The Very Best: Hotels
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We should begin this review by saying that Aman is the only game in town. Here and there about the towns of Bhutan there are a few heavily flawed hotels and inns and eateries But if you can stand the tab, you should, without a pause for thought, book at the Aman. The accomodations more than pass muster (you will avoid the experience of one tourist in 2012 who stayed in some lesser digs right next to the landing strip in Paro: she had no light in her room) and the Aman food is always plausible. A caveat on the food: in Bhutan they use lots of red chiles and lots of oil, which can cause kickback. It is often wise to omit both. The chiles are very decorative and can be seen drying on roofs as one passes along dirt roads.
We have long studied Aman which truly finds beautiful places in remote regions to situate its resorts, be it in the Far East or in the waters off the Americas. The central strength of Aman is finding faraway, unspoiled shangri-las that impeach the urban circumstance in which most of us find ourselves.
There is an attempt to create great architecture that even invokes some of the local idiom. Aman does not achieve esthetic heights but it provides a well planned campus with spacious rooms that are reasonably comfortable. Here the rooms are austere, even monastic, much in keeping with the Aman esthic which is back to nature, simple, and a repudiation of citified clutter and busy-ness.
Generally the room structures look like nice wood campus dormitories. Some but not all properties have one or more great halls, which often provide the one note of greatness and grandiosity, since they have an expansiveness that matches the natural wonders nearby.
Bumthang is probably the best of the Aman resort locations. One can take a plane to get there so it is a quick jump from the main incoming airport at Paro. It really is the religious center of the country and while there one can hear evening prayers at the Buddhist temple adjacent, visit a nunnery which radiates spiritual warmth, or view an archery contest in a field nearby. As often as possible one will eat meals just outside the dining room on a stone patio and contemplate the resort’s dog named Basanti.
Gantey. At this resort Aman management has shown the greatest imagination. It could be a bore because there is not much here, save Aman. But it has a pretty vista. The young manager is Bhutanese and knew how to render an extra measure of good service. One night a couple can book a fun meal served in a potato shack. Here we had yak sausage—our one encounter with the Yak though some of our guests ate yak elsewhere. On another evening, one traipses across a pasture to another rude shack where one takes a hot stone bath. On another day one will donate a lunch to 270 monks at the Gangtey Shedra and actually participate in making and serving the meal which is cooked outside at the side of the school. There, too, we had our best massage, well rendered by a young Bhutan lady who headed the spa at this location. There are spas at all locations, Paro probably offering the lavish facility.
Punakha. Punakha has the best food, all served in a curiously cramped dining room. The secret: it has a Mexican chef and he can cook in several languages. You can get eggs rancheros for breakfast followed by a local Bhutanese noodle dish for lunch. Here, too, one will do a flag hoisting at a nearby chorten, a very moving ceremony. My associate and me were honored that two large yellow flags had been planted in the ground, yellow symbolizing earth was the appropriate color for both of us.
Paro. Paro is the least auspicious and oldest of the lodges. For starters it is well outside Paro, and one gets there over a terrible road that is being rebuilt and hence wrecked by the Indian Government. The Indian Government does Bhutan’s roads—badly and slowly: its own infrastructrure is a shambles so it takes real gall to presume to work on the roads or other systems of a neighbor. Paro resort itself seems a bit tattered. Yet nearby at Kiyuchu Lakhang one will light 108 butter lamps and visit a small temple, perhaps the most beautiful in Western Bhutan, though not much remarked on. One can hike up to the Tiger’s Nest where Taktsang Monastery clings to the side of the mountain but looks like it could fall off any time. So Paro resort soars because of the special sights and shrines in its vicinity,
What this review does not make clear is that Aman consists of far more than great locations. While headquarters management is a bit detached from reality and oblivious to the many small things that turn an average visit into a great experience, locals on the ground at the resort do try to do special things to make one’s visit memorable. Many Bhutan managers have been at it a long time and work at sanding away some of the rough spots. We would single out Bhutan country manager John Reed, a New Orleans native who clearly loves the East, and our Aman guide Nawang Cyektshen, who was able to enrich our understanding of Buddhism in Bhutan, the sine qua non of a Bhutan visit.
Amankora, the name for Aman in Bhutan, combines aman which is the Sanskrit word for peace with kora, meaning circular pilgrimagein Dzongkha, the Bhutanese language. Very appropriate. The traveler will find it peaceful there but also will feel peace enveloping him. (12-11-13)
Four Seasons Boston
We are puzzled as to why we have never gotten around to singing the praises of the Four Seasons chain of hotels. We have frequented them for some forty years. Over time, particularly during the last couple of decades, management has had to pull in its horns quite a bit, so a luxury here and a nicety there have disappeared. But all in all, this group has held up very well, and its quality generally equals or surpasses that of most of the larger groups that try to cater to high-end travelers. Moreover, we have found that some of its managers do try to make up for the holes that a tough economy has opened up by rendering some personal services that can make a great deal of difference. As Laura Landro, assistant managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, is wont to say, "My idea of adventure travel is anywhere without a Four Seasons hotel." It's a dependable stop.
Coming and going from Europe, we stopped at the Four Seasons in Boston last year. We have been back several times. We notice that its current General Manager—Mr. Bill Taylor—an amiable and able fellow from Northern England—is visible in the lobby during its busiest moments. This is an exception to the general rule—GMs at most hotels hide out in their offices, never but never meeting their customers. He and his predecessors such as Mr. Robin Brown have striven to add a few special touches to this hotel. The concierge desk, which faltered a bit a few years back, has recovered its footing, and his staff can be counted on to run down some obscure vendors or to arrange flowers for celebratory events. Rooms in the front that look out onto the Public Garden and Common make one feel close to trees and verdure, the same intimate sensation that arises in many New England towns. The hotel is close on to everything—the financial district or the shopping district along Boylston and Newbury. The hotel's grand restaurant Aujourd'hui and the pleasant little bar just outside of it have long since disappeared, so one eats in off hours at the ground floor café (Bristol Lounge) which is quite pleasant when not crowded. There's a pool and complete exercise room on the top floor. Somehow the pool reminds one of the very elegant affair on top of the Berkeley in London which, on sunny days, opens up to the skies. Oddly enough, even with its Ritz-rich history, Boston is not a great hotel town, and it a relief to have a Four Seasons, given the unevenness of other venues.
Four Seasons Boston
Update: Tweaks at Four Seasons Boston
Over the last year Four Seasons Boston has done some refinements that only make a good thing better. The bathrooms in many of the suites are now positively spacious with much more room to move around and with counter space to put one's toilet articles. Food at any of the Four Seasons has never been anything to write home about, but Boston in particular is trying. Aujourd'hui, its upscale restaurant, and the snug bar outside it, are long gone (there is no decent place to have a drink). Nonetheless Boston is trying. The room service and restaurant steaks are very much improved. The tea variety on the ground floor is up to snuff. A wonderful radish plate has been added to the Bristol. The spa is better administered, and a massage is now worth having. We hear by the grapevine that more massage rooms are to be added, augmenting the fine exercise room and the comfortable swimming plunge. The staff here is uniformly polite, even at the front desk and concierge desks. (8/14/13)
The Marlowe threatens to put Boston on the hotel map. Not often admitted, the older, bigger establishments across the Charles are frequently lacking on several counts, and we have frequently said that Boston is really not a hotel town, even with its storied Ritz. There’s now a surge of new boutique establishments, with more we think to come, that will vastly improve a market that tends to do better at smaller things and flounders a bit when it tries something grand. We find much the same is true with the restaurants where bigger is usually not better. One of the better, more innovative cooks in town turned humdrum when he opened a larger place years ago with production line cooking and a much more limited menu. (4/5/05)
More on Marlowe
First, for the small room looking into the interior courtyard. Things get mildly bleak. The Kimpton Group uses very average hotel designers who do not necessarily make good use of the space at hand. Even with 3 lamps, the room is poorly lighted, and daylight is kept at bay by a too passionate use of draperies. The room is cluttered: extra unnecessary pillows that have to be hidden behind a chair at night, and the slew of consumables in the TV/armoire area means there is insufficient space to store clothes. An unnecessary coffee urn clutters up the desk, making it hard to spread out one’s paperwork.
Now for the amenities. We think we have complimented the staff before: in general they are very, very willing as long as you tell them what to do. To some degree, they suffer from a lack of direction but will give you fast turnaround with a little urging. For two mornings in a row, one of our newspapers was not delivered; this has happened before. But a replacement got up to us within the half hour. Second, there is an exercise room. There actually is a small room on the 8th floor, though we were formerly told that the hotel only offered admission to a club in a neighboring building. It’s open 24 hours so you can still work out when you come in from a late dinner. The hotel only needs to add chilled bottles of water to get on a par with other boutique hotels. Third, there is an excellent buffet breakfast in Restaurant Bambara (yes, a rather silly name for a restaurant). In the morning, particularly if one goes after 9:30 a.m., there is a nicer crowd in the restaurant than you find during the rest of the day. The eggs, the smoked salmon, and the fruit make for a first-rate repast. Even though the onion will be finely sliced one day, crudely the next, and the scrambled eggs will come out slightly lumpen one day, light and truly scrambled the next, this is a meal not to be missed. The daylight is quite nice, though make sure you get a table out of the sun. (7/20/05) For original entry in Best of Class (#359), click here.
Eventually, we predict, Kimpton or another smart hotelier will buy an adjoining companion property (while the prices are still right) and put together a hotel package that is much like the very smart Blake’s in London’s Kensington where all the young advert guys would stay once upon a time. A small hotel, it knows how to take advantage of its intimacy. See www.blakeshotels.com. The very clever actress Anouska Hempel, an Australian, as we remember, put it together. She’s a gas, so read more about her at www.elegant-lifestyle.com/quest0304.htm.
Bulfinch Triangle, where it is located, is named after an immensely
important Boston Federalist architect, Charles Bulfinch (see www.encyclopedia.com/html/B/
Two Best Hotels in Dallas
Downtown, it's the Hotel Crescent Court, a homegrown product of Rosewood Corporation. It is conspicuous for its excellent decoration of its public spaces including, on most occasions, an especially fine display of flowers and other accoutremant in the center of the lobby. There are lots of other nice touches--pretty soaps prettily bound, the right complimentary newspapers at your door in the morning, the only decent barbeque in Dallas within walking distance, etc.
This is a luxury hotel with not-quite luxury service, however. The bellboy will not stock your room with ice, but hands it off to room service which appears an hour later with a bucket. On two consecutive evenings, room service does not answer. When an order is placed with a concierge named "Bill," the order never arrives. No bags for laundry or cleaning are in the room. There are nicks and marks on sundry room furniture. Inappropriately loud music trips through the restaurant--Beau Nash--even in the morning, in a room that already suffers from cavernous acoustics.
Nonetheless, the occasional touches make it the best hotel in the market. If you arrive early for breakfast and establish a bond with the assistant restaurant manager, good food--even with a complicated special order--arrives at the table rapidly and decorously. In fact, this one manager was the most professional hotel employee we have met in our innumerable visits to the Crescent over a 10-year period. The Hotel Crescent Court (www.crescentcourt.com) is located at 400 Crescent Court, Dallas TX 75201. Telephone: (214) 871-3200.
Pera Palais Hotel
We cannot recommend enough the Pera Palais Hotel in Istanbul, newly re-opened and eminently comfortable. Everybody from Kemal Ataturk to Agatha Christie stayed here back in the recesses of 20th century history. Now, up on the hill, it is comfortably away from tourist Istanbul, and secret of secret, offers a truly first rate Turkish bath. The New York Times thoroughly agrees with us. “ Restored to its former glory, the Pera Palace bolsters the luxury lodging market in Istanbul. And with features like an elegant lobby and afternoon tea service, it appeals as much to nostalgia buffs as it does to high-end travelers.” The very gracious general manager, still dealing with a few speed bumps at its opening, patiently attended to our every need. "Pera Palace Hotel,, Mesrutiyet Caddesi, 52; Beyoglu; (90-212) 377-4000" (6-12-13)
Four Seasons Milan
This hotel is beautiful and that is reason enough to stay there. It is housed in a 15th century convent, which surrounds a cloistered courtyard, boxwoods and laurels aplenty. Some of the rooms are wonderfully appointed with delightful floral designs, as we remember, on the walls.
One has breakfast in the room, in part because it is nicely served and complete, secondly because you look out on a courtyard that is so inspiring that one puts on a proper dressing gown to eat. Mauro Governato and his staff render a 1000 special touches, getting impossible to find tickets for the La Scala, helping identify a tailor with the finest of suit fabrics, and uncovering the 2 or 3 restaurants in Milan that truly rise above the pack. Much like Mr. Kishi, general manager of the Four Seasons in Tokyo, Mr. Governato offers specific and useful advice about travels into other parts of his country. The hotel is in spitting distance of things needed by a traveler in a restful mood. Very good cafes for coffee are five minutes away. Other small upscale merchants are near at hand. Moreover, the hotel offers protection against a town that has bruising aspects. Milan is the business capital of the north, the design center of Italy, and the host to go-get-em businessmen: the hotel secrets you from all that. Milan Four Seasons. Via Gesu, 6/8, 20121 Milano Italy. Tel39-02-77088 (6-7-2017)
Best Small, Elegant
Hotel in Fez, Morocco
Best Large Luxury Hotel in Fez, Morocco
What we enjoyed: a quiet, late-afternoon meal on the terrace overlooking the tranquil swimming pool. It's hard to find a light lunch in Fez, so we were pleasantly surprised to discover a menu offering club sandwiches and orange sorbet. Rose petals floated in a nearby fountain, and beyond we could see the rooftops of the medina. It was completely tranquil, a world away from the clamor and hustle of Fez. What we did not enjoy: service that was ineffective. The management was incapable of engaging a taxi one afternoon, and after waiting 45 minutes we finally walked out of the front door and snagged one that was disgorging passengers in the front of the hotel. Standard rooms are attractive; the best have small balconies with views of the medina. Contact: Palais Jamais, Bab Guissa, 30000, Fez, Morocco. Telephone: 212-55-63-43-31. Fax: 212-55-63-50-96. Website: www.casanet.net.ma/users/palais.
The hotel has a wonderful history, as one can discover on its website:
Commissioned by 250 Nashvillians in 1908, The Hotel Hermitage (named after Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage estate) opened its doors on Saturday, Sept. 17, 1910. The new hotel, which would change its name in the 1940s, advertised its rooms as “fireproof, noiseproof, and dustproof, $2.00 and up.”
The Hermitage Hotel really made its mark on political history when Memphis’ own Edward H. (Boss) Crump headquartered his statewide political machine there. The stalwart politico—known as the Red Snapper of Tennessee politics—launched many Democratic campaigns from the hotel. For years, the hotel served as the headquarters of the state Democratic Party.
President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt came to Nashville at the invitation of local Congressman and U.S. Speaker of the House Joseph W. Byrns on Nov. 17, 1934. According to newspaper reports, the largest crowds in Nashville history lined the downtown streets to get a glimpse of the Roosevelts en route to The Hermitage Hotel. The First Couple was here to promote the “New Deal” programs, many of which were pushed through Congress with the help of Speaker Byrns.
But the hotel fell on pretty hard times, along with Nashville, as the 20th century drew to a close. As late as July 2000, Johnny Apple of The New York Times pleaded for some cosmetic efforts to bring back its sheen: “[T]he magnificent, richly marbled lobby reeked of disinfectant when we checked in, and the dated though spacious guest rooms had dirty windows. ” In fact, the hotel now has a very good head of housekeeping with whom we recently met in passing: he is hardworking and very much up to the job, and the hotel looks tiptop. As well, the lobby has been restored and substantial investments made in the rooms, it having been taken in hand as we understand it by the same chap who has turned the Hotel Jefferson in Richmond back into a gem. There are still paltry facility problems: the air conditioning in the hallways is loud, and, oddly enough, functions better there than in the guestrooms. The “business center” on the first floor is a joke, amounting to two small closets in which the hotel has tucked two Dell computers. Now and again one will hear some noise from an upstairs room when in residence, the necessary buffering never having been attended to.
Some other nice accidents. This is one of the very few hotels in the country that get the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal to your door every morning, and even the Sunday Times is there right on time. The linens, especially the towels, were quite decent; annoyingly, most upscale hotels provide shoddy, thin, small towels now. There is a DVD player, which, in fact, is pressed into service often since thunderstorms in the South may cut satellite TV service.
Service, on the other hand, is so bad that it is laughable, and one just leans back and enjoys it. We assume all this is given short shrift because the inner core of Nashville is still recovering, and we assume revenues are a little thin for the hotel, though the owners have gotten in early, realizing that Nashville will make a turn. That means front desk personnel will give faulty directions to a restaurant or tell one a museum is open though it is actually closed. Ice packs for a cooler are put in a normal refrigerator, rather than in a freezer, so they later prove useless in transit. The concierge steers one to restaurants where he is getting a cut: they happen to be reasonably good, so this is not all bad. But often one cannot get either concierge, one often absent, the other engaged in long conversations on the phone that bar service to busy guests. The attractive bar and restaurant (Capitol Grille and Oak Bar) in the basement are less than meets the eye. The bartender, for instance, not only does not know how to make two Southern drinks but also has never heard of them. The drinks are not priced in proportion to value. In short, this beautiful property is poorly managed but, still, is very much the place to stay. The Hermitage Hotel, 231 Sixth Avenue North, Nashville, Tennessee. Telephone: 888-888-9414. (7/19/06)
Rancho Encantado Four Seasons
With all its inns and hotels Santa Fe is still very short on first class spaces where one can rest one's head for a night or two. As in many tourist locations across the United States, facilities are often tatty, the service is sketchy, and the food is usually plain and (and simple) bad. Rancho Encantado, out near Tesuque, is by far the best hope for travelers wanting an upper tier experience. Once an Auberge, it is now run by Four Seasons, and the chain is steadily trying to set it right. Right now it offers great views, from the upstairs suites, from the bar, and from the restaurant and terrace. The spa, too, is pleasant. If you are an opera fan, it is close on to the Santa Fe Opera.
Today it is best suited to convention trade but, with more investment and imagination, it could take a place among the best resorts in the West. Even now the managers make a grand effort for demanding guests. Four Seasons Rancho Encantado Santa Fe. http://www.fourseasons.com/santafe 198 State Road 592. Santa Fe New Mexico 87506 Tel.1 (855) 900-3789
New Orleans’ Best Hotel (and a Lot More Besides)
At junctures like this it is wondrous to ford Canal Street and step into the welcoming lobby of the Windsor Court Hotel, where the doorman miraculously remembers your name, and where your room is so serene and so spacious that you wonder why you ever left it. On this latest trip, our suite was an airy aerie, with soothing tone-on-tone striped walls and comfy sofas and chairs in elegant grey-green toile with a vague Chinoiserie theme. Silky Egyptian linens, a gleaming marble bath, and equestrian prints on the wall made for a well-feathered nest, but the defining luxury was the panoramic view from the picture windows in the living room and bedroom. We could have lingered for hours at the breakfast table, over croissants and cafe au lait, just gazing at the Mississippi and also, in our case, the verdigris turreted rooftops of the neighboring Harrah’s Casino which, quite surprisingly, offered an architecturally interesting vista.
The Windsor Court’s Grill Room has regularly won accolades from publications like Zagat and Travel+Leisure. Recently, we spent an agreeable hour talking about food with the new executive chef, James Overbaugh, who has been at the helm for about a year. Classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, he previously served as executive chef at the Chateau du Serau in Yosemite Park, where he prepared a different degustation menu every night. In New Orleans, Mr. Overbaugh now walks a culinary tightrope, balancing local tradition with his own inventive flourishes, dreaming up ways to incorporate luxury ingredients such as foie gras and caviar to gently remind diners that they are at one of the America’s most highly-rated hotel restaurants. (For an excerpt of our conversation, click here. )
Among the dishes we tasted were Baked Oysters with Horseradish-Parsnip Puree, which appeared to be a fresh take on the more traditional oysters Rockefeller but which Mr. Overbaugh says he’s been making for years. Plump Louisiana oysters were tucked between creamy layers of parsnip puree spiked with horseradish and an emerald green spinach puree topped with lemon cream. It is a dish so warm and satisfying that one would be tempted to call it comfort food were it not so elegantly presented on a bed of rock salt strewn with fennel seeds, star anise and peppercorns. (See recipe.) We also sampled the Paneed Grouper, the delicately flavored fish breaded and fried whisper light, served in a gutsy tomato broth over nutty Camargue rice and Creole eggplant, amped up with dollops of a vivid tomato compote and dill aioli.
New Orleans is, of course, the city of pralines, and we were delighted to discover a homemade praline on our pillow each night. Pastry chef Joy Jessup not only makes the pralines but has also created a seductive variation on this culinary theme for the dessert menu: Warm Pecan Toffee Cake, just a few bites really, drenched in rich buttery toffee sauce and served with intensely flavored coffee ice cream in a chocolate shell. It’s almost worth the price of plane ticket.
Four Seasons New York
It's never exactly clear where one should stay in New York City. Geography is important: if you are sleeping in midtown, then it becomes quite a chore to get to Wall Street. Lobby demeanor matters a whole lot: unseemly sorts seem to wander through the Waldorf, the various hotels around Times Square, even hotels on Park below Grand Central which should be free of flotsam jetsam. But, above all, we think, the choice revolves around the size of the room. The Four Seasons in New York offers 500 to 600 square feet, and that's about as large as it gets in Manhattan. Just west of Park Avenue on 57th, it is relatively easy to reach: one enjoys the benefits of midtown while avoiding the DMZ otherwise known as 59th Street. Should one luck in to a room near the top, one gets a magnificent view of Manhattan. The spa downstairs seems attractive, though we only used the exercise room, and so we cannot vouch for the other facilities. Curiously the lobby is a bit too dark and daunting, while the rooms have blondish furniture and very light walls which makes one feel, for a moment, as if transported to Florida or California. The hotel needs more sensitive designers and lighting experts. Designed by I.M. Pei, it reflects all his strengths and his brutalist weaknesses. Pei needs to be decked out with fine art, such as the Picasso used outside NYU's dormitory complex on Bleecker.
At the very front on the right is a café style restaurant, which looks unprepossessing from the lobby but is actually an attractive sit-down for an espresso or a light meal: the potted trees help immensely. Yes, New York hotels have gotten awfully pricey but the Four Seasons gives one something for the money. Four Seasons New York. 57 E. 57th Street. New York, New York. 10022. Tel. +1 (212) 758-5700. http://www.fourseasons.com/newyork/
Ironically, we watched Isadore Sharp, founder and chairman of Fourseasons, now 95% owned by Bill Gates and a Saudian Arabian magnate, just before our Four Seasons stay. He chatted with Charlie Rose, amiably suggesting that he had mastered the dynamics of hoteling and had figured out a way to go on in a somewhat mature industry. Amongst other things, Sharp dwells on the excellence of Four Seasons service and the esthetic presentation at its properties. Of the big chains, it probably is the most avid about projecting friendliness and courtesy, and does an above-average job of service execution. The esthetic is far from outstanding, but is reasonably soothing, perhaps the main test for a good hotelier. Four Seasons food is not wonderful, but one can usually pick one's way through a menu and find something that will do the trick. By and large, it is so impressive that it can maintain a friendly standard of service at so many properties. We learn that it now has opened a new hotel in Toronto, a good thing, since its first hotel, the original for the chain, was rather rough around the edges.
North Carolina Triad (and
Among its virtues are a staff that tries quite hard, Green Valley Grill (a first-class, pleasant restaurant), unusually large, ample bathrooms, a comfortable lobby, a lovely sun room, and outdoor dining (relatively smog free) outside the Grill. Both the exercise room and the pool are intimate and fairly quiet, since they are hardly used. O. Henry Hotel. 624 Green Valley Rd., Greensboro, North Carolina 27429. 1-336-854-2000.
We found an O. Henry volume by our bedside and would recommend the hotel make the writer the centerpiece of more visible promotion. Here are some O. Henry books available:
Gabrielle’s Place—Asheville, North Carolina
So let’s dispense with the downside. Calling for a reservation ten days ahead, we decided to try the O. Henry Room on the second floor of the mansion. We were dismayed to find a cramped space with somber brown walls and tatty blue carpet, crammed with dark wood furniture, and a bathroom with gurgling plumbing. The desk clerk had promised a view, but only by pulling the blinds up all the way were we able to glimpse the mountains. Next time we’d stay in one of the Croquet Cottages, a charming group of five Victorian-style two-story cottages surrounding an immaculate croquet green. For antique-lovers, there are the elegant rooms that once belonged to Richmond and Gabrielle Pearson; attractive modern rooms are available in the recently built Garden Pavilion.
But you don’t even have to stay at Richmond Hill to enjoy its main attraction: the over-the-top Victorian gardens created by Southern landscape guru, Chip Callaway. Callaway, who has designed historically accurate gardens for the Roper-Jenrette House in Charleston and for Stratford Hall, Robert E. Lee’s Virginia home, has created a mix of “natural” landscapes and formal beds that irresistibly draw even the most casual onlookers. Tumbling down the hillside from the main house is a splashing brook with small waterfalls lushly bordered by ferns and sprawling nicotiana, interspersed with native trees and shrubs. The brook ends at the bottom of the hill in a large waterfall facing the piece de resistance: a stunning parterre garden whose severely geometric boxwood beds can scarcely contain an explosion of summer blooms. Billowing waves of pink and white phlox, hydrangeas heavily laden with huge blossoms, and dozens of other old fashioned flowers are anchored by Weeping China Doll rose topiaries and giant cardoons with fluffy purple tufted heads. Lavender wands of verbena bonarensis emerge from clumps of flowering alliuim, spiky sea holly and bright blue balloon flowers. Towering over this riotous jungle are 10-foot tall hollyhocks, with blooms in luscious shades of apricot and rose. Generously, current owners Marge and Albert Michel have opened the gardens to anyone who wishes to see them.
The other compelling reason to go to Richmond Hill is Gabrielle’s, a modern American restaurant named after Richmond Pearson’s wife. There are several formal dining rooms, but just as twilight was falling, we gravitated to a table on the more casual enclosed sun porch, with comfy wicker chairs and a ceiling fan turning lazily overhead. Summer offerings included an impressive tasting menu of fresh, seasonal dishes such as an heirloom tomato gazpacho with avocado sorbet and Carolina shrimp, and roasted Maine lobster with fava beans and saffron butter. Feeling a bit less ambitious, we zigzagged through the a la carte menu to create our own mini-tasting extravaganza. Highlights included a very fresh, buttery tuna tartare with cucumber, ginger and cilantro, and a jumbo lump crab cake with piquant remoulade sauce and North Carolina sweet potato fries. We liked the salad of slow-roasted beets with goat cheese and caramelized bacon in a spritely sherry vinagaigrettte. The Valrhona chocolate cake with caramel ice cream was predictably dark, rich and impossible to resist.
Contact: Richmond Hill Inn, 87 Richmond Hill drive, Asheville, North Carolina 28806. Telephone: 800-545-9238 or 828-252-7313. Website: www.RichmondHillInn.com.
The Ballantyne Resort
But the services and amenities are subpar and vastly overpriced. We had a lamb steak, for instance, that had been killed many times: clearly the edibles are not bought right or prepared correctly. The dining room is an unattractive, windowless box. The towels in the bathroom are chintzy. The sauna in the fitness room was non-operative, and the body wash dispenser was empty. This is not a resort, as we know it, though maybe it would have earned a place in Cleveland Amory’s Last Resorts. It has sort of a Florida condo feel to it, and it would require a remake by an inspired architectural designer to give it elegance and warmth, and shake off its Donald Trump veneer.
Penny pinching, it does not supply decent free newspapers, thought the gal in the gift shop was a hoot, so it’s worth going there to get your Times. There seems to be no stationery so bring your own. Vending machines are on every other floor, sort of like a Howard Johnson’s motel. Ballantyne Resort, 10000 Ballantyne Commons Parkway Charlotte, North Carolina 28277. Telephone: 866-248-4824 (tollfree); 704-248-4000 (local). (8/2/06)
Four Seasons Philadelphia
Four Seasons, then, often is the only game in town. This is almost true in Boston, but even more the case in Philadelphia. Its GM has just moved on to Canada, but his replacement has served the world over, and is now coming back to his hometown which is Philadelphia. One can catch a grand view of the redeveloped downtown from one's bedroom window, with abundant green spaces that still have the new look of a town remade but which are bordered by a host of museums and other important buildings. The new Barnes is close at hand, and is attracting an unending stream of art goers. The Fountain Restaurant has gathered raves, and it is spacious and quite comfortable, if not imaginatively appointed. One treat at the Fountain is the inclusion of Philadelphia specialties such as chipped beef and scrapple on the breakfast menu. A particular virtue of this hotel, in its public spaces as well as its rooms, is that one does not feel cramped. Philadelphia, not Boston, is physically the most British city in America, and the structure of its streets and its handsome squares makes this apparent. The Four Seasons itself sits in Logan Square, and yet is adjacent to Philly's narrow streets that may remind one of London.
Four Seasons Philadelphia
Best Stop in
And like The Hermitage, its service suffers from a Mediterranean flavor: it may never happen. For instance, its reservation software is a bit tangled, so the reservation confirmation one receives may be in electronic gibberish. Newspapers commonly don’t get delivered. Food in TJ’s will take quite a while to get to your table; more complex dishes don’t turn out at all well. The air conditioning may be a little faint in the downstairs lobby. The concierge is helpful—if not otherwise occupied on the telephone in an extended conversation, but the directions out of town may not be the most direct. Should you put some ice bricks for your cooler in the hotel freezer, it may take 20 to 30 minutes for the bellboy to find them. The house staff will forget to set up the rollaway bed, etc. etc.
But the ‘buts’ are much more important than the nitpicks. But the staff is universally very nice, and it takes pride in the hotel. But breakfast in Lemaire is mannerly, not rushed, sunny, and quiet. But the linens and soaps (Molton Brown) are first class in your room. But the crabcake does taste of crab, and not filler. But General Manager Joseph Longo and his aide Ms. Parch have been at great pains to do some much-appreciated research for us—quite out of the ordinary. (9/13/06)
Best Breakfast Hotel in San Francisco
Update: We recently paid another very extensive visit to Campton Place and found it to be as good as ever. First, hurray for the restaurant, which has finally reached the first rank. It and the bar outside have undergone a light redesign, but it’s nothing dramatic and the tone has remained reasonably understated. The banquette at the back has turned slightly more uncomfortable, since the padding pressed up against one’s spine is not quite right. At night you will want to sit in the booths on the left. By day, get a position near the windows since the lighting is mildly depressing otherwise. The service at night is as good as ever, though we did not see the old hands who had a bit more knowledge about the food. The food in the old days was a little fruity precious (new California chefs trying too hard); things are now more complex and very decorative but very mellow. It’s all a bit filling, so go empty and don’t plan on visiting too often. Despite the fact that it’s a better restaurant, it does not seem as crowded—for any meal—which, of course, is a very big plus for the discerning.
Breakfast is still quite pleasant but with some caveats. You have to pick your way through the menu and be a little demanding. For instance, we eat the egg white omelet which will come out a little watery (just pour the waste onto a saucer), and the vegetables, which strangely are not wrapped into the omelet, tend to blandness. It helps if you ardently spell out what you want in the omelet and caution the staff on the cooking. Likewise the breads are mixed: a croissant was respectable, but the attempt at an English muffin could even be said to be gluey. Do try the jams and jellies. But it’s a quiet place to kick off the day and to carry on civil business conversation.
The hotel staff is ever willing and the rooms have grown more comfortable over the years. There are a few trifles that need to be repaired. The front desk can be dilatory about getting a bellboy to the room or effecting a simple transaction that requires a bit of creativity—in other words, balls do get dropped there. Nobody polices the front lobby, so an unruly guest can prowl back and forth yapping for a long time on a cell phone, disturbing more temperate guests. Generally, however, it attracts a genteel clientele. The flaws probably arise because management is rather invisible. Room service really ends at 10:30: this is not quite luxury. But the papers really do make it to your door in the morning, even if they are not on the table in the restaurant which sports too many copies of USA Today and the emasculated San Francisco Chronicle. The maid will do a fast clean up in a pinch. It’s quiet in the rooms, and the double seal glass protects one against rather noisy streets. Unusually we found ice in our room every night—without asking. The towels have a reasonable nap and there are enough at hand.
Update: Mandarin SF 26 Years Later
We were the first guests at the Mandarin San Francisco some 26 years ago. It is surprisingly durable, and still may be the most quietly spectacular hotel in these United States. The ample rooms, floating above San Francisco in a skyscraper, offer wide-angle views of the San Francisco region. Big Loss: The restaurant, just above the ground floor reception, is gone. It used to be a most pleasant meeting spot for those of us with business in the Financial District. The new cafe on the ground floor is strictly coffee shop with cuisine to match. Eat in your room if you are a guest and have dim sum for breakfast. Big New Winner: A sumptuous spa has just been added, and this will be a trophy restoration parlor in years to come as the Mandarin polishes up its staff and protocols. We notice that even the customers are a nice lot at this particular Mandarin. (8/14/13)
Ritz Carlton Dorado Beach
We have already said that this onetime Rock Resort has to be one of the most beautiful hotel resorts in the world. The beach is stupendous and the natural surroundings and beautiful plantings are out of this world. But Marriott Ritz is not quite up to running a high end luxury property. Services falter, the food is middling, the electronics are not well wired, etc. etc. But the site is simply magnificent. The rich plantings are lovingly cared for by a gardener whose family came to Puerto just after the American takeover. The ample trees are survivors from the Rockefeller era, towering specimens that would not be planted today. The spa structure and adjacent garden are the best architectural realization in the new hotel, because so many elements are survivors from times before. The overhead outdoor showers with copper tanks are both nicer to look at and much better working than the two showers that come with each of the rooms. Amazingly one can actually read a book easily under the light of the bedside lamps: modern hotels are almost universally equipped with poor lighting, the work of interior designers who are most interested in the look of the place than the care and comfort of the hotel guest. Ritz Marriott tends to attract an untutored crowd, many part of convention groups which reservations uses to build revenues, so one must find recesses where they don’t congregate: it is wise to sit well back from the pool or to sit indoors during breakfast as a means of getting away from noisy guests. (3-5-14)
We all stay at your average get-aways where the best thing going is the resort itself, with the surroundings, natural and man-made, well worth ignoring. Amanresorts International (www.amanresorts.com) has gotten it totally right, picking places where you really get away from it all, where the place is wonderful even if there were not a resort, and where the elegant establishment does have some taste and restraint. While venturers from our family have experienced Amandari in Indonesia, we had never paid attention to Aman until Mr. T. brought it to our attention. Amanresorts International Pte Ltd. 1 Orchard Spring Lane. #05-01, Tourism Court, Singapore 247729. Telephone: 65-6883-2555.
Best 50th Anniversary
Best Small Hotel in Toronto
We had a few quibbles: the room’s complicated lighting system had all sorts of lamps, but not a good one to read by, and the plumbing was slow. But the large marble bathroom also had a jacuzzi and Darphin toiletries, and the amiable staff is terribly eager to please. A 90-minute hot stone massage administered in the quietly relaxing spa upstairs left us with just enough strength to tumble back into bed. If you venture out of your room, the best place to dine is at the lobby bar, although the adjacent private club can be noisy in the evening. The quietest rooms are on the third floor.
Note: The Windsor Arms was recently refurbished and, under new ownership, bears no relation to the more rustic, light-hearted inn that occupied the same location for many years. Contact: Windsor Arms, 18 St. Thomas Street, Toronto M5S 3E7, Canada. Telephone: 877-999-2767. Website: www.windsorarmshotel.com.
We can think of many, many reasons for going to Amanyara. If one is on a short Caribbean holiday, one rejoices upon learning how near it is and how easy it is to reach. To wit, it is virtually a 3 and 3/4 hours ride from New York—one short flight—instead of the 5-hour journey other outposts involve, often requiring two plane trips and maybe even a final boat ride. Once you arrive, you discover that it is entirely free of the Miami- Beach feel that dominates so much of the Caribbean where clusters of hotels; often huge, crummy restaurants; hordes of well-fattened people; and chintzy shopping make one forget that this is suppose to be a visit to an island in the sun.
We had meant to visit an Aman Resort for years, well aware of Aman's beautiful properties in Thailand, Indonesian, Singapore, Jackson Hole, Bhutan, etc. They are artfully designed, well furbished, in harmony with the natural settings in which they find themselves, and, above all, they cater to a small, reasonably decorous audience. For sure, one is not getting away from it all, if a vacation thrusts one up against hundreds of other escapees from world cities who are not inclined to part with most of the knickknacks that fill up their everyday lives. Not at Aman. We have previously described the Aman experience in brief some years ago. It is the non-resort resort.
Amanyara may be even more remarkable than the other Aman properties. Situated on 99 brush- filled acres, it is surrounded by 18000 acres of government park land. It comfortably handles just 220 guests, and one can pass the day seeing very few people, indeed. One stays in a beautiful pavilion, a very comfortable large unit that contemplates the water and verdure about, out of sight of other guest rooms. The architect for Amanyara and many other Aman properties is Jean-Michel Gathy of Denniston. This has led to marvelous views through an abundance of glass, and to the inclusion of several tall structures (such as the main bar) where one has a cathedral sense of space. The staff of 340 includes 27 nationalities: generally then there is hot and cold running help to meet the needs of visitors.
The eminence and visionary behind Aman has been, from the beginning Adrian Zecha, who is certainly responsible for its many virtues and distinctive feel, but, who, equally is responsible for its omissions. Some of the minor flaws are a gym which is not large enough to handle the young and fairly dynamic audience that patronizes Aman. Some logistical matters can fall through the cracks: the staff quite often does not respond to emails in a timely manner, caught up in the leisurely pace of the islands. Departure arrangements at the airport are poorly coordinated. For those who care, the TV exhausts the patience of many guests, but then again, the TV systems in most high end hotels defy ordinary human beings.
Amanyara does not work hard enough at mingling its guests with its spectacular natural setting to include some marvelous plants and rock outcroppings, even though it does have a naturalist on staff. All plants, trees, bushes are native to the islands although many of the larger specimens were brought in from South Florida. The wonderful natural circumstance is the biggest strength of Amanyara, and it should be greatly celebrated, something which could be reinforced with a much better library and a more active gift shop.
A resort, a Caribbean, an Amanyara should be a place to get away from it all. Indeed, uniquely, at Amanyara in Turks and Caicos, you do. Amanyara. Providenciales, Turks and Caicos Islands. British West Indies. tel (1) 649 941 8133. email amanyara @amanresorts.com. US toll-free reservations 1 866 941 8133. See also "Glimmer of Greatness, Global Province Letter, 11 April 2012."
Four Seasons Vancouver
Canadian friends are a bit down on Four Seasons Vancouver and we find that they are dead wrong. They are high on new entries in Vancouver such as the newish Rosewood property Hotel Georgia, which is a redo of an old property. It is less than inspiring: we find at several locations that Rosewood does half a job when renovating. It is right across the street from the Four Seasons.
The critics say the Vancouver Four Seasons is a bit fusty, a bit dated. Let us just count the ways that it rises above the pack. It provided us with a commodious well appointed room with plenty of space and rather quick service from both room service and housekeeping. Our view looked out on a hotel elevation where there was a pool and external eating facilities, all pleasant to use incidentally.
Notably there is a fine seafood restaurant named Yew. It is special in many ways. Good food is hard to find in Vancouver, and Yew is one of the few that has the goods. The Four Seasons chain only has a few restaurants that are worth your while: this is one of the five or so that are worth your attention. And parts of the restaurant are handsome, having a high ceiling and good lighting (again the exception at Four Seasons where most of its eating rooms have low ceilings and little light). If you sit in the right area, you can even stare upwards and see sky emanating from the 4th floor housing the pool and landscaped outdoor eating area. Martin Sinclair, the General Manager, is an excellent host and experienced hotelier who, best of all, is much into flyfishing. He and his staff had figured out some of our wants even before we arrived at the hotel. Four Seasons Vancouver. 791 W. Georgia Street. Vancouver BC V6C 2T4 Canada. at CF Pacific Centre. 1-604-689-9333 (6-7-2017)
Typically Kimpton has a young, untutored, but very willing staff, and its Rouge in Washington is no exception. This hotel offers Kimpton’s usual strengths and weaknesses, but is an economic find not far from DuPont Circle. That it is a value is of importance in a town that offers low quality and quite high prices, just like the Federal Government. The hotel is conveniently located, the room was spacious, and the staff comes to terms with all one’s reasonable requests. If one roots about, you will find a smart young staff member who knows the neighborhood, can suggest food spots, and can even accurately tell you how to get there. There was one such desk attendant at the Rouge, even if the managers were slightly befuddled. On the other hand, Kimpton decoration ranges from garish to tacky. The reds here, some matted surfaces in the elevators, and the other concoctions in the room and in the hallways, etc. are quite jarring: this is not the fault of local or regional managers: poor, quirky, consciously outré design has become a trademark of Kimpton, though it was not so in the chain’s early days when the eponymous Bill Kimpton opened his first hotels. The lighting is generally bad, and the phone beside the bed is non functional, more often than not. Kimpton does some economy measures that it dresses in ‘green’ verbiage that suggests that it is doing its environmental best.. It does not change your sheets unless you ask, so ask. The shower stream is meager and there is nothing much to be done about it. There is a fair amount of paper clutter in both the room and the bathroom: just put all that in a spare drawer. For some reason the food is never quite right in the restaurants, though if a hotel is a new start up, the breakfast will often be quite okay. Having said all this, we avidly recommend both the chain and this hotel, and continue to send people to its sundry establishments. One plus here, by the way, is that Rouge still has a CD/radio player in the room, something that is being phased out at some locations in favor of a dock for your iPod. The CD, with some restful Kimpton collected music, is a far better choice. And yes, the beds are deemed to be comfortable. We would especially compliment the local staff which tried very hard to please us.
This is in a pleasant neighborhood, safe for walking, and removed from all the hustlers and all the traffic you get closer to the all the Federal buildings. As one of our female associates recently remarked, this is a trouble-free area for young ladies. Just off Scott Circle and a stone’s throw form DuPont Circle,it provides ready access to the embassies and other institutions we were in town to visit. Quite close is a Whole Foods, so you can stock your room with some healthy, high quality foods, beers, etc. As they say in the retail trade, commerce is all about location, and this is a good location if you are visiting the host of influentials who are not in Congress or the Administration.. Washington can be a confusing town: the hotel staff will print out maps (Insist on Google or Yahoo, not MapQuest) to help you or your driver get places. Decent daily papers do get to your door in a timely fashion in the morning. Rouge 1315 16th Street NW. Washington DC 20036. 202-232-8000 (-06-03-09)
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