After five years renovation, San Francisco’s de Young Museum reopened on October 15. The transformation is dramatic; the Pritzer Prize winning architects Herzog & de Meuron (along with SF-based Fong & Chan Architects) have created a state-of-the-art facility out of this landmark cultural institution. (The nifty facade is comprised of dozens of unique copper panels!) The de Young has occupied the same beautiful space of Golden Gate Park since 1895. Collections include American art from the 17th through the 20th centuries, and art of the native Americas, Africa and the Pacific.
So you're given the altogether grueling, Herculean task of evaluating the world's best hotels. Fragile orchids float through lobbies, delicacies tease the tongue at Michelin-anointed restaurants, infinity pools evaporate into the blue horizon, spas dazzle both body and spirit. Webster defines luxury as "something adding to pleasure or comfort but not absolutely necessary." How to possibly measure the immeasurable? Ultimately, luxury is an experience of the senses. Hotel guests are immersed in the radiant colors of furnishings, the perfect aesthetics of architectural design, the softness of fabrics, the sensations of comfort and warmth, the fragrances that infuse the air. But beyond this, the true luxury hotels are distinguished by their service, and their uncanny eye for detail. There are many places that boast sumptuous surroundings, but true luxury hotels cater to your every (perhaps childish) whim and desire: particular desires and even some you haven't even thought of yet. And they fulfill those requests with savvy and graceful style. But beyond this, how can one assess this luxury experience? Five Star Alliance travel agency has established a concrete framework by which they examine new hotel properties to add to their comprehensive, handpicked directory. Hotels are assessed by the following tangible criteria: 1. The industry awards (a.k.a. let the other guys work for you). Conde Nast Traveler's Gold List, Travel and Leisure's Top 500, Mobil 5 star, AAA 5 diamonds. 2. Hotels that are part of renowned brands, like Ritz-Carlton, Rocco Forte, Four Seasons, Shangri-La, Fairmont, Mandarin-Oriental, Oberoi, Peninsula, Relais and Chateau. 3. Other categories or brands: Small Luxury Hotels, Luxury Collection, Leading Hotels of the World, American Express Guide, Robb Report, Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report. 4. Significant references: in the press, word-of-mouth, and personal experience. 5. Facts and figures. Sometimes the rates say it all. If a hotel charges less than $150 per night, one can safely assume that it is not of a certain caliber. These criteria provide the matrix, but not the automatic or guaranteed endorsement. For example, Leading Hotels of the World boasts a collection of many superior properties, but a hotel's affiliation with LHW does not signify obligatory inclusion on the Five Star site. So, readers, help us define, like Webster, the meaning of "luxury"; let us know about luxury properties you recommend. Even the sharp eyes of Five Star Alliance editors may have missed something! In the future, Five Star Alliance hopes to provide a feedback tool directly on the website, where travelers can share their own perceptions about a luxury property. For luxury, like beauty, must ultimately be in the eye of the beholder.
I just worked myself up into a real scare reading the latest National Geographic article on Avian flu. Like seriously freaking out. This could be the next world pandemic! Spanish flu to mammoth proportions! The virus jumping from birds to pigs to vulnerable humans! (Can you spy the seemingly innocuous rooster in the pic to the right? The lush tropical garden is just an illusion of tranquility when such a beast lurks in its midst.) Forget this blog-- I’m headed to Kayak.com to look for flights to the Pacific Islands, the only place left unscathed by Spanish flu. Or better yet-- I’m holing myself up in one of those desert caves in Afghanistan!
Not so fast, the ever-rational World Tourism Organization soothes my fears. All the media talk about Avian flu is dangerous hype that could hurt world tourism, especially in Asia and the developing world.
Found out some good news from Gadling today. The Le Meridien Khao Lak has reopened its doors after last year’s devastating tsunami. The celebratory rates? A steal at $75 per night (plus tax). From now until Dec 22, enjoy that famous Thai hospitality in style at Khao Lak. P.S. The spa rocks.
Le Meridien Khao Lak, Official Site
Le Meridien Khao Lak, Five Star Alliance
Everyone’s talking about women’s travel these days. This month, Travel and Leisure reports on female-friendly hotels: the Sanctuary South Beach offers discounts for women traveling solo, the St. Regis Shanghai offers a Ladies Floor staffed by female butlers, the Mandarin Oriental, New York has created the whimsical Girl’s Guide to Glamour in Gotham (a Chanel makeover, a manicure at Bergdorf’s and a shopping tour by limo), and London’s Berkeley offers the Girls Night In weekend, a pampering extravaganza complete with in-room manicures, Cosmopolitans, Bliss products and late-night snacks.
My pick for solo women travelers? Vancouver’s Le Soleil Hotel, with its Elle Suites specifically designed for the female business traveler. Amenities available include office supplies, soaker tubs with bath bombs and essential oils, Aveda body products, make up mirror, small wooden body massager, a selection of women magazines, low fat and low carbohydrate snacks in the mini bar and a selection of nylons and feminine hygiene products. Hotel Le Soleil's concierge will also provide an up to date list of around town events that may be of particular interest to women.
Also, be sure to check out Tango Diva—an online magazine devoted to women travelers.
And for women on the go... A fashion crisis on the road? Check out Diane Von Furstenberg's emergency kit (pictured) sold at W Hotels online store.
In the luxury resort market of Dubai, nothing surprises me. Home of the only 7 star hotel in the world (Burj Al Arab), the latest SKI? resort (as Gridskipper reports today about Ski Dubai), and the development of The World-- in miniature man-made islands shaped like the continents of the world. The US$1.8 billion project, expected to be complete by the end of 2005, consists of 250 to 300 private artificial islands divided into four categories—private homes, estate homes, dream resorts, and community islands. Hell, you could even buy a continent! The World is located four kilometers offshore from Jumeirah, close to The Palm Jumeirah and Burj Al Arab.
“Don’t bother with Agra. Actually, keep away at all costs.” Fellow travelers in New Delhi warned me—on my month-long trip to India-- to avoid the grime, pushy peddlers and chaos of Agra. That the Taj is best seen in coffee table books, postcards, even on the internet. I went anyway. Fly half-way around the world and not witness “the most extravagant monument ever built for love”?!? Who were they kidding?
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Agra was the capital of India under the Mughals, and both the Agra Fort and the Taj Mahal date from this era. This majestic mausoleum was constructed by Emperor Shah Jahan for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, whose death in childbirth in 1631 left the Emperor so heartbroken that supposedly his hair turned grey overnight.
We arrived in the afternoon, and watched the sunset fade salmon against the walls of the Agra Fort. Emperor Akbar began the construction of the massive red sandstone fort on the banks of the Yamuna River in 1565. I hadn’t pictured that the ferocious Mughal warriors would be such architecture buffs. But the fort is beautifully designed. From slat-like windows in the ramparts, you can see the Taj Mahal rising like a mirage out of the flat plain.
The next morning’s sunrise over the white marble grandeur of the Taj Mahal took my breath away. An hour within the presence of the Taj is nothing short of epic. The smooth stone was soft on our bare feet as we wandered beneath the dome, spellbound as we squinted into the irridescent rainbows shimmering from the sun’s reflection on marble. As the light increased, the Taj seemed to change with each fresh squint, the light dancing across the pearly facade. Apparently the lovesick emperor had originally planned to build twin mausoleums, one brilliantly white and one of daunting black marble. Thank God he abandoned that plan. (And spared 20,000 more artisans and workers.) It’s hard to imagine a duplicate. From sunrise to lunchtime, we could not take our eyes off of it. The only thing that could get us to leave was our growling stomachs.
Where to stay?
Just 600 meters from one of the greatest wonders of the world, The Oberoi Amarvilas is a breathtaking hotel, providing every modern service in a haven reflecting the grandeur of the surrounding monuments. Set among pools and terraced gardens, The Oberoi Amarvilas appears itself to be a Mughal palace, fusing Persian and Moorish influences in its exquisite architecture. The blue and gold domed entranced pavilion provides brilliant views of the Taj Mahal. Check into the regal Kohinoor Suite, with its separate living and dining rooms, private study and enormous walk-in closet. Even the bathroom overlooks the Taj Mahal.
Oberoi Amarvilas, Official Site
Oberoi Amarvilas, Five Star Alliance
October 23, 2005
By: Mary Winston Nicklin
These days, Scottsdale is where it’s at. (The NYT weighs in on the hype.) And starting in December, the legendary Hotel Valley Ho will re-emerge downtown as the place to see and be seen. The original hide-away for Bogart, Bing and Marilyn has been made-over into a hip urban resort. First opened in 1956, the Hotel Valley Ho basks in its classic mid-century design. The chic rooms feature all-glass walls opening onto private patios, flat-screen TVs, WiFi, terrazzo tile bathrooms, and feather-top beds with 300-thread-count linens. Lounge on the sofas by the pool, pamper yourself with a massage in the private cabanas, work out in the VH Spa overlooking the perfect circle pool, or slurp a cocktail at the Oh Pool Bar + Cabanas. Plus, Hotel Valley Ho offers dining options aplenty. At Cafe ZuZu, enjoy classic American comfort food. Or head to Trader Vic’s, the Polynesian classic reinterpreted by Chef Charles Wiley, with outdoor dining on the lushly landscaped patio. From December 20th to December 29th, take advantage of the Opening Special of $195.60. (How clever! The hotel first opened on December 20, 1956.) Includes accommodations in a signature guest room, complimentary valet parking, complimentary access to VH Spa, and a Fifties Fun Pack of treats.
Hotel Valley Ho, Official Site
October 22, 2005
By: Mary Winston Nicklin
Hot off the Newswire! Members of Marriott Rewards can now redeem their points for Orient-Express hotels in locations worldwide. Including the spectacular Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg, Hotel Cipriani in Venice, and the Hotel Caruso in Ravello, Italy. And not just hotels. We’re talking luxury safaris in Botswana also.
October 21, 2005
By: Mary Winston Nicklin
Who cares about the iPod nano when you can dress up your iPod with a snazzy underwater case?! For the next kayak or surf adventure, bring all your tunes-- with the protection of the indestructible polycarbonate case made by Otterbox. And beyond the nifty gadgets…Check out the travel podcasts created by itoors: exciting audio walking tours covering all range of subjects. And the leader of guidebooks just launched its own serious of podcasts, including conversations with Lonely Planet authors across the globe.