Friday, April 10, 2020

Can you really see the pyramid from a Four Seasons?

There are two Four Seasons hotel in Cairo.  I ended up choosing the First Residence because this one is suppose to have a pyramid view.  My understanding is if the weather/smog permit, you are suppose to be able to see the pyramids.  While I don't regret choosing this particular Four Seasons, I would be interested to stay at the Nile Plaza next time to see the difference.

I was told that First Residence is closer to the Pyramids while Nile Plaza is closer to the Egyptian Museum.  Given the traffic in Cairo, it may make a big difference between which hotel you go with.  If you want to see more of the downtown Cairo, I would pick Nile Plaza.  Otherwise, I think First Residence is a good choice.

The impression I have is that First Residence is the more suburb Four Seasons of the two.  Their website shows two high-rises on a podium.  One is next to the Nile while the other one is further away.  The one next to the Nile is the condo building hence the name First Residence.  The structure behind the condo building is the one that will have the Pyramid view on a good day and is the hotel side.  The podium that both structures sit on is a mall.  I was told it is perhaps the most luxurious mall in Cairo.

The hotel has a very small lobby area.  Essentially there is a check in area and that's about it.  With that said, it's well decorated with lots of flowers with typical Four Seasons arrangements.  In order to go inside the hotel, you have to go through a security screening.  There is another door that lead to the mall.  Mall entrances also have security screening thus once you go through either the hotel or mall security screening, you can move through both places without additional security screening.  It is a bit odd to have a mall attached to the hotel as we don't see that often in American Four Seasons.  However, I think this type of set up is more common in Asian Four Seasons.

I believe some of the hotel rooms have been refreshed.  It didn't feel like everything was completely gutted and built anew.  The renovation feels more like things are updated but certain things are just repainted.  Given what had happened since the Revolution in 2011, I think it was smart for this Four Seasons to update their rooms without costing them an arm and a leg.  The suite I had was lovely; while it looked traditional, clearly everything was reupholstered, repainted, and things like curtains were replaced.  The only gripe I had was that the road in front of the hotel looks like a major thoroughfare thus if you want some quietude, you must ask for high floors.  Get as high of a floor as you can.  I believe all the windows were at least double if not triple pane but you can definitely hear traffic noise especially if you are on a lower floor.

I would say service level is typically Four Seasons good.  Everyone was friendly and staff were on top of their games.  It was lovely to stay at this Four Seasons since I have been staying at Sofitel at both Luxor and Aswan.  At the end of the day, you know what you are getting yourself into as Four Seasons typically has an uniformly high level standard compare to most other brands no matter where you are.

The spa was a bit of a trek as it wasn't in the hotel side of the building but at the condo side.  To access it, essentially you walk across the roof top of the mall which is where hotel swimming pool is at.  They also have the Egyptian food restaurant next to the pool.  I had a fine treatment although I would say the spa wasn't particularly memorable.

I ended up going to an Italian restaurant inside the mall.  In fact it was in the middle courtyard of the mall which I had hope would be at least eatable.  To my surprise, my pasta was actually quite good.  It was cooked the way I like it; al dente.  Everything was tasty and service was good.  Again, I think I came with American preconception of mall foods in general is bad.  But here in Cairo, like in Asia, some of the best restaurants are inside of malls!  I would not hesitate to come back here to eat.

Apparently Four Seasons First Residence also own a large docked structure that looks like a boat on the Nile right in front of the condo side of Four Seasons.  On this boat you can have either Brazilian food or Chinese food.  Under the Chinese restaurant, there is a discotheque/ bar that also serves finger bite Chinese food.  It's all so confusing. But the funny part is their Chinese restaurant actually serves pretty good quality dim sum!  Who would have guessed!

Overall I was happy with my stay at this Four Seasons.  I thought food selection was good, staff are all very courteous, and suites look quite lovely and in good shape.  If looking at a pyramid out of your window is important to you, then I would stay here.  But just remember you can only see the pyramid on a less smoggy day which would usually be Friday and Saturday as these two days are weekends in Egypt.  I would not hesitate to recommend a friend to stay here.        


Thursday, April 9, 2020

On the other end of the Sofitel Spectrum

Couple days ago I posted about Sofitel Winter Palace in Luxor.  Today, I'll talk about Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan.  The difference between these two Sofitels is night and day.  My understanding is that Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan was already deep into renovation when 2011 revolution started in Egypt.  The government then decided to go forward and finish with the renovation.  The result was a jewel on the Nile that any Egyptians would be proud of.

The claim to fame for this particular Sofitel is this is where Agatha Christie wrote her novel Death on the Nile.  In fact, the desk she used is prominently displayed in the lobby.  This hotel, built in 1899, has hosted who's who of the world: Tsar Nicholas II, Jimmy Carter, Winston Churchill, Francois Mitterrand to name a few.  Dr Henry Kissinger stayed here while negotiating to end the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

It is of no surprise that who's who have stayed at this Sofitel as the architecture is simply gorgeous.  I stayed at the Palace Opera Suite with Nile View.  I would highly recommend this suite as it really has a stunning view of the Nile compare to any other suite including Sir Winston Churchill Suite and Agatha Christie's Suite.  The reason being both of those name suites have balcony views including the new structure.  The suite I was in, from my balcony I can see the new structure but it's less in the direct line of eye sight.  One thing to remember is that when you book, the ones that says Palace means that it is in the older structure.  If you prefer newly built wing, then pick the rooms without the world Palace.  I prefer the old structure better because it has history and higher ceiling to say the least.  The new wing has an easier access to gym, spa and swimming pool.

My suite is quite lovely.  There is a quarter bath right by entry hall.  Then there is a large dining table or breakfast in the room.  Then the sunny living room has gorgeous view of the Nile.  It also includes a small balcony for one to step out and take in the stunning view.  Next to the living room is the bedroom with a huge flat screen TV which I promptly had it taken out of the room.  I'm here to see the Nile and temples.  Last thing I want to do is watch TV.  The master bathroom is large with separate shower and tub.  I like layout as bedroom is tucked away inside away from main doorway which ensures good slight at night even if someone is talking in hallways or closing doors.

Unlike Sofitel Winter Palace, food at Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan was good.  Their French restaurant is at bib Gourmand level which is all I can ask for!  Their Egyptian restaurant is equally as good.  Even their International restaurant/ cafe was quite competent.  Overall I was pleasantly surprised with the quality and taste of the food here.

Service standard is quite high as well although not as high as Sofitel Winter Palace.  The reason being my suite didn't come with a butler in Aswan whereas in Luxor, my suite did.  With that said, everyone was helpful and on friendly.  I would say the service standard is as high as any other Four Seasons I've been to around the world.

Few miscellaneous things to mention about the property.  First, at the car drop off area in front of the property, there are two structures.  One is security and the other has two ATM machines.  So it's a good place to get cash if you need it.  Secondly, there is a dock at the property so you can rent a felucca and have it sail to the hotel dock to pick you up.  Lastly, for some odd reason, it feels like Egyptian hotels laundered my clothes with lots of detergent.  I feel this is a local thing.  So if you are particularly allergic to detergent, I would do your laundry outside of Egypt.

Overall this Sofitel is a 180 from the one in Luxor which made me rather sad as I know how beautiful the Sofitel in Luxor could be.  If I were to return to Aswan again, there is no doubt in my mind where I will be staying.  This hotel has a perfect combination of historical charm, clean and modern facility, good service and tasty food.  What's there not to love?  

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Singita does it again!

Having stayed at Singita Sasakwa in Tanzania couple years ago, I had high hope for Singita Kwitonda Lodge in Rwanda.  This is reported to be the best of the best gorilla trekking lodge in Rwanda and my expectation was high.

This isn't the most expensive Singita lodge, I believe Sasakwa takes the crown.  With that said,  Kwitonda Lodge is indeed the most expensive lodge overall due to the exorbitantly expensive gorilla trekking permit fee at $1500 per person per day.  At Sasakwa, the safari jeep and guide is included in the nightly rate.  So before the lodging fee at Kwitonda, for a couple, the cost will be at a sky-high $3000.  My understanding is the permit fee will likely increase to $1760 per person per day by end of 2020.  However, that is before coronavirus hit the world.  I suspect the $1500 permit fee will stick for few years until tourism return to normal again.

Kwitonda Lodge is named after one of the largest gorilla family in Rwanda: Kwitonda family.  This family had five silverbacks which is rare.  Kwitonda died in 2012 and the youngest silverback Muhoza left the group to start his own family in 2016 (now has 12 family members).  Currently Kwitonda (now lead by Akarevuro) has three silverbacks and 30 other members.  

First and foremost, the architecture of Kwitonda Lodge is stunningly beautiful.  It's very modern but warm.  The architect used a lot of wood and local material to humanize the space.  There are a total of eight lodges and I stayed at lodge 9 which is at the very end.  Unlike typical African safari, there isn't really any wild animals that can kill you here thus there is no need for staff to escort you to the main dining hall at night.  Each freestanding lodge is basically divided into four parts.  You have an outdoor sitting area with fireplace and a dipping pool that looks to a dormant volcano.  Next to that you have an indoor living room which I feel is a tab bit small.  There is just enough room for two club chairs and a table with two dining chairs.  The room has a huge glass window that also looks out to a dormant volcano.  The bedroom is next to the living room and it comes with a deep inset window sill with cushions... a perfect place to read a book and take in gorgeous view.  The large bathroom is behind bedroom area.  The bathroom is large enough for a massage table and then some.  The lodge doesn't have a dedicated spa space so masseuse will come to you when you need spa service.  It also has two overhead showers; one inside and one outside.  Toilet room thankfully is completely enclosed in a separate room.  Besides the size of indoor living room, I thought everything was perfectly designed.

The public space basically consist of outdoor dining area, indoor dining hall, a bar, a wine cave, a conservation room, and a vegetable garden that's few minutes walk from main building.  While it would be nice if they have a gym onsite, given the amount of trekking one has to do to see gorillas, perhaps a gym is an overkill.  The conservation room has a good look and is a good place to read or have a cup of tea.  Bar area is quite lovely and it's a good place to socialize with other guests if you want to.  Next to the vegetable garden, you will see three local artisans making various objects for you to take home as a souvenir.  One specialize in straw work, another in textile.  The third person does wood carvings.

The service is typical Singita; on point and friendly.  Coming back from a tiresome gorilla trekking, staff is there welcome you back to the lodge with warm towels and refreshing drinks.  You take off your muddy hiking boots and somehow they are able to clean them and make them look like brand new for you to wear for the following day gorilla trek!  It's amazing.  I have never seen anything like it.  I can go on and on about their service standard.  At the end of the day, this place is very expensive and I expect the very best service and Singita does not fail to deliver.

Bad food at a luxury lodge is another pet peeve of mine.  Sometimes a resort can have spectacular lodging and service, but food is less than desirable.  Given Singita has it's own cooking school which has a very high standard, I knew I was in good hands.  I would say the food here is at bib gourmand level which is not an easy feat to achieve when Singita Kwitonda is in the middle of nowhere.  I don't think I had a meal here that I was not happy with.

I won't go into gorilla trekking as that's not part of Singita Kwitonda.  The only thing I would mention would be that everyone knows when coming to see the gorillas in Rwanda, gorillas can be anywhere in the park.  They can be an hour to four hours away by foot each way.  Naturally I was most interested in the shortest trek as I have no desire to hike more than I have to to see these gorillas.  The first day I trekked to see the Muhoza family which took about 1.5 hour each way in a relatively easy hike.  The second day I trekked to see Kwitonda family which took about an hour each way in a relatively difficult hike due to slippery rocks and very muddy paths.  What I noticed is that the guests who were in the 1-1.5 hour trekking groups were staying at either Kwitonda Lodge or Bisate Lodge.  The two of the most expensive lodge in Rwanda.  Coincident?  Hmmmmm....  I'll let you be the judge. ;)

Overall the Kwitonda Lodge met my very high expectations.  You simply cannot go wrong with them.  If you are an Amanjunkie, you will feel right at home at Kwitonda Lodge.  Oh and the gorilla experience?  Simply spectacular!  


Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Probably the most dated hotel I have ever stayed at!

Sofitel Winter Palace at Luxor is not a hotel I would particularly recommend.  The only two redeeming part of the hotel is the lovely garden and my butler.  The hotel has long passed its prime and is in need of a makeover.

My understanding is that this particular Sofitel was going to be renovated in 2011.  Unfortunately Egypt had a revolution before the renovation can be started.  Since the revolution, tourism trade had  been in a dire straight until two years when tourists start to come back to Egypt.  Hence the hopeless situation that Sofitel Winter Palace is in.  Now with Coronavirus all over the world with tourism being decimated everywhere, I'm sure any plan to renovated this Sofitel has been postponed to many more years down the road.

While looking on the website, it was clear that the hotel was going to be dated.  But I thought to myself how bad can it be?  Well, let's just say 1980s is calling and they want their furniture back!  I had booked Opera Suite which is their highest category suite available.  The space is quite grand and I can see when renovated, it can exude luxury as it has a great bone.  Unfortunately currently it looks like a faded movie star home who has no more money to upkeep it.  In another words, it just looks sad and joyless.  The curtain doesn't even have a blackout drape so you better be up when sun rises.  The bathroom, while quite large, looks like a set from TV show Dynasty.  It was usable but it just all look so dated.  Apparently this suite is a two bedroom suite which I had somehow misread on their website.  So if you are there with two kids, it's actually quite economical to get this suite.  The other bedroom also comes with its own full bathroom and exit door.  The bedrooms are connected by a living room in the middle.

The hotel has several restaurants.  The best one is the outdoor BBQ one in the garden.  They serve regular Egyptian food which is fresh and delectable.  By the pool there is a cafe where one can be typical international food like a hamburger which I had one and would have it again in lieu of dinners I had onsite.  I ate dinner at two separate venues inside the hotel.  One is regular international fare and the other is French.  I'm sad to say both are at American diner level quality.  I mean yes, food is digestible, but why would I want to pay $30 - $40 per dish for something that taste like this??? I would much prefer the burger I had at lunch in the garden.  I would recommend no one to eat inside the hotel.  The quality of the food does not match with the price.  I have no problem paying for delectable food but this ain't it!  My understanding is since 2011 revolution, jobs were lost due to zero tourists.  Thus most of the top chefs in Egypt went to Dubai which lead to dismal food at this Sofitel (except the ones in the garden).

My suite came with a butler and he was THE saving grace for this hotel.  He clearly went to a British butler school as he knew exactly what he was doing.  He was the best thing this hotel has going for them.  Clothes were pressed to perfection, laundry were done in a timely manner, he even waited outside my door daily so I didn't have to wait long when I telephone him for service.  He was fantastic.

It is quite sad that this hotel wasn't renovated back in 2011; it would have been quite a spectacular property today in this gorgeous ancient city.  The ground is pretty, the architecture is beautiful, and location is good.  I hope Egyptian government (who own this hotel) will put money into this property when they finish the new Egyptian Museum in Cairo.  Luxor deserves to have a spectacular hotel.  I hope to visit this hotel again once it is renovated in the future.    

Monday, April 6, 2020

Winter wonderland at Fairmont Banff

Banff is absolutely beautiful during winter time and if you have to choose between Fairmont Banff Springs and Fairmont Lake Louis, I would definitely go with Fairmont Banff Springs in the winter time.  The reason being Lake Louis is basically a big frozen ice cube.  So unless you like to figure skate, imo, Fairmont Banff Springs is the way to go as scenery is prettier.

There is no doubt that Fairmont Banff rooms need some RnR.  I believe only certain gold level rooms are updated and rest of the rooms are tired for sure.  However, there is some charm to the old timey furniture in my suite that are reminiscent of a visit to grandma's home.  With that said, thankfully bathrooms are updated.  I had the pleasure to stay at room 611 which is the Rungius Suite.  The suite was named after Carl Rungius,  a German American painter, who spent his time painting western United States and Canada in the first half of 20th century.  In fact, Rungius had a studio in Banff that he kept until 1959, the year he died.  I can see why the suite was named after him as my room has a glorious view of Bow River and Mount Girouard.        

The service is somewhat uneven.  Staying at a suite gives me access to their private concierge desk which is quite nice as they can basically make things happen even down to calling to get my rental car ready.  They really do try hard.  However, there were a few times balls were dropped.  But with that said, I would highly recommend staying at their Gold Level rooms as that gives you access to the private concierge desk.

Their spa was under renovation during my stay.  I had a manicure in basically one of the hotel rooms that were transformed into a spa room.  It was a bit disappointing as this hotel was known for the spa and I didn't really get to enjoy the facility.  I guess it's one of those I will need to return to see what the fuss is about!

Across the street from the main hotel is their convention center area.  In it, they have a theatre where the hotel put on A Christmas Carol production.  The production is small and set doesn't compare to broadway production for sure.  With that said, it was nicely done and I would highly recommend it for anyone who comes to Banff over winter holidays.  It puts one in a nice holiday mood for sure.

I didn't eat on site most of the time because the restaurants I was interested in was not open.  I think they rotate opening dates during winter time.  The only restaurant I ate at was The Vermillion Room.  The food was competent but nothing to write home about.  The decor was nicely done in a  French brasserie style.  Off site, I would recommend Three Ravens Restaurant and Eden at the Rimrock Hotel.  Three Ravens is more nouveau cuisine while Eden is traditional French.

Overall it was a nice stay and I would highly recommend anyone who's coming to Banff to stay at Fairmont Banff Springs during winter time.  While nothing will blow you out of water (except the view), everything was either nicely done or you can tell staff makes every effort to make things right and comfortable.  If I come back to Banff again, I would definitely stay here.