Monday, May 26, 2014

CRUISING DOWN THE MEKONG RIVER

Erland Stubmo cruised down the Mekong River on The Jahan. He spent a week in this floating boutique hotel, voyaging from Ho Chi Minh City to Siem Reap, enjoying comfort onboard as well as fascinating excursions off the beaten track...


The Jahan
Ho Chi Minh City

The adventure started with some nights in Ho Chi Minh City. Here we stayed at the Renaissance Hotel, which has a great central location by the river, one hour's drive from the departure dock. Select customers could instead choose to stay at our recommended hotel, the opulent Park Hyatt in Lam Son Square steps from the Opera House.

This is a fascinating area of Ho Chi Minh city, with appealing French colonial buildings. The Opera House, the Central Post office and Notre Dame Cathedral are all located close to each other and you almost feel you are in Europe because of the architecture. For example, the post office is designed by Gustav Eiffel.

We also visited the museum of traditional medicine, which was interesting. There are a few Chinese temples to visit; and the War Remnant Museum is indeed worth seeing, giving considerable detail about the Vietnam War.

The Jahan (Heritage Line)

The Jahan is a beautiful boat with an Indian colonial style. The cabins are really spacious, all with large bathrooms and a balcony with table and chairs. The cabins felt like a nice hotel room actually.

Our cabin

Our balcony
The restaurant is a great place to be, and the boat has a pleasant roof-top bar, perfect for enjoying the sunset. On the same level there is also a pool and a sundeck.

Rooftop bar - cocktails in the sunset

Soaking in the sun, and cooling off in the pool

Although The Jahan is a small boat most of the excursions are made in even smaller boats, making it possible to enter the narrow arms of the Mekong river. We really got close to the people who live their lives by the river and we got the chance to visit villages and local markets completely without other tourists.

While docking in Pnomh Penh the most important excursion is to the famous Genocide Museum and the nearby Killing Field. It’s a depressing and emotional experience and a lot of people turn around and leave the museum. The presentation is not censored and knowing that this is recent history makes it even stronger (for those who don’t know, Khmer Rouge killed around 1 million people in the 1970s).

The tour includes two excursions every day to different villages, temples, fish-farms, museums, local schools, etc.

Bamboo bridge Phnom Penh

Typical life along the Mekong delta

It is possible to cruise the other way around also, i.e. starting in Siem Reap and ending in Ho Chi Minh, or you can do half of the cruise, e.g. Ho Chi Minh to Pnomh Penh. Please note that when the water level is low, normally starting end of January, the boat cannot cross Inle Lake to Siem Reap and there will instead be a 4-hour bus ride from Prek K’dam. (that’s what we had to do ).

Very friendly staff on board and knowledgeable guides. A great trip.

Angkor Wat

The hotels we most recommend in the area of Angkor are La Residence d’Angkor and Amansara. Amansara is near the entrance to Angkor and is a retreat with only 24 suites, half of which have private pools. It is all-inclusive including 2 meals/day, drinks and private temple tours. La Residence d'Ankor is a Belmond property overlooking the  river with 62 rooms & suites. Both hotels feature spas, pools.

It was my second time at Angkor Wat and it was equally amazing this time. The temples are truly a special experience. It’s fantastic to be there at sunrise, around 05:00 in the morning, though you will be there together with thousands of others…..

Sunrise over Angkor Wat
See our website for more on hotels in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, as well as suggestions for itineraries.

Note: Erland Stubmo is a senior travel consultant in the Select Collection Oslo office. Erland is an inveterate traveller who always has his camera handy, with beautiful results.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

HOTEL CHECK MALDIVES, Four Seasons Landaa Giravaaru

One of the favourite stops in paradise for Select Collection customers is Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giravaaru. We called again at the hotel just to keep up with developments...


There are many impressive features at Landaa Giravaaru, starting with an avenue of palms leading you grandly from the arrival jetty in the turquoise lagoon to the lobby. The sun radiates straight down from the equatorial heavens as you walk this wide tropical way. A whole coconut with a straw brings cool sustenance as you sit in the lobby admiring the voluptuous Four Seasons orchids.

The tropical avenue
There is a circular road trafficked with golf carts, bikes (and joggers), and the island feels quite big and extravagantly lush. It even has a jungle area. See the map.

A brief circular tour by golf cart took us to some of Landaa Giravaaru's world class facilities  – an Olympic pool, a large separate seawater pool and a separate children's pool at the kids club. Plus another lap pool by the beach viewed from Italian restaurant Blu over its blue glassware. The main beach is a wide and dazzling white, with guests lying glamorously visible. It is neat, immaculate ... not a wild beach.

Sizzling white beach

Putting on sandals after days of wandering barefoot at Soneva Fushi, we noted happily that in the daytime there are people walking barefoot at Landaa Giravaaru. The evenings are a different matter...a chance to be seen in company on designer heels.





They are currently doing a lot of work on the beaches. So you can choose really –  the way of nature, where wind and water move the sand around and the beaches change month by month. Or you can  maintain the beaches along the lines of the first picture postcard taken of paradise.

This was a hotel inspection and there was no time to test all the wonderful facilities. We have great reports from our clients about Landaa Giravaaru; it impresses with the number of restaurants, the variety of food on offer, the careful tasteful details, the spacious accommodation, and the amazing staff who are devoted to making any wish come true.

Trip Advisor gives this typical report

...any of the Maldivian islands are beautiful and Landaa Giraavaru is not an exception. But very few if a single one have such care in all details

Villas

103 thatched villas and bungalows on the beach or over the water. Click here for a map showing the layout of the villas at Landaa Giravaaru. 

We inspected a beach bungalow (75 sqm). Coming straight from other resorts with more rustic décor, it was interesting to find ourselves in a classic interior, harking back to fairytale romance with a touch of perhaps Caribbean colour. These looked more like princess drapes in style  (though they no doubt doubled for both style and mosquito protection).

Princess prettiness in Beach bungalow 117 - white and
blue, marine colours
Spacious, light, sleek sitting area with view out to your pool

The garden facilities were splendid for outdoor living. Lots of open furnished area under roof – which you need in the heat. And a lovely tiled sparkling pool. There was privacy from the greenery fronting the beach, but a view over it. (At Kuda Huraa our villa had a tall tropical hedge for privacy.)

Beach villa

I missed seeing the beach villa. Neil Bedford's blog gives his ecstatic impressions of this accommodation and the water villas.

Caring conservation

Very impressive and heart warming - congratulations Four Seasons.

Landaa Giravaaru has a magnificent Marine Discovery Centre. This is very educational, with loads of information on coral and coral restoration, natural balance etc, and an aquarium. 

On top of that they have a refuge for turtles who have been injured. Most have a limb missing and have lost their buoyancy – all due to net fishing. Many of them will recover and be put back in the sea. It hurts to see them swimming with only three legs in the refuge, one ripped off in a fishing net. At least the local people are turning in the turtles when they find them. And another good thing – most fishing in the Maldves is line fishing. This is what will save their seas as net fishing creates gruesome destruction.

Missing a limb, when this turtle gets back his bouyancy
he will be released into the open sea
Like elsewhere in the Maldives kids and beginners can quickly learn enough to dive. They have a house reef close in, kept in good shape by work on coral restoration - coral frames, which people donate. Then of course there are dive excursions further afield.


Surfing too is one of the thrills for guests at Landaa Giravaaru. Then you can always do some serious swim training...

Olympic pool at Landaa Giravaaru, just
one of its many top facilities

Spa

The spa is right at the frontline embracing two popular trends  – overwater massage cabins and a deep commitment to Ayurveda. A lot of clients come to Landaa Giravaaru just to do the Ayurvedic wellness programmes including Ayurvedic diet and treatments. Landaa Giravaaru makes a serious effort with three trained Ayurvedic doctors – who each have spent five years at university. Ayurveda largely focuses on prevention, meaning one doesn't have to be ill to benefit from a consultation with one of the  physicians, who will recommend diet or treatments based on your basic type ("dosha"). Spread over a 2.5 acre park the Ayurvedic cabins are in peaceful tropical setting. 

Overwater spa cabin

Seen from our golf cart - the circular road
through lush greenery

Getting to Four Seasons Landaa Giravaaru...

The normal route is direct by seaplane - a 30 minute scenic flight from Male internaitonal airport. We arrived by speedboat over the pristine waters of the Baa Atoll, a UNESCO biosphere reserve. As we stepped onboard the Four Seasons speedboat we were handed life jackets and (eco-friendly) glass bottles of water  in rubber "wetsuits" to keep cool and prevent breakage.

Thank you Four Seasons...working to preserve this treasure of mankind.


Friday, May 16, 2014

HOTEL CHECK MALDIVES, Gili Lankanfushi



Once it was called Soneva Gili. Now it is Gili Lankanfushi. Select returns to this tiny island to see how it has changed almost two years after takeover. And the good news is…

It is still gorgeously Gili. And it is still so Soneva...

We are so grateful that the new owners of Gili Lankanfushi, HPL, have not changed the resort too much, and that they know a good thing when they see it. It is still very barefoot, friendly and personal. You still have your Mr and Ms Friday, an open air movie theatre, an organic garden, a rustic feel with palm thatch and whimsical touches. Thank you…

Gili Lankanfushi is a small island with three long piers of water villas stretching over the wide smooth lagoon. There is a tiny, dense jungle hiding the staff village, but the world seems vast, bright and full of sparkling, transparent turquoise water…

It surrounds your villa, it laps onto the long silken white beach lined with palms, it surrounds the lunch restaurant on stilts in the lagoon…

(Click on the photos for larger images)

Peaceful
Warm
Crystal clear, living water

Rosy sunsets,  waving palms

Rustic villas,   fringy thatch 

Long white beaches 

Jungle paths
And underwater scenes, even from your villa

WATER VILLAS

There are 45 overwater villas including 29 villas called Villa Suites accommodating up to 3 people, 8 water residences (4 people), 7 Crusoe residences (4 people) reached by boat and an extravagant Private Reserve accommodating 8 people, also reached only by boat.

See map.
Bright watery sunrises from the spacious deck
of our water villa on pier 2

Crusoe residences like islands in the radiant lagoon

The wooden water villas are very spacious (from 210 sqm), delightfully rustic and rambling. Our watervilla 31 was near the end of pier 2, the pier most favoured by repeaters as it has villas only on one side.

This villa has some whimsical formerly Soneva touches, like a tower with fringy roof over an outdoor double bed. There is also a bedroom with aircon and all-round water views, with the kind of desk that makes you want to live here and write a book, staring at the divine water.

Wide watery world from the bed
From an open living area, you step down to a generous platform with sunbeds and sofas, cargo nets and a glass panel – the latter not really needed as you can look down off the edge straight into the water.

We had a bunch of coral there complete with a little colony of black and white fishes and a big guy with coloured spots. Reef sharks and mantas swam by. A walk down the long pier is like a mini shark safari. You are bound to find them lazing on the warm sands where the water is shallow.
There are stairs down from the spacious bathroom for private skinny dipping under the villa, among visiting fish, a bath with a view, and double vanities that could make you less vain as the view pulls you away from your own image in the mirror to the smooth lagoon.

Some facts:
Villa Suite: 29 (3A or 2A + 1C), 210 sqm
Residence: 8 (4A or 2A + 2C), 250 sqm
Crusoe Residence: 7 (4A or 2A + 2C), 250 sqm
The Private Reserve: 1 (8A or 4A + 4C), 1400 sqm

F&B

Delicious, lavish buffet breakfasts eaten with toes in the soft sand on the long white beach. Lavish buffets in the overwater restaurant, or a la carte. Dinner on the sand or perhaps in the Japanese restaurant (open a few days a week). Everything fresh and full of flavour, with an emphasis on organic. The choice is wide: even biltong a South African speciality introduced by the competent, warmly friendly and amusing Food & Beverage Manager Craig Gemmell. He breezes into the meals to say hello to guests, and every time he approaches your table it lifts your spirits.

Breakfast on the beach
A vast morning buffet
Carefully labelled organic toppings to your cereal
The overwater bar for lunch and more
The Japanese Restaurant By the Sea with a view of our pier

A neat add-on to the food & beverage experience was a private wine & chocolate tasting experience in the wine cellar, built underground with organic roof  and white smooth pebbles strewn on the floor.

Wine cellar

Wines to taste

Hand made chocolates to pair
with the wines

SPA

Overwater spa

The overwater spa is a place you cannot miss. It is a good place to see coloured fish species while you give yourself over to a divine, absolutely top class massage. The marine biologist has worked to make the area under the massage cabins more appealing to fishes, with hideaway stones and so on. The glass panel at the end of your massage bed is rather generous, and the floating view irresistible.

View from your massage bed

A meditation session at the spa brought the peace of Tibetan singing bowls. The yoga platform is surrounded by a feathery, waving fringe of coconut fronds.  Here we did a hatha yoga session with a very dedicated instructor.
Yoga platform

Tibetan meditation

WATER & UNDERWATER

The waters round Gili are still and smooth, with a big defined lagoon.  You inevitably dive into the water from your deck day and night, as the water is so inviting and accessible. There is also a picturesque swimming pool on the main beach.

The coral is very close to your villa for easy snorkeling though not as bright as on reefs further out. Snorkel equipment is included. The sand bank at Gili is underwater and is said to be a good spot for snorkeling to see cartilaginous fishes. You have One Palm Island as a jump off point for snorkeling.

But you don’t need to snorkel to see the fish. Just sit on your platform or walk down your pier to see the sharks and mantas swimming by.

Reef shark cruising by our villa

Ray flying past our pier

If diving is your thing - the Padi dive centre knows where to take you for some good dives.There are over 30 dive-sites including Banana, HP Reef, Okobe Thila, Nassimo Thila, Maagiri, Manta Point. Dec-Apr is the manta and whale shark season.


SONEVA ECHOES

So Soneva

Naturally it’s so Soneva that you cannot help comparing it. Originally created by Sonu Shivdasani and his wife Eva Malmström (Eva is a former Swedish fashion model turned designer), Lankanfushi still follows their maxim of SLOW LIFE (Sustainable-Local-Organic-Wellness Learning-Inspiring-Fun-Experiences).

Your villa at Gili is over water and familiarly rustic. (At the former sister resort Soneva Fushi all are rustic beach villas.) Your Mr or Ms Friday at Gili will still tell you “No news no shoes” and invite you to part with your footwear. You even get bikes though the distances are so small. Bikes are very welcome as the piers can feel rather long under the equatorial sun. You can tramp along a winding path in the shady jungle – a short way compared with the labyrinth at Soneva Fushi.  But you can be sure you will find the organic garden and the open air movie house (Jungle Cinema).

At the cocktail party on the sand the management at Gili Lankanfushi still wear the turquoise checked Soneva sulus, and there is drumming and Maldivian dancing in black and white. The service has all the warmth it ever had. Smiles flash….

As a flaming sunset set a vivid tropical ambience over glasses of bubbly,  I chatted to the F&B manager Craig, the cheerful and witty GM Steven Phillips and the charming Director of Sales Roberto Arganese. From them I learnt that Lankanfushi  has a huge number of repeaters – the figure is as high as 80 percent. You can understand that you would not to put off your happy repeaters by changing too much.

One notable change though - you now have wifi in your villa.

Service is still wonderful - highly personal. For example: we had left some chocolates in the fridge at Four Seasons Kuda Huraa. We told our Ms Friday how much we valued these handmade chocolates from Soneva Fushi.  She arranged that the chocolates were found and delivered to us. When we discovered they had melted, she found a lovely box and we were able to choose handmade chocolates made at Gili to take back to Sweden with love.

Our last evening - like so many others, we never wanted
to go..

FUTURE

There are some developments in the offing.
Among developments to come, Three Palm Island will be added to the terrain of the top private residence to make it fit for king.
As to One Palm Island. The snorkeling from there will be improved due to coral conservation efforts. At Gili Lankanfushi coral will be grown on ropes (lines) and later transplanted on the coral reef. Every rope is initially planted with 50 small, living coral fragments. The corals are nursed in the lagoon for 1 year and later the rope is transplanted to the One Palm Island reef. This will improve the health of the One Palm Island Reef

How to get to Gili Lankanfushi

20 mins by speedboat from Male international airport. You will be met at the airport and taken to the quay, where the boat is waiting.

Note: Images 11, 12 & 26 by Gili Lankanfushi, remaining images by Aleah L Stanbridge Photography

Monday, May 12, 2014

HOTEL CHECK MALLORCA, Belmond La Residencia

Mallorca - The Ultimate in Bohemian Luxury. That is how Ada from our Oslo office describes a corner of this Mediterranean island after a stay at one of our special hotels ...

It was nothing like a charter experience. Ada arrived  for a weekend at La Residencia in the hotel limousine  – a good and posh beginning for a five star pampering on the edge of Bohemia…

The winding road takes you through olive groves and past Mallorcan villas and citrus farms along the north-western coast of Mallorca, with breathtaking views to the sea. Passing the house of poet Robert Graves - now a museum - 300 m before entering Deià village, you can understand the attraction that brought artists and later the Hollywood crowd to this small village in the Tramuntana mountains. 

Village in the mountains

A very special place  - La Residencia
Click on the picture for larger images

Belmond Hotel La Residencia, a sixteenth and seventeenth-century villa high in the foothills of the Tramuntana mountains, offers views of the idyllic village of Deià, with the Mediterranean in the distance. The garden with lemon and olive trees, the resident artists, the very welcoming staff and casual ambiance are all part of the charm of this very special place. 

Looking down into Deia

Old stone and sublime mountains
Views of the Bohemian village - seen from
a hotel with traditional yet arty luxury
The two former manor houses were formerly owned by Richard Branson. Due to his ownership, and the fashionable Bohemian artists in Deià, the village and the hotel have attracted movie stars, musicians and models since the 1990s and you will still be surprised by who you might meet by the pool or at a local bar. 


Down to the garden and beyond


I loved the fact that we received old fashioned keys to the rooms.

I stayed in a Junior Suite in the main manor, with a French balcony overlooking Deia village and the garden. The whitewashed walls, beamed ceiling an terracotta tiles framed the local furnishing and gave a home away from home feeling. With espresso machine, flatscreen Tv, complimentary in room WiFi and iPod docking station I was very comfy. The small bathroom suited single travelers, but note that most rooms have larger bathrooms to suit couples or families. Ask us about room types to fit your specific needs.




Your own terrace with enchanting view
All 67 rooms have been individually decorated using local furnishings, and this adds a real charm to the hotel. I would have preferred maybe a Deluxe Junior Suite with a terrace from which to see the sun set over Deia or even an Executive Junior Suite where there is a plunge pool on the terrace.

Bedroom

The Suites are of course wonderful.

Suite luxury

I was shown an Exclusive suite that was very spacious and private, with an attractive large pool in the garden. These can even be connected to a Deluxe room for more space. The Villa is actually in Deia Village, a 5 minute walk from the hotel.

Food & beverage

Dinner at the wonderful ‘El Olivo’ restaurant was truly an amazing experience! You simply have to dine here – but you MUST pre-book as this is a very popular restaurant, with good reason. The Cooking lesson was also a great experience, joining the Chef Guillermo in the kitchen was exhilarating – so much passion for his profession.
Gourmet touch - colour and  taste

The breakfast room was pleasant, a short walk from the bedroom as its situated by the main pool. Glass roof – winter garden feeling.


Passionate culinary team

Facilities

There is a lovely small spa which has an indoor heated pool, outdoor Jacuzzi, treatment rooms, sauna and steam room. The building is kept as it was, renovated farmhouse with small rooms and hallways. Very charming. There are two outdoor swimming pools, two tennis courts and a gym with top of the range equipment.

Activities

I really enjoyed the Tai Chi lessons in the garden. Local artists work here and offer classes at the hotel in sculpture, painting and pottery. 

Art exhibitions - painting lessons


Another enjoyable activity is trekking in the mountains surrounding Deià, with or without a guide. I can recommend the donkey trail including lunch in the olive groves, a fantastic lunch. Its also a very pleasant experience to go on a private boat excursion, which I recommend over and above the complimentary boat trip. 

A picnic under ancient olives

...on a donkey trek

Mallorca & Deià

Mallorca is very popular with hikers and cyclists. The hotel can assist with booking tours and treks or just a bicycle or a Vespa to get around. In the village of Deià there are a few art galleries and a couple of shops. But for serious shopping you need to go to Palma.

A local bar worth a visit is Sa Fonda, two minutes walk along the main road. It is very local and rustic. Mick Jagger, guitarist Mark Knophler and Mike Oldfield played there often in the late 1980s. This was the favourite watering hole for many a famous artist, fashion model or musician visiting Deià. They still come, mostly in August.

Beach?


Its possible to walk down to a small cove with a stony pebble beach where you can swim in the sea and have a nice lunch at a very local tavern. There is no sand and no easy access to the water. You need to have strong legs and good balance.

But beautiful clear sea

Children

The hotel now also caters for families with children. They have a small kids club and will activate the children with the same activities they already have for adults…but adapted to children.