IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO FORGET GERARD RAVET ONCE YOU listen to his anecdotes. Inversely proportional to his diminutive build are his accomplishments in the field of hospitality. You see, Monsieur Ravet is not just a concierge. He is the proud wearer of the Maitre La Clef D’Or medal. And if you are a corporate travelista, staying in luxury five stars, you know what a difference a well-networked concierge can make to your life.
Deep in the heart of Lyons, justly renowned as the gastronomical mecca of France, I recently spent a few days in the Cours de Loge. It’s a 16th century villa, whose insides resemble a colourful rustic lodge complete with wooden beams and exposed stone masonry. A step away from the reception area stands Ravet, with a twinkle in his eyes, accustomed to the most outrageously difficult demands. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame wanted to dine in a local castle’s dungeon. Ravet arranged it. Penelope Cruz wanted to go ballooning at dawn over Cotes du Rhone. Ravet arranged it. Morgan Freeman wanted to have dinner with a French countess. Ravet snapped his fingers. Which brings us to what the rich and the famous look for first in a luxury hotel. A 24-hour concierge service, multi-lingual and worthy of a Clef D’or medal.
Hotels in world-class cities like New York, London, Paris and Rome employ efficient concierges who can, like the proverbial magician, pull rabbits out of empty hats. Get you a last-minute table in a Michelin star restaurant. Or tickets to the West End sold-out play you absolutely must see. Or even if you won’t get to meet Bono, at least a ticket to a Dave Mathews band concert in the city you happen to be in.
Music to my ears is when the receptionist, the bell-boy, the lift attendant and even the waiter who serves you herb tea addresses you by name. Five minutes after you’ve checked in to the hotel! Some top-end Asian hotels accomplish this extraordinary feat. The outstanding Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok and The Peninsula in Hong Kong spring to mind.
In each inveterate traveller’s mind there are some features that everyone expects a luxury hotel to have. Wifi connections are taken for granted. Windows draped with the finest velvet, sofas caressed by sumptuous silk, beds pampered with the softest sheets.
Rooms equipped with flat screen TVs fed by cable entertainment. Mini bars packed with goodies. At least two choices of French mineral water bottles. Daily newspapers of choice. En suite bathrooms loaded with designer brands of cosmetics and toiletries. Molton Brown is my favourite. What’s yours?
It’s not only ambience, amenities and facilities that define luxury. Courteous doormen, bellboys, receptionists, room service staff are also standard expectations. But for my top dollar, I also need a top personal valet. Who unpacks and packs my suitcase. Who hangs my suits properly in the walk-in closet. Who ensures my shoes are buffed and polished. A Man Friday who works around my often 24×7 schedule! So here’s a partial list of hotels that fulfill most of these givens.
FOUQUET’S BARRIERE, PARIS
The hottest new palace hotel in Paris, Hotel Fouquet’s Barriere has become a magnet for the super rich and famous. Johnny Depp, Robert De Niro, John Travolta, L N Mittal, Nicole Kidman et al. As fate would have it, I ran into Omar Sharif who very graciously agreed to have a vodka tonic with me and reminisce about how much he used to enjoy visiting Bombay. The hotel stands prominently on the corner of two fabled boulevards: the Champs Elysees and Avenue George V. The building’s extraordinary design is a contem-porary masterpiece, fusing the old and new. The interiors are just as remarkable. World-renowned interior designer Jacques Garcia has created 107 lavish guest rooms in a combination of art deco and empire style. Using rich velvets, gold leaf, precious marble and plush fabrics, each living space recalls Venetian luxury. In my Imperial suite, fresh fruit, chocolates and bottles of the finest Evian and Cesar mineral water arrived with happy regularity. A 24×7 butler service catered to my every whim. Accoutrements and accessories in each suite are therefor a purpose. A flick of a button would make a hidden, enormous flat screen TV rise up from nowhere. I could waltz in my bathroom, a mini-spa, decked out in marble, with a large bath and separate walk-in rainshower room. Every night in my king-sized bed, I’d go to la-la land with the sound of faint laughter floating up from the world’s most famous avenue.
HOTEL GRITTI PALACE, VENICE, ITALY
Oil tycoons and diamond dealers are regulars at the Danielli, which occupies prime space on St Marks Square. The Danielli’s rooftop chi-chi restaurant serves the world’s best Bellinis but for me, its sister hotel The Gritti occupies prime space in my heart! Its Grand Canal-front restaurant Club de Doghe has tables lit by candles whose flames dance every time a gondolier glides past. Food, wine, service and ambience blend harmoniously in an unbeatable combination. Don’t forget to order the linguini al sepia nero (pasta in octopus black ink). You will die a happy man. Sweet dreams come easily in any of the 85 decorated in Italianate ornate style rooms and suites, where kings, prime ministers and presidents have surely had naughty thoughts. The rest is up to your imagination. La vita e bella!
THE PALACE OF THE LOST CITY, SUN CITY, SOUTH AFRICA
Strongly reminiscent of Coleridge’s Xanadu, the turrets ofthis ethereal hotel peek over 25 acres of untamed woods. The Palace of the Lost City offers luxury, solitude and an aura of mystery, especially at twilight time. What can you do? Here’s just a partial list: Shop for exceptional handmade curios, spend a morning at the golf course, or visit The Valley of Waves, one of the world’s most advanced water parks. The dining options are no less diverse. Sip on African cocktails at Pool Cocktail Bar, enjoy a view of the tropical forest at the Crystal Court or relax within the hand-carved teak interiors of Tusk Bar and Lounge. If you have the cash, it’s well worth flashing it in one of the four deluxe suites. Each is opulently furnished with tropically inspired flourishes. My three-day stay here still stands out in my memory as a must return-to.
TAJ EXOTICA RESORT AND SPA, MALDIVES
You must visit the Maldives before their enchanted isles disappear. This dramatic resort, encircled by the clear blue lagoon waters, is just a 15 minutes speedboat whizz from Male International Airport. My lady friends spend six out of seven days firmly ensconced in the Jiva Grande Spa. Did they glow after their wellness indulgences? Well, it certainly made them hungrier than ever. So fish, seafood and more fish were highlights in the usual Taj gourmet style. A range of water sports and recreation make for a complete and exclusive destination. We occupied two of the 31 Deluxe Lagoon Villas but looked with envy at those in the four Deluxe Beach Villas and two Villa Suites each with its private plunge pool!
SOUTHERN OCEAN LODGE, KANGAROO ISLAND, SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Kangaroo Island, a 30-minute flight away from Adelaide, South Australia’s charming capital, is now one of the world’s hottest des-tinations. Seventy per cent of the island, (which is seven times larg-er than Singapore) is covered by protected forests, where the most amazing wildlife abounds. Kangaroos with furs and colours not seen anywhere else in Australia leap about in their thousands. And overlooking the mighty pounding seas is this expensive, sanctuary of comfort, style and personal intimacy, the resort known as SOL. So seductive is its setting that Teri Hatcher of Desperate Housewives fame came for two days, but stayed on for a week! The view from my deluxe suite with sunken lounge and sheer glass walled bath-room was mesmerising. The daily changing menu honoured fine local ingredients accompanied by fine wines, so for me it was a real gastronomic journey.
Le Diane, Fouquet’s intimate fine dining restaurant, specialises in innovative combinations of flavours and playful flourishes — sea bass and beetroot mouse; boiled egg and black truffle with soldiers, pear and caramel ice cream. And their signature chocolate dome dessert is wonderful as is the straw-berry dessert.
Southern Ocean Lodge’s stress on local means breakfast includes ‘local essentials’ such as buttermilk pancakes with local honey and sweetcorn fritters with smoked southern ocean salmon while meals might include a locally farmed salad like the proscuitto and melon salad (above), Kangaroo Island marron or King George Whiting, a risotto flavoured with local mushrooms and herbs or an SA steak sandwich with a dessert perhaps flavoured with Kangaroo Island lavender or the intense Ligurian honey.