Wednesday, June 25, 2014

WE HAVE JUST BEEN TO BEIJING

Our Norway team reports on a 27-hour trip to Beijing, flying Business Class - Swiss one way and Austrian back. They review airline food and flatbeds, airport facilities, and some good hotels. Discover an excellent tip for a dayroom in Zurich and more...

27 hours in Beijing

Report written by Ada (front right)
on behalf of our Norway team

SWISS BUSINESS CLASS

Oslo-Zurich. On this leg of the journey, very good food was served, though the seats were quite ordinary. We found much better seats on the next leg...

Good food served on Swiss Business

Zurich-Beijing. Very good seats, for sitting comfortably and sleeping on flat beds, though we found it quite hot in the cabin. The food was satisfactory but not amazing. We liked the cold cuts for breakfast, a nice alternative to omelette and pancakes on some other airlines. Plus points for very good Swiss wines and a good selection of movies on an acceptable screen (12.1 inch).  Tip: Avoid the window seat on the 2-seater as it's not so easy to get in and out. We recommend that couples book the seats in the middle section. In all, an elegant airline with feeling for detail and quality.

Ada enjoying excellent seats on Swiss
(Ada is the author of this blog insert) 

New First Class, Swiss 

ZURICH AIRPORT

This airport is new, small and easy to find your way – efficient. Good shopping, but expensive. The business lounge is always full, but space might be found in the smoking section. There are several nice cafés and restaurants outside the lounge, try the Balik Salmon. Our Norway team had an interesting visit to the Airline staff education center.

Good food

RADISSON BLU ZURICH AIRPORT 

Very nice surprise. The rooms are welcoming and large, with nice interiors and bathrooms that are a good size; there is a window between bathroom and bedroom, and you can see through the upper part. The rooms are very quiet despite the close proximity to the runway and the bar downstairs. Some even have view to the runway, paradise for Dag-Åge.

If you have atrium rooms make sure to close the curtains if you don’t want to be seen by those staying in the same room type on the opposite side.

The Business rooms have some extra amenities like Nespresso machine, newspaper etc.
The bar in the lobby has an enormous wine tower in glass with climbing ladies inside the tower. Though it might sound a little tacky,  it was just elegant.

The hotel offers a nice breakfast restaurant with hot & cold food, and small gourmet restaurant in the lobby. There is a lounge in the conference and dayroom area on the top floor with a large terrace with view to the runway; and a 24 hour fitness room. The hotel offers plenty of meeting rooms of all sizes, and can house meetings for up to 550 guests.

The good news is that dayrooms and showers can be rented in case of a long transit in Zurich. Absolutely one of the best airport hotels we have seen and such easy access – 3 minutes through the tunnel from the airport terminal.
 
Dayroom at SAS Radisson

Shower for rent

AMAN AT SUMMER PALACE

This hotel is part of the Summer Palace, dating back 100 years, originally used by people waiting for audience with the Empress Dowager Cixi at the turn of the 20th century. It reflects traditional architecture and the courtyard style of the Summer Palace.

Everything is made to recapture the old Ming Dynasty in China, with Tea Ceremony in the library, paper dragons for sale in the shop and a lotus pond in the restaurant. It is child friendly with traditional Chinese activities like dragon making and Chinese Caligraphy.

Ada and Lars enjoy a Tea Ceremony

Summer Palace

Rooms

The rooms are pleasant, offering autheticity and absolutely no bling-bling. The bathrooms displayed more conventional luxury….

For the best atmosphere we insist our clients upgrade to one of the 25 suites, as the guest rooms and courtyard guest rooms are in two newer buildings with a plainer feel. The comfortable Courtyard Suites give a flashback to the Chinese movie “Hidden Dragon Crouching Tiger”, though you do share a living room with your neighbours (or family).

There are three restaurants, Chinese, Grill and French/Japanese and in addition a small lobby restaurant for breakfast and light meals for lunch and dinner.

Under the hotel is a 5000 sqm spa,  beautifully designed. There is also a library, a cinema downstairs and a very nice fitness centre. This area is in a different spirit to the rest of the hotel, brand new and modern.

Who to stay

If you enjoy movies from China or are into Martial Arts, you will love staying here for a couple of nights. Maybe have a breakfast picnic in the Summer Palace grounds, before it opens to other guests. Note that  it can take time to soak in the special atmosphere. The hotel is authentic, unexpectedly rustic, and full of museum treasures.

PENINSULA BEIJING

Once named Beijing Palace, this 25-year old property is centrally located in inner Beijing ringroad, within walking distance to high-end shopping, local foodmarkets, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

There is a luxury shopping centre in the building. Very expensive high-end shopping.

We enjoyed a very good breakfast buffet with Eastern, American and European choices, and a rather leisurely pace. Their Chinese restaurant Huang Ting serves very nice crispy duck and had a cozy interior and nice ambience and chamber separe. The rooftop bar was quiet, not in full swing. There is a very nice spa with indoor pool with glass roof…and fitness centre - built after Peninsula takeover in 2006.

Our favourite Peninsula hotels are still nevertheless the sister hotels in Shanghai & Hong Kong….


Huang Ting restaurant

Dag-Åge and Lars Johan in the rooftop bar

Excellent spa at Peninsula Beijing
               

FOUR SEASONS BEIJING

What an amazing property! It is perhaps the best Four Seasons property we have seen. Opened in 2012, the spa was voted as best spa in China in 2013.

Especially suitable for business travellers, the hotel is 25-30 mins drive from Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Though the area totally lacks tourist attractions, there are shopping centres (Lucky Food Street and Langang Shopping Plaza) within walking distance, and the whole area is very safe.

Art was everywhere, including a whole wall of butterflies, and the lobby area is a showcase for Chinese artists. Even the cushions in the sofas are art. The whole first floor is a pleasant place to be with cozy lobby bar with deep sofas, small tables for a light meal, and a couple of small shops.

The rooms are cool and comfortable, with a large window over the bathtub and TV integrated in the mirror.

The lead-in room categories are 46 sqm (Deluxe, Premier and Club). These room types are similar, but on different floors. They felt fresh, new and welcoming. We particularly liked the Four Seasons room (59 sqm) with great views. There are 66 suites. The smallest suite (73 sqm) is the Ambassador Suite, which connects to a Deluxe room.

For leisure, the hotel offers an indoor pool on the 6th floor and a 24-hour gym.

There are two very impressive restaurants, Cai Yi Xuan (Chinese) and Mio (Italian) – wow! Just entering the restaurants made my day. SPIN designs from Tokyo – designer Akihiro Wakasa  has done the design of both restaurants. We tried the Chinese fare and  the food was exceptional – Sweet & Sour Pork with Strawberries – yummy!

The Tea Garden with traditional Tea Ceremony was cozy and the Executive Club Lounge was large and elegant, with a nice terrace  for pre-dinner cocktails for Club room guests…open only until 7.30 pm

Entrance to the Chinese restaurant

Four Seasons lobby bar

Four Seasons room

The blooming Four Seasons lobby

BEIJING AIRPORT

Very very big airport. Quite long immigration queues, so remember to fill in the immigration form correctly and walk quickly to the queue. Beware of people trying to jump the queue. There is a train from terminal to terminal and within the terminal, well signposted. Luggage arrived quickly and our guide from Destination Asia was there and spoke very good English.

AUSTRIAN AIRLINES

Beijing-Vienna. We were impressed by the style and casual feel. I loved the seats, the blankets, the storage space, the cook, the way they served the excellent food, the menus, the coffee menu (10 different coffee varieties to choose from). I slept better on Austrian than in the Swiss seat, but I think it was more due to lower temperatures than the actual seat. For some of us the fact that the footrest was a bit shorter that our legs made the seat less comfortable than the Swiss seats. This was a problem when sitting, not lying down.

There was also a small issue with the control panel for the seat. It was on the arm rest, which meant we were accidentally pressing buttons often. The choice of films was very limited, and that’s a pity as for many that’s quite important on a day flight. But it is 15 inches and touch screen…


Ada in comfort on Austrian

Good food




Vienna-Oslo - Quite ordinary, but pleasant. Food satisfactory.

VIENNA AIRPORT

Small and easy to transit. Some good shopping and food outlets, but not that many. The Business Lounge had a good selection of snacks, wine and beer. I spent 4 hours there in comfort, taking a shower, using Wi-Fi and doing some window-shopping. Without the lounge it would have felt like a long wait.
   

HOTEL SACHER 

Dag Åge, Lars Johan, Therese and Astrid from our Oslo team visited this hotel. They reported as follows:

Perfectly located beside the Opera, this family owned hotel has a personal touch in a Belle Epoque style with a mix of modern amenities, cutting edge technology, history and timeless style. It is an old building with narrow hallways and a small elevator. The common areas are outstanding with a cozy and classic atmosphere. The Blaue Bar was small and intimate with a fantastic ambiance, full of crystal chandeliers and relaxing couches - indeed the whole hotel has a superb ambience.

Café Sacher is a part of the hotel, but with entrance both via the hotel and directly from street level for the public. Not to miss: the original Sacher Torte.
 
There are four dining options. Restaurant Anna Sacher, Restaurant Rote Bar, Sacher Eck and of course Café Sacher Wien. According to our discerning Dag Åge, the breakfast was very good. They also have a Spa with a fitness room on the 5th floor.

The hotel is an old building with narrow hallways and split levels so perhaps not for guests with physical disabilities.


Restaurant Anna Sacher

Lobby Lounge Hotel Sacher

Rooms

Dag-Åge stayed in a Top Deluxe Room (see picture) with a fantastic feeling, and sense of space. We actually preferred this to the yellow Junior Suites. The rooms are all very different. They offer a fantastic Presidential Suite with a large terrace overlooking the rooftops of the city.

Top Deluxe Room - the place to be

Our comment

All in all a WOW 5-star property with an amazing ambience and exquisite service in a classic style but still with some modern touches.
 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

WE HAVE JUST BEEN TO ITALY, part 4, Venice

Continuing his Italian journey to romantic and glittering Venice, Product Director Neil Bedford reviews some spectacular hotels - Gritti Palace, Hotel Danieli, Aman Canal Grande Venice, and The Cipriani. He is (like most of us) captivated by Venice, and here shares his enthusiasm and advice...

Venice

My first visit to Venice and I loved it! It is like nothing else and has to be on everyone’s to-do list at least once in their life. Arriving in to your hotel on a private water taxi feels very special but this is just the start of the Venice experience with Select Collection….

Waterborne on the glittering canals of Venice
seen from the Bridge of Sighs

Unforgettable arrival by water taxi

Best restaurants

  • Roof terrace at Hotel Danieli (best to go at lunch, or before sunset, as the view is best in daylight)
  • Waterfront terrace at Gritti Palace (restaurant and bar terraces next to each other). I enjoyed morning tea, a pre-dinner drink, a nightcap, and breakfast here: and can say it is the best spot in town. 
  • Japanese at the waterfront garden restaurant at Aman Canal Grande Venice (or Italian inside the hotel - no views but two amazing dining rooms)
  • Cip's Club overwater terrace or the Michelin star Oro Restaurant at The Cipriani.
View from Danieli rooftop restaurant

Coffee break with a difference -
Gritti Palace waterside terrace

All need reservations.

Things to do in Venice


The Doges Palace - just off St Mark's Square

St Mark’s Square is great to see but extremely busy during the day so wait until after dinner and have a nightcap when it is all lit up, classical music or mini-operas are performed from the front of the cafes and couples waltz in the square.

I couldn’t find any way to get tickets to q-jump for the tower despite asking each hotel concierge so unless you pay for someone to queue for you then be prepared for a long queue if you want to go to the top….but when there you will enjoy sensational views.

Day trip to Burana NOT Murano. Its about 30 mins boat ride away and really cute colourful local houses just for a wander round and lunch or a coffee stop. Murano is the famous glass-making area of Venice and just full of group tours.

Gondola tours don’t cover much ground, though you do get romantic photos of yourselves and the curved prow against the glossy water. Personally I thought that the private water taxi was much better in terms of sightseeing, and felt a lot more exclusive. So I suggest hiring your own water taxi for a longer time and discover Venice's hidden corners from the water.

Discovering Venice's hidden corners

Do aperitivo at Venice’s best cicchetti bars (cicchetti are like Spanish tapas). The few locals you see in Venice will be doing this.

Arrival practicalities

It is 100% worth it to arrive by private water taxi and is a vital part of your Venice experience. If you make your own way to the waiting taxis then you have a set fee of €130. (Half these prices from the train station.) If a hotel arranges in advance you pay around double. The walk from the airport arrival to the boats is around 15 mins –  if you want full porterage you need to arrange with the hotel in advance. The option of taking the shared boat should not be considered - long queue, crowded and no view.

Getting around Venice

Seeing Venice from a water taxi
The best way around is by water taxi but be aware that as soon as you step on board it costs you €60 and a 10 min journey will then add another €30 or so. The public boats go up and down the canals regularly and are easy to hop on and off but can be extremely busy so you might be waiting a while. Distances aren’t far if you walk but Venice is like a giant maze so be prepared to get lost.

Local life in Venice around the Cathedral of St Marks

Where to stay in Venice


Gritti Palace

Stunning. That is what a €50 million and 15 month refurb gets you. From their small riverside terrace, to the Venetian style rooms and suites overflowing with gorgeous fabrics, marble bathrooms and more modern touches it is magnificent. Service is impeccable; and it would be a discerning romanticist's choice for a return visit.

By the Grand Canal - the magnificent Gritti Palace
The colourful view from Gritti Palace
Perfect moments - breakfast at Gritti Palace

At both Gritti Palace and Hotel Danieli a suite with balcony overlooking the canal is unbeatable, but be prepared ot pay a premium - it is often double the price of the same room with "no view".

Somerset Maugham Royal Suite
at Gritti Palace

With freshly restored grandeur

Venetian Room

Another luscious Venetian Room

With the opulence and romance of Venice

And (of course) Italian marble
Tip: The Aqua di Parma Spa is only open a few hours of the day so if your holiday isn’t complete without a spa treatment then book in advance.

Hotel Danieli
Hotel Danieli is Gritti Palace’s older Starwood sister. Still  it offers a superb level of service and is redolent with history.  

Historical Venice in every ornate detail -
Presidential suite above

Presidential suite lounge 

Presidential bed

You get a real sense of history at the Danieli as well the rooftop terrace, which is arguably the best in Venice


Aman Canal Grande Venice
The size of the property amazes. Just 24 suites spread over five floors and two buildings means that space (normally at a premium in Venice) is found everywhere. The two gardens were created back in the 19th century when the owners bought two neighbouring buildings just so they could knock them down to create a green haven.

The building Aman calls home is Palazzo Papadopoli; it was built in the 16th century and the entire place does feel like a home. In fact the owners still live in the top two floors of one wing and are often seen around the hotel.

You will find frescos and ancient furnishings throughout and just wandering around the building would be an art/history lover's dream. I counted no less than six rooms that were essentially just left as spaces to enjoy – Aman did want these to be suites but the décor was so valuable that they were not granted permission to touch them. Instead they are reading rooms, piano rooms, libraries, have afternoon tea served in them….

The salon with canal views

All of this space means that you don’t really see anyone else, offering the serene privacy one connects with Aman.

A highlight for me was enjoying a drink on the Altana rooftop terrace. A tiny little space of maybe 20 sqm with a couple of sofas and the most perfect view over the Venice rooftops. It is a real escape from the noise and hustle of Venice. You can take the terrace on private basis for breakfast, a sunset drink or whatever else you and the Aman team conjure up.

Private space overlooking the rooftops
Most rooms boast fabulous canal views

The canal front garden is home to the Japanese restaurant May-Oct (which resides at Amanpuri Nov–Apr) and lunch in this setting is really magical. The Italian restaurant has a beautiful indoor setting.

Magical setting at Aman Canal Grande
in the canal front garden
View from the first floor terrace at Aman Canal Grande, Venice
If you are looking for something very special in Venice then I think Aman’s five Signature Suites would be very hard to beat, just the original friezes and frescos they contain must make them some of the most valuable rooms in Italy. Of the lower categories all are beautiful interiors and all rooms have some form of view because of the hotel gardens.

Palazzo Chamber

Round trip private boat transfers are now included in the rate and you will travel (normally) on board one of Aman’s two private boats. This hotel is ideal for those with an appreciation of art, history and quietness in which to enjoy it.

The Cipriani
The Cipriani was really impressive and families in particular would be very appreciative of the space and facilities.

Swimming pool at Cipriani
Green haven 

With the swimming pool, gardens, multiple bars/restaurants and large spa it has a resort feel to it. A complimentary boat goes every 20 mins or so straight to St Mark’s Square (10 mins journey);  you are then in the heart of Venice but can easily escape back to the peace of the hotel. It is hard to describe just how busy Venice can get, so it is very restful to lounge around the hotel for the day before going in to Venice when it gets much quieter in the evening.

The service in all the hotels I visited was excellent but at The Cipriani it was faultless. You can absolutely see that the Belmond (formerly Orient Express) hotels have prioritised this for many years as I found the same experience on previous stays at Hotel Splendido (Portofino), Villa San Michele (Florence) and Hotel Caruso (Amalfi Coast).


Palladio Suite - also known as the George Clooney Suite

Its private bar area

Lagoon View with Balcony would be my suggestion but the garden view rooms with balcony are also very sought after.

Lagoon view room

I ate at Cip’s Club which was the best meal of my time in Italy and probably the best view as well. The Michelin starred Oro Restaurant also looked superb.

Probably the best corner table in Venice
(at Cip's Club, The Cipriani)