Tuesday, December 26, 2006

I had a beautiful welcome in Venice in November at the Luna Baglioni. Chef Giampaolo Cosimo gave me a tour of his kitchen, always a pleasure to visit. Later I enjoyed a superb lunch of many seafood specialities. Cosimo is more than a chef, he is an artist, and a warm personality, whose presence adds another dimension to the exceptional dining experience.

Monday, December 04, 2006


In Italy, hospitality is more than a tradition, it is a fine art. So when a hotel brand effectively expresses that beautiful combination, miracles happen. Every Italian city has its own unique character, thus the challenge is a more daunting one, to be faithful to the place, while you deliver a consistent quality hospitality experience. Baglioni Group has created a sensitive strategy for its properties, where the true essence of each city is encouraged to come forth. It’s a philosophy which strikes an elegant balance between beauty, the joy of living, classicism, heritage, service and the all-important location. Through a mix of method, magic and mystery, the delight follows, as a recent look at three of their signature properties in Italy proved.

The Carlton Baglioni Milan, the group’s 104-room flagship luxury establishment, is located optimally in a heritage building on the via Senato. It is the only hotel in Milan with a private entrance leading directly onto the via della Spiga. That’s a geographical advantage alone whose value cannot be overstated. Milan, a city driven by the fashion business, is known primarily as a couture capital, an assertion which a walk through the surrounding neighborhood immediately validates. If you seek inspiration, an odyssey of window-shopping lies only steps away, delivering an overwhelming feast of style to nourish the heart and mind. Milano also has La Scala (Baglioni is the official hotel of the famed opera house) and Leonardo’s Last Supper (a tough ticket to obtain, but the concierge can score you last-minute admission into the newly-reopened and restored, climate-controlled sanctuary), but you must first pry yourself away from the Carlton, where comforts are legion and distractions are many.

Throughout the hotel fresh white roses are artfully placed, a signature element of décor, which subtly reinforces the brand promise from property to property. Another design signature capitalizes on the Italian flair for lighting: in this and every other property in Baglioni’s portfolio, illumination figures as a soothing and carefully considered part of the environment. Comfort and elegance are hallmarks of the brand. Anyone from the fashion industry will relish suite #310, whose quiet situation and canopied terrace overlooks the legendary shopping street, far from the traffic noise. The Carlton’s suites feature pleasing dusky green walls, gold and velvet details, luxurious marble baths, and a complete amenity package.

The Carlton’s bar (hint: quiet on Sundays and Mondays), a sumptuous room with soft couches and low tables, offers signature snacks worth a try (salami, goat cheese, spinach, tomato, smoked salmon) - the difficulty being one could easily make a meal of them. Franco the beverage manager compounds the problem. You will find him a superior and accommodating host, eager to keep you relaxing in his cozy domain. Far too many temptations abound in the bar, among them a crisp Chardonnay from Friuli, 9 grappas on display (several varieties from Jacopo Poli and the ever-reliable Nonino) or eponymously-named fresh fruit drinks available at €15 a glass: Mauritius- pineapple, papaya, coconut; Zanzibar- watermelon, peach, grapefruit; Ceylon- pineapple, ginger, lime; Sumatra- kiwi, mango, orange; Waikiki- melon, strawberries, blueberries; Giava (Java)- pineapple, melon, lime. Gabriel the barman discreetly turned his eyes away as I grabbed for a greedy handful from the great heap of milk and dark branded Caffarel chocolates spilling out onto the bar from an elegant glass globe.

It’s also advisable to devote some time and attention to the Baretto Ristorante, a Milan landmark itself, now residing in the corner of the Carlton’s building, with its entry just off the bar. Baretto was an established dining room elsewhere in the neighborhood, who Baglioni invited to reopen on premises as a joint venture. Politicians, models, international VIPs and local luminaries favor the restaurant, both for its menu and welcome. You might discover meaty cerignola-style olives from Venice on your table, or request the tuna tartare, which is superb. An artichoke and shrimp salad accompanied by a glass of crisp Pio Cesare chardonnay is another worthy choice to sample at lunch.

From the end of May until early October, on Wednesday nights from 1-5pm, the Carlton turns its outdoor public terrace into an exclusive aperitivo bar, welcoming only a select number of guests. This would be an ideal location and elegant setting for a chic business rendezvous, a romantic tryst, a high-power reception or glass of Franciacorta taken before your evening’s activity. As a footnote, Milan is deserted from 12-22 August, which might be an excellent week to drop in when the hustle-bustle is reduced.

For those in search of a luxury spa, look no further than the Carlton’s lobby, where Guerlain recently launched the first of its elegant new centers in Italy. Guerlain custom tailors each program, personalizing for its guests the ultimate well-being experience.

The Carlton is not flashy or trendy, it is calm, classic and comfortable and in the truest sense of the word cool. It will always be. The Carlton is not about advertising yourself, it is about enjoying yourself. Carpe diem, as they say.

If Milan is a city of fashion and business, Venice is a city of history. Here Luna Hotel Baglioni delivers the essence of the place, 65-rooms in the oldest hotel in Venice, a palazzo dating back to the 12th century. The entryway, just across the passage from the door to the legendary Harry’s Bar, is gondola accessible, so your water taxi can bring you swiftly up a little-traveled canal to Luna’s private front door. A second entrance on the opposite side of the lobby leads to a narrow shopping street and vaporetto stop, where you have the opportunity to ogle the latest from Missoni, or ponder the endless possibilities of elegant made-to-order Italian shirtings in a fine tailor’s window. A half minute away are the western portals leading to Piazza San Marco. You are no more than a five-minute walk over small, picturesque bridges to La Fenice, the legendary opera house. You can cross the Rialto Bridge on foot in about 15 minutes.

A recent refurbishment means the Luna boasts the ultimate in posh lodgings, with attention to the finest details- one lovely touch are discreet reading lamps nearly invisible on the classical headboards. Luna’s dual-level Presidential Suite is another major plus, a favored location for private meetings (Nelson Mandela slept here), with a private terrace overlooking the lagoon. This hotel is not young and hip, rather it is classic and timeless. The repeating black motif adds a hint of Venice’s mystery, and the suggestion of Carnivale masques: black Murano chandeliers, black uniforms, black-wrapped amenities, offset by the ubiquitous white rose signature which I came to recognize and appreciate in all the properties visited. Luna is certainly about taste, texture, color and ambience. But Luna is also about service.

I am by nature a demanding customer, testing the limits of my hosts wherever I go. I am relentless, probing, and do not take particularly well to the word No as an answer. But all requests were possible with Luna’s master concierge Antonio Massari, whose elegance, grace, charm and prodigious knowledge were able to meet my every inquiry. The man is uncanny, a mind-reader, an encyclopedia of Venice, and a tireless friend at the ready to go the extra distance to make a guest feel informed, prepared and at home. Case in point: five years earlier I had purchased some Italian handkerchiefs (fazzolette) at an obscure store somewhere in the Venetian back streets I could not remember. Antonio knew. Knew the name (Stylmann), knew the owners, knew the tiny neighborhood where they could be found. I asked for the name of a top-grade Murano glass artisan: Antonio had printouts the next time I passed his desk. I challenge any other concierge in Venice to demonstrate such laser vision or specialist knowledge, delivered with such aplomb, gentility and humanity. He could be the finest concierge I have ever met in all my travels. Hats off to him.

The Luna is home to the 65-seat Canova Restaurant, domain of the celebrated chef Giampaolo Cosimo, whose expert variations on traditional regional fare prove to be another high point of the Luna experience. The menu changes three times a year. To the accompaniment of harp music, under the soft light of an ornate glass chandelier, white rose on the table top, I perused the expanse of fine wines, a list assembled in partnership with Frescobaldi. It was too daunting. The sommelier guided me to an aperitivo of local Prosecco, followed by a bottle of 2003 Russolo Chardonnay, a wine that rivaled its white Burgundian cousins, but with a chalkiness, buttery palate and character of its own. And then began the meal.

Chef Cosimo first sent out an amuse bouche of shrimp and melon, dribbled in balsamic vinegar, adorned with dill sprig. Next he produced an assorted fish appetizer consisting of lobster, schie and polenta (tiny local shrimp from the lagoon, a Venetian standard), a scallop done to the perfect temperature, a dollop of tuna tartar with cream, shrimp in pastry, accompanied by long stem capers and a medley of greens: watercress, parsley, rugola and dill. That would have been enough, but Venice is opulent by nature, and Cosimo is an artist. For the pasta course he soon delivered a risotto with scampi, prepared in a fish broth, a dish of perfect consistency, superior, so good it could have been a dessert. Cosimo could not restrain himself, next proffering sea bass done to perfection, falling off the skin, accompanied by artichoke, zucchini, carrots, and potato. The dessert course became a test of bravery, for only the heroic could choose from three chocolate mousse flavors, Tiramissou, Ricotta cheese cake, pear tart or zabaglione. Should you take a sweet, do not ignore the vin santo

Another piece of good news: the same kitchen supplies Luna’s room service, with some smaller items available, but still an astounding possibility. Mention also needs to be made of breakfast in the Marco Polo room, a theatrical experience in a vaulted space decorated with monumental murals attributed to the school of Tiepolo. It’s impossible to feel anything but privileged when you start your day in such an opulent setting.

The Luna is a top grade luxury property, with every comfort and outstanding service, set in a brilliant location. But it is largely about the ability to time-travel, for Luna’s personality allows you to feel the history and culture of Venice in an immediate, genuine way. I think the word here is authenticity, the actual, traditional, real Venetian experience, which this unique destination exclusively provides. There is no better way to meet La Serenissima than from this wonderful property as your base of operations.

It takes very little time in Florence to understand that the real city lives in the streets. Within the teeming center, navigable by foot, you find exceptional art –known and undiscovered- of the Renaissance. Alternately, you can shop to exhaustion, seek out leatherwork or artisan ceramics from Deruta, peruse the couture stores, or browse the boutique windows for silver and gold jewelry, punctuating it all with unforgettable meals at legendary trattorias. Or simply find an outdoor table and bear witness to the pulsing energy of the city that spills out onto the sidewalks. Hotel Bernini Palace, a supremely comfortable luxury property sits at the epicenter, Piazza della Signoria, housed in a 15th century building lovingly restored to modern grandeur. It’s an amazing neighborhood, a stone’s throw from everything. The property provides an elegant bedroom for the discriminating traveler, in a structure which was once the parliamentary seat of the kingdom. Today, Bernini’s typical Tuscan floors of terracotta tile, its coffered ceilings, rich fabrics and four-poster beds evoke memories of elegant days past. Ceramic heads from the Teatro Verdi have been added to the lobby décor, an interesting and unusual detail at the ceiling line above the reception desk. You quickly realize that the hotel is a welcoming and comfortable refuge after the day’s activities on the cobblestone streets, which can be strenuous.

The Bernini lobby is home to the Brunello lounge bar, a cosmopolitan meeting point, which suits a number of needs: quick snack, aperitif, chill out zone or dining solution. Tucked in among the gold-leafed urns, you’ll find it easy to relax in the graceful ambience where traditional Tuscan furniture blends in with contemporary design. There’s endless people-watching available through the windows. Granted there are many fine restaurants in Florence, but Chef Walter Ferrario has created an international menu, which changes on a monthly basis, bringing together both national and international cuisine concepts. You might sample anything from tapas to local appetizers. Another plus is afternoon tea accompanied by home-baked cakes.

The Bernini’s bedrooms are up to the usual Baglioni standards, with elegant appointments, wi-fi, spacious marble baths, superior amenities. In the area of the hotel where I stayed a light-filled lounge has been created, with comfortable seating, drinks and snacks set out on an ornate tabletop, another oasis from the demanding life outside.

Breakfast in the Sala Parlamento proves to be a unique experience as well. Between 1865 and 1870, The Bernini in fact served as the seat of the parliament of the young Kingdom of Italy, when Florence was capital. Today the elegant chamber’s parquet floors, 30’ ceilings with fresco portraits, wicker furniture rendered in yellow, cream and gold reveals the original style of this room. Your breakfast is arrayed on linen and white china, offset with classic silver, and the white rose centerpiece. It’s a breakfast experience unlike any other, and sets the tone for your day’s activity.

The Corsini Room is available for functions of up to 35 seats. There’s also an exclusive private parking garage, which is a real plus for those touring Tuscany by car.

Florence is mostly about art and shopping, two arduous interests requiring stamina and a calming place to rest. The Bernini is the perfect lodging solution, with its central location, comfort and discretion, operated under the highest standards of service. It’s a superior place for either business or leisure travelers to call home while sampling the delights of this exhausting world capital of Renaissance Art.

What’s in the future for Baglioni? I recently had the opportunity to query Luca Magni, the group’s Senior VP, during a long conversation over a typically extended lunch in Milan. I wondered how the chain had achieved such a high standard, with such a broad reach. After all, these are smaller properties in highly competitive markets. To achieve success incredible sensitivities must be in place company-wide. Magni replied that the group works hard on cross-border understanding, one of the critical keys. To the rest of the world, Italy represents beauty, the joy of life, and the mindset “not to be too worried.” This is not to say every experience needs to be light-hearted, but Baglioni’s corporate culture recognizes that life is there to be savored, and Italians have refined every aspect of living. Baglioni epitomizes this imprint. In order to be sure its ‘cross culture’ program worked, management studied major behavior of each target demographic who come to the properties. Staff were trained to recognize the particular needs of many groups, and how to respond appropriately, an enormously successful outreach that has contributed to the increase in repeat traffic. It was not only a recognition of nationalities which created the unique ambience. Baglioni also instituted a Women Traveler Alone program, tailored to the unique needs of this growing demographic. Special attention is paid to amenities, in-room check in, affordable room service, best seating for those dining alone, preferential room placement near elevators and the all-important staff sensitivity training. To aid the process, Baglioni has two psychologists in the Human Resources area, dedicated to monitoring high level hiring to locate the best-suited people.

I asked Mr. Magni where Baglioni wanted to go with new locations and he revealed that two properties already in the pipeline are Budapest, opening in 2007, a 62-room property with two restaurants, plus a renovated Ottoman-era spa with hammam; and a new construction of only 100 rooms in Dubai’s financial district, slated to open in 2008. The company is now actively looking for New York and Paris locations. It’s a courageous plan, jumping into markets with so many able players already established. But Baglioni brings a singular Italian stile di vita to everything it does, and that should put the fear into any of their worthy competitors.

Carlton Hotel Baglioni

Via Senato, 5

20121 Milano

Phone: 0039 02 77077


Luna Hotel Baglioni

San Marco, 1243

30124 Venezia - Italia
Tel. + 39 041 5289840

Hotel Bernini Palace

Piazza San Firenze, 9

50122 Firenze - Italia
Tel. + 39 055 288621



If there is a heaven, it might be in Epernay in France, or at the very least a short 15 minute ride north, outside the city limits, just a train ride one and a half hours east of Paris. This little bit of paradise named Royal Champagne sits above the village of Champillon, tucked away on a perfect hillside. In season, travelers come here to visit the nearby champagne houses and to fill their cars with cases of bubbly, or to indulge in a Lucculan odyssey, eating and drinking their way from château to château, opulent meal to opulent meal. They grow giddy on poached foie gras and truffled delicacies, washing it down with any of the 4000 varieties of the signature sparkling white wine to be sampled in the region. But if you travel out of season, after the harvest, when the vineyards are all purple and ochre and the tourists have gone, you will find another place altogether, where the hour is irrelevant, the roads empty, the restaurants deserted, the vineyards serene, the pressures of reality long subsided. For such a pilgrimage, this is a time and place to surely visit.

Dusk had fallen. The sun had disappeared over the horizon, and a crescent moon rose lazily over the valley of the Marne on the cool November night I arrived. A tiny Mercedes taxi swept me gently up a winding road into the foothills, while behind us the lights of Epernay twinkled, and a million stars came out overhead. At the crest of the rise Royal Champagne appeared, an historic coach inn now converted to a luxury property of 25 rooms, with a world-class restaurant ever-ready to indulge one’s gustatory fantasies. In the moonlight the inn evoked visions of two centuries past, when the court of Napoleon would stop here to rest and revive. The spirit of those times is present today and ghosts of a benevolent kind hover in the shadows. That night, silence surrounded the place, save for the occasional call of a chouette in the underbrush.

From the moment of check-in it was apparent I had come to a unique lodging. A personal welcome awaited me, extended in a small windowed reception area, a corner of the original building, cream walls, gold gilt chairs, period furniture. Soon a glass of Le Cellier Aquarelle champagne in a crystal flute, from the Cooperative de Champillon, was offered from a silver tray, to be accompanied by a Madeleine or cannelé, how perfectly appropriate, poetic even. And then a leisurely stroll to my accommodation along crunchy gravel paths in the fading light imparted the unreal sensation of a waking dream.

Royal Champagne’s comfortable lodging comes in a multitude of configurations, and there is something to please every demographic and taste, attractively priced from €180-350. Rooms 18-23 boast private terraces with unimpeded views of the Marne valley; these are the best suites on offer and should be requested. Rooms 16 and 17 feature balconies. There’s a strange, kitschy 2-level duplex with double terraces (#26), which Austin Powers might like. While all rooms face Epernay, the inner building overlooks the terraced suites, so rooftops figure in their view. The hotel does not yet have a swimming pool or spa (planned for 2008 expansion), yet the property’s wonderful situation, restaurant, seclusion and distance from the city center make it an ideal getaway. Though the hotel is in the process of a gradual renovation, my room #21, furnished in vintage 70s wood panels in a trapezoidal floorplan -complete with its private terrace- was cozy and spacious, with a modern bath which faced picture windows, while utterly private. I immediately plopped down on my king-size bed in total contentment, and took a nap.

If ever there was an ideal place to breakfast, it is on your terrace at Royal Champagne- petit-déjuner arrives on an elegant tray, with local croissants and pain au chocolat served on Limoges china, paired with a fresh fruit cup, charcuterie, coffee and hot milk, a vision of near perfection. Another pleasure this particular property affords out-of-season is the opportunity to walk undisturbed, through the adjacent vineyards. One need only stroll down the hill from Royal Champagne on a deserted road, past fields of vines, eventually arriving into the narrow, winding streets of Champillon. There you discover many of the smaller houses ready to offer a glass, or make the amiable effort to insure that you do not leave empty-handed. Three exceptional (and lesser known) houses worth a visit and a taste are Champagne Autreau, whose low-production Brut Rose, 1er Cru NV is crisp, clean and refreshing, characterized by an appealing pink to orange color, with plenty of cherries and minerals and hints of raspberries and cranberries, long lasting bubbles and a generous mousse; Champagne Devavry, renowned for their 1999 vintage (drink it now, as these are not meant for long cellaring), who offer a personalized labeling service for discriminating customers; or Champagne Roualet on the rue Pasteur, recognized for elegant, moderate weight champagnes with a long, rich, lemony finish. All three producers are within walking distance of each other. It is impossible to get lost on such an expedition, and backtracking is the best return route to the hotel, avoiding the main highway.

No visit to Royal Champagne would be complete without a meal at the hotel’s extraordinary restaurant, where Chef Philippe Augé creates seasonal menus of true distinction. He has certainly earned his Michelin star, and surely deserves another. You might first opt for another glass of Le Cellier Aquarelle champagne in the agreeable bar area, as you relax in a soft armchair and consider your culinary options. Among the delicacies sampled in November were a savory dumpling of game (croquette de gibier) and a splendid baby pumpkin stuffed with wild mushrooms and scallops, perfectly paired with a 1995 Laurent Perrier champagne of velvety smoothness. Since the menu changes seasonally, the sommelier is your best bet in choosing an appropriate accompaniment to your meal. The restaurant’s wine list of over 350 names affords one a dizzying array of choice among bruts, rosés and exceptional vintages. Pace yourself (meaning try your best to save some room) so that you sample a featured dessert, another worthy endeavor.

Another night I rode back into town for the final seating at Le Théâtre, a superb restaurant, dining in a tranquil and lofty room, where three waiters attended to me, since there was nobody else around. Later, I shared after-dinner drinks with the owner, an additional experience not often available in season, when the city is mobbed.

The hotel can arrange memorable activities ranging from helicopter flights, tours of manors and cellars, boat cruises, ballooning, golf and tennis, or a visit to the cathedral of Reims -where Marc Chagall’s celebrated 1985 stained glass windows can be found- only 20km away. Management emphasizes personalized service, governed by the motto “we never say no.” To this you can only respond, “Then I will have just one more glass of that excellent champagne, please, before I must be on my way.”


Two exceptional Aman resorts in India

Not everyone can travel these days. Trips cost more than ever, meaning mass tourism is on the way out. In its place droves of newly-affluent Asians and East Europeans wander around, but other conditions have acted to transform the marketplace. The pain of air travel is the obvious first contender. It’s harder to fly, the planes are full or late, staff is surly, and everyone dreads the hassle of airport security. Air travel hasn’t gotten any cheaper or easier, even booking online is arduous. Plus, the volatile price of gas cut into a lot of people’s Summer vacation plans last year. The lower end is being squeezed, while mass travel declines. Luxury is therefore the growth category to watch.

The class of tourists still in search of adventure wants the exact opposite of prepackaged environments and institutional behavior, and they are ready and able to pay for it. What they seek are holidays which reinforce their own socially-responsible values, higher denomination top-end experiences combining culture, comfort and sustainable concepts. You might call the new category Sustainable Tourism. It’s a quiet revolution in the industry, one in which thought-leaders try to remain low-profile as they deliver personalized, unpackaged travel with a conscience. At the same time they need to stay mindful of the impact of development, the necessity to preserve legacy and heritage, while leaving a minimal footprint, or they will alienate both their potential clients and their host communities. Most importantly, they must afford eco-tourists an opportunity for guilt-free total immersion in the real culture of less-traveled places.

A clear industry leader, crafting their brand with these new standards and values, is Aman Resorts, who set an admirable example. This operator believes that the service proposition is not incompatible with the eco-offering. They have established small, discreet luxury resorts in many of the world’s wildest, most beautiful and fascinating places. Two very different resorts in India show how successful and versatile this concept can be, when elegantly applied.

Amanbagh, in rural Rajasthan near Alwar, 2 hours east of Jaipur, reached by Land Rover over secondary roads, is a palatial compound of 40 new suites, with 16 private pools, nestled into an ancient and towering eucalyptus grove, invisible from the road. It’s the only resort in the area, an oasis which recedes perfectly into the landscape- pink stone buildings rendered in the classical style and defined by long colonnades, fountains and courtyards. It’s a tranquil place, with no meeting facilities, a property committed to the service proposition: staff to guest ratio is 6:1. At the moment of your arrival a sari-clad member of staff ties a poli band around your left wrist, a traditional sign of welcome. This memento remains with you for months after the experience- the custom is that you not remove it; the poli stays there until it falls off your wrist. It’s an authentic cultural ritual of personal greeting, followed by the western custom of a glass of champagne offered from a silver tray. Then begins a leisurely walk to your suite. You will find the accommodation elegant, quiet, private and spacious, and the bathroom rendered in local green marble can only be deemed spectacular. In the distance a flute echoes, and your mind drifts back to the mounds of pomegranates on brass trays in the patio alcoves, and the classical sand painting in the entryway, which you will discover changes magically every day.

The kitchen at Amanbagh is the province of chef Matt Small, an expat Aussie who has faithfully recreated regional home recipes in a modern kitchen, complete with its own tandoor oven. In addition to his superior menus for lunch and dinner, Chef Small brings a high breakfast consciousness to the equation, with an exceptional rendering of French toast accompanied by lemon curd and cinnamon, a real delicacy, perfectly prepared. The coffee is strong and arrives hot, and the signature fruit salad of banana, kiwi, watermelon, pineapple, guava, strawberries, grapes and two kinds of pears, garlanded with pomegranate is remarkable, a perfect way to start your day. This master chef oversees a large organic garden, more the size of a football field, producing nearly everything he needs for his recipes.

Amanbagh is so far off the usual tourist path that much of the rural life surrounding it hasn’t changed, perhaps for centuries. Camel-drawn carts are a common sight and you quickly grow accustomed to them. Along the roadsides processions of brightly clad women from the Panjara caste carry great bundles of firewood balanced on their heads. Endless fields of mustard flowers stretch off into the distance. In the vicinity a number of well-preserved fortifications can be visited. There’s even a throne cut from natural rock in a canyon, where the hotel will set you up with a catered picnic. By far the most amazing site is the abandoned city of Bhangarh, with its city wall, main street, temple complex and hillside palace largely intact. Nobody appears to visit the place, and among its ruins you discover examples of stone carving and architecture which bespeak a culture of great skill and sophistication. Nobody knows why the city -which once numbered over 50,000 residents- was vacated, but an alluring local legend describes a curse placed on the city by a queen who practiced black magic. The surrounding flood plain is dotted with ornate cenotaphs. If the guide named Sita Ram is available, by all means take advantage of his encyclopedic knowledge of local history, flora and fauna, not to mention his gracious manner.

How truly sustainable is Amanbagh? The resort generates its own power, has its own water purification plant, grows its own vegetables, and gets 40% of its labor from local villages. It trains its own people, and has involvement in community education and support of local schools. Aman apparently allows its General Managers to put their own personal imprint on their properties, and GM Sally Baughan does a magnificent job for her guests and her community. The level of staff contentment can be discerned by the sight of an impromptu noon game of cricket on the front lawn. From the sidelines a brown-eyed camel kid lazes in the shade, watching the play. Faint in the distance women on their way to the fields can be heard singing traditional songs.

Aman-i-Khas, set on the edge of the Ranthambhore Tiger Reserve, is a compound of nine beautifully furnished tents, nestled among sawgrass, on the shore of a small lake. Here you have the possibility of an unforgettable, authentic, honest camp experience, albeit a very comfortable one. The tents may be canvas, but they boast every luxury appointment.

First you have to get there, and it too is a remote location. To expedite matters, Aman-i-Khas assigns you a butler in Delhi, who escorts you south on a train. You have your own compartment and lunch hamper, and about 5½ hours to collect your thoughts. Another reality pervades there, for the resort is situated out at the farthest point from town, beyond the reach of any other properties, set among the fields which surround the tiger reserve, the area’s premier destination. The obligatory safari visit requires your silence and patience, but incredible beauty and wildlife sightings are the tradeoff. Few things compare to viewing tigers in the wild, the smell of carrion, or the shriek-howl rutting call of the spotted deer. General Manager Jonathan Blitz brings a lot of great style to the experience. He’s an expat South African, comfortable with the safari life, and ever ready to help with the details that make your visit a memorable one. He runs a tight ship, and projects a near-mythological presence appropriate to the setting.

The nearby fortification called Ranthambhore occupies two mountain-tops connected by a stone bridge, with ancient walls over 3 miles in perimeter. It’s home to a complex of abandoned palaces and a famous temple to Ganesha, where it would be considered good form to make an offering. (You buy a marigold garland, hand it and a modest donation to a priest in the temple, he says a prayer, applies an orange flower paste susmna above the bridge of your nose, and afterward you hurl the garland to the monkeys waiting outside, who fight bitterly for them. The winner tears them apart and eats the marigolds with a vengeance. Keep your distance.) The views from the ramparts look out over miles of valleys which were once the exclusive hunting domain of the Maharajah of Jaipur. A mile below, crocodiles bask on the shores of a lake. There are monkeys loitering everywhere, screeching parrots flit by, and temple pilgrims march in procession.

You can also visit Sawai-Madapur, a nearby city with a bustling main street and colorful bazaar, with blocks of open front shops to look in. This small, rural city is known for fragrances and oils, so it is possible to find essences of the highest quality at a small price. A vial of pure lotus oil cost the equivalent of US$2.50. But bear in mind you are a long way from the mainstream, and be prepared for an alternate worldview: things are done differently here.

The camp experience involves sunbathing, eating, reading on your own patio, or availing oneself of the comforts of the spa tent. There’s the opportunity to lay about at the glamorous step pool and hope that the crocodile doesn’t eat you (just joking). The camp has a fine menu of hearty fare and local tastes, all available from room service, which ought to be called tent service. The roughest aspect of the trip may be the bumpy roads your jeep navigates as you visit local villages, or search out the tigers.

Aman-i-Khas has all the credentials of sustainability, its own power and water plants, organic garden, local workforce, community involvement, as well as disappearing during the monsoons seasons when GM Blitz breaks down the camp and puts everything into storage until the favorable weather returns- the invisible footprint for half the year. There’s the abovementioned crocodile –really- dozing on the shore of the lake at the camp. When asked if he came with the property, Blitz answered simply, “He just showed up after the rainy season last year and hung around ever since.”

You may well encounter one of the defining moments of a lifetime during your visit to the camp. On temperate nights a group of local musicians are engaged to sing and play traditional songs accompanying their voices with classical instruments in the open air, seated near the crackling fire pit, while the Rajahsthan sky shimmers above with uncountable stars. No poetry can express the incredible power of a moment like that, and Aman has the gift for providing such stirring experiences. See these places now, for the world is changing, and progress will eventually intrude. Until it does, Aman Resorts can be counted on to do the right thing, as both these magical destinations in India attest.

Six Small Hotels of Paris
originally published in Lucire, October 2005

All of these hotels (except Hotel des Grandes Ecoles) can be booked by going directly to www.innsenroute.com:

Hotel Le A

4 rue d’Artois

75008 Paris

4 stars

This intriguing high-end (€320-525/night) luxury property of 26 rooms opened Summer 2003. Under the stewardship of Emma Charles, a hospitality career professional with experience at top chains (Four Seasons, Rosewood), the hotel has real style and cachet to justify the extreme price point. First and foremost is the personalized service component: no stuffy reception desk, staff instructed to recognize and greet guests by name, with a familiar yet respectful relationship-based management style. Charles makes certain that hotel staff get to know every guest, their likes and dislikes, with a strategy of building repeat business. This means a figure of 17% return guests (3+ visits a year). “We are,” Charles says, “not a hotel, but a house.” There’s also the sense of a safe and secure refuge, despite the hotel’s close proximity to the Champs Elysees, Paris’ teeming Main Street. The hotel is located on an uncharacteristically quiet side street, promoting a sense of the serene and peaceful in the heart of a bustling and touristic commercial zone. Design-wise the hotel has a unique personality. Artist Fabrice Hybert added his personal imprint to every inch: murals, unique works in every room, a wonderful handwritten wall installation facing the elevators, large scale installation pieces, carrying the art theme to all possible iterations and spaces- even the room numbering is one-of-a-kind. The stark modernist theme extends to the bar area, with an extensive art library figuring prominently in the lobby décor. A healthy –but not overbearing- profusion of silver and glass, rendered in spare geometrics, punctuated by orchids on tables. Every room is different, but all uphold the same fastidious standards with white linen-covered seating, flat screen tvs, wi fi, and CD player. The luxurious baths are distinguished by lush towels, beautiful marble work and hardware and lovely presentation of Italian amenities in a trio of sleek flagons. Clientele is split 50/50 business and tourist, with a healthy guest/employee ratio of 28:18, insuring utterly attentive service to all requests. An in-house kitchen prepares brasserie fare for room service, Noon-10pm. Continental and American breakfast served, bar opens at 4pm, outside guests welcome for breakfast and bar. If your budget or expense account allows, this exceptional hotel would make a fine island of tranquility, insulating one beautifully from any symptoms of overexposure to the rigors of travel. An unusual, artistic and chic haven at the high end of the market, for the traveler seeking unique quality experiences away from the chain hotel mentality.

Hotel le Vignon

23, rue Vignon

75008 Paris

4 stars

Hard-core culture vultures and those serious about their shopping will find this 28-room luxury property just off the Place de la Madeleine a brilliant base of operations. It’s barely a half block from the gourmet temples of Fauchon, Hediard and Maille, easy strolling to the big department stores, the trendy boutiques of Faubourg St Honore, and not too excruciating a walk to the Louvre. This would be an ideal hotel for someone in the fashion industry, attending the collections, on a buying trip, or scouting the latest couture. It’s quiet at mid-day, despite its central location on a narrow sidestreet, at a fair price, €185-300, balancing space, comfort, service and location. I like the desk team very much, happy, helpful, accessible people with the cavalier air of informality that la mode expects. The rooms are lovely, rendered in light colors, cream, off-white, airy spaces that exude a real sense of comfort. Beautiful marble bath, with Roger Gallet amenities, terry robe, plenty of plush towels. You get a wrapped madeliene with your in-room coffee service, Marcel Proust, are you listening? Elevator provides access to a comfy subterranean breakfast space. There’s a fashionable photo theme carried throughout the property, so you might have photos of sculpture, architectural details, or fashion-driven images, all of very high quality. My room had cool hat photos. The structure has been a hotel a long time, but the current owner has added more modern furnishings. Her vision and mark is everywhere- and the level of taste works quite well. Turndown service is part of the package. It might be fun to try room service from Terres de Truffes, a new truffle restaurant 10m down the street, with whom the hotel has an agreement in place. Those daring enough to have a car will find a public parking nearby at Place de la Madeliene, elevator accessible in front of the Fauchon store.

A free internet station is available adjacent to the front desk, with in-room wi fi throughout. In-room television has a good mix of BBC, Spanish German and Italian channels. The top floor suites represent the high end of the lodgings, have the feel of a pied a terre or apartment, and would be an excellent place to call temporary home as one samples the joys of central Paris. A pleasure to stay at this property. Highly recommended.

Hotel de Banville

166, Bvd. Berthier

75017 Paris

4 stars

This small, 38 room luxury property is housed in a building constructed in the 1920s situated in the 17th, located to the northeast of central Paris. Metro connections are convenient enough. The downside is that it’s a long walk to the major tourist attractions, so transport will nearly always be a necessity. Banville has all the trappings of a luxury hotel, with a price point at the low end of luxury rates, €175-275 and suites from €335. The hotel has recently received its fourth star, and when I asked the Director General the reason he replied simply “l’acceuil,” which means “the welcome.” People greeted me, but not in an imposing or overfamiliar way, while they did express a sincere warmth, which is not always the case at Parisian hotels. The hotel attracts a more sophisticated crowd. What encourages this agreeable, quiet, relaxed atmosphere may also be the obvious attention to architecture and design. The décor is a mixture of modern and classic, with inventive applications integrating ironwork, marble, granite, and clever tricks of lighting. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of interior design is the repurposing of antique artifacts and motifs, many rescued from the Parisian flea markets- this imaginative concept parallels the movement in architecture known as Regeneration. You will find some lovely and unexpected discoveries at Hotel de Banville. Among them: illuminated room numbers at your feet on the doorsteps of rooms, backlit designs on glass, embellished with fibre-optics; a computer driven façade illumination system, constantly transiting a changing palette of color- it’s a delightful and eccentric detail of embellishment not often seen in exterior lighting; the elegant lobby piano, which turns out to be the epicenter of the street level/reception area, acting as a base for sculpture and flowers, then used as surface for the opulent breakfast buffet, and late some nights turned into an instrument played by a live jazz section, which the hotel features in the lobby. The jazz is announced by a hand-painted sign stuck into a planter outside the hotel, which I think defines what is really nice about Hotel de Banville: the little, human touches which distinguish it from the cookie-cutter variety of detail found at luxury chains, where everything is the same, perfect, unchanging. Hidden among the luxurious aspect one distinguishes charming imperfections, for example the unusual and appealing Italian folk music drifting in from kitchen; the owner’s mother – an elegant lady (proprietor for the first 27 years of operation, this business has been owned by same family for 30+ years) seen first discussing a new coffee machine with staff, then having a quick glass of champagne; then out front supervising installation of the revised sign to which the fourth star has been added; a fascinating Orientalist oil, hung slightly askew, but worth the neck twist. A recent renovation has added some visually striking bathrooms, with slate floors, expanses of counter space, artistic sinks and generous baths. Unfortunately, the shower in my room, while visually inspiring and rendered in beautiful materials with beautiful hardware, was somewhat dysfunctional, and flooded the adjacent floor while in ordinary operation. I will say that the towels are generous and the robes thick, and a complete amenity package is always a welcome sight. The renovation added flat screen tvs, and minibar to each room. Also noteworthy, the embroidered cover of the in-room hotel binder, a fine and subtle stylistic articulation. Hotel de Banville has a quiet, relaxed atmosphere, and I had a comfortable sleep there. Internet access is bumpy: free connection by cable in the rooms; available by pay terminal in the lobby; or fee-based wi fi access in all rooms. 18 on-premises staff give a sincere and warm welcome; the better part of the hotel’s business is built on repeat guests. Hotel de Banville is fully occupied in high season, all week. Business travelers account for weekday traffic, tourists are the majority of guests on weekends. It’s a luxury property distinguished by true human touches, mixed with clever, individualized architectural details.

Hotel de Neuville

3, rue Verniquet

75017 Paris

3 stars

One of three properties operated by the Albar family in Paris, this hotel has a friendly, casual emphasis on the service proposition. The intention is that Hotel de Neuville “feels like being in a house” and one does sense the residential ambience. The hotel is located on a tree-lined square in the 17th, so some kind of transport is advised to get to all attractions. The nearest metro is Periere, which has an RER station. One finds a selection of local restaurants and bistros nearby. The décor is a shade higher than the reasonable price point suggests, €130-up, and the 28 rooms are nicely furnished in a neoclassical style. There’s a wood-paneled lounge with Klimt reproductions on the walls, and a view of a small antique garden, but no access to it. Downstairs there’s a pleasant breakfast room. In-room service also available. The bar is always open. Guest to staff ratio of 28:5 means less personal handling, but the hotel isn’t about being catered to as much as feeling comfy and settled in. This is probably more a business hotel, in fact some companies already have rooms reserved which are continually occupied, and during the week there are few tourists to be found in residence. Room 45 looks like the best room, with more windows, space, twin beds and a view of Sacre Coeur over the adjacent rooftops. An interesting and revealing touch is the shoe shine machine on a landing just off the lobby, obviously an accoutrement for the business traveler. All rooms wired for wi fi. One can’t expect luxury amenities from a hotel in this range, so surrender any expectations of the terry robe or abundant plush towels or groovy shampoos; the value of this property is in the comfortable home-style feel and the amiable welcome you are bound to receive whenever you return.

Jardin de Villiers

18, rue Claude Pouillet

75017 Paris

3 stars

Location and value are the keywords with this small property found in a typical residential district in the 17th, where you can experience within a block the last outdoor market of its kind in Paris, open every day. That alone is worth the price of admission, a chance to wander the stalls with firsthand access to every culinary delight at decent prices. Cheeses, charcuterie, pastries and breads, ethnic cuisines, roasted chickens, fine produce, inexpensive wines, those quirky manufactured products that the vendors always have, cheap clothing, hardware, every necessity. It’s almost a medieval experience, and a chance to stray outside the usual tourist model, as you attempt to interact with real people, many of whom speak only the French language. It is, in its own peculiar way, an adventure. Gestures and a happy expression will serve you well when you make your purchases.

Hotel Jardin de Villiers has been open since 1993. It’s a clean, well-worn -but not seedy- property, definitely a budget solution, with a comfortable, lived-in feel. A very friendly deskman named Sebastien. The presentation is a bit dodgy, but unpretentious, and the small size (26 rooms) means there will be a measure of personal attention. The price point is low, €145 and up, with €6 for breakfast. The owner, a former banker, has filled the reception space with traditional décor, adding romantic images, and some of those silly dog prints sometimes seen in club environments. While English is spoken, only French newspapers are to be found on a table in the lobby, so the ambience is very authentic, not at all globalized. There’s a neat little subterranean breakfast room, with restored original stone arch walls, and the usual tiny elevator. The hotel does have one triple room with balcony at top. Rooms feature individual air, minibar, and by November 2005 will be wired for wi fi. There is a small garden filled with flowers in the Spring; most of the rooms face the courtyard, and all the baths have a lot of daylight. The bathrooms are all tile, sparse, clean, but have the unfortunate low complement of scant few of those tiny, rough towels, much maligned by experienced travelers, and plastic wrappers and institutional amenities. This friendly, mid-range hotel is right for the intrepid budget traveler, students, those prepared to rough it a bit. An 85% occupancy figure means that many guests are prepared to endure the small inconveniences for the many advantages that Jardin de Villiers has to offer.

Hotel des Grandes Ecoles

75, rue du Cardinal Lemoine

75005 Paris

3 stars

This traditional property is situated in a quiet cité near the Pantheon, close to the Rue Mouffetard and Place Contrescarpe atop the highest point in the 5th. It’s an old-style hotel of 51 rooms, 44 with bath, 7 with shower, decorated in a charming cottage style, €105 and up. Weather permitting you can enjoy your breakfast outdoors under the trees. This is neither luxury nor spartan lodging, but a charming place to park one’s parents if they are visiting. It’s a great starting point for all the Left Bank attractions, and close enough to the Rue Monge metro so that in 10 minutes you are down by the Seine. I was not able to visit any rooms, but I did see the lobby and garden, and talk in French to the concierge. English may or may not be spoken. This is an ideal stopover for the experienced traveler on a budget: authentic, well-worn, traditional, low profile, and perhaps not yet intruded upon by all the trappings of the 21st century. This is the place for lovers of Flaubert, Zola and Baudelaire, students, or those who live outside of fashion and beyond the fast track. The surrounding neighborhood is wonderful for leisurely wandering.