly left wild, blending in to the cypress forests around. Having arrived from the mist (for which read smog) of Delhi, the gal breathed in good, fresh, mountain air, again and again.


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Looking up at the hotel

The current six-floor hotel, with 87 bedrooms, opened in 2001 on the site of an earlier building that had been razed by fire eight years previously. Biki Oberoi led the design of the new construction, ensuring that it looked as authentically Raj as possible. It had been the Viceroy’s home and Kitchener came here for nine summers – it was he who planted the garden. Herbert Kitchener, born in northern Ireland in 1850, was a celebrated military tactician and leader, famed for winning the 1898 Battle of Omdurman.


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One of the photos of Kitchener in his eponymous suite

He then turned his attention from Sudan to South Africa‘s Boer War, and thence here to India, where unfortunately he did not see eye to eye with the current Viceroy, Lord Curzon. Anyway, Kitchener rose unstoppably to become, in turn, Baron Kitchener of Khartoum and Aspall (Suffolk); Viscount Kitchener of Khartoum, Vaal (Transvaal) and Aspall, and Earl Kitchener of Khartoum and Broome (Kent). In 1914, by now a Field Marshal, he was appointed Secretary of State for War and began preparing for a long war. Tragically he was one of 600 drowned in June 1916, when the cruiser HMS Hampshire sank west of the Orkneys (he was en route to Russia when the ship struck a mine).


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My fire is lit

Now, today, I am in the suite named for him, and I think how much he would have loved this luxury hotel. I have a real log fire, which is lit for me by one of kurta-wearing 250-strong team members, all of whom come from this area. I go to sleep accompanied by crackling wood …

MORE ON THE LUXURY WILDFLOWER HALL HOTEL
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Chefs await...

Netscape founder Marc Andreessen says he has drained all the unpredictability out of as much of his life as possible because the unpredictable parts are unpredictable enough. How could the gal have foreseen what a memorable day she was going to have at Oberoi‘s lovely Wildflower Hall hotel, here in the Himalayas? Dress warmly, and take a hike with the leader of the nine-strong highly-trained expedition leaders, up through the cedar forest to a clearing. Chefs await, in greeting.


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...as does an outside ‘suite’...

It is as if an outdoor suite has been prepared. I have a camp bed, and a bedside table with suitable books, including a guide to birds of India. I have a tent, with a double day-bed and pillows inside. In summer, apparently, this place is booked nearly every day, as couples and families savour the space, and bespoke food and drink. I trekked here via the Strawberry Trail, named because in season there are wild strawberries, and raspberries, along the way. Today I had merely learned, en route, how these cedars, indigenous to the Himalayas, change sex, and produce either all male, or all female, cones.


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...the chefs cook...

Butterfly-like seeds from a female cone are caught by a male cone, never from the same tree to avoid incest. I learned the areas of the Himalayas, too. In between I sneaked glances at the chefs, busy preparing lunch, with everything, except dessert, made here on the spot. First came beautifully-decorated bruschetta, then perfect Swiss rösti with two dipping sauces, one chicken, and one morel (somehow rösti seems so appropriate here in this alpine setting, I almost expect to hear cowbells at any moment).


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and I finish with pa’an icecream

And then comes dessert, a kitchen-made pa’an icecream, of betel leaves and rose petals. It was honestly one of the beautiful dessert tastes ever, but I had to laugh at the incongruity, eating icecream in near-zero temperatures. It was time to return to the warmth, in more ways than one, of my luxury hotel. We passed, coincidentally, the actual ice pit that Lord Kitchener had built, over a hundred years ago, to conserve winter ice for summer gins and tonics.

NEWS The Knickbocker New York opens today
The Knickerbocker in New York City re-opens its famous doors today (Thursday February 12) more than a hundred years after John Jacob Astor IV first built the hotel. Times Square has changed beyond recognition since the 16-story structure was first built. Then it stood out, now it is surrounded by high rises but the new hotel has lost none of the charm of the original. Outside the Beaux-Arts façade remains (One of the few left in NY) as do the original copper lion heads on the roof terrace. Inside the hotel there are 330 guest rooms, including 31 suites decorated designed by Gabellini Sheppard. We predict that the new 7,500-square-foot rooftop bar and terrace will attract the 21st century glitterati. New Yorkers will be heading there in droves to enjoy the astounding views of Times Square and New York City’s neon skyline. "We're embracing the hotel's original DNA, while simultaneously offering guests intuitive service and relevant luxury," says GM Jeff David said. "The Knickerbocker's history is something that most luxury hotels cannot offer”. See our report in NEW OPENINGS here.

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MORE ON CARTAGENA AND ITS TOP LUXURY HOTEL
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GM Richard Launay says welcome

Richard Launay, who runs Cartagena’s top luxury hotel, Santa Clara (a Sofitel Legend property), is there to greet the gal as she arrives for an all-too-short return visit to this fascinating city. on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Local architect José Alvaro Arias had the idea of converting an abandoned convent built 1617-1621 for Doña Catalina de Cabrera, who founded the Clarissan order (it later became a hospital). He brought in Accor as financial partner, and in 1949 work began on converting the building to a five-star hotel. Read about some of this, indeed, in the foreword to the fascinating Of Love and Other Demons by Nobel literary prizewinner Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Gabo), 1927-2014, who recounted, October 26th, 1949, being present when the crypt was being emptied.

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Standing on the glass panel in the breakfast room

The splendid 122-room hotel, designed by, and still 80 percent owned by, José Alvaro Arias opened in 1995, since when it has continued to add features that make it even more an essential part of the community. There are still many signs of its past. I put my foot on a glass panel in the floor of the El Claustro restaurant, once the convent bakery and kitchen. Look down, to a well below. The other restaurant, 1621 (for the convent opening), has original bare walls, a reminder that this was the nuns’ refectory. Whereas then they presumably ate their humble fare in silence, today diners enjoy French food with a Colombian twist, with a choice of over 250 wine labels. But this is not necessarily a place to put on weight.

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Detail of a uniform

As well as a 24/7 Lifefitness gym, there are big stone staircases offering 64 steep steps from ground to fifth-floor rooftop. I mentioned how Richard Launay’s DNA is one of incessant improvement. He has upgraded the eight-room Sisley spa significantly – it is world-class – and is bringing in nutritional food items, as suggested by Marisa Berenson, for Sofitel generally. Top Colombian stylist Lina Cantillo has designed fashion wear for the 320 employees, and she adapted embroideries shown on 17th century oil paintings of convent Mother Superiors. See, therefore, the embroidery on a butler’s waistcoat vest (doormen here, by the way, are also in all-white, with open wicker-work top hats).

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Botero statue in the indigenous courtyard garden

This luxury hotel now has a premium Botero Suite, named for Colombian sculptor Fernando Botero and designed by his daughter, Ina Botero, who is one of the many famous names who lives in Cartagena. There is a Botero sculpture, indeed, in the hotel’s commendably indigenous garden, which warrants yet another story.

LUXURY TRAVEL TIP – A BIT OF NOSTALGIA NEVER HURTS
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Early 1920s Rolls-Royce outside Brown’s Hotel

The gal was walking along London’s Albemarle Street not long ago and just outside Brown’s Hotel, where she ran into Sir Rocco Forte‘s sister Olga Polizzi busy taking carpets out of the lounge (she put in hardwood parquet, instead) there was a rather splendid car.

This is a Rolls-Royce, and suitably parked outside a hotel, for Mr Rolls first met Mr Royce in a hotel – the Midland in Manchester, to be exact, and in 1904, the year after the hotel opened, with only one connecting room for its 600 rooms, all of which had coal fireplaces but bathrooms had to be shared. What IS this particular Rolls, I asked? It is early 1920s, I was told, and it is being used to promote Mr Selfridge, the television series co-produced by ITV and Masterpiece/WBGH. It tells the story of Harry Gordon Selfridge and his London department store on Oxford Street (it is now owned by the Weston family, who also own the equally massive Primark just across the road). Mr Selfridge has been running nearly two years in both the UK and North America. I just wish I had time to watch television, because the early 20th century is just a fascinating period. But to keep girlahead, I must keep on travelling – for you.

FASHION, AND CARTAGENA’S SIGNATURE LUXURY HOTEL
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Fruit sellers in Cartagena

But there are many unique experiences in Cartagena, Colombia’s famous Caribbean city which still has six miles of its original defensive walls, built 1605 to 1805 with limestone hauled from 15 miles or more. Stay in the the iconic Santa Clara (Sofitel Legend) luxury hotel in the San Diego part of the Old Town, perhaps in its top Botero Suite, breakfast in the indigenous garden in its inner courtyard, lie by its lovely outdoor pool and then take a stroll through the narrow streets around. You will undoubtedly pass ladies in fabulous local dress, says the gal.



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St Dom is full of highly-covetable fashion and treasures

You might, however, miss St Dom unless you know about this sensational new boutique (it is at Calle Santo Domingo 33-70). Here you find pieces by Amelia Toro, POLITE, Kika Vargas, Johanna Ortiz, Andrea Landa, Caffe, Flor Amazona, Mercedes Salazar and Suki Cohen, and many more, plus racks of colour Azulu beach-type gear.It is honestly one of those shops, winding as it does around an inner courtyard, that engages the senses, and your credit card. Were I not travelling, as always, with hand-baggage only, I would indeed be tempted.

I coincided at St Dom with its owners, Maya Memovic and Alex Srour, who were fortunately visiting from Bogota, where they are based – they already own the Azulu fashion stores both in the Colombian capital and here, in Cartagena.



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Maya Memovic and Alex Srour

I would certainly put St Dom into the category of a must-visit, for anyone coming to Cartagena (the concierges and butlers at Santa Clara can show you how to find the treasurehouse of design, and also, if you want to dine away from the hotel, La Vitrola, or go for seafood at Marea, by Hermanos Rausch). We drove though the upping-trendy Getsemani area of town, passing some of the most famous hole-in-the-wall dance venues of the calibre of Havana and Quiebracanto.

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The car had cooling towels and snacks


Then, sadly, it was time to leave Santa Clara, truly one of the top luxury hotels in the world. I was sent back to Silver Cloud in a car with nibbles, water wrapped in perfumed linen, and satellite versions of today’s Financial Times and the New York Times. What more can a travelling girl want?

BACK TO COLOMBIA AND ITS SIGNATURE LUXURY HOTEL
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Beach vendors at Santa Marta

Santa Marta, Colombia, is one of those ports of call that are best visited by a luxury cruise ship. The gal enjoyed her short stay but it was over a hundred degrees that day and humidity must have been over 80 percent. No-one was moving very fast. Some of the passengers onboard Silver Cloud opted to stay onboard and watch the mesmerizing container port operation. A line of trucks drove in bearing full-size containers, picked off as if by magnetic mega-pincers and put on top of a growing stack, one per minute. The only vendors doing any business in town were those selling cold drinks or ice cream.



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Pop-up hairbraiding salon, Santa Marta


There was considerable business, too, at the hair-braiding stations, kind of pop-ups with a few braiding ladies sitting in the shade and plaiting tresses into imaginative styles. I wandered a little and found one hotel, the Colonial, with some guys hanging around outside it. Santa Marta, with a population of 425,000, is the third largest town of Caribbean Colombia – after Barranquilla and Cartagena – and pretty much a hanging-around kind of place. It does have considerable history, however: the oldest city in Colombia, it was founded July 29th, 1525 by Spanish conquistador Rodrigo de Bastidas, and Simón Bolívar (full name Simón José Antonio de la Santíssima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco), born in Caracas 1783, died here, December 17th, 1830.


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Sunrise as we sail into Cartagena

But then, the following morning, we sailed into Cartagena and, after three years away, it was like coming home, although Cartagena has achieved an even greater international following in the intervening years. It has an annual Hay Festival Cartagena, an offshoot of the Hay on Wye literary event – the next, its tenth showing,January 29th – February 1st, 2015, features Javier Cercas, Steven Pinker and dozens of other writers (sponsors include the BBC, the British Council and The Telegraph – and the beautiful and historic Santa Clara Sofitel Legend here in Cartagena).



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A sea of white vessels, including the super Silver Cloud

Many of the participants will be staying at what is without doubt the top luxury hotel in Cartagena, if not in Colombia. I am on my way there right now… Silver Cloud moors in one of the city’s marinas, and joins what looks like a sea of white vessels. I am met by butler Rudi, in pristine white.

LUXURY TRAVEL TIP, REVEL IN ANY HEALTHY-FOOD FIND
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The Counter’s burger, on salad rather than a bun

It only seemed like a couple of years ago that you could not find anything other than artificial junk to eat at US airports. But, thank goodness for the gal’s sake, the situation has improved dramatically.

The other day, at Miami, I found the Premium (=Oneworld) lounge does not open until 1300 so thanks to a helpful buggy driver, I was directed to a fabulous build-your-own burger outlet, The Counter. You order from a tick-box sheet on a clipboard, Bun (choose type, adding $1.75 for gluten-free) or salad base (choose type), choose protein for patty (the beef is 100% natural Angus, hormone- and antibiotic-free), want cheese (which of eight types?)? Add fries, sweet potato fries, avocado, tomato and so on. Choose a sauce. I was with a friend and our bill for two came to $40 and well worth every cent.

Simply Sunday. Life is getting better in some respects, especially when it comes to airport eating.

HELLO TO ARUBA AND ITS TOP LUXURY HOTEL
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A black swan swims up to three newly-laid eggs

There was big excitement at Aruba Hyatt Regency Resort & Casino, the premier luxury hotel on the island’s westerly Palm Beach. The day the gal arrived for a visit, one of a pair of black swans that patrol the water-feature outside the main restaurant had laid three eggs. Let us hope at least one of the eggs hatches satisfactorily. This is an extremely successful hotel, packed out, with rates more than trebled over Christmas and New Year, when minimum stay is five nights (WiFi is free, by the way). Including many children, there must have been over a thousand staying at the 357-room hotel.


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A toucan watches

There is so much to do. Loved the Kadushi – ‘cactus’ juice and smoothie bar, where whatever you want is squeezed in front of you. My favourites were papaya in paradise, a smoothie of mango and papaya, and also a cool vibes concoction of celery, spinach, cucumber, lime and yoghurt. There are strict notices asking you not to feed the resident toucans, by the way (yes, I said there was a lot to do here, including a 24/7 Precor gym and tennis, and nearby golf, and just generally deciding which restaurant to frequent and if you cannot make up your mind, head for the Shoco to-go...).


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Seen on a kids’ club wall

I was impressed by the ZoiA spa, where the five treatment rooms have inner-lit circular basins that glow in the dark.

There is an indoor games room, with car-simulators and many other gadgets that youngsters enjoy when they are bored of the sun.

Camp Hyatt at Camp Watapana, promoted by a mythical pair, Johnny and Jenny Venture, is super, too, with an outdoor playground and, inside, walls covered with stylised maps, of Aruba and the USA.

Educational fun is so much more valuable than just messing around.


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This blow-up ‘cake’ holds a multi-kid trampoline

So parents pay for their kids, and they can pay themselves to have a beach palapa as shelter from the blazing sun – opt for renting ahead, or the less-expensive first-come-first-served, which presumably is the best option if and when this luxury hotel is running low occupancy, which means almost never, as 2014 closed at an average 87 percent, up seven points on 2013...

VIENNA’S NEWEST LUXURY HOTEL
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Park Hyatt Vienna

Right to the east of Vienna‘s famous Am Hof square is the city’s newest luxury hotel, Park Hyatt Vienna. As this people-free photo shows, it is a splendid building, put up in 1913 as headquarters for Niederôsterreichische (Lower Austria) Escompte Gesellschaft. It is thanks to an under-40 entrepreneur, René Banko, that it has metamorphosed into a fabulous hotel, surrounded by many neighbouring Goldenes Quartier buildings, also undergoing the Banko botox. Because of its imposing exterior, says the gal, Park Hyatt Vienna, which opened June 1st 2014, already looks a vital part of the city.


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The hotel’s outer lobby

Go into the outer lobby and actually it looks as you would like a bank to look, but of course banks nowadays do not look anything as stylish as this. The designers who have transformed the building are two guys, working as FG Stijl and based in Amsterdam, and for public areas they have made the hotel into one big swirl, a kind of updated Vienna waltz. I actually wanted to dance around, both the marbled main lobby and up eight carpeted steps to the mezzanine lobby. Dance further up and you get to the gloriously panelled meeting rooms that shows how opulent were the surroundings of those bankers of Austria a century ago – one meeting room even has a bust of a suitable financial potentate.


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The ballroom (Grand Salon), Gobelin tapestry at far end

The Grand Salon ballroom is one of two features here that really make me say wow. Look at the room, its tall ceiling inset with gold and coloured patterned panels, more geometric than freeform cartouche. At the very far end, visible in the photo, is a giant and genuine Gobelin tapestry, that acts as backcloth for business meetings, of which there are many, and high-society weddings and special events. This New Year’s Eve, the first for the hotel, it has been taken for a private party, oh wow. I just love this room.




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The Bank restaurant has an open kitchen

This glorious luxury hotel also has one of the most memorable airy restaurants in Europe, simply called The Bank. It is a conversion of the original cashiers’ hall, and the infrastructure has been retained. Tall marble columns go to the high-high ceiling, with its clear-storey windows original stained glass – as Palladio said, a big space requires a high ceiling. What has been added is a show kitchen, to one side, and it blends perfectly. There is a chef’s table near to it, but that night, most diners were seated three steps down, in the central part of the entirety. And, you will undoubtedly ask, what about the food? Well, since I was with the triathlete and super-fit GM Monique Dekker, you can bet your bottom dollar, or euro, that it would be ‘my kinda food’…

CHRISTMAS MARKETS ARE EXTRA BENEFIT FOR LUXURY HOTELS
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A decoration stall at Vienna’s Am Hof market…

Christmas is a special time for a myriad of reasons, and those luxury hotels that are close to a public Christmas market benefit substantially, says the gal. In London, Winter Wonderland, which runs until January 4th, 2015, includes a Ferris wheel, ice-skating, a circus – and shopping. Winter Wonderland is at the south-east corner of Hyde Park. The nearest hotel on the east side of Park Lane is InterContinental London Park Lane, or choose Four Seasons Park Lane, Hilton London Park Lane, 47 Park Lane or The Dorchester. Just south of Hyde Park Corner is the Wellesley, and if you do not want to cross any roads, or take sometimes sordid underpasses, try Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park.




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.. sponsored by Radio Wien

Toronto’s Christmas Market runs through December 21st at the Distillery Historic District – its sponsors include American Express, and Fairmont Royal York has a special overnight package which has tickets for mulled wine and a performance of A Christmas Carol. This market supplies Christmas gift boxes to tens of thousands of needy kids, via The Toronto Star Santa Claus Fund. In Vienna, I was particularly impressed by the market in Am Hof, which is sponsored by Radio Wien. It seemed the world and his wife, and kids in pushchairs, were out to enjoy themselves (and as I said the other day, Viennese seem to spend all day long eating and drinking).



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Go for meat …

What is the history of the Christmas market, also known variously as Christkindlmarkt, Marché de Noël, Christkindlesmarkt, Christkindlmarket, and Weihnachtsmarkt? They started way back. Munich’s was first mentioned in the year 1310, and Frankfurt’s in 1393. A year ago I was impressed by a Berlin market, at Potsdamerplatz (most convenient hotel is Ritz-Carlton Berlin) – I was in town for the Relais & Châteaux meeting, which I sadly missed this year (hint, please make sure, someone, that I have the 2015 event in my diary as soon as possible.





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.. and/or potatoes

This market, at Am Hof in Vienna, is perfectly complemented by the city’s newest luxury hotel, Park Hyatt Vienna, which I am going to visit next. In the interim, there is a perfect excuse to wander the square, looking at the stalls selling hot gluhwein or beer – these are the most popular stands, but there are also crowds around potato stands, with everything from fries and crisps through to baked potatoes. Sausages? Every kind you can imagine, and when finally you get tired of fillin’ the stomach, you can start buying Christmas presents, say home-made leather goods or even Indian carpets, which do seem a little incongruous in this environment.

BACK AT A SIGNATURE VIENNA LUXURY HOTEL
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A table of bon-bons awaits

What a blissful change to go into the stylish Hotel Bristol Vienna luxury hotel and not find it decked with holly, or at least the modern version thereof. No, says the gal, here Gerald Krischek, who runs the hotel, has put collections of capped glass bowls around for anyone to take a bite of the bon-bon that most appeals. Frankly, anything that is different stands out. Who wants another tree, sort of thing..





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The new reception desk

The hotel’s interiors have been re-done, top to bottom, by Pierre Yves Rochon. Think of the versatility of that guy. In London about five years ago he was working simultaneously on the re-build of Four Seasons Park Lane and on The Savoy. He is like a medical consultant who can concentrate on arms and legs at the same time. Here, he has put a stylish curved reception desk into an oval space. Behind the desk are well-illuminated shelves of Lobmeyr glass. The owners wanted the long-established Korso restaurant behind to be banqueting.



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The Bristol Lounge has a real log fire

No way, suggested Mr R. First, the arriving guest should be able to look, from Kärntner Ring, through the main lobby, the reception lobby and then a restaurant to what will be a Winter Garden in the pedestrian passage behind. And if the Bristol thought anyone would be enticed upstairs to the existing mezzanine restaurant, they were wrong. So he won. The former upstairs restaurant is now magnificent suites, and downstairs is the sensational all-day Bristol Lounge, with plush carpeting, a real log fire – the only one in a Vienna hotel – and, down each side, six smoky glass mirrors so if you are facing the wall, you see, reflected, what is going on behind you.


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Bristol salad

That plush carpeting means you cannot, perhaps annoyingly, hear any of the fascinating conversations at neighbouring tables. Music is soft soul: as Gerald Krischek, GM of this luxury hotel, says, after a performance at the Opera House, a mere hundred yards away, taped classical would be anathema. Already, Vienna’s A-listers use this as their regular meeting place, coming, say, for a Bristol salad with bacon-wrapped soft cheese, followed by Wienerschnitzel, and Schlumberger Privat Keller 2011, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot

THE TOP LUXURY DESTINATION RESORT IN GREECE, AND A LUXURY HOTEL
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Sunset at Costa Navarino, from its main building

Arriving at sunset at any luxury hotel can be breathtaking but, says the gal, how about THIS? After a three hour-drive west south-west from Athens, the car pulled up to the ‘main building’ of The Romanos, a Luxury Collection resort that is part of Costa Navarino, the premier mixed-use development in the Peloponnese if not in all of Greece, even all of south-eastern Europe. The entrance to the main building is actually on the fifth floor. The ‘lobby’, to give it a name, is open front, and back, so you look through, down over the resort, although it is getting dark, and out to sea and the sunset. This must have been the view that inspired the much-loved sea-faring ‘the Captain’ (Vassilis Constantakopoulos) to spend two decades buying up small parcels of land, one by one, until he had enough for his vision.


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A courtyard turned into a covered restaurant, for a car launch
dinner-for-450

Costa Navarino, the 2,500-acre complex put together by the Captain is now run by his son, Achilles Constantakopoulos – it has two golf courses, a serious spa, squash and tennis and the Ionian Sea. The Romanos has 321 rooms and its adjacent Westin Costa Navarino has 445 rooms, which means they can do ‘big events’. Tonight, as every night for nine weeks, the village square that the two hotels share has been roofed over for a spectacular dinner and show to launch a car. Yes, the same format, every night, six nights a week, for nine weeks, the car re-wrapped to be unveiled to a fresh batch of 450 eager-beaver car sales directors and media.



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Olive oil martini

I watch from afar, amazed at the efficient organisation and planning that has gone into this. Today’s car guests in fact stay 26 hours, arrive before lunch, leave after lunch tomorrow but dining separately from tomorrow’s guests (today’s vacated their rooms after breakfast, so their rooms could be tidied). I, however, am not dining with 449 others but with Michel Cottray, who runs both resorts. We head to Flame, in the golf club, and start with olive oil martinis, yes really – and what a divine taste. Pure olive oil, Navarino’s own, is blended with green apple and cucumber purée, Greek Mastika liquor and gin. Made me feel even better.


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Olive wood platters, ready for food

This is a lovely restaurant, with the kitchen running all the way along its long side. Main decoration is an assortment of olive wood platters, used for everything. Even a salad comes on a platter. I wonder how they are going to serve breakfast eggs? The evening ends with a buggy ride wending down to my stunning villa, 1307, one of six at this luxury resort that is right down on the seashore but with its own beach…

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