While TIM MAGEE is not a fan of lists, he is happy to select his top three travel experiences this year …
A Most Lovely Hotel Room: The apartment in the Berkeley
There are too many rigid lists in the world. Too many best of, too many top tens, so here instead are a few of my most lovelies from this year.
I keep leaving hotels early. After a day or so in some foreign city, I start obsessing about making my own breakfast or supper, about opening a window really wide, or sitting at a proper table. I don’t want a home from home though – there’s no such thing – and arriving straight into an Airbnb and puzzling over Google-translated house rules or dealing with amateurs in hospitality after a long flight or a day of meetings is not for me.
I love hotels. Over the last 20-odd years I’ve been lucky to stay in some of the swishest on the planet but I had become less obsessive about the extra bits and bobs that separate one room from another – as long as they had soft linen, strong Wi-Fi, stronger air conditioning, some power in the shower and all with reasonably nice people to mind me I’m mostly happy.
The Apartment at The Berkeley in London changed that for me though this summer.
Designed by John Heah, room 101 is part ryokan, part Arne Jacobsen, and all feeling like the Japanese and the Danes got together to build a stationary version of an Orient Express carriage. On the world’s most expensive train I had to share a bathroom. My bathroom in the Berkeley was twice the size of my train cabin. You don’t go on the Orient Express for the space though – you go for the history, the glamour and the incredible attention to detail.
Size doesn’t actually matter so much in a hotel room but what The Berkeley has done with every pick of this spectacular space does. Streamlined warm wood panelling and sliding screen doors are the Japanese-y elements, hat-tip to the Danes for the pale silvery grey furniture with non toe-stubbing rounded corners, the oh-so-gentle light and an eclectic selection of vivid pops of colour from some proper art, including some luscious prints over the dining table by our own Richard Gorman.
I’m sure the rest of the hotel, London, and the world was wonderful but I was slow to leave that room. My galley kitchen was surgical perfection, the hedged patio was a laugh-out-loud luxury for London, room service was as you’d expect from a hotel whose sisters are the Connaught and Claridge’s, and my too-temporary office is now the model for the dream one in my head. This apartment is the most impressive hotel room these eyes have seen yet.
The Berkeley, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge, London SW1X; www.the-berkeley.co.uk.
A Most Lovely Secret: Hôtel da Vinci, Paris (rooms 601 or 603)
I’m not taking any more chances with Paris. I tried staying in an apparently cool new hotel in a different part of town from my usual coordinates of the Marais, Pigalle and St Germain. I lasted two hours. Paris is not for new adventures. Paris is for keeping yourself in check and the axis that the rest of your travel notions should spin around.
I needed reassurance and found it in a sweet little Parisian hotel from central casting, the Hôtel da Vinci, indirectly named after a criminal. The hotel should really be called the Peruggia, after Vincenzo Peruggia, a museum employee who stole the Mona Lisa over 100 years ago from the nearby Louvre before checking in to what is now room 603 with his priceless mistress. There’s not enough room for his story here but there’s a movie in it, starring some classy backstabbing, a famous poet, the greatest painter, and a hilarious excuse for stealing the most famous piece of art in the world.
The Da Vinci’s tiny, opulent and OTT rooms are also stuffed with useful things like guest smartphones and the fastest room service on the Left Bank. What seems like a very busy little bedroom is actually a brilliantly considered space. About half the rooms have balconies, from some of which you can see the scene of the crime. In the basement there is, like in its neighbour L’Hôtel, a private pool that you can book as a resident. But the real secret here is the staff. The French should frame whatever training these staff get. I don’t know who is behind the Da Vinci’s code of hospitality but, having stayed in some of the grand hotels of Paris, none had the natural warmth that this dinky national treasure has.
Sitting in the sunshine with my feet up on my tiny balcony reading the paper with a coffee and croissant from Josephine Bakery, a madeleine’s throw from the front door, listening to the morning ning-nings from scooters, everything was, in this most consistent of cities, as it should be again. 25 rue des Saints-Pères, 75006 Paris; www.hoteldavinciparis.com.
A Most Lovely Bar: Baba au Rum, Athens
I am writing this in Athens ten years to the day of the Lehman Brothers collapse.
I hope we can soon start reading more about the cradle of democracy without seeing the words “financial crisis”. Too many people still think the Greek capital is a chaos of daily riots and unrest and that the city is a ghost town, and that’s wrong. I am not saying it’s perfect but Barcelona is dodgier, you will see more homelessness in Dublin or LA, and there are more protests in Spain these days than in Greece.
You might notice the ages of cars frozen in time compared to other major cities but otherwise what you will see is the oldest of the real European capitals rammed with young people in cafés, bars, clubs and tavernas that are as good and often far better than anything we have at home.
Tourism is keeping this most resolute of European countries afloat but spend your cash directly on locals in Athens instead of in the mar dhea bubble of Santorini. What you’ll get in return is Berlin with 300 days of sunshine, far superior food and wine and culture as traditional or edgy as you like. Start with lunch at Yolenis for a Dionysian tour of Greece without getting up off your tush, watch the sunset over the Parthenon from Café Avissinia, or if you get bored eating brilliant local food have world-class sushi at Sushimou or try one of the cool new international food spots like Nolan.
There is a bar in Athens that is one of the best in the world according to people that compile one of those silly lists. It definitely has one of the best names in the world. The Clumsies is an impressive three-storey swish but magic house of bonkers cocktails. The thing is, it is not even the best bar in Athens, or even on its block. Around the corner Baba Au Rum serves cocktails good enough for the gods.
A gorgeous tiki-style bar with Europe’s largest rum list – the drinks here are clever, sophisticated and delicious. Rum expert owner Thanos Prunarus opened in 2009 and also adds to the richness of Athens social life with the Athens Rum Festival, Fine Drinking magazine and the sister Deco summer bar, Mary Pickford, upstairs in Varoulko Seaside in Piraeus.
If I only had three words of travel advice for next year they would be go to Athens. Visit the Acropolis, sure, and the Acropolis Museum – mandatory, and never more relevant in a world of a very White House, black politics and an orange president – but definitely visit Baba au Rum and raise a Three Dots and a Dash (Morse code for victory) to a city that persists. Baba au Rum, Klitiou 6, Athens; www.babaaurum.com.
Tim Magee @manandasuitcase
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