Thursday, November 29, 2018

Famed Serengeti Resort

In the luxury travel world, if you are going to Serengeti in Tanzania, there is really only one lodge that will meet all your demanding requirements: Singita Sasakwa Lodge.  The photos on their website do not do justice to the ground of this gorgeous safari lodge.  From the arrival service to food to guide, everything was topnotch.  This is definitely the best safari lodging experience for me in Africa.

The ground of this lodge is absolutely stunning.  It looks like they moved an English manor from UK and plot it down in Tanzania.  If you want to experience the romanticized version of Out of Africa, the grounds here will give you just that.  The interior decor is done in a colonial Victorian hunting lodge style.  From beautiful wallpaper to African statues, the designer was on point with everything down to the high tank pull chain Victorian style toilet in public bathrooms.  Not to mention each of these 1/2 bathrooms are as big as most studios in New York City!  The lodge is located up on a hill so you get a sweeping view of Serengeti in the public area.  It's really quite lovely.

I believe there are around 12 villas total.  Each villa is free standing with complete privacy as there are tall trees and bushes separating each one.  There is also enough distance between each villa that you are not going to hear your neighbors if you decide to eat out in your backyard!  Each villa is essentially a house with its own dipping pool complete with front and back yard.  There is a proper foyer with 1/2 bath as you enter the house into its living room.  Next to living room is the master bedroom.  Behind the master bedroom is a large closet area with a vanity desk.  Next to that you have a large bathroom with a separate toilet room and a glass wall shower that makes you feel like you are taking an outdoor shower!  Of course if taking a bubble bath is more of your thing, there is a claw footed bathtub as well.  The whole house is impeccably decorated with wallpaper and colonial hunting lodge era style decor.  Everything is well maintained and beautifully presented.  In addition to the gorgeous house, view in the backyard is similar to the one at the main lodge: a sweeping view of Serengeti plain.  

Service, like each villa, is impeccable. Each villa is assigned a butler.  I believe the butler is shared between two villas?  I'm not quite sure.  But in either case, my butler is always there when I needed him.  He is so sweet and so on top of everything.  I can't thank him enough for the service he provided me.  

Same with our safari guide: impeccable service and knowledge.  In fact, our guide was one of the guides who served Obama family when they came two weeks prior to my arrival.  He was so knowledgeable about everything.  I learned a lot from him.  And the fact that he can conjure up everything I wanted to see was a huge plus.  You want to see a cheetah? No problem.  20 minutes later, a cheetah in front of our jeep.  You want to see a pride of lion eating?  No problem. 30 minutes later we came across a pride of 15 lions chowing down a wildebeest.  How about a leopard sleeping on a tree?  No problem.  40 minutes later, we saw a leopard on a tree taking a nap and then slowly tread down a tree to give me an excellent photo opportunities!   

The only complaint I have, and it's not against the lodge, is that Serengeti is on a much lower altitude compare to Masai Mara in Kenya and closer to equator than Kruger in South Africa.  So what this means is that even if you are visiting Serengeti in the winter time (July/August), you will have bugs/flies.  I didn't feel like I was swarmed in them but it is important to bring a hat with mosquito net attached so you don't have to constantly swapping away flies or bugs.  It just makes viewing experience much easier.  

The spa at Sasakwa was quite nice.  Again, the decor is geared more towards Victorian era which is a bit unusual but nonetheless lovely. There are two shops on site and both are quite lovely.  One is more about jewelry and the other more about clothes and interior decor.  There is also a tennis court facility I didn't use but there were guests playing each time I passed by.  

Food was quite good.  Again, not Michelin star level good.  But chef was thoroughly competent and I enjoyed everything I was served with.  Plating was the best I had in all the safari lodges I went to if that's important to you.  Food was included in the price so you can eat as much as you want anytime you want.  It is possible to over indulge oneself.  They have their own vegetable garden on site and I had salad often and was never sick from eating raw vegetable.  

All in all, I was very happy at this safari lodge.  Everything was done to the highest standard.  I cannot imagine there is a better safari lodge out there.  Singita is a well oiled machine and this is commonly known as the best Singita lodge out there.  I can see why.  There is nothing I can complaint about this lodge except the price.  But then again, it is at this price for a good reason: it just doesn't get better than this.  

Monday, October 1, 2018

Safari Resort in Kruger National Park in South Africa

There are many places to go on a safari trip in South Africa.  But when French president Nicholas Sarkozy, Gates family, Elton John, Paul Allen, Bono, etc. repeatedly go to Royal Malewane resort, you know RM is doing something right.  Is Royal Malewane the most perfect safari experience one can have?  Because I can only compare it to two other safari lodges in Africa, I can't say that must be the case.  However, I can see why people who can afford to go anywhere repeatedly go back to Royal Malewane: location, service, accommodation, and game drive are all top notch.

Royal Malewane is next to Kruger Park which is the most famous safari public park in South Africa.  Guests of RM don't actually go into Kruger Park most of the time, you stay in their private game reserve called Thornybush...and literally the bushes are thorny! I have no idea the difference between private game reserve and public park until I came here.  Difference is private game reserve is literally owned by a private individual/ company so you are allowed to drive off road.  In addition, because it is a private property, you seldom see many jeeps.  In my opinion, this makes a huge difference as most games are not right next to road thus when you are in a private reserve, you get to see animals much closer than you would at a public park which requires all cars stay on public roads; off road driving is not allowed.  Secondly, another benefit with private reserve is you see a lot less jeeps which enhance the animal viewing experience not to mention a lot less dust.  If you have been to Serengeti Park or Masai Mara Park, you know exactly what I mean... a few hours in a jeep means covered in dust from other jeeps passing your jeep or you passing other jeeps.

There is never lack of things to do at Royal Malewane.  Typical daily schedule is: get up at 6AM and leave between 6:30 and 7AM for a morning drive.  When you get back around 9:30AM, they feed you with a huge breakfast spread.  Then around 1PM you eat lunch.  Then around 3:30PM, you go out for an afternoon drive.  You usually get back around 6:30-7:00PM.  Dinner is around 8:00PM.  So essentially you have between 9:30AM-3:30PM free.  But because of the packed animal viewing schedule, typically you just want to relax and do nothing between game drives; most people catch up with some sleep, download photos onto computer, emails, read, gym, and/or spa.

The service at Royal Malewane is fantastic.  Everyone is really nice and kind.  Anything you need you just ask and it's done.  There is never any push backs with requests.  Rooms are made up several times a day while you are gone on game drives.  They also come to clean up the room while you eat lunch and dinner.  Hence your room is always spotless.

Speaking of rooms, they are actually all free standing lodges.  All are very nicely appointed although not particularly large.  Bathroom is very generously sized; same size as bedroom/ living room.  Plumbing worked perfectly like the ones at home.  I'm not a fan of their high beds as it's not easy to get in and out of.  However, that's a minor quip.  The bedroom/ living room also has a nice cozy fireplace which is a great touch especially during winter time (July/ August).  The dipping pool outside unfortunately was freezing cold.  I wish they can be warmed up.  In addition to indoor shower, there is also an outdoor shower option which is very nice.  The lodges are quite far from each other so you don't hear any noise from your neighbors which is a huge plus.

Royal Malewane has a gorgeous spa which has to be seen to be believed.  It's definitely one of the prettiest spa I've seen in Africa.  I had a massage which was excellent.  I was worry I wouldn't be able to get a deep massage like I usually get back at home; I can attest my masseuse was very capable of breaking up knots in my back.  I would definitely recommend the massage service at this spa.

Food was generally good except we had a bush dinner once which due to equipment, entree was overcooked.  With that said, I would say the food here is what I called Four Seasons will get solid good food but don't expect Michelin star level or anything close to it.  In terms of eating time, it's up to you.  You can eat breakfast at 1PM if you choose to or eat right after you come back from the morning game drive at 10AM.  Same with dinner.  Typically they start dinner around 8PM and you can eat in your room or anywhere on the property.

Because this is my first African safari, I didn't know what to expect for the game drive.  I would say it's quite good.  You will generally see something interesting every 30 minutes... be it a lion, a hyena, a wild dog, or a cape buffalo.  I was there for a total of three nights and four days and I saw the big five and then some.  It's always very exciting on every game drive as you never know what you will see.  I would say Thornybush had more than met my expectation.  One thing about coming to Royal Malewane in July/ August is that there is very few bugs around due to colder weather.  In fact, you definitely need your puffer jacket and a scarf in the morning drive as it can get quite chilly with open air jeep.

Lastly, there is a waterhole right in front of the lobby/ dining area.  There are always tons of elephants coming to have a drink.  Some even frolic inside the pond.  One time we saw a hippo hidden inside the waterhole which surprised all the elephants.  Because there are so many elephants around the waterhole, the lone hippo quickly left the pond for its own safety!  There are also many deers on the property.  They are very use to human and won't run away when you get close.  When you eat lunch, you always have to watch out for monkeys as they may all of a sudden show up and snatch your food!  So as you can see, even if you decide not to go on a game drive, you can still find plenty of action on the property.

Overall I would highly recommend Royal Malewane and I can see why celebrities keep on returning to this sumptuous property.  If I were to return to South Africa for a safari trip, I would definitely come back to Royal Malewane.              

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

The best luxury resort on turtle island

The only luxury resort option you should consider when going to Galapagos Islands is Pikaia Lodge if you decide to stay on land instead of on sea.  Some of you reading this post may suffer from sea sickness like me and this resort is really heaven send.  Again, because we are in South America, service and food standard isn't the same as what one can find in Asia or Europe.  With that said, there is plenty to like at this resort.

The architecture of the resort is really quite special.  It's located on top of a hill so you get a nice panoramic view of the area.  The rooms are basically divided into two parts.  One part has bed and living room area and the other part consist of a large bathroom with a walk in closet.  While I know my suite is very luxurious for Galapagos standard, there were a few odd decisions that the designer made.  One is the shower glass is quite small.  It protrudes about 3 feet from the wall.  So every time I take a shower, I have to put bath towels on the floor outside of the shower area otherwise the floor would be flooded with water.  Clearly the designer of the bathroom uses bath tub a lot more than shower as anyone who takes showers daily would have designed the shower area differently.  Another odd choice was to have a small circular dinning table tucked right at the corner of the living room.  The only way to get in and out of the corner is basically move one of the free stand alone arm chair out of the way or if you wear size zero jeans.  Lastly, the spa is very small.  It felt like an afterthought.  I think there was only one or two treatment rooms.  I got a massage once and I felt the whole set up was kinda chintzy and not luxurious.

The food at the hotel was good.  It was not Michelin star level good but it was a good resort food in a Four Seasons way.  If you stay at plenty of Four Seasons before, you know exactly what I mean.  The service at the restaurant was very good.  They try to accommodate you the best they can in terms of limited choices.  I thought the food manager was trying very hard and it definitely showed.  I appreciate her service very much.

There are plenty of things to see.  Depending on how long you stay, they have a whole calendar set up where you get plenty of daily activities and then some.  You are never bored.  I would say typically they take you to an island to see iguana or sea lion etc. in the morning, and then in the afternoon they take you to snorkel.  Pikaia Lodge provides the whole set up so you don't need to bring a wet suit or snorkel gear.

Pikaia Lodge has their own boat which from my understanding is quite luxurious.  Each room gets their own cabinet with a private bathroom.  If you get seasick easily, I would ask for the cabinets on the top.  I wouldn't exactly call the interior of the cabinet luxurious.  I would say it is functional.  Good thing is you have a charger next to bed so make sure you bring your phone chargers as there is plenty of photo ops once you land.

The biggest draw back of staying at Pikaia Lodge versus a cruise boat is that everyday you have to trek in and out of the island.  To go from the Lodge to ferry terminal, it takes about a good 45-50 minutes.  Then once you reach the ferry terminal, it takes another 20-30 minutes to get to Pikaia I boat.  So essentially you are spending three hours daily to trek back and forth before you even see anything!  If you are on a cruise, then obviously you bypass all that.  So it's really a decision of how easily seasick you get and if you need a large space to relax in.  My understanding is that the highest end of Galapagos Islands cruises are still not that luxurious (compare to what you get on Pikaia Lodge).  The only way to get something comparable to Pikaia Lodge on a boat would be bring your own luxury ship.  But obviously that would be very costly.

Overall, this is not the most luxurious stay I ever had at a resort.  With that said, I do think this is the most luxurious option available on Galapagos Island and I would not hesitate to recommend this place to friends and family.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The best hotel in the fable land of El Dorado

I had really low expectation coming to Colombia.  I knew it had a lot of drug trafficking problems in the past as well as kidnapping.  I heard it had been cleaned up but who knows?  I knew the best way to get home from my long trip in South America was taking the Avianca flight from Bogota to LAX.  Plus there are two Four Seasons hotels in town.  How bad can it be?

To my great surprise, Bogota was not bad at all!  In fact, I know for sure on my way to finally get to Machu Picchu someday, I will use Bogota as a jumping off point not Lima (since there is a nonstop flight from Bogota to Cusco).  Bogota is at 8,660 ft high so this is actually a good city to acclimatize oneself to high altitude before heading to Cusco at 11,152 ft high.  To give you a reference point, Denver is 5280 ft high.

But Bogota is more than just a convenient point for me to acclimatize before hopping to the dizzying height of Cusco.  I actually find Bogota a very charming town that I would recommend any of my friends to go to.  As stated earlier, there are two Four Seasons in town.  The Four Seasons Hotel Bogota is located at the business part of the city where as Four Seasons Hotel Casa Medina is located at the fine dining section of the city.  For this review, I will talk about Four Seasons Hotel Casa Medina.

If you always wanted to stay at a Four Seasons Hotel but never had the budget to stay at one, Casa Medina should be on your list as the rooms here starts from low $300s per night.  Their one bedroom suite is less than $550 per night.  You really cannot find a cheaper Four Seasons Hotel to stay at in the world!

I stayed at the Penthouse Suite which was where Mick Jagger stayed when he visited Bogota couple years back.  The suite is essentially divided into three areas.  You have a fully functional kitchen, a living room/ dining room combo, and a master bedroom.  There are two full baths in the suite so if you are traveling with kids, this can work quite well as the kids can sleep in the living room while parents sleep in the bedroom.  There is also a large walk in closet in the master bedroom and a large desk and chair in the entrance hall.  Because the hotel is a historical building, so central air is not allowed in the rooms.  However, Bogota temperature is quite similar to San Francisco meaning it's never too hot during day time and at night time temperature tends to fall to high 40s so the rooms stay relatively cool even without air condition.  My understanding is Four Seasons Casa Medina is still trying to install central air system so perhaps when you visit in the future, it would be installed.

I thought the location of the hotel was good.  Sure, it's not next to all the tourist trap areas so you can't just walk to different landmarks but it's only about a quick 25-30 minutes car ride.  I like the fact that hotel is actually in a fine dinning section of the city so you can stroll to many restaurants without having to hail a cab.  The food scene here reminded me of San Francisco ten years ago.  You can see proliferation of good solid restaurants popping up left and right and prices are definitely very very reasonable compare to San Francisco.

The staff at the Casa Medina was also some of the best I have encountered in South America.  The luxury tourism trade have not taken its roots here yet.  Having stayed at several "luxury" hotels in South America, the service standard is definitely below what one would get in Europe or Asia.  The Four Seasons in Bogota and Buenos Aires suffer the same fate.  Don't expect to have topnotch service as it doesn't exist in South America.  With that said, Casa Medina probably has the most polished service staff I came across in this part of the world with the exception of Awasi Patagonia which was better.

Overall I would highly recommend this Four Seasons in Bogota.  I find the service standard quite good, location ideal, and room comfortable.  I would not hesitate to return here again or recommend this hotel to friends. 


Thursday, May 10, 2018

Where to stay at the second highest capital in the world?

If you know your trivia, you would know the answer to the question: Quito.  Most people see this city as the jumping off point to Galapagos Islands.  I thought of the same thing as well.  But boy, was I wrong.

The only luxury hotel in this town is Casa Gangotena.  This boutique hotel used to be a private home for Gangotena family.  The house was rebuilt in the 1920s as the previous one was burn to the ground by a lover of one of the family's daughters.  The location of the hotel is perfect: right in the heart of this UNESCO world heritage site.  Quito is actually one of the first city to get that designation in 1978 from UNESCO and for good reason; walking around the historic downtown it's like stepping back in time to 17th century Spain.   

The location of the hotel is unbeatable if you are looking to immerse yourself with the Quito culture.  It's literally a stone throw from one of the most important church in town: San Francisco monastery.  In fact, one of the perks at staying at Casa Gangotena is that you can get a private tour of the SF monastery with one of the Franciscan friar!  The friar who took me around was so knowledgeable about the history of the monastery as well as Quito in general.  He was such a joy to spend time with.  Another perk staying at Casa Gangotena is you get free entry into Pre-Columbian Art Museum across the alley from the hotel.  Someone spend a lot of money on that museum as it's as well designed and finished as any museum in the world.  I mean we are talking about Getty museum level of finish.  Very impressive.

But back to the hotel.  The hotel public area is grand and stylish.  It retained its old world charm without looking dated.  The room I stayed in was their balcony junior suite.  It's probably the nicest room in the hotel.  They don't really have any presidential suites and the best they have is connecting two rooms via end of a hallway type of suite.  So not a true proper suite.  There is actually two Jr Suites on premise.  One is larger and in the back... presumably more insulated from noise from the street but also doesn't get as much light and does not have a balcony.  The Jr Suite with balcony is bright and airy with a nice large balcony to take breakfast in.  But its bathroom is right on the alley and sometimes when stores in the alleyway start to blast music, you can hear it right through walls and windows.  I ended up taking the Jr Suite with balcony.  Honestly, it's a bit cramped from what I'm used to and constant noise from the alley or other parts of the hotel makes me give this hotel a four stars instead of five.

Service is fine at this hotel.  I think there are some sophistication with their service ethics but it's not quite there.  The intentions are there but Four Seasons in Asia or Amans in general would blow this place out of water.  I would say the staffs are quite friendly but not anticipatory.

Food at this hotel is definitely better than any you would find in the historical center.  I had several meals outside thinking it would be better.  It wasn't.  Just eat in the hotel before you go out.  In this respect, it's very similar to Asia... meaning best restaurants tend to be inside luxury hotels.  The Sunday brunch at the hotel is quite lovely... they have a big spread of food.  The tasting menu at the hotel restaurant is not bad.  I would say it's slightly below bib gourmand level.  It's also quite cheap so one can't complain.              

Few precautions before coming to this hotel, because Quito is so high up, I would stay around the hotel for a day or two before start to seriously trekking around the historical center.  You can easily get altitude sickness if you go up and down this hilly historical area.      

Overall it's a lovely hotel.  But don't expect Four Seasons level luxury as it's not quite there.  With that said, my stay here was comfortable for the most part and I would recommend anyone coming to Quito to stay at Casa Gangotena.  One should stay at least a three full day if not four as there are quite a few things to see around Quito not just the historical downtown area.  Plus you need at least a day to adjust to the altitude.  Definitely leave the teleferico cable car ride to the day before you leave as it's over two miles high when you reach the top.  You definitely want to be adjusted to the altitude before you take the ride.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Exploring the Explora at Rapa Nui

Having read many tripadvisor reviews, I was somewhat intimidated about staying at this Explora.  This will actually be the first Explora hotel I have ever stayed at.  The only other Explora hotel I've been to in the past was Explora Patagonia.  I did not stay there but I would say the impression I have is it's a well run place but not particularly luxurious. Since this is probably the best reviewed place and looked like the most luxurious accommodation one can have on the island, I made the reservation and hope for the best.  Turned out my trepidation was unfounded.  Sure there is no in room service or all the activities were done in a group than individuals room, but those are the only none five star aspect of the whole experience.  There is much to be liked about this resort.

Once you get out of the chaotic Mataveri airport with your luggage, Explora is there to pick you up.  The resort is not in town but maybe only 20 minutes car drive from it.  It's a plus or a minus depending on your traveling style and preference.  I didn't care either way.  The check in process was smooth and I was in my room Raa Suite in no time.  There are basically two options.  One is Raa suite which is close to 500 sqft whereas the regular rooms are 350 sqft.  I would highly recommend the Raa suite as it gives you a bit more space to layout and chill.  I'm not a big fan of cramped rooms and 350 sqft size room to me is cramped.  The vanity is open to bedroom area.  There is a separate toilet room and a separate shower/tub room.  I kinda wish they would enclose the whole bathroom to give it even more privacy but exposing the vanity area makes the room feel roomier so I understand where the architect thought process was.

I do appreciate the architecture of the hotel.  It's a series of circles (ovals) stacked on top of each other.  Circular architecture is more expensive to build but feels more special and interesting imo.  In addition, ocean is on one side of the property and circular architecture gives more viewing opportunities for more guests to have ocean views compare to square or rectangular buildings.

Because how late I arrived, Explora took the liberty to assign me an activity for the following day which I was fine with.  The way how they structure the activities is you leave in your activity group around 9AM and you come back around 1PM.  Then you leave again around 3PM and come back around 7PM.  Of course this depends on the activity you are on.  You may leave a little bit later or come back a little bit earlier.  But in general, this is the schedule.  Everyday after your exploration, your guide will ask you what you want to do the following day.  So depending on what you choose, you may see the same people in your group. This forces you to meet people that you see in the dining room whether you like it or not.  I typically would prefer not to interact with other resort guests but I have to say I really enjoy meeting all the guests at Explora Rapa Nui.  One thing I find almost all the guests here have in common is everyone is very well traveled.  It makes sense as typically people start from big cities like NYC, London, Paris, etc. and then you branch out to more "exotic destinations" such as Rapa Nui island.  It was fun to trade experiences at various destinations/hotels as well as finding out more information on places that I will be going to in the future.  I have to say meeting other guests at Explora Rapa Nui was one of the highlights for me on the island.

Food at the hotel was surprisingly good.  Selection isn't extensive by any means but what they had was always fresh and well seasoned.  Nothing was bib gourmand level but everything was tasty.  However, I would say if you stay a week (which most people probably aren't), you will likely get tired of the food especially breakfast as they pretty much serve same breakfast over and over again.  If memory serves me correctly, they change their dinner menu every two days.

Internet is only available in the dining/ lobby area.  It was a bit annoying but I knew this in advance so I was prepared.  Other things that is worth mentioning is that they do have a nice pool area.  I didn't swim in the pool so I'm unsure temperature of the water but it was nicely designed.  The spa area is basically few rooms off to the side.  It felt kinda basic and I wish they would make it look better (ie staffed it with a reception desk, steam room, sauna room, etc).  None of those were present.  Masseuse is farmed out to local people and you have to call in advance.  There is no dedicated spa staff at the hotel.  The massage I had was good.  The treatment room was fine.  It didn't feel particularly luxurious (but wasn't shabby) and yet it was nice.  I definitely feel they could have taken it up a notch in terms of finishes.  But then again, the finishes of the hotel didn't exude luxury so I guess spa was on par with rest of the hotel.   

I was happy with all the guides I had.  They were knowledgeable.  Few of them were locals and you can feel the passion they had for the island.  I really enjoyed them retelling their forefather's history.  They were lovely... although one of them was particularly long winded...

Service was surprisingly good.  I thought the hotel management did a very good job of accommodating my requests big and small.  I felt they tried very hard and it showed.  I appreciate them going out of their way to do stuff for me.  I know some of the comments on Tripadvisor complained about the activities were very rigid.  But in reality is that if you want to see the sites on your own without a guide, the hotel is more than happy to call a car service for you and pay for it.  I wanted to go to lunch in downtown area.  No problem.  I want to see a dance show in town.  No problem.  They dispatched a car to take me there and back.  I want to do some shopping.  No problem. They took me to various shops and I even get to meet a local well known artist who does art shows all over the world.

I wasn't quite sure if I will like this hotel and being the first time staying at an Explora hotel, I was full of hesitations due to some of the negative reviews I read on Tripadvisor.  I'm glad to say I would be very happy to return to this resort.  In fact, I would be very happy to recommend this resort to friends and family.  Is this resort at an Aman level?  No. But with right expectations, this hotel is thoroughly enjoyable.