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GIRL AHEAD

Our girl about the globe Mary Gostelow
reports from the luxury front line

THE BEAUTIFUL-LUXURY BEL-AIR HOTEL
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Denise Flanders, 8.30pm

There is something REALLY special about a personal welcome. The gal can quite understand some over-rushed and over-stressed road warriors wanting it impersonal – check in and open your bedroom door with your smartphone. But, really, in a true luxury hotel having a true welcome makes all the difference. And to arrive at one of the most elegantly tasteful hotels in the USA, the Hotel Bel-Air Los Angeles, and find its boss, Denise Flanders, waiting outside at 8.30 pm was beyond the call of duty.



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Welcome to the hotel

I am here, for a quick overnight, for a special task – of which more anon. The welcome, meanwhile, goes on and on. An eager young Hollywood could-be is with his boss, and he oh so kindly asks what I need. As all always-travelling ladies experience from time to time, there is a minor emergency. I have broken a nail. No problem. Mr Could-Be Hollywood appears in a few minutes with a brand new pair of clippers that he must have rushed off to buy. He will also make sure that my copy of the Financial Times is waiting before I leave tomorrow at seven (well, ALMOST 12 hours in this lovely hotel, but my life, anyway, is quality rather than quantity).


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Such an elegant suite, with butterflies on the walls

I am escorted to my room via a garden with exquisite flowers and swans on the river. Elegance and taste are the best descriptions for designer Alexandra Champalimaud‘s interiors, here. She has always come up with such memorable designs, say the bar at Claridge’s in London, and the inner Two-E lounge at The Pierre, New York. Look at the simplicity of suite 395 at the Hotel Bel-Air Los Angeles. The champagne colours and sleek lines whisper crèpe de chîne and, in the ghastly old days of still-smoking, six-inch ivory cigarette holders and strings of pearls below the navel.



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Even the shower is gorgeous

Even the shower is gorgeous – and how many luxury hotels' showers are worth writing home about, and photographing? It is such a simple idea. Put in a mosaic of shapes that echo the stalk of the pristine orchid elsewhere in the room, and add Anne Sémonin toiletries, big size of course, and I wish I did have a crèpe de chîne robe. Even better, however, is the blue and white striped hotel nightshirt, in softest cotton. Put this on and I am all ready for ‘the task in hand'…

LUXURY TRAVEL TIP, KEEP FIT AT AIRPORT
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Subterranean walkway, Heathrow Terminal Five

The gal always loved Atlanta Hartsfield as there they allow you to forsake the between-terminals train in favour of a hearty walk, with assorted museum exhibits along the way.


When Heathrow T5 opened you could originally see elevator buttons down to level -4 (the inter-satellite train goes from -2). Then those buttons were covered up. Now they have been uncovered. Great news, fit citizens of the world unite. You can now WALK between the terminal’s main, A block, and its B and C satellites. Enter the walkway at A, or B or C. Last time I flew into satellite C, I made my way straight down to the walkway. There are people-movers but if you want the best workout, walk the whole way. It takes about 12 minutes walking fast and it is great exercise, and also save you being cooped up in a train with goodness knows what germs… well done British Airways for instigating this and, I never thought I would say this, well done Heathrow!

AND NOW FOR QUITO AND ITS LUXURY HOTELS
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Mango sorbet at Swissôtel Quito’s La Locanda

Sometimes it is the little things about luxury hotels that make them stand out – sometimes there is one main memory, sometimes more. Swissôtel Quito fits into the latter category. Take the food. Some dishes, says the gal, were absolutely outstanding. A simple mango sorbet was one of the best in the world, served with great passion in the hotel’s Italian restaurant, La Locanda (the hotel’s top chef, Maurizio DiMunno, is Milanese). Unusually, for a 240-room central city hotel, there are no fewer than seven eating venues.




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Gino Casagrande

This is because the hotel’s owners know they cannot raise room rates, which are far lower than they would like. They need, therefore, to find other ways of making money. Hotel GM Gino Casagrande says he has over 400 outside members of the hotel’s lower-floor health club, which has an indoor-outdoor pool, a two-floor gym and a 13-room spa. Year-round he has lots of meetings in the hotel, and there are four annual party times, Christmas, New Year, Mother’s Day and December 6th, celebrating the day in 1534 when Quito was founded (this turns into a week-long celebration).


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View, with mist temporarily in a valley

Of course there is bedroom income, and knowledgeable travellers choose a room with access to the really good top floor Club (the floor is numbered E1 to avoid calling it floor 13). Amazingly, this offers substantial buffets at breakfast, and at lunch, and at dinner. It is really stylish, and remarkably generous. I loved it up there, looking out at the city-wide view. Is that Cotopaxi, Ecuador’s highest volcano (5,898 metres a.s.l), in the distance? Look in another direction at the winged Virgin of Quito, the world’s tallest aluminium statue, high on El Panecillo hill.




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Beef tartare with an egg yolk

Dinner in La Locanda was, however, the highlight main meal during my stay in this luxury hotel. What with live Andean music wafting through from the adjacent lobby lounge – which is, by the way, filled day long with local businessmen discussing their business, be it exporting bananas, oil, shrimp or roses, or evening long with social group – all this helped to create the atmosphere. After the mango sorbet I went on to a Locanda tartare, of excellent Angus beef topped with a raw egg yolk, surrounded by pickled radish, sliced carrot and tiny blobs of Peruvian yellow pepper aioli. Our wine, however, had to be Chilean, Frontera Cabernet Sauvignon Concha y Toro, the house pour.

AND ANOTHER LUXURY MANDARIN ORIENTAL HOTEL
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Diego Oka

And now it is time for yet another marvellous luxury Mandarin Oriental hotel – this time in Miami. Marvellous because it has re-invented itself since the gal’s last visit. For one thing, the Technogym has been upgraded and now you can enter it direct from the lobby. Also marvellous is the introduction of La Mar by Gaston Acurio, and his onsite chef, Diego Oka, a Peruvian of Japanese descent who honestly becomes one of your dearest friends within a few seconds of first meeting. He brims not only with energy but with talent that has obviously been nurtured by Acurio, the Peruvian would-be lawyer who now, with his Swedish wife Astrid, oversees no fewer than 40 restaurants in 19 countries.


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La Mar’s cebiche bar

Let us go back. This ship-like hotel opened in 2001 with a Tony Chi-designed restaurant Azul, at first with chef Michelle Bernstein. Later she moved on, and Joel Huff now cooks there. Beneath Azul was one of those all-day restaurants that has to do breakfast, as a result of which it was perhaps a little so-so at lunch and dinner. Now seven million has been spent, some of it to convert this all-day restaurant into La Mar by Gaston Acurio, a space that not only works but is a fantastic success, all day and evening. Local architects Arquitectonica concepted the new-look restaurant space, and a Lima company, Nathan Pereira Arquitectura, did the main design, based on a Peruvian cebicheria. Sure enough La Mar has a 22-seat cebiche (ceviche) bar.


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A Peruvian whipped potato dish

At dinner the entire space, which flows outside if weather permits, rocks. It is ideal for a party, to concentrate on great food and drink, and perhaps lip-reading stimulating conversations. The menu has cebiches, and tiraditor (Japanese sashimi Peruvian style), and Peruvian Nikei, and Causas dishes based on whipped Peruvian potatos and aji pepper. There are salads, and traditional Peruvian skewers, and plates for sharing, and wok concoctions. This is Peruvian food with a hint of Japan whereas that other great half-Peruvian chef, Nobu Matsuhisa, is more Japanese with a hint of Peru. I start with a Nikei causas, potato topped with oh-so-elegant tuna tartare, avocado, sweet chili sauce and rococo pepper cream.


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Pasta topped with seafood

We shared a Fideos Machos, a barely-there squid ink tagliatelle with scallops, calamari, choclo, and lime pepper aioli. The service was exemplary, with waiters somehow catching that slightly-raised eyebrow that Piers Morgan and his wife Celia Walden said, at the 2014 Ultratravel Forum, was the sign of true luxury service. The level of noise rose steadily as the evening progressed, and I wondered how on earth this highly successful restaurant would transform itself into a breakfast venue…

LUXURY TRAVEL TIP – GO FOR THE SIGNATURE
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DB burger…

Simply Sunday. I have eaten Daniel Boulud‘s DB Burgers around the world, or in key parts of it – at Bar Boulud in Mandari Oriental Hotel London, in Café Bouluds in Montreal (Ritz-Carlton) and New York (the Surrey) and, as here, in Singapore (Marina Bay Sands). Every time it is the same, moist and juicy, with foie gras in with the beef, and great fries. Now, too, Boulud has just opened in Mandarin Oriental Boston, so there is another burger to try.


The thing is a signature is something that the chef is terrifically proud of. At the beautiful Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa Baden-Baden, for instance, the Wintergarten restaurant – eat outside, on the terrace overlooking the Oos river and the gorgeous Lichtental Park – there is a Brenners Classic. I had it, and I can see why it has stayed on the menu for decades. For the record, it is herb-poached cod and spinach, with tomato fondue, in a green puddle. Delicious, and when a luxury hotel dares to push such a simple dish as a best-seller, you know it is going to be good.

IS THIS LUXURY HOTEL IN AN IDYLLIC ‘OTHER WORLD’?
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The hotel, from Lichtentaler Park

Some luxury hotels seem, like Xanadu, to be mystic dreams – do they exist or are they merely figments of our imagination? The gal always wondered why there was so much praise for Brenners Park-Hotel & Spa, Baden-Baden, but now she has been there she is heading the cheerleaders. As a real VIP said only the other week, this is like another world, the world you want to imagine – but it is real. Baden-Baden lovers include Germany’s highest percentage of millionaires, per capita, who choose to live in this Black Forest area, with a mere 55,000 population, and President Clinton, who enjoys hassle-free café-crawling when he comes to visit a friend.


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The entrance

You can fly into Baden-Baden’s own airport, which is great if you have your own plane or if you grit your teeth and cram into a Ryanair airborne people-carrier – the airport is a former Canadian Air Force base. I could have taken the TGV from Paris (under three hours total) but I flew into Stuttgart, about 90 minutes’ drive away. The WiFi-enabled Mercedes drove past the lush greenery and rolling hills that typify Baden-Baden’s suburbs, and turned into quiet Schillerstrasse, the front of the five-floor hotel, named for court tailor Anton Brenner who bought what was Stéphanie les Bains here, in 1872.


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Looking down from room 414 (the brown is the stone-bottomed, clear Oos river)

Today, as part of the Oetker Collection, the hotel has exactly 100 rooms, nearly all with usable balconies. Those facing the rear (like mine, 414) look down at the clear waters of the stone-bottomed shallow river Oos, which eventually flows into the Rhine. Land this side of it is hotel. The opposite bank is the public Lichtentaler Park, but somehow it all flows together, no ‘us and them’. Baden-Baden has a year-round mild climate with refreshingly clear alpine air, and, early October, we sat outside for lunch, on the Wintergarten terrace. Was this where England’s King Edward VII, Queen Victoria’s less-than-fit son Bertie, sat when he came regularly to Brenners to take the cure?


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Brenner Classic

And did he, I wonder, also order a Brenner Classic? This dish has a strong border around it on the menu stressing its importance. What arrives is cod poached in a herb stock, served with tomato fondue and leaf spinach – and, for others but not me, boiled potatoes – on a basil sauce. The result is classically gorgeous, eat every tiny morsel. Look around, at mothers walking babies and playing with toddlers in the park opposite, and right here, regular guests, some who stay up to eight weeks, choosing their favourite dishes or asking the chef to concoct something.


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Part of a spa room

The name Stéphanie is being revived. An adjacent five-floor bulding, Villa Stéphanie, opens around the end of the year, adding 15 gorgeous new bedrooms (including three suites with spas that are equipped to your taste) and two floors of spa, incorporating such attractions as Germany’s best make-up artist Horst Kirchberger – there is also an attached medispa, with Germany’s best, again, be it dentistry, gynaecology, nutrition, opthalmics or preventive medicine. I had a back massage from a Tunisian in the current spa and wow, not sure what he did with the kneading and knotting but I know I felt even healthier afterwards…

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