The Luxury Travel Blog Network – June 2014 Edition

LTBN Luxury Travel Blog

End of June, oh my God, I cannot believe Summer is finally upon us! It would be fair to say I had a fantastic Spring, but I am delighted that my favourite season of the year is upon us. I have planned 5 incredible trips, including Spain, Portugal, UK, USA (California, baby!) and finally, Venice.

But enough about me, I have some goodies to share from the lovely people from the Luxury Travel Blog Network.

Katie is back from South Africa, a country she visited for the first time – and it really making me want to go back and explore further. She stayed at the Singita Lebombo which looks truly dreamy. You can read all about it here.

I wouldn't say no to this. Seriously

I wouldn’t say no to this. Seriously.

Not hard to tell why Katie loved it so much!

Not hard to tell why Katie loved it so much!

Nadine Courtney, on the other hand, went to a completely different place: Las Vegas. This time around, the visited the much acclaimed Aria, one of the new comers to the US playground city. There are a few very interesting hotels now (and brand spanking new), and Aria is certainly one of them. You can read about Nadine’s experience right here.

Not your usual tired Las Vegas room.

Not your usual tired Las Vegas room.

And lots of modern design. I may return to Vegas one day!

And lots of modern design. I may return to Vegas one day!

And the one and only, Kim-Marie Evans, shares something completely different – as the Summer arrives, her children will embark on some very interesting international mission journeys, so she compiled her best advice on how to prepare for these incredible trips. Some hard truths here and a great read.

Saying goodbye is never easy. JJ is now in Rwanda.

Saying goodbye is never easy. JJ is now in Rwanda.

And by going, you are not a hero. These are.And by going, you are not a hero. These are.

And by going, you are not a hero. They are.

It is all from us this month, but we promise not to disappoint (as always!) throughout the Summer.

xo

Mrs. O

Top 10 hotel pools

Although I am a confessed beach lover, I won’t say no to a pretty pool. Especially if it is warm and sunny outside. To celebrate the arrival of Summer, my favourite season, here are my top 10 hotel pools around the world (needless to say, I have been to each one)!

Constance Halaveli, Maldives

I may never leave… you have been warned!

I may never leave… you have been warned!

I loved our private pool at Constance Halaveli, in the stunning Maldives – the fact that I didn’t have to share it with anyone except Mr. O made it even more special.

Finca Cortesin, Spain

My pool. and I refused to share it!

My pool. and I refused to share it!

I adore Finca Cortesin in the South of Spain, and it may have something to do with its pools. You have a choice of 3 (which is amazing in such a boutique hotel), and this will do just fine today.

Saint James Bouliac, France

Small, simple and incredible views of Bordeaux

Small, simple and incredible views of Bordeaux

Surrounded by vineyards and the best views of Bordeaux, it would be hard to resist this pool. And I am glad I did not.

Castillo Son Vida, Mallorca

A little bit of heaven in Mallorca

A little bit of heaven in Mallorca

Just looking at this photo makes me smile – the Castillo Son Vida is a true gem in Mallorca and so civilised, I cannot tell you!

Beverly Wilshire, Los Angeles, California

Small but oh so nice

Small but oh so nice

Who said size matters? It absolutely doesn’t when everything around it, especially the service is nothing short of perfect. I still maintain that every woman needs a Beverly Wilshire moment in their lives.

Columbia Beach Resort, Cyprus

A little gem in Cyprus

A little gem in Cyprus

The focus point of this boutique resort, the pool was where we found happiness in Cyprus, when it was sunny.

Blue Palace, Crete, Greece

The place where I was asked to become Mrs. O

The place where I was asked to become Mrs. O

It was at the Blue Palace, in Crete, where Mr. O asked me to become Mrs. O. We did have our own private infinity pool (where the deed actually took place), but looking at photos of our trip, this is the one that brings me special memories. A truly fantastic hotel, which I need to return for the 3rd time (2015 it is, then!).

W Barcelona, Spain

The hotel that brought a beach to Barcelona

The hotel that brought a beach to Barcelona

This hotel truly changed Barcelona for me – it has now become the perfect European city break: amazing food, shopping, people… and now a beach! Thank you, W!

Velassaru, Maldives

Location and colour perfect.

Location and colour perfect.

It is almost a sin to get into a pool in the Maldives, but I loved how clever the main pool at Velassaru was – notice the colour sharing, and obviously the view of the sea. I just leaned on the infinity edge for hours and enjoyed the view.

Hotel Unique, Sao Paulo, Brazil

The rooftop pool at Hotel Unique, São Paulo

The rooftop pool at Hotel Unique, São Paulo

As city hotel pools go, this would certainly be one of the most special ones I have ever had the pleasure of trying. Sao Paulo was a nice surprise, and this hotel really did justice to its name. And the watermelon caipirinhas helped, of course.

What are your favourite hotel pools around the world?

xo

Mrs. O

Top 5 destinations for Summer 2014

Spring has come and gone – and let me tell you, I loved every trip I took. Things started *very* well in the Maldives, Abu Dhabi was a lot more than I ever imagined, Cyprus had delicious food and Bordeaux was one of the best weekends I ever had. Puglia, in Italy, was breathtaking and I am simply lost for words. Mr. O also surprised me with a fab birthday weekend in Paris, and I adored every minute of it.

Summer is, without a doubt (or surprise), my favourite season of the year. And something tells me this will be one of the best summers ever. Without any further ado, here are my Top 5 destinations for Summer.

Andalucia, Spain

The fab beach club at Finca Cortesin

The fab beach club at Finca Cortesin

In early July, I will return to what is possibly one of the most special hotels I have ever visited. I got in trouble with Mr. O when I didn’t take him to Finca Cortesin last year (I had a lovely girls weekend, which you can read all about here). So being the good wife that I strive to be, I shall be back for 5 days of luxury, incredible service and a very pretty hotel. And gambas, of course. You can read my review of my previous stay here.

Somewhere in England, United Kingdom

I cannot wait to get on this train!

I cannot wait to get on this train!

You think that I am joking, but I literally mean ‘somewhere around the UK’. I will be on board the iconic Belmond British Pullman, for one of its signature UK journeys. Belmond is the new brand name of Orient-Express Hotels, Trains & Cruises and you can find out more about this epic travel brand, right here.

I will join this train on July 12th for the ‘Dinner’ experience, which departs and arrives from London Victoria station. I am very excited as one of my favourite chefs, Tom Kerridge from the Hand & Flower will be hosting this very special pop-up dinner. There are a series of scheduled departures with pop-up UK chefs, which is a great idea.

Alentejo & Algarve, Portugal

Yes, the pool was all mine. And the views...

Yes, the pool was all mine at Herdade do Vau. And the views…

Later in the month, I will be back to my home country for 9 days, which will start with a return to Herdade do Vau, which I first visited last year and is officially one of my secret places. This is a place that did quite a bit for our souls – the peace and quiet were second to none and the wine was outstanding too.

The stunning setting of the Hotel Quinta do Lago, in the Algarve.

The stunning setting of the Hotel Quinta do Lago, in the Algarve.

From here, I will make my way to one of my favourite parts of the Algarve: the Quinta do Lago. For as long as I can remember, we have visited this beach on each trip to the Algarve. Crossing the wooden bridge across the ‘Ria Formosa’ is always part of the experience. On this trip, I will be staying at the Quinta do Lago Hotel, one of the Algarve’s most iconic hotels and I am looking forward to the experience.

For the rest of the week, I will be at the Sheraton Algarve, where we have been staying for 10 years if not more. It is part of our pre-nuptial agreement.

California, United States

Oh yes, we are going back to California. Like the Algarve, it is a destination we cannot live without – I am a repeater, I am afraid. We will start our California road trip in San Francisco, which we haven’t visited in almost 4 years.

I miss San Francisco

I miss San Francisco

We will be staying at the Mandarin Oriental, which promises amazing views and more. I cannot wait to go back. After 3 days in town, we will start going south.

After the city, our first stop will be at the Westin Verasa Napa, in the… Napa Valley. I have visited this area over 7 years ago and I am delighted to be going back. I am sure it has changed a lot (hopefully for the better) in this time and I am looking forward to a glass of good Californian wine, or 4!

I think that the pool at the Westin will be perfect after a bit of wine tasting!

I think that the pool at the Westin will be perfect after a bit of wine tasting!

From here, we will move on to the stunning Rosewood Corde Valle, which is tucked away in the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains. I love discovering new places in California (because there is so much to see and do), and cannot wait. And keeping with the train theme, we will be going on one: The Wine Train!

After a few days in the city, this place will be perfect for our first real taste of the Callifornia 'country-side'.

After a few days in the city, this place will be perfect for our first real taste of the Callifornia ‘countryside’.

From here, we will continue our drive south and I am still deciding on the best route to take and stopovers. Any suggestions are most welcome!

I have been to Palm Springs 12 times in the last 8 years. And I will continue forever.

I have been to Palm Springs 12 times in the last 8 years. And I will continue forever.

And then… we will get to one of my favourite places in the world. You know it by now: Palm Springs. We visited it by mistake 8 years ago (seriously, it was just a random stop on another California trip) and we have been going back every year, religiously. We will be staying at the villa we own at the Westin Mission Hills which makes for a very nice home away from home. There’s always something new happening every year, and I cannot wait to get there for almost a whole week.

I adore the Four Seasons Los Angeles

I adore the Four Seasons Los Angeles

And our final stop, I am sure you can guess it. Los Angeles, a city that I truly adore. It is also home to one of my favourite hotels – the Four Seasons Los Angeles at Beverly Hills, where we will return to after falling in love with it last year.

Venice, Italy

Venice, I am going to like you this time!

Venice, I am going to like you this time!

And to end Summer in style (and celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary), Mr. O and yours truly will fly to Venice (an important detail, bear with me) and we will enjoy 2 glorious summer nights at the Gritti Palace, one of the city’s legendary hotels.

And from Venice, we will board the Venice-Simplon Orient-Express, which will bring us back to London, on a 2-day journey. This will be my longest ever train journey, but, without a doubt, an unforgettable one. Senior Mrs. O, one of the most fabulous women I have ever met in my life (and the lucky lady I got as my mother in law), has been, and has been sharing her tales of her epic journey, which was the reverse one, starting from London. She is also trying to find some photographs, which won’t be easy – but I would love to see them and share them with you.

The Venice-Simplon Orient Express by Belmond. An unforgettable journey, for sure.

The Venice-Simplon Orient Express by Belmond. An unforgettable journey, for sure. (and also hoping for eye candy like this!)

Something tells me this is going to be the best summer ever. And I literally cannot wait.

Where will this summer take you? Let me know all about it.

xo

Mrs. O

Why is hiring a car such a painful part of the travel experience?

Hiring a car is, 50% of the time, a must for me when I travel – I would say I hire one 15-20 times a year, at least, and it still remains my least favourite part of a travel experience. Obviously when I go to a city or the Maldives, I do not need a car!

I have tried all brands, I think and while most of the experiences have been uneventful and a car was provided in exchange for the money quoted, there is still a long way to go. Why? The customer service experience can make all the difference.

Which one to choose? It gets harder and harder.

Which one to choose? It gets harder and harder.

In my opinion, the whole point of having a large international network is to offer consistency – a brand name comes with a brand promise (this is not rocket science!) and that is obviously reflected on customer expectations.

Price is still key – and I find myself not being loyal to a particular brand, which I actually don’t like. In most areas of my life, I have preferred suppliers of goods and services – be that a drink, shoes, hotels or airlines. But in this industry, because there is so little service differentiation (sadly), I have found prices recently to be all over the place – and pretty much anywhere.

I have a thing for Avis (and I really like its Avis Preferred programme, where if you sign up for free, the car is actually there waiting for you, with the keys in and you are ready to go). This is brilliant (and I am pretty sure Hertz and others offer something similar), but it is only brilliant when it works. In the USA, it is a fact and when you board that dreaded ‘airport to car hire depot shuttle’, they usually say your name and the parking spot and that is it. In Europe, it means you have a different queue when you get to the airport desk – I have never had the keys ready to go and a smile. But I have had some very good experiences – so random and unexpected, I thought I would tweet the company showing my appreciation.

Social media is not always about being negative. I like using my powers for good. A lot.

Social media is not always about being negative. I like using my powers for good. A lot. (read from bottom to top)

I also have a thing for Sixt – being a more European provider, it has a more limited coverage in terms of locations, but has recently launched in the US, for example. There are always less queues and cars are better. As an example, I hired a BMW X1 in Mallorca last year, and I liked it so much, I bought a similar car this year (and being an Audi girl, it says something). I also almost had tears in my eyes on a recent trip to Miami where I had to queue for 90 minutes (I kid you not) with Alamo to get the car I had pre booked and pre-paid, to see a newly-opened Sixt counter with no queues. It is not exactly what you need/want after a 16-hour journey.

Argus took this complaint so seriously, they ended up refunding our rental which we disagreed when we found out the credit on our bank account. They have outstanding (and human) customer service.

Argus took this complaint so seriously, they ended up refunding our rental which we disagreed when we found out the credit on our bank account. There was no need and we ensured we spent all the money on future rentals with them. They have outstanding (and human) customer service. Alamo sent me some emails just apologising but nothing else.

This is the Alamo exchange, which sadly didn’t get us anywhere later on, but it was a timely response and I did appreciate it (start from bottom to the top).

Things can get a little heated - this is me after 16h travelling and a long queue.

Things can get a little heated – this is me after 16h travelling and a long queue.

On a recent trip to Italy, we hired a car through Firefly, which is a spin-off from Hertz. I mistakenly went to another company’s counter and asked where Firefly was as there was no signage (in Bordeaux, for example, where I also hired a car with Firefly, there was a separate counter next door to Hertz) and the lady turned to me and said ‘Good luck’. I was sure I misunderstood her and asked her to repeat. And the same words came out: ‘Good luck’. I found that most strange but obviously headed to the Hertz counter where we had 3 people ahead of us, which in a normal scenario would not be a problem. But there was one: it took 45 minutes for our turn. There were 2 people serving and one decided to close down (at this stage there were more people behind us in the queue). Interestingly, there were also 4 people behind the counter doing absolutely nothing. Did they care? Not a tiny bit.

With the help of a seasoned Italian lady car hirer (who was in the queue with us), we realised what happened: they didn’t have any cars. Did they tell us and manage expectations? Of course not, don’t be ridiculous. Just make them wait in the queue. What would have cost them? Nothing. We would have understood. Then we had a little surprise, the car was filthy (inside and outside). I actually tweeted Hertz, who responded within 5 minutes, but they simply cut the conversation short. Frustrating? Yes.

A conversation that ended very quickly. Why did they not respond? Saying sorry would be OK.

A conversation that ended very quickly. Why did they not respond? Saying sorry would be OK.

On the return, we arrived at 8.01am, but the desks were not open yet, so with the help of another Hertz client who funnily enough had been on the pick-up queue with us, we simply left our cars around the Hertz area (not parked properly as there were no spaces) and headed to a safe box where you leave the keys. The Italian customer asked him why wasn’t the counter open at the set time, and the employee said ‘Please!’. I kid you not. Our car had marks everywhere and it wasn’t checked before or after, so we actually don’t know what we will be charged for the rental and prove that I didn’t add a scratch to the car. Fingers crossed it will be OK.

What irritates you most when you rent a car? Here are some of my pet peeves:

1. Why does it take so long to get the keys?

Why why why?

Why why why?

Whenever I rent a car, I provide the driving licence details, my home address, my telephone number, flight number and whatever else is required – you say it, I will provide. But for some bizarre reason, 90% of time, I have to provide the exact same information at the rental counter. I would love to know why (and a UK address always makes people take longer to type and figure out that the post code has letters. It does and I told you before).

2. Hidden charges

On two recent rentals, on the contract, I spotted a ‘credit card fee’. I wasn’t told about it and thought it was most strange – when have you not paid a car rental without a credit card? Debit cards are usually not accepted because of the excess deposit, so I am not sure what gives here.

No comments needed.

No comments needed.

The best one? Cleaning Fee. In Bordeaux, France, I saw this sign at the counter and I thought ‘oh, this is starting well’. Cleaning is subjective anywhere in the world and it was one more thing to worry about when we returned the car. For the record, I always have my car very clean and use a rental car like my own. I understand that others may be pigs, but surely this isn’t the most welcoming way to greet a client.

Pre-paid fuel.. this is a relatively new one and oh God, can it get irritating. It always used to be pick-up full, return-full, but you never know now. Obviously reading the rental agreement is absolutely necessary. I have used some websites where I was told before that it could be the case, and that is absolutely fine (as it is my responsibility to read the contract), but was surprised by a recent rental in Cyprus, with Avis (done through British Airways) that I had to pre-pay a tank fuel for 100 Euros. In an island, where I wasn’t going to drive a lot. Apparently it is a policy for Malta and Cyprus. I actually wouldn’t expect this from Avis.

3. Insurance

Oh my God, we could stay here for days. What should come with a basic rental?

I run a little experiment on a mainstream car hire company website (you can guess by the colour who it might be), using the UK and the USA website (stating in both we were UK residents – not sure why that makes a difference). I set the dates from 1-7th July at Los Angeles Airport, and requested an SUV, which is the type of car I always rent in the USA (road tripping of course and it has the room I need for my 6 suitcases. No judging, please).

On the UK website, the name is a ‘Station Wagon/Estate’, whereas on the USA website it is named as a ‘Intermediate SUV’ – they both list a Ford Escape as the ‘potential’ model and make. So we are comparing apples with apples. I have also selected the ‘Pay now’ option which is what I would do normally (and do understand why there is a price difference as risk element for the rental company is obviously different).

On the UK rental, it states that the ‘Basic price includes: All Mandatory Charges, Loss Damage Waiver (LDW), Additional Liability Insurance, Tax, Unlimited mileage’

The UK version of the rental in LA.

The UK version of the rental in LA.

Not sure why the Additional Driver cost is not made public (and why does this still need to happen? Shouldn’t the car be insured? With Avis we usually do not pay as they have a partnership with British Airways and the additional driver is free for all Executive Club members).

On the US version of the website, I have a lot more options insurance-wise. And the price, funnily enough is not the same – it is $15 cheaper for the exact same rental.

The US version

The US version

It seems that the insurance included on both is similar – the LDW and the ALI. But look at the other options – it is madness!

The best one I was offered at a counter: tyre insurance in case they burst. This has never happened to me all my life and I wouldn’t want that to happen on a nice California drive, no no. $20 a day?

And do you know about the e-tolls thingie? I quickly changed the rental to Miami as I know in Florida you must have it as most tolls are electronic, and both versions of the rental fail to mention anything about the daily $2-3 charge. Why?

Excess charges is always interesting.

The UK version says: ‘Vehicle Damage Cover Excess – USD 0.00 (approx. £0.00). Excl Vat. Vehicle Theft Cover Excess – USD 0.00 (approx. £0.00). Excl Vat. If you wish to reduce the excess you can purchase additional cover when you pickup your car’.

The USA version says: nothing.

I have heard that there are companies in Europe that let you buy a policy that covers all excess on rentals for 12 months and I also understand that US credit cards also offer a lot of car rental related insurance offers – if you could point me in the right direction, please do, as it would be interesting to know more about this.

4. Car types and models

Sometimes I am not sure what car I am getting. Back in the day, there used to be ‘classes’ – and you kind of knew, class A was the cheapest (possibly a car with no air conditioning and where the reverse gear would be an optional extra) and worked your way up. I honestly don’t want a car where I need to move my body to make it go a little bit faster on the motorway. But oh do I get surprised.

Looking at the example I used before, it is quite clear: look at the names, and the options.

In the UK version I have 14 options, whereas in the US version I have 15 options. But the names are so different and confusing – or is it just me?

Lots of options, but clearer in the US version

Lots of options, but clearer in the US version

And the UK version which mixes up types of cars.

And the UK version which mixes up types of cars.

I am not having a go at a particular company – I actually used the website of the one I use the most. I have tested this on 2 other companies and results are very similar.

5. Price

It is all over the place and this is why one needs to shop around. Sometimes it takes me a good morning to work around a rental – by comparing prices and obviously what I save sometimes costs me more than half of my professional consultant daily rate. But it adds a lot of frustration to the ‘car rental experience’.

To get things started, I usually go to Expedia, which gives me a good idea of prices. For the same rental as above, it looks something like this.

The Mid-size SUV scenario at LAX

The Mid-size SUV scenario at LAX with Expedia

Interestingly, there are no Avis results on this search – the price on its website is £249 which would be the second cheapest on this particular search – but you can see the differences above, technically for the same thing.

I then go to a website I have been using for years – a good 5-6. Argus Car Hire, which compares all of the providers and 90% of the time, it gets me savings of 40-50%. I only have an issue with it: I do not know who the provider is until I complete the booking (hence the Dollar, Alamo, Firefly and other experiences that I had, which weren’t necessarily bad).

Argus has real people behind and outstanding customer service and I cannot recommend it enough. An important thing to keep an eye on: location (on or off airport as it also brings some not so mainstream providers. I had a huge problem in Gibraltar/Spanish border as it wasn’t clear).

On this LA search, there are some interesting results, for the exact same car:

The Argus Results

The Argus Results

The rental in this case is actually cheaper (20%) and if you look at the rental conditions, you get more insurance ‘stuff’, and breakdown assistance.

The devil is in the detail

The devil is in the detail

Argus is a good option in this case, but you still need to shop around. I probably book 50% of my rentals with them, and the other 50% direct with car hire companies as it *always* depends.

With this, I have lost possibly 2 hours for a car rental, but I still have another website to show you, which I recently found, when search results for Lisbon airport, in Portugal (in July, when I am going) looked like this:

Seriously, look at the prices. And I have been keeping my eye on this since February. Imagine August.

Seriously, look at the prices. And I have been keeping my eye on this since February. Imagine August.

I was a little bit worried about this rental – and we need a proper car as we will be driving south. A ‘mid-size’ would be OK, but we could not have an ‘economy’ one as we are going to Alentejo and roads can be interesting. So I found this company (who had been following me on twitter, but never tried to sell me anything, to be fair): Vipcars.com. Argus Car Hire results were very similar to the Expedia ones (I do understand that there is a clear supply/demand issue . We rent every year at a cost of £300-400/week, which seems reasonable. £1000, not so much for a ‘compact special’, which you know it will not be a VW Golf as shown on the image).

Look at the difference!

Look at the difference!

My actual car is not coming up on search results anymore, and I contacted the company to check if everything would be OK with the local agent. I was told it would be a Meet and Greet service and that they would be available for any support via twitter or email. I have just done 1 rental with VipCars and did not have a problem. Also, with Vipcars, you know who the provider is before booking.

I also don’t understand (and would love if someone from the industry could clarify and enlighten me) – why is a car rental cheaper if provided by a third party where the main company has to pay them a commission?

But the problem is.. I have to do this all over again every time I book a car. It takes hours – and I just wished it was less painful. And then, it is always a roulette when you arrive at the rental counter. Because it is, without a doubt, the worst part of a travel experience and it is such a shame, as it is relatively simple and could be vastly improved if the companies really had a good grasp about their operations around the world. McDonald’s can do it. It isn’t easy, but it is not impossible. The challenges of a global operation indeed.

So my next rental is with Sixt, the one after with VipCars and the following one with Argus. Does this make any sense to you? Or does it not matter?

I would love to hear from you: what have been your best and worst car hire experiences? Do you also feel some frustration in dealing with these companies? Have you used third-party websites to book? Did you have any nasty surprises? Are you loyal to a particular company? And is there a country where an experience was so bad it may put you off for life? Tell all!

Which UK, the consumer-rights group has also launched a car hire campaign, and they have contacted me to join – and oh, yes I have and will. Find out more on their website.

The perfect weekend in Paris, France

Going back to Paris and actually celebrating my birthday there was not part of any plan I had this Spring – but the best things come when you least expect them (or when you and your husband suddenly have several meetings in the City of Light). Call it a happy coincidence, but for us, it just made sense to extend our stay and enjoy a lovely weekend in France’s capital.

Getting lost in Paris. Sounds perfect to me. Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

Getting lost in Paris. Sounds perfect to me. Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

Friday

My weekend started on Friday, to be precise – and it was lovely to wake up in our absolutely stunning room at the  Saint James Paris, a Relais & Chateaux, well, chateau, located very centrally on the 16th arrondissement, just behind Avenue Foch. Not your standard luxury hotel by any means, and a very special place in every sense of the word. To say the hotel was unique, would be the understatement of the year – each room has its own personality, and a very strong one.

A petit chateau for Mrs. O. OK, I can totally get on board with this.

A petit chateau for Mrs. O. OK, I can totally get on board with this.

The Saint James is a boutique hotel, bar and restaurant and is also a private members’ club, linked to the London St. James club and others around the world – it was a very exclusive yet welcoming atmosphere, with a very interesting mix of the best of British and French together.

I started the day not very early (French time one might argue), and had set aside some ‘me time’, which is funnily enough something I don’t do as often as I would like to. I had a lovely and simple breakfast (think cup of tea, fresh bread and cheese) and then, headed back to our Pavilion Suite where I was to enjoy something quite spectacular – the new Guerlain signature massage, with its wonderful smell (seriously amazing), in the privacy of our room. What I hadn’t realised until that very day (we had checked in earlier in the week), was that our bedroom had not *only* 2 floors, but 3. And in the third one, which was the equivalent of a basement, we had our own spa room, with this wonderful tub, sauna and massage tables. It was a fantastic moment and really set the tone for the weekend. Kind of.

Our stunning 3-floor room at the Saint James Paris.

Our stunning 3-floor room at the Saint James Paris.

After I got back to my senses, I did what every other Parisian woman does on a Friday – I went to have my hair done, because (as I said countless times, no one does it like ze French), despite my limited hairdresser French, I always get fab hair from a stranger. Magique or what?

I was due to meet Lucie Knapek, the CEO and founder of Evanela, a new French company who organises very special events – and that would mean private encounters with artisans (many of them holders of the coveted title of Meilleur Ouvrier de France, which is code for being publicly recognised as one of the best of the best in a particular area). By an encounter, it means a 2-hour slot with these masters in their art, where you go behind the scenes and see where the magic happens. As I was in Paris, I chose to do something fashion related. It would be rude not to.

A unique experience with Evanela

A unique experience with Evanela

Have you noticed how many more lingerie shops are in France’s high street compared to the rest of the world? It is in the French blood and they don’t even notice it, believe me (we talked about it!). Meeting this particular artisan (who was a delightful woman, spoke outstanding English and was clearly a ‘master’ in her field), was something I could have not done without Lucie’s help. The art of corset making is not dying – it is actually difficult to keep up with the orders. But it takes an outstanding amount of work – the piece you see above costs around €1200, but if you think it makes 4-5 days to make, bit by bit, it is very understandable. It was also very interesting to see the behind the scenes part, and the array of fabrics and lace, which comes in 1001 shapes, textures and forms.

After this, I was due to meet Mr. O for a little shopping and we decided to meet at the Rue du Faubourg de Saint Honore (hum… tres strategic, I know). I like walking this street from left to right, if you may, as it is quite long and sometimes I just give up on the best bits. I did get a bit carried away (who can resist Tara Jarmon‘s spring collection – pretty timeless pieces which match? Merci, madame.

Not a bad week in Paris, one would say.

Not a bad week in Paris, one would say. I made everyone’s life easier by choosing my own birthday gifts – caramel ballet pumps from Senior Mrs. O, navy heeled ones from my lovely sister, heeled patent black ones from my friend Trudi and the Sergio Rossis by Mr. O.

I also noticed something very different happening at Longchamp, who now has two stores in this street: the traditional (and ever so slightly boring one) on one side, and something very new and different, which I must confess I quite liked. I have recently bought some new more design-led Longchamp pieces (obviously I refuse to go away for a weekend without taking 3 of those lovely folding shopper bags, you know, for *shopping emergencies*), but these were something else. I may obsessed a little bit over the shoes. And the colours.

Not your usual Longchamp experience. Very cool indeed.

Not your usual Longchamp experience. Very cool indeed.

After a couple of hours, and some success in the shoe front (see above), we headed back to the hotel to change for dinner. We wanted very different dining experiences in Paris, something magnifique and utterly chic, and something a bit rough around the edges, without silver service (i.e. very traditional French, limited smiles), but with great real food. Following a suggestion by my friend Stephane (who was in stitches until I finished dinner, in case her recommendation was ‘too real’), we headed towards Gare de Lyon (a little bit far away) and had a very good meal at A La Biche au Bois (No website, so here is the address: 45 Av. Ledru-Rollin, 75012 Paris, Tel: +33 1 43 43 34 38). Think coq au vin, steak frites, creme caramel, and copious amounts of fromage. And so busy, I cannot tell you – no time for photos I am afraid. But we really liked it and were surprised when we got the bill: €100 for two, including a bottle of wine.  Bargain!

From here, we headed back to the hotel (to be fair you need to add €50 return taxi fair to the dinner), and enjoyed a lovely cocktail or three at the Saint James Bar, which I have to say, was so sexy, I just didn’t want to leave.

Sexiest bar ever or what?

Sexiest bar ever or what?

Saturday

After a lovely late breakfast (we needed something real as we had to skip lunch, and you will find out in a minute why), we headed to St. Germain de Pres, which is one of my favourite parts of Paris. We got things started at La Grande Epicerie de Paris, which is one of the nicest food halls I have ever visited. Think Whole Foods or even Selfridges food hall but 100% nicer. And French.

From here, we had to visit Le Bon Marche, which is a great department store literally just around the corner. Interestingly enough, I never have problems finding things to buy here. I wonder why! We continued down Rue de Sevres, which has some very good shopping including the most beautiful Hermes store ever. We always visit no matter what, and Mr. O can never resist a new tie. Or three. Oh well.

Hermes, Le Bon Marche and La Grande Epicerie - and those bottles are water, for the record.

Hermes, Le Bon Marche and La Grande Epicerie – and those bottles are water, for the record.

Before we knew it, a whole morning had come and gone and it was time to meet Alexandra, from Wonderful Time who was going to lead us on a 2.30h ‘Pastries and Desserts Tour‘ – this was the reason why we had to skip lunch. Oh and what an experience it was – we must have visited a good 7-8 places, some of which we knew and loved, and others that we discovered for the first time and will certainly become some of our Parisian staples. The tour took place around St. Germain, which was also a great way to get to know different parts of this neighbourhood.

Because we walked, this tour has almost negative calories. No kidding.

Because we walked, this tour has almost negative calories. No kidding.

It was one of the highlights of our amazing weekend and I highly recommend you try this company and their private tours on your next trip to Paris. From here, we walked all the way to the Hotel de Ville, where we were to start our Flytographer session. If you read this blog regularly, you may have noticed I cannot live without Flytographer, and some of my best photographs (solo, couple and/or with friends in Lisbon, Los Angeles, Amsterdam and Abu Dhabi) have been captured by this great company.

A moment away from the crowds at Hotel de Ville. Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.A moment away from the crowds at Hotel de Ville. Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

A moment away from the crowds at Hotel de Ville. Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

Goncalo, who happened to be a fellow Portuguese (we are everywhere, I know!), was great fun, and made us feel at ease. The whole point is to relax – and be discrete. This is the opposite experience of a paparazzi and that is why I like it so much.

We continued our walk towards Notre Dame, where we actually had great light – we were very lucky with the weather in April, I must say. We had an hour with Goncalo and had many different backdrops to our photos, which make this concept even more interesting.

How could a passer-by take photos like these of us? Impossible. Photos by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

How could a passer-by take photos like these of us? Impossible. Photos by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

There is something quite interesting about Paris – it must be almost everyone’s favourite city in the world. But it isn’t mine. I like it, a lot – and I like visiting once a year, because I know I will have a great weekend with the things I love in life: my husband, great food and wine, shopping and incredible hotels (2014 and 2015 will be defining years for Paris with significant new luxury hotel openings in Paris, just like 2013 was for London). But I like walking around town – I do not know the city well, but can find my way around reasonably, and I adore the vibe. But I have no dreams of ever moving to Paris – I just like visiting.

A walk by the Seine, mais oui! Photos by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

A walk by the Seine, mais oui! Photos by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

Before we knew it, our hour was up – we had covered a lot and taken some great photos. But our legs needed a rest – we had spent the whole day walking (I am sure with negative calories by this time), so we just found a little cafe and had a little kir. Because we totally deserved one. This is another part of French culture I love – just sit down and watch the world go by.

Chin chin, as the French say (and the Portuguese, funnily enough). Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

Chin chin, as the French say (and the Portuguese, funnily enough). Photo by Goncalo Silva for Flytographer.

It was then time to head back to the hotel, and change for dinner. And possibly try new shoes on – it would be rude not to. Dinner was to take place at the 1-star Michelin 114 Faubourg, at Le Bristol, one of Paris’ grand dame hotels. Needless to say, it started with great cocktails at the Bar du Bristol, which was lovely (and very cool, with great music).

Le Bar du Bristol and 114 Faubourg. And a fab dinner.

Le Bar du Bristol and 114 Faubourg. And a fab dinner.

We had a great meal, service and experience. And we may have gone back to the bar for a little night-cap. Possibly.

Sunday

Sunday is always interesting in Paris and we had to be at the airport at around 3pm, which gave us some limited time and I was a woman with priorities: I wanted to go food shopping and that can be a challenge in Paris. On a Sunday.

But this is where a good hotel concierge makes a difference and we had our answer: Marche Poncelet (17eme). Quite compact but definitely busy – and with every thing that we needed: bread, dessert, cheese, charcuterie and a bit of seafood. I pity the people who sat next to us on the plane, but I have to tell you, our dinner back at home was nothing short of perfect.

France came back with me on my Longchamp Le Pliage - because those bags are made for things like these.

France came back with me on my Longchamp Le Pliage – because those bags are made for things like these.

Before we knew it, it was time to head to the airport, with a little stop for a little brunch at the Bar-a-Burger (a bit out-of-the-way, but a fun place).

And head back home, after a fab weekend in Paris.

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer and Fact box: a huge thank you to those who made my birthday weekend in Paris extra special, namely Saint James Paris, Flytographer, Le Bristol, Wonderful Time and Evanela. Opinions are, as always, my own.

STAY: Rooms at Saint James Paris start at €360 per night in a standard room and my Pavilion suite costs from €1000/night including breakfast.

SEE: A 60-minute photoshoot with Flytographer costs $350 (approx €250) and includes high and low resolution images of your time with one of their photographers in over 100 locations around the world.

EAT & DRINK: Dinner at 114 Faubourg at Le Bristol costs around €200-250 for two, excluding drinks. Dinner at La Biche au Bois costs around €100 for two including drinks. Brunch at Bar-a-Burger costs €26 per person including non-alcoholic drinks.

PLAY: A private encounter with an artisan with Evanela lasts for 2 hours and costs €500 – there is no obligation to buy anything. The Wonderful Time Pastries and Desserts Tour costs €170 per person and lasts for two hours as well. 

My hOtel: Columbia Beach Resort, Cyprus @columbiabresort

myhotel

I first visited Cyprus with Mr. O in 2006 – it was one of our first holidays together. Eight years later, I was due a return – an invite from the Columbia Beach Resort and Classic Collection Holidays to experience a hotel which seemed quite special: away from the crowds, small and private. My kind of place, really. I was also very curious about this resort as I had personal friends who had visited before and liked it a lot, but also, while I was in Cyprus, it turned out it was a very well-known hotel by my readers (especially those who follow me on Facebook), many of whom visited on an annual basis.

A little gem in Cyprus

A little gem in Cyprus

Pre-Arrival

–          Was there any pre-arrival communication by the hotel with myself via email or social media?

Yes, this trip was organised a good 4 months before it took place and over the time, the excitement was building up.

–          Did I try to engage the hotel via Twitter? Did the hotel interact with me and made me feel welcome/special?

Absolutely, and this continued throughout my stay.

–          Has the hotel tried to gather any personal information (e.g. preferences) prior to my stay?

I hadn’t asked for anything.

Arrival

The Columbia Beach Resort in Pissouri, Cyprus

The Columbia Beach Resort in Pissouri, Cyprus

–          The wow factor! What was the hotel decor style?

When we arrived, it was past 9pm and it was dark. I always find it funny when it is dark on arrival – you never know what to expect the next morning. The lobby was bright and airy and very quiet at this time of the night.

–          How quick and efficient was the hotel check-in?

There wasn’t a queue at this time, and we were the last guests checking in. The team was waiting for us and processed us quickly.

–          Was I addressed by name once reservation has been located? (it is all about the small details, some others are outstanding with this, and I love it, like I do when I board an airplane)

Absolutely.

–          Did I get an upgrade from my confirmed pre-booked room type?

We had a confirmed suite. We were then taken to what I would call a junior suite, as the living area was not a separate room from the bedroom.

–          Did I feel genuinely welcomed by the hotel staff?

Yes, and this was one of the best things about the hotel. My readers kept mentioning it and I have to say, it was true! Everyone was really good at the Columbia Beach Resort – from the pool boys, to restaurant staff. Everyone.

The Columbia Beach Resort

The Columbia Beach Resort

–          Luggage – how many people did I have to tip before the luggage made it safely to my room? This is cultural, I know

We used First Luggage‘s service on this trip (to and from) and I knew our luggage had already arrived – and it was waiting for us in our room.

–          Wi-fi – was I told anything about it? Was there a charge?

 WiFi was free of charge for all guests and the login quite simple.

Room Experience
During this stay, we asked to be moved from one room to another, as we were disappointed with our first room. Was I being picky? Yes indeed. But I felt that the first room we were given was disproportionate and wasn’t comfortable at all. The layout made it look empty and we had what was called a garden view room.On our 3rd and 4th nights, we were moved to a sea view panorama suite (which I would call a junior suite) which was smaller, but so much more welcoming and inviting. It had exactly the same furniture than the previous room but felt completely different. It also had stunning views, which helped. A lot.

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

Our second bedroom, which was lovely.

Our second bedroom, which was lovely.

The hotel is around 10 years old and the furnishings are light coloured, but in my opinion, a soft refurb should be in the cards.

–          Welcome amenity

We had a bottle of wine on each room. Cypriot wine was one of the discoveries of this trip – it had improved a lot over the past 8 years!

–          The bed

The bed wasn’t fab. It did not have a mattress topper and we only had a pillow each. On our second bedroom, we had twin beds (which isn’t a problem). As I said earlier, the refurb needed would include these sort of items.

–          Closet/Wardrobe – proper hangers or those annoying ones where you need a PhD to get them out one by one? This is a personal pet peeve of mine. I can’t stand them.

No problems here and plenty of space.

–          Iphone Charger/Dock

No chargers but we had plenty of power points, although not by the bed.

–          Bathrobes and slippers

Yes, but we did not use them.

–          Coffee and Tea

We had a nespresso machine and a kettle for tea. Again, we did not use it.

–          Free bottled water

Yes, and changed daily.

–          Magazine selection – had some nice surprises and doesn’t happen often enough!

We had some hotel magazines which were not bad at all.

–          Power sockets in useful places – we have more and more devices and we know where we want them! By the bed, by the working area.

This was a bit of a struggle, but obviously we found plugs. I have to say we had the most impressive light switching system ever – just have a look at the photo. From one side of the bed, you could control the whole room.

Bathroom

The bathrooms will need an update, in my opinion.

The bathrooms will need an update, in my opinion.

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

I have to be honest (which is the whole point of these reviews) and these were dated. Very date. The lighting on the first bathroom was not good at all – but the second room, which had a better layout felt better.

–          Bath, shower and taps – I am looking for Duravits and Hansgrohes (or other fab brands) around the world. How fab was the shower? And a little pet peeve.. was I able to operate the shower without asking Mr. O for help?

Everything was done to a very high standard, but things have evolved in the past ten years. Although all the showers and taps were Grohe, they are from a different era and I have to say expectations have changed.

–          Towels – yes, please! How many and how soft and lovely?

We had plenty of towels, but again, they felt a bit tired.

–          Toiletries – own brand, super brand, baby ones or proper ones? I shall find out!

We had Molton Brown (and the new range of smells), which were very nice.

–          Amenity kit – I don’t want more sewing kits thank you very much, but I will need a shower cap.

Everything we needed.

–          Hairdryer – is it a human one, or just something stuck to a wall that only makes noise?

There was one, but I did not use. It was stuck to a wall, with a cord, so to speak and didn’t do much more than noise. I went au naturel for the whole 4 days, which was fine.

Breakfast

A lovely setting for breakfast

A lovely setting for breakfast

Breakfast took place at the Fine Dining restaurant and we enjoyed it outside everyday. The buffet was fine, and I had my daily fix of Cypriot white cheese, which was lovely. It was always busy (the hotel was full when we were there), and the staff were fantastic. You could order eggs and any other cooked items, which took a bit of time, but were delicious.

Bar

Great margaritas at the bar. And other cocktails!

Great margaritas at the bar. And other cocktails!

We went to the bar every night after dinner, and were surprised with how empty it was (even though the resort was full and most people actually eat dinner at the hotel each night). Come 10pm, every one disappeared. That meant we had the bar staff all to ourselves. Service was very good and attentive.

Restaurant

The food was outstanding. And we missed the top restaurant!

The food was outstanding. And we missed the top restaurant!

The Columbia Beach Resort has two restaurants – the fine dining Italian one and the Apollo Cypriot tavern. We had a lovely meal on the first night when we arrived late at the Cypriot Tavern and went out on the second night (as it was Saturday). This turned out to be a mistake as the Italian restaurant was closed on Sunday and Monday, which meant we missed out. And I mean it!

We had 2 lunches and 2 dinners at the Apollo tavern and they were absolutely great. Staff were also very good.

Spa 

The spa area, with treatments by Elemis was outstanding. The indoor pool connected with the outdoor pool too.

The spa area, with treatments by Elemis was outstanding. The indoor pool connected with the outdoor pool too.

The spa was outstanding – beautifully designed. I had a massage courtesy of the hotel and we tried to book treatments during our stay and were unsuccessful, because it was completely full. Treatments were around €80-€100, very reasonable.

Pool & Beach

A lovely pool indeed. And very quiet.

A lovely pool indeed. And very quiet.

The pool area is lovely and really makes the hotel come together. It is beautifully designed and the sun loungers were great. Staff also came round with iced drinks and treats and we had a lovely time.

The beach was pebbly and we did not go on this occasion (we had 2 glorious days of sunshine and 2 days of rain!). Next time?

Gutted I didn't set foot in the Med on this occasion.

Gutted I didn’t set foot in the Med on this occasion.

General thoughts

–          How good and reliable was the wi-fi?

There were many hot spots around the property, but you had to change the network (but not log in). It was weird until we figured it out, but then absolutely fine. Good coverage too.

I really liked the style of the hotel

I really liked the style of the hotel

–          Did the hotel interact with me via Twitter during my stay?

Yes indeed, and we had a bit of fun.

–          Location

Located in Pissouri Bay, which is approximately half an hour from Paphos and 1h20m from Larnaca (where we flew to).

–          Cost – rooms starting from…

Prices from £1,079 per person based on two adults sharing a junior suite garden view room for seven nights, on a bed and breakfast basis including private transfers and return flights from London Gatwick.

–          Would I recommend it to my best friend?

If she wanted a nice place to relax, sun and good food, I wouldn’t hesitate.

There was also a lawn area closer to the beach which was lovely.

There was also a lawn area closer to the beach which was lovely.

–          Would I stay again?

The resort is stunning – beautifully done, it just needs some TLC in the inside. If you like a resort which isn’t too large (this is a member of SLH – Small Luxury Hotels of the World), comfortable, with great food and service, it is a great place to go. I also liked that it had a little town nearby with a few nice restaurants, which we got to try – but there isn’t much more nearby, so either you get a car, or just stay in. So, I would go back again without a problem.

Have you visited this hotel? What were your thoughts?

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Columbia Beach Resort and Classic Collection Holidays during this stay, but hopefully you will see that this has not influenced my thoughts about the property. 

Prices from £1,079 per person based on two adults sharing a junior suite garden view room for seven nights, on a bed and breakfast basis including private transfers and return flights from London Gatwick. Visit Classic Collection Holidays or call 0800 294 9315 from the UK.

First Luggage kindly took our luggage from our home in the UK to our Cyprus hotel at a cost of £145 door to door (each way). A 30kg bag from London to NYC or LA costs £125. First Luggage’s sister company, LuggageDeliveryCompany.com, provides return luggage delivery as well, starting at £47 one-way (UK to Italy), which is comparable to any airline’s baggage fees, minus the hassle.

A luxury wine weekend around Bordeaux, France

I cannot tell you how much I was looking forward to this weekend – I love France, I love wine and I love sexy hotels. How could Bordeaux not be perfect? I had a hunch it was going to be amazing, but let me tell you – it was one of the best weekends I ever had.

Things got to a great start when we landed at Bordeaux Airport (a very early flight from London meant we were in French soil before 10am on a Friday) – it is not every day that one feels tempted to jump on an (unused, for the record) luggage belt just to feel loved. And there was plenty for everyone – apparently.

Most welcoming airport ever? Possibly.

Most welcoming airport ever? Possibly.

Friday

We got our car and within 20 minutes, made our way to the sleepy town of Bouliac, located 15-20 minutes from Bordeaux city centre, on the other side of the river. Away from the noise and the cars. Just what we wanted.

I was expecting great things from the Saint James Bouliac, a Relais & Chateau hotel, which I knew it was going to be a one of a kind. Formerly a restaurant, the 18th-century farmhouse now housing Le Saint-James was transformed and enlarged in 1989 by Jean Nouvel. The architect designed four pavilions, each connected to the original building, to create the hotel’s guest rooms. The architect even sought to preserve their rusty, chipped, patinated appearance, leaving everything as authentic as possible.

Le Saint James Bouliac - certainly doesn't look like your average hotel.

Le Saint James Bouliac – certainly doesn’t look like your average hotel.

We were blown away from the minute we arrived – and there was also something about it I couldn’t put my finger on. Our room wasn’t ready as we were really early, so we took the time to wander around the hotel. The sun was shining and the views were calling us. Not difficult to understand why.

Our first impressions from the Saint James Bouliac. Very good indeed.

Our first impressions from the Saint James Bouliac. Very good indeed.

When we got to our room, we couldn’t quite believe it – I was expecting quirky and unique, with a touch of French je ne sais quois, but I certainly wasn’t expecting this. Yes, a Harley in our room, adequately named… the Harley Suite, of course.

Something I had certainly never seen before...

Something I had certainly never seen before…

The room was absolutely fantastic – and the views were amazing. It was also the highest bed ever, and I am not ashamed to say I required some assistance. I am only 1.60m tall!

But we were starving, and it was certainly time for lunch. We were test driving a new gourmand package organised by the hotel, which included most meals too. The hotel has not only its acclaimed Michelin-starred restaurant, but it also runs a quirky bistro in the town square, the Cafe de l’Esperance, where we were to have a lunch and a dinner.

France, yes, we had definitely arrived.

France, yes, we had definitely arrived.

We had a great meal at this Bistro, frequented also by locals and regulars. The ambience was quite something – everyone going for the Menu du Jour, having a glass of wine with lunch and just going about their day. We couldn’t have felt more welcome. I couldn’t resist one of my favourites: steak tartare with a glass of Rose.

In the afternoon, we decided to head into town. I had never been to Bordeaux (or indeed seen many pictures of it), and I have to say: it was lovely. It had some grandeur to it – amazing architecture, blending the old and the new very well. It also had some great shopping and I couldn’t resist helping the local economy.

I also made a little stop to continue a tradition: head into a hairdressers the moment I arrive into a French location. There is something about it – they know how to do it unlike the rest of Europe. My hairdresser French is extremely limited and somehow, without many words (this time I made another mistake, I said no to something which turned out to be conditioner, oh well), I always end up with great hair. I visited again another branch of Camille Albane, which is a chain, and I had use it before in Paris and in Cannes. Cost for a blow dry: €23. In Cannes and Paris? €38-50. A winner, indeed.

Bordeaux was so much more than we expected.

Bordeaux was so much more than we expected.

We came back to our room, where we just relaxed for a few hours before what was one of the most useful hours I have ever spent with someone in my life: a lesson in French geography and wine history with Ricard Bernard, who heads the hotel’s F&B and was also a ‘meilleur sommelier de France’. In other words, a guy who knows a thing or three about wine. And likes to draw things on paper – and spent an hour with us not drinking wine, but telling us all about the French wine regions and all its varietals. We had to drink a glass at the end just to test the knowledge.

As we had a long day (we were up at 3.45am), we chose to have the first dinner back at the Bistro – we wanted something simple and it was just perfect. We were also very lucky that a farmers market and party was in town that day, and everywhere we went it was so busy, and alive. The food stalls smelled amazing and it was just so interesting to see people socialising, starting their weekend. We were totally with them.

A lovely dinner and did I mention the dessert buffet? Mais oui.

A lovely dinner and did I mention the dessert buffet? Mais oui.

We ended our evening walking around the town and slept like babies.

Saturday

We had a really early start on Saturday – we were at breakfast at 8am, which is certainly not normal for us. Why? I hear you ask. Well, we had organised to spend our day in and around Saint-Émilion, a lovely town which produces some of the best local wines and with the Saint James’ concierge help, we managed to get 2 tastings organised for that day. I thought it would be a matter of turning up to various wineries but that is not how it is done in this part of the world. This is important information and do allow for a few weeks’ notice when you plan your trip.

My kind of chateaux, as they say.

My kind of chateau, as they say.

Saint-Émilion is 40 minutes away from Le Saint James and the drive was very easy. Our first of two stops was the fantastic Chateaux Fontplegade.

We were very impressed by the Chateaux de Fontplegade in St. Emilion

We were very impressed by the Chateau de Fontplegade in St. Emilion

We spent over 2 hours at this chateau and were very impressed with its facilities – it was beautifully designed (and I have been to a few wineries around the world) and we were then surprised to find out that this chateau was owned by an American wine-making family. There were some touches (good ones) which really set this place apart. The wines (paired with cheese, and at a cost of €30 per person, for a private visit and tasting), were outstanding. I also fell in love with the grape jelly, which was very unique. We brought 6 bottles one and cannot wait to try them.

When friends asked me how many vineyards I was visiting and my answer was 2, people were very surprised. I love wine, but I don’t want to walk around and drink 5 or 6 glasses of wine for no reason. I believe that less is more, and we had a long day ahead – with plenty of excitement! Wine with me goes with food – and what we wanted was an outstanding lunch. We made our way towards the centre of Saint-Émilion, which was, how can I say it… magnifique. 

Absolutely worth a visit. I loved St. Emilion.

Absolutely worth a visit. I loved St. Emilion.

Saint-Émilion is one of the principal red wine areas of Bordeaux along with the Médoc, Graves and Pomerol. The town is also a UNESCO world heritage site and seriously pretty. We just walked around, having our look around the sights and the (many) wine-related shops.

We were looking forward to lunch – very much so. We had booked a table at L’Envers du Decor, a local institution. We had a table in the outside patio and our meal, which was very simple, was nothing short of perfect. The foie gras and the accompanying Sauternes was the highlight of my day so far, and one I won’t forget for a while. Life is all about the little things, things was one of those moments. Lunch for 2, with 2 glasses of wine was €68 – and outstanding value for money.

Can you see the happiness? I will never forget it.

Can you see the happiness? I will never forget it.

From lunch, we headed to Chateau de Ferrand, which was our second and final wine tasting of the day. We indulged in a ‘discovery’ tour, as we couldn’t possibly eat anything else and had a very enjoyable hour with its sommelier, who also showed us around the estate.

A stunning property and very nice wine too!

A stunning property and very nice wine too!

A bit of history: this chateau is owned by the heirs of the Bich family. Remove the h and who doesn’t know Bic (yes, pens and lighters!). The chateau’s wine also recently became a Grand Cru Classe, which demonstrates the ambition and investment put on this project. We also purchased 6 bottles of wine (the plane trip was interesting!) and looking forward to reliving some memories. Fab ones.

We made our way back to the Saint James and just chilled for a bit. We felt really at home and was lovely to know we didn’t have to go anywhere else. We just sat in the outdoor area by our room and enjoyed the views.

How could I not want to take it easy here? Loved every minute.

How could I not want to take it easy here? Loved every minute.

Before we knew it, it was time for dinner – and we were in for a treat! The venue: the fab Saint James restaurant ‘gastronomique‘ and its views of Bordeaux. As part of our Saint James experience, came the 5-course menu, which was delightful. I tried really hard to make it to dessert, and I am so glad I did. Everything was very good but the best thing? The service. Gregoire and his team were outstanding. I mentioned earlier that there was something different about this hotel and I couldn’t put my finger on it – and then there was light. People were smiling at us. In France. All. The. Time. I do not wish to offend a whole nation – I adore France, and there are some things that you take for granted when you go to France. Smiles in a restaurant? Absolutely not. Here? Well, it made this weekend completely different.

And before you say anything, no – it wasn’t just for Mr. and Mrs. O. I saw an Asian couple bring their own bottle of champagne to the garden just to sit down and enjoy. I wasn’t expecting to see a waiter come in with glasses and tell them to enjoy.

A fantastic meal (and oh my, the views). The piece of resistance? Armagnac, of course.

A fantastic meal (and oh my, the views). The piece of resistance? Armagnac tasting, of course.

We ended our evening at the bar, where we tasted some different Armagnacs. Just a little night cap…. yum!

Sunday

With our flight departing at 10pm, we had a whole day to enjoy and relax. So we decided to get it started like we never do – but with the little outdoor area and the vineyards view, there was one thing that needed to happen: breakfast in bed. Or in the patio. We needed to eat early(ish) as we had an interesting morning ahead: a cooking lesson.

The Saint James has a cooking school, which is one of the other things it is renowned for. We were joined by another couple, who had recently moved from Paris to Bordeaux and we were to discover the delights of cooking one of France’s staples: le canard. Oui, le duck.

I cannot believe I made these. Seriously.

I cannot believe I made these. Seriously.

The lesson starts at 11am and ends at 2pm, with lunch included (and a glass of vin, of course). We made 2 of the courses (but you get the dessert prepared by the proper chef!). We made brick pastry (well, we did not make it, but we put things in it), and the best thing in the world: duck and mango tartare. The main course, duck breast with Asian vegetables was cooked by the instructor, but we did all the prep, promise!

And after a great morning (I was seriously blown away), we did something that just needed to happen. We spent the rest of our time by the very inviting pool. The weather was fantastic and I couldn’t care less about my fab French hair.

How could I not? Exactly.

How could I not? Exactly.

I don’t know where time went, but before we knew it, it was 6pm, so after a shower and changing, we had one last experience: a bit of fromage, charcuterie and a glass of rose. Because we were hungry, and because we had to end this weekend on a high note.

Au revoir, Bordeaux. You were incredible.

Au revoir, Bordeaux. You were incredible.

We had one of the most special weekends I remember in my life. Everything was perfect, and simple – I couldn’t think of anything else I would want or need.

Bordeaux and the surrounding area was much more than I ever expected. And the best thing? It is only a 1h20m flight away. I am so going back for more.

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Le Saint James Bouliac, on a trip organised by Kirker Holidays. A two-night break, including British Airways Flights from London Gatwick, private transfers, two nights accommodation, lunch and dinner in the Bistro, dinner in the gastronomic restaurant, wine tasting session and a cookery class costs from £992 per person, based on two sharing. To book call Kirker Holidays on (+44) 20 7593 2283 or visit its website.

Understanding British Airways avios (miles), tier points and the magic American Express voucher

If you read this blog often, or know me personally, there is no hiding that I am a huge fan of British Airways and its Executive Club programme, which earns you Avios, a fancy word for air miles. Before I moved to the UK, I used to be with Star Alliance, but even before I moved, I realised that the One World programme worked much better for me.

So over the past few years, I have ‘converted’ many friends. And more and more, I get questions from readers asking how it works. It is quite simple, to be honest, but you need to understand a few things. So I thought I would explain things (from my personal perspective).

The BA Club World seat before it turns into a flat bed

The BA Club World seat before it turns into a flat-bed

Executive Club – aka the frequent flyer programme

The first thing you need to do is get yourself a BA Executive Club (EC) card. You can get one on BA’s website and it is, of course, free. As you fly more, you start collecting two different things: Avios (aka air miles) and Tier Points (which lead to status on the programme).

What are Avios (miles)?

Avios (0r miles) will be your currency, so to speak, which you can subsequently use for get flights on any class, or upgrades. These are very valuable as you can imagine. Every time you fly, you get Avios based on your class of travel. If you have status (e.g. if you are a Bronze, Silver or Gold card holder), you get additional miles based on your status.

As an example, you need 15,000 avios (+tax) to book a return trip to Europe in economy (Euro Traveller) and 30,000 avios (+tax) to book a return trip in business class (Club Europe). You can also buy an economy ticket and upgrade to business class for 15,000 avios (but be warned as it depends on the fare you bought). I only use these when the fares are really high, because you can sometimes upgrade an economy ticket for £159 after you buy it on BA’s website, when flight loads are light.

On long haul, is where things start to get interesting. Despite which class you book, you are always allowed to upgrade one level up. So, if you buy can economy (world traveller) ticket, you can use your miles to upgrade to premium economy (world traveller plus). If you buy premium economy, you can upgrade to business class (club world) and if you buy business class, you can upgrade to first, aka heaven.

A return trip to the US costs 50,000 avios in economy, 75,000 in premium economy, 100,000 in business class and 150,000 in first plus tax. The upgrade cost is the difference is the fare, i.e. 25,000 to jump one class return (except from club to first, where the cost is 50,000). There are variations on other regions – e.g. to Asia it costs more, but you can check out all the details on the website.

A word on tax: for some reason, it is eye-watering expensive on long haul flights – not just the UK landing charges, but plenty of fuel and other extras. Be prepared to pay £500 in club/first. For that reason, I don’t find it very worthwhile redeeming miles on lower classes – making a lot more financial sense to use them in higher classes. I don’t like the tax, but there is nothing I can do about it – so in my mind, I am paying £500 for a club or first class trip to the US and it is not a bad deal (a real ticket would cost £2500-7500).

What are tier points?

The BA First Check-In area at LHR

The BA First Check-In area at London Heathrow T5

Many frequent flyer programmes are based on the miles you fly – and if you reach x or y, you will get status. Status means some recognition from the airline to passengers who frequently choose to fly with them. On the Executive Club programme, you have 4 tiers (to keep things simple, let’s not talk about the secret upper tiers):

– Blue (basic, no real benefits)

– Bronze – once you collect 300 tier points in your BA calendar year – you get to check-in in business class (despite the class you travel) and priority boarding.

– Silver – once you collect 600 tier points in your BA calendar year – check-in in business class, priority boarding, fast track, lounge access and an extra piece of luggage on any flight (for you and a guest, sweet). You also get pre-selection of seats, but not first rows, which is a Gold benefit.

– Gold – once you collect 1500 tier points in your BA calendar year – check-in in first class, priority boarding, fast track, First lounge access (different lounges from business class), extra luggage on any flight, more reward seats available when you use your miles (in economy only for some strange reason) and pre-selection of seats.

Differences between the tiers

Differences between the tiers

And how do you progress on those tiers? Well, it depends on the flights you take. Rule of thumb: a economy return flight within Europe will give you 20 tier points, where as a business class trip will give you 80 tier points. I recently discovered that destinations like Greece, Cyprus and Turkey give you double (e.g. 160 tier points on business class).

A premium economy ticket to the US or the Middle East, for example, will give you 180 tier points, where as business class will give you 280 tier points. So you just need to do the math. With 2 premium economy tickets to the US and a couple European flights, you are silver.

Also worth noting that when you reach a tier, it is valid for the rest of your ‘calendar year’ if you are halfway through your year (now counted from your membership start date) and the following 12 months.  And then you are welcomed into a very special club that speaks in code: people start asking you questions like ‘when does your year end?’. You see people fretting about ‘how many tier points til gold and only two months left’. Why? Because you only keep your status for your calendar year – so once you start your year, you need to start working towards the next one. It is a fun game to play.

Household Accounts

You can also do something quite nice now, which is to combine your miles with your partner and family by setting up a household account. Your status and avios will always be yours (personally), but if both (or more people) give permission, you can pool your points together and spend them together. I have been known for nicking some points from Mr. O’s account, but he never notices. Because he does the same to me all the time.

Boosting your points with the BA American Express Card

Just for fun, you can get a lot of avios, by signing up to the BA American Express Card. Avios obviously get you opportunities to upgrade and that is why it is worth it. Nothing wrong with having your Avios account only on 6-figures. I do get nervous when ours are not.

A lovely big mamma!

A lovely big mamma!

You have 2 different cards – the normal one (BA Amex, which is blue and has no annual fee) and the platinum one (BA Amex Premium Plus Card, which is black and costs nothing on the first year but then costs £150 per year). The difference is the miles you get per £1 spent and also the amount you need to spend to get the magic Amex Companion Voucher.

Yes, the magic Voucher. When you spend £20,000 (on the blue card) or £10,000 (on the black card), you are given a free companion voucher per calendar year (a bummer, should be per x spent no matter what), which can bring lots of lovely trips your way. It means that 2 people can travel on any BA operated flight (return), on any class, anywhere (subject to availability, of course), for the cost of 1 (in terms of Avios).

Personally, I never use it on European trips, it is not really worth it. But for 150,000 avios, Mr. O and I can fly to Los Angeles (for example) in First, and pay the £500 tax each. The cost of those tickets would be over £10,000, so it is a real benefit, and worth it.

So here you go. I hope this helps clarifying some questions you may have about the programme, and the card(s). I am a proud BA Gold and Amex cardholder – life without those two, would never be the same.

Happy travels!

xo

Mrs. O

My hOtel: The Magdalen Chapter in Exeter, Devon, UK

myhotel

Exeter, the capital of Devon, in the South West of England, is a bit of a hidden gem. A city I got to know well as Senior Mrs. O lives in nearby Topsham, aka the port of Exeter – a postcard pretty town. The more I visit Exeter, the more I like it – and great changes in its retail offering and hotel scene make it a destination on its own. I have recently spent a long weekend in town, and adored The Magdalen Chapter.

The Magdalen Chapter hotel in Exeter, Devon

The Magdalen Chapter hotel in Exeter, Devon

In its previous life, the hotel was home to the West of England Eye Hospital and has been refurbished prior to its opening in 2012, creating a very modern and contemporary design led hotel.

Pre-Arrival

–          Was there any pre-arrival communication by the hotel with myself via email or social media?

My stay as organised a few weeks prior to my stay via email.

–          Did I try to engage the hotel via Twitter? Did the hotel interact with me and made me feel welcome/special?

I did sent a tweet prior to my arrival but received no response, and no further interaction took place.

–          Has the hotel tried to gather any personal information (e.g. preferences) prior to my stay?

None, but I didn’t need anything extra.

Arrival

Not your average hotel reception for sure

Not your average hotel reception for sure

–          The wow factor! What was the hotel decor style?

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, as the building spoke for itself, but I certainly wasn’t expecting a reception room like this. It had quite a statement piece in it – and certainly made an impression.

–          How quick and efficient was the hotel check-in?

We waited a few minutes for a member of staff to be available and were quickly processed (each receptionist had its own laptop). My only comment was that we were asked by information that the hotel already had potentially when the reservation was made (e.g. email, phone number), which could have been captured before.

–          Was I addressed by name once reservation has been located? (it is all about the small details, some others are outstanding with this, and I love it, like I do when I board an airplane)

We were indeed.

–          Did I get an upgrade from my confirmed pre-booked room type?

We weren’t sure which room type we were getting, as it was a bank holiday weekend and the hotel was going to be full – and were delighted to be given a ‘Feature Room’.

–          Did I feel genuinely welcomed by the hotel staff?

Yes, everyone was really nice throughout our stay.

–          Luggage – how many people did I have to tip before the luggage made it safely to my room? This is cultural, I know

We had a small carry on with us and declined any help. Also, it was prime check in time when we arrived and we didn’t want to keep anyone else waiting for their turn.

–          Wi-fi – was I told anything about it? Was there a charge?

 Yes, and it was complimentary. No password needed. Amen.

Room Experience

A feature room indeed

A feature room indeed

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

Our room was very large and looked very distinctive. With a striking wallpaper and high ceilings, it certainly made a first impression. The bathroom was also part of the bedroom so to speak, and it all looked the part.

–          Welcome amenity

None.

–          The bed

Was outstanding. We slept really well during our stay – and the mattress topper was one of the best we have ever encountered in our travels.

–          Closet/Wardrobe – proper hangers or those annoying ones where you need a PhD to get them out one by one? This is a personal pet peeve of mine. I can’t stand them.

Due to the room layout, a ‘special’ wardrobe area was created on each side of the room, where you had a rail with hangers, but wasn’t very easy to use. But had everything we needed.

–          Iphone Charger/Dock

All guests have an iPad during their stay, which has all the hotel information you can possibly need, plus normal use – it had a dock, as well as various chargers for telephones.

–          Bathrobes and slippers

We did like our room

We did like our room

Yes, but we did not use.

–          Coffee and Tea

We had a nespresso machine, as well as a kettle for tea, which we did not use.

–          Free bottled water

Yes, and free mini bar, including soft drinks and beer, replenished daily.

–          Magazine selection – had some nice surprises and doesn’t happen often enough!

Not much to report, to be perfectly honest, but as we stayed over the weekend, we had the weekend papers delivered everyday and plenty of reading material.

–          Power sockets in useful places – we have more and more devices and we know where we want them! By the bed, by the working area.

There were no sockets by the bed, and we used those by the desk and the iPad charging station. The only issue with not having them by the bed means that when the alarm goes, no snoozing allowed – you have to get up to turn the alarm off!

Bathroom

A fabulous bathroom at Magdalen Chapter.

A fabulous bathroom at Magdalen Chapter.

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

Was outstanding and very very nicely done.

–          Bath, shower and taps – I am looking for Duravits and Hansgrohes (or other fab brands) around the world. How fab was the shower? And a little pet peeve.. was I able to operate the shower without asking Mr. O for help?

We had a feature bath and an outstanding walk in shower. Yes, all Duravit and Grohe – the finishings were very good and modern (and actually also timeless).

–          Towels – yes, please! How many and how soft and lovely?

Plenty and very nice.

–          Toiletries – own brand, super brand, baby ones or proper ones? I shall find out!

We had large REN amenities and were lovely. The hand wash was outstanding – and were the other products. They were large sizes but attached to the wall, which actually was OK. I was a bit shocked on first impression, but didn’t bother me in the slightest. It meant of course that Mr. O and I wouldn’t have to fight for the last shower gel drops. Small mercies.

–          Amenity kit – I don’t want more sewing kits thank you very much, but I will need a shower cap.

I didn’t want to wash my hair on one of the days, so I needed a shower cap. I have to say I had to look around the room for a fair bit, and found the magic box in a drawer in the bedroom, which wouldn’t be my first port of call. But it was there, alongside a vanity kit.

–          Hairdryer – is it a human one, or just something stuck to a wall that only makes noise?

It was good and did the job well.

Bar

A swanky but very comfortable bar areaA swanky but very comfortable bar area

A swanky but very comfortable bar area

To say the bar was ‘busy’, it would be an understatement. Of course it was the weekend and the hotel was full, but you could tell the hotel was also used by local residents, which is great.

After a little wander around, we found the perfect place for us – the library. It was so nice, we didn’t want to leave. Was nice and quiet (in terms of music, but had plenty of atmosphere), and it even had a secret table (from the restaurant), which is perfect for a group of friends.

We used the library every day – and both after breakfast and in the evening. It was beautifully designed but really really homely.

Easy to see why we didn't want to leave this room

Easy to see why we didn’t want to leave this room

Drinks were very well priced (Gin & Tonic for £4? Yes please) and service was friendly.

Restaurant

The restaurant, which also doubled up as the breakfast room

The restaurant, which also doubled up as the breakfast room

We had dinner at the restaurant one night (which was also heaving) and had a good experience – service was friendly and efficient, the food was great and the place looked the part.

Due to its location, fish was high on my wish list and I had a lovely lemon sole. I couldn’t resist the cheese selection for desert – and have to say, I was not disappointed. Mr. O also loved his sticky toffee pudding. How could he not?

Yummy dinner

Yummy dinner

Breakfast was included in our room rate, but if it wasn’t, it would have an interesting set up – you had a limited continental buffet (£9.50), but had lots of cooked items you could order as you wished (£10.50). I am not a fan of ‘hotel buffet eggs’ and was delighted to see none on display. I was also delighted to see a simple bacon sandwich on the menu, which doesn’t happen often enough. On my second day, I simply had 2 fried eggs and sour dough bread, which meant I was in Portuguese heaven. Simple, but perfect.

General thoughts

–          How good and reliable was the wi-fi?

The wi-fi was outstanding and worked without a problem anywhere.

–          Did the hotel interact with me via Twitter during my stay?

No.

–          Location

I know it was good because I was able to walk to the shops (Princesshay is definitely worth a visit) without a problem. I even got to see the Cathedral which was very pretty.

–          Cost – rooms starting from…

Standard rooms start from £109 excluding breakfast, and feature rooms start at £180 per night.

–          Would I recommend it to my best friend?

Absolutely.

–          Would I stay again?

Oh I will. And we visit the area regularly, so it is just a matter of when.

Have you visited this hotel? What were your thoughts?

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer: I was a guest of The Magdalen Chapter during this stay, but hopefully you will see that this has not influenced my thoughts about the property. For more information about the hotel, visit its official website.

The Luxury Travel Blog Network – May 2014 Edition

LTBN Luxury Travel Blog

Is Summer almost here? Well, you wouldn’t really think so if, like me, you are based in England. I have slowed down things considerably as April was a bit crazy for me. My highlight was definitely a trip to Abu Dhabi, which literally was one of the best trips I have ever taken – and I have been around. In May, I went to Cyprus after a 10-year break and also had a fantastic weekend in Bordeaux, France. I ended the month in the South of England, in Devon, to be more precise. I stayed in Exeter for the first time, and loved the Magdalen Chapter hotel.

Abu Dhabi was more than I expected. Photos by Bernard Richardson for Flytographer.

Abu Dhabi was more than I expected. Photos by Bernard Richardson for Flytographer.

Where have the group been? Well well well, you won’t be disappointed!

Yes, a mojito sounds divine, right now!

Yes, a mojito sounds divine, right now!

Kim-Marie, aka Luxury Travel Mom went to Cuba – as an American, it is something quite unusual. She gives us a lesson on cocktail history – I bet you will learn a thing or three.

The Seychelles look wonderful from where I am right now...

The Seychelles look wonderful from where I am right now…

Katie from Traveling Panties shares with us an experience at the amazing Four Seasons in the Seychelles – a paradise which is definitely on my list.

Do you see what this man is doing? Mental!

Do you see what this man is doing? Mental!

Paul, from A Luxury Travel Blog went to Athens, in Greece and shares 8 things he saw. I stopped at this one – can you see the man jumping? I couldn’t quite believe it!

Nantucket - post card pretty and a Ralph Lauren haven. I am in.

Nantucket – post card pretty and a Ralph Lauren haven. I am in.

And last, but certainly not the least, the lovely Nadine Jolie went to Nantucket in New England. I so want to go there – I loved the bits I saw on previous trips (Newport and Cape Cod) and a return is due. Mark my words.

Only one more trip to go for me – the 5th destination from my Top 5 picks for Spring. Italy is definitely calling my name and I cannot wait.

xo

Mrs. O