Friday, February 18, 2011

New Dispatches


Nine trips to India and never got to Jodhpur. Until now. The largest westernmost city of Rajasthan, and the state capital, The Blue City is small enough to retain the sense of Old India, but big enough to display a burgeoning energy. This is a city of crafts, where the weavings and clothing and jewelry excel. Great deals abound. Authentic, traditional rugs and fabrics surround you. Towering above, the massive Mehrangarh Fort presides over the landscape, dominating the panorama. Around the market square 122m below, a constant hum of activity prevails as people go about their daily business. You never knew there were so many bangles for sale in the world. Much the same along the lanes of the old city, where tiny shops open out onto narrow streets, and a rich symphony for the senses is ever present.

Stayed two nights at the Raas Haveli in the heart of the Old City, a regenerated compound with a sleek modern wing, two restaurants and really romantic suites set in classic buildings. This is a new property, open only a year and it is finding its way. A team of world-class managers work at bringing the global standard to a beautiful boutique destination. Remarkable views, a fine chef, and you will love the bathrooms. Enlightened architecture, a great gift shop, Kama Ayurvedic amenities, a blue tuk-tuk for guests, and an optimal location all good signs of this promising small hotel. Recommended.


Portugal is a bargain. Cheaper than London, Paris and the USA, its faded glory boasts a fine local cuisine and wines, classic architecture and a thriving outdoor life on the streets. While in Lisbon I had the pleasure of viewing two properties from the Heritage family of 5 hotels located in the capital city. Heritage Av Liberdade is the perfect business hotel and an excellent value. It does everything right, preserving a landmark building and mixing in an international style of hospitality. Its central location means many offices are walking close. The breakfast IQ is genius level. And the 42 rooms with their especially brilliant baths get high marks. New Portugese art can be seen on all sides, in details like the illuminated iron room numbers and some daring digital images in the lobby. Not family-friendly, and a lot of French and German guests observed. But everyone speaks English, and the place becomes your home quite quickly. Later I made my way up to the Castelo de São Jorge, which overlooks the city, where the 14-room Solar Do Castelo is located. Welcome to another of those dream places, where the tension of the modern world fades away and you step into a zone of distant history. Many rooms like the exceptional #11 have castle views. Room #12 and the mythological room #21 with its exposed beam ceiling, have river views. Room #10 has a window onto the castle from its bathroom sink. Think romantic weekend for two, a place to propose marriage, or a property to take over in its entirety for a special event. A great amenities package, monogrammed towels and honor bar in the lobby. A visit will include close-up views of peacocks, who hang around in the courtyard; they appear to own the place, which is fine. Average guest stays 2-3 nights, but I could see extending days longer to wander the narrow ancient streets. There’s a lot of demand for these rooms, so book early. Down the block you’ll find the Merceria do Castelo, operated by the amiable Hugo Carvalho. He makes a fine cup of coffee and a beautiful grilled sandwich. His local wine list might bring tears to your eyes. It’s the perfect location to drop into for your morning coffee, your mid-day snack, or your afternoon pick-me-up. You might say it’s the local watering hole, youthful, modern and certainly fun, yet tucked away in the surreal lanes next to the castle. Heritage has 3 other properties I would like to see. The 112-room Hotel Lisbon likes kids, and it’s a more modern structure. But two remaining Heritage hotels sound small and personal and quite intriguing and I hope to profile them for you on my next swing through this great city.


Thanks largely to the phenomenon called Eat Pray Love, Tuscany has been overdiscovered and the north of Italy now feels overrun with overfed and overenlightened people you don’t want to overmeet. But there’s still Puglia, a less traveled region in the southeast, which has much to offer. Villa Pizzorusso, located just outside Mesagne, a 6-bedroom rental villa, sits in a private compound on its own 15-acre plot, isolated among olive groves. A loving restoration/regeneration has transformed this 18th century masseria into a tasteful and secure base, which retains the feeling of a country home with the comfort and style of a 5-star hotel. During reconstruction, new stones were cut from the same quarry where 500 years ago the original blocks were hewn. It isn’t cheap, approx $8000US a week, but for a large family traveling, a corporate group looking for a retreat, or those seeking a truly exclusive experience, this is the place. The property can arrange for any extras, transport, guided tours by the inestimable Michela, meals, shopping trips, cooking lessons, cultural excursions. Daily maid service included. In the warmer months the villa is surrounded by swaying wheat fields, and you are bound to spend a lot of leisure time by the photogenic swimming pool made for a fashion shoot. Italians revere the region for its food, and the simple fare served at the villa by Tommasina was beyond reproach. Get her to prepare some tortellini al brodo or vegetarian lasagna and your life will be forever changed. Twenty minutes away by car, the port city of Brindisi is undergoing a shoreline makeover. A bustling yacht harbor faces new brasseries and restaurants. You can see history on every block, Roman ruins, ornate palazzos, cobbled streets. Only 30km from the villa is the Baroque city of Lecce, with its over-the-top filigree balconies, gargoyles and cherubs, heroic carved facades and Roman amphitheatre. Music seems to be everywhere and there’s a fine choice of restaurants to try.


Checked into the Relais Santa Croce in Firenze to see how the excellent Relais & Chateaux style of hospitality mixes with Baglioni’s legacy imprint, a new development. Happy to report the combination works optimally- little changes like the removal of a check-in counter, replaced by an elegant reception table, or the new seating in the dining room, show an attention to detail that keeps this property in the top tier. The Relais has only 28 rooms, with a Presidential Suite worthy of visiting heads of state, and the team has a personable and worldly attitude, always helpful and agreeable. The chef remains a gift of the gods- his latest lunch menu an embarrassment of choice. Up on the third floor you can peer through a window cut into the wall, to view the 18th century wood truss system which holds up the ceiling of the Music Room below. Quite a thing to study, based on a system pioneered by DaVinci. Relais Santa Croce is one of my favorite hotels in the world. It offers so much comfort and traditional class and discretion with a lot of modern sensibility. Would be an ideal place for an executive retreat or an incentive program. Or a weeklong splurge in the enduring city of art. It’s an exclusive hideaway for very wealthy families. Would be ideal as a Florence retreat for high end top management brainstorming.

The Palazzo Magnani Feroni remains one of the greatest hotel experiences you can have in Florence or anywhere. I’ve written before about the splendor of artifact in the décor, everything real, everything authentic, and none of that big-chain ethos. Every room a masterpiece, quiet, private, living history. A team devoted to their guests. The high end of the price spectrum, but so worth it. This is a unique lodging, ideal for antique lovers, and not for the temperamental entitled traveler. The first floor ballroom with its incredible ceiling frescoes could serve as the unforgettable home for an impressive business function. Every return visit yields a new discovery in its hidden corners, a piece of antique fabric, a shard of carved marble, or an old print which retells a classic story. I love this hotel for its quiet elegance and discretion. With only eleven suites, you are assured of an ideal retreat and a tranquil haven.

I looked into the Madova Glove Factory shop on the other side of the Ponte Vecchio to check out the latest styles. Ladies with size 7 hands always find some real winners in the close-out box on the counter top. Stop by the window to see what will be showing up next season in the Fifth Avenue stores. And remember it doesn’t get any more fashion forward or better priced than this. I also popped into Infinity Leather to check out the newest trends on the walls. Today, larger bags are coming into fashion, with some new oversize tote shapes accented by side buckles in a multitude of colors and finishes. The alligator handbag I mentioned some months ago in an earlier article had been swept up by a sharp-eyed lady from Texas. Since this shop features low production items it’s always a good place for a healthy impulse buy.