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

A return to paradise… the Maldives

After our first trip to the Maldives in 2013 (you can read about it here), I promised myself one thing – I would go back, and sooner, rather than later. And then again and again. To say that I love this part of the world, would be an understatement. And I was delighted when the opportunity to begin ‘my birthday month‘ in style presented itself. I was beyond myself.

Navy dress, a tan and a smile. Sunset happiness at Iru Fushi

A tan and a smile. And a boat – yes, some of the reasons why I love the Maldives so much.

We originally planned to go for a week, but then ended up extending our stay to 12 days and try 3 hotels. On our first trip, we split the week between 2 hotels (which I would recommend to anyone as you get a change of scenery, people and food) and I was keen to do it again. But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and not having paid close attention to the transfers between islands, we ended up wasting valuable time. So a lesson learned: 2 hotels next time and with minimum connecting.

Having said that, I loved the variety and the three hotels I have visited – the whole trip was fantastic and I am delighted to share it with you.

First impressions count, and Lux Maldives did not disappoint.

First impressions count, and Lux Maldives did not disappoint.

We landed at around 1.30pm local time, following an overnight flight from London, connecting in Doha, with Qatar Airways. We were met on arrival by the Lux ground team, who took us to the Lux Lounge, where we were to wait for internal flight to the hotel. The lounge as lovely, but having to wait 3 hours (and not knowing about it) wasn’t so nice. We ended up arriving at the hotel just before sunset, which meant we lost a whole day.

That meant, of course, we had to make up for lost time! We loved our prestige water villa – it was bright and airy and was located on the west part of the resort. Lux Maldives stands on a relatively large island and we were a little bit lost for at least 24h – then, a sense of familiarity kicked in and we were totally at home.

Our water villa at Lux Maldives

Our water villa at Lux Maldives

After a first lovely dinner, we had an early night due to the travelling. We spent our second day enjoying the sun and just lounging around (and exploring the island) and spent the afternoon napping and at the spa. Despite the rain, which made further appearances during our stay, we just took the opportunity to catch up on sleep and relax. As one should, in the Maldives.

Some of the scenery - the spa, our rooms, the stunning beach and one of my favourites: a lychee cocktail. Yum.

Some of the scenery – the spa, our rooms, the stunning beach and one of my favourites: a lychee cocktail. Yum.

On our third day, we were in for a treat! The sun was out and we were to spend the morning on board the hotel’s catamaran, which can be hired with a crew by guests. It was the perfect opportunity to get a bit of sun and see many of the other islands – inhabited and not. We also got to snorkel and even swam next to a whale shark – it was absolutely fantastic and I will never forget it. Needless to say, it started to rain when we got back to the hotel – and guess what we did? We had a nap and went to the spa. Oh well!

A great day out of our island.

A great day out of our island.

We felt really at home at Lux – the staff were out of this world. Very approachable, nice and always smiling. I commented on this on my review of Lux Maldives, which I have posted recently.

The dining options were fantastic – catering well for both Eastern and Western guests. We also liked that it was a lively resort, which meant that the bars were always busy and not everyone was on ‘honeymoon-mode’.

Even in the rain, this part of the world looks stunning. And I loved the pop up bar!

Even in the rain, this part of the world looks stunning. And I loved the pop up bar!

One of my favourite finds? The secret pop up bar, which moves around the island daily. I loved the concept and I am sorry to report that I only found it at 10am on my last day, so I did not indulge. I did however love our last meal, pictured above – how is that for a breakfast with a view? Tough one to beat.

It is not everyday that you are on first name terms with an airline.

It is not everyday that you are on first name terms with an airline.

We were due to leave the hotel early on a seaplane back to Male Airport and then on to our next hotel, the fab Constance Halaveli. And sadly (and predictably, apparently), the flight times just happened to change. I couldn’t quite understand the concept, but I didn’t have much choice either… so a few hours later, we arrived to our second Maldivian hideaway… at 4pm, instead of 11am, which meant we lost almost another day. I have to say that the fact that Constance has a lounge at the airport was particularly nice, and helped with all the waiting. We also checked in while we were there, so it saved us a bit of time when we finally arrived.

Our first impressions of Constance Halaveli were wonderful – it was a much smaller island, and also beautifully kept. I was particularly looking forward to seeing our room, which was a water villa with a pool (note that this is the starter room level at this hotel, which tells you something).

A fantastic room indeed. And loved the view from our shower.

A fantastic room indeed. And loved the view from our shower.

We had a few hours before sunset, and we decided to make the most of it. Because soon, it would be time for cocktails and dinner. And we were starving as we had skipped a meal!

One thing we found quite interesting, was despite the fact that the hotel was full, there were very few people at the bar after dinner. Which was quite interesting at 9.30pm!

We simply didn't want to leave our room. And we hardly did.

We simply didn’t want to leave our room. And we hardly did.

The sun shined for us throughout our stay, and I must confess we hardly left our room, because we didn’t need to. We loved the breakfast buffet (the best we had in all 3 hotels), but on the last 2 days, we simply ordered in – I know it was lazy, but it was just so nice. We did leave the room to go to the spa which was also outstanding and dinner. And sometimes lunch.

A pool we never tried, but we walked around the island… in 15 minutes!

A pool we never tried, but we walked around the island… in 15 minutes!

We tried all the dining options (you have 3 restaurants), and our favourite was the one on the last night, the Asian-inspired Jing, which was located by the over water villas which was certainly different. That meant great views from the bar and I also found the food excellent.

A drink with a view…. and the prawns were lovely too.

A drink with a view…. and the prawns were lovely too.

Our four days went so quickly, we couldn’t quite believe it. We had an early flight the next morning, so we went to bed quite early (10pm). And guess what happened the next day? The flights were delayed again for hours, and instead of reaching our next and final resort, Iru Fushi at 10am… we arrived after 2pm, wasting another half day. This was very frustrating – and we weren’t the only ones disappointed. The fact that there is only 1 provider of seaplane transfers means that there is no option. Flight times change all the time – and there is simply nothing you can do. Worth noting that all hotel transfers are not point to point, i.e. you need to connect at Male airport, which means missing your onward connection (which is just a detail).

But good things come to those who wait – and we had only 2 nights at Iru Fushi, so the delay was the last thing we wanted. Sadly we needed to be back to the UK on a specific day, and were unable to stay for longer.

A room on the ground? Yes, please!

A room on the ground? Yes, please!

The Iru Fushi resort has recently opened and been refurbished to a very nice standard, and we were very keen to spend our last 2.5 days not on stilts, but on the ground. Our beach villa with private pool was nothing short of stunning – and don’t get me started on the bathroom. An indoor/outdoor combo which was hot, but really cool.

Sizewise, I would say the island was medium-sized (compared to the other 2) which meant much longer walks, which we did enjoy.

Our private pool villa was fantastic. Really great and I missed the sand!

Our private pool villa was fantastic. Really great and I missed the sand!

Dining wise, there were 4 options and we really liked the smaller restaurants – the fish grill was our favourite. The breakfast area and main bar felt too big and busy, and I would say a bit more mass market, in stark contrast with the rest of the offering.

One of the nicest surprises? The spa! It was absolutely fantastic and the treatment rooms were some of the best I have ever seen.

The beach was all ours. And do not get me started on the spa. It was wonderful.

The beach was all ours. And do not get me started on the spa. It was wonderful.

And before we knew it, our last day and come and gone, and it was time to head back to London, which we did again, via Doha (read my review of Qatar Airways’ new Dreamliner business class here).

We had a great time in the Maldives – the weather got better, the food was very good at all hotels, service was also friendly and the spas were possibly the best value I have ever seen (1 hour massages at $110-140), which was something I didn’t actually expect. It was very interesting to try different hotels, and I will do it again in the future – but will play closer attention to the geography and logistics, as we sadly did lose 2 days of our trip for no reason.

The last sunset, boat trip and spa... (and the only photo Mr. O and I have together!)

The last sunset, boat trip and spa… (and the only photo Mr. O and I have together!)

I feel at home in the Maldives – it seems that nothing else matters in the world, and it is perfect to rest and just enjoy the company of your loved ones. I honestly think that it isn’t just a ‘once in a lifetime’ trip anymore, as it is a lot more affordable than it was 10 years ago – and flights are also much better priced. And believe it, it is not just a honeymoon destination. At all. We saw groups of friends, families, couples like us and newly weds just happy to be in such a beautiful place. I actually looked at families and saw the children playing in the sand with no worries in the world – and I just smiled.

As for us, we left with a smile on our faces. Because we will go back. It is just a matter of when.

xo

Mrs. O

Fact box:

7 nights at Lux Maldives on a prestige water villa costs from £2,115 per person on a bed and breakfast basis, £2,590 on half board, £2,272 on full board and £3,005 on an all-inclusive basis. 

7 nights at Constance Halaveli on a double water villa costs from £2,248 per person on a bed and breakfast basis, £2,600 on half board. 

7 nights at Iru Fushi, on a deluxe beach villa with pool costs from £1,494 on a bed and breakfast basis, £1,910 on half board and £2,201 on full board. 

Prices are based on 2 people sharing and include seaplane transfers to and from Male airport.

Flights with Qatar Airways cost from £695 in economy and £2200 in business class from London Heathrow via Doha.

To book, contact Holidays Please on 0845 365 65 65 or visit their website.

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Lux Maldives, Constance Halaveli and Iru Fushi on my recent trip to the Maldives.

Top 5 Beauty Essentials for Summer 2014

With Summer fast approaching (and I must confess I had a little head start as I picked my ‘Spring’ destinations in places considerably warmer than the UK), I thought I would share my top 5 Summer beauty essentials.

1. Sunscreen

Clarins smells of summer

Clarins smells of summer

My sunscreen of choice is, and has been for almost a decade, Clarins’ SPF 20 Milk Spray. I am not too keen on oil and like the practicality of a spray product, so this totally works for me. It smells amazing – literally the definition of Summer. Cost: from £17

2. Face After Sun

One of my favourite beauty products

One of my favourite beauty products

Yes, face after sun. We all get all crazy with the normal after sun, but what do you put in your face? My choice is again from Clarins’ sun care range. I love this product, which has double purpose: not only do I use it on beach holidays, I also take it skiing with me. Smells wonderful and is available in a travel-friendly size (under 100ml). Cost: from £23.

3. Hair products

These babies go with me everywhere

These babies go with me everywhere

I usually pride myself for being very low maintenance, but my hair always gets a beating during the summer months. For the last 5 years, I have been using the Rene Furterer hair sun range – the SPF 90 hair spray for when you are outside, and then the fantastic shampoo and conditioning masque. For some reason, it is impossible to find this brand in the UK, so I usually stock up when I go to Portugal or France, of course. Cost (approx): conditioner £30, shampoo £17, protective fluid £12.

4. Light Perfume

Lovely cologne

Lovely cologne

I have been loyal to Jo Malone for many years now, and the Nectarine Blossom & Honey is my smelly choice for Summer – very light and not too ‘sweet’, perfect for summer holidays. Cost: from £79 for 100ml and £39 for 30ml

5. Kissable lips

REN never disappoints

REN never disappoints

I am not a huge lipstick user, but maybe it is ‘age’ – I now actually need lip balm on a regular basis. I have been using Molton Brown’s vitamin lip saver for years, but on a recent BA flight, I tried a slightly different version of REN‘s lip balm and loved it. It wasn’t available for general sale for months, but I found this one… and love it. Cost: from £9.

What are your top 5 summer beauty essentials? Would love to hear about them! ?

xo

Mrs. O

My hOtel: Four Seasons London at Park Lane

myhotel

Some hotels are special. Truly special. And make you feel special. My love affair with the Four Seasons London at Park Lane, has been a long one. Why? Because it is one of my favourite hotels in London – so much so, it is where I have my London office. Well, I don’t *really* – what I mean by this, is that it is the place that I choose to have business meetings and the (very) occasional after work cocktail.

The Four Seasons London at Park Lane.

The Four Seasons London at Park Lane.

I feel so at home (in what is a busy hotel), that I keep coming back, and recently I decided I had to accept the hotel’s invitation to make it my London pad for the week. I was afraid that some of the magic would be gone – I cannot explain why, but this is why I had been delaying that stay for years actually. And I tell you what, I did not want to leave.

Pre-Arrival

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

Well, of course, and for years. This stay was meant to happen for a long time, and I think it would be fair to say that both parties were very excited. Very.

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

I did indeed and so did the hotel. But no differently than it does almost every week just for no reason, or when I visit a couple of times a month.

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

Not particularly, but it would be fair to say that my love for the Lychee Rose Petal Affair is well documented.

Arrival

My office, hahaha

My office, hahaha

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

There is something different about this Four Seasons. It is only a few years old and certainly part of the new generation. I like the colour contrast and how warm it is. There are lots of seating areas around the lobby leading into the living room and the bar and restaurant areas, which are all very welcoming.

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

Not a problem at all.

–          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)

Yes, and this happened throughout all my stay by everyone I saw in the hotel. And anyone who books a table at the bar, for example, gets exactly the same service. If you book a table, you leave your name, and I will bet you will be addressed by name while you visit. One of those Four Seasons things.. that I love.

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

I wasn’t sure which room I was getting this time, and I was told I was to experience an Executive Conservatory room (which by then I had no idea what it meant).

–          Did I feel genuinely welcomed by the hotel staff?

Absolutely. And before my stay, and after my stay.

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

I had a small carry on, which I was allowed to take to my room, despite the fact that I was escorted by the reception lady.

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

Yes, some changes here, which is brilliant. Free standard wifi is now offered to guests, and a paid (faster version) is also available.

Room Experience

I loved loved loved my room at the Four Seasons London

I loved loved loved my room at the Four Seasons London

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

Well, well, well. What can I say? It was almost love at first sight. It was spacious, light, airy and very comfortable and welcoming. I had a strange feeling which I couldn’t tell what it was. It was only when Mr. O arrived a few hours later that we cracked it: it felt exactly like our home, with the same colour scheme. It was a very interesting feeling. Our room had a bedroom area, a living room area and a cute outside patio too.

–          Welcome amenity

On the second day of my stay, as I got back from work, I was surprised… with afternoon tea! I was actually starving and it was lovely.

This certainly made me feel welcome. I did leave some scones for Mr. O, promise.

This certainly made me feel welcome. I did leave some scones for Mr. O, promise.

–          The bed

I love Four Seasons beds. They are soft, huge and the sheets were wonderful, as was the mattress topper. We slept really well. Not easy to get out of bed, put it this way.

–          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.

Our closet room

Our closet room – and interesting details: would Madam fancy UK, US or Euro plugs?

We had a walk-in wardrobe by the bathroom area, which meant that we had plenty of space for everything, and the room was to be void of any luggage or anything else.

–          Iphone Charger/Dock

There was no iPhone charger, but there was a Bose sound system. We had plenty of plugs, so not a problem.

–          Bathrobes and slippers

Yes, and I used the slippers for once (just for fun). Why? Because someone finally realised that I am not shoe size 45 (actually I am a 36, no jokes, please). And because they came in various sizes, they weren’t too big, for a change.

It is all about the details. Fab magazines and thank you for the jewellery box.

It is all about the details. Fab magazines and thank you for the jewellery box.

–          Coffee and Tea

Absolutely, a Nespresso machine, which we did not use.

–          Free bottled water

Yes, on arrival, and changed daily at turn down.

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

It was excellent. I had Vanity Fair and Tatler, which are 2 of the 5 magazines I actually read on a regular basis. So simple… but so rare.

–          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.

Not a problem at all.

Our great bedroom complete with outdoor area. Brilliant!

Our great bedroom complete with outdoor area. Brilliant!

Bathroom

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

It was timeless and very nice.

Our spacious bathroom

Our spacious bathroom

–          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?

This hotel has some of the nice fittings in London, it is an Axor temple. And can I say that the shower was just the way I like it? No instructions needed – just left or right.

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

Lots and fab. And the best bath matts (standard FS, I must say).

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

The hotel uses Roja as a brand and we had the full range (in medium size). I liked the shower gel, but did not like the conditioner, at all.

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

Everything as expected.

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

Yes, and it was a very good one. I also had my straighteners which I used and got back to the room to have found that the housekeepers kindly wrapped the cord around them very neatly (which I never do). On a subsequent trip, I found my straighteners done in the same way and looked at Mr. O, who simply said ‘I did them Four Seasons style’. I had to smile. Details.

Bar

Stunning cocktails… every time!

Stunning cocktails… every time!

I know the Four Seasons bar well. Very well. Perhaps too well. And if you tried a Rose Petal Affair (the one on the far right), you would know why. It is totally understandable. I love the bar, and as I said before, I visit often. Service is impeccable (and personal, staff have a lot of personality and it is not something you see every day) and a very comfortable space. I prefer to use the lounge area before dinner, and the actual bar after dinner.

The lounge area. Or my living room as I like to call it.

The lounge area. Or my living room as I like to call it.

Restaurant

I have dined at Amaranto quite a few times, and obviously had to try it again (just for quality control reasons). And it was fantastic. We started with the signature parmesan cheese, and carried on with pasta and the most exquisite fish dish. For lunch, I had one of my favourite dishes in the world: vitello tonnato and rabbit ravioli (Amaranto has a great midweek lunchtime menu for £19 for 2 courses and £26 for 3. Do not miss out).

Hungry? Well, this is the place to be.

Hungry? Well, this is the place to be.

Breakfast also takes place here and it is a very civilised affair with also a good mix of hotel residents and guests. There is no buffet and there are plenty of options – I had the fruit platter one day and scrambled eggs and bacon on another day. Very good indeed.

General thoughts

–          How good and reliable was the wi-fi?

I didn’t use it on my phone as I was in the UK and have data at all times, but I did connect my laptop and had no issues.

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

Yes indeed and we had quite a bit of fun.

–          Location

One of the best in London (for me and my life in the city). It is located on Hamilton Place, just off Park Lane. And needless to say, that the first come first served Rolls Royce driver service is available (for a 2-mile radius). I sadly didn’t get to use it this time, but I have before and it is… very nice.

–          Cost – rooms starting from…

Superior rooms start at £320 per night, and Executive Conservatories from £785.

–          Would I recommend it to my best friend?

Absolutely.

–          Would I stay again?

Oh yes, believe me.

Have you visited this hotel? What were your thoughts?

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer: I was a guest of The Four Seasons 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.

A luxury break in Abu Dhabi, UAE

My first taste of the Middle East took place over a year ago – a stopover in Doha, Qatar, on the way back from the Maldives, did make me curious. Very curious. So earlier this year, I decided I would go back to this part of the world, but not make it a stopover – it would be a destination in itself. A BBC documentary on the region sealed our fate – we were going to spend Easter in this part of the world.

It had everything that we were actually looking for: nice warm weather, interesting food, stunning hotels and certainly a different cultural experience. Abu Dhabi seemed to offer everything we wanted. And to top it off? The perfect flight times with British Airways, on the days we wanted, right over Easter – another sign.

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.

As this was a region I knew pretty much nothing about (I had actually resisted visiting this part of the world), some research was needed – so I asked my lovely readers and social media followers (on Facebook and Twitter) what was I supposed to do, and, most importantly – where to stay. Having a blog and building a community goes both ways – my readers travel the same way I do, and between all of us (just a few thousand!!), we certainly clock up enough business class miles and five-star hotel stays. The response was overwhelming – many of them knew the region well, and there were some very strong opinions about ‘which was the best place to stay’. A lively debate followed, and I had to make a decision – I would have to try 3 different Abu Dhabi experiences over 5 nights. It can be a pain to switch hotels (and pack and repack), but looking back, it was the best decision to make. I had a fantastic (and very diverse time) in Abu Dhabi, and loved every minute of it.

To make things easier (in the packing department), I decided this was the ideal time to test First Luggage‘s service – I was to fly without any luggage. Exactly! Our Tumis would go ahead of us and would be delivered to our first hotel: the Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri Abu Dhabi. I have to confess it did feel strange (I had to pack 4 days before the departure date, just as I landed and unpacked from Paris), but very liberating. My luggage pick up did not take place at the scheduled time, but once the bags were gone, I had nothing to worry about – and I knew they had arrived at the hotel before I even got on the plane. Amazing stuff.

First impressions were amazing at the Shangri La. I would say there was no need for the welcome fireworks, but…. (Obviously it was a coincidence)

First impressions were amazing at the Shangri La. I would say there was no need for the welcome fireworks, but…. (Obviously it was a coincidence)

After a 7h flight (which for the first time ever in my life was eventful – we had really badly behaved passengers in our cabin, who overindulged on the alcohol on offer and would not stop kicking our seats and having a little party of 4 as if they were at home with friends… where the situation was actually very poorly handled by the BA crew), we arrived at Abu Dhabi airport and were met by our driver (I had a private transfer booked through Viator). And in 15 minutes, we finally arrived at the hotel.

Our first impressions were very good – the style of the building was in accordance to the location, we certainly did not feel we were in a Western hotel. We loved our deluxe room which offered great views of the channel where the hotel is located and were starving, so we made our way to the Vietnamese restaurant where we had an incredible meal. Although it was 11pm, we weren’t tired due to the time difference (2h ahead of the UK), so we headed to the bar. I cannot tell you how surprised we were to meet some fellow passengers (who had witnessed the little incident and offered their sympathy) – but even better, we saw *that* couple, who at this stage were as quiet as mice. We headed to the hotel’s rooftop bar (Caviar & Pearls, no less) and had a brilliant night out with our new friends (read: 2.30am), as we kind of gatecrashed a wedding party. I say kind of as we were allowed to be in the rooftop bar as hotel guests, but also we were the only ones not dressed for a wedding. Oh well.

Oh, what a nice view in the morning! I also got to try the Spa, which was outstanding. Mr. O chose to spend some time at the beach.

Oh, what a nice view in the morning! I also got to try the Spa, which was outstanding. Mr. O chose to spend some time at the beach.

I always find it very weird to arrive to a hotel in the dark, as I am never quite sure what to expect in day light. And although we were really happy with what we had seen in the dark, we weren’t quite ready for the daylight effect. The hotel was very well-kept and could be a real destination in itself (most people we met were staying there for a week or so), providing the perfect ‘close to town, resort experience’. I spent the morning at the spa, where I had a signature massage, while Mr. O chose to explore the beach and the pool – it is always nice to have some ‘me’ time, and we were reunited at lunchtime.

Our afternoon was to be very different – and I cannot tell you how much I was looking forward to it. Viator had invited us to experience its private ‘Abu Dhabi Highlights Tour’, which takes 4-4.30h, originally aimed at cruise passengers. It is now offered to ‘normal’ visitors and it is the perfect day out. We were met by Ursula, a serial (and lovely) German expat, who has been in AD for over 7 years. We weren’t sure what to expect, but just went with the flow. We were also met by Bernard Richardson, who is the Dubai Flytographer. Dubai is only 1 hour drive away from Abu Dhabi, and we were very keen to capture the tour moments.

The imposing Sheik Zahed Mosque. Photos by Bernard Richardson for Flytographer.

The imposing Sheik Zayed Mosque which we visited with Viator. Photos by Bernard Richardson for Flytographer.

Although I was wearing trousers and had covered arms, I had to cover up to visit the Sheik Zayed Mosque. It wasn’t easy as it was 42c, but obviously, in respect for local culture, it was the thing to do. We were incredibly impressed with this work of art – beautifully designed and finished – and certainly worth a visit. Needless to say, because we had Ursula with us, we learned things that we would never would on our own.

With the tour, you have a guide and a driver, and you basically stopover at some pre-defined city highlights. Abu Dhabi is incredibly spread out – there are various islands and interest points, it is not a place you can walk around (to see all these things). Setting this afternoon for the tour was one of my most inspired decisions, I must say.

From the Mosque, we headed to Saadiyat Island, where we visited the Cultural Centre, which tells you what is coming up development-wise. While Dubai is the best known Emirate state, Abu Dhabi is the one with the money (oil and gas, obviously) – it has lagged in tourism development but there are certainly plans to make up for lost time. Put it this way: there will be a Guggenheim and a Louvre museum in town soon. I kid you not. (I also made a mental note to stay in this location on a future trip to Abu Dhabi, as it seems to be the perfect location for a ‘beach experience’).

Next stop: Yas Island, which must be a familiar location for all Formula 1 fans. I am not particularly interested in cars, but you can’t ignore the ambition and determination of the Emiratis. From here, we went to the market. I love visiting markets and was excited to have this opportunity – and with dates being like the local currency, it would be rude not to try 2 or 3. Or 30.

At Yas Island, Saadiyat and the date market. Photos by Bernard Thomson for Flytographer.

At Yas Island, Saadiyat and the date market with Viator. Photos by Bernard Thomson for Flytographer.

Mr. O famously hates dates, but I am delighted to announce we have a new convert. Needless to say, the local dates are juicy and tender, not like what we usually get in the UK. At this stage, we had to cut the rest of the tour short, as we needed to get to our new hotel before meeting some friends for drinks.

New hotel, I hear you ask? Yes, it sounds mad, but I had to try the new Rosewood Abu Dhabi. I just had to. And I have to tell you, it is one of the sexiest hotels I have been to recently.

Loved loved loved the Rosewood Abu Dhabi

Loved loved loved the Rosewood Abu Dhabi

Located in Al Maryah island (which is directly across the Abu Dhabi city island), it offers a ‘city’ experience (so would be perfect for business travellers). This island is also home to a new promenade and a very nice new shopping mall, which is connected directly to the hotel – The Galleria. Very nice indeed.

We met a friend’s friend (the lovely Estelle) for a drink and spent a lovely evening at the hotel. For the first (and only) time during our stay in Abu Dhabi, it was the only opportunity we had to see and spend some time with locals (aka Emiratis) – it was very interesting as there doesn’t seem to be a lot of mixing up socially. The local fashion parade was quite something. Worth noting that most of the socialising takes place at hotels due to the liquor laws (i.e. only place where alcohol is served).

We had quite a few options for dinner at the hotel (which welcomes outside guests, of course), and decided on the Lebanese. It was warm, but we still decided to eat outside – we had a lovely view of the city and it was also quite busy, so there was quite a cool atmosphere.

A night of firsts - shisha, of course! We stayed on course and had Lebanese wine (which we tried before and were really impressed with).

A night of firsts – shisha, of course! We stayed on course and had Lebanese wine (which we tried before and were really impressed with).

One of my favourite moments? Trying some shisha. It took quite a bit of coughing – and actually trying on different flavours. I posted a video of Mr. O on instagram (it is quite funny, worth watching) and did like the flavour suggestions we got in real-time: grape and mint was our preferred one!

After a lovely sleep, and a wander around the next morning, we got our car and headed somewhere very special: the desert and the stunning Qasr al Sarab resort, located a good 2h30 from the city of Abu Dhabi. The roads in Abu Dhabi are great but the drive was long: a straight road with the odd camel. But we got there in the end.

The Qasr al Sarab - a mirage? No!

The Qasr al Sarab – a mirage? No!

To say that the Qasr al Sarab by Anantara, was unique, would be an understatement. Getting a room here (as any other hotels in Abu Dhabi on these dates) was nothing short of a miracle, and I cannot tell you how happy we were to arrive. The hotel was beautifully kept and it was peaceful (although obviously you saw other people – I was surprised with how many German and Italian guests there were!) – and the rooms were out of this world.

Needless to say, you are miles away from civilisation, and that is what one should look for if visiting this place. Unsurprisingly, the food and drink options were outstanding. We had a traditional BBQ in an Arabic tent which was quite fun, and yummy cocktails, I have to say.

On our second day, we just lounged by the pool, which was really nice. We also tried the spa (look at the view of the spa room in the photo below – the exact opposite of the Maldives, but oh so striking!), which in hindsight wasn’t the best idea. I mean, the timing, wasn’t – and let me tell you why: because before sunset, we went dune bashing. Again. Dune bashing is a Middle Eastern national sport almost. Click on the image below and you will be taken to a little instagram video we did. No comment necessary.

We should have gone to the spa AFTER dune bashing, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. I stupidly did the exact same thing when I first ‘dune bashed’ in Doha. I won’t do it again, promise.

We spent the rest of our stay doing pretty much nothing. We were looking for some sun, reading and just spending time together, and that was exactly what we did. It was nothing short of perfect.

I jumped again… and we saw some camels!

I jumped again… and we saw some camels!

Before we knew it, it was time to head back to the city. But interestingly, as our flight was only at 2am (seriously, a bit strange, but not bad at all!), I got to do something really cool: meet one of my longtime readers and social media ‘friend’, a fellow Portuguese, also called Ana and her boyfriend. Ana lives in Dubai, but knowing we were coming so close, offered to come and meet us and organise dinner and drinks. It was a fantastic evening, and we loved every minute of it. We were to return to Yas Island and meet for drinks at Skylite at the Yas Viceroy hotel (very cool bar!) and then head for dinner at the fab Cipriani in Yas Marina.

The striking Yas Viceroy and the very cool Cipriani

The striking Yas Viceroy and the very cool Cipriani

I was gutted that we didn’t actually take a photo together – we were too busy talking! But that just means we have to do it again.

Before we knew it, it was almost midnight and time to head to the nearby airport, and fly home. We were back to normal BA service and had a brilliant flight (and slept like babies, before our 6.30am landing).

Our Easter break in Abu Dhabi was exciting, relaxing and certainly interesting – we did a lot, but we also had enough down time, so we arrived back to London refreshed and (almost) ready for real life. I was intrigued about this part of the world, and I am glad I took the time to explore a tiny bit of it, and not just treating it as a stop over.

Goodbye Abu Dhabi, you were lovely!

Goodbye Abu Dhabi, you were lovely!

But what I will never forget? The stunning sunsets. And the sweet mint ice tea.

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer and fact box: I would like to thank all of those who made this trip possible in a relative short time, and within one of the busiest travel dates of the year.

Hotels:

I loved the 3 hotels I visited on my stay – I was a guest of the Shangri-La Qaryat Al Beri (room rates from £280), and the Rosewood Abu Dhabi (room rates from £200) and paid a discounted media rate at the Qasr al Sarab (room rates from £300). 

Travel:

Our  Abu Dhabi Airport Private Transfers to our hotel cost £58 for 2 and our private Private City Highlights Tour cost £165 for two people, both provided by Viator.

First Luggage kindly took our luggage from our home in the UK to our Abu Dhabi hotel at a cost of £172 door to door. 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.

Photography:

You know I cannot travel without Flytographer, and I cannot thank them enough for making this Abu Dhabi experience happen, namely as their team is based in Dubai. A 30 minute photoshoot, on any of its 90+ locations around the world cost $250, with a 1-hour shoot costing $350. Are memories the best souvenir? I think so.

Top 10 Photos of the Week – Coast

There is nothing like the sea – being born and raised in Lisbon,Portugal, I was undoubtedly spoiled, as I got to see it almost every day. My move to the UK sadly meant no sea on a daily basis, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get to see it as often as I can.

Here are some of my favourite coastal moments.

1. Hotel du Cap Eden Rock, Antibes, France

My hairdresser French was not brilliant - I asked for 'straight and no volume' and got 'fab and curly'. Ou la la

Mrs O in the Cote d’Azur

2. Landing in Lisbon, Portugal is simply stunning

And before we knew it, it was time to say goodbye to Lisbon.

Landing in Lisbon, Portugal always makes me smile

3. Getting wet in Newport, Rhode Island

How much excitement can one have in an afternoon? In Newport, RI you never know!

How much excitement can one have in an afternoon? In Newport, RI you never know!

4. The nearest I can get to the water in the UK, in Henley on Thames

The stunning River Thames (and the boys don't look bad either)

The stunning River Thames (and the boys don’t look bad either)

5. Puerto Banus Marina, near Marbella, Spain

Hola Puerto Banus!

Hola Puerto Banus! Always good for boat eye candy

6. The stunning British coast… in Salcombe, Devon

What's not to love about Salcombe?

What’s not to love about Salcombe?

7. Blown away by the natural beauty of Los Cabos, Mexico

Stunning scenery aboard our cruise. Strangely enough, Los Cabos reminded me of Portugal...

Stunning scenery aboard our cruise in Los Cabos. Strangely enough, Los Cabos reminded me of Portugal…

8. A pleasant surprise? A Summer day in Helsinki, Finland

Mrs. O loving Helsinki

Mrs. O loving Helsinki

9. A lunch with a view, in Mallorca, Spain

Not difficult to guess why we didn't want to leave

Not difficult to guess why we didn’t want to leave Mallorca

10. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – simply stunning

Our semi-private beach in Rio de Janeiro

Our semi-private beach in Rio de Janeiro

Feel free to send me your favourite coastal photos. Say hi on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Wishing you a lovely weekend

xo

Mrs O

My hOtel: Lux South Ari Atoll (formerly Lux Maldives)

myhotel

You may already had a peek at some of my favourite moments of my recent Maldives trip. Now it is time to share details of my hotel stay at Lux Maldives.

Arriving at Male Airport, is just the first step. Yes, it takes a good 11-12h from Europe (I had a great experience with Qatar Airways) but the airport is not the destination. You don’t just get a cab to your hotel… Depending on the location of your island, you will be met by hotel representatives (this always happens) and then either taken to the pier for a speedboat transfer, or to one of the airport terminals. But as we had a fair bit of time before our flight (which usually you do not know, worth noting, and not exactly what we would have wanted, a 3h layover), we headed to the Lux Maldives airport lounge, which was just what we needed. Gave us a taste of what was to come, a chance to reconnect to the internet, and have a bite to eat and drink.

On this occasion, we were to try the new Maldivian domestic airline, Flyme, which flew us from Male to Maamigili ($167 one way), a mere 20 minutes away. We had an on-time departure and the Lux team took care of all our luggage and check in procedures – we were not to see our bags until we got to our room – I liked the sound of that! At the ‘airport’, we and other guests were welcomed by the Lux team, who took us to our speedboat, where a 10-minute journey awaited. And then… we had arrived!

All guest arrivals and departures are always an occasion at Lux Maldives

All guest arrivals and departures are always an occasion at Lux Maldives

Pre-Arrival

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

There was indeed. A few days prior to my departure, I got some very nice tweets which I could call teasers – of cocktails, of sunsets, of beaches. Very nice indeed.

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

Absolutely.

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

I had not asked for anything (except for a doll, for a photo stunt, don’t ask!!). Needless to say, I had a Barbie waiting in my room.

Arrival

Arriving at sunset was quite special

Arriving at sunset was quite special

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

We arrived just as the sun was setting, and I have to say it was stunning. I have a very vague recollection of the check in, for which we sat down, handed over our passport and credit card and within minutes, we were on our buggy.

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

Incredibly efficient and friendly.

–          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)

Yes indeed. And called Ana and Simon, which was lovely and very relaxed – we loved the atmosphere at Lux.

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

I had a confirmed Prestige Water Villa and that was the room we got. Very exciting.

–          Did I feel genuinely welcomed by the hotel staff?

We did. Every time we walked past someone, we were always greeted with a lovely smile, and hello, of course.

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

I hadn’t seen my luggage since we arrived on the big plane to Male airport. And that was fine by me.

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

Yes indeed. It was free of charge and you just needed to log in with your email address once. Easy peasy.

Room Experience
We were driven from reception (located on the Eastern side of the island) to our Prestige Water Villa, which was located towards the West side of the Island. This little drive actually gives you a great sense of place and location – and how large the island actually is (comparing to others).

The West Point. Oh yes.

The West Point. Oh yes.

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

Our lovely water villa did not disappoint in any way. At almost 100sqm it was spacious and airy. We had the bedroom (which included also a sitting area), a fab bathroom and the deck area.

–          Welcome amenity

We had a lovely bottle of ScrewCap, a wine from South Africa blended exclusively for Lux Resorts. It was a lovely touch and we enjoyed many other varietals of this brand throughout our stay. Oh well.

–          The bed

It was very good, über comfortable and huge. We slept really well throughout our stay.

Our lovely bedroom

Our lovely bedroom

–          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.

Plenty of space – and I also loved that is was located inside the bathroom, where one usually gets dressed. Very neat, plenty of space and hangers.

–          Iphone Charger/Dock

We had a dock for iPhone 4 which we did not use.

–          Bathrobes and slippers

Of course – and I  used them for a change. We also had some colourful flip-flops which were incredibly comfortable – I used them at the spa and then on my last couple of days when I discovered how nice the padding was.

–          Coffee and Tea

Yes indeed, but we did not use.

Small touches at Lux Maldives

Small touches at Lux Maldives

–          Free bottled water

Every day, each guest gets a 1-litre bottle of still water a day. Lux Resorts does not believe in overpriced bottles of water (it is actually one of their brand statements, alongside bad coffee).

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

Not here, but we had some books. You need to bring your own magazines and books to the Maldives, as you won’t be able to buy them anywhere.

–          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.

Once I disconnected the iPhone dock, I had my own plug socket (UK type, worth mentioning). Mr O had plenty on his side.

Bathroom

I am very partial to lovely bathrooms, I have to say...

I am very partial to lovely bathrooms, I have to say…

–          First impressions – décor, size and wow factor

Oh yes, oh yes. It was lovely and spacious.

–          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 brilliant and worked very well. The shower was fantastic.

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

Lots, and I loved how they were displayed (i.e. in the wicker basket). They were also lovely.

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

Unbelievable products.

Unbelievable products.

The own brand products were outstanding. The smell and quality were out of this world. So much so, that I begged the hotel for more – I was a happy girl when I left the Maldives only because of these goodies. I am almost through the ones I brought back, and I cannot tell you – the memories that come with the smells. If anyone goes out there, please bring me some (I haven’t got the courage to ask the hotel for more!).

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

All there and in a very colourful display.

How is this for a bath with a view? We did have one on one of the rainy days and loved it.

How is this for a bath with a view? We did have one on one of the rainy days and loved it.

–          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 – I went for the au naturel look.

Sun, pool and beach

No need to leave your room...

No need to leave your room…

Well well well, where do we start? We loved the privacy of our water villa – the sun loungers were very comfortable and the towels were great. With direct access to the sea, what else could you want?

Maybe a bit of sand?

Maybe a bit of sand?

We did not really use the beach, but it looked lovely. Specially at sunset. But we walked around the island and enjoyed many special moments like these…

Our beach. Lovely.

Our beach. Lovely.

We snorkeled a fair bit, and even saw a whale shark – we had a great morning on board the hotel’s catamaran and got to see even more islands and breathtaking scenery. There really are 12 shades of blue in the Maldives.

No filters or comments necessary.

No filters or comments necessary.

Dining

Where would you like cocktails today?

Where would you like cocktails today?

I can’t praise enough the food at Lux Maldives – it was outstanding. We had breakfast every day at the buffet (both the Western and the Oriental one) – and I have to say, it is the only meal where I can enjoy the variety. For lunch or dinner, to be honest, buffets are not for me. So I was delighted with the options we had – a fantastic Indian Ocean restaurant, where we tried a fab Maldivian curry and other local specialities, a great Italian meal and my absolute favourite, the Japanese, where I had one of the best things ever: foie gras sushi. As I said, if I had to die there and then, I would go happily.

Hungry? Oh well!

Hungry? Oh well!

It is worth mentioning that you need to check carefully the meal plan you choose when you book your trip – it pays to be organised (and choose the option where you can dine around). The wine selection was great (and the Screw Cap wine was $35, cocktails from $15) and all drinks were well priced.

Spa

Yes indeed. Le Spa!

Yes indeed. Le Spa!

We had a complimentary treatment courtesy of the hotel, and loved it so much we were back every day. The treatment rooms were stunning (imagine the views) and everything felt very zen. We were uber relaxed and really enjoyed the massages and foot scrubs, and the occasional glass of champagne (I kid you not, this was a package the hotel had for $219 per couple for 90 mins). What I always asked for? Separate rooms as I find couples massages the least romantic thing ever.

General thoughts

–          How good and reliable was the wi-fi?

I had some issues with it, but Mr. O did not, so I don’t understand. It worked always well in our room, but not to much in other areas.

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

Yes they did and had a bit of fun.

–          Location

As the only settlement on the island of Dhidhoofinolhu in South Ari Atoll, Lux Maldives is a 25-minute seaplane ride away from Male Airport, or 20 minutes by scheduled flights and a 10-minute boat ride.

–          Cost – rooms starting from…

Beach pavilions cost from $200 and Water Villas from $400 per night, excluding taxes (18%) on a room-only basis, for low season dates. These can increase 3-fold in high season, which runs from December to March-April.

–          Would I recommend it to my best friend?

Absolutely.

–          Would I stay again?

I promise I will. We saw a lot of families at Lux, and the happiest children ever – and I have to say we were never disturbed. So I will go back!

Yummy lychee cocktails… I miss Lux Maldives already!

Yummy lychee cocktails… I miss Lux Maldives already!

Have you visited this hotel? What were your thoughts?

xo

Mrs. O

Disclaimer: I was a guest of Lux Resorts during this stay, on a room and board basis and obviously responsible for any extras, 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.