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.