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High time for High Wine in Amsterdam

Thanks to writing this blog, hotels send me bits of news before the wider public gets to hear about them.

This serves two excellent purposes.

1. It makes me feel important which I quite like.
2. It helps me decide where to go and when.

For example boutique hotel, The Dylan in Amsterdam emailed me a little while ago to tell me about the Serendipity Collection. Excellent name for a collection I’m sure you’ll agree. But what is this collection?

I shall tell you.

The Dylan Amsterdam

The Dylan Amsterdam in the Netherlands

It is 16 new rooms including two signature suites created in partnership with a bloke called Remy Meijers. If you haven’t heard of this interior designer don’t worry. How many of us know the names of more than about 3 interior designers? In fact I think I know two. And one of those is Remy.

The point is that if you had a hotel and you wanted a couple of rooms redesigned with the specific purpose of making people who walk in suddenly and overwhelmingly feel that their house décor is wildly inadequate Remy is your man.

The hotel was among the very best small hotels in the city before Remy got involved; now it’s probably number 1. The view hasn’t changed, that’s still the Emperor’s Canal you’ll be pleased to hear.

And two other things haven’t changed that are absolutely vital for any guest to partake in while there. If you go and don’t do them then you and I can’t be friends because I won’t ever be able to understand why.

Vinkeles on the Water. It’s Michelin star food.

Very nice Melissa but so what? I’ll tell you so what: You eat it on a canal boat.

The Dylan Amsterdam Amsterdam, Netherlands

The Dylan Amsterdam in the Netherlands

I know, I had to sit down when I found out too. Dry land eating is dead to me now.

Second is the cleverest high tea I’ve ever heard of. The Dylan took the incredibly brave and wise decision to remove the tea from High Tea (omg) and replace it with wine.

High Wine.

I know I know, a thousand times, I know. Whoever is in charge at this hotel is a genius. If I wasn’t taken I would find them, woo them, woo them some more and then come the next February 29 get down on one knee and beg them to marry me.

Once married we could go to Amsterdam, go shopping, visit the Van Gogh Museum, the Rijksmuseum and the Hermitage, eat Michelin Star food on a canal boat and in the afternoon… mini sandwiches, cakes and wine at The Dylan of course.

No tea, thanks very much!

Dancers, chefs, wine-makers and gauchos.

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Casas del XVI in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

If I could go back to school again I’d scrap the subjects I chose to study and switch to languages.

The history I learned, the novels I read, the economics I memorised… all gone. My mind decided long ago it wasn’t interested in filing this stuff once all the exams had been passed and it popped the information into the bin.

And let’s face it, if I could remember all of Henry VIII’s wives or which president came after Andrew Jackson would it really be of any use?

Probably not. But a language?

Now that would be wonderful. Especially, I think, in South America. As those of you who, like me, occasionally use Google translate will know different languages are not simply the same words translated. There are words and phrases that appear in one language but not in others and unless you speak it, you’ll never truly understand.

The Greeks have four words for love for example, (agápe, eros, philia, storge) we just have one. Which means that linguistically speaking I feel the same way about my parents, my boyfriend, all dogs and steak.

Does that seem right to you? It doesn’t seem right to the Greeks.

South America, and in particular Argentina because I will be headed there later this year, is a passionate place full of expressive, passionate people. To see them speak is to see them come alive and I wish I knew what they were saying. I wish I knew how to ask them questions and understand their replies because with my terrible Spanish we’re not going to get much further than “hello, how are you?”

In particular I’m concerned about not being able to communicate properly with the gauchos. I don’t want to get too 50 Shades of Grey on you but gauchos have long been an, erm, interest of mine.

Essentially they are cowboys, living on large estancias herding cattle and hunting; living a life impossible to comprehend as a lifelong city liver. Their relationship with their horse is so loving (could do with one of those alternative Greek love words here really) that it makes you want to be a horse. And never mind speaking another human language these guys seem to be able to talk horse.

Why do they live in this romantic old fashioned way despite all the temptations modern life holds? What is important to them? What do they care about and what are their hopes, dreams and ambitions?  I wish I could ask them in their language but I can’t.

So this trip is stage one of learning Spanish. If you’re in London ever you might see me sat on the bus or tube with headphones on repeating odd phrases in Spanish. Do say hi.

Because for me travel is partly about discovering other cultures (partly about laying around doing very little of course). But we place too much importance on historical sites, art and relics when really, the people are the true conduit to immersing oneself in a place.

CasaSur Art Hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina

CasaSur Art Hotel in Buenos Aires, Argentina

When I check in at CasaSur Art Hotel in Buenos Aires it’s the people I’ll be looking to make my trip memorable. With small, family owned hotels like this (just 36 rooms) there’s always a more personal relationship to be had and with the help of the patient staff, my terrible Spanish, and their excellent English I shall truly see Argentina, not just visit it.

I’ll find the best place to watch tango, the best places to eat the food that makes these people tick, the best vineyards to visit to sample Argentinian wine and most importantly the closest place to the city to find the local cowboys and ride into the sunset with them.

Prince Harry, palaces and Dalmatians.

Beyonce & Jay-Z, Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Michael Douglas, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey… and lots more have all been to Croatia.

And this is not a new thing. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton all went many moons ago.

The three spots of choice for famous visitors appear to be Split, Dubrovnik and an island between the two called Hvar. So I’m going to all three and the chances are I’m going to see someone famous.

The only slight issue with this is my inability to play it cool when I see famous people. They don’t even have to be all that well known to be honest. If they were on television once in the 1980s it’s enough to get me overexcited. So I’m going to take Henry with me. To act as a buffer between the celebs and I, so I avoid embarrassing myself horribly. And avoid ruining the famous people’s holidays.

Villa Dubrovnik

The trip will start in Dubrovnik at the aptly named Villa Dubrovnik.

Perfect spot to safely spy on celebs because it’s high above the Adriatic with views across the water to the old city. No super yachts will be sneaking past me. The hotel’s recent renovation has resulted in many nice things but most important is the restaurant on the cliffs. This is the best place to enjoy this view. My binoculars and I will have a lovely time up there drinking wine and eating prosciutto. And actually, I hear this place is so nice, I might not even need binoculars to spot movie stars. They may well be staying in the hotel with me.

Being a seaside setting it would seem silly not to get on a boat. Villa Dubrovnik offers free boats that can take you to Lokrum island which, I’m told, has a fortress, botanical gardens and a lake. Sounds ridiculously pleasant.

But these are short trips and I want more boat time so will be heading to Split by sea with a quick stop at Hvar. Prince Harry spent his summer holidays there not long ago so the chances are I’m going to like it. If it’s fit for a royal, it’ll do me nicely.

And naturally I’m then heading to the palace.

Hotel Vestibul Palace

No, not Buckingham Palace, it’s better than that. Hotel Vestibul Palace in Split. Which is within the walls of the city’s ancient Roman Palace. A palace in a palace. Very posh. Although I must admit it’s a small palace. Just seven rooms wouldn’t be enough for the Queen’s corgis but it’ll do me very nicely indeed.

Nearby are the Dalmatian Islands. I mention them partly because they are beautiful and worth exploring. But mainly it’s because Dalmatia is where Dalmatian dogs get their name from and I wanted an excuse to use a photo of one!

Every time I go to Bruges I worry that it’s not real.

How can it be? It’s too pretty to be a real place.

I pinched myself several times on a recent trip while walking around salivating at chocolate shops and wondering what time it becomes OK to start sampling Belgium’s extraordinary array of beer.

But I didn’t wake up. It is real. I’m not Alice and this isn’t wonderland. It’s Bruges. And I’m Melissa.

The whole place appears to have been put together with a level of care that reminds me of a very very expensive wedding cake. A cake that’s big enough for you to mini-break on for a few days.

I can’t be sure how many photos I took in total but, to give you an indication of why I might have repetitive strain injury in my finger, during the half hour canal tour alone I took 74. Because whichever way you look at, and whatever it is you happen to be looking at, there’s a postcard waiting to be printed.

There are two very important things one needs to make sure of, when a couple of days here await.

First, if you’re on the five two diet, make absolutely certain the two immediately precede or follow your trip. Because you have to eat waffles here. And pancakes. And truffles and bounteous hot meals of beef and mussels and frites. And drink the beer I mentioned earlier because nobody does beer as well as the Belgians.

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Second, and this is even more important, stay at Hotel De Orangerie.

I don’t normally give orders to readers, it’s probably rude and I don’t imagine to know any more than you do about anything. But I do know that if you don’t stay here you’re, at best, staying in the second best hotel in the city.

It’s everything I love about Bruges condensed into a little converted 15th-century convent.

On one side its ivy-covered facade overlooks the canal with easily the best outdoor sitting space in town. On the other a giant barn door, originally designed to let a horse and cart through, acts as the front door behind which a painfully perfect 20-room hotel oozes that charisma and care that chain hotels repeatedly try to unsuccessfully impersonate.

They can’t copy this though. Because the man who showed me to my room would marry the hotel if he was allowed to and wasn’t already in a relationship. It doesn’t matter how deep your pockets, you can’t pay for the passion of this chap. He epitomises the reasons independent hotels continue to defeat the economies of scale odds.

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The rooms are a masterpiece of interior design. Effortless eclecticism that demonstrates great taste and great patience as the furniture was clearly a slowly built collection, not a job lot. If I thought there was any way of getting away with stealing everything in my room and having it delivered to my London flat I would have done so.

Breakfast was yummy, which was unsurprising. Surprising was that nobody was wolfing their food desperate to get back out into the delights of Bruges. Although I then realised I was subconsciously taking my time over every mouthful too. Because when you’re in this hotel you’re already in the best of Bruges. And the rest is just outside the window.

Eco-Friendly Georgian Mansion in Oz…

I get very bored reading marketing material from hotels boasting about their green awards and credentials. I don’t really know what these green awards mean and there seem to be so many that I can’t tell which are genuine and which are pointless.

However. When I accidentally find out a hotel is genuinely taking the environment seriously and yet hasn’t shouted about it, I am rather charmed.

Woodbridge on the Derwent in Tasmania is one such hotel.

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Woodbridge on the Derwent in Tasmania, Australia

The owners took an 1825 building (seriously old by Australian standards) and turned it, carefully, into a nine suite hotel without ruining any of the original features. A clever trick. Especially clever because the level of luxury guests experience doesn’t suffer at all.

In creating the new look Georgian mansion, timber, furniture and fittings were re-used wherever possible which is, I’m told, an extremely expensive process. And as it happens the hotel is very energy-efficient too. Although you’d never know because they don’t show off, they just do.

I need to learn to be more like Woodbridge. Unfortunately I’m the kind of person who tells you I’m going on a diet while eating “my last cake”, insists I’m going to run four times a week before I’ve bought the trainers and celebrates a great idea long before I’ve done anything about making it a reality.

One more quick boast before I do learn though. Because I am going to Woodbridge. And while there I am going to cooking school, wine tasting and touring, whisky tasting, fly-fishing, cycling, kayaking, boat cruising and antique shopping. That’s all before I head for Mt Field National Park to see the wildlife.

And I’ll be staying in a room with a history lesson attached as all nine have a story. While many hotels claim to be relevant to the area they inhabit, this one is the area it inhabits and is therefore steeped in convict history and rammed with colonial antiques. I’m hoping they give me The Sarah Schaw room. I occasionally think I’ve done something impressive but this woman had 14 children. So quite right that she had a nursery (that’s what this room used to be) and quite right that there were nannies to help her. Although why the nannies had to sleep on the roof I can’t be sure. Perhaps I’ll give it a go while I’m there. Sleeping on the roof that is, not having 14 children.

Is New Zealand worth it?

New Zealand is quite far away, isn’t it?

I was reading a book the other day that suggested it might take as little as two hours to get there one day. Apparently this involves leaving earth, waiting for it to spin and then popping back in again.

So the big question is, is New Zealand worth the schlep? Ask literally anyone who has been there and they’ll tell you it’s worth flying for several months to have half an hour on the ground – that’s how beautiful it is.

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Shortlist for my Easter Escape…

Just when you think it’s safe to come out of the gym, Easter arrives. I’m not sure who it was that decided that our major religious holidays had to involve overeating but that person should probably subsidise my gym membership. Because I love chocolate. And I love eggs. So naturally chocolate eggs are my nemesis.

Now, and for some time to come, they are everywhere. In every shop I go to and in every window I walk past, beckoning me with those eat-me eyes and their promises of even more delicious treats inside them.

I mustn’t give in because I’ve only just defeated my Christmas excess. And to help me I have come up with a cunning plan. While chocolate is my nemesis, heat is chocolate’s nemesis. So I am going to join forces with my nemesis’ nemesis and go somewhere sunny over Easter. Yes I am clever. No I shan’t be going to Belgium. Sorry Belgium, you’re very nice but your chocolate is not conducive to me fitting into my jeans.

Here’s the shortlist for my Easter escape.

Katitche Point Greathouse in Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands
The BVI is the place pirates used to go on holiday. But don’t that let that put you off, they’ve all gone now leaving behind lots of very cool names like Dead Man’s Bay and Smugglers Cove. In their place is an abundance of much more polite sailors and island upon beautiful island to explore. But I’ll need a base and this is up there with Richard Branson’s Necker Island at the top of the tree. Set on rocks with views over the Sir Francis Drake Channel, the four bedroom villa is so secluded and private that even the most determined Easter egg pusher won’t be able to find me.

Blue Diamond Riviera Maya

Blue Diamond Riviera Maya in Playa de Carmen, Mexico
Who likes chocolate eggs and is most likely to have loads of them? Children. Who aren’t allowed into this hotel? Children. Melissa 1, Chocolate 0.

Other pluses are the private pools that come with many of the rooms here, fine dining, spa treatments, three restaurants, bars and nearby Mayan ruins. And there are no chocolatiers. I know because I checked. If the lady on the front desk who answered my call was surprised by the question she didn’t let on – that’s customer service at its best.

Villa Spaletti Trivelli 2

Villa Spalletti Trivelli in Rome, Italy
In the photographs I’ve looked at, this 12-bed villa appears to have the most beautiful collection of furniture and antiques I’ve ever seen. While it might not be as hot here as Mexico or the BVIs (and therefore less likely to climatically defeat chocolate), the fear of getting any chocolate on such beautiful things will ensure I don’t touch a crumb.

This little hotel, owned by Italian aristocrats, is close enough to the Trevi fountain to be able to throw your coin in and make a wish from your window. Not that I’ll have anything to wish for if I’m staying here.

Which one should I choose?

Google Slovenia… Now

Sometimes I hear someone talking about a country and it occurs to me that I know nothing about it.

I’m not being self-deprecating here, I like to think I know a bit about the world and have seen a fair amount of it.
But someone mentioned Slovenia to me recently and asked whether or not they should go.

For a moment I considered making something up and putting on my confident face, so as to seem convincing and not appear like a schoolchild who has just been handed an exam having spent the whole term looking out of the window.
Sadly I know so little about Slovenia I couldn’t even fictionalise a vague sentence to bluff with.

“Not a clue,” I said, “but I’ll get back to you.”

So I did what one always does these days when a gaping knowledge blind spot appears and googled it.

Have you ever googled Slovenia? The chances are you haven’t and I’d like to change that today. Specifically pop it in Google images and prepare your mind for a shock.

It’s stunning.

It looks like the best bits of Italy, France and Switzerland rolled into one ridiculously pretty supermodel of a country.

The tourist board’s slogan is ‘I Feel Slovenia’. I feel you Slovenia. And I intend on having a damn good feel as soon as I possibly can.

Having ‘discovered’ this extraordinary place I called my friends at SLH immediately to tell them they really must go there and find some lovely hotels because it’s going to be MASSIVE.

Predictably (remind me to do a modicum of homework before dialing in future) SLH already has a couple of hotels in Slovenia and knew all about it ages ago. I haven’t felt that silly for a while. Not so silly that I didn’t continue to ask potentially embarrassing questions.

Hotel Antiq Spa

Antiq Palace Hotel & Spa in Ljubljana, Slovenia

What’s the capital city?

Ljubljana. Which sits on the narrow Ljubljanica river and is characterised by Jože Plečnik’s innovative architecture. Apparently there’s a menagerie of great restaurants that serve truffle-laced specialties. And on Sundays the river is decked in stalls selling art, jewellery and authentically retro bric-a-brac.

Is this city the place to go?

Yes you should visit but it’s a small country and easy to get around. The countryside is a must especially Lake Bled which is a very exclusive 19th Century health resort set around a glacial lake with its own island overlooked by a medieval castle. The backdrop is the snowy peaks of the Julian Alps and Triglav national park has chamois, ibex and brown bears while the nearby lakeside Bohinj is a magnet for skiers, snowboarders, skaters and ice-climbers.

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Grand Hotel Toplice in Bled, Slovenia

 So there’s great mountains, lakes and countryside… can I go to the beach?

Yes. There’s a fair few options along Slovenia’s 47km of Adriatic coast.
The best spot is Piran which is a medieval town of tightly packed streets and baroque churches reflecting 500 years of Venetian rule.

So now I know. I also know I’ve got to go. And while there I am going to ski, sunbathe, sail, waterski, go to Ljubljana’s International Film Festival and eat in as many restaurants as possible.

Now it’s time to Google Slovenia. Off you go. And make sure you’re sat down.

Boats, Beauty and Japanese Mystique

Some time ago I came to the conclusion that the most beautiful places can only be reached by boat. Or, in rare cases (Jurassic Park for example), helicopter.

But preferably not a helicopter because they are very loud and require an ugly blot on pristine landscapes to be built in the form of a helipad.

So let’s stick to boats and ban choppers.

My conclusion is based on entirely non-scientific reasoning. My reasoning being that roads are ugly, lakes/rivers/streams are lovely. Cars are noisy and brash, boats are serene and gentle. Water is the source of life on earth, roads are made of Tarmac. Plus, living in the UK I spend so much time driving on, looking at, crossing and cursing on roads that for a hotel to be truly relaxing no roads is a must.

HOSHINOYA Kyoto

HOSHINOYA Kyoto in Kyoto, Japan

So when I was looking for the perfect place to stay in Kyoto it wasn’t Hoshinoya Kyoto’s stunning looks (thanks to the mix of traditional Japanese ryokan design and 21st Century architecture) that made my decision for me. Although I must say it helped.

It was its position on the banks of the Hozugawa River in Arashiyama that made me reach for my oar and when they told me I could only get to it by boat I started merrily paddling.

HOSHINOYA Kyoto Kyoto, Japan

HOSHINOYA Kyoto in Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto has become a must-do addition to any trip to Japan and thankfully it’s very handily placed as a bolt on to a trip to Tokyo thanks to the country’s top notch trains.

It’ll take you 140 minutes. Not 139 and not 141. When the Japanese tell you a train journey time they mean it.

Once you’ve caught your train and then your boat and settled in to your luxury digs you’re not going to have much time to chill out I’m afraid. There’s far too much to see.

If you decide to go then I suggest you write down everything I’m about to say in a list format and when you get there cross them all off as you explore the very best bits of Japan.

Or you could print this out. If your handwriting is anything like mine then your list will look like it was scribed using your toes to hold the pen, while riding on a rickety rollercoaster. Blindfolded. My handwritten lists are about as useful as ancient Sanskrit when it comes to reading them back.

- The Heian Jingu temple is impressive from the offset with towering red gates.

- Contemplate the Zen beauty of the maple-shrouded Tofuku-ji temple.

- Marvel at the glistening gold roof of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) set in a traditional garden.

- From the balcony of wooden-pegged Kiyomizu-dera watch the teeming compact city below.

- Around the moat-ringed Nijo Castle, cherry and Japanese plum trees perfume the air with springtime blossom.

- Take a trip to the prize-winning Modern Art Museum and browse through avant-garde Nihonga (Japanese painting).

- Step into the steaming wooden baths at pine-timbered Funaoka Onsen and let the hot spring water melt your aches away.

- As night falls, the enormous bonfire forming Chinese characters on Mount Mandara is a bewitching sight during the Obon festival.

- Take a cruise up the Hozu-Gawa river and savour the peace of a traditional retreat.

Take me to Mardi Gras

“Come on take me to the Mardi Gras, where the people sing and play. Where the dancing is elite and there’s music in the street both night and day…”

Paul Simon fan or not I challenge anyone to hear this verse, read these words and not conclude that New Orleans is the place to be on March 4.

I first heard the song as a child and ever since I’ve wanted to find out what he was talking about. And this year, finally, I will be headed to one of the world’s most famous parties.

New Orleans Celebrates Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras, New Orleans

For those of you who haven’t spent years obsessing about a Paul Simon song, Mardi Gras is basically music, parades, picnics, floats and general merriment that takes over New Orleans. In this town they take their annual celebration very seriously indeed and throw themselves headfirst into it.

Dressing up in extraordinary costumes and dancing takes over any thoughts of work as the city’s businesses and roads are pretty much shut down in favour of unashamed fun.

I don’t think I’ll be dressing up to be honest, more my style to watch from the sidelines with a cocktail or two and then inevitably get up and join in before too long and immediately regret not having a costume.

To best absorb the atmosphere one must stay right in the heart of the city so I’ve gone for Soniat House. Originally built in 1830, the hotel is three Creole townhouses in the French Quarter bustling with antiques, spiral staircases, balconies and art.

Soniat House

Soniat House in New Orleans, USA

The hotel has a reputation of being the best boutique hotel in the city but that’s not why I chose it. It was this line I read in an article about the hotel that sealed my selection: “the one where the fantasy of New Orleans is played out with the most finesse.”

Being there for Mardi Gras is one of my oldest fantasies so these words sung to me much like Paul Simon’s did.

If you’re going to be there then look out for me. I’ll be the one, in the words of Mr Simon, mingling in the street and jingling to the beat of jelly roll.

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