Travel Tips and HOTELS (Updated 6/1/08)
Scroll to the bottom for general travel-tips. Worthwhile if you haven't been on this page previously.
Travelling as much as I do, I'm often asked for hotel recommendations throughout the world. Here are a few of my real favourites. Some are unbelievably cheap; some are breathtakingly expensive. Those I recommend are all value for money, though, in my opinion. Odd how many are in France. But then, maybe not odd at all.
I've added some comments about real bummers; it's as important to avoid dreadful hotels as it is to find good ones. A bad meal is just a night's annoyance: A bad hotel can ruin an entire trip. (As can a bad airline or a bad hire-car experience). I've put all these in red. And reddest of all is Hertz...for the full Hertz horror-story, drop to near the bottom of the page.
Hotels marked in blue are particularly special. Hotels in Blue Italics are VERY, very special...these are my top eight hotels in the world. Mention my name when booking anywhere marked in blue, and they'll make a special effort to look after you, I'm sure.
Places I've visited within the last two years are marked with an asterisk *. I don't seem to get about as much as I used to!
A couple of years ago, the lovely people at the offices in Sao Paulo put me up at the Emiliano* again. Absolutely brilliant. It was my second visit, and I still loved it.
Chateau de Bagnols (near Lyon): Fax: 334 7471 4049 (Great place. Amazing rooms. Fabulous views. Food's a bit 'iffy' though...it might be worth the short drive to Troisgros, in nearby Roanne).
Le Mas de Peint*(Camargue) : Fax: 334 9097 2220. Marvellous. The only place to stay in the Camargue, and the Bon family, and their staff are great. Jacques Bon is one of the world's great characters, and a real pal of mine. Ask him to take you to an abrivado or a corrida...you won't understand a word of his strong patois, but he's incredibly knowledgable and the very best company. Get a horse-riding session across the land with one of the cowboys, especially the son of the house, Fred. Take insect-repellent in the summer, though; the Camargue is marshy, so you do get quite vicious bugs. The place just gets better every year.
Colombe d'Or *. St. Paul de Vence : Fax: 334 9332 7778 (When I die, I shall haunt this place).
Chateau du Domaine St. Martin, Vence : Fax: 334 9324 0891 An old Templar castle, done up a bit too frou-frou, but the staff make up for it. Eat on the terrace in summer, and get one of the most amazing views in the South of France.
Regalido*, Fontvielle, (Arles) : Fax: 334 9054 6429 Chef/Patron Jean-Pierre Michel is a lovely bloke. Rooms are sweet; garden's pretty; food's excellent, as in good but not inspiring... or over-adventurous.
Le Moulin de L'Abbaye, Brantome : Fax: 335 6548 4702: An old mill by a stream. Brilliant food.
Michel Bras, Laguiole : Fax: 334 6548 4702: This guy cooks for God. The hotel is amazing architecturally, and has incredible views. The rooms are starkly modern; all glass and pale wood. It's a bit out-of-the-way, but you should buy some Laguiole knives while you're there; the town's famous for them. Philippe Stark does a design, too. But go for the food...well worth any journey.
In Paris, I used to like the Montalembert, but the place underwent a 'change of management' and down went the ship. Now I stay at the Lancaster...but it's horribly expensive. I'm going to try a few new ones before I decide if any of them are 'favourites'. The Relais Christine is nice.
The Taj, Bombay, is one to avoid. I had to stay there a few years back, because, presumably, my hosts had a 'deal' with the company. The first room I was put in looked like a set from "The Man in the Iron Mask". The impression was not improved by the fact that, as Michael Palin said in his televised series, the corridors look uncannily like Pentonville Prison. Sadly, I didn't have a cat with me, but it would have been battered to death had I tried swinging it. The second was marginally bigger, but just as dingy, and smelled of curry and damp. I finally got a decent-sized room with a window that got some sunlight. The television didn't work, and I had to get a very nice young man to stand behind it, holding wires in place, while I watched the football. (Changing the set was, apparently, not possible). The next night, the room next door had a disco-party until a quarter to two in the morning. When I threatened to go, naked, down to reception and do some shouting, they thought I was joking. I wasn't, and only when I rocked up wearing only my skin did the racket stop. The excuse was "It's a wedding", so that's OK, I suppose. No further apologies were forthcoming. I rest my case.
In Bombay, stay at the Oberoi*. It's not one of the world's great hotels, but it's civilised and modern, and in comparison, a paradise. The staff are charming, and unremittingly helpful, and it has arguably the best Indian restaurant in the world (See 'Restaurants').
Four Seasons, Jimbaran Bay, Bali : Fax: 62 361 701 020 (But not the one in Ubud).
(NOT the Amanusa. The whole Aman group has gone down the tubes, but this is a shambles. It was all brought to a head on my last...and final...visit, when I had to complain about a bunch of Japanese, who were being incredibly noisy on the next table; two of the men were not even eating, and one of them was excavating his bottom with his finger. On the same evening, I attempted to salvage a truly horrible meal by ordering a bottle of '86 Italian red: Without apology, the waiter brought me a bottle of '89, and was deeply grumpy when I pointed-out that this was not what I ordered. The prices are stupid, and the place should be re-named Amangreedy).
I'm told that Adrian Zecha is back and running the group he started, so it may improve again. But he's got his work cut out.
The Park Hyatt *,Tokyo. Fantastic architecture; inspired decor; huge rooms; incredible views; faultless service; charming staff. What else could you possibly want? Oh...the New York Grill, on the top floor, is a terrific restaurant, too. Probably the best business-hotel in the world. Actually, delete the 'probably'. This was where they filmed 'Lost in Translation', by the way.
One of the most god-awful places I've ever stayed at, anywhere, is the Sumiya*, a 'traditional' ryokan in Kyoto. Having read so much about the zen calm of a tatami-room, and the brilliant, silent, service and the little gem-like gardens, I could hardly wait. Having been warned that the experience would cost me about five hundred bucks a night, I comforted myself with the thought that it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and set off with my colleague and pal, Tham Khai Meng...thank God I had someone along with a sense of humour.
On arrival, at lunchtime, we were informed that check-in was three in the afternoon. (Check-out is midday; what do they do in the meantime, one asks. Cleaning and maintenance is not one of the tasks, for sure). So, we kicked our heels for three hours, and returned. I started to have my doubts as we were led past illuminated displays of cheap tourist tat-for-sale, and thence through a rear-section that resembled a cheap, and unusually grubby, sixties hot-sheet motel.
The door from the dingy corridor opened with a flourish, and there was the room: Empty, of course...as one might hope...but with the single embellishment of a large white fridge, with a blue plastic bread-bin perched on top of it. Call me picky, but I don't recall seeing one of those in The Seven Samurai. The view was of a wall. Possibly, that's zen. The closet contained a do-it-yourself abortion-kit in the form of a few old wire clothes-hangers. The bathroom was tiny, had plastic soap-dishes, and smelt, frankly, of feet. I had read that the cedarwood baths filled the room with a calming redolence; at the Sumiya, it's preferable to take an old sneaker, and inhale deeply. At bedtime, the maid set up the futon: The bizarre mix of unmatching cheap cotton floral sheets,pillowcases, and duvet was a feast for the eye. A banquet for the eye, if you're heavily into cheap, tasteless, tat. Still, I expect the Oxfam shop in Kyoto has a bumper day whenever the Sumiya refurbishes. Once every couple of decades, one must assume.
I thought I had it bad, until Khai told me that he had to insist on them removing from his room two kitchen chairs and a formica-topped table. His air-con didn't work at all.
The food wasn't bad. The service was adequate. But at half a grand a night, these people are taking the piss.
Kyoto is a lovely place, though. If you go, I'm assured that the Tawaraya is the ryokan of choice, and you should call Mr.Doi (Doi Naoki), who is a driver/tour guide, a charming and funny guy, and a delight to be with. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org and his phone number is 090 9596 5546.
Albergo, 137, Abdul Wahab el Inglisi Street, Beirut: Fax: 961 133 9999 ; Phone: 961 133 9797; Email: email@example.com
Great little boutique hotel. Position may not be ideal, but the character of the place makes up for it. Rooms are dark, but not at all dingy...a bit like an old, high-class brothel. There's a lovely, bright, room on the top floor where breakfast and tea are served by charming waiters. There's a roof-terrace and a little pool. Stay here.
Phoenicia Intercontinental, Beirut: Fax: 961 136 9101. The other side of the coin. Rebuilt on the port, it's as good a business-centred city-hotel as you're likely to find anywhere. Great rooms and helpful people. Restaurant staff were nice, if a bit dopey, when I stayed there, but it had only been open a week. They deserve to succeed.
I can't really recommend anything here, although the service at the Marriott* is excellent. But there's one place that gets a load of PR, and I can only advise you to avoid it at all costs (yes, it's blisteringly expensive, too). The Casa Vieja in Mexico City looks quite pretty from the road: I stayed one night, having been lured by the editorials. I had a room without windows, a bedroom you had to sidle round, a tiny bathroom with a toilet that blocked every time I used it (might have been the diet, I suppose), and a huge bloody kitchenette. (Do I look like the sort of person who cooks in his room?) However, I soon realised the reason for this aberration: The 'restaurant' , despite being open to the pristine air-quality for which the city is so richly famous, smelled of crap and puke, and 'breakfast' comprised congealed fried eggs, lukewarm refried beans, and a slice of that semi-sweet plastic-packed bread that infests third-world supermarkets, presumable because it's so solid with preservatives that it keeps for years. All served by an extra from 'The Night of The Living Dead', to the accompaniment of plate-rattling Mexican heavy metal. I was the only customer. Presumably, the others were cowering in their kitchenettes.
The 'W' is next door to the Marriott, and far trendier. As a hotel, I hate it, but hey, you're probably younger than I am.
Actually, I love Mexico. Or, to be more precise, I've met some great people there. The population seems to divide into two main types; Hispanic (or Mayan) and almost embarrassingly hospitable, or Aztec and bovine. I like the food (other than breakfast at the Casa Horrendoso), and I could die happy, and may well do so, drinking Tequila with a Sangrita chaser. But don't believe what you read in American-based travel mags (Americans need to get out more. Or, on second thoughts, not. They're fine where they are).
Cancun, for example, makes the worst architectural and cultural excesses of Miami or the Costa del Crime seem like an attractive little fishing-village, and the much-vaunted 'arty' town of San Miguel De Allende is basically Bumwipe, Indiana without the charm. I was recommended a stay at the Casa de Sierra Nevada: Having booked months in advance, I was given a tiny room on the street, which I would decribe as dingy, were that not an unwarranted compliment, where I was serenaded nightly by American tourists throwing up on the pavement outside my window. Delightful. There are no decent restaurants, and the population is permanently crabby.
Puerto Vallarta, on the other hand, is strangely attractive. My advice would be to keep your eyes shut tight for the first ten minutes in the taxi from the airport. That way, you'll miss the depressing side of the place, which includes what must be the ugliest Sheraton in the world. (I haven't made a study of the genre, but trust me, uglier would be inconceivable). Then you get into the old town, and here things look up. Admittedly chock-full of schlock and tatty souvenir shops, the place retains a certain charm. For instance the streets are narrow and cobbled.
I was going to a conference (usually a recipe for impersonal hotels with grumpy staff), but when we left the village behind, and climbed up the cliff road, past some opulent-looking houses, I began to have hopes. In the event, the hotel we stayed at was excellent. To be fair, and not to raise your hopes too much, it's a package-tour/conference hotel: it's not one of the new breed of boutiquey style-temples that are springing up everywhere. But the beach is fabulous, and entirely private to the hotel; the food is absolutely great; the rooms are huge, with sea-views.
And the service is incredible. From the room maid to the reception, you'll get nothing but cheerful smiles and eager help. As an example, one evening our group decided to have drinks on a private terrace overlooking the sea. That turned out to be so successful that we cancelled dinner in town, and asked the hotel to fix us something right there. Within fifteen minutes, tables, linen, candles, cutlery and waiters had appeared, and ten minutes later a full-scale nosh was served. Even more amazingly, we asked (more in hope than expectation) if they'd like to move the grand piano from reception onto the terrace, so we could have a bit of a sing. Ten minutes later, twelve large, sweating men lugged the monster up the stairs...and tuned the damn thing before they went away! The hotel's called the Camino Real*, and you could do a lot worse than stay there. It's extremely good value for money, too.
Sweet, real, little town/village. A lot of hotels, but we stayed at the Camino Real*. While not as spectacularly wonderful as its Puerto Vallarta cousin, it was still pretty nice.
Huka Lodge, Taupo : Fax: 647 378 0427 (Very, very wonderful indeed, in every way)
(The best advice here is avoid Amanpulo. Another bloody-awful stay at great expense: The place was ill-kept, and the staff were rude, or at best offhand. You can't blame them; it's the management. See Amans generally).
Avoiding the Philippines entirely might be even better advice, but it's worth mentioning that, in Manila, the Peninsula Hotel* is by far the best. The staff are quite remarkable in their enthusiasm, and in their friendly attitude. It may be that this is so because I'm a regular guest, but I'd be surprised if I were an isolated case. However, they recently decided to do away with the 'breakfast by the pool' option...which was one of the few real pleasures of the place. Maybe time for a rethink.
The beach resort of Friday's*, however, on Boracay, is excellent ...in its way. It's not cheap. Value for money? Probably not. Nowhere near as insanely expensive as Amanpulo, though, and a much nicer experience all round. The staff are blissfully charming and helpful, if sometimes perhaps a bit too laid-back, (as befits an island resort, I guess). And I noticed a tendency to drop broad hints for tips, which is a shame.
There's a rather annoying drift towards 'cultural dances' in the evenings, but you can avoid the worst excesses by dining on the beach, away from the rattle and the somewhat aggressive 'gaiety' of the whole ghastly business. They keep their section of the beach as clean as they can, (the rest can resemble an open sewer when the water's been rough, and the seaweed, which pongs something cruel in the hot weather, can be off-putting in the extreme). I seriously would not recommend going in the sea a hundred metres either side of Fridays.
They have good (and essential), but unobtrusive, security guys on duty 24 hours a day.
I find the food a bit over-ambitious, personally, and generally unsuccessfully so. But no-one goes to the Philippines as part of a gastronomic tour anyway, so who cares.
There's a games-room and a pool-table at the rear of the hotel, which seems to be for the sole use of local youths and assorted hangers-on. This can be a real pest if you get tired of frying your tits off and need some quiet and shade. That definitely needs fixing, or one day it's going to turn nasty. One hopes that it'll get sorted-out before that happens.
What else can I tell you? It's been several months since any foriegners were shot on Boracay, I believe, and Abu Sayaf gangs tend to prefer Palawan, I'm told.
So, if you must holiday in the Philippines, Friday's is the place, OK?.
If you're feeling a bit more flush, (about twice the price for the same-sized suites) the small resort called Nani, (twelve rooms) in the adjacent bay to Fridays, looks very nice, has charming staff, private balonies with jacuzzis, fabulous views, and is probably not suitable for kids. (This may be a huge selling-point for you!) Getting to the beach is a bit of a bind, and involves a slightly vertiginous trip by elevator...but sand in one's cozzie is a much-overrated perversion in my opinion, so I wouldn't care. Had I not a manic eight-year-old human midget submarine in tow, I'd have given the place a go.
The restaurant looks pleasant, but I didn't try it. No doubt it's adequate.
(In the Bush: Safaris)
Singita : Fax: 2711 784 7667...Just fabulous. Huge suites, overlooking the river...so you can watch the game from the bath if the mood takes you. Big wooden decks to each room, and a plunge-pool. You have the added frisson of having to be careful at night, as lions sometimes wander into camp.I'm assured that very few guests get eaten, butI did get up one morning to find that an Elephant had crapped in my pool: Not quite as romantic as being stalked by a man-eater, but still...quite edgy enough for me, thank you.
The dining-room is breathtaking, the food is excellent...and unlike some game-lodges, you don't get Impala at every sitting (Impala ice-cream takes some getting-used to). The rangers and trackers are top-class. Eye-wateringly expensive.
Londolozi*. Fax as Singita. Everything very nearly as good as above. I have a five percent preference for Singita, maybe. But that's all. Also eye-wateringly expensive. One thing, though. This year i took my son to their Varty Camp. They welcome kids, and could not have been more friendly and helpful. This was probably the best short holiday I've ever had, and we'll be going again next summer. So there.
Leopard Hills is also very nice, by the way, and a bit smaller and not as luxurious....and a tad cheaper. Has a smaller game-park, too, which can be a bit frustrating. The original 'luxury game-lodge' is MalaMala, and is, in comparison with the three above, a bit worn. But it has the largest park, so if you're going for more than a couple of days, and are really into animal-watching, this might be a good bet. I'd tend to avoid Sabi-Sabi, as the accommodation is definitely more down-market, and it gives the impression of being too much like a tourist conveyor-belt. (I'm assured they're upgrading, so better check).
The Saxon: 2711 292 6000...Fantastic hotel! Everything top-notch; rooms, service, pool, food. Almost worth visiting Jo'burg just to stay here....but perhaps not quite.
Villa Real*, Madrid : Fax: 3491 420 2547: No great shakes to look at, but it's ideally-situated, and the staff are unbelievably helpful. If you go, ask to speak to Guillermo Ruiz-Cortina, and give him my very best regards. He's a real pal. Rooms are nice, and the suites are nicer. The restaurant sucks.
Parador, Chinchon : Fax: 3491 7172 1597: The best of the increasingly-good Parador chain, and if you don't like cities, you can stay here and commute to Madrid. The village square is beautiful, and looks like a set from Carmen.
Hotel Arts, Barcelona. An exercise in architecture and design. You've got to see it at the very least. The service is unfailing charming and incredibly efficient.
Hotel Omm*, Barcelona. Very modern, but don't let that put you off. The rooms are a bit titchy, but so well-designed that it's not a factor. The staff are great, and the barman makes the best Mojitos outside Cuba. The restaurant is excellent, BUT is under different management to the hotel, so, bizarrely, you may not be able to get a reservation, even though you're a resident.
Landa Palace, Burgos. A folly, in the sense that it looks like an old castle, but isn't. Lovely rooms...you can choose chitzy or modern. Marvellous food. There's not much reason to go to Burgos, unless you're into cathedrals or corridas, but their annual feria attracts the very best matadors, and the family atmosphere in the arena is unique.
The Parador at Carmona* is pretty good, if you're visiting Seville, although it's a drive in and out of town.
In Seville itself, I'd tend to avoid the mausoleum-like Alfonso, and try to get a room at the Rey de Baeza. It's a tiny place, set slightly back from on of the narrow streets in the old town. But inside, it is lovely. While the public areas are 'typical' and charming, the rooms are very modern and boutiquey, and beautifully designed. (I only saw one mugging outside the hotel, which I am assured is a record; Seville is the mugging-capital of Spain). I've been told that Casa No.7 is another little gem, but I haven't stayed there.
I'm told that the Puro (34 971 425 450) is now the in-place to be. Now I'm living more than half the year in Spain, I haven't stayed there, but it looks great, and has had some great reviews. They also have a Puro Beach bar and trendy hang-out, so if this all sounds like your thing, go for it. (As I said, I've never stayed there, but I've recently had some horror stories from people who have. So...maybe not?)
Es Puig*, Deya, Mallorca : Fax: 349 7163 9210. A gem. Run by an extraordinarily nice couple from Romania. Right in the centre of the village, on the edge of which I have my house...you can look across the road and laugh at the people in La Residencia* who are paying eight times as much for the same location. Or you can wave to me on my terrace while you have breakfast on yours. The rooms are mostly, one has to admit, a bit on the small side. There's a large pool...I think it's the only one in the actual village...in a pretty little garden full of orange-trees, and with a perfect view of the surrounding, heart-stoppingly beautiful, mountains. They only serve breakfast, but there are five or six decent restaurants within five minutes walk. If you have a family, take one of the apartments, right on the top of the hill. If there are two of you, but you don't mind spending a bit more, ask for the penthouse in the main hotel, which is huge and has a dinky little terrace. This is the cheapest place on my whole list, and definitely the nicest.
* Another word about La Residencia: When Richard Branson owned it, some years ago now, it had character, charm, and a sense of place. It was just the right size. Since then it's been bought and sold, and the newest owners, (the chain run by Orient Express) have wrecked the pretty hillside, below which it once nestled, by building more arm-and-a-leg priced 'suites' up there in a blockhouse that closely resembles either a crematorium or a jam-factory. It's now absurdly big, stupidly expensive, and roundly detested by all who live in the village, and have to put up with their arrogance and intentionally ghastly behaviour. The 'service' is snotty and forced. Please do not encourage the bastards.
However, if you want a marvellous place to stay and pamper yourself for a few days, you honestly could not do better than the Son Brull Hotel and Spa (Tel: 34 971 53 53 53, Fax: (34) 971 53 1068; www.sonbrull.com), just outside Pollensa in the north of the island. (You pronounce it a bit like 'brewey', by the way. Absolutely not like 'pull', or worse still, 'gull'. I'm so glad we got that out of the way.)
Like the frightful Residencia, it's a renovated manor-house...or to be precise, monastery. But deftly avoiding the self-conscious 'MajorcaLand' tweeness of the Rez, it is a designer's dream. From the exterior, imposing and solid; inside, modern in the way of a good city boutique hotel, but always preserving the local character. The bar, in particular, is worth seeing, combining modern art and furniture with a massive antique olive press; neither element seeming forced into uneasy proximity. Airy in the hot weather, cosy in the cold...you have to admit, that's a helluva trick to pull off!
It has a great, and casually elegant, restaurant, with a young chef who has the confident touch of all the best new-wave Catalans...and even the room-service menu is special (try the lamb-based Brullburger; the name is, I'm sure, intentionally ironic, but it's quite remarkably delish). The staff are a delight. My ex-wife tells me the Spa is perfection, and my son loves to play cricket on the lawn, to the bemusement of all.
Finally, The Portixol *, just outside Palma, is a lovely little modern 'boutique' hotel, next to a real harbour...as opposed to a 'marina' full of Noddy-boats...and has terrific restaurant, with some of the all-round nicest staff on the island, and a huge outdoor pool.
Hotel Widder, Zurich : Fax: 411 224 2379. (Just take my word for it: Small, charming, lovely).
Sugar Huts*, Jomtien, Pattaya : Used to be a charming, funny place, in a jungly garden, just outside Pattaya. You stayed in little wooden Thai-style huts on stilts, with outside bathrooms. The reason this is now in red, and thus a no-no, is that the staff have all changed, I was robbed while I was asleep last time I was there, and Dave Guerrero was bitten by a snake. Avoid this place. It's a tragic shame, but there you go.
Amanpuri, Phuket : Fax: 6676 324 100. Frankly, it's gone downhill lately. Probably not worth the silly money, any more. If you do go, insist on rooms 105 or 103...better still, don't go at all). The Chedi, right next door, is fairly stylish, at less than half the price and shares the same beach. It's not wonderful, though. The food's awful, and the staff have been taking stupid-pills. It's been largely rebuilt since the tsunami, so I can't give up-to-date info.
The hotels in Phuket are all a bit strange these days, actually. At all costs avoid the Kata Beach Resort in Kata.
The Twin Palms, near the Chedi and Amanpuri, looks great and has a good restaurant. Top of the line, with prices to match is probably the new Trisara. The Banyan Tree used to be nice, too...and next to a golf-course. Again, I'm told it's now almost recovered from the tsunami.
The Sukhothai *, Bangkok : Fax: 662 278 0400 (Just brilliant in every way).
I've just discovered a little gem in Bangkok. I've never actually stayed there, because it has only three rooms, and I can't get a booking! Three rooms...it's unutterably cute! It's on the river, and a hell of a way from the centre of town, and all the glitz and the squalor. (In other words, it's a bit of a bugger to get to). Perfect if you've had enough of all that old bollocks, and if two of you want to chill out and enjoy a part of the city as it once must have been. Close to a local market, and a lovely old temple, (and for what it's worth, what appears to be a girls school). There's no restaurant, of course, but there are nice, clean, simple eateries very close-by. And judging from the effusive comments in the visitors' book, the staff seem to be a delight. If ever I get a booking, I'll expand on the place.
Note: In Phuket, get your hire-car from Budget, at the airport. They're amazingly helpful. (See 'General Peeves' at the end of this seemingly-endless page)
(Avoid the Chiva Som, in Hua Hin, if you're thinking about doing a health-spa thing. It's incredibly overpriced; the standard rooms are very ordinary, and the suites are way too small to merit the name. The staff are half-hearted at best, and rude at worst...in fact I'd say the Chiva Som is the only hotel in Thailand where I've had truly bad service. The food is appalling, but then you're trying to lose weight, so what do you expect. Interestingly, British Airways now serve 'Chiva Som' this and that on their Biz Class menus. Another reason to fly with someone else.
If for some weird reason you really want to go to Hua Hin, stay at the Sofitel, which used to be the Railway Hotel, was used as a location for some of 'The Killing Fields', and still has a degree of charm.
If you MUST do the health-thing, I'm assured that the Regent Resort in ChiangMai is lovely.
The Halkin, London : Fax: 44207 333 1100: Beautifully designed. Small. Great restaurant)
22, Jermyn Street*. London: Fax; 44207 734 0750 (I'd almost rather not tell you about this, because I like to be able to get a room myself. But it's small, and beautifully designed in a chitzy sort of way. Great staff. Great owner. No bar, no restaurant)
One Aldwych,* London : Fax: 441 71 300 1001: Latest: Even better now, than when it opened. Faultless staff with great attitude.
Not The Fox Club any more. This was once my hotel of choice in London. Originally designed and decorated by Kit Kemp , and rather engagingly amateurish, it had nice little rooms, tiny but charming suites, a bar and quasi-restaurant downstairs, was centrally situated near Piccadilly, and a stroll from Farm Street. But recently, it was bought by a bunch of chaps who, I'm assured, made a packet in 'The City'. They seemed determined to turn the place into a bar-with-rooms. The bar staff were still great, but unappreciated, and the room-maids were exemplary, but they can't fight this sort of stupidity. When the laundry can't be done because the contractors haven't been paid; when they insist on having parties for their frightful friends and D-list celebs, and plastering the walls with crap art for sale; when the interests of the few remaining guests are secondary to all this; when someone wanders in off the street and tries to sell you cocaine; when little things like bugs in the bathroom and mice in the restaurant are ignored....and finally, when the bright young things downstairs sing 'Stand by your Man' twenty times on a karaoke machine, at one o'clock in the morning, you know it's time to go! Oh, dearie, dearie me.
(The latest news is that the place has been sold again, so I gave it another go. The new people assured me they were upgrading, but when I went it was still hopeless)
Lords of the Manor, Upper Slaughter , Glos: Fax: 441 451 820 696. Don't confuse this with Lower Slaughter Manor, which is ten minutes away. and nice enough but a bit up itself. In fact, I've noticed that when a Hotel joins the 'Leading Hotels of the World' organisation, it's time to stop going there.
I've yet to find a hotel I really like anywhere in the U.S., especially in New York....any recommendations welcome. I tried the Carlyle once, and it was, admittedly, less horrible than most. I now stay at the Lowell*, which is fine, but if I'm ever forced to go to The States again, I'm going to shop around a bit more.
On my last visit, I found a real stinker: The Ritz Carlton* in Key Biscayne, Florida. Outrageously expensive, and decorated in the usual faux-old-money style of which the chain is so enamoured. To be fair, the bed was one of the most comfortable I've ever slept in, and there's a nice, helpful, efficient, Indonesian girl called Dyah, on reception sometimes. The room-cleaning ladies are sweet.
Apart from that, it's a panoply of ghastliness: The 'ornamental garden/fountain' was being repaired and roped off for most of the week; the concept of working at night having failed to occur to them. I never managed to get breakfast without complaining about the delay, and on one occasion it didn't arrive at all. 'Same-day' laundry came back a day late. The snotty mafioso car-valets won't allow your chauffeur to wait for you. (I recruited a huge black gentleman from Belize thereafter, and had no more lip from them). When I asked to speak to the manager, a pop-eyed geek on reception announced himself as the 'person you would wish to speak to' (one can only assume there's a demand for pudgy, pasty-faced, puffed-up little toads in Florida), who suggested I complain to someone else. The place is a travesty. One can only assume that they do most of their recruiting from Hertz.
Possibly best of all is their 'Business Centre'; a hole-in-the-wall room hidden on the second floor. I had some stuff to send to my office. Here's the conversation with the near-catatonic, sole denizen:
"I want to courier some stuff to Singapore".
"We don' do courier".
"What are those Fedex boxes, piled up in the corner, then?"
"Ah. We do Fedex an' UPS".
"Good. This lot to Singapore, please".
"Would that be International?"
"Yes. Please pack these carefully".
"We don' do pack".
"Fine. Probably better if I do it myself, anyway, considering the depths of your ignorance. Pass that bubble-wrap, will you?"
"We charge bubble-wrap by the sheet".
"Screw it. I'll take 'em with me".
This, remember, is at the "Business Centre" of the Ritz Carlton: A large, absurdly-expensive hotel in a large, absurdly-affluent State in the most absurdly powerful nation on the face of the earth. I've met with more help and a lot more intelligence in tiny hotels in Sri Lanka. (Which, for the edification of employees of the Ritz Carlton, ' would be International' ).
If you absolutely must stay in Key Biscayne, the Sonesta next door is a third of the price, and a bit Costa Brava, but well-run, by comparatively pleasant people. The barman at their pool bar is a charming bloke called Geno, who makes the best Pina Coladas ever. Unusually, for Florida, he speaks English.
I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, too. I had a horrid little room in the basement, as punishment for being a smoker (Smoking is punishable by ostracisation and worse in California): The bar closes at eight-thirty (yes...half past eight in the evening) on Sundays. So does the restaurant. I've seen a lot more joie-de-vivre at a crematorium on a wet Thursday in West Bromwich, frankly. The staff, apart from their tendency to regard anyone displaying a fondness for booze and ciggies with undisguised horror, are rather nice.
Incidentally. for the benefit of English readers, when visiting San Francisco ('gay' capital of the States, I'm assured...but obviously in its most recent usage; one wouldn't want any atmosphere of levity polluting it's fair streets) I'd advise you not to announce, when the nicotine urge kicks in, that you're 'going to have a fag outside'. Also, asking for a cigarette from a fellow smoker should not be referred-to as 'bumming a fag'. These poor folks live a sadly sheltered life, and go into shock somewhat easily, I find.
Why are most car-hire companies run by cretins, and rude cretins at that?
And do Hertz , in particular, have an official discrimination-policy against hiring pleasant, helpful staff? They seem to think they're doing you a favour by allowing you to use their cars. To be more specific, the female staff are the absolute worst. The chaps can occasionally seem pleasant by comparison.
I have NEVER been given the car I booked.
I have NEVER been shown how the thing works; they just fling you the keys and get on with doing their make-up. So do the girls.
And I'm a Gold-card Super-duper special customer, according to the bits of plastic they keep sending me. Heavens only knows how they treat some poor sucker straight off the street.
The nadir of their under-achievement is their French set-up, and the runner-up is Spain. Avis are not much better, unfortunately. (Latest: Avis are now noticeably better than Hertz...but then, walking on your hands on a bed of hot coals, with a cheese-grater up your bum would be better than Hertz).
The sole exception to all this is a bloke called Fabien at Hertz in Montpelier. Helpful and cheerful chap. He should run the company. They've probably fired him by now, for having the wrong attitude.
But here's the best...You'll love this: A few summers ago, I hired a car from Hertz at Marseilles airport. (A triumph of hope over experience). They gave me the keys to a Saab. The electrics didn't work. They grudgingly gave me another Saab. There was a half-smoked cigar in the ashtray, and a used cardboard coffee-cup in the glove-compartment. But by now I was late, so I drove to my destination, an hour and a half away. Next day, I drove into Arles, parked, and when I returned four hours later, the car wouldn't start. All the electrics flashed on, then went out, then nothing. It was late in the evening. I had to get a taxi back to my hotel. Next day was Sunday. The Hertz breakdown-bloke agreed that the car was buggered, and towed it away. He suggested that I could get a replacement car if I went back to Marseilles, but that all their other offices were closed.
Since I was leaving the country, from Marseilles, the next day, I declined the kind offer, and got another taxi to the airport, in the morning. The breakdown bloke had suggested I take it up with the office there, so I traipsed over and asked what they intended to do about the bill, and all the costs I had incurred because they had given me a useless car. There were two blowsy bottle-blondes, and a glum little hamsteresque downtrodden-looking male in the hut. There were no other customers. This was the conversation:
(Me). "I want to talk about the car you rented to me".
(Blonde No1)...Interrupted in the middle of a conversation with the boyfriend: "You want to return a car, you go over there", she waved a hand in the general direction of two paces down the counter, and continued chatting on the phone.
(Me). "If I had the car, I would be returning it. But you have the bloody car, not me. That's why I'm here. This is an unsatisfied customer".
(Blonde No1): " Do you want to rent a car or not?"
(Me)...Losing it just a little, I admit: "Listen, you pillock: Watch my lips: I. Do. Not. Want. To. Rent. A. Car. I already made that mistake. I rented a car, from you, from here, and it broke down almost immediately. I want to ensure you don't charge me, and I want to know what you are going to do about the costs I've incurred!"
Blonde No 1, faced with someone who was impervious to her charm, and thus patently mad, then screamed at Mr.Downtrodden to go and fetch security. Mr.D skittered out of the hut in a flash, and, with a smirk, disappeared in the wrong direction as fast as his little legs would waggle. Blonde No1 then followed him, cursing and stumbling on her high heels like a novice transvestite.
(Blonde No2) ...Her badge proclaimed her as the boss, and by the state of her skin, she had either done hard time as a stoker, or had overdone the tanning some thirty years ago...waving her talons about, possibly merely to dry the varnish she's been so assiduously applying during the previous altercation. "We rent cars. If you don't want to rent a car, go away. I am not interested in your problems. We just rent cars".
Well, not to me they don't. Never again. Not in France, and not anywhere. And search as you may, you'll never find a number to call to complain. Hardly surprising, I guess; it'd be the busiest department in the company. They only rent cars, you see. After that, it's not their problem.
(When I eventually got the extortionate bill from Visa, I complained to them. They found me a bloke at Hertz in Australia, for God's sake, who gave me a pittance back. This, folks, is a seriously buggered-up company!)
I'm told I get thousands of hits on this site every week. (No, I haven't the faintest idea why). Just maybe, one day, one will be someone who knows the boss at Hertz (I suppose there is one? Maybe he hired a Hertz car to pop down to the shops, and has never been seen since) and would like to ruin his day.
Meanwhile, has anyone got any suggestions for sane and efficient car-hire in France? (This comment has been 'up' for eight years now, and I've had kind recommendations for car-hire companies all over the world...but none in France. Couldn't just be that they're French, could it? Surely not. For the record, Budget get several votes, but generally, car-hire companies seem to suck. When in Mallorca, avoid Llaser Car-Hire. CroAuto there are OK.)
What single customer-benefit is there in airlines 'code-sharing'?
This seems to me to be the greatest exercise in destroying whatever brand-values they like to think they have.
I booked Air France to the Middle East: I was made to fly on a MEA plane, with MEA staff and MEA 'food'. I'm in no hurry to fly Air France ever again.
I bought two First-Class tickets on Thai, to S.Africa: On checking in I was told that it was now a SAA flight, and given SAA boarding-passes. Not only was the flight awful, but the staff at the First-Class lounge in Bangkok told me that holders of First-Class boarding-passes on SAA were not allowed in the Thai Airlines First Class Lounge. It's very bad form to make a scene in Thailand...but I redefined the art that day. No more flights, anywhere, on Thai, thank you. I note that the Prime Minister of Thailand feels the same way.
And, of course, I've been switched from BA to Qantas. Not SO bad, because Qantas is a decent airline.
But this is marketing madness.
General travel tips
1. Pack several small bags rather than one large one.
If the airline loses your entire wardrobe, you're stuffed. They usually only mislay one of the several, so you'll have something to wear. If you have several destinations and/or time/weather zones, pack one case for each, so you only have to unpack one.
2. Carry spare underwear and washbag essentials as hand-luggage.
3. Always carry a photocopy of your passport with you when you're out of the hotel: never the original...you must never lose the original, and if terrorists or kidnappers get you, it's easier to throw away a photocopy, and suddenly become a Biro-salesman from Capetown or something equally non-threatening and valueless. Never carry business cards...who are you gonna meet that needs that information?
4. As hand-luggage, carry a few items of favourite condiments, to render airline food edible. I carry a small bottle of Worcestershire sauce, and the same of Soya sauce, some dried chilli-padi in a small zip-lock bag, and a sachet or two of salt, for instance. On longer trips, I take a plastic jar of Chilli Sambal.
5. Fill the corners of each case with Jumbo-sized Ziplock bags, They'll come in handy for keeping laundry away from fresh clothes, and for keeping any breakable items like sauces and bottled stuff that you gather along the way.
6. If you're driving in France or Spain in particular, beware of road pirates. One good idea is to always strap all the luggage in the boot together, so that it's really hard to steal. (I use bicycle-locks). And keep a cheap briefcase, locked and full of old newspapers, in full view. The road pirates may well think it's easier to escape in
a hurry with these easier and possibly more valuable pickings. (Worked for me, anyway).
Hide credit-cards, cash, tickets and passports somewhere else...they're not bulky and are the most important and valuable things you have: Everything else is insured (I trust) and replaceable.
7. If you're a vindictive and violent person like me, and are not scared of hurting these guys, here's a great tip. Keep a large can of lighter fuel and a Bic lighter in the car. It's legal, and it's lethal. If stopped on the highway, get out of the car, carrying the items in your hands. In Europe, it's unlikely that the bad guys are armed with anything other than knives. They know that within a knife-distance, they'll be within a squirt-and-a-flick distance. (Whooomp! Lovely) I've found that a quick squeeze of Ronsonol on a bloke's pants usually convinces him that he's not that interested in going any further. But remember, if you threaten, you must be willing, and eager even, to go the whole way. You don't want to end up being
made to drink the stuff.
8. Listen to advice from frequent travellers: Airlines and hotels can change from year to year, and you need the most current information, not old news.
I just returned from a round-the-world trip, and this may be of use to you. In my view, all airlines are more or less subject to the same delays and so on, and most new seating is OK. It's the in-air experience that makes a difference. The latest discovery, then, is that Singapore Airlines have blown it, foodwise. It looks like the accountants now rule. And BA are now making an effort to be Haute Cuisine, and worse still have started pushing food that purports to be from the Chiva Som spa in Thailand. The former just doesn't work, and the latter is dreadful, even in Thailand!
Best and worst Airlines for food (Marks out of 100)
1. Cathay Pacific (75)
2. American Airlines (65)
3. Singapore Airlines (60)
4. British Airways (50)
50. Iberia (I'd give this lot a minus...horrible food, worse service)
Best and worst Airlines for service
1. Singapore Airlines (75)
2. Cathay Pacific (74)
3. British Airways (66)
4. American Airlines (65)
50. Iberia (see above)
Best and worst Airports for efficiency/security
1. London Heathrow (90) Effortless, charming, and totally committed.
2. Singapore Changi (80) Still pretty good, but now too many 'jobsworths' on security. Rude, and confused as to their real purpose. The authority should understand that more security-people doesn't necessarily mean better security.
3. HongKong (75)
4. Madrid (60) Security bit 'iffy', with military personnel clearly bored and officious, but not actually alert.
5. San Francisco (50)
6. Miami (45) Both USA airports approach security in a panic-stricken mode, but miss such obvious loopholes that their efforts are largely pointless. Staff are too patently recent, inexperienced hirings. They create chaos and delay, which means that infiltration would be that much simpler.
7. Malaysia. (39) Very lax security, appalling check-in, and nightmarish immigration-lines. There are fifty booths for passport-control at the swish new airport; Last time I was there, two were actually manned. Welcome to Malaysia.
8. Manila (Terrifyingly lax security)
No doubt there'll be more....keep checking back: I'll update this every month or so.