Sheraton Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)

4 May

The Sheraton sits near the original founding spot of the city. Emperor Menelik’s wife decided she didn’t like it up on Mount Entoto, which he captured in 1896 and came down to the plains to build a palace at the hot springs. The grand colonial style hotel has sat here for the last 50 years, an impressive run, when you consider the disruptive and violent history the city has seen over those five decades.

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Although its glamour has faded somewhat the Sheraton is still the best place to stay in the city, and is full of business people passing through on their way further into Africa or back out. The hotel is surrounded by landscaped gardens which are pretty pleasant to stroll around in the evening and they offer a great respite from the chaos of Addis’ busy streets.

When I visited the entire hotel’s AC was stuck on hot, making each room a sauna. This resulted in having to sleep with the door to the balcony open, and thankfully because of the quite heavy security it’s pretty safe to do so. Hopefully this has been fixed, although the maintenance men didn’t seem particularly interested in fixing it quickly.

There are a few different drinking and dining options within the hotel. It’s said to have the best Indian restaurant in town, it’s certainly the most expensive and with only a handful of tables, booking might be advised. No matter how cheap the rest of Addis is to people more used to living in the West, the Sheraton seems to have taken its overall pricing guide from the latter rather than its physical location, so make sure you have a credit card to hand. The downstairs bar, all dark woods and red leather, is fine for an after dinner drink and it’s private and quiet.

Breakfast can be taken on a shaded patio in the mornings on the ground floor, and there’s a decent spread if you’re into endless breads and pastries.

The Sheraton is also the place to get married in Addis, so don’t be surprised to see more than one wedding party on a weekend afternoon. The bride and groom form a procession through the lobby, which is videoed, and then they disappear to one of the banqueting rooms but it’s interesting to watch if you’re waiting around.

http://www.sheratonaddis.com

 

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Ritz Carlton DC, Washington DC

4 May

Washington DC is in the midst of throwing off its slightly dull reputation, the green and open plan capital is organised, attractive and welcoming to tourists and the same can be said for the Ritz Carlton DC. Sat between Downtown and Georgetown in the mildly amusingly named Foggy Bottom, it’s a haven for both out of towners and local politicians who can often be seen in the Club Lounge talking shop over decent wine. The number of secret service in the room and outside the hotel in black SUVs are a dead give away. But anything that is good enough for American senators is alright with me.

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The rooms aren’t huge but they’re comfortable and luxurious,   and all mod cons are present and correct. It’s the hospitality and service that really makes this hotel a winner. In fact this is where Rihanna and Beyonce stay when they’re in town – and again what’s good enough for them…

Staff here are exceptional. Friendly, welcoming, attentive (without being overbearing) and also extremely knowledgable, nothing seems too much trouble. Definitely check out West End Bistro bar on the ground floor. The head bartender Jason conjures up a new cocktail menu every season and the ingredients and delicate flavours are as complex as a fine dining meal. Seriously impressive stuff. I fell for his take on a Manhattan – a cherry flavoured strong hit that I was happy to sit and sip alone while reading a book.

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While you’re in the bar, don’t miss the tempting plates of nibbles. The restaurant supports local farmers and butchers, who share a passion for delivering the best quality food, sustainably and organically – often using old fashioned and lengthy techniques. The results are absolutely delicious.

http://www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/WashingtonDC/Default.htm

St Regis, Doha

10 Feb

St Regis Doha was the first of this refined NYC brand to hit the Middle East, and its location between the new West Bay development and beleaguered Pearl project seems a sensible move – it’s not too far from the Corniche, and seems to have hedged its bets on the expansion of Doha. Made up of two towers, the imposingly high ceiling lobby and public areas have been designed with light Arabic touches – plenty of marble, they’ve held back on the gold, thank goodness.

Standard rooms aren’t as big as you might expect for such a prestigious hotel, or compared to others in the market but they are finished to a high standard and you get your own butler. As lovely as this sounds, it always stresses me out a little, trying to think of things for them to do, but they will bring  you tea and iron your clothes, which if you can remember to ask them for both, is a nice treat. The hotel is also home to the largest Presidential suite in Doha, a sprawling duplex at the top of the tower, it has hosted royalty, celebrities and dignataries – all for the snip of a sum of $10,000 a night.

One of the attractions of St Regis for me is the high standard of its restaurants. Shouty British chef Gordon Ramsey has two restaurants in the hotel, one fine dining and very upmarket, think thick white linen tablecloths and an air of reverence, and one casual dining. While I’m not sure how I feel about five star chefs basically doing posh fast food, there’s no denying that Opal by Gordon Ramsey serves up the best chicken wings and pizzas in Doha. If it’s cool enough bag a table on the terrace which overlooks the vast pool and out to the lagoon. Also if you’re about in the evening, there’s a fabulous bird-cage slash country garden pagoda style bar on your way to Opal, one of the most interestingly decorated spaces in town.

But it doesn’t end there. St Regis is also home to two more venues worth your riyals. Jazz at Lincoln Centre is a small supper and jazz club, all small dark booths, strong cocktails and dark lighting, which plays host to NYC’s best jazz musicians who are flown out from Lincoln Centre New York to perform, for free. Head to the bar around 10pm to see some of the world’s best jazz artists…and if you’re lucky there might even be some other people there too.

And finally, acclaimed Chinese chain Hakkasan has just opened its first venue in Doha. Set on the ground floor, it has a decked terrace where the right people need to be seen, and brings seriously upmarket Chinese food to Doha. Going on visits to other Hakkasans, bring your wallet. But it will be worth it.

Djibouti Palace, Kempinski

10 Feb

There aren’t many options in Djibouti, if you want to stay somewhere recognisably branded. That’s not to dismiss the Kempinski’s efforts, it has managed to become somewhere where both solider and tourist can feel at home. Built originally in the 90s as a bespoke host of a huge conference, it is a long and low affair with almost time bending long corridors. Nowadays it hosts many economic, political and business get togethers, providing a safe haven for meetings, compared to the more unstable neighbour countries of Somalia and Ethiopia.

It’s also one of the only places soliders and visiting military, sailors and contractors can kick back and relax. The hotel has built two pools – one for guests and families, and another for more rambunctious R&R, next to an outdoor bar. But as noisy as this sounds, the hotel is so large, you can easily find a more quiet area. It also has a small beach where it has monthly themed parties that go on later into the night.

The hotel has an all day dining buffet restaurant, an Italian which has a lovely al fresco terrace and a seafood restaurant out on the beach, which serves up the locally famous Yemini fish. Spread open and rubbed with spices, the local fish is cooked inside a brick oven and is served with piles of local bread, also cooked in the oven, which is perhaps the most delicious flat bread I’ve ever had. It’s the only outside seafood restaurant in Djibouti and you’ll probably find yourself dining next to army captains although there’s no need to stand on ceremony.

There’s also a casino in the hotel which offers black jack, slot machines, poker and roulette, and although it can be pretty grim in the early evening, after midnight the place is packed with lads trying their luck.

The hotel can arrange whale shark trips – an absolute must do, as well as trips to Mousha Island – a ramshackle beach bar and restaurant where you can snorkel dive and kitesurf. Also ask for trips to Lac Assal, a lake two hours north, in a volcanic area, which is saltier than the Dead Sea.

The staff here deserve a special mention. Young, keen and ever so helpful, I couldn’t fault them – if you’re looking for tips on where to get a beer outside the hotel, or where to go to for a dance, they’ll not only point you in the right direction, they might even come with you.

Despite the difficulties in running such a vast hotel, Djibouti Palace Kempinski actually has a heart.

Park Inn, Yas Island, Abu Dhabi

3 Aug

Not every hotel stay can be a five star one, but something somewhere shudders when the adjective ‘budget’ is used. Park Inn is thankfully not budget, far from it and that’s the delight. Those looking for a cheaper option in the capital, (but who don’t mind staying on Yas Island) should look no further.

Yas’s hotels are arranged as a semi-circle cul de sac, that could be compared to an out of town retail park (minus the retail) but their close knit nature means it’s possible to venture between them and have a whole night out (bars, restaurants, shisha terraces) all on foot, a novelty in itself. For those that want to step it up, Allure nightclub at the Yacht Club or Skylite bar, at the top of Yas Viceroy (the one that sits over the F1 track) are only a five minute taxi ride away.

The Park Inn brand delivers modern comfort, without the jaw-dropping price tag. Ok so the rooms don’t have the same floor space as a nightclub, or come with as many different lighting options, and you couldn’t fit a family of twelve in the bathroom but if you’re planning on actually doing something, anything, beyond the walls of the hotel then it’s a great ‘sleep only’ option. The beds are comfortable, the showers are pretty decent and there’s Wi-fi available and a mini-bar in the rooms…what more could you need? Bright and breezy colours pep up the minimal lobby and white walled bedrooms, although the striped coloured carpet might be taking the Paul Smith vibe a touch too literally.

Outside, the hotel’s pool has a view over the Abu Dhabi wilderness beyond the new developments, you’re afforded a vista of actual nature, quite rare in itself in the UAE and it is perfect for lying by, sunbathing away the effects of the night before, although it does also have a pool bar for snacks and drinks (and pretty good bowls of ice cream).

It’s also worth getting up for the buffet breakfast in the all day dining restaurant Mint. You could be mistaken for being in a modern design showroom, with quirky furniture and decorations but with the large windows overlooking the pool, the fresh and simple space works. The buffet breakfast is impressively large for a non-five star hotel, with many better ingredients than older, more expensive places will dish up.

The hotel also has a Mexican restaurant called Amerigos but unless you just want to chill in the hotel all night, you’d do better to explore Yas’ other options. The brick cellar inspired Y Bar at Centro does especially good (and reasonable) bar food or head to Stills at Crowne Plaza Yas Island for a decent pint whilst doing some people watching.

For those that want an action packed mini-break, Ferrari World is also only across the road and this autumn the island will open a new super-duper water park, so you could spend a whole weekend here, without venturing on into the actual centre of Abu Dhabi. If you want more, the Corniche and Tourist Club Area are both about 20 minutes away in a taxi.

When you consider the low cost, Park Inn is impressive and delivers every time.

www.parkinn.com/hotel-abudhabi/

Le Gray, Beirut

21 Jul

Staying in Le Gray is like moving into an art gallery. From the bright white lobby with its slightly ridiculous patchwork elephant sculpture to the enormous laser cut metal installation that tiny LEDs light up, visible through the glass fronted hotel at night. The feeling is no accident, all 500 works of modern art were chosen by the owner hotelier Campbell Gray.
The six storey hotel is built round a large circular glass atrium that stretches from the floor to the roof. Combine this with the glass and steel lifts and you feel constantly on display, but rather than being off putting, the inner public spaces feel light and airy.
Although the hotel is on the edge of the trendy Downtown area and only needs a five minute flaunting of the Green Cross Code as you launch yourself over to the other side of the Place Des Martyrs to get into Gemmayze where the bars and clubs reside (take the road next to a Paul café), there’s nothing particularly in the vicinity that’s a breathtaking view. Until you get up to the sixth floor that is. From the circular inner atrium to an outer square roof garden, in between Le Gray has moulded a fine dining restaurant called Indigo on the Roof, a Cigar lounge, Pool Bar and sun lounger deck and up on the rooftop proper, a circular bar called ThreeSixty, that has 360 degree views of the city. You can step out from any of the venues onto a wraparound roof garden that offers unrivalled views of the spectacular azure domed mosque next door. In a city peppered with rooftop bars, this is definitely one of the ones to be seen in.
The pool bar is also worth a mention in its own right. With pop art gracing the walls, it has a Californian milk bar style feel, all whites and sugar pinks but at first glance, you’ll wonder where the the pool is? An infinity number made of Perspex that looks like it’s been superglued to the side of the building is your answer. Once in the water, you have a view of Beirut, the sea and the mountains and can see straight through the sides and the bottom of the pool. Never has feeling disconcerted looked so good.
Rooms are spacious, with light greens and browns providing a fresh feel and nods to modern travellers include laptop and ipod docks and a machine that grinds coffee beans for fresh coffee. However these mod-cons are also where Le Gray falls down slightly. You might have fresh beans for your coffee but milk needs to be ordered from room service which makes a spontaneous cup a chore. The widescreen TV has plenty of channels but the only one in English is BBC News and movies must be paid for, which is a slight annoyance. Similarly, the hotel proudly proclaims it has a TV in the bathroom, which it does, but it only has CNN in English. If you’re not here on business and aren’t bothered about stocks, it’s best to leave the TV alone. The Cigar Room has a well stocked library where there is a quirky selection of books to borrow. The hotel also has its own spa in the basement, which is fast becoming one of the places to spend the afternoon in Beirut for pampering.

If you want to do Beirut in style and boutique is up your street, Le Gray should be your first port of call.

http://www.campbellgrayhotels.com/le-gray-beirut

 

Radisson Blu, Fujariah

21 Jul

When heading out to one of the hotels in Fujariah it’s worth remembering that you’re not really heading for Fujariah but to Dibba, which is around two hours drive from Dubai. Fujariah city is a whole other ball game and to be honest it’s not really worth more than an hour or two of your time (the dusty excuse of a museum will take 20 minutes max, if it’s open). It’s also worth remembering how to get out of Dubai, which is easier said than done. The best way is to head for Ras Al Khaimah on the E311 and come off at exit 119 or head out through Sharjah, and aim for Dhaid then Masafi and the Friday market.

No matter how many times you go through Friday market, the over supply of inflatable animals will never cease to amaze. If you want a plant, a sun-blanched rug, a terracotta coffee pot or a sad looking inflatable zebra, this is the place for you. If not, best just to whizz through (mind the rather severe speed bumps).

Radisson Blu is signed just past Friday Market – it’s around 40km further on. Wind up through the Hajar mountains, past a cement factory then just before you hit the hotel strip, you’ll be rewarded with the first glimpse of the Gulf of Oman – the glittery blue always revives travellers who have tired of the rocky, scrappy landscape between Dubai and the Eastern coast of the UAE.

On this strip of coastline sit several hotels, including the older Le Meridien Al Aqah, but Radisson Blu is the first you come to – its low slung apartment style buildings give it a ‘70s beach resort kind of feel.

If you’re after a quick weekend away, and a touch of sun, sea and sand that’s not Dubai or Abu Dhabi, then Fujariah is your best bet but whether the Radisson Blu is the top option will be down to what you want from your time off. Decent size rooms come with large balconies but the hotel isn’t the most modern affair, it caters more to large families rather than urban professionals used to slick service and a variety of options.

On the upside, the resort has five pools, spaced quite far apart as well as a large slice of beach, so overcrowding isn’t an issue. Within the roped off section of the sea, there are inflatable contraptions including a rather ingenious inflatable trampoline. (Small tip, the hotel aren’t keen on guests trying to make a break for these after dark!). Parasailing and other watersports are also on offer for those who want a more adrenaline filled break. Kids are well catered for, with a games room, kids club and suitable shallow pools and playgrounds to keep them entertained.

You’ll want to eat and drink of course, so set up residence in the main pool, which has a pool bar and a casual restaurant attached. The hotel also has an Arabic restaurant, and a large bar within the main lobby building, as well as various spaces for shisha outside – you can plonk yourself down in one of the majlis that are dotted about and make yourself at home.

This does lead us to a couple of issues with the hotel, in terms of its location and facilities, it’s not going to amaze you, but it’s perfectly fine for a couple of nights. The service and the quality of the food however might have you looking at one of the other hotels further along the beach. Despite it being a large hotel, which sees high occupancy all year round, the team it has serving drinks and shisha just aren’t on the ball and ordering anything can be a rather lengthy drawn out process.

The other issue is the quality of the food. A family beach resort in Fujariah is never going to serve fine dining food and shouldn’t be expected to, but you do expect edible and appetising. The buffet breakfast they’re currently serving is sadly neither of these things. For a hotel with a high turnover of guests that is used to being full all year round, slick customer service and decent but basic dishes should be par for the course.

With other options literally next door in the same price bracket, the Radisson Blu needs to up its game if it’s going to keep its repeat business.

http://www.radissonblu.com/resort-fujairah