Archive | July, 2012

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.



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.

St Regis Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi

8 Jul

It’s not every day a ‘limo’ picks you up from your flat to take you door to door but who’s going to say no, when they do offer. St Regis’ first entry into the UAE market, sits pride of place on Saadiyat Island. If you think you’ve heard the name Saadiyat before but aren’t sure why, it’s where the Louvre and the Guggenheim outposts are supposed to be going, once the projects get back on track. Safe to say they’re not opening next year, when they’re meant to be. So what does that leave at Saadiyat? Not a lot but the St Regis is worth a visit.

A large scale resort, the property overlooks the Arabian Sea, with a huge expanse of beach. You’re more likely to see the small amount of nature there is here at Saadiyat than anywhere else in Abu Dhabi, so do make the trek down to the shore, to spot the odd dolphin and Hawksbill baby turtles hatching making a break for it back in to the sea (June/July time). There are no motorised watersports allowed to help lessen the impact of tourism on the island’s environment.

Although St Regis is all about luxury, the hotel seems to be extremely popular with large families, both local and expat and it has a huge family pool and kids’ club over by one wing of the hotel. However, if you value peace and quiet and a pool bar, head straight for the adults only pool to the left of the complex. It is heaven. One of the best pool/sunlounger area/bar combinations, from a variety of chic loungers, beds and hammocks from which you can catch the rays to shaded private areas to retreat when it all gets a bit much (or for the morning after the night before), the layout with various different pool areas and levels is inspired. Slightly not so inspired is the line of metal loungers in a shallow pool – we can see what you were trying to do St Regis, allowing for sunbathing while in the pool, but under the harsh UAE sun the metal gets red hot and will sear any bit of unfortunate flesh it touches. We learnt that the hard way!

The hotel has one fairly reserved bar, Manhattan Lounge, which serves some pretty decent cocktails and it has an impressive selection of unusual spirits but it’s not the place to whoop it up with a large group of friends. Restaurant wise it’s home to an all day dining open plan affair, a modern steakhouse and a Thai place set out in the grounds, which although it has a fantastic al-fresco terrace, has barely any tables inside, and is popular with the aforementioned families, so getting a romantic tete a tete is hit or miss here during the hotter months (we had a miss).



It’s worth knowing too that if a quiet breakfast is what you’re after, the hotel does seat couples in the steakhouse for brekkie, where you can order drinks and eggs made to order, and then do a sweep of the larger buffet in the all day dining restaurant, before getting comfy with good coffee and the papers.

One of St Regis’ big selling points is that every room gets its own butler and butler service, there’s nothing they can’t do for you (legally). And whilst the staff we met were super attentive and courteous for us during our stay, we didn’t have much luck getting hold of an actual butler through their phone system. One of these calls was only to ask where the hairdryer had been hidden (it’s hung in a bag inside a cupboard on the side end of the wardrobe, that isn’t marked in any way –  in case you have the same problem) and to order a toothbrush – really groundbreaking butlering –  but perhaps you’ll be better at thinking of tasks for your man on standby.

Other than not being able to get hold of the butler after an impressive build up by the lovely guy who checked us in, the overall experience really was above and beyond a five star. And in a land of more five star hotels, than we’ve got weekends, that’s impressive. Put it at the top of your list.

St Regis Saadiyat Island is around 20 minutes from Abu Dhabi’s Corniche and about 90 minutes from Dubai.