Franschhoek: rustic luxury

March 17, 2013 in SOUTH AFRICA | Comments (0)

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Franschhoek Country Villas

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Sunbaked fountains

Franschhoek Country House & Villas: 24 Rooms, no private pools, 2 public pools, garden, 2 restaurants, 4 lounges

Kind of charmingly faded and somehow laid back, but some nice features. Number one it is very close to the village of Franschhoek (2 km or 2 minutes from South Africa’s best gourmet dining at Reubens and Le Quartier Francais for example), reached by free shuttle.

The rambling buildings have a sun-kissed country air that appeals, with plenty of warmth and individuality, and there are some very nicely renovated Villa Suites that reflect an old fashioned elegance with trendy cottagey touches.

Old fountains gush, a little stained by time, and the gardens are not tip top, just very quaint, and relaxed. There are four lounges spread out here and there, and terraces with mountain views.

“We are like a French country estate,” said one of the public relations staff. Indeed rustic.
I looked over a duplex garden cottage suite. The bedroom opened into a walled (shared) garden with running water and was quite pleasant, though the garden would not appeal to those with order and clipping mania. Upstairs was a small lounge that opened to a balcony.

Villa suite
The Villa suite was much nicer – very spacious and renovated with taste and warmth, harking back to olden days in a trendy way (painted and scratched). Woven “ye olde worlde” chair covers. The bedroom was huge and the lounge fine. Bathrooms all nice.

Two pools
The resort lies in a flat part of Franschhoek Valley where the mountains seem further off and the setting less dramatic, but still very appealing. You are only 1 km from the beginning of Franschhoek Village. They do not like the guests to walk on the main road and have a free shuttle.
There are two small swimming pools.
Points
• Quick shuttle to Franschhoek Village

• Pleasant laid back atmosphere, rustic and rambling

• Roomy attractive villa suites feel luxurious


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


Cape Grace: home on the Waterfront

January 26, 2013 in SOUTH AFRICA | Comments (0)

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Reflections as night falls - seen from bed

Cape Grace: 120 rooms & suites, 4 bars and restaurants (including a space devoted to eats and beverages in the library, a pool bar and the famous Bascule bar), spa.

A charmer. Homely and yet classy in an arty and low key way, with a reputation for warm and discreet service. Placed right on the marina with water on both sides.
The lobby is large and sort of rambling with some funky touches like a pile of pink suitcases. Funky design is Very Cape Town, reflecting the fun spirit of the gorgeously liveable “mother city”.

Rooms

The lead-in room type is a luxury room 35 sqm. And indeed though not especially large and in demure low key beiges and grey, my luxury room felt bright and welcoming. French windows can be left open for the salty breezes and the views over the marina to Signal Hill or Table Mountain.

I sat in bed for hours just watching the last rays of sun on Signal Hill and sunset reflections glancing on the water…as the lights of the city and the yachts came on mellow gold. Signal Hill is where they used to signal the sailing ships with cannon shots.

This lead-in luxury room category offers tea and coffee making (but not espresso machines), dressing room and bath and separate shower. Décor pleasant and trendy in neutral sand and beige with painted (artistically aged) furniture. It feels pleasantly lived in, not brand new.

For a balcony, upgrade to rooftop luxury rooms which are the same size. Rooftop terrace rooms (also 35 sqm) have a bigger balcony (10sqm). Superior rooms also have a balcony, are more spacious and suit families (50 sqm room area) with a sofa providing extra beds. The apartment suites are from 90 to 200 sqm with 1 to 3 bedrooms. For a discerning couple who likes outdoor living, go for the Penthouse suite with a spacous 45 sqm terrace with dining area and Jacuzzi from which to admire the fab views, and a large bedroom (80 sqm) with sitting and dining area.

Dining at Cape Grace

Cape Grace is also a “destination” for Capetonians looking to dine at the Signal Restaurant  or revel at Bascule whiskey bar. In fact we were invited to the Bascule Bar to celebrate a birthday by a Cape Town resident

The atmosphere is fabulous, with the fresh smell of the marina, the sunset behind Table Mountain, and jazz playing to set a mellow tone and keep at bay raucous young adults. For 100 zar my friends got to taste 3 glasses of expensive whisky (I guess a half tot in each). I took a strawberry daquirie that was a bit too sugared. But the eats were well worth it, only 50 zar for two tapas – each a sizable potato rosti topped with an ample circle of rainbow smoked salmon and horseradish sauce.

I liked them so much that I ate salmon tapas the next night too, when the poplar Bascule Bar was full, ordering from upstairs at the Cape Grace poolside bar.

The Signal restaurant makes the most of the fact that Cape Town is surrounded by clean seas rich in life and a warm Med hinterland perfect for fruit and vegetables: cusiine to reflect the heritage of the tip of Africa, where Dutch and British colonists, African, Malaysian and other Asian peoples have left their mark. South African “inventions” like butternut bobotie should be tried …

The library is another spot to hang out and enjoy atmosphere, cream teas (scones and cream) and teas and infusions where the leaves can be admired in a glass teapot. Red gold is roobos herbal tea from high on the Cedarberg mountains.

Who to stay

Discerning couples, and small families, who love trendy harmonious décor and views…right in the Waterfront

Why to stay

•    Individual, personal, peaceful, arty, trendy
•    Beautifully situated in the marina (a few minutes from the shopping for what that is worth)
•    Bascule whisky bar and Signal restaurant make it a destination in itself – Bascule is one of the” in” places by the marina with Table Mountain sunset view
Note
Bascule Bar is very popular so you have to get there early  (but you can order its eats in the pool bar)
•    Pool area is clean and functional with casual restaurant
•    Small bathrooms, in old fashioned luxury style
•    No espresso machine in luxury room and no balcony. Note: Luxury rooms do not have balconies unless entitled luxury rooftop or luxury terrace


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….


Roman Saturday: delightful De Russie

September 9, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (0)

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Dining in the garden

The place to be in Rome on a Saturday is the garden of Hotel de Russie. For buffet lunch. Not just for the food, tables groaning cold cuts, antipasti, and desserts and a pasta station.

The real charm is tables under the trees in gentle breeze, in a restaurant tiered up one of Rome’s seven hills. Cute legs marched past in dressy shorts, among those who would see and be seen, cool on a hot day.

This garden is one of the reasons for the hotel’s oasis reputation, another is the spa bubble bath. It is fabulous I was told by a guest as I peered in to see, and it is free (to guests).  We were merely lunch guests.

The highlight  of the meal (for us) was the charming Mario, who came with the renowned Italian charm up to me and held two tomato pasta’s (pasta pommodoro) in front of me with an arm on each side. Which do you want, he asked. This one is made with love, and this one with tomato. I did choose love…

Hotel de Russie lies in a fashionable street Via del Babuino near Piazza del Popolo. It has 122 rooms.  We were shown round a few rooms, in the style that its loyal guests love  with marble and mosaic bathrooms, understated demure colours and a hint in some of classic romance. The only brightish colour I remember in the deluxe rooms and deluxe superior rooms we saw was the case of the TV.


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


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.


Deep into Tuscany

August 1, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (19)

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Chiusi

16 July

Heading for the ultimate in Tuscan luxury after a blissfully budget flight. We drove from Rome Fiumicino Airport in a jolly little Lancia  up the A1 to our first stop Chiusi. My iPhone “Maps” was much in use like a new toy and proved its worth by showing a bubble (i.e. our Lancia)  floating off our planned route from the A1 into the mountains. That discovery saved us lost time in the crushing heat and got us back on track.  It took us 2.5 hours from Rome to our first Tuscan hotel.

I’d booked a surprising gem of a four star hotel – so much nicer than I expected from the price. That’s what you call getting more than you pay for. Tomorrow we will be embraced by five star plus but today feels wonderful.

The former home of an Italian aristocrat – as all the Tuscan hotels seem to be, Il Patriarcha proudly hoists up a stone tower and radiates Tuscany with sizzling terracotta walls and green shutters. It’s been criticized for having a supermarket neighbour but our room was in a perfect position – one of the original classic rooms on a corner with views both side and back (the supermarket is a boring structure somewhat tucked away on the entrance side).

Behind the hotel on that hot day – that very very hot day of around 36 deg C – we sighed with pleasure to see the giant trees and real Tuscan views. Green rolling hills. A family was enjoying the pool. Nice sparkling pool.

We chose not to dine at the hotel. We decided to explore nearby Chiusi and dine there. I am already crazy about little authentic Tuscan towns with (hopefully) not too many tourists and this was one of them. The harmony and charm of old stone, narrow streets, churches and piazzas. Not to mention pizzas. I chose gnocchi and Pelle chose pizza with beer, which meant that of course I had to taste pizza too. This one was superb. How can wheat taste so full and nutty –  so nutritious…covered with simple ingredients like tomato and mozarella (buffalo).

Our room was Tuscan style with dark beams and a glitzy bedhead giving a romantic touch. Night was a dream. Breakfast had cake and sweet yoghurt, as Italians seem to feel they must deliver this morning sweetness. But it did have cappuchino and other edible  things.

And so on to our wonderful drive into the heart of Tuscany.

Green woods, silver olives, burnished wheatfields …. and of course more medieval stone towns. The secret of exploring Tuscany in the ferocious heat of July is white linen and comfortable sandals. Don’t try to take the car into the centres out of cowardice and fear of the raging sun. Park and walk. We somehow missed the treasures of Montepulciano by driving in and being unable to park.

But Montalcino found us parking at one of the signposted parking lots way down the slope, and walking…

Very lovely medieval town but lots of steps up. Dominated by the castle, we were drawn happily along  its narrow streets towards that structure and ate there.

Next stop will be Castiglion del Bosco, a byword in luxury.


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.


Villa Mangiacane: vines & roses

June 7, 2012 in ITALY | Comments (16)

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Entrancing Tuscan views from Villa Mangiacane

For lovers of the Tuscan countryside – a palazzo housing a country hotel  gloriously placed among its own vineyards and olive groves in the Chianti area. Rustic in feel, eclectic in style and opulent in decorative details Villa Mangiacane is an intimate hotel. And historic.  It was built for a Cardinal in the Machiavelli family and another Machiavelli, Nicolo,  wrote the Prince in a stone house on the opposite ridge.

His name  lives on in a restaurant on that ridge called Albergaccio Di Nicolò Machiavelli,  easily reached by a walk through the vineyards. And  the spirit of his times lives on in the original villa with its frescoes restored  and the rooms exquisitely furnished – a long labour of love by a South African who bought the then rundown villa as his own palace. Later turned into a hotel.

While the  suites and lounges in this building have kept a more Italian style, a newer wing by a South African architect is more eclectic in details, with African art and trendy modern touches.  

Africa runs out too into the Tuscan gardens – among the lawns, pools and roses, there are dozens of sculptures from Zimbabwe.  It can seem a little uncanny as if the owner’s other existence is ever present in his palace in Italy.

Signs of his personal life and tastes  – photo albums and books lie casually between frescoed walls, on the comfortably furnished verandahs of the original villa, and in the cosy lounges, one the scene of complimentary afternoon tea. And his imagination is also evident in the flamboyant Royal suite with its influences that seemed to be Thai, African and Moroccan along with perhaps some basic Italian.

Though not quite what you expect, Villa Mangiacane is a great place to chill. Just to linger. A sparkling swimming pool lies amid open lawns behind the main building – a pool bar opens later in the summer, and  a second pool lies in shadier position by the Machiavelli villa, adorned by sculptures invading from the African garden. The signature sculptures from long ago stand on the gateposts – two stone dogs – to illustrate the name Mangiacane (eat dog), trying to rise imposingly above lush growth.

Roses, lemon trees, herbs and of course encircling vineyards create a heart warming Tuscan ambience of colour and fragrance. Come good weather, which we did not have, you can dine in the garden. Actually we dined off property every night, generously provided with a free shuttle and booked by reception.

This is a boutique hotel with only 27 rooms, and you get very personal treatment by the GM Juan and his multinational staff, though I did not meet a single Italian among them.

Your life is their life it seems. Where will you eat tonight? What will you do tomorrow? Far from trying  to trap you at the hotel to spend money in their own gourmet restaurant, they are keen for you to have a really rich Tuscan experience. Whether hiring a car for you for the day to get to the architectural gem of Siena, or arranging a Chianti wine tour just for you (quite costly),  or booking you at the Accademia Gallery to see Michelangelo’s  David and on the complimentary shuttle to Florence. Or to nearby San Casciano.

The little town of San Casciano is a gem only 5km distant with narrow streets lined with small shops, eateries and fragrant rose bushes. And we were encouraged to try all the restaurants and trattorias there – they booked our tables and gave us free lifts back and forth to we could have that experience. Not just us – but many other guests took advantage of this opportunity.  I have never known such generosity in a hotel.

San Casciano turned out to be a great place to eat local food at very reasonable prices  – our favourites were Cinque de Vino and  Cantinetta del Nunno.  I would go back anytime.

Accommodation

In the newer building (also housing reception and dining room) there are a row of Superior rooms with private gardens, some with plunge pools. The category below that is the Classic rooms – not recommended to top luxury customers. Rising up into a tower was our room – a so called Junior suite. It did not feel at all Junior. Downstairs a lounge with easy chairs, sofa  and attractive items of furniture (no TV – that is upstairs). The sitting room opens into a huge bathroom with a big round bath and adjoining shower with opens sides, two basins and dressing tables, and more private toilet and bidet. Upstairs is a cosy bedroom with massive bed – very dreamily comfortable – luxury linen and pefect pillows. We loved our room, but in the unseasonable cold weather it took a while to warm up on entry. And when the rain turned into gentle sun we did envy the private garden next door where people were relaxing on sunbeds while their kids played in the plunge pool. Their plunge pool, looking a bit opaque when we arrived, was cleaned up and sparkled.

We also saw a Deluxe room, with generous bathroom but rather small bedroom. And another junior suite, this time with the bathroom upstairs.  Others we saw in the Machiavelli villa were the Royal Suite and a Terrace suite. Lounge and romantic bedroom. There is one two-bedroom suite on the upper terrace.

Weddings & cooking courses

The wine cellar is rented out for weddings along with the accommodation above it – the Royal suite. Their prices are very competitive with Florence. And like so many Tuscan country hotels, they offer Tuscan cooking courses in a dedicated kitchen. You dine what you cook at the adjoining table.

How to get to Villa Mangiacane

25 minutes by car from Florence International Airport. There is a free shuttle from Porto Roma – a circle just outside the Florence city walls. From the city centre a taxi ride to Porto Roma cost 6 euros.

In a nutshell

A place for a great Tuscan holiday with plenty of help to dine around taste wines and discover the charms of Tuscany. The mood is laid back, personal and friendly with every effort made to help you – but little misses do happen, and effectiveness is not always evident. Like the complementary afternoon tea. The girl at reception was not sure if it was at 3pm or 5pm. She then assured as 3pm – but it turned out to be around 330 pm that day. One of the staff ran back and forth carrying the tea things over the sculpture park from the kitchen to the Machieavelli villa till all was in place in the attractive sitting room. And then we had delicious freshly baked cake and tea with a choice of bags…we were the only two there among the albums and frescoes.