The one and the only?

February 10, 2013 in SOUTH AFRICA | Comments (6)

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View from the lobby bar

PLEASE USE FIREFOX – having problems with EXPLORER

One&Only Cape Town: 91 Marina rooms & suites, 40 Island rooms & suites, 5 bars, grills & restaurants, spa, hairdresser.

I first saw the One&Only brand’s entry into Cape Town as a new building in a remote corner of the Waterfront. Now on an overnight stay I felt it vibrantly lived in, and a destination in itself with lots going on, albeit some 10 minutes walk or so to the rest of the Waterfront happenings.

Capetonians come in to enjoy the dazzling international Nobu, and the beloved Reubens restaurant, which has spread here from its fame in Franschhoek. Or the lobby bar with its iconic views. It was here I met an old friend Madi…she joined me on hotel inspection and tea…

The main wing towers up by the yacht marina with one side facing Table Mountain, and the hotel’s own island. A canal meanders in and around the island bearing boats and adding a lush watery view. Here you get the low rise island rooms, the real resort style lagoon pool frequented by families and bikini girls, a spa, the great hairdresser (Wayne). And a casual restaurant offering pool views

Pool restaurant Isola O&O

The best views though are not from the island but from the Marina wing restaurants and accommodations.

Tables spill out from the restaurants onto a terrace by the canal which bakes in summer sun. On these hot terraces (or cooler inside a great wall of glass) you can view the canal, the palms and the flat top of the iconic mountain. The lobby is a great meeting place to sink into deep sofas and sip a drink, enjoy the delicate pastries of afternoon tea (145 zar), or enjoy a reasonable meal with a fabulous view. (I had a light and delicious tempura with dips for 85 zar)

All rooms are spacious (from 63sqm) and all have balconies…which is pretty unusual for Cape Town. Sol Kerzner One&Only set out to build the most luxurious hotel in Cape Town and has created suave and spacious interiors and lovely smooth contemporary lines. I preferred the Marina rooms (which are lower priced anyway).

Rooms in style

I had the lowest category room – a Marina Harbour View – and loved it. It is big – some 63 sqm, with spacious balcony high above the aquarium and yacht harbour.

Marina harbour view balcony

Sleek stylish rooms

The other side of the Marina wing has the iconic Table Mountain View over the canal for which you pay a tad extra. Some of the rooms have a huge king bed, and others two queens (suiting families).

Marina mountain view room looks over the canal and island – iconic views

Marina double queen room takes 2 adults and 2 kids:

Then there are one-bedroom Marina suites which have in addition lounge dining areas upping their size to double the normal rooms, or even more space (Marina Grand suites).

The island accommodation provides spacious rooms and one and two three bedroom suites – priced over the Marina rooms of similar category, though to my way of thinking the Marina rooms are nicer because of their views and layout. They feel more open.

All rooms have balconies… Every item is perfect, sexy contemporary design and quality. All have nespresso machines. The welcome amenities follow up on what the website promises combining international best with local – for here you get mebos (rolled dried fruit) and biltong (raw dried meat cured with salt)….along with delicious wine and fruit.

Fabulous, high standard all round,  though lacking the intimate quality of Cape Grace.

Kids

There is a small but colourful kids club (free of charge), with a bleak outside play area – perhaps they think kids don’t want to play outside in the heat but then why not grow some trees. The slides and swings are very rudimentary compared with Scandinavian standards.

To quote O&O – the advantages for kids

  • Extensive selection of inter-leading rooms
  • Family friendly dining venues at Reuben’s and Isola
  • Complimentary use of KidsOnly Club facilities: Nintendo Wii, PS3 and a selection of board games
  • Daily programme of supervised activities for 4-11 year olds at the KidsOnly ClubBabysitting facilities (upon reservation)
  • Complimentary use of: Baby cot / high chair / bottle warmer / steriliser
  • 50% discount in all restaurants for children under twelve.

Tradition

Afternoon tea with high class confectionary

At O&O you get more sophisticated variety, like a high class delicatessen rather than a kid’s party.

In a nutshell

• A destination in itself with range of top restaurants incl Nobu & Reubens, great spa, top hairdresser etc

• Nice views from Marina building and rooms with more open feel

• Stylish, clean and contemporary

• Plenty space to dine and breakast al fresco at the hotel

• Big lagoon pool with lush tropical atmosphere

• Nice destination for families

Note: a little further away from the Waterfront Centre


Mount Nelson: historical & now

February 2, 2013 in SOUTH AFRICA | Comments (11)

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The grand driveway

Mount Nelson: 209 rooms & suites, 3 restaurants, spa, 2 tennis courts, 2 swimming pools including one for adults only, large gardens with sculptures, lawns, trees  & flowers.

Beloved Mount Nelson – a landmark in the “mother city” for a century.  At the top of an impressive palm lined drive, its various buildings (in 6 different wings) ramble through a lush garden in quite an eye-bashing pink.  This was the very pink mixed to cheer people up in England after the second world war and was exported to Cape Town,  inseparable from the memories of Mount Nelson’s regal history.

The hotel was built by the Union Castle Line – which brought the mail and all the important travellers to Cape Town. There was no democracy then and all the rooms were very class conscious – great rooms for first class passengers and other tiny rooms for steerage…  (surviving these days as cute single rooms).

Since those early days they have incorporated more elite accommodations taking over a doctor’s residence, a couple of whole streets of authentic Cape terrace houses and the old Helmsley Hotel, with its ostentatiously large suites. Only this Helmsley wing of the hotel is not pink – it is dunnish beige – again part of history as being 100 years old it is a monument that cannot change its skin. I was upgraded to a huge old fashioned (“junior”) suite in this wing, and saw some bright newly renovated junior suites in the Oasis Wing. Altogether 30 brand new rooms with modern feel and a touch of nostalgia. The real old Mount Nelson dowagers might not like that decor.

This hotel is history and perfect for those that appreciate the old ways, even while it is a popular meeting place for the new South Africans. It feels “real” …. .

Table Mountain looms up above the hotel. The “table cloth” feels close and dramatic as the clouds lying flat on the top waterfall wispily down the rocky sides rearing 1000 metres up. There is a complimentary shuttle to the cable station for rides up to the top. And those with a sea-lust can make use of a shuttle to Camps Bay (on demand / when available…). Camps Bay is perhaps 8-10 minutes’ drive from Mt Nelson taking the stunning pass over “Kloof Nek”.

A landmark resort in the city…

Mount Nelson is more than a city hotel, it is very much a resort. Two pools include a shady romantic pool for adults only. A whole street of the old Cape Town has been incorporated into the spa. There are also two tennis courts somewhere out of sight on the large lush property – you see the odd tennis ball bashing guest dash past. Then there are three restaurants.

The gracious old Cape Town is reached down the grandiose avenue past stately parks, museums and government buildings. It’s also a mere 50 metres from the start of trendy upper  Cape Town emerging in Kloof Street and Long Street, with low key relaxed restaurants and boutiques, crafts and businesses. This is where the actors, writers and IT people hang out. I heard them talking business, company image, and the like, dressed in shorts and sandals.

It makes you realize that Cape Town is not just a holiday destination; it is a relaxed and functioning city – with a spirit of optimism and fantasy. Though of course I really don’t know what it feels like for the millions out there on the Cape flats.

Rooms and more

The British have been loyal customers of Mount Nelson since way back and have not all rushed off to the Waterfront. Only recently, the Americans have discovered it and their numbers are increasing fast…

I remember yellowwood antiques from my last hotel inspection here in 1998 or so. Now the luxury rooms I was shown and the Junior Suites had been renovated. They danced a way between the neutral tones that have dominated five star décor in recent years and silver that added brightness without declaring war. Many suites still more traditional.

I was upgraded to one of the Helmsely suites. My suite was very traditional in style and no views to speak of  (my dayroom on the other hand, a single room in main wing had fab views of palms and mountain and was lovable).

I wandered around my larger suite not knowing what to do with all this space. I had 5 doors to the outside including a security alarmed terrace. The wind (a south-wester that had been uprooting trees for a few days) was making metallic bashing sounds into the night….and I wondered whether to tell housekeeping I had no tea and coffee making in my antique cabinet, or to watch the TV that rose with a groan out of a treasure chest when I pressed a switch, and played a loop of gorgeous Orient Express promotions that had no superstitious shadows behind the perfection…

Mountain facing rooms in the main wing and the Green Park wing have the iconic views. A wing of Classic Suites looked nice from the outside … at least the roomy garden terraces.

But if I could choose I would stay in the Garden Cottage wing, which is a former street called Sydenham (?). That’s for lovers of the old Cape Town – one and two bedroom cottages in authentic style, just over way from the adults only pool.

As mentioned above – 30 fresh and sparkling rooms have just become available with the reopening of the Oasis wing. They are uplifted by views of the swimming pool and Signal Hill – and original art from nearby Michaelis art school.

Locals to high tea and other culinary things

In the new South Africa the colonial days are still honoured especially at afternoon tea time – high tea. For 185 rand – a large sum by local people’s budgets – you get to eat as much as you like from a long table of sandwiches and cakes, and I noticed the guests were mostly local in all colours of the rainbow, though of course there were tourists too.

The tourists were casually dressed but the locals were smart modern people, putting Stockholm youth in the shade when it comes to worldliness. I overheard this conversation:

“She has only 200 friends on Facebook. She will never get a job. You need to have 2000 friends. You don’t have to know them. But you need to network. Everyone is their own brand these days…!”

The afternoon tea was almost the same price as the marvellous breakfast at the Oasis restaurant – which consisted of a buffet of granolas, seeds, yoghurts, fruits and an extensive choice of hot items (price 195 zar) but the afternoon tea had very little savoury choices, and those there seem to have been included without any heart and soul (and no fear of sugar or love of herbs and cheese).

By the way the pastry chef at Mount Nelson has won a prize, so – don’t listen to me…

Still, my lunch at lobby veranda restaurant was much nicer I thought for only 140 zar – a vegetarian curry with the freshest taste of newly toasted spices, served with the lightest most mouth pleasing samoosas …

I also had a very generous starter of smoked trout at reasonable price which served as a meal at that pleasing restaurant on the veranda – with view of the park and a big tropical flower as reminder that I was far from the snows of Stockholm. It was 30 deg and you have to love the heat to sit on the veranda.

I did not try the other destination for locals – the Planet restaurant. I looked over it empty in daylight, which is perhaps not fair, for in daylight the balls depicting planets hanging from the ceiling look a little plastic instead of hauntingly mysterious.  The carpet is an expensive custom-made rendering of the heavens with a real star chart.

I tried the pleasant Oasis Restaurant at breakfast – but it promises to be tantalizing for other meals too – its old buffet concept has made way for a la carte Mediterranean inspired menu with some local classics like Cape Malay chicken curry.

In a nutshell

•    Orient Express hotel
•    Historical, beloved by the British and now Americans. Dining here trendy with young local professionals
•    Resort with lovely views, 3 restaurants, big green gardens,  tennis, 2 pools (1 for adults only), spa
•    30 newly renovated rooms in Oasis wing (junior suites and deluxe rooms)
•    Quaint historical garden cottages and some very roomy older suites
•    Close to Kloof Street & Long Street and lots of choice of reasonable dining
•    Afternoon tea generous (albeit not so sophisticated) but fabulous cheesecake
•    Historical Cape  Town with Parliament and museums and oak-shady parks, easy walk (advisable only in daytime)

Note
1.    Rambling and spread out
2.    Hemsely Wing has no views and is high quality old style
3.    Verandah and garden  hot in summer  even in the shade – (misses the seabreezes of the waterfront)    (it was 30 degrees)

How to get to Mount Nelson

30 minutes by car from Cape Town International Airport


Mont Rochelle: peace, views & winelands

January 20, 2013 in SOUTH AFRICA | Comments (2)

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View from my Cape Classique suite

Mont Rochelle: 16 rooms and 6 suites, spa, Mange Tout restaurant, bar

A quiet boutique property that is partly new, rebuilt after a fire, with some authentically retro, quality hardwood furniture. It offers a peaceful, sleepy air and pleasant views down onto the Franschhoek valley, reached by the first turn to the right as you enter the Franschhoek village from Stellenbosch.

Its main attraction is probably the Mange Tout restaurant, which is excellent and rated among the top 10 in Franschhoek. Apart from very reasonable and delicious food, it is a round room affording an almost circular view. Very romantic to watch the night fall over the jagged blue Franschhoek mountains as you wait to start a 5 course degustation menu at 350 zar (excluding the paired wines). Down below on another wine estate we could see traditional Cape style architecture and a mauve jacaranda in full bloom looking as if it could lift and float.

Breakfasts are very South African in the best sense. Enough food for an entire day of jogging, cycling, surfing or mountain climbing. The buffet, silhouetted on tiered plates against the stunning view, includes the usual things like lots of yoghurt types, fresh baked loaves inviting eating, and blueberry muffins. But it’s the hot menu which bubbles over with imagination including rosti breakfast with potato pancake, egg and “stricky” bacon; beef sausage; South African omelette with biltong (traditional South African dried meat with salt and herbs); Franschhoek scrambled egg with trout, chives and farm bread; and poached egg Florentine. We are actually not so far from Florence here, in the sense of the Mediterranean climate and vineyards, but we are closer to France of course, as it is the Huguenots (French Protestants who fled Catholic persecution) that founded it and gave a rocket launch to the wine industry.

While there was good service at Mange Tout, Mt Rochelle was not very proactive in the hotel as a whole …. but the smiles of staff were sunny and genuine. I guess they feel if you wanted something you would ask – quite down to earth, and part of the charm.  Smalmy they were definitely not…

I thought the spa pretty and cute, but very small. As to the wine tasting room in the hotel, it was even smaller. But the winery is probably where you are meant to do the tasting.

Rooms

In conversation, my guide round Mont Rochelle rated his property somewhere between Delaire Graff and Franschhoek Country House & Villas. Mont Rochelle does have some ostentatiously large suites – like my Cap Classique (rack was 9900 zar at peak) – larger than the Villa Suites at FCH, but Mont Rochelle does not give that trendy tweak to the old fashioned look, as you get at FCH in the villa suites (next blog).

My Cap Classique suite was huge and opened out through both lounge and bedroom onto a grassy terrace overlooking a rural scene and mountains. In fact a tractor trundled by to emphasize the charmingly rural atmosphere. The lounge could have seated 8, comfortably. There were two sunbeds and a small plunge pool, a Jacuzzi bath, inside and two desks (or perhaps that extra one was a make-up table, if so the double vanities had place for one vainer person preparing to outdo the other at the degustation dinner).

The leadin room types are small in the old building: Shiraz, Cabernet and Merlot rooms, some with balcony. I saw a neat Pinotage room in the new wing, small but atmospheric with thatched ceiling and beams, small balcony, small lounge.

Who to stay

People who want to be close to Franschhoek and all the gourmet delights and wine tasting, looking for a  peaceful boutique property with a  sense of place…

Why to stay

  • Views
  • Peaceful
  • Boutique
  • Mange Tout restaurant
  • Massive suites
  • A quick ride to the centre of Franschhoek village

Note

Rooms might be considered a bit dated if you don’t admire genuine quality retro. Service warm but not proactive. I am left with memories of a great restaurant, stunning views, a roomy suite, and a kind and gentle laissez faire….


Delaire Graff: art, vines & pools

January 13, 2013 in SOUTH AFRICA | Comments (0)

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My pool and the vineyards

Delaire Graff Lodges & Spa: 10 lodges (villas) with private pools, 2 restaurants, spa, gym, winery, designer boutiques

This is the most exclusive property in the Winelands. A totally exquisite hotel with only 10 lodges featuring glass walls that open to private pools and sunny verandahs. Pampering level high with as many staff as guests, in perfect setting of vineyards and mountains, offering two good restaurants, spa, winerr –  and art, perfectly chosen, perfectly hung…

It has a stunning setting above the Hellshoogte Pass between historical Stellenbosch and the gourmet haven of Franschhoek. There is a free shuttle down to Stellenbosch (5 to 10 minutes) and it is a 25 minutes drive to Franschhoek village.

With its peace, beauty and privacy Delaire Graff is perfect for couples in love. Set one day aside just for chilling here by your heated pool. On arrival guests often cancel all tours planned, just to luxuriate in their own perfect space…

For honeymooners I would suggest a longer stay here – the lodges  are so romantic and there is so much to enjoy in the winelands in terms of wine, food, views, villages, boutiques….and the atmosphere is so much more peaceful and relaxing than Cape Town’s Waterfront.

Breakfast at Delaire Graff is the best ever if you like healthy food and a bit of indulgence. In addition to a hot menu you get your own private buffet on your table. Apart from the essential fresh orange juice and café latte variants, my private buffet included  three bowls of cereals with all kinds of nuts strewn in abundance among toasted grains; delectable small croissants and bakery items; fresh tropical fruits;  selection of cold meats and more. Most people have this morning repast in the their lodges, by the pool…

I had a great lunch at the lunch restaurant, choosing a modestly priced genuine fish and chips  – in fact, better than genuine. Light and puffy batter affectionaltey embraced the freshly caught  kingklip, and the lightest chips you ever tasted – they could almost fly. With this came a typical Franschoek view of the rocky fold mountains that rumple up all over the Winelands, framed by old oaks. They began planting oaks over 300 years ago when the Dutch still ruled the Cape.

In the evening I ate at the gourmet restauarant, treated to a taster, main course  dressy salmon trout, a dessert with a coconut cream and an ice cream cone full of very lemony sorbet.

The spa treatment was good and the spa pleasant.  There is a small but sophisticated air-conditioned gym, a shop of designer clothes and a glittering  diamond jewellery boutique. Laurence Graff made his money from diamond jewellery….

He has spent so much on creating the perfection of Delaire Graff that I don’t see how he can get it back with only 10 rooms – at least not for a long time. All his perfection feels somehow like a gift…


Hotel Hassler: original glam & charm

August 12, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (1)

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Half the panorama

Hassler lies at the top of the Spanish Steps with some of the best views in Rome. Most people who visit the eternal city climb at least once up the 138 pale worn steps or just sit on a step among many others. Like we did just absorbing the atmosphere.

One can fancy that the footsteps of history have passed here many times.

The US Army chose Hassler as their headquarters after World War II while in a lighter vein Grace Kelly chose it for her honeymoon, Tom Cruise chose it for his wedding according to my informant, and Woody Allen over and over for the panoramic views.

History seems to float in the air when you sit on Hassler’s terraces, with the domes and spires of Rome in the haze, or just palely glowing among the lights of night. You also drink in the view along with choice wines in the Michelin-starred Imago restaurant, with two sides of glass facing Roman magic. The corner table at Imago may have witnessed more marriage proposals than any other spot in Europe – it has views forever and back into time. There is another contender for romance in two deep red velvet seats tucked away in Imago.

The owner Roberto Wirth comes from a Swiss hotelier family. He is a hands-on owner and loves to linger around reception and greet guests. Mr Wirth is deaf and immediately explains simply: I am deaf, I lipread… A philanthropist who does a lot for deaf children, Wirth is a distinguished man with beautiful white hair and noble look, so I felt touched and deeply honoured when he came up and shook my hand, explaining about his lack of hearing and making conversation showing he had read up who I represented.

Wirth’s independence as hotelier is one of the charms of the hotel. With the help of his wife’s designer eye, it is so totally original through and through, so “uncorporate”. With a quirky charm, personality and glamour that brings people back. “We have many customers that come because their parents loved it,” said sales manager Barbara Ankin. “It is a generational hotel.” Many are from the USA.

Once called Hassler New York, the hotel is an eclectic mix of styles and tastes. There are zooty touches that go back to the jazz age. Glittery glam lounges. Refined velvety lounges. And simply staggering terraces, which must surely have the best views in Rome. We have sat in silent awe up there on the public terrace, enchanted.

Then here in this courtyard (where I am writing) you have an ancient wall of earth on one side, the edge of one of Rome’s seven hills. It is embedded with very old Roman objects, mossy urns, vases and sculptures. But in front is a flauntingly modern brand new bar, a glassy shell hovers over the counter (blue shell, silver counter) in the process of becoming a water feature. Water is due to run down the sides.

The rooms are all different with many different styles. Our deluxe room was renovated two years ago, plenty of wood, all white and bright. Pale marble bathroom. Delightful and fresh in feel. Another room (Junior Suite) we were shown was mostly black with black furniture and black marble bathroom – but had the advantage of one of the rare terraces. Another (Classic Suite) was newly attired in pale muted colours. Others newly designed were in red, black and white with waves and checks, a kind of new art deco.

The Presidential has been newly decorated with this playful flamboyance (by the owner’s wife). The Penthouse suite also flashes with vivid red. The main feature about this suite is its totally amazing unbeatable terrace. Huge…and with views to mesmerize. All the magic of Rome is there with domes and spires rising from the haze. What is more it has a roofed area on the terrace with a TV and grilling place. The Penthouse suites size, charm and status invites high society and celebrity weddings. Up to a hundred guests have been present at weddings here.

There is another public terrace adjoining the spa and the free gym where an American family of two generations was hard at work training (a former football trainer and two kids who looked like they played something pretty hard). There is a shortage of terraces among deluxe rooms – only two – but if you book really far ahead and have a good reason for asking for a balcony, you just might be lucky. You have to take a suite to get a terrace. Our Deluxe room had a view of Iglesia Trinita de Monte seen though a gap between two wings of the building. We had the best possible changing room, as there is plenty of place for two suitcases on a built in platform at convenient height (no bending over) plenty of drawers and hanging spaces. Marble bathroom. Nice amenities.

Altogether there are 95 rooms of which 13 are suites. Plenty of connecting rooms, deluxe to grand deluxe, grand deluxe to grand deluxe, and a kiddie’s programme. There can be fun for kids in Rome. Barbara Ankin mentioned a museum that taught the history of Rome to kids – Museum of the Roman Civilization. Of course kids can enjoy seeing the Colosseum, the Catacombs too and driving those fun bike/car things in the Villa Borghese park.

One very popular adult activity is unlikely to please the kids though. Window shopping in Via Condotti which starts only 138 steps down from Hassler and perhaps 50 more. Just to name a few brands that jostle side by side on a short stretch: Bally, Burberry, Bvlgari, Cartier, Damiani, Dolce & Gabbana, Jimmy Choo, Gucci, Hermes, Valentino, Vuitton, Prada, Ferragamo, Trussardi. An exception The Ferrari store will have some appeal for boys of all ages and is quite an exciting red.

See next blog about Roman Sunday.

Images (c) Per-Olov Broddeson


Tuscany: more than food & wine – history

August 5, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (0)

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San Gimignano medieval towers

In late July, harvested wheatfields are deep gold. Medieval stone towns cling to hilltops presenting the challenge of climbing up in burning heat. But they are worth it, full of little trattorias offering Tuscan fare.  Pizzas and pastas. Piazzas and duomos. History…

We drove up from Rome on the A1, then crossed hilly Val d’Orcia from Chiusi via medieval Montepulciano and Montalcino (park and climb)  on an entrancing winding route to the remote Castiglion del Bosco, and then drove a less exciting “fast” route chosen by our GPS,  bypassing Siena on the autostrada towards Florence and then turning south east towards Casole d’Elsa and Castello di Casole.

Both hotels (Castiglion and Castello) are well placed for exploring cultural treasures. Castiglion: Montalcino 15 minutes, Siena 40 minutes, San Gimignano 1 hour 20 minutes. Castello: Siena 60 minutes, San Gimignano 40  minutes, Florence 1 hour 10 minutes. 

We enjoyed the proximity to Casole d’Elsa when staying at Castello di Casole for its narrow stone alleys, and choice of less expensive dining venues with typical Tuscan fare.  And then we made a visit to San Gimignano. Again you are forced to park low down and walk in crushing heat  (unless you have can afford to just take a limousine or taxi).

As you climb you get closer and closer to what must have seemed a miracle in the middle ages. The tall austere towers around the Duomo…


Sleeping with Tuscan dreams: Hotel Castello di Casole

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Amazing pool of a 4 bedroom villa

The castle is just one wing of Hotel Castello di Casole – there are more buildings in rough hewn grey stone around it with the austere charm of a medieval village. Originally in the castle days there was a small village up here to serve 200 tenant farmers. Now the buildings house a medieval family crypt, a chapel, a serious gym, a spa (to open in September), some villas and various accommodation types.

Our favourite was a suite in the annex Tinaia, where the grain used to be kept. Bedroom and lounge looked out over the steep drop to the rolling hills and valleys and the lounge had a SKYLIGHT bringing gorgeous light (no balcony or terrace). Same same but different with perfect wrought iron details and heavy beams.

The wing Limonaia facing the restaurant Tosca contains duplexes creating a smaller more cottagey feel, with the advantage of small gardens – not yet private, as the gardens at Castello di Casole are still being developed including an amphitheatre. Limonaia is where the lemons were kept.

Nine new suites open soon with panoramic terraces, promising to be “highly contemporary and super sexy”, in the words of sales manager Laura Fiore. Bringing the number of rooms & suites up to 41.

On top of that there are the 14 magnificent villas (wonderfully renovated Tuscan farmhouses) spread round the estate – these are under fractional private ownership (but can be rented through the hotel).

Interesting to compare Castello with our last destination Castiglion del Bosco, another former castle and hill village in Tuscany, like Castello di Casole also renovated to deliver top luxury, with magical views, recreated borgo village (as used to surround the castles), own chapel, own wine labels and vast estate offering animal and truffle hunting and harvesting activities. By contrast Castiglion del Bosco has its own golf course for club members (offering limited golf to hotel guests – 4 rounds a year at 220 euro per round), and also has a winery actually on the estate. Castiglion’s castle is a picturesque ruin, while Castello’s from the 10th Century offers this legend on its name plate: Built DCCCCLXXXXVII (AD 998), Transformed to Villa Borghese MDCCCXI (1811), Restored MMXII (2012).

During our July visit Castello seemed livelier than Cdb, a little more a place to see and be seen, dress up in the evenings – and if not floating around in the breezes and gazing at sunsets reflected in the infinity pool – well situated for dining locally in the nearby town. CdB felt more exclusive with restful hideaway feel, somehow more wrapped in nature and its 20 or so rooms more spread out. Make no mistake both resorts have luxurious top suites with tasteful hand made details but at Castello they have more original flounce and flourish, while at Castiglion they are lusciously demurely classy and well rooted in the artistry of Florentine artisans. At Castello di Casole perhaps due to high occupancy we were not shown any suite to equal our CdB suite Vigna Alta with its own vast terrace. There is a prime suite with big terrace overlooking the hotel courtyard but it counts as a villa under private fractional ownership.

The owners of the Castello di Casole estate are Timbers Resorts (USA) who specialize in fractional villa sales at boutique resorts in the USA, Caribbean and elsewhere, with a strong philosophy of authenticity rooted in the destination. Before completing renovations of the castle and launching Hotel Castello di Casole, the resort had already marketed villas spread far and wide around the estate on a deed of fractional ownership usually one tenth or one twelfth ownership. These are put in the pool for renting when not occupied but judging by the haunting Tuscan charm of the 4-bedroom villa we saw they will be in such demand that one would be plain lucky to get a week’s rental for 8 to 10 people for 4200 euro/villa/week. The villa had perfect rustic décor, and infinity pool hanging out over a clifftop with stunning views, surrounded by vineyards, and endless living rooms. All hotel facilities included in the rate.

Cdb has 9 villas, 3 in the borgo area with more on the way; while Castello di Casole has 14 restored villas, 14 more to restore or create in Tuscan style.

Perhaps a common phenomenon, in both cases the owner’s wives were major contributors to the design and décor. Castello di Casole’s design also involved an American interior designer J Banks of South Carolina.

For Castello di Casole a major challenge in the European market will be its US ownership even though it feels more Tuscan than the Tuscans. They guess that 50% of customers are from the US and the rest from Brazil, UK, Northern Europe and South Africa.

Castiglion del Bosco has the advantage of the illustrious Ferragamo name giving it high fashion and highly Italian status – though the Ferragamo owner in this case is actually the son who lives in the USA. It was prior to opening a private club.

PS flashback. Our Maps programme in the iPhone steered us to Casole d’Elsa apparently through lack of information on the new hotel address. We drove up hill and down dale in the area looking for signs, but saw none. We had approached from an unusual direction, as it is signposted for driving from Florence or Siena and we drove over fabulous Val d’Orcia from Castiglion del Bosco. Phonecalls to the hotel proved fruitless as the staff new to the area could not imagine where we were phoning from in Casole d’Elsa so kept sending us in wrong directions. The proper address given by someone at the hotel fed into our iPhone programme advised us we were 50 km from our destination…so who knows what went wrong there. Certainly not Telia.

It was the petrol station attendant who put us right in the good old style.


Brand new hotel, 10 centuries old: Castello di Casole

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Stone structures from the 10th century

The petrol attendant in Casole d’Elsa pointed across the valleys: “There it is”. Finally we could see it after two hours of searching with our GPS. The brand new hotel Castello di Casole stood like a fortress village on the highest hill of its vast estate, amidst a panorama of rolling Tuscan countryside.

We were met with five-star grace, our car parked for us, and our luggage delivered to our corner suite in the exquisitely renovated 10th century castle. Friendly staff sympathised over our GPS troubles (see note below) apparently rooted in the newness of the hotel, open only on July 1 after 5 years of restoration.

It was now early evening and the air held a gentle buzz of expectation in the lobbies and courtyard, with trendy long dresses, high heeled sandals and bare shoulders in a play of see and be seen. Both the trattoria and the fine dining restaurants had tables out among the potted lemon trees. Candles were lit along the rim of the water feature and a balmy breeze cooled after an awesomely hot day. In fact outside the piazza/courtyard it was quite windy which is why they had moved tables into shelter away from the usual panoramic terrace.

Castella di Casole is indeed a romantic spot perched up on the hill with views all round. The fine dining terraces overlook the sunset and infinity pool and across the valley to the quaint medieval town of Casole d’Elsa, easily reached to provide many more Tuscan dining options. We had two top class breakfasts with the buffet choices supplemented by a la carte items and foamy cappuccinos. In addition we dined at the trattoria which held a very high standard offering authentic Tuscan fare, pizzas and pasta – with the sophisticated edge of vegetarian options. My vege lasagna was memorable.

Everywhere Tuscan ambience has been taken to the ultimate with perfect imaginative details, antique or customized; decorative wrought iron bedsteads and light fittings with twirls and flourishes, heavy dark beams, pictures from antique markets. Our suite was delightful, and the attractive wrought iron created a medieval flavor as befits its position on the 2nd floor of a 10 th century castle, and yet had the artistic flourishes of its artists and designers. I particularly loved the bathroom with views of the cypress lined drive from one side and Tuscan hills on the other (though over the parking lot).

We were given a welcome bottle of Castello Wine in the room, which we drank in the bath tub (with its reflections in fancy mirrors over the double vanities, separate shower cabinet and toilet/bidet nook).

It was a very delicious wine we sipped with flavours of perhaps chocolate and berries (I am no wine expert).The estate – 4200 acres of it – has 30 acres of olive trees for own olive oil production and 80 acres of vines producing its own wine, created in a winery off the property. They use the same winemaker as Sting.

See next blog post for more about the hotel.

PS flashback. Our Maps programme in the iPhone steered us to Casole d’Elsa apparently through lack of information on the new hotel address. We drove up hill and down dale in the area looking for signs, but saw none. We had approached from an unusual direction, as it is signposted for driving from Florence or Siena and we drove over fabulous Val d’Orcia from Castiglion del Bosco. Phonecalls to the hotel proved fruitless as the staff new to the area could not imagine where we were phoning from in Casole d’Elsa so kept sending us in wrong directions. The proper address given by someone at the hotel fed into our iPhone programme advised us we were 50 km from our destination…so who knows what went wrong there. Certainly not Telia.

It was the petrol station attendant who put us right in the good old style.

View across to Castello di Casole from medieval Casole d'Elsa

Far in the distance is Castello di Casole, seen from a pleasant trattoria in Casole d’Elsa

 

Narrow roads and passage ways in Casole d’Elsa – and some washing

Castello di Caole:

Built DCCCCLXXXXVII – AD 998

Transformed to Villa Borghese MDCCCXI – 1811

Restored MMXII – 2012


Peace, comfort and Tuscan safaris: Castiglion del Bosco

August 3, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (0)

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Infinity pool in the balmy evening

Famous for its deep red Brunello di Montalcino (takes 5 years to mature), Castiglion del Bosco charges 70 euro for a tasting session at its own winery; and its own golf club charges 220 euro for 18 holes (golf cart extra), limiting the number of rounds to non members to only 4 per year. Yet  the resort is all so understated, so natural.

Celebrities come here to “earth” themselves. With nibbles of celery straight from the large veggie garden. With hiking and mountain biking. With forests full of wildife. Even wolves roam those woods – and among activities like cooking courses, harvesting, and truffle hunting you can even go on safari.

The villas – beautifully restored Tuscan farm houses with private pools – cost from 3500 euro per night for a 3-bedroom villa to 5000 euro per night for a 5 bedoom villa, three by the hotel and six perched on hills somewhere on the 4500 acre estate. Rack rate on the borgo rooms from 620 euro per night including breakfast.

A veritable fortune and years of restoration turned the medieval village with its church and ruined castle first into a highly exclusive club and then a hotel, owned by Massimo Ferragamo, actually resident in the USA. He is the youngest son in  the illustrious Italian family Ferragamo. A name that sparkles in Italy.

Simplicity is refinement but can include very expensive details. Everything is antique or custom made.  TVs and minibars in leather cases. Four poster beds fashioned in wrought iron by craftsmen in Florence, the Renaissance city. Pictures from antique shops. Rows and rows of them, beautifully placed.

Though never flashy, the size of some its suites is something one might boast about. Like our suite Vigna Alta in the borgo village “main street”, with massive lounge, massive bathroom with tub and shower including stone seat, dressing room, extra bathroom and the best of all a spacious terrace with sunbeds, dining table, sofa and views of Tuscan hills.

We also got the chance to see two borgo rooms with terrace (some do not have terraces). The room Fontaccia alta has stairs down to a suite  that opens out into a garden with a pizza oven. There is a little kitchen so the two can be rented together as a villa.

Of course the resort has a spa and a gym – and a kids  club (25 euro per hour)  – and families are made very welcome. The trattoria/Osteria is perfect for kids, very low key, with plenty of pizza and pasta naturally. We dined there deliriously – not just admiring the real taste of pizza with flours mixed according to the chef’s secret recipe, but the real taste of crisp freshly picked salad. 

Technology up to date, but some of its best features are its oldest – the church with its 12 century etchings, the belltower on the former priest’s house – now the bar and trattoria Osteria La Canonica where you can taste the full Brunello range. The magical ruined castle where you can watch even deeper red sunsets.

Other old treasures of Tuscany can be seen on excursions. Siena is about 40 minutes by car and Florence 1 hour 30 minutes. Montalcino is two hilltops away (and two valleys) – my memory is it  took us an hour on its unsurfaced road, but other reports say 15 minutes.  The hotel charges 50 euro per way for a trip to Montalcino so it can’t be too far. See the images in the gallery above and in the previous blog.


Right in Florence: The Savoy

June 10, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (0)

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Savoy pavement nightcap

Ten out of Ten for location on Piazza della Repubblica a short walk from the main attractions of the Renaissance city.  A soothing Roccoforte hotel with classic Tuscan restaurant  opening out onto the square, where you can dine al fresco in summer, watching people flow by.  Not to forget the hotel’s pleasant service and a concierge who can book you restaurants and find you tickets for Michelangelos’  David or the Uffizi, thus avoiding impossible queues.

Food prices did not seem over the top compared with other delightfully placed restaurants – but the prices of individual items at breakfast could seem irksome. The continental buffet breakfast does not include your eggs but is adequate for Nordic peoples with delicious cured meats and hunks of Italian cheeses. Not to mention the pleasant feel of eating al fresco (under sunshades), encircled by the privacy of the Savoy’s rosemary bushes, or in the restaurant opening out onto the pavement through glass doors.

Here you watch Florence come alive with locals heading for work or tourists arriving or departing. Fortunately this Piazza is not the scene of frenetic over-activity. No special features just here bring busloads to stand in formation around the tour leader with flag upheld. Yet you are among fashion shops and just a short walk from the Duomo, Uffizi and Ponto Vecchia. Plus if you have been shopping and need a new suitcase you are in the world of classy items of leather luggage. And if you have misjudged the weather (like we did) and have been meditating upon an Italian leather coat, there are 15 outlets just from one leather coat factory in Florence – and many more. Actually high quality at relatively low prices.

Rooms at the Savoy feel tastefully and demurely luxurious – though small as five star rooms go. However, if you have views of the Piazza out front or the Duomo out back they feel much larger. Our Executive room (a mere 27 sqm) gained a sparkle and sense of space from the fifth floor view of the sky and the square.  Rooms are contemporary with a Tuscan feel emanating probably from the bedspreads which bring in a softer country touch. The small bathroom was richly adorned with marble and mosaics, with toilet and bidet squeezed in – and shower over the bath. Roccoforte amenities add luxury touch.

Big plus for us at the Savoy was that an ironing board was quickly delivered by friendly Francois the porter – in contrast with no do-it-yourself ironing opportunities being available at the Four Seasons where the cost for pressing was equivalent to buying a new dress at H&M or Zara (which are actually just a few steps from the Savoy along with designer outlets).

With such hot real estate on Repubblica one can understand that room size is not the main allure at the Savoy. Lead in size Classic feels small (25 sqm)  but as already noted Executive feels adequate (28 sqm), uplifted by higher position and better view. Deluxe definitely is more spacious at 32 sqm and studio at 38 sqm.  In addition to 88 rooms there are 14 suites.

Their equivalent of Presidential (Suite Repubblica) is 70 sqm and can be interconnected with a deluxe  room for more space. Highest suite with best view is Suite Brunelleschi (50sqm) including steam room (no balcony) – this is also the newest suite.

As to accommodating children, they have many connecting rooms, and deluxe rooms and suites take an extra bed for a child. Among child-friendly features hotel boasts special crockery designs for kids and special food including pizzas (one called Pinnochio). Gifts are adapted to various age groups, starting at a teddy on the pillow for the little ones; learning guide to Florence for older children in English and other main languages; DVDs for kids.

Note: the restaurant L’Incontro is under a 2 Michelin starred Chef Fulvio Pierangelini. Did not try it except for breakfast –  the concierge was on the ball for dining arrangements and booked us close by in a former cloister, where we had our favourite Aubergine Parmigiano for very affordable price.

Nice feature is the free gym on the top floor with a view of the Duomo.