By Susan Kurosawa www.theaustralian.com.au
THE best accommodation discoveries of 2010, from a peninsula in Tasmania to a waterway in India.
SAFFIRE Freycinet, Tasmania: Arguably the most important Australian opening of 2010, Saffire is the shiniest jewel in the Federal Group’s Pure Tasmania crown.
On a former caravan park site overlooking Muirs Beach on the wild and lovely Freycinet Peninsula on Tasmania’s east coast, the estate covers 11ha and is composed of a stunning main lodge and 20 single-storey suites, strung in a wavy line facing the coast and available in three categories, all creatively assembled.
There is an excellent Spa Saffire that offers, among a range of treatments, a Hazards Restoration massage using heated pink granite stones from the surrounding feldspar-rich mountains; it brings a nice sense of context to the therapy and the food here, too, is all about the bounty of the immediate parish and the best of Tasmania beyond.
Saffire Freycinet has lured chef Hugh Whitehouse from Darleys at Lilianfels in the NSW Blue Mountains and he has had a grand time discovering Tasmanian produce, setting up his suppliers, finding the best sources of everything he needs, from wasabi, walnuts and heirloom tomatoes to vine-ripened tamarillos and truffles (which arrive in the mail; he loves going to the post office).
Menu must-try? Southern rock lobster with white miso custard, lobster consomme, shiitake mushrooms, buckwheat, samphire and local calamari; this is a last supper dish.
Jimbaran Puri Bali: The orientation here is all about the sea; beach and garden furniture is grouped for the sun and for the sunset, which is celebrated with coloured drinks and chilli-spiced krepek chips at the decked Puri Bar.
This Orient-Express property is particularly popular with European guests for whom a bungalow just 20 or so paces from the beach is a big selling point. Increasingly, visitors from the Australian market are eschewing the surf and sand (we are the ones in swim shirts and big sunhats) and opting for villas with private pools and courtyard gardens.
The new deluxe pool villas at Jimbaran Puri Bali thus seem custom-designed for our market. At the rear of the property in a village-like compound, the 22 pool villas — with marble floors, sliding wooden doors, soft furnishings in pale citrus and coffee colours, canopied bed and sunken tub — almost feel like a different resort. They have bumped up the total inventory to 64, so for a beachside spread in such a prime location this is a small low-rise resort.
Its Tunjung Cafe does an excellent nasi goreng while the Nelayan restaurant on the beach, which is lit by flares at night, specialises in seafood with a French Mediterranean twist. Of course there is a spa, main pool and typically gracious Balinese service. More: jimbaranpuribali.com;
Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora, French Polynesia: The lagoon-lapped isle of Bora Bora takes the tropical drop-out fantasy to the highest level of luxury. In an overwater guest bungalow, with pandanus-thatched roof and a ladder leading from the deck to one’s virtual ensuite sea, it’s the Robinson Crusoe idyll gone not so much five-star but into another galaxy.
Four Seasons Resort Bora Bora features 100 overwater bungalows radiating from long piers, some with private pools perched on decks like luxury bird baths.
Those in the most expensive category feature views of Bora Bora’s highest peak, 727m Mt Otemanu, looming in greys and greens like a painted volcano backdrop from the musical South Pacific.
Try the sand-anchored Sunset Bar with its simple sushi and sashimi menu and toast the reddening sky with a coconut-flavoured cocktail or vanilla-infused vodka.
Unlike other five-star properties in Bora Bora, Four Seasons has made a pitch for the family market with its large beachside pool villas; there’s a complimentary club for kids five to 12 plus the dead-cool Chill Island facility for teens.
The cathedral-like Kahaia Spa offers treatment rituals that engage with old-time traditions and a pantry of local ingredients, from sea salts and vanilla to frangipani and powdered black pearl.
The Dorchester, Mayfair, London: “We have the deepest tubs in London,” announces Justin from the front desk as he shows me around my quarters.
Here is Madam’s walk-in closet with padded coat-hangers and big brolly; there is her writing desk, and here is the climate control panel, which she will note is easy to use, not like those new-fangled American things. Would Madam like a cup of tea?
There is much that is old-fangled about this hotel, the grande dame of Mayfair since the 1930s, and the guestrooms are still delightfully traditional.
The golden-toned Promenade off the entry hall was refurbished in 2005 by Thierry Despont and is all parlour palms, classical columns and squashy sofas. This is the spot for afternoon tea in the time-honoured British way; there’s also The Grill, serving mod British cuisine, and stellar (and wildly different) restaurants by David Tang and Michelin master Alain Ducasse.
The award-winning Dorchester Spa is a serene all-white environment with nine treatment rooms that closes at the eminently sensible hour of 9pm.
Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, Vietnam: This 1901-built pile sits square in the middle of the most Parisian-flavoured city of what was once Indochine. Whether or not you’ve read Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American, seen Phil Noyce’s 2002 movie of the book or watched the fabulously unruffled Catherine Deneuve in the 1992 movie Indochine, you will feel awash in colonial atmosphere.
This is the address to impress, the place where Ho Chi Minh negotiated with the French for the creation of a free state and later a democratic republic. Guests of the new government stayed at what was then Hotel Metropole Hanoi in the 1950s and just over a decade later, during Uncle Sam’s American War (never called the Vietnam War here), Jane Fonda barrelled through and wartime correspondents gathered to drink in the fan-cooled bar.
Bed down in the classic Metropole Wing, in high-ceilinged and green-shuttered chambers, and it’s like looking at the world filtered in grainy sepia. Guestrooms in the contemporary Opera Wing feel like fashionable 7th arrondissement Paris apartments. There are more eating options here than at most hotels, including the ground-floor Le Beaulieu (you have to adore a hotel that pops creme caramel on the breakfast buffet) and an Italian bistro, Angelina, named after famous guest Ms Jolie, of course.
Armani Hotel, Dubai: When Giorgio Armani ate for the first time at Ristorante in his new eponymous hotel in Dubai, apparently he dubbed it “the best restaurant in Milan”. It’s a telling summation of the intrinsic Italian style of the Armani Hotel.
From the slim black suits, T-shirts, casual loose pants and pencil skirts that pass as various styles of uniform (staff are better dressed than most guests) to an outpost of Milan’s 125-year-old Peck Deli, this property is like a carefree little Italian colony lightly tethered to the homeland.
The 160-room hotel opened in April in downtown Dubai and occupies floors in the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa. It’s a studiously sober property where black, white, grey and beige rule. So-called lifestyle managers waft about like runway models, each assigned to specific guests; it’s a hands-on approach (“360-degree service”, says my lifestyle manager) that enhances the carefully managed nature of the hotel but won’t suit every traveller.
There are 11 room categories, from studios to signature suites, all with super-sleek decor. “Minimalist opulence” is the official tag and Armani apparently spent five years overseeing the materials used. Among myriad choices, the stand-out dining option is Ristorante where executive chef Emiliano Bernasconi and his all-Italian brigade work in an open kitchen, performing as if on a stage (order the signature dessert, a blown-sugar cone that looks like a Faberge egg and encases vanilla bavarois, violet-flavoured cream and cassis sorbet). “It is made by the same method as glass-blowers use on the island of Murano in Venice,” Bernasconi tells me. Another moment of Italian operatics, Armani-style.
Alila Villas Uluwatu, Bali: On the southernmost Bukit Peninsula, this 84-villa property is Bali’s most talked-about new arrival and the first on the island to be accorded Green Globe certification for best-practice building, planning and design.
When villa host Joni shows me around, he points out the big stash of toiletries, the pillow menu, the two styles of dressing gown, the complimentary sarong and beach basket, the espresso machine, iPod loaded with “cool tunes” and then, with a whoosh, pushes open a ceiling-high door to reveal a plunge pool and a cabana with an airy pattern of horizontal battens of bronze and recycled ironwood.
Singapore-based architectural firm WOHA, a practice that specialises in hotels and resorts, has taken a rather radical approach. Instead of the expected thatched roofs and gilded gods, the structures are modernist and rectilinear, based on an assembly of “wood, water, stone and rattan”. The landscaping is restricted to rangy grasses and coastal scrub that suit the arid nature of the Bukit Peninsula and the flat lava-rock roofs of the villas have been designed to support vegetation.
There are two restaurants by the 50m-long, cliff-edge infinity pool. Warung serves Indonesian specialities such as Sulawesi fish stew with lemon basil and lime while Cire is open for a la carte breakfast and degustation dinner. Both feature dress-circle views and, at night, the illuminated fishing boats lined up against the horizon constitute what looks like a twinkling town on a far shore.
Coconut Lagoon, Kerala, India: My bungalow comes with an ensuite cow (“meet your lawnmower, madam”) and a lazy-days hammock. Welcome to Coconut Lagoon at the mouth of the Kavanar River at Kumarakom. The resort is not accessible by road; boats ply to and from Kavanattinkara jetty, 95km from Kochi, and thus guests soon discover life here is on, and of, water. Channels flow through tropical gardens and beneath little arched bridges. The canal meanders into the river and then into Vembanad Lake, which is a true inland sea.
It is all so organic and mulchy I expect to wake up from an earth-bound bed next morning and shake off the soil. Coconut Lagoon is a member of the CGH Earth portfolio, a well-established Indian group with properties across Kerala and in Gokarna, on the midwest coast, and Pondicherry to the east. Coconut Lagoon is perhaps the most earthed, consisting of relocated historic bungalows and two-storey houses of timber and tile on a one-time coconut plantation.
Walking around Coconut Lagoon is like exploring a tropical arboretum. There is a lively butterfly glade and an Ayurveda centre in a pavilion with river and rice-field views. Health-giving treatments include vigorous massages; there’s none of the modesty, with draperies and strategic towels, that come as standard at Asian spas. Here you are naked, basted and pummelled, perhaps popped into a medicated steam bath within an old-fashioned wooden cabinet or covered with banana leaves and left in the sun for an hour. More: cghearth.com;
Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa, Dubai: This luxe encampment on the Dubai desert conservation reserve is about 45 minutes by road from downtown. Al Maha is owned by Emirates and the designers, no doubt with a generous budget, have done well to include a pool with every guest tent; tiled in bright blue, with ring-necked parakeets flitting in flashes of lime green over the water, these little oases cool the eyes and make you feel refreshed, even if you are hiding inside in full-on airconditioning contemplating the pool and a seemingly limitless landscape of dunes.
There are 42 tented suites, and would you like an Arabian oryx with that? This white species of antelope, with its tufted tail and straight horns, is so emblematic of the region that it gives Al Maha its Arabic name. The tented suites, in various configurations, all have a safari theme and perhaps you are meant to feel like a Bedouin nomad, part of a caravanserai; the unhitched camels could be brought by at any moment for the next stage of the journey. Just remember to roll up the iPod docking station and the Nespresso machine in that Persian rug.
There are safari excursions to spot more than 33 mammal and reptile species (including the elusive Arabian red fox), falconry displays, nature walks, sunset camel treks, dune-bashing and the opportunity to ride the retired racehorses of the ruler of Dubai.
Then a dip before dinner and a cocktail with a name such as desert oasis on the deck of the resort’s Al Diwaan restaurant overlooking a waterhole (Arabian oryx by moonlight could surely be added to the fancy drinks list) and a 180-degree sweep of contoured dunes and the shadowy shapes of the Hajar Mountains.
Luxury Lodges of Australia: The recent formation of the Luxury Lodges of Australia group shows that this form of non-urban accommodation is a growing force. Properties such as the year-old Emirates-owned Wolgan Valley, west of the NSW Blue Mountains, Bamurru Plains in the Northern Territory, Lord Howe Island’s Capella Lodge and South Australia’s Southern Ocean Lodge on Kangaroo Island are leading the way with their exemplary green credentials and reputations for the best of regional food and wine. More:
Other stars of the year: Malolo Island Resort, Fiji; Amanpulo, The Philippines; Taj 51 Buckingham Gate, London; Sofitel Paris le Faubourg; Hotel Principe di Savoia, Milan; Grand Hyatt Melbourne; Malabar House, Fort Cochin, India.