Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Skirting the upper atmosphere in Firenze

There is luxury and there is luxury, and three top-end properties in Florence show how different the experience can be. Each has its own attractiveness, its own unique rewards, proving that it ultimately comes down to your own personal need, taste and style.

If you are in search of the luxury boutique hotel experience, with all the amenities and service, but at a truly navigable scale, you can do no better than Relais Santa Croce, which sits in the Via Ghibellina, 50 meters from Santa Croce Basilica. You will discover this exceptional property in the middle of the action, and a stay there delivers a veritable living history of Florence and its treasures. Set in a 16th century aristocratic palazzo built in the renaissance classical style, you get the feeling of life in an ultra-beautiful private residence. Unlike splashy hotels, the discreet entrance is flat, not so visible, even though to enter you must skip past Enoteca Pinchiorri, a 3-Michelin star establishment with a stratospheric wine list, arguably the best (and most expensive) restaurant in the city if not all of Italy, located on the ground floor of the palazzo. Upstairs, and inside the hotel of only 24 rooms you get a blend of antiques and contemporary design. This is a heritage property, so all room plans are delightfully different. The Relais has everything the luxury leisure traveler could ask for: view, dining, decor, service. In typical Baglioni Group fashion, meticulous attention has been paid to materials and furnishings, reflecting the chain's high standards for the quintessential Italian 'style of life' in its newest acquisition. Think blond woods, spacious baths with all the Farmacia Santa Maria Novella amenities, extreme comfort. Few brands deliver such a consistently sensual experience. On the gustatory front, the Relais' Guelfi & Ghibellini Restaurant competes with the august downstairs competitor in its own elegant understated dining offering, under the stewardship of the young chef Marco Tremonte, who takes pride in preparing everything in-house. This list includes bread, pasta, and the whole confectionary production. The breakfast buffet is beyond opulent. Tremonte has created an astounding dinner menu in the Mediterranean/Asian fusion style, centering his creations around typical Tuscan products all sourced locally. Pray that the lightly breaded King Prawn, garlanded with crema di Gorgonzola is still on the menu, a presentation that puts one into a near-narcotic dream state. Try and get a peek at his tiny kitchen, the only one in Florence with a frescoed ceiling. Dining rooms aside, Relais Santa Croce is free of vast function rooms, so you will never see a wedding or an intrusive big event. One room can accommodate up to 33 people, but that's the limit. It's always quiet, with staff trained to offer attentive and familiar service so that each guest has a personalized experience. Your correspondent had the chance to see the Presidential Suites, and found them to be fit for a reigning monarch at the very least. Light, airy, furnished beautifully, this over-the-top apartment is the ideal place to lodge your visiting dignitary. The Relais also creates customized tours to attractions like the Ferragamo Museum, or an exclusive jewelry workshop set in a medieval tower next to Ponte Vecchio, or superior wineries nestled in the surrounding hills. An extraordinary small hotel epitomizing everything immediate and wonderful about the authentic Florentine experience. (NB: When booking in Florence, don't be confused by the Grand Hotel Baglioni, as it is not part of the Baglioni Hotels Collection recommended.)

Relais Santa Croce
Via Ghibellina, 87
50122 Firenze
+39 055 234 2230

The Four Seasons continues to showcase its global standard of hospitality and service in the recently opened Hotel Firenze Palazzo della Gherardesca, yet another proof of why the brand inspires such international loyalty, especially for business travelers. It's a vast property, 116 rooms spread over 2 heritage renaissance structures, set within the walled tranquility of its own compound on 4.5 hecatres of parkland. Here in Florence's largest private garden you stroll the immaculate grounds, your only companions the stubby, discreet, humming robotic mowers tracing their geometric lines across verdant lawns. It took Four Seasons several years to restore this amazing place, and today you will find a complete city resort there, paired with a living museum of art history, and a destination in its own right. All rooms and public spaces abide by Four Seasons' excruciating standards for facilities. Would that there were not so many distractions in the city of Firenze- you could easily remain in the resort all the time, luxuriating poolside at the spa (formerly the stables), or satisfying your love of wine in the heroic cellar and tasting space, or challenging the restaurant's chef to live up to his reputation as "a gift of nature." You might make a twilight climb up a hillock in the garden, which rises to a mature wood, for some al fresco private dining on a hidden patio with romantic views across to the Duomo. This is a property perfect for large meetings and events. The Conventino, a freestanding structure with 37 rooms, has its own entrance, and sits directly across the park and adjacent to the meeting hall, an ornately-painted former church which can accommodate up to 120 guests. No wonder the Four Seasons Firenze is already sought-after for weddings and banquets. The 2:1 staff to guest ratio insures the extra measure of service which the luxury traveler expects. Another plus: you are tucked into a quiet neighborhood, only a short 15-minute walk from the city center, meaning you will never get too lost meandering the twisty medieval street plan on your daily excursion.

Four Seasons Hotel Firenze
Borgo Pinti, 99
50121 Firenze
+39 055 2626 1

An exceptional ambience prevails at Palazzo Magnani Feroni, a palace hotel located on the other side of the Arno, among the old streets of the university district. The Palace is small: only 12 suites set on 3 floors, but what a place. You could compare it to spending the night in St. Petersburg's Hermitage or the palace at Versailles, a heritage building maintained in its original style, intimate, real, always surprising. It's walking close to everything, you simply stroll across a nearby bridge and you're in the hub of commerce and art. This discreet house has belonged to same family for 250 years, and is filled with antique objects and pictures, drawn from the great-grandfather's antique gallery. He was one of the most important dealers in Europe, and you could easily stumble upon Roman marbles, Renaissance costumes, classical portraiture or vintage Italian pulp novels from the 1950s, tucked away in the palazzo's venerable corners. This is one of those one-of-a-kind places, like no other, and not for everyone. It sits at the high end of the luxury spectrum, with a healthy price point, excellent security, discriminating clientele and an exclusive presentation. The service compact is high, with devoted staff, operating more like a household than a commodified hotel. Every detail is out of the ordinary: the hotel has its own private garage, a real rarity in the battlefield of Florentine parking; you'll find 24-hour reception and concierge service; there's round-the-clock room service, and late-arriving guests can savor a complimentary en suite light dinner; one of the first rituals after settling into your room involves choosing your own hand-made soap fragrance from a burled wood box of samples, this in addition to Bulgari amenities; and the hotel provides an elegant turn-down service more from the Medici era than the Sheraton century. A 130 square meter roof-terrace is open all day, featuring a truly accommodating barman and set on a background of the most seductive panorama of red rooftops and surrounding hillsides. If you do not mind the occasional uneven floor tile, or a slow-moving vintage cage elevator, or a climb up a vaulted staircase to the roof, then this could be your kind of property. Private gym, family-friendly, wifi and complimentary lobby bar every afternoon. Well worth a visit.

Palazzo Magnani Feroni
Borgo San Frediano,5
50124 Firenze
+39 055 239 9544

Undiscovered Rajasthan destinations

Motor around Rajasthan at daybreak and the sun comes out over endless cornfields, the Aravali Hills rising up off the horizon above low-hanging ground fog. Huge white egrets sail over the green expanses past eucalyptus, jutting palms and brilliant bouganvilla blossoms. Winding white marble staircases snake up hills to shrines and cenotaphs perched high above the plains. On the highways, trucks filled with orderly rows of new tractors and 2-wheelers attest to the booming economy, sharing the road with camel carts, monkeys, herds of goats and omnipresent cows. Sari-clad ladies watch from the fields, splashes of fuchsia, cadmium, crimson and aquamarine. Your car navigates around white-turbaned dhoti-wearing cyclists with mobile phones pressed to their ears. Look closely and the occasional jackal slinks across the road and into the underbrush. Rajasthan has always been legendary, and now it is discovered. But there remain unusual and still-remote destinations where a sense of classical India survives.

When you sleep a night at Samode Palace you dream of history. The 400-year old structure is still much as the rulers might have known it centuries ago, 43 opulent suites facing classical courtyards, maintained in the retro style of the maharajahs. Wide, low couches and soft 4-poster beds, and Deco-inspired marble baths speak unabashed luxury. Chittering birds dart past your balcony, and jacarandas surrounding the ornate pool below color the landscape with their eerie blue-purple blossoms. Don't leave anything out on your terrace: the monkeys will get it, and though that's part of the experience, never engage them- they're notoriously ruthless. You reach the palace, only one hour by car from Jaipur, via a twisting road, which takes you through an ancient village nestled in a canyon below an old fort. Proceed through an overgrown banyan gateway and you've left modernity behind, immersed in vaulted chambers decorated with vast murals and filigree, hallways covered in thousands of tiny mirrors, endless hand-made details rarely seen in our era. The voice of a live singer echoes through the cavernous courtyards, and you may even catch a traditional puppet show in progress. Guests on the Rajasthan circuit typically stay an average of 2 nights; meanwhile the property caters to weddings, events and conferences. You can avail yourself of traditional fare in the revival style dining room (try the Indian BBQ and a tasty dessert called Malpua), but a more romantic option would be a private dinner overlooking the infinity pool and its traditional dome. Samode Palace's compact gift shop down by reception turns out to be a super find. Shopping India can be a stressful experience, but here you'll discover taseful art objects, camel bone boxes, traditional jewelry and pashminas from Kashmir at competitive prices, a great convenience. A 2:1 staff to guest ratio insures the expected level of service. Subtle details like the maharajah's crest on all the restaurant china add to this memorable journey into the elegant past. Samode Bagh, one of two sister properties, is a family resort with rustic tents and stables set in a masive walled garden, about 20 minutes down the road. And Samode Haveli, an opulent palace in Jaipur from the same management, looks to be another interesting lodging choice.

Samode Palace
Rajasthan, India

Shahpura Bagh is your chance to experience firsthand a 30-acre heritage estate, the summer residence of the rulers of Shahpura since 1630. This oasis surrounded by dry lakes has abundant wildlife watching with six spacious luxury suites and four deluxe rooms crafted in a restored Deco style country guest house. The airy lodgings feature vintage furnishings, vaulted ceilings, vast tiled baths, and a central corridor opening out to a beautiful new infinity pool, perfect for cutting the heat of the day. Words like history, family, and generations come to mind. This intimate view of life in a family house helps you gain a sense of the values held dear: stewardship, conservation and sustainability. It's a hybrid kind of vacation, dining with the family, sipping scotch with the patriarch in the salon before dinner, meeting the matriarch early in the morning in the sunlit breakfast porch. The food served is fresh, rich, hearty, spicy and traditional. All the milk, yogurt, cheese and eggs come from the property's dairy. Real sustainable tourism like this affords extraordinary experiences rich in memorable details. You can take an open jeep into the local village, where your host Sat Singh, a National Geographic photographer in his professional life, points out family tombs or shows you a local health clinic, or walks you into the courtyard where a traditional potter is at work making clay water vessels on a wheel in the same manner as his ancestors, or stops on a country road to give some men returning from the fields a ride home. You can visit a deserted fort at dusk, and from the parapets watch bats swarm into the night sky from the cistern where thousands live- the sight of a lone fruit bat swooping by, its wingspan as broad as that of a barn owl or a hawk an unforgettable moment. And little reminders like a stack of paper bags made in local cottages from recycled Hindi newspapers add to the mix. The unexpected and unconventional amenities and snapshots make Shapura Bagh a welcome stopover on your Rajasthan odyssey.

Shahpura Bagh
Darbar Ki Kothi
District Bhilwara
Rajasthan 311404
Tel: +91 982 8122012 / 8122013

For an interesting retreat at the end of a trip around the golden triangle, Udaipur's chakra-wise Fateh Gahr is a youthful, fun option for a stopover in the city of the famous Lake Palace. Open only a year and a half, the newly-constructed hilltop citadel of 51 rooms was built under a special government designation called a 'heritage renaissance structure'. This means that much of the decor has been repurposed from the ruins of an old palace 150km away, and shaped into an open, spacious, terraced, windblown property. Exceptional views of Lake Pichola, an especially attractive and convenient location away from the overload of the city. While the property has convenient elevator access, much of the experience consists of transiting a lot of marble steps connecting broad verandas. Through casual wandering you come upon a succession of old archways, columns and statuary, window and door details. In the lobby you can catch displays of ceremonial family armaments, exotic examples of superior craft. Eco-savvy, the property takes advantage of solar panels and small windmills for a share of its power needs. It's a perfect scale for groups of 8-10. Highly recommended is room 47, with its corner exposure, terrace and view of the Monsoon Palace on a presiding hilltop. The lower level features terrace suites with private plunge pools. This property offers comfort, convenience, good value in a casual, informal atmosphere, an optimistic harbinger of the new India.

Fateh Garh
Sisarma, Udaipur
Rajasthan, India
+91 99286 66009

Ecotourists and bird-watchers are a committed lot, and the resorts who cater to them need to be appropriately committed, well-situated, and offer authentic activities. Ramathra Fort, a 6-suite and 6-tent renovated fort in rural Rajasthan functions as a tourist hotel close to nature, yet featuring all the modern luxuries. A 5-year renovation/restoration by descendents of the founder has given new life to their 17th century ancestral home, which now hosts guests from all over the world. Ramathra Fort's suites are furnished in a rustic style, they are spacious, austere and comfortable, made all the more luxurious by private open-air terraces with outdoor bathtub and opulent shower. The fort casts a distinctive silhouette against the Arawali Hills, its perimeter wall crowned with parapets and wide ramparts, a fantasy from the princely past. This is an ideal stopover for those in transit through Rajasthan, close to Sawai Madhupur and the Ranthambhore tiger zone, situated in the interior, undisturbed by urban intrusions. The government expanded the vast, protected zone in 2009, so that Ramathra Fort now sits at the edge of its new perimeter. Until recently, tigers roamed the area, as well as bandits. While the dacoits have long disappeared, increasing numbers of wildlife appear each year. Naturalists and birders delight at the 67 species of birds sighted. In an environment of no pollution and no noise, there's no such thing as rushed itineraries. An almost-deserted village sits a short walk away, surrounded by irrigated fields. You may well catch a ceremony at a local temple just down the hill. There, festivals and rituals connected to specific deities occur. It's an opportunity to experience living heritage, where ancient traditions still exist. Another way the fort retains the character of the original lifestyle is through authentic homestyle cuisine. Everything served is sourced fresh, nothing frozen, seasonal vegetables only from local villages, with produce free of chemical fertilizers. The cook, who comes from one such village, does a superior job of presenting the finest rich flavors of the regional cuisine, perhaps the best food tasted in a circuit of properties in Rajasthan. Ramathra Fort is well-suited as a retreat, as the site for a small reunion, art safaris, or simply a getaway to the back country. Minimum stay 2 nights, tarif all-inclusive except for wilderness drives, family friendly. Bear in mind there are no tents March-October, and no wi-fi until 2011- though your G3 mobile phone works perfectly. Appropriate for the spirit of the place, there are no televisions to be found. The profound silence which envelops the fort at night guarantees an outstanding sleep in the ultra-comfortable bed. Ramathra Fort will add 2 more suites in 2011, keeping the size of the property at a sweet and managable scale for a truly personal stay.

Ramathra Fort
PO Sapotra, District Karauli
Rajasthan, India
+91 9829013475
Connections in India are -to be brutally candid- difficult at best. Even the most seasoned traveler needs the help of a professional planner to get from point-to-point with the minimum of hassle. You might encounter sluggish trains, washed-out roads, or culture shock in the lawless badlands of the Haryana/Uttar Pradesh border, cancelled or overbooked flights, weird way stations with characters out of a Hindu David Lynch movie. Anything can happen, or nothing, but it is better to be insulated from the start. Lucire highly recommends Travelscope India, who successfully move voyagers, experienced and novice, to the farthest ends of the subcontinent, drawing on their own carefully-built network of lodgings and conveyances- private cars to chartered jets, remote properties to luxury beyond imagination. If you go, don't puzzle it out yourself, please. India's big cities are booming, but beyond the metropolis you still need to seek the help of insiders. It will make all the difference.

Travelscope India
Mohan Narayanswamy, Managing Director

Four small Paris hotels

The most oft-asked question of Lucire's Travel Editor is for names of good smaller hotels in Paris. Everyone has a little place where they stayed once in the city of unknown gems around every corner. Here are four properties which deliver a buffet of hospitality tastes. Bon continuation!

Plaza Tour Eiffel located just off Trocadero in the tony 16th is the perfect business hotel. In excellent repair, with cool lobby lounge furnishings (Philippe Starck lighting, van der Rohe chairs), compact bar serving drinks and coffees, and a library of supersize art books. The welcome received from this property truly a warm one. Close to embassies, OECD, fashion house offices, only 41 rooms, all non-smoking. The black key card and dark wood tones appeal to business travelers, who make up 60% of the hotel's guests. You'll love the list of complimentary items: newspapers IHT/Guardian/Figaro, wi-fi, lobby computer, bottled water, plus a state-of-the-art fitness center just off the breakfast room. Kudos for the white tile bathrooms, big towels, robes, l'Occitane amenities. Breakfast also served in-room, and room service from 6pm-2am. A superior lodging is junior suite 605 with its petite balcony and Eiffel Tower view.

Plaza Tour Eiffel
32, rue Greuze, 75116 Paris
+33 01 47 27 10 00

A small hotel steps away from the Jardins de Luxembourg, Hotel Le Senat, beautifully captures the spirit of the bohemian rive gauche. Still looking good after its 2003 renovation, the property's cursive headboards recollect the legacy of the famous Left Bank denizens whose photos decorate the spare lobby. This 3-star has optimal location and a young, friendly attitude, color scheme basic black. Tourists favor the 41 room hostel with its small accommodations, Hermes amenities, and Existential style. There's the usual subterranean dining room, bar, lounge, tiny business center, photogenic garden. If you need a comfortable garret in which to ponder Sartre and the meaning of life, room 403 is highly recommended.

Hotel Le Senat
10, rue de Vaugirard, 75006 Paris
+33 01 43 54 54 54

Where to go for a taste of the retro glory of Regency France with a luxury twist at a mid-range price? Look no further than Hotel Powers, a 50 rooms-and-suites hotel housed in a heritage building, on a quiet street near Metro Georges V. Optimal location only 2 minutes walk to Champs Elysees, diagonally across from Cartier. You might expect to see Audrey Hepburn walking through the reception area. Her millionaire playboy friend would like to haunt the neighborhood and inspect its every couture shop. A deceptively quiet entry masks a time-warp, where rooms have high ceilings and pale walls, classical wood details, heroic marble fireplaces, a room suitable to receive Mme. Pompadour. You will appreciate the modern and airy white tile baths, stocked with Bulgari amenities, thick robes, big towels. This is a setting made for room service, especially breakfast in bed. Your option is a charming breakfast room- small, sweet, with pastel green designs, and a very kind lady in attendance. Two noteworthy rooms: #35, spacious with an enormous bath lit by glowing natural light; #58, which has a wraparound terrace. Full room service menu, free wifi and bottled water. Definitely a recommended experience.

Hotel Powers
52, rue Francois 1er, 75008 Paris
+33 01 47 23 91 05

Fans of the astounding Mattia Bonetti will appreciate his new wild interiors at the recently opened Hotel Cristal Champs-Elysees. Bonetti, who surpasses the title of designer- he is more of an historian, a repository, a polymath, an encyclopedia of classicism- has created a catalytic cocktail of color and concept, half Dr. Seuss and half Etruscan, with a breakfast room from a parallel universe. The inventive use of the repeat crystal motif, weird-shaped reflections, and the 1-way mirror from the shower into the bedroom in rooms 2 and 4 make this property a must-stay-in. The decor might look strange but Mattia Bonetti makes comfortable furniture, and these are liveable spaces. Perfect lodging for a young couple on the go in Paris, a Bonetti collector, or people looking to recapture their sense of style and fun.

Hotel Cristal Champs-Elysees
9, rue Washington, 75008 Paris
+33 01 45 63 27 33