Zeby and Me – Al Maha, Dubai

I’ve got some time today to catch up on a little work.  I could get used to having this as my office with the gazelles scampering around just outside the doors.

al maha desk 

I have one more desert activity planned and it’s my favorite – camel safari!  I admit it; I love camels.  They are the most amazing animals, often placid, sometimes rambunctious, always fascinating, and there’s nothing quite like a camel’s toothy grin.

We meet near the spa where our camels are waiting patiently.  My new friend’s name is Zeby and she is sweet-natured and calm.  I have ridden a camel once before, but only for a brief time, so I hadn’t factored in the challenges of an extended jaunt.  Pick your ride, any ride – mules, horses, surfboards and segways, bicycles or camels – if it’s a new or infrequent activity, you’re going to discover muscles you didn’t know you had and ask much more of your old standbys than they’re used to delivering. 

A camel is quite a wide-bodied animal and that girth is increased by the saddle and blankets.  A lack of stirrups makes it difficult to change position or redistribute the stresses.  It quickly became apparent that this was going to be a long, long ride. 

It’s beautiful out in the desert at sunset and we arrive at a resting place to meet Guides waiting with drinks and snacks.  There’s much moaning and groaning as people dismount from their perches, many making their way somewhat stiffly up the hill.

I’m initially appalled to learn that the plan is to return on the camels rather than in vehicles, and consider the option of being picked up and driven back.  After some champagne and strawberries, and a brief rest, though, I’m ready for more and, really, no one wants to be a quitter.  OK, well, maybe some of us, anyway.  When we go back to our waiting rides, I’m amazed to see that we’ve lost more than half the group and at least ten camels will return “empty.”

al maha camels

But, I knew I would forget the discomfort and remember the pleasure of the experience, and of course, that’s exactly what happened.  We ride back into the twilight, the horizon still blushing from a glorious sunset, a sickle moon and single bright star in the sky, Zeby gently rolling from side to side beneath me.  I will recall this time, unexpectedly, improbably, as the high point of the trip.

For the Birds – Al Maha, Dubai

I’m up just before dawn and I’m greeted by a profound silence as I step outside onto the deck.  In a short while, huge flocks of small birds will fill the air with their chatter as they swoop around the tree branches and perch on the edge of the pool for a quick drink.  My first morning desert activity calls for an early meeting at 6:50 a.m.  During the summer months, this is moved back to 4:00 a.m. because of the heat, so I’m not complaining.  

I haven’t said much about the wonderful Field Guides who helped to make this experience so very special.  With one exception, they were all recruited from South Africa where they worked in national parks and game reserves and were chosen for their experience dealing with luxury clientele at the top lodges in that country.  They were all cheerful and kind, knowledgeable, patient, and anxious to make everyone’s stay as memorable as possible.  They couldn’t do enough for the guests.

We make our way into the desert to learn about falconry.  This was so much fun!  There were three falcons of different ages and types, and a desert owl also came for a visit.  We learned about the training of these beautiful birds and had the chance to watch them fly and chase “prey.”  At one time they were captured in the wild through a process utilizing another bird as bait.  Today, falcons are purchased in the souk from breeders.  One of the three we met, Genghis, cost  AED50,000 or nearly $14,000.00.  His white coloration shows that he is a cold-weather bird and the trainers are mindful of this, making sure he doesn’t get overheated. 

al maha falcon1

We were told at the start that Genghis is harboring a certain amount of vexation about life in general and, recently, simply took off rather than returning to the lure.  It required a platoon of trainers and a three-day search to find him in the desert.   Amusingly, today he decided to be difficult and a couple of trainers chased him over the dunes and in the trees for half an hour before finally getting him back.  Watching them running around after the bird was definitely one of the more entertaining aspects of the morning!

al maha falcon2

Above, you can see the bird’s jesses, narrow leather straps attached to the legs, being tied to the lead.  I was happy to learn that they only wear the hood here when they’re being transported.  Since 80% of their senses involve sight, the hood shuts off the majority of sensory input and makes them very calm.  The bits of feathers, beads and leather that stick up from the tops of the hoods serve no purpose other than to add a jaunty air.  Once the hood is removed, the bird needs a few seconds to adjust its vision, which is quite remarkable.  Not only is it extremely acute with long-distance capabilities, but a very fast refresh rate means that they see things in what we would consider to be slow motion.  It was quite a thrill to have the chance to hold a bird on the cuff for a close-up view of those extraordinary eyes!

These birds typically live about 10 or 12 years in the wild but closer to 18 in captivity.  In fact, one of the three was an old lady of 18.  She wasn’t as energetic as the others and only made a few passes at the lure (I can relate to this – you get to a point where you only want to work just so hard for a meal).  Strong, young birds might circle the lure fifty times before finally being allowed to catch it.  The lure is baited with something small which is then replaced with their meal for the day; in this case a quail breast.

Here is a short video of one of the birds coming to the lure  (please note – you don’t need an account to view the video, just select “no thanks, continue to view” at the bottom of the box).    The trainer will try to exercise the falcon by preventing it from grabbing the lure immediately.

In order to prevent another animal from seeing the prey, the birds “mantle” or cover the food with their wings.  They would quickly be killed by a larger animal for this treasure and, in fact, consuming the catch is the most dangerous time for the bird.  In the photo below, you can see the falcon curving its wings over the meat.

al maha falcon3

Sometimes, though, the best plans go awry.  There are many tasty live birds flying nearby and it’s not unheard of for a falcon to spot one of these attractive morsels and go after it instead!

The wonderful desert owl made an appearance but after a short time lost interest and returned on his own to one of the vehicles and waited patiently to go home.

al maha desert owl

 

al maha desert owl2

Right after falconry, I was scheduled for a dune ride.  Another truly fun activity with a convoy of SUV’s bouncing and skidding over the dunes.  It offered the chance to get a better idea of the scope of the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve which actually extends into the nearby Emirate of Sharjah.  Dune driving is a learned skill and new drivers have to undergo a training period with an instructor, then complete a number of solo runs (without passengers) as part of a convoy.  Today, one of those with a “learner’s permit” was along for our trip.  We were told that it’s not unusual for vehicles to get stuck in the sand; I was more worried that we’d tip over the side of some of the very narrow dunes but all went smoothly; well, maybe not exactly smoothly – it’s a very jouncy experience – but without incident.  Again, we stopped at a high peak to enjoy the view.  The sands here are very beautiful, reddish in color, and incredibly fine – almost as soft as flour.

 desert dunes

Having taken the advice to postpone breakfast until after the ride, I head off to find that my favorite vacation breakfast is available here – strawberry pancakes with whipped cream!  I’m looking forward to another activity this afternoon.

 

Into the Desert – Al Maha, Dubai

A trip of nearly a month, visiting countries in Europe, Africa, and Asia, culminated in a memorable stay at an extraordinary property, Al Maha:

Located within the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, Dubai’s first national park, Al Maha, which is the Arabic term for oryx, is a small luxury property comprised of only 42 units on nearly 90 square miles of desert.  It is a world apart.

The resort is a surprisingly long distance from the main road.  The entrance to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve is fenced and guarded and Al Maha itself is a favorite destination for Emerati royal families as well as many high-profile guests from around the world.  As a result, security is tight here.  Because of the wildlife, children under ten are not allowed into the park and, by extension, at Al Maha.

Further in, we pass the entrance portal to the resort and drive for quite a while longer before arriving.  Individual tented buildings are nestled into the trees looking out over the vast landscape.   Everything is connected by narrow pavered pathways that wind through the trees and bushes, carefully planted to ensure complete privacy.

al maha suite entrance

I am met with hot towels and cold drinks and the impeccable service that would continue seamlessly throughout my stay.  Guests are introduced both to a personal Guest Services Coordinator and a Field Guide, who oversee their stay and activities schedule.  A fleet of golf carts shuttles guests around the resort.  With a touch of “0″ on the phone, everything can be arranged – a ride to the restaurant, an appointment at the spa, room service, whatever you require.  The intimate size ensures a very personalized experience.  Everyone knows your name, remembers your preferences, has a ready smile and a desire to make your stay as special as possible.  

al maha reception

I’m staying in the basic room category – the Bedouin Suite.  There is also one Presidential Suite which was initially built for the Sheikh and his family, two Emirates Suites and two Royal Suites.  Due to their original use by the royal families, these two- and three-bedroom suites also have kitchens and small rooms for drivers and other help who might travel with the guests.

The suites are tented to give them the flavor of Bedouin life and the decor is very Arabian with lots of tassels, oriental rugs, touches of gold, heavy carved doors, sumptuous pillows and curvaceous furnishings, and traditional artifacts.  Yet, this resort also captures the feeling of Africa and, in fact, a visit to South Africa helped to shape the design that includes tented decks with sweeping views, animal prints on the walls, and a sense of being at one with the environment just beyond the doors.

al maha bedouin suite1

 

al maha bedouin suite2

Each suite has a private infinity pool that looks out to the desert beyond.  There is total privacy here.  The more traditional Muslim families need to know that they have completely private spaces, out of view of the public, so that women can relax and dress as they wish.  The orientation of each unit and dense plantings and fencing ensure that there are no sightlines to the exterior spaces behind the building.  This also makes Al Maha a honeymooners’ paradise and, I will say, in the restaurant there is much chatter about skinny-dipping!

al maha pool

The oryx inspires both the name and many decorative motifs found throughout the resort including the beautifully-embroidered sheets.  I’m enthralled by these details – the large campaign-style stationery box on the desk, the camel saddle bag on the wall, the artist’s easel standing in a corner, thoughtfully stocked with paper and pastels to capture an inspiring view.

al maha sheets

Each traveler looks for certain features in their accommodations.  It might be price, location, size, brand, a room on a high floor, a large bathroom.  At the top of my list is this type of theming; small touches unique to the property.   However luxurious the bathrobes, however beautiful the view, the generic hotel rooms fade from memory.  I want the room to reflect its destination; I want to wake up and know exactly where I am.

I had a chance to visit all of the different room categories and they are very similar in style to the Bedouin Suites.   They have exactly the same bedroom/bath configuration plus the addition of various courtyards, dining areas, living areas, fountains, and larger pools.

Due to the intense heat of the summer months with temperatures that can reach more than 120 degrees with high humidity, summer is not the most popular time for visits and prices are lower.  There are also room-only packages available during this period.   For the rest of the year, rates typically include breakfast, lunch, and dinner (bar charges are separate) as well as two desert activities per person each day.  Meals can be enjoyed at inside and outside tables at the restaurant, and the full menu is available for room service as part of the package.  For a reasonable extra charge, a wonderful meal is available out on the dunes.  This is a private experience complete with a linen-set table, Persian carpets, and flaming torches.

Beyond the resort which has been deliberately planted, the sparse naturally-growing greenery here and there indicates the presence of water.  There’s a small green area out in the distance that attracts gazelles and oryx and they scamper around in the sand.  While there are no wild camels here, several camel farms are located within the Reserve and the camels are allowed to wander around.  The camel keeper has a watchful eye on them from behind the wheel of an air-conditioned vehicle!

After settling in and having a wonderful lunch I was ready to set out on a sunset desert drive.  The resort has a fleet of SUV’s that carry guests to and from the fun things.  We had a nice ride and ended up on some high dunes to watch the sunset while enjoying drinks and snacks.  A perfect ending to the day.

Back at my room, the quiet is broken by the sounds of hundreds of chirping birds and the echoing calls of doves.  The sky is black and full of stars and it’s a wonder to float in the pool and stare at them.  

There’s an otherworldly feeling of peace and solitude here.  I’ll sleep well and when I wake up, I’ll know exactly where I am!

Go Best!

If you’ve been considering a Celebrity Cruise there’s never been a better time to book through your Virtuoso travel advisor at Travel Repertoire.  For all reservations made between November 1, 2015 and December 31, 2016, choose Celebrity’s Go Best program and receive exclusive onboard credits of $350 for verandah staterooms, and $450 for Concierge Class and above.

Celebrity Reflection

The Go Best offer enhances your cruise with popular options, making it a much more all-inclusive experience :

          Premium Beverage package for two

          Prepaid Gratuities for two

          Unlimited Internet for two

          PLUS Virtuoso-exclusive onboard credits of $350 or $450 for selected stateroom categories

This program is applicable to ALL Celebrity sailings currently available from November 1 through the spring of 2017.  We invite you to contact us to explore itineraries for your next cruise vacation.

 

 

Holiday Jetaway!

four seasons jet

Imagine surprising your family with the gift of a lifetime – a holiday vacation anywhere in the world on a private jet.  As a Four Seasons Preferred Partner, we are so pleased to offer this special opportunity.  For a very limited time, from December 20, 2015 to January 1, 2016, the luxurious Four Seasons Boeing 757 is available for private charter to any destination in the world.  Your trip must be  three days or more and include at least one international destination.

With only 52 flat-bed first-class seats and an executive chef ready to create custom menus featuring local flavors and fresh ingredients, it is the most elite, comfortable, and convenient way to travel.  Please contact us for further information and to request your proposal. 

In the Press

It’s always a pleasure to be recognized by our peers and we were delighted when Travel Repertoire was recently featured in Travel WeeklyOur thanks to the publication and author Laura Del Rosso for this great opportunity to talk about one of our specialties!

Vacation Fight Club

The Internet vs. Travel Professional

You’ve worked for a long time to save money and accumulate vacation days.  At long last, you can begin planning that dream trip.  It appears there are two contenders at the main event – keep reading before you choose your corner.  We think it’s a TKO in nine rounds.

 

Round #1  Price vs. Value

A co-worker has been bragging about the incredible “deal” he got on a recent Caribbean cruise.  He devoted many hours to The Internet, searching dozens of sites for what he believes is the lowest possible price.  True, there was no window in his tiny stateroom, he spent a lot of time tripping over luggage, the engine noise down there on Deck 2 was a bit unnerving (not to mention the grinding of the anchor at 5 a.m. on several port days), and he’s never actually stayed in any other type of stateroom so he has no point of comparison, but, hey, he saved money, right? vs. Travel Professional suggests that spending just $50.00 more per night will move you up 12 categories into a bright and beautiful stateroom on peaceful Deck 9 with 40% more space and amazing views from your private verandah.  Oh, and there’s actually a tub so you won’t be trying to bathe your 4 y.o. in the sink!  You hadn’t even considered that.  When you return home, you often recall sitting on that verandah each evening and thinking it was the best $50.00 you ever spent.

 

Round #2  Value vs. Price

This is a truly special trip and you want to splurge a bit.  You’ve been doing your homework on The Internet and find there is a lot written by people you don’t know about a particular premium view at your chosen resort.  You decide to go for it and hope it’s as wonderful as promised by your new virtual friends, since it’s going to cost you an extra $1,200.00 for the week. vs. Having stayed at this resort a number of times in a variety of rooms, Travel Professional advises you to pass on this upgrade.  In fact, the much-touted view is not all that great, particularly when compared to other resorts in the area with which TP is also familiar.  The less-expensive views are quite lovely and come with exactly the same room configuration. Also, because you have so many activities planned, you won’t have more than a few minutes each day to enjoy that pricey vista, anyway.  Rather than paying $100 per minute for a view you’ll barely see, TP offers other suggestions for that splurge including some private excursions you didn’t know about, or using the money as a hefty deposit on your next trip.

 

Round #3  Lifetime memories vs. Crossed off the to-do list

It’s a destination you’ve always wanted to visit and TP has made all the arrangements.  In the months leading up to your departure, you’ve received a great deal of information from TP about the area’s history and culture as well as the many things to see and do.  All that preparation pays off.  You arrive feeling relaxed and excited, find you have a deeper appreciation for everything you encounter, and enjoy the opportunity to experience things that most visitors never dream of.  vs.  An old friend who has long shared your desire to travel to this same place decides to take advantage of a last-minute deal on a “cheap vacations” site.  Unfortunately, the hotel is not centrally-located and a considerable portion of each day is spent shuttling to and from places of interest.  Even if there had been time to become more familiar with some of the high points on the itinerary, any pleasure is greatly diminished by the hours spent waiting in long lines to see them.

 

Round #4  Welcome, welcome Mr. and Mrs. Smith! vs. I’m sorry, your name is what?

Whatever its rating, pretty much every hotel has at least a few less-than-desirable rooms.  And, you can assume that booking your stay through an online travel agency on The Internet moves you straight to the top of the list for this type of accommodation.  Expect to find yourself in the yet-to-be-remodeled section; the room that’s too small for a king-sized bed and has only a double; the unit next to the noisy elevator or ice machine; the one with the view of the dumpsters. vs.  The same hotel is booked through Travel Professional who has a special relationship with the property.  Turns out, you still end up getting an excellent rate.  You arrive to find the General Manager standing in the lobby to greet you personally.  Your room has been upgraded to one with an expansive, and expensive, city view.  You discover a flower arrangement and bottle of wine waiting for you as well as an invitation to enjoy breakfast each day at no additional charge.  By the way, don’t forget to take advantage of that $100.00 credit which you can use toward a wonderful dinner, or perhaps a relaxing spa treatment.

 

Round #5  Hidden pitfall vs. Hidden gem

Being the first one in your crowd to discover a new place is rewarding and you think you’ve found “the next big thing.”  The online photos of this secluded island hideaway are gorgeous and you’re looking forward to an idyllic week of sun, sand, and relaxation. Upon arrival, you quickly realize that the surroundings certainly are “lush and verdant” as promised, but the jungle where your resort sits is located several miles from the water.   The beach, a public beach as it happens, is crowded with local residents and guests from a surprisingly large number of other “undiscovered” non-waterfront properties.  Unfortunately, you don’t spend much time in your private plunge pool either – if only you’d thought to bring mosquito repellant and citronella candles. vs.  As a member of an elite consortium, your TP has access to a carefully-vetted list of the world’s most exciting new properties.  You’ll be provided with all the details and know exactly what to expect before you arrive.  You not only have the opportunity to be among the first to experience them, but your stay also includes a number of special extras and exclusive amenities.  

 

Round #6  Pay out of one pocket vs. Pay out of another pocket

When you booked your own tickets on cheapestflightsintheworld.com you didn’t pay much attention to the fact that the two long layovers with plane changes meant you wouldn’t arrive at your off-the-beaten-path destination until 1:00 a.m.  You didn’t realize that there would be an extra service charge either, but by the time you’d gotten to that page, you were too tired to start over again, and made the purchase.  More worrisome – when you did finally touch down you learned that there was no available ground transportation to your distant hotel until the next morning and you spent your first night sitting on an orange plastic chair.  vs.  A review of your flight options leads Travel Professional to recommend a flight with a slightly higher price because it has only one brief stop and lands you at your destination in time to enjoy most of the day there.  In fact, you probably would have chosen this one yourself, but didn’t notice it in your online search results. TP has also remembered to arrange car service for you and when you arrive, you’re pleased to see a smiling driver holding a sign with your name on it.  He briskly assists you and your luggage into an air-conditioned vehicle and your vacation has begun!

 

Round #7  Minor inconvenience vs. Major frustration

Stuff happens – snow falls, hurricanes develop, mechanical parts break down, workers strike, volcanoes erupt.  Flights are delayed, rerouted, cancelled.  If your ticket was purchased on TI, you should make certain you have a clear understanding of the procedure for rebooking flights before you leave home.  You should also be prepared to spend a long time on the phone or at the ticket counter, making that happen (refer to Round #6 above –plastic chair).  vs.  TP has a direct connection to the airlines and available seat inventory and is YOUR connection if things go awry.  Airlines typically monitor both weather and social issues that interfere with flight schedules and will send TP bulletins providing guidelines for rebooking.  TP will often be at work rescheduling your flight even before you call.

 

Round #8 – Least expensive vs. Most expensive

The least expensive way to travel is hitchhiking with a backpack.  If you harbor any concerns whatsoever about personal safety or comfort, you can upgrade to camping.  There’s little need here for either The Internet or Travel Professional in terms of actual travel arrangements, unless you want to map out highways or campsites. vs. The most expensive way to travel, and arguably the best, is private jet.  This is also a no-brainer.  TI is only useful to help you locate the nearest TP – investing tens of thousands to millions of dollars in a vacation requires the services of someone who knows what they’re doing.

In truth, the vast majority of travelers draw a line in the sand at some other place on the beach.  Deciding where that line should be has a lot to do with understanding your individual preferences.   The best answers typically come from knowing the right questions.  Every unfortunate scenario above could have been mitigated or avoided entirely by asking the right questions.  The Internet is not in the business of asking questions.  Asking questions IS the business of Travel Professional.

 

Round #9  Customer vs. Client

The primary purpose of an online booking engine is to prompt you, the customer, to make a purchase.  It’s deliberately simplified and streamlined to encourage your decision to buy.  You are not a person.  You are series of 0’s and 1’s in a computer system; a system that does not have the capacity to consider your actual travel experience, with the possible exception of a record of past activity, and has no other services to offer.  The intention is volume, you are as much a commodity as the product being sold, and the focus has nothing to do with your personal satisfaction beyond the site’s ease of use.  vs.  A Travel Professional understands that technology is a tool not a service.  Despite the many innovations of the digital world, the finest travel experiences are still dependent on a very analog process – personal relationships.  A strong advisor/client relationship encourages a rich and evolving appreciation for what is truly important to that traveler.  A strong advisor/supplier relationship opens up a world of options to help make that traveler’s dreams a reality.  The focus has everything to do with your personal satisfaction because the advisor does not want a customer, but a client – a long-term collaboration.  The Travel Professional is deeply invested in the success of your trip and will lose sleep worrying about it – we can assure you that The Internet never gives another thought to your plans!

Worth Its Salt

It’s an elegant building sited majestically at the top of a tree-lined drive and boasting lovely lake and mountain views. But, the small touches and quirky details like the salt-and-pepper-shaker chess set and the handsome rooster perched on a nest of pine cones,  truly define the unique personality of The Manor on Golden Pond.  Originally built as a private home, the property has passed through many hands on the road to its current iteration as a charming country inn.

Rooms and suites bear English names rather than room numbers.  Some are located within what appears to have been the original footprint of the house, and a newer attached wing.  Others are in separate buildings tucked into the trees and reached by pleasant outdoor walking paths.  Each has its own floor plan and style.  Returning guests can opt for a past favorite, or try something completely different simply by changing rooms.  Many have wood-burning fireplaces and some include large Jacuzzi tubs making them perfect for a couple’s weekend getaway.

We especially like the rooms and suites with fireplaces located in the Manor building and wing.  They’re just steps away from the public areas and exude a sense of staying in a private home.  Those on the second floor of the main house, in particular, are gracious and elegant reminders of times past.  Rooms in the wing still have a traditional, but somewhat more casual, ambiance.  Those located in the outer buildings feature more rustic decor and a slightly more separate feel.

The Cotswald Cottage, with its extra bath and a kitchenette, would be great choice for a family.

Room rates include a breakfast which is a cut above the expected with a full menu of choices rather than the typical buffet or pre-plated service.  The Four-Diamond Van Horn dining room is a warm and inviting space offering a refined a la carte dinner menu and a wonderful seven-course Chef’s Tasting Menu drawn from currently-featured dishes.

Seasons Spa, housed in its own small building, has a seasonally-themed spa menu as well as a variety of signature treatments.  Guests can enjoy a spa lunch next to the fire before or after their treatments.

Thanks to the aggressively-protective oversight of a local association, Squam and Little Squam Lakes, made famous by the movie, On Golden Pond, remain some of the most unspoiled in New England.  There are a variety of boating, water-sports, and nature activities available to guests but visitors should be aware that there is no direct waterfront access from the property itself.

In addition to a tennis court and swimming pool, The Manor also has an Activities Concierge to help guests navigate the long list of typical country pursuits such as antiquing and hiking, or the many distinctly local options and seasonal offerings which may include maple sugaring, crafts fairs, dog sledding, and, of course, foliage viewing.

Our arrival on a chilly autumn afternoon was greeted with mugs of hot cider.  We had reserved the Wine Dinner that evening featuring Jonathan Alsop, founder of the Boston Wine School.  Mr. Alsop was a delightful and personable speaker, who delivered an informal “wine class” and tasting prior to the wonderful five-course meal prepared by The Manor’s accomplished chef.

Cooking School weekends are also scheduled throughout the year in addition to special golf, ski, spa, and holiday packages as well as wedding and meeting arrangements. 

Exclusive Virtuoso® amenities include a $50.00 spa credit, per person for up to two people per room; early check-in/late check-out as available; and room upgrade upon arrival, also subject to availability.

Located in Holderness, New Hampshire, in the heart of the Lakes Region, The Manor on Golden Pond serves as a charming destination for a short stay but is also well-positioned as a base for a wider exploration of the many pleasures of beautiful New England.

Spanish Rhythms

 

It’s difficult to imagine a more gracious welcome to the beautiful city of Sevilla.  The magnificent Hotel Alfonso XIII, nestled perfectly into the old city, delights all the senses.  Its Mudejar style resides harmoniously with the surrounding Arab-inspired architecture.

Nearly 100 years old, this exquisite property has emerged from a recent renovation refreshed and renewed, but with its historic beauty intact.  Long-time host to famous figures from around the world, it remains the iconic choice of those looking for the quintessential Sevilla.

The stunning lobby is a visual feast of marble, ironwork, elaborate woodwork, and extraordinary tiling.  The wonderfully idiosyncratic elevators boast exterior doors that pull open with handles and old-style accordion interior doors that slide closed to envelope passengers in a small jewel box of filigree and mirrors.  They serve as a metaphor for the entire property – the charm of a gentler, more refined period, combined with the conveniences of modern life.

Bell Services and Reception are friendly, efficient, and attentive.  The Concierges are exactly as you would hope them to be – knowledgeable, informative, helpful, and kind.  Having corresponded with them before arriving, it was astonishing to meet Francisco Lorenzo and hear him recount details of our emails from memory, prompted only by the name on the reservation.

Although the small staff is somewhat overwhelmed during busy times, they are quick to step in for one another to assist guests.  Most notably, the current General Manager, Carlo Suffredini, is personally committed to the satisfaction of each guest, and enormously responsive.

Corridors, often the least attractive areas of a hotel, have been transformed by sparkling light fixtures and tall, carved doors. 

Vintage black and white photographs connect past to present and the furnishings and details of rooms and suites reflect one of three themed décors: Andaluz, Moorish, and Castilian.

 

Standard rooms do have the smaller square footage and soaring height typical of many classic European hotels, but reflect a style and sense of place that is uniquely Sevillian.

Our room featured an intricate plaster ceiling unlike any we’ve seen; frilled and ruffled like a flamenco skirt, the details sharply etched by the light of a crystal chandelier. 

French doors opened to a small but charming balcony, with glimpses of gardens and tiled roofs sprinkled with small yellow flowers.  The air was filled with the sounds of birdsong and the fragrance of orange blossom.

A variety of deluxe rooms and suites offer additional living areas, both inside and out, and up to three bedrooms.

Room views vary, as do the preferences of guests, and include garden vistas as well as those looking out over the inner courtyard, various public areas of the hotel, and the buildings and streets of the city.

All rooms offer delightful, uniquely-decorated bathrooms, elaborate headboards and thoughtfully-chosen furnishings, and the amenities you would expect from a higher-end property:  excellent bedding; plush towels, robes, and slippers; elegant softgoods and finishes.

The atmospheric American Bar is a delightful place to linger over drinks, snacks, and conversation before stepping out to the San Fernando restaurant for dinner.  Breakfast and lunch are also served in San Fernando, and guests can choose to dine in the gallery or move to the beautiful outdoor courtyard with its splashing fountain.

The Bodega Alfonso occupies the space that once served as the private office of the King.  Now a wine and tapas bar, it also includes an adjoining lounge and inviting outdoor terrace.  Casual dining is offered in the Taifas restaurant located outside near the pool area.

Meetings and private events are beautifully accommodated in a variety of venues.   Virtuoso® exclusive amenities include:

• Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
• Daily full breakfast, for up to two in room guests (a la carte)
• A complimentary lunch or dinner for up to two people per room
(menu of the day) once during stay, excluding alcohol, taxes and gratuities
• Early check-in/late check-out subject to availability

The hotel’s greatest asset is its spectacular location, within easy walking distance of the city’s most splendid treasures.

   
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Expect to embrace the tempo of Spanish life – restaurants seldom open before 8:00 p.m. and meals are a leisurely affair.  Store hours typically begin at 10:00 a.m. and smaller shops will be closed between 2:00 and 5:00 p.m.

It’s seldom that a property so exceeds expectations. Even if the many charms of Sevilla were not sufficient to draw visitors, the Hotel Alfonso XIII, alone, would be worth the trip!

Sailing the Vasty Deep

There’s something truly special about a transatlantic journey.  Extended sea days, strung through the voyage like pearls, ease us away from the everyday and into a period of restoration and, perhaps, solitude.  We have the time for books, for leisurely lunches, for endless vistas that invite stillness and contemplation.

What ~ not your style of cruising?  No problem; you can fill those days with a full roster of activities!  Each cruise line offers its own unique transatlantic perspective and a recent sailing on the lovely Oceania Marina featured a packed calendar of options with a particularly nice transoceanic itinerary including calls in Bermuda, Madeira, Tangiers, and Barcelona.

The ships of Oceania fall into the somewhat narrow “super premium” category, arguably shared only by Azamara.  Not quite as inclusive as the luxury experience offered by its sister, Regent Seven Seas, and such lines as Seabourn, Silversea, Crystal, and Sea Dream Yacht Club, Oceania, nonetheless, reflects a level of refinement and sophistication not found on the “premium” lines: Celebrity, Princess, and Holland America.  One of several ships in the fleet, and the first new build, Marina just completed her inaugural year.  Along with the brand new Riviera, she is a mid-sized ship, 1,250 passengers, which strikes a nice balance between the huge number of guests on larger vessels, and the lack of some amenities on the small ones.

   
       

Oceania targets older, affluent, well-traveled adults who are often veterans of a number of past cruises, and the activities and amenities reflect this demographic.  Bridge, bingo, and trivia-as-blood-sport are extremely popular pursuits.  Marina manages to exude an intimate, clubby atmosphere that belies the fact that more than 1,000 guests are sharing it.  It is most definitely not the choice for families with young children ~ there is no accommodation or activity for kids and guests board with the expectation of an adults-only experience.

Public spaces are striking and elegant, particularly the wonderful Martinis lounge and the beautiful and airy Grand Dining Room.  There are a number of cozy seating areas and specialty dining venues ~ valuable assets for a ship featuring longer itineraries.  The main lobby showcases a stately staircase with Lalique accents.  Horizons Lounge hosts a number of activities throughout the day and evening including Afternoon Tea.  Tea is also served in the Grand Bar which offers a comfortable spot to have a drink or curl up with a book.  The casino is connected to the somewhat quirky Casino Bar with its neon purple lighting and sparkling silver seating.

In addition to the Grand Dining Room and Terrace Café, guests can enjoy four other dining venues at no additional charge:  Toscana, Polo Grill, Red Ginger, and Jacques Pepin’s Jacques.

Staterooms are decorated in serene tones and most have a large bath with both tub and shower.  Concierge staterooms include access to the Concierge Lounge as well as upgraded in-room amenities.

     
         
     

 

Suites all have large walk-in closets and a varying list of additional spaces dependent upon category.  All suites offer butler service and the use of the Executive Lounge.  Oceania has, unfortunately, chosen to adopt the nonsensical nomenclature used by a number of cruise lines to describe their accommodations.  A “suite” is, by definition, a number or set of rooms ~ closets and bathrooms do not count.  A “penthouse” is living space at the very top of a structure.  “Penthouse Suites” are neither suites nor penthouses but merely larger staterooms with bigger closets.  Oceania and Vista suites have exercise or media rooms in addition to living and dining areas.  The Owner’s Suites feature a spacious foyer and a particularly appealing bedroom.

Marina boasts a dedicated Bon Appetit Culinary Center offering hands-on cooking classes for a fee.  Working at fully-equipped cooking stations, guests team up in pairs to recreate menu favorites under the tutelage of master chefs.  The creatively inclined can also visit the Artist Loft to receive step-by-step art instruction from the artists-in-residence.  A well-stocked library and Canyon Ranch Spa feature their own delights.

Each traveler approaches a new journey with a catalogue of preferences and desires for the upcoming trip, and every travel experience serves to refine that list.  Searching for the ideal fit in a ship, hotel, or touring style is part of the fun!  Hundreds of conversations with our own clients as well as fellow travelers only prove that perfection is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Harmonious

Every ship does some things exceptionally well – a few of our  favorite things about Marina:

 

  • Glorious bed linens – the nicest we’ve ever encountered on any ship or in any hotel.  The 1,000-count sheets in the suites and concierge staterooms are beyond fabulous.  We can only hope that Oceania will choose to make these available for sale to the general public.
  • Prompt seating in the Grand Dining Room – many ships offer either traditional set dining times, or flexible unassigned seating; some give guests the choice of one or the other and each has its proponents and critics.  Often, those choosing the open dining suffer long wait times before being seated.  Marina requires reservations for their specialty restaurants, but not for the standard venues, and does an amazing job of quickly accommodating guests as they arrive at the times of their choosing.
  • No photographers – what a delight!
  • Martinis Lounge – one of the loveliest spaces at sea; warm, intimate, and inviting with lots of glowing woods and tempting seating areas.  The softly-playing 40’s vocals during the day give way to live piano in the evenings.
  • Terrace Café – buffet dining taken to the next level with service at every station, elevated menu items, and a number of dishes finished on demand or grilled to order.
  • Cashmere lap blankets in concierge staterooms and suites – a lovely indulgence for cooler evenings.
  • Laptop computers in concierge staterooms and suites – another great amenity; how unfortunate the internet charges are some of the most expensive at sea.
  • Plush lounges on the deck – comfy and freshly dressed with terry covers each day, they are also pleasantly positioned to avoid that cramped, grandstand ambience.
  • Hand sanitizers – while all ships now provide some form of dispenser or wipe at restaurants and gangways, Oceania took the additional step of delivering individual bottles for use during shore trips in Morocco; a nice touch.
  • Bon Appetit Culinary Center – fun and informative with patient, cheerful instruction that’s suitable for all levels of experience and ability.
  • Wall coverings – one would think this to be a small thing, but the elegant, suede-like walls add a layer of luxe to the entire ship.  Sadly, they also add to the workload of crewmembers who must spend many hours grooming the nap to keep them looking pristine.  We expect that these will be a thing of the past after the first drydock.
  • Tapas and Wine events – sparsely attended yet one of the most enjoyable activities aboard the ship.  For a small charge, enjoy convivial company, some interesting wines, cheeses, olives, and wildly expensive prosciutto.
  • Library – a visually beautiful space with a surprisingly nice collection and an honor system that makes it a pleasure to borrow books.  It could benefit from some separation from the corridors that run along the front since the stream of guests walking by detracts from the quiet ambience.  Many guests commented that the floor plan of the libraries on the smaller Oceania ships is superior but this space is exceptionally attractive with  a rambling layout that weaves past bookcases, ship models, and faux fireplaces.  Various seating areas beckon guests to relax and enjoy the intimate surroundings.  That sense of  warmth and coziness is enhanced by the low beamed ceilings and liberal use of dark woods.  The leather club chairs and ottomans are so comfortable, many people simply fall asleep!

 

Discordant

No single component will please all of the people all of the time – some mixed reviews:

  • Bathtubs – although most ships have bathtubs in the suites, few offer this great feature in standard staterooms.  Cherished by some of us, we also heard comments from many other guests who felt a larger shower would have been a better use of the floor space.  The stand-alone showers are, indeed, disconcerting.  Approximately the size of a coffin, they have rain shower fixtures without sufficient floor space to step out from under the water – not well thought out.
  • Privée – somewhat overhyped.  The view is beautiful, the service definitely of a higher caliber, and the tableware is lovely.  But, the chairs are uncomfortably low for all but the tallest guests and diners are required to juggle two oversized menus from Polo Grill and Toscana.  Both contribute to an awkward dining experience.  We would like to see Oceania raise the chairs or lower the table, produce one special menu that combines the two, and make it more apparent that guests are not paying for anything they can’t get for free in the specialty restaurants, other than a private room and pretty dishes and flatware.
  • La Reserve – Few things are more a matter of personal taste than food and wine and most guests we spoke with found these dinners perfectly delightful, many opting to attend more than once during their cruise.  We felt 24 guests were too many for this type of event and the wines not as interesting as we had hoped for.  However, wine service was extremely generous and everyone left happy!
  • Casual attire – this is a topic of much disagreement amongst experienced cruisers.  Some guests love the fact that they don’t need to pack formalwear for their trips; others truly enjoy the opportunity to dress up and miss the more traditional, formal atmosphere.
  • Service – a hallmark of the cruise experience and a component which ships in all categories tend to deliver.  On this cruise, we certainly found the service to be acceptable but, overall, not as warm and personal as we would expect.  At the reception desk, it was simply subpar.  Again, and again, we saw passengers waiting to be greeted while the staff busied themselves with papers, not bothering to look  up and acknowledge the guests standing in front of them.  Phone calls were transferred to the reservations desk despite the fact that staff members could look directly across the lobby and see that the reservation agent was busy with guests.  Rather than put their best foot forward at reception, it felt as though the least friendly and capable people were stationed there.  Conversely, the room attendants delivered the tireless and outstanding service we have come to expect from this hardworking group.
  • Afternoon Tea – there were a lot of raves about this well-attended offering and clearly attention has been paid to many of the details.  There is a nice variety of tea sandwiches and pastries and tables are laid with cloths and teaware for this popular event.  Guests can visit a central serving area or wait for carts laden with goodies to visit their tables.  We do wish, though, that dining venues on land or sea took the same care with tea that they do with coffee.  The tea was abysmal – the ubiquitous teabag selection, which is never improved by placing it in a fancy presentation box.

 

Out of Tune

Every ship represents a series of decisions that weigh preferences with pragmatism and attempt to balance the frills with the financial realities.  Airy spaces give way to the need for more revenue-producing staterooms, rich finishes compete with maintenance issues, convenience confronts efficiency, provisioning is carefully calibrated.  Some choices seem acceptable in theory but fail the test in the real world:

 

  • Nightly entertainment – Oceania simply needs to do better.
  • Signage at elevators – the addition of the words “forward” or “aft” to the venues listed on the signs would be enormously helpful.  Guests headed to areas on the upper decks would benefit from knowing if they should walk to the other bank of elevators or stairs to avoid outside excursions across a cold, windy, or rainy deck.
  • Lack of a promenade deck – a terribly dissonant note; we believe this special connection to the sea is an intrinsic part of the cruise experience.  It’s not that important for some cruisers, but a deal-breaker for us.
  • Faux teak on the verandahs – enough said.
  • Daily announcements – although Oceania has dialed this back considerably, it was still the subject of the greatest number of complaints.  Guests felt it was unnecessary to repeat exactly the same information, twice a day, that could easily be found in the daily activities program, Currents, which is delivered to every stateroom nightly.  Let’s hear from the Captain once a day and in case of emergencies, period.
  • Announcements, part deux – it was distressing to hear the broadcasting of the names and stateroom numbers of various passengers.  There are  many people, most particularly women traveling alone, who absolutely do not want their stateroom numbers being shared with 1,000 strangers.  This is an especially egregious oversight which needs to be corrected.  Safety and privacy should be of primary concern.
  • Laundry tokens – come on, this is the 21st century; either retrofit the machines with cardswipe units or make them complimentary.  Having to go down and wait at reception to purchase tokens is ridiculous.
  • Marina Lounge – a failure on all levels; unattractive, uncomfortable, and impractical.  While we can appreciate the desire to limit volume and the wish to make the space more easily navigable for older guests, the resulting design serves no function adequately.  The pitch is so shallow that most guests find their view of the stage blocked by the rows in front.  The trivia participants complain because the fixed seating is not conducive to group discussions.  The aisle separating the front section from the back means that guests sitting in the rear section which is not raised, are treated to a constant flow of people coming and going in front of them.  The awkward floor plan makes getting to the sides of the theatre difficult.  The drink trays are more of a nuisance than a useful accessory.
  • Shore excursions – a decidedly downscale experience from an upscale line; exactly the type of raised-paddle, animal-herding, charmless outing that makes most of us cringe…overpriced and underwhelming.  Time to revisit the destination suppliers and come up with more appropriate options for the Oceania guest.
  • Concierge – there are few terms more elastic than “concierge” and it has come to represent a vast array of services, or lack thereof.  Sadly, Oceania’s concept of concierge leaves much to be desired.  Other premium and even contemporary cruise lines offer a much more comprehensive and satisfying product.  We would typically expect the private lounge to be open to greet embarking guests and welcome them with refreshments.  The Concierges would be available to meet with each party and review their personal itinerary, inquire about additional arrangements they might require and explain the policies and procedures of the ship.  Generally, the Concierges are the point of contact for guests staying in these accommodations; handling all dining reservations, spa appointments, shore excursions and any special requests.  Guests seldom, if ever, need to deal with the main reception and reservation desks as most services are provided directly by the Concierges who are available throughout the day and evening.  Food and beverage offerings are fairly extensive and complimentary cocktail parties are often held for the Concierge guests.  This is in stark contrast to Marina where we found the Concierge lounge open but unstaffed on embarkation day.  Staff hours are extremely limited and few, if any, services are offered.  The most often-heard response was, “I’m sorry, we don’t provide that service.”  Their primary function seemed to be to direct guests elsewhere.  Beyond coffee and soft drinks, as well as some basic breakfast items in the morning, food was minimal, repetitive, and unappealing; a surprise from a cruise line that seeks to distinguish itself with its cuisine.  The in-stateroom laptop, cashmere throw, bottle of champagne, and higher thread-count sheets don’t seem to justify the designation of Concierge.  We would prefer to see a higher upcharge and something closer to the industry-accepted level of service.
 

Oceania cruises represent a particularly good value for travelers who don’t drink alcoholic beverages and/or prefer to make private shore excursion arrangements.  For these passengers, choosing a luxury all-inclusive line may mean paying for underutilized services.  Because the decisions of experienced cruisers are most often based upon itineraries, there is significant cross-over between the ships of Oceania and those of the luxury lines.  Many Crystal aficionados, for example, also book voyages on Oceania because of the destinations and schedules.  Longtime guests of Regent Seven Seas, the other cruise line owned by Prestige Cruise Holdings, Inc., are often found aboard the charming ships of Oceania.  These relaxing transatlantic crossings hold particular appeal and Oceania has eight voyages scheduled for the 2012/2013 season including two spectacular 18-day Europe-to-South-America itineraries.  Contact us for further information.

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