Monday, December 18, 2017

The place to stay in Maui

Maui has two luxury resorts that one can choose from: Four Seasons Maui at Wailea and Ritz Carlton Kapalua.  But because Ritz Carlton is own by Marriott, the culture and finishes in the hotel is more Marriott like than smaller hotel luxury chains like Mandarin Oriental or Four Seasons.  For my first time visiting Maui, I stayed at Four Seasons Maui at Wailea.  I know this Four Seasons was recently renovated and I was curious to see how the finishes stack up to Four Seasons Lanai.

Unfortunately this Four Seasons resort is owned by Michael Dell (as in Dell Computer) not by Larry Ellison.  What this means is there is budgetary concern when it comes to remodeling.  Now of course it is unfair to compare this Four Seasons with the one on Lanai so I will hold the standard of this Four Seasons with other ones I've been to.

This Four Seasons has done many things right and just few things that needs some improvement.  To start, the layout of the hotel is a U shape.  What this means is that unless you are at the end of the U, or middle of the U, you will have side views to the ocean.  Not the end of the world but when one comes to Hawaii, naturally one wants to have ocean view to watch the sunset.  This shape of architecture is prevalent among many hotels here in Maui.  It's the easiest way to give everyone some ocean view while stacking up as many room as possible in a limited amount of space.  I'm sure it was thought through thoroughly by the building architect.  So if you want the best view, you will naturally have to pay a steep premium.  I do think for the product, the steepness of the price is on the high side.  A side note, if you want a quick access to the beach and restaurants, the rooms at the end of the U has the quickest access in addition to gorgeous views.  If you are at the middle of the U shape, it'll be a 10-15 minutes to trek to the beach.

My first impression of the lobby is nice and airy.  It exude graciousness like most Four Seasons resort I had the pleasure to stay at.  The overall ambiance is relaxed and calm.  There is actually another floor below the entrance which has spa, shops, and gym.  They have one of the nicer gym I've seen at a Four Seasons resort. It's quite large and there is a dedicated area for treadmills that look out toward the beach area.  Although I'm not sure if you can actually see the ocean from the treadmills or not.  I also did not use the spa service as I was too busy exploring the island.  So can't comment on the spa service either.

I would say food is Four Seasons good.  Meaning it's not bad but I certainly would not write home about it.  As can be expected, Spago was the best.  The worse food was Ferraro's Bar e Ristorante.  It has the best view of the ocean but I honestly cannot recommend anyone to eat there.  The pasta I had was overcooked and sauce was not good.  The in room breakfast was good.  There were lots of fresh juice choices.  A lot more than the Four Seasons at Lanai.  I think it's because Lanai has to import all their fruit whereas Maui has their own.

I stayed at the Elite suite which I highly recommend it.  Even though the website only has two bedroom or three bedroom options available, you can actually request for one bedroom option which is what I had.  The room was very modern which I liked and you can tell everything was quite new.  The finish of the furniture wasn't quite on the same level as my suite at Four Seasons Lanai but it was definitely one of the nicer suites I had at a Four Seasons resort.  The way this suite is set up, you can easily fit a family of four.  This suite actually has two full bathrooms so kids can sleep on sofa bed in the living room and have their own bathroom.  There is also a kitchenette with its own door that lead to hallway in case you decide to hire a caterer to host a party.  The master bathroom was basically lined with beautiful Carrara marble.  It looks very modern and luxurious.  The only criticism I have is that I wish the tub is a two person tub instead of just one.  There was definitely enough space to put a two person tub.  The best part of the suite was the lanai.  The sunset view at this resort is absolutely stunning.  Everyday I rush back to my suite at 5PM to take in the view.  The sunset view here definitely has Lanai Four Seasons beat.

You may have read that people complaint about having to rush down to the pool to reserve their chaise lounges early in the morning.  I find that a bit ridiculous as they should just do what Eden Rock does: each room comes with its own assigned chaise lounge.  I know this Four Seasons doesn't have enough chaise lounges for every room.  But I would think they should minimally assign chaise lounges for the residential suites.  After all, people at residential suites are paying a lot more than typical rooms at the resort and should not have to rush down early in the morning to snatch chaise lounges.  With that said, I don't particularly care for the swimming pool... I much rather go swim in the ocean.  The second best part of this resort is snorkeling with turtles.  I'm not sure why, the turtles come out en force to swim just right off the beach at Four Seasons Maui.  I must had swam with four five giant turtles.  One of them was bigger than me!  Crazy!  I can stay in that water swimming with those turtle for days.  But alas, all good things have to come to an end.

Unfortunately I had to say goodbye to this resort after five days.  I think if this was your first time at Maui, this Four Seasons is a terrific jumping off point.  The only thing that would give me any reservation about staying here would be the price. Vacationing in Hawaii is never cheap but the best rooms at this hotel will definitely cost you an arm and a leg.  Do look into their offers tab.  If you stay at a suite in the fall, you will get a nightly resort credit of $400 which will cover your breakfast and dinner (unless you get very expensive wine) during your stay.   

Friday, December 15, 2017

Four Seasons in Buenos Aires

This Four Seasons is one of those Four Seasons that I like but not head over heel for.  I do think it is difficult to operate an urban Four Seasons as the number of rooms tend to be higher and traffic is more mixed in terms of none staying guests going in and out of the hotel.  With that said, the only other luxury alternative is Faena Hotel and that hotel has its own deficit as the choices is limited.

The location of this Four Seasons is very good.  It's at an area called Recoleta which is one of the best neighborhood in Buenos Aires.  The hotel is actually at the end of a very wide boulevard called Ave 9 de Julio.  In fact, it is the widest boulevard in the world.  The boulevard more or less ends next to the hotel and becomes a freeway.  Typically it wouldn't necessarily be a good thing to stay at a hotel next to the entrance to a freeway.  But in this case, somehow it didn't feel like a negative.  In fact, it might be a plus if you are looking to get in and out of the city quickly.  The Museo Nacional de bellas Artes is within walking distance from the hotel as well as the fame cemeterio de le Recoleta where Eva Peron is burried.  There are few other museums I didn't get to go such as Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo in the area.  Next time.

I can't say I particularly like the lobby at this Four Seasons.  Most Four Seasons go with clean line stately look with lots and lots of beautifully arranged flowers.  This one has an Eastern European fashionable look which is not my cup of tea.  It doesn't mean the lobby is ugly but just not my taste.  The Belle Epoque-style mansion on the back of the hotel is quite nice.  The mansion is connect with the hotel via a podium.  The podium level of the mansion serves as event space.  I did a walk through of the space and wish the lobby of the hotel is in the mansion.  The look is much more gracious to me and in keeping of typical Four Seasons style.

I stayed at the Mansion-view one bedroom suite.  Above this would be rooms in the mansion which has rooms decorated in traditional style which I didn't want for my stay at Buenos Aires.  The owners suite looks quite nice but it's close to three times as much as the mansion-view one bedroom suite and it's only 200 sqft bigger.  It does seem to have a fabulous view though.  I was plenty happy with the one bedroom suite I had.  I love that they have two separate bathrooms.  It's always a plus in my book.  The finishes in the living room and bedroom is nice.  The bathroom looks new and water pressure is good.  The closet was a bit on the smaller side.  It was a walk-in closet but it's a one person walk-in closet so that should give you a good idea of the size.

I had dinner at the Elena restaurant.  I really enjoyed it.  I thought the decor was on point.  I love the black and white marble tiles.  I can just imagine people doing tango on top of it!  It just feels very Argentinean.  I had a steak which was perfectly cooked.  Tip: Remember in Argentina, medium rare means medium well.  If you want medium rare, order rare.  There are lots of local Argentinean in the restaurant which is a great sign.  You know locals can go anywhere and they decided to patronize Elena so you know it's good.  Indeed, it's one of the top three meal we had in Buenos Aires.

The hotel concierge is fabulous and they arranged for me to go to Colonial in Uruguay, an estancia in Pampas region, and a tango dinner at Faena Hotel.  I would highly recommend the tango dinner.  The food, as can be expected, was just ok.  The dancers and choreography were out of this world.  It was so good.  I feel like I should take up tango for cardio exercise!  I didn't get to visit the hotel rooms at Faena hotel.  The decor of the public area of Faena I do like.  It's modern but in a French not Eastern European way if you know what I mean.  However, this hotel has two drawbacks for me: the room decor feels borderline tacky from pictures online and the hotel is in the Puerto Madero area which isn't exactly close to tourist attractions.  Hence I was happy I had chosen Four Seasons over Faena.

When I go back to Buenos Aires, I would definitely stay at Four Seasons again.  This place is at a great location.  It has delectable food at its signature restaurant.  The service standard is good although it can be better.  I do wonder since I am in South America not Asia, the service here is probably as good as it gets.  And what score would Bruno Tonioli have given to this Four Seasons? I say a solid 8.        

Monday, December 4, 2017

Luxury in Patagonia

Patagonia, for the longest time, isn't exactly the place where one can find a luxury resort.  Instead, it's about hiking, camping, wind, and gorgeous views.  Thank god that Awasi came along and set up "camp" near Torres del Paine.  Otherwise I don't think I would have ever come to this part of the earth.  While I never stayed at Explora Patagonia before, but having visited it briefly and seen various pictures online, I feel I had made the right choice for me by staying at Awasi Patagonia.  I will go into the difference I see between the two resorts so you can decide better for yourself which is more preferable for you when you come to Patagonia.

Location: Awasi Patagonia is located outside of Torres del Paine National Park.  In fact, it takes about an hour or so to get to the entrance of the park and another half hour to get to where most hikers take a boat out to start the W-trek.  So this is the dilemma for visitors: to stay at Explora Patagonia which is right in the middle of the park or to stay at Awasi and take the daily car ride in and out of the park.  It really depends on what you are looking for.  For me, Awasi Patagonia is a perfect location as I can look directly onto the famous three towers every morning when I wake up and when I go to bed (sun is up until 10PM at this time of the year).  The decision is similar to when one go to Bora Bora in French Polynesia.  Do you stay at the foothill of  Otemanu or do you stay at islets and look at Mount Otemanu.  Most people would argue that when going to Bora Bora, they want the Otemanu view from islets.  To me, this is no different.  Since I'm not an avid hiker and my purpose to come to Patagonia is so I can get photos for my instagram account (joking), Awasi was a better choice for me.

Lodging: Awasi wins hands down.  The rooms at Explora Patagonia is small.  The largest room is 450 square feet and those get booked up very quickly.  Then you are left with a tight 300 square feet rooms.  No thanks.  I get that coming to Patagonia, you are not going to stay inside all day.  It's about experiencing the nature outside.  However, when I do decide to stay inside, I want to feel comfortable and not claustrophobic.  At Awasi, every independent lodge (read lots of privacy) is 1200 square feet.  Not only it's substantially bigger, the furnishing is also much much better.  Explora Patagonia looks like a nice dorm room with a bathroom that 1990s are calling and they want it back whereas Awasi Patagonia looks like a proper luxury resort bathroom.  With that said, I had issues with my shower temperature during my four night stay going from warm to hot to warm to hot which was annoying but not a deal breaker.  Management was never able to fix it during my stay.  Talking to other guests, they didn't have the same problem so I guess it was just bad luck for me and hopefully they fixed the lodge I stayed quickly before another guest arrives.          

Food: The food at Awasi was exceptional for a resort in the middle of nowhere.  I was really impressed with the plating and taste of the food.  I would say food was around bib gourmand to one Michelin star level (closer to one Michelin star).  Chef used lots of local ingredients and service was friendly but not intrusive.  In fact, I would say restaurant staff here were some of the very best I've encountered anywhere at a resort setting.  They found out your habit and things will magically appear without asking.  I like to drink ice tea with my meal and after the first meal, I never had to ask for it again during my stay.  That gives you a glimpse of the amount of personal attention one gets when one stays here.

Guide: I was very happy with my guide.  He drove me everywhere and anywhere I asked.  We went to Torres del Paine national park as well as many other places outside of the national park.  I like the idea of having my private guide.  He caters to my schedule and not the other way around.  I know at Explora Patagonia you are put in a group and you are on a schedule.  So if you are stuck with people like me who barely hikes, then too bad for you... we are going to hike at a turtle pace.  Having a private guide, I can sleep in and start my day at 11AM.  I never have to cater to anyone else's whim except my own.  This is the way luxury travel should be.

Facility: Awasi Patagonia has one single main building where you can lounge or take in food.  Unfortunately there is no spa facility and if you want a massage, a masseuse will come to your lodge.  There is a firewood hot tub next to your villa.  Yes, you read that right, literally firewood.  The idea is great.  How often does one actually get to sit inside of a tub of water that's warm by firewood.  On the other hand, if you come here during windy seasons (spring, summer, fall), then there is a good chance the wind is too dangerous for them to lit up fire under your wooden tub outside.  To me, the idea of firewood tub is cute and romantic, but someone forgot it's really really really windy here in Patagonia ALL THE TIME (except winter as I was told).  A jacuzzi tub powered by electric makes much more sense IMO.

Activities: I stayed four nights and five days.  It was the perfect amount of time for me.  The first day was just arrival.  Currently LATAM flies to Puerto Natales on Tuesdays and leave on Saturdays which fit into my schedule to a T.  If you arrive at Punta Areanas (which LATAM flies to daily from Santiago), then you will have to take a 5 hour car ride after you land whereas Puerto Natales is hour and a half from the resort.  Much more doable IMO.  The second day I spend the whole day inside the Torres del Paine and saw waterfalls (with crazy strong wind), Lake Pehoe, lots of guanaca, and various mountains .  The third day I went to Baguales area which is about an hour and a half away from the resort.  Apparently Awasi rents access to this area from various owners and they are the only resort in the area has access to the very end of the road where I saw a profusion of dandelions.  It was stunning.  Because this area is private, you don't see hoards of tourists like Torres del Paine has.  The fourth day, I went to Grey Lake inside the Torres del Paine National Park.  Unfortunately the wind was so strong that day they cancelled the boat tour to glacier.  I did see some icebergs and you can see the glacier from afar.  My first time.  The last day was time to pack up and go back to civilization.  So five days was perfect.  If you only stay three nights, you will have to miss some stuff.  If you are very into hiking, then you will need easily eight nights nine days if not longer.  For a city slicker like me, four nights and five days was perfect.    

Overall, I was very happy with my choice of lodging.  Honestly, if you are looking for luxury lodging options in Patagonia, this is the only choice.  In fact, this place is reminiscent of experiences I have at various Aman resorts.  I would not be surprised if the owner of Awasi is an Amanjunkie.  If you stayed at Aman resorts before, you know they give you little gifts nightly.  At Awasi Patagonia, they do the same.  Also everyone here knows who you are just like at Aman resorts.  They know your preferences and you never have to repeat yourself over and over again like when one stays at those big anonymous Starwood properties.  If you are totally gung ho about hiking inside the national park all day and everyday you are here, then I would probably recommend you to go to Explora Patagonia despite their inferior lodging and food.  If you are looking for a true luxury experience with varied destinations beside Torres del Paine national park, then Awasi Patagonia will be better for you.       

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The best Four Seasons Resort ever?

While I have not been to every single Four Seasons out there, but I have been to quite a few around the world.  Four Seasons to me, stands for high quality service and nice interior.  Because Four Seasons own very few of their properties, each property has its own look and quality depending on owner's objective.  Some Four Seasons looks like a slightly nicer version of a Westin Hotel such as Four Seasons Palo Alto.  Some Four Seasons look beautiful like the Four Seasons Bora Bora.  And then there is the Four Seasons on Lana'i; it is one of those exceptional Four Seasons that warrants repeat visits.

Four Seasons Lana'i really has it made in many aspects.  First, it has an owner who is ultra wealthy and looking at this Four Seasons as his vanity project (ie. return isn't that important but showing off is).  Secondly, it has a gorgeous setting that's hard to replicate.  Lastly, it is in a location that has access to great staff.

As many of you may know, Four Seasons Lana'i is own by Larry Ellison.  What this means is he has oodles of money to spend on sprucing up Lana'i if he wants to and thankfully for me, he did.  In general, Four Seasons lobbies are very grand.  They are very good at setting the tone of luxury.  However, when you step into your room, let's just say sometimes it can be a let down.  Again, I would refer this back to Palo Alto Four Seasons (let me beat this dead horse again).  Lana'i Four Seasons' finishes is unparalleled to any other Four Seasons I've been to.  They use Neorest Toto toilet in every guest room!  Most hotel only reserve a $5k toilet for their presidential suites if that.  But here we have $5k toilets even for cheapest rooms.  This is absolutely unheard of.  This kind of lavish detail tells you the amount of money that was spent on sprucing up this resort.

I was lucky to stay at their Alii Royal Suite and I honestly did not want to leave.  This suite is basically Four Seasons Lana'i's highest category suite.... even higher than their presidential suite.  Alii Royal suite can be either one bedroom or two (connecting room next door can be made available).  I have stayed at places that have similar level of opulence such as Cheval Blanc Randheli or the Brando in Tahiti.  But the amount of space and custom details made my stay at Four Seasons Lana'i the most opulent hotel suite I had the pleasure to stay in.  Everything about the suite is gorgeous;  from the beautiful handmade Nepalese Lokta wallpaper to gorgeous museum worthy artwork on walls.  My favorite is the Dietrich Varez wallpaper in the closet anteroom.  Yes, you read that correctly.... there is an anteroom to go to the closet room which is as big as a studios in NYC.  A steam bath is incorporated into a large two person shower room.  Oh and did I mention there is a two person Japanese tub in the bathroom as well.  I'm not a tub person but I did take a nice long bath in that tub.  It was heavenly.  And of course let's not forget about the amazing ocean front view off the living room, dining room, media room, and master bedroom.  Yes, count them... four lanais.  The suite also comes with a library but I didn't spend any time in there as I was too busy looking out the window.  Just in case you don't want to look at TV in your master bedroom, they mounted a hidden TV in the ceiling above your bed so you don't have to look at it unless you want to.  When I'm on vacation, I rarely watch TV but believe me, I watched TV a few times in bed.

While I can stay in Alii Royal suite and never leave, I did leave so I can enjoy rest of the resort.  There are few restaurants onsite.  I really liked Malibu Farm which came from Los Angeles.  Food is very fresh and tasty.  The Sports Bar and Grill has yummy salad and their poke bowl uses freshest tuna.  It was divine.   Nobu is always good... I wish it was Matsuhisa though which I like better.  The weakest link for me was One Forty.  The food was typical Four Seasons good.  It's competent food but not something to write home about.

Another thing I enjoyed about staying at a resort is experiencing their spa.  So naturally I have to hit up the one here.  Funny thing is they use exact same lockers as the ones at Four Seasons Bora Bora.  But I would say the spa is prettier here at Lana'i.  The one at Bora Bora is more rustic looking which it makes sense but personally I prefer a more luxe tailored looking spa.  There is the typical lockers, shower stalls, steam room, sauna room, and waiting area.  All very nicely furnished.  The spa room was adequately sized and my masseur was good.  One thing spa manager did which I really appreciate was he moved my masseur's meeting around to accommodate me.  I thought that was very consumer-centric move.  He could have easily left my original reservation time and I would had to come back later at a less optimal time for me.  So bravo to the manager at the spa.  And he is not the only one who went out of his way to make me feel cared for.  But more on that later.

Spa facility is actually very close to the hotel pools.  This resort has two pools.  One is family pool and the other one is adult pool.  They are not that far apart from each other but I suppose some foliage, walkway, and palm trees between them do serve some kind of separation.  The funny thing is I found the adult pool less serene as there were few frat boy types talking loudly and probably drunk on some of the day during my stay while the family pool only had one mom and her kid swimming quietly...  The later pool was definitely more relaxing.  For me though, I much rather go to a beach then jump into a pool.  Lana'i Four Seasons has a nice beach very close to the resort.  All Hawaiian beaches are public so we did run into several local people next to the Four Seasons beach.  However, because the population on Lanai is small, there isn't that many people on the beach so it felt fairly private.  If you are looking to snorkel, you have to go to the side that's farther away from the resort.  It's a five minute walk so you don't have to trek very far.  The snorkeling experience was good.  There were plenty of colorful fish and creatures in the water.  I was satisfied with what I saw. I would say it was comparable to other Hawaiian islands I've experienced. 

If you are a gym junkie, then you are in luck as this resort has a very nice large gym.  It has free weights and assisted weight machines.  It's a proper gym which one normally don't get in a resort no matter how luxe the resort is.  Most places have an onsite gym as an afterthought.  This gym not only offer you lots of equipment, it even has free earphones in case you don't have one when you hop onto a cardio machine!  Now that's a first.  Oh, and it does have a very nice ocean view while you do your cardio to boot.  Makes doing cardio slightly less painful...

Lastly, the staff at Four Seasons Lanai was incredible.  The best Four Seasons Service I've experience was at Four Seasons Koh Samui.  That resort has 60 villas with 11 private residence rentals.  Lanai Four Seasons has a total of 213 rooms and I have to say they give the staff at Koh Samui a run for their money.  Everyone from resort manager David to beach boy was super nice and incredibly they all remember my name!!  It's one thing I'm at an Aman resort (which has 35 rooms or less) and people remembers me but it's another when the staff at the beach here asked me about how was my dinner last night at Lanai City Bar and Grill (a local restaurant in town) when I know the only other staff that know I went was the ambassador/ concierge at the front entrance.  It goes to show that every department in the hotel communicates with each other and they want to make sure you are absolutely taken care of down to the littlest details.  I'm impressed.  I don't know how they do it with so many rooms.  There is a saying that one of the best thing about being in Hawaii is the Ohana spirit that one comes across while in Hawaii.  I have to say Four Seasons Lana'i embraced that concept and then some.  I will be back.  This Four Seasons is the best Hawaiian Four Seasons bar none.  It would not surprise me if this is the best Four Seasons beach resort in the world.  Maybe someday I'll find out after I go to every single one of them.  In any case, I hope to return to this gorgeous respite soon.        

Friday, August 25, 2017

Some of my favorite pieces from men's 2017 fall collections

Summer is about to wrap up and we will be in the fall soon.  It's time to take a look at what's next for the coming season.  Here are some of my favorite items from the upcoming season:

Now that Louis Vuitton x Supreme collection had dropped and finished, which pieces were you able to cop?  There were quite a few accessories in this collection.  Most people would say the IT accessories from this collection would be red Christopher backpack, red epi bumbag, or red epi Keepall.  No doubt those items are lit but to me they are not exactly practical for everyday use or just a bit too screaming LV x Supreme for my taste.  I do love the red epi pouchette jour GM though.  Yes, it's very logocentric, but it's not as in your face when carry under your arm and gives you a nice pop of color for your overall outfit.  It also happen to be the "cheapest" larger size accessory from this collection. So IMO, I think it gives you the most bang for the buck.

No fashionable man can call himself fashionable without a bit of Gucci in his wardrobe these days.  And of course ever since hoodies become synonymous with millennials style via Zuckerberg, it had become a stable in men's closet for many seasons now.  I love this version from Gucci.  I always liked dragon motif on things and in this case, Michele put just the right amount of dragon in this hoodie.  It's kinda out there without being insanely out there as some of the stuff from Michele can be a bit aggressive.  

Talk about pop of color.  Not too many men have the confidence of pulling off a pink sweater.  This one, from Valentino's fall/winter collection, is a stand out.  Pierpaolo Piccioli decided to collaborate with Jamie Reid and I think it's a brilliant one.  You may know Jamie Reid from the Sex Pistol's infamous single cover God Save the Queen.  This sweater is embedded with the words "Beauty is a birthright.  Reclaim your heritage."  It perhaps served as a double entendre for Piccioli's new status as the sole design director for Valentino and commentary of the world we live in today.

What's your favorite pieces from this fall?   


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

French Polynesia (the Brando) vs Maldives (Cheval Blanc Randheli)

I have often wonder what's the difference between going to French Polynesia versus going to the Maldives.  Both have unreal ocean colors.  Both have luxury resorts.  How can one choose between the two?  Now that I have been to both, with four months apart, I can give you my two cents.  If you are saving hard for that once in a lifetime trip and choosing between the two locations, here are the differences.

1. The distance.  To me, flying time does make a difference.  If you are going from Europe, obviously the Maldives are much closer than French Polynesia.  If you are in California like me, French Polynesia is infinitely closer.  It will take me easily 24-26 hours to get to Male.  It takes about 12 hours to get to Tahiti.

2. The villas.  Strictly speaking, if just comparing the finishes of the villas, Cheval Blanc Randheli wins hands down.  The finishes here trumps the Brando and the Four Seasons Bora Bora by a mile.  There is no ifs and buts.  Cheval Blanc Randheli's finishes is above and beyond anything I have seen at any commercial resort.

3. The water.  Both locales have very similar water color... it's this multiple shades of neon blue.  I would say the water in the Maldives are slightly calmer than the ones at French Polynesia but that may just be the time I was there.  I would say it's a tie between the two.

4. The service.   They are of the highest caliber at their respective location.  Cheval Blanc assign a butler to every villa whereas the Brando doesn't.  But because it has less villas than Cheval Blanc (35 vs 45), I would say the level of service is fairly equal.  Overall I would rate the service level is really quite high at both places.

5. The spa.  Here Cheval Blanc Randheli definitely wins out.  Their spa is on its own island and in order to get there, you have to take a boat.  Once you reach there, you are checked into a stunning reception area and then lead to treatment villas.  That's right.  You are lead to a villa NOT a room.  The treatment villas have pretty much everything in them.  From shower, toilet, huge makeup area (free Guerlain products), to snooze/relax room and treatment room.  I mean they are literally villas where you can live in.  Of course the finishes in those treatment villas are just as unbelievable as everything at this resort.  The treatment rooms at the Brando don't even come close.  I also find the massage I had at Cheval Blanc Randheli is better than any resort I have ever been to.

6. The excursions.  Here the Brando wins hands down.  Unbelievable atoll.  It's incredibly pretty.  Some of the islands has lots of birds such as red footed boobies where there were none to be found at Cheval Blanc Randheli.  There are also lots of marine life such as sting rays, manta rays, and whales at the Brando whereas my time at the Maldives, we didn't come across such animals.  But this may be because we were at the Maldives at the wrong time.  I don't know.  But as far as my personal experience, I feel there are more than just water sports that's on offer at the Brando whereas at Cheval Blanc Randheli, it's water sports or nothing else.

7. The food.  If we just solely compare the breakfast, the Brando absolutely wins hands down as their bake goods are actually flaky and crunchy.  I'm not sure how they do it as tropical humidity typically means soggy bake goods which is what Cheval Blanc served me every morning.  However, if you compare lunch and dinner, Cheval Blanc Randheli won out easily.  The food there is as good as one to two Michelin star level whereas the Brando has very tasty food, but just not the same caliber.  In addition, Cheval Blanc Randheli has a lot of choices of restaurants whereas the Brando pales in comparison.   

8. The culture.  Most of the Cheval Blanc is actually a landfill... meaning the island was much smaller and was enlarged artificially.  So to me, everything feels somewhat artificial including none existent cultural experience.  If you are looking for a gorgeous resort that devoid of any cultural reference, then Cheval Blanc Randheli is it.  I would guess most of the Maldivian resorts are similar in that way.  I didn't get a sense of place when I was there.  The Brando, on the other hand, is definitely very French Polynesian down to weekly dance shows.  They even have programs where they teach you how to dance the Polynesian way!

9. The snorkeling.  Right off the villa, the one I stay at Cheval Blanc Randheli has tons of colorful tropical fish.  Simply amazing.  However, my understanding is that this is the exception.  Most of the villas there has very little to zero fish right off the villa.  The Brando, on the other hand, has decent amount of fish off the beach on Turtle Bay section.  I would not say there are tons of them and they are not nearly as colorful as the ones in the Maldives.  However, both places can take you to areas not too far from the resort where you can find tons of fish.  Therefore I would call this a tie.

Conclusion.  It really comes down to what your vacation goal is.  If you are looking for luxury experience with no cultural references, then Cheval Blanc Randheli is it.  You will feel like you are on a foreign planet where you are pampered to Nth degree.  It's simply an incredible resort to stay at.  If you are like me, who likes luxury experience with cultural references, then the Brando is for you.  The Brando, without a doubt, is physically not nearly as luxurious as Cheval Blanc Randheli.  However, I think they made up for it by having an incredible atoll that you can explore and by giving you incomparable French Polynesian cultural experiences that are u can't get anywhere else.  Now that I have given you my two cents, which locale will you be going to?     


Thursday, July 27, 2017

If you want to vacation without paparazzi, this is the resort to go to!

If you are one of those people who gets haunted by paparazzi, the place to go relax without people asking you for autograph is The Brando in South Pacific.  This resort is actually fairly accessible from Los Angeles.  You have two options.  One is take Air France/ Tahiti Nui from Los Angeles to Tahiti, then transfer to The Brando via Air Tetiaroa.  Another option is fly private to Tahiti ($100K and up) and then transfer to The Brando via Air Tetiaroa.  Unfortunately the airstrip at Tetiaroa will not accommodate private planes so there is no way to fly direct onto the atoll.  With that said, Air Tetiaroa lounge is gorgeous and is air conditioned unlike rest of the Tahiti airport which can get rather hot and humid.  The flight is short from Tahiti... it's only 20 minutes so you land pretty soon after you take off.

There are only two places I've been to that does arrival perfectly.  One is Amanbagh.  The other is The Brando.  I love it when you arrive, the resort sets the tone via music/ dance.  At The Brando, they have one girl singing and playing ukulele while another doing traditional French Polynesian dance.  As far as I'm concern, every top resort should do something similar to set the tone for their guests. 

We were whisked away to our room once the performance ended via a buggie.  Unfortunately, this was one of the very few complaints I had at The Brando.  They mixed up our room as we had extensive email chains requesting turtle bay instead of mermaid bay room.  At first front desk blamed it on concierge but when confronted with email chain from reservation department, they finally admitted fault.  That's unacceptable as front desk should have just admitted fault from the get go instead of trying to blame it on someone else.  That's not the way to endear anyone who just checked in and certainly not the way a resort that's ranked number two in the world by Conde Nast should handle things.  I know when we had a problem with our room at Eden Rock, it was handled professionally and the manager made it more than right for us.  But then again, maybe that's why Eden Rock is named number one by Conde Nast.  With that said, rest of the stay was pretty much close to perfection with one or two things I feel they can improve upon. 

After finally checked into a villa on the turtle bay (couple hours later), we were able to enjoy the resort.  The photos on their website do no justice to their villas.  I would say the interior finishes is second to Cheval Blanc Randheli.  Everything is very nicely done.  The ceiling is quite high and everything down to the color scheme was spot on.  The only minor quip I have about the interior is the reproduction painting they have hung across from sofa in the living room.  I mean at this price point, why should I be looking at a reproduction art?  Why not just frame up some dead palm leaves from outside.  That would look so much better than a canvas with printed art.  I would not be surprised if they bought that canvas from which is a no no at this price point.  Other than that, all the finishes were topnotch and very French.  The bathroom is especially beautiful.  While I don't think the round pedestal sink is my thing for long term use, short term is very doable.

The layout of the suite is very functional.  You have living room area right off the entry.  If you head to the left, you have a study/ reading area that can be enclosed with a sliding door.  This is particularly useful is you bring your kids as the daybed has a pull out underneath that can be used for your kids to sleep on.  If you turn right at the foyer, you will enter the bedroom area.  The bed is nicely centered for optimal viewing of the sea.  Behind the bed is closet area where they have ample closet space and drawers for a week or two stay.  Passing through dressing area is a gorgeous bathroom.  Unlike Four Seasons Bora Bora, you only get one bathroom unless you check into a two bedroom villa.  So if you come with your kids and decide to stay in an one bedroom villa, all of you will have to share one bathroom.

I do have to note one great design element of the villa is night light.  They installed an infrared light under your bed.  When you get off your bed to go to bathroom at night, small light will come on inside your bathroom as your feet would have trigger the infrared light.  I thought this is clever and eliminate leaving a nightlight on all night.

Every villa gets their own private sandy backyard which is quite nice.  In this backyard they have outdoor foot and overhead shower.  There is a nice shaded gazebo like structure for you to take in your meals.  There is also a smallish pool for you to dip in in case you decided you didn't want to trek to the ocean which is only a minute away.  There are some foliage that give you some privacy between the public beach and your own backyard.  But honestly, with 35 villas and only about half of them are on the turtle bay side, we barely saw anyone.  Some days, we were the only one snorkeling in the reef.  Actually make that pretty much everyday.  Sometimes you wonder where is everyone??  My type of beach for sure! 

This is suppose to be a eco-resort so with all these gorgeous amenities, how can this be green?  I've been to a few of these eco-hotels before and they just feel... well, not luxurious at all.  But at The Brando, they managed to achieve luxury AND eco-friendly.  Not an easy feat.  Air condition which is an absolute must in a tropical resort came from deep under the ocean.  Most of the electricity came from solar panels and down to the toilet water is of ground water/ rain water.  Now I'm not a big fan of looking at my toilet and water is somewhat yellow....makes me want to flush it till clean water comes out.  But in this case, since it's saving the environment, I will temporary suspend the germaphobe self.

The food here is not as good as Cheval Blanc Randheli, but they are definitely better than Four Seasons Bora Bora.  In fact, the breakfast here is better than Cheval Blanc Randheli.  The croissants all came crispy and they give you just enough food without overwhelming you with it.  This is the first place I have ever been to that actually is able to give you good bake goods in a tropical setting.  Eden Rock's soggy croissants pale next to The Brando's.  They need to keep the pastry chef.  She knows what she's doing!!!

There's not too many restaurant options here.  But I guess they are opening new ones next year.  But for now, you are basically stuck with either Beachcomber Cafe which is very good and Les Mutines by Guy Martin for dinner.  Les Mutines was disappointing.  I was expecting one Michelin star food like le 1947 at Cheval Blanc Randheli (I would actually give 1947 two Michelin stars), but the food came out to be Michelin Guide level which is a bit of a let down.  The food is good but because it's posed as a signature restaurant for the resort, so I had higher expectations.  Given Les Mutines is enclosed, I rather go to Beachcomber Cafe which most of the guests ended up doing.  Beachcomber Cafe has excellent steaks.  They import them from New Zealand and meat is very tender.  In fact, Beachcomber has one of the best burger I ever had anywhere.  Fish is also well cooked.  We pretty much ended up eating at Beachcomber Cafe, Bob's bar or room service for rest of our stay on the atoll.

I did go to spa daily because it was included in my package.  I enjoyed the spa especially the facial.  Unfortunately they did not have any male masseur and the two female masseuse I had were just adequate.  They just didn't have the deep strength that I like.  But for reference, I'm totally fine with my masseur walking on my back Thai style so others may find these masseuses more than adequate.  The facility is nicer than the one at Four Seasons Bora Bora but not nearly as nice as the ones at Cheval Blanc Randheli.

The service I feel is mostly good if not great with few exceptions.  One time I wanted to ride my bike back to my room from Beachcomber Cafe.  But I did not have my bike with me as I took the buggie.  When I inquired if they can bring forth a bike so I can ride back to my room, the answer is it's not possible.  Knowing that the resort was less than 50% full, the staff can easily fetch a bike from one of the villa next to the restaurant and lug it back later.  If this was Eden Rock, they would say yes of course it is possible.  While this is a very minor complaint but it illustrates that this particular staff had not been trained to go above and beyond the norm.  On the other hand, when I wanted to watch sunset from the Beachcomber Cafe, two staff went out of the way to lug a comfortable beach sofa for us to sit on and even brought some drinks and snacks for us to snack on without us requesting them to do any of it.  This is above and beyond what is called.  I was thoroughly impressed.    

The best part of The Brando besides some of its staff is the atoll.  We snorkeled with lots of fishes.  We bird watched lots of birds including red footed boobies.  We saw few sting rays and a manta ray within the lagoon.  We took our first open ocean scuba dive lesson right outside the atoll.  We even attempted to swim with a whale and her baby!  I have to say the outdoor nature activities is what differentiate The Brando from all the other ultra luxury resorts I have ever been to.  The atoll is stunningly beautiful.  I have never experienced any place like Tetiaroa.  The only place I can possibly imagine would be similar would be going to Galapagos Islands.  However, I doubt we will find a resort as luxurious and as eco-friendly as The Brando on the Galapagos Islands.

Overall the experience at The Brando was exceptional.  I can see why they were ranked number two on Conde Nast's list.  In order for them to be number one, I think all the staff needs to have Everything is Possible attitude that Eden Rock staff has.  Some of the staff at The Brando have that attitude but not all.  If they are able to get all the staff to go an extra inch for their guests, I can easily see The Brando take the crown and maintaining it.  We will definitely be back.  The beauty of this place can't be described with words and photos.  Once you come, you will be like Leonardo diCaprio who pretty much makes a yearly trip to this magical place.  We will be back.  I hope soon.  



Tuesday, July 25, 2017

One of the most romantic resort in the Pacific

I've been wanting to go to Bora Bora for a long time.  I finally had a chance to go recently and stayed at Four Seasons Bora Bora.  While the stay was not 100% satisfactory, but it certainly came close.

The only way to fly direct from United States to Tahiti is through Tahiti Nui or Air France.  Both airlines offer nonstop flight from Los Angeles to Tahiti.  Neither offer first class and only Air France offers lie-flat seats.  Once you get to Tahiti, you will need to hop onto another plane to get to Bora Bora which is about 40 minutes away from Tahiti.  Unfortunately there is no air condition at Tahiti airport so if you are arriving outside of the winter months (July, August), be prepared to be a bit sticky in the waiting area from humidity.  There are two other more expensive/ comfortable options to go from Los Angeles to Bora Bora: private jet which will run 100k+ or Four Seasons private jet that you have to share with few other couples for 50k+. 

Once we arrived at Bora Bora airport, Four Seasons reps were there to receive us.  We hopped onto a Four Seasons boat and arrived comfortably at the Four Seasons resort in no time.  The lobby was airy and beautiful but not as grand as the one at Four Seasons Hualalai.  After typical passport/ credit card formality, we were off to our room (#330).  We had reserved an one bedroom Otemanu overwater bungalow suite.  I have to say the bungalow was gorgeous!  The bed has a dead on Mount Otemanu view.  I repeat, the bed has a dead on Mount Otemanu view!  As some of you may know, Otemanu is the tallest mountain and the center of the Bora Bora atoll.  It is the view one sees in pretty much all Bora Bora adverts.  To see it in person was much more awe inspiring.  Photos just don't do it justice IMO.  And of course to see it from my bed for the coming few days was icing on the cake.

I liked the layout of the Otemanu overwater bungalow.  As you know, sometimes resort rooms can have a "what was the architect thinking" layout.  Well, this room was layout logically.  There is actually two bathrooms in this particular suite.  This is very helpful when you come with kids or when you don't want to share toilets.  The living room sofa can be doubled as a bed.  If you turn right from the foyer, you will enter the bedroom area with a large closet space.  After that is the master bathroom with a beautiful freestanding tub and again, gorgeous view of Otemanu.  Unfortunately the tub does not face Otemanu.  However, there is an opening to the exterior deck from the bathroom so you can easily hop into shower when you get out of the lagoon.  The exterior deck is also one of the highlight for this particular suite.  You get a bale where you can lounge and read a book.  You get a dock hammock which I'm deathly afraid of.  I know one can almost jump on it and it'll be fine but since I'm an ok swimmer, the last thing I want is plunge into water if somehow the dock hammock becomes loose.  There is also a plunge pool which honestly is kinda useless since you literally have a beautiful lagoon to swim in one foot away.  You also get an outdoor dining area which we used extensively and a chaise lounge area to take in the sun. 

If you look at the resort map, there are essentially four over the water bungalow "arms".  They are in 100, 200, 300, and 400 series.  We stayed at the 300 series.  IMO, the 200 series may be the best one as it is close to the Otemanu as well as restaurants.  100 series is also good as there are no more bungalows on the north side so when you sit in your tub, you will not be facing any bungalow.  300 series Otemanu overwater bungalow is also not bad as it has the closest view to Otemanu but you do have to trek a bit further to get to restaurants/ pools.  Unfortunately there weren't that many buggies around and wait for them usually take about 15 minutes.  One thing I want to applaud Four Seasons is that they put washing machines in each of the "arms" so you can wash your swim suite daily if you do so desire or your toddler's clothes.

Do note that there are lots of traffic on the lagoon.  So don't expect that if you rent the most expensive overwater bungalow (which is Otemanu overwater bungalow suite), you will have the outmost privacy.  While the traffic doesn't compare to what one sees on the Grand Canal in Venice, you will see few boats zip by every 30 minutes or so.  The people in the boat will be able to see you on the deck but not into your villa.

Food at Four Seasons Bora Bora is good not great.  Everything is competently done but I would not expect Michelin star quality food like the restaurants at Cheval Blanc Randheli in the Maldives.  The best food I had was at St James at the city of Vaitape.  If you happen to take one of the free shuttle from Four Seasons to Vaitape, you should go to this restaurant.  Your stomach will thank you.     

Four Seasons Bora Bora has a closed off private lagoon where you can find lots of fish.  This is very similar to the one in Four Seasons Hualalai although I would say the one on the Big Island is a bit better with more fish.  Unfortunately if you are expecting lots of snorkeling right off the bungalow, you will be disappointed.  There are few fish here and there but you will not see massive amount of fish right off the bungalow.

With that said, there are excursions that you can book through Four Seasons where they will take you to places with lots and lots of fish.  More than one would see at Hanauma Bay in Oahu for comparison.  There are excursion where you can swim with black tip sharks which for me was interesting.  They don't eat human so there is no need to worry.  Four Seasons will also take you to a place where you can pet sting rays in the wild which is amazing.  I highly recommend this.  We also saw dauphins in the lagoon although they were quite shy so we didn't see any up close.

My spa experience was good.  I got a massage and my masseur was competent but not exceptional like the one I had at Cheval Blanc Randheli.  The spa facility itself was nice but doesn't compare to Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas or Cheval Blanc Randheli.  I would say the facility is on more rustic side than luxurious.    

The biggest city on the Bora Bora atoll is Vaitape.  This city is basically on the opposite side of Mount Otemanu from Four Seasons.  It takes about 30 minutes boat ride to get there.  I highly recommend going there to get more of a feel of Polynesian culture.  There is a store there called Home which sells jewelry, accessories, sculptures, pillows, linens, etc.  This is the best store on the atoll.  Everything is well presented and nicely done.  If you are looking for something you actually want to put inside your home, this is the place.  If you are looking for cheap chachkies, this is not the place for that.

Four Seasons will give you an option to go to their July 14th Bastille Day celebration if you happen to be at the resort during French Independence day.  Depending on your age and mood, you may want to join or avoid at all cost.  This celebratory lunch is basically you have whole bunch picnic tables set up in a shallow water where a DJ plays current dance songs and you get to eat a decent buffet with all you can drink alcohol.  This particular lunch isn't done by Four Seasons but rather by local party planner where apparently local resorts such as St Regis, Four Seasons etc. send their guests to.  I couldn't wait to get out of there as I prefer sound of water and nature to DJ blasting latest dance tunes.  But I can see if you are in mid 20s, you will probably enjoy dancing in water along with other guests. 

If you happen to come to Bora Bora in July, look for Heiva.  Heiva is a dance competition celebration.  Oddly, when I was at Four Seasons, the concierge was confused about the calendar of Heiva and had advised us incorrectly about it.  I also noticed that Four Seasons did not sponsor Heiva at Bora Bora whereas places like St Regis and InterContinental did.  Luckily I asked the locals and found out the correct date for the best male, best female, and best couple dancer competition.  Unfortunately I was not able to make it to the best group dance.  If you happen to come to Bora Bora in July, this will be the best cultural experience as none of the dancers are professional like the ones at Tahiti.  This Heiva dates back for over hundred years before any of the resorts were build.  The Heiva was done for the locals not for tourists.You can't get more authentic experience than this. In fact, when I was there, I would say spectator compose of 20% tourists and 80% locals.

I had a wonderful time at Four Season Bora Bora.  I absolutely would not hesitate to recommend this place.  While it doesn't have the most amazing service like Four Seasons Koh Samui, or the most luxurious finish like Cheval Blanc Randheli, overall the experience at this resort is very good and I will definitely return here sometimes in the future.


Friday, June 16, 2017

Supreme x Artek stool

Unless you live under a rock, you know Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration will drop in July.  Given the amount of coverage and fakes that's oozing out everywhere, I have to say I'm kinda over the whole collaboration between those two brands. 

However, I came across this cute little stool decorated by Supreme and made by Artek.  This Aalto stool was designed by the world famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.  It's simple in its form and quite utilitarian in terms of usage.  I love that you can stack these stools easily to save space as square footage is a premium when you live in a city like San Francisco or NYC.  The stools are available now on Supreme's website for $398 and who knows, they may become more collectible someday than the Louis Vuitton x Supreme shirts and wallets.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Colette Sale SS2017

I always find Colette carries a great off beat collection of clothes that you just don't find anywhere.  Luckily for all the fashionistas out there, their 50% off sale is on right now!  Of course I can't promise the stuff I'm listing here will still be around when you log on to buy, but here are some of my favorite things:

This Raf Simon's bag is an interesting intersection of art and clothing.  He collaborated with Mapplethorpe foundation and the photograph on the bag is one of Mapplethorpe's photo.  I find Raf Simon's vision intriguing.  He does thinking man's fashion.

Thom Browne is obsessed with seersucker patterns and so am I!  This bag is a perfect combination of seersucker pattern on a dog with a dog tag on its neck.  What's there not to like?

One of the most quirky furniture brand one can buy is from Fornasetti.  So when Comme des Garcons collaborated with Fornasetti, you can be sure oddball thing can happen... such as this shirt; it has combo of two usual Fornasetti motives...  sun and hot air balloons!

Monday, May 15, 2017

Fashion Collaborations of 2017

Large retailers/ fashion houses are collaborating with various artists and fashion designers to boost their image and bottom line.  Here are some that are either coming or already happened in 2017 that I have been particularly excited about.

Pigalle X Missoni

Pigalle founder Stephane Ashpool grew up in the section of Paris called Pigalle hence the name of the brand.  The collaboration was announced in April of this year and dropped few weeks later.  Pigalle is essentially an equivalent of Supreme New York but in Paris.  The one thing I wanted was the Pigalle x Missoni basketball.  Unfortunately it's sold out....

Louis Vuitton X Supreme

Unless you have been sleeping under a rock, you have already heard of the Louis Vuitton X Supreme collaboration many many many times this year.  The ultimate trophy of this collaboration is of course the $68,500 trunk. But that would mean sleeping on the street and eat cup o' noodle for a year!!! lol.  Pieces I would love to buy are the white plain calf leather sneakers overlay with Louis Vuitton signature branding on the side, a black epi slender wallet, and the chain wallet in black.  The all over red with white Supreme logo is just a bit too blingy for my taste but I suppose if you are dropping a large stack, maybe you do want to let the world know that your accessories game is better than theirs!

Uniqlo X KAWS

I came across this collaboration accidentally at the end of April.  I was browsing online and somehow I wondered onto Uniqlo's website and they were selling stuff from this collab.  I look at sizes that were available but my sizes were all gone so I didn't buy anything.  Then a day or two later, I left for NYC and walked pass by the Uniqlo store on Fifth Avenue.  I decided to pop in and voila, they have most of the t-shirts in my size available.  Unfortunately the large and small Snoopy stuff animals were sold out as well as tote bags.  But I was happy to get the t-shirts.

Alber Elbaz X Converse

Lanvin's loss is Converse's gain!  Alber Elbaz is now collaborating with Converse and releasing a new set of 6 different converse designs.  They came out about month and a half ago.  Sadly they are only available in Japan so to buy them, you will need either a Japanese friend who can buy them online and sent them to you or you have to get a proxy mail forwarding service in Japan to do that on your behalf.  These whimsical shoes come with branded box and dust bag and they ran about $300-$400 plus shipping to US and perhaps import tax.  

Louis Vuitton x Jeff Koons

I guess Louis Vuitton is on a roll this year.  While waiting for the Supreme collaboration to drop, why not take a look at their current collaboration with fame contemporary artist Jeff Koons.  Jeff, whom some of you may know, owns the auction record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction for a living artist.  That number is $58.4 million in 2013 for a balloon dog sculpture.  For this collaboration, he decided to go Old Master.  Master of kitsch, he puts artist's name in polished gold metal right on the bag along with their painting in reference to his gazing ball series.  My favorite piece is the Rubens Keepall 50.   


Monday, April 17, 2017

If you are going to Sri Lanka, this hotel should be on top of your list

There are many pretty resorts dotted around Sri Lanka.  However, if you are looking for best of the best, the only one you should be considering is Amangalla in Galle.  Not only the resort is part of an Unesco world heritage site, but it also has the most luxurious room and best service on the island hands down.  The charming 18th century complex set within a 17th century Dutch fort used to be the New Orient Hotel.  It was taken over by Aman group in 2009 and it had never looked more ravishing since its existance.

Unfortunately, our experience at Amangalla started off on the wrong foot.  When we arrived, we expected staffs bring us fresh towels and welcome drinks like they do at pretty much every Aman we have ever been to.  Instead, we were made to wait at their lobby with no one to check us in.  Now if I was at Westin or Hilton, this would be fine.  However, we are at an Aman property and this is a very unusual reception from a brand that we love.  It was head scratching to say the least.

After 15-20 minutes or so, the temporary general manager (Pantelis) showed up and led us to our room.  He was friendly and we felt at ease after a long day of traveling from India.  Our butler then took over.  We had few requests including a question about air taxi on the island (its schedule and cost).  Our butler said that the air taxi is closed for the day so he won't have the answer until tomorrow.  Fair enough.  Then he proceed to ask me to remind him about the air taxi tomorrow as he may forget to check with them!  I thought that was the oddest request from a butler.  If he has hard time remembering (even though he looks like he's in his 20s NOT 60s), then shouldn't he be carrying a note pad so he can write down our requests?  I mean whatever happened to Aman topnotch service?

The room we were assigned to was absolutely beautiful.  It was a corner suite right on Church Street with gorgeous view of ocean from multiple windows.  The room essentially is divided into three parts: bathroom, bedroom area, and living room area.  The bedroom is not enclosed from rest of the suite so technically it's not a one bedroom.  We were able to tour quite a few of the guest rooms within Amangalla including spending a night at the Garden House Suite.  My personal preference is the Amangalla Suite on the 3rd floor as it has the best view not to mention lots of light.  The downside is that you have to climb 2 flights up and down everyday.  If you have knee problems, I would definitely not recommend this room as there is no elevator within the premise and the climbs can be quite steep (Modern risers are 7" high.  The ones here are higher and not uniformed due to age of the building).  There are plenty of ground floor rooms to be had and most have view of the lush garden if climbing stairs is an issue.

We decided to complaint to the new general manager Sean the following day about the shortcomings we experienced so far.  To Sean's credit, he made us feel at home right away.  We were assigned a new butler whom we love.  Had he been our butler the first night, I think I would had a very different assessment of this Aman.  We later found out that Sean just started managing Amangalla a day before we arrived!  Hence the lack of arrival reception and poor training of the first butler and the driver who picked us up at Colombo airport.  Sean came from Amanjiwo and Amanoi with twenty years of experience managing Aman properties and we literally saw him whip everyone into shape within 24 hours of our arrival.  It was a sight to be seen.  The guy definitely knows what he's doing.

All the food we had was well cooked and seasoned.  I would not say it's as good as one Michelin star restaurant but it was good.  Pasta was al dente and tea was yummy.  One night we had dinner with Sean and his beautiful lovely wife Lindsey.  Turned out that Sean used to be a chef before managing Aman properties.  They have wonderful stories to tell and just the loveliest couple to have dinner with.  Our waiter, on the other hand, doesn't understand the proper way to take care of his guests (our conversations were interrupted by him multiple times, etc.).  I can tell Sean knows he has his work cut out for him and I have every confidence that every staff at that restaurant had been retrained personally by Sean and is up to Aman standard within a month if not shorter!  One thing I like to mention is the Roti dinner.  If you have a chance, do it.  It's offsite and done in a traditional pavilion where they lit up the pathway with torches and candles from the main road.  You are surrounded by rice paddies and next to a lake.  It's very romantic and pretty.  You get a private chef and a waiter who are very professional and they serve you traditional Sri Lankan food which was quite delectable. 

The spa at the resort was absolutely gorgeous.  There are hydrotherapy chambers where couples can go and enjoy sauna, sit in a steam room, relax in a whirlpool, or dive into a cold plunge pool.  I believe there are two of them and they are free to all the staying guests.  You just have to reserve them before hand.  The treatment rooms were calming and zen like.  Each room came with a bathroom with shower/ steam room.  The water pressure was very good in the treatment room.

The pool area is lush and beautiful.  There are five cabanas next to a large pool where you can stretch out and have lunch.  Or if you prefer to lie down in lounge chairs to catch some sun, there are rows of them for you to do that as well.  While I was there, I saw maybe four, five people total so it was nice and private.  There was no need to fight over lounge chairs.

Aman is known for their local cultural experience offerings.  Amangalla is no different.  We had several which we enjoyed very much.  One was going to a tea plantation where we learned the history and process of tea making (this country was called Ceylon after all).  Another one was going to a cinnamon plantation where we learned everything and anything you ever want to know about cinnamon.  We even had someone showed us how cinnamon was harvested and how it was put together as cinnamon sticks.  I now see them in a brand new light whenever I am at my local spice isle in Whole Foods.  We also visited several projects by Bawa brothers as well as their own homes.  Bawa brothers are the most famous architect and landscape architect in Sri Lanka.  They were born in early 1900s and past away about 20-30 years ago.  Bevis Bawa, the landscape architect, is the older of the two and had a magnificent garden as one would imagine.  Geoffrey Bawa, the architect, is the younger of the two and he was the original proponents of Tropical Modernism.  His estate Lunuganga is not only a shrine of Geoffrey Bawa that one can visit, but you can also stay in some of the guest houses on the property!  Definitely a treat for his architectural fans.  Last but not least, your butler will take you around the 17th century fort and tell you the history of this important site.  It's interesting to hear that the original fort was actually built by Portuguese before taken over by Dutch.  Today, while majority of the people in Sri Lanka are Buddhist, most of the land owners of this iconic Sri Lankan fort are Muslims.  The fort itself while touristy, is actually very charming and worth a visit if you are not staying at Amangalla.

If you are coming to visit Sri Lanka, I cannot recommend this place enough.  It had been over a month since I was there and I can assure you that any kinks that had not been worked out before Sean laid his hands on Amangalla, it had been worked out and then some by now.  Sean had told me his vision for this wonderful resort and I have no doubt Amangalla will become one of those must stops for Amanjunkies in near future like Amanjiwo (which we have been) and Amanoi (on the to go list).             

Friday, April 14, 2017

A hotel worthy of its name: Taj Mahal Palace

Not to be confused with the Taj Mahal, Taj Mahal Palace is located in Mumbai not in Agra.  However, this hotel is almost as iconic as the world famous mausoleum that it was named after.  The hotel is full of old world charm that one would think it was built in 18-19th century during colonial time when East India Company ruled India.  Legend has it that Jamsetji Tata built the hotel in early 20th century because he was refused entry into the Watson's Hotel which was restricted to whites only.  Whether the story is true or not, I am glad that this luxurious hotel was built as its imprint to the city of Mumbai is as important as the Gateway to India next to it.

Originally the hotel had multiple entrances.  In fact, its old entrances are where the pool is at right now.  Currently the hotel has two reception areas.  One is located at the Taj Mahal Tower which was a new wing that was added onto the hotel in 1973.  This is the first reception one sees these days right after passing through the security zone.  The other one is fairly close to the pool area which is the original reception of the hotel.  Personally I like the old reception area much better as it retained its old world charm.

If your room is in the old section of the hotel, you can take the elevators next to the central dome to reach your floor.  The floor plan of the building is basically in the shape of letter C or a square with one side missing.  The corridor of the hallway is extra wide as sky light from the roof distill day light down to hallways below.  I imagine this was an effective way for the hotel to save electricity back in the day and today as well!  There are a total of 5 floors plus ground floor or in the US it would be noted as the building has a total of 6 floors.  The ground floor (in US first floor) is consist of public areas such as reception entry hall, bar, retail shops, and restaurants.  The first floor (in US second floor) is mostly hotel rooms with one exception: the famous Sea Lounge facing the Arabian Sea!  I was told many men propose to their girlfriends inside this particular lounge!  The second floor and up are all hotel rooms.  The corner rooms under the smaller domes are suites as well as most of the rooms in the top two floors of the hotel.

The room we stayed in is called Elephanta Suites #361(category: Grand Luxury Suites) which is named after the famous Elephanta Caves not too far from Mumbai.  The suite was quite spacious with a large bathroom with a free standing tub and a separate shower area, a bedroom, a living room, a vanity bathroom, a kitchenette, a dining room, and a sitting room.  The decor style juxtapositions old world charm with modern furniture.  I thought the suite was nicely done with the exception of sitting room area as there was a hodgepodge of furniture from many eras that crammed into a circular space.  It felt disjointed and off.  I get that the designer is trying to balance the space with modern and bygone era furniture but it just didn't work for me.  I thought making that room as a yoga room, or a library makes much more sense.  The best part of the room was the unrivaled view of the Gateway to India and Arabian Sea.  It was magnificent.  The Gateway to India looked stunning during the day as well as under a full moon.  The suite also comes with the largest exterior balcony of the hotel facing Gateway to India which adds to its allure.

Given how large the hotel is, I have to assume the service standard can't be that high.  Well, I was wrong.  The service standard at this particular Taj was as good as the Oberoi hotel in Agra.  What this means is the service standard is higher than most Four Seasons hotel and Mandarin Oriental hotel you will ever come across.  We were assigned a butler and he was fantastic.  Upon returning after a day of traversing through the city of Mumabi, our room was spotless and shirts were pressed to perfection.  Not to mention the last minute private heritage walk I requested and given by one of the hotel manager, I am thoroughly impressed by this hotel.  They even brought us two bowls of rose pedal foot baths without us requesting.  Knowing that our feet was tired after long day of walking.  It was a lovely gesture.

Food at the hotel was also delicious.  I particularly liked the Masala Kraft restaurant which replaced their French restaurant.  Their signature Indian restaurant has northern and southern Indian cuisine.  I thought my chicken curry was delectable as well as naan bread which I could eat all day long.  The weak link was the complimentary afternoon tea at the Palace Lounge which was only open to guests who stayed at suites.  I thought the scones was a bit dry and I wish they have more selection of sweets as well as salty food.  But the complaint is minor given how well I felt I was treated.

Overall I would not hesitate to stay here again.  I had thought about staying at the Oberoi Trident in Mumbai but I'm glad I stayed at the Taj Mahal Palace as location just can't be beat.  I love the view of the Gateway to India and the Arabian Sea.  I love that the private boat to Elephanta Island is literally across the street.  And lastly, I love the architecture of the hotel; it absolutely magnificent.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Camping is never so glamorous

When I think of camping, I think of going to bathroom in bushes, jumping in a river to take a shower, huddling in a sleeping bag, and eating out of a can for dinner.  Well, if all camps look like Amanikhas, I can get use to camping very fast!  My stay at Amanikhas was extraordinary.

The camp is about 3.5 hours away from Jaipur.  While it's only about 100 miles away which normally would take you hour and a half in the US, but in India, you have to deal with cows sleeping on streets, goats frolicking along the side of roads, camels pulling carts, and slow trucks moving at glacier speed not to mention most of the roads are about 1.5 car wide so half of the time you are not fully on a paved roads that are full of potholes.  Sounds like I'm complaining.  I think at first it was fascinating.  Then it got old fast.  But later I got so used to it that it became somewhat charming.

Anyway, once you arrive at Amanikhas, GM and other staff as well as your personal butler will come to greet you with towels and drinks.  Your butler will take you to your tent and we took tent #1 because it's the most private and it didn't hurt to stay in the same tent as Katy Perry and Russell Brand when they had their honeymoon at Amanikhas.

Our tent was absolutely gorgeous.  First there is actually a foyer area where there is a table with chairs where you can eat your breakfast, lunch, and dinner on one side and a lounge chair with floor lamp on the other.  The foyer and rest of the tent is separated by canvas drapes to give you privacy in case you have foyer area's canvas rolled up.  Yes.  They thought of everything.  You can roll up the "wall" and just have bug netting separate you from outside.  This allow you to feel like you are outside without bugs flying all over you.  Once you pass through drapes, there is a huge leather cushion square sitting area where you can lounge or sleep on.  I suspect a lot of the mechanics are hidden under this huge ottoman.  The interior is basically separated into four areas once you pass the foyer.  The middle is a huge seating area/ daybed.  On the right is your bathroom with a working toilet behind canvas draping, a concrete tub that's set into ground, and a shower.  On the left is your closet plus two vanities where you can pretty yourself up.  It also has a hamper where you can throw all your clothes in and they will wash it and return it the very next day.  You can ask your butler to press anything you want so you can look dapper on your way into the safari park!  If you go forward pass the daybed, you will see a soft comfy king size bed.  The tent has several cleverly disguised air vents on the floor that regulate temperature inside your tent; so you are never too hot or too cold.  If not for the canvas wall, I would think I'm actually in a house not a tent!

Outside these amazing tents (and there are 10 total), there is a spa, a beautiful pond, an organic vegetable garden, an indoor dining room, a library with a shop, a fire pit, and a flower garden.  Let's just say even though I am in a tent camp, I can be pampered to the Nth degree if I choose to.  Make no mistake about it.

But let's face it, people don't come to Amanikhas so they can experience glamping.  They come because of the tigers in the Ranthambore Park.  Amanikhas is only few minutes away from the entrance.  You are required to reserve a guide, a driver, and a jeep to enter the park.  You are not allowed to drive your own car.  We were given an option of private or shared jeep outing before we arrive at Amanikhas.  We opted for two private and one shared outing during our stay.  Essentially you are paying for 6 seats if you opted for private or you paid for 2 seats as a couple if you decide to share.  You may get one other couple or two other couples.  It's random.  The park has 8 separate routes and you are assigned a route that morning.  If you had been to that route the day before, your safari guide can ask for a different route.  Besides the smaller jeeps, there is also 20 seater jeep which is obviously cheaper way to do safari.  The upside is you are higher up so presumably you can see further.  Downside to them is you are sharing a car with 19 other people plus some of the route only allow smaller jeeps as larger jeeps are just too big for some roads.  Furthermore, large jeep is less nimble so usually once someone spot a tiger, all other jeeps will magically know and rush over.  Big jeeps always ended up being the last ones to get to where tiger is and always stuck further back so harder to see tiger.  So if you can swing it, I would pick smaller jeep.  Outings are divided into mornings and afternoons.  When we were there, the morning outing was between 6:30-10:00 and afternoon outing was between 2:30-6:00.  Your guide as well as driver will not be allowed to come back to the park for several days if they don't leave by 10AM in the morning or 6PM in the afternoon.  Thus you usually see jeeps running for exit 15-20 minutes before 10AM and 6PM.     

We were woken up very early by our butler.  He brought coffee as well as some pastries and off we went to our private jeep safari.  All the jeeps at Ranthambore is open air jeep.  We didn't bring thick jackets as it didn't occur to us it would be cold in India in late February.  We were a bit unprepared for how nippy morning temperature would be. Luckily Aman gave each of us a warm pack and a blanket so we don't freeze to death.  It's the touches like this that really separates Aman from other resorts.  I doubt other resorts in town give their guests blankets and warm packs when they go on these safari trips in mornings.  In addition, Aman also give us some snacks and bottle water.

We were lucky with our sightings during our first private jeep outing; we literally saw a tiger napping 40 minutes before 10AM.  We thought we weren't going to see any tigers... just monkeys, deers, birds, and crocodiles.  So we were definitely very happy to see a tiger in the wild even though it was for a short time and tiger was fairly far away.  Our second outing was in the afternoon.  This time we decided to share a jeep.  Luckily it was just two guests from the Sherbagh resort next door.  The lady of the couple actually was at Ranthambore over a decade ago and went on several of these outings but did not see any tigers.  Luckily, this time was different.  We actually saw two tigers.  One was far away and the other was up close.  She literally shed some tears as she finally saw them in the wild after all these years.  We were feeling quite lucky.  2 for 2.  Should we continue another safari outing?  Well, we decided why not.  We are here and when will be the next time for us come to see a wild tiger on the other side of the world?  We decided to go private again.  This time, we were extremely lucky.  I would say 20-30 minutes in and we spotted a female tiger napping next to a road!!  We were literally less than 10 feet away from this majestic tiger.  It was absolutely amazing.  The feeling of seeing a wild tiger in their habitat is exhilarating.  I don't quite know how to explaining it.  You just have to experience it for yourself.

Between safari trips, we spent rest of the time inside the tent camp.  The site itself is very pretty.  The pond in the middle shimmers during the day and there is a hammock where you can lay in it and read a book.  Or you can get a massage which is what I did.  The spa is also in a tent... well, a very nice luxurious large tent with multiple rooms.  Each room comes with a treatment room and a ensuite bathroom.  There is an organic vegetable garden one can visit.  Apparently that's where all the restaurant vegetable came from.

Speaking of restaurant... food at Amanikhas is just as good as food at Amanbagh.  While I was there, I did not see anyone ate inside the dining tent.  Everyone ate outside or in their tent.  One time we ate next to a pool while musicians played Indian music which was quite nice.  Another time we had lunch next to the beautiful pond.  With birds chirping in the background; it was heavenly.

A minute away from the resort, you will come across a women cooperative shop.  I loved this shop as everything was priced very reasonably, empowers village women, and some of the stuff are actually nice.  If you go to Ranthambore, I highly recommend you patronize them.

Overall, I was very happy with Amanikhas.  Their service standard is typical Aman (meaning very high) and food was tasty.  The only thing they can improve upon is their souvenir shop.  I wish it is bigger with more stuff in it.  The ones at Amankila and Amanjiwo are huge comparatively speaking.  I particularly like the store at Amankila.  I want to buy everything in there.  Given that Amanikhas is close to Jaipur which is known for their gem stones and jewelry, they should definitely sell lots of necklaces and rings.  Also it would be nice if they sell traditional Indian clothes.  I got some when I stayed at Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai.