During my time in the U.K. (in February 2011), I was invited to give an action packed talk on travel to Beijing at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The 1 hour talk focused on the sights & smells of the capital city of China.
Straight after I returned from London, I had the chance to review the famous White Swan Hotel in Guangzhou. Ideally situated on the beautiful island of Shamian in Guangzhou, the capital of the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, the splendid White Swan Hotel is a reminder of the rich history and culture of this Cantonese city. The White Swan Hotel was jointly invested by the Guangdong provincial government and Mr. Fok Ying Tung's Hong Kong Wai Cheung development company. When it was officially opened on February 6th, 1983 it was the city's first formally recognised five-star hotel, the first joint-venture deluxe hotel in China and the first one conceived, constructed and managed hotel entirely by local Chinese people.
Since 1985 the White Swan Hotel has been a proud member of "The Leading Hotels of the World" as the first Chinese member of this prestigious hotel organization. In 1990, it became one of the first three five-star hotels in China (now you have more than 300 five-star hotels in China!). The hotel is a favourite among many Chinese and international government officials, Heads of States, Royalty and various captains of industry.
Most visitors these day may think that the White Swan Hotel is becoming a thing of the past, however it can be reassured that because this was one of the first finest five-star hotels in Guangzhou (and indeed in China), so therefore it is something of a privilege and an honour to stay here. The White Swan Hotel is very much part of the rich history, culture and ambiance of the city of Guangzhou. The hotel has a perfect location, lying on the banks of the Pearl River with stunning views looking across to the city on one side and on the other fascinating views of Huangsha island. Buildings with fine French and British colonial architecture surround the atmosphere of the White Swan Hotel.
The White Swan Hotel is also a preferred choice of many westerners who come to Guangzhou specifically to adopt Chinese babies. In actual fact, the relationship between the hotel and the adoption agencies is so close that the lobby of the hotel is used as a family welcoming area for parties and receptions when adopted children are formally welcomed to their new family and photos are taken.
An area that is closed off to the public is the top floor of the hotel, which has been used as the Presidential suite since the hotel opened. Remarkable as it may seem, the whole floor is taken up as the Presidential suite, separated into two parts - one for the Queen (the female area) and the other part for the King (male area). While the rest of the hotel may be renovated in the coming years, the Presidential suite will remain untouched. This is to preserve the heritage and the ambiance of the rooms and the furniture on which people such as North Korean leader
Kim Jong II, 37th US President Richard Nixon, Queen Elizabeth II, Deng Xiaoping, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and many others have lived in. It's perhaps one of very rare Presidential suites in the world that has a manmade garden complete with a small waterfall and a lake inside.
It has to be mentioned that no visit to the White Swan Hotel is complete without enjoying a culinary experience at the hotel's signature Cantonese eatery, the Jade River restaurant. While most westerners may not be used to eating a Cantonese style breakfast, it is highly recommended that one gives it a go when you are here. After all, it would be a waste of time and experience if you came all the way to China and you dare not try the local cuisine. Eating an authentic dim sum at the Jade River restaurant is all about the experience, the art and design of the food and the ambiance of the Cantonese surroundings.
The first that strikes you when you enter this fabulous restaurant are the words highlighted in Gold as: "叙初堂", literally standing for "this is a place" (堂) where long lost friends reunite and recall（叙旧) their past good times (当初). On the whole the name shows the charm and the poetic beauty of Chinese literacy.
To enjoy the true authentic Cantonese dim sum taste and aroma, it is highly recommended to start off with a bowl of traditional congee with preserved duck egg and minced pork. The congee should be slightly salty on its won because of the added flavour of the preserved duck eggs and the pork. It is suggested to have this dish along with a piece of fried bread stick (You-tiao) and dry scallop (just adorable).
The meal should be accompanied by a Chinese tea or teas of your choice. Highly recommended is the jasmine or the white chrysanthemum tea (good for the eyes, especially black eyes).
It would be a good thing to go for such culinary delights such as steamed rice flour roll filled with minced beef and a deep-fried turnip cake which has generous flakes of dry scallops that melt away in the mouth as one takes a spoonful. The latter dish goes exceedingly well with a slight garnishing of mustard on the top.
Just sit back, relax and watch as Chef de Cuisine Mr. Qui Wei Guo presents a session of live dumpling making in front of you as you sit back and enjoy your dim sum. Chef Qui's dumplings are rather extra special as he makes them into all kinds of different shapes and sizes. As they say in Cantonese culture that if a dim sum does not have a customary egg tart for dessert than it is not really a dim sum. The egg tart at the Jade River restaurant has all the signs of a perfect egg tart. There are none of those messy flakes falling off while you take a bite (most egg tarts of a bad quality have this feature) and there are no messy droplets of the actual egg yolk. It's just perfect the way it should be, and just gently melts away in your mouth. The egg tart is accompanied with a crispy flour cake with syrup
The dim sum of chef Qiu Wei Guo is famous and highly-recommended by Mr. Cailan, the famous Gastronomist of Hong Kong and many celebrities and VVIPs. When visiting heads of state reside at the White Swan Hotel he personally adheres to their culinary requests.
The Ritz-Carlton, Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC): Copyright Navjot Singh
The spanking new Ritz-Carlton at the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC) is located just minutes away from the world’s tallest man-made construction, the Burj Khalifa building, towering above the Dubai skyline and consisting of 162 floors above and two below ground. This delightful gem of a hotel with 341 elegantly appointed rooms and suites was opened on the 12th of January (alas 4 days shy of my birthday!), but hey, guess what? It has already gotten used to welcoming frequent visitors, namely those that have a serious business proposal in mind appointed in Dubai. Unlike the Ritz-Carlton at the Dubai Marina which caters for the leisure market, or those who want to be seen as the “Who’s who” of this world, this Ritz-Carlton at the Dubai IFC is more catered for the business community as it is conveniently located next to the major Sheikh Zyed Road, and only around a comfortable 20 minutes by car to Dubai airport.
Entering each of the rooms is a bit of an adventure. There is an air of contemporary design that blends in neatly with a strong Arabic ambience- you’ll be well pleased with a sweet smell of Arabic incense in the air.
Spacious bathroom attracting natural light with an open window looking right through to your bedroom form part of the excellent Feng Shui of the place. I have a feeling that the vast majority of the five star hotels are becoming more and more like boutique hotels- especially when it comes to providing the essentials of life. Loved the Nespresso in the room (attractively coloured Coffee cubes). All the rooms’ are equipped with the latest technology including fully integrated TV and internet system. It’s strongly Arabian yet very many international, traditional yet contemporary; with lush furniture and pampering bedrooms that add a vision to every angle that a guest looks into. Lovely hospitality and cuisine. Lovely detail to attention.
The sophisticated mini-bar includes wines by Cawarra (2008 Shiraz Cabernet) and Simonsig (Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz 2009). Almost everything at The Ritz-Carlton DIFC has lovely futuristic touches such as the electronic curtains and the trademark remote controlled TV in the bathroom.
The sleeping experience is just simply out of this world- an enormous bed awaits you upon your arrival. It’s so good that one may end up believing that they are somewhere in between Earth and Heaven. Pocket that thought with perhaps the best sleep you’ll have for ages! Fancy snuggling into a 400-thread count Frette linen?
All the rooms are strongly influenced by French art-deco have a clean, fresh and spacious feel with double exposure windows. Warm shimmering fabrics are used to create a fabulous effect that combines both eastern and western tastes. Each one of the rooms has their water temperature checked before a staff guest checks in. As standard with hotels’ in the Middle-East, a charming arrow points in the direction of Mecca so that Muslim guests have no trouble when praying.
At the Club levels (floor 13 and 14), the 38 rooms and the 27 Club suites are generously proportioned (42-61 square metres) and feature access to the 13th floor club lounge that has a continuous food and beverage presentations daily, and dedicated staff to assist at any time of the day. The best part of the experience is to have daily breakfast at the relatively calm Club lounge, which means that you do not have to deal with the hustle and bustle of the main dining area during this important meal of the day. Guests can also check-in and check-out with ease at the Club lounge.
Natural light also fills the marble floored bath and rain shower (love this creation!). Fantastic Feng Shui is exemplified by the use of superb symmetry. Lovely rich colours’ of Gold and Amber that portray the strong ethos of the Arab culture. Don’t be surprised to see Porsches, Ferraris and the abundance of Maserati cars’ stopping by in front of the foyer because Dubai is effectively a huge amusement playground for the wealthy. Then there are your usual Arab guests that come in from neighbouring Lebanon, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia- and normally they leave Dubai with ten times more the amount of luggage that they initially intended to take away with them!
A unique and breath taking space, The Ritz-Carlton DIFC’s central foyer on the 4th floor, takes the super lounge concept to new heights. It’s a sophisticated yet chicly understated and relaxed venue bathed in a vibrant combination of warm colours of orange, red, yellow, beige and pink- all divided cleverly into the lounge and on-going into the nearby No. 5 Lounge and Bar. The bars and restaurants have outside verandas’ overlooking into the actual Dubai IFC mall- with all the more adds to the uniqueness of this fine accommodation.
The gorgeous backdrop of a waterfall view that guests can take pleasure in is very much tempting not just for business persons who want to while away their evenings after a long day at work but for those who want to hold meetings, hold weddings and conventions.
The “Centre Cut” provides the finest prime beef cuts in the city, and has a certain masculine touch to it complete with a furious red ambience and portraits of a raging bull providing a splendid backdrop. The whole experience should go down well with a lovely glass of fine red wine. For those who prefer some authentic French cuisine may want to dig their taste buds into the “Can Can” eatery that looks rather like a typical French bistro. Now if you adore food, like I do, then wait till you tuck into one of the dishes at the “Blue Rain” restaurant. It offers nothing but sheer authentic Thai cuisine. It’s so good that it will simply blow your mind, and taste buds’, away!
The Ritz-Carlton DIFC is the ultimate when it comes to gastronomical pleasure, lively conversation among busy city professionals who want to relax with, say a fine “2 Up Shiraz”, a classy Malt Whiskey, or one of the scrumptious culinary innovations, after a long day at the office, brightens up the place. This is the perfect place for captains of Industry to network as well as absorb the newly found chic atmosphere of 21st century Dubai. With all the glam, modernity and the glitter, it’s easy to forget that one is actually sitting in the middle of a desert!
The Spa features a temperature controlled swimming pool, a fully manned gymnasium and massage rooms’. The services of the club are extensive in line with the branded Ritz-Carlton treatments’ (refreshing turquoise colours illustrate the vibrant treatments and menus!). All the treatments are masterfully designed to ensure the highest level of relaxation and satisfaction, while a team of professional therapists pamper guests with the best natural products and international brands in the UAE.
The Blue Rain Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton DIFC (DUBAI): Copyright Navjot Singh
Located on the 4th floor of the rather new Ritz-Carlton at the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC), the authentic Thai restaurant Blue Rain will leave your taste buds dancing for delight. Dining at the Blue Rain is meant to be an experience for each and every sense. All the staff are native Thai people especially bought in to the restaurant from Thailand. Fortunately the restaurant gets its wines from the hotel’s wine rack that is noted to be the largest in the world. Main courses can be humble and authentic while the dessert can be daringly modern. And because the food is prepared according to the philosophy of how an authentic Thai meal should be created, with only the best produce and ingredients dependant on seasonal availability, the menu changes on a regular basis.
With the lovely backdrop of a waterfall view as well as the restaurant floor containing a “canal” type stream running right through the middle of the restaurant (covered by a wonderful blue glass to give the effect of a “Blue Rain”), the restaurant is itself a work of constant art and not just a culinary adventure.
With a Thai identity on a regional platform, the chef has created an amazing cuisine that is open for local and international ingredients and influences (provided they have the authentic Thai touch to them). This creates a cuisine that is based on natural produce and natural taste with an acceptable level of healthy oil, salt and sugars in the meals’. It’s effectively an exotic culinary creativity in a vibrant, sophisticated atmosphere where you can just relax, enjoy and while away those evenings in good company and wine (perhaps a cigar too). The demand for first class eateries in the Middle-east is considerable. But the Blue Rain does a sensational job in matching up to the high expectations of its guests, whether they are locally based or from far away lands across the seas.
An extensive menu caters for all tastes including fresh fish dishes taken from the local waters around the Arabian Gulf. Must try dishes include tantalising appetisers such as “Popia Sot” and “Mieng Kham Kung”. The “Popia Sot” is a Thai style spring roll accompanied with a lovely meaty cut of chicken and generous portions of asparagus, mint and a dash of tamarind sauce. While the latter dish is made up of prawns wrapped in betel leaf and accompanied with a touch of ginger, chilli and coconut. The whole package is neatly sprinkled with a dash of lime. Dare I say priceless in Dubai?
Splendid main dishes that just cannot leave the Blue Rain without trying include “Gang Kiew Wan Pla Murk”, and “Panang Nua Wagyu”. The former is an extremely scrumptious seafood extravaganza consisting of squid with minced prawn, fish and a munificent plateful of pea eggplant. All of this is flavoured with Thai basil and surrounded with green curry. While the “Panang Nua Wagyu” is for those who prefer the meatier option because of its rich weight of wagyu beef surrounded in a Penang curry. The dish is simply out of this world for those who have a passion for beef and spicy food because it has the charming touch of red chillies and kaffir lime.
For a truly authentic Thai dessert opt for the “Khao Niew Mamuang” because it contains some of the most popular ingredients associated with Thai food and culture including mango, coconut and glutinous rice.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea to wash all of this down with a fine glass of “the Ritz-Carlton Martini”. A lovely dash of gin blends in neatly with fresh mint leaves, cucumber and lime juice to give it a simple yet addictive attraction for those who prefer to enjoy the high life.
The authentic Thai touch is provided even when the meal is finished when dinars are presented with the Thai ice-cream dessert containing the Thai greeting words “Khob Khun Krab” (Thai for “Thank You”).
The Peninsula Bangkok: Copyright Navjot Singh
Stepping out of the spanking clean Bangkok airport you are welcomed by the frantic pace of the city with its small mopeds, tricycles, and those colourful Bangkok taxies. It’s a hard fact to swallow that in the middle of this rush is a place where you will be welcomed by tranquil surroundings- a place where you can reach out to the highest limits of luxury offered in this world, yet be located right bang smack in the sidelines of a teeming Bangkok road. That place is the flamboyant 37-story Peninsula Bangkok where he feel of former colonial elegance meets 21st century modernity right in the heart of the most happening city in South-East Asia. The beautiful attention to detail allows every guest to relax in calm and comfort surroundings, away from the bustle of the city, especially on a hot summer’s day.
All of the 370 rooms (including 60 one bedroom suites) at the Peninsula Bangkok are generously proportioned, enriched with warm fabrics. The W-shaped building has an imaginative design that allows all the rooms and corridors to have stunning views of the city from all angles. The ultra-comfortable guest rooms are furnished with luxurious tailored bed sheets and goose down pillows, and equipped with deluxe amenities including skilfully designed task lights that makes each visit to each room rather distinctive.
The highlight of the in-room experience is the master switch with which you can just simply switch off everything at night. Very much modern and contemporary compared to, say the Beijing Peninsula and the original Peninsula Hong Kong because the Peninsula Bangkok was opened only in 2006. Another nice touch is the shoe shining service where one can place the shoes in a two sided cupboard- where the room service can collect the shoes from the outside and deliver them back without having to disturb you.
Toiletries are provided, as with the other Peninsula Hotels around the world, by Davi. The hotel distinguishes itself from others by offering the best views in the city. Indeed, on a clear day one can catch a clear glimpse of the downtown Bangkok even with the naked eye. The main Peninsula Suite is the jewel of the Peninsula Bangkok- coming complete with a private rooftop temperature controlled Jacuzzi that provides fine splendid views right across the whole of this fascinating metropolis, a private butler, and added luxuries such as a marble bathroom; Moet Champagne; chocolates to die for; in-room telescope and fully automated technology to make sure your stay is as comfortable as possible.
If you are yearning to travel in style than why not try one of those legendary Rolls-Royce Silver Spurs? While for those who desire to commence their stay with a high flying entrance, the convenient helipad located on the top of the building allows guests to come in from the main airport by a pre-booked hired helicopter in around 15 minutes providing spectacular views of the bustling metropolis on the way. The aviation lounge itself is an adventure and a definite place to be for aviation enthusiasts. There are cut-outs from the cockpit of a real Boeing 747-400 aircraft belonging to Thai Airways International, including the throttles, the foot pedals and the CRT displays. Even the toilets have the design based on an aircraft toilet seat! Once passengers disembark the helicopter, they are welcomed at the lounge with refreshment towels and drinks before being led to their rooms. The check-in process for their hotel stay is also carried out at the aviation lounge, which comes fully equipped with a mini control tower and a meeting room that provides stunning aerial views of the city and the river below.
The hotel is also the place for the best afternoon tea experience in Bangkok. Nothing beats the feeling of eating delicious hand-made pastries and cakes while relaxing on a swede leather sofa and in the company of a live Jazz band. The culinary highlights’ not only include the hotel’s Chinese (Mei Jiang) and Thai Restaurants (Thiptara), but also the experience of drinking a fine cocktail at The River Bar that comes alive after dusk. Three of the highly recommended drinks include:
Bangkok Sling – a fashionable combination of Bombay's gin, Apricot brandy, Lime juice, Grenadine syrup & Soda water gives it an energetic blend of Red and Pink.
Thaijito – an authentic and ingenious flavour that neatly blends in Thai rum, Peach Schnapps, Lime, Pineapple, Mint & Chilli. Gives it a whole new meaning to being a sweet and sour drink!
Peninsula Sunrise – Certainly a surprise when it comes to an interesting mishmash of Bacardi lemon, Lychee liqueur, Pineapple & Lime juice. Very sweet and tender to the tongue.
The Peninsula Bangkok’s Executive Chef Philip Sedgwick has ensured that no stone is left unturned when it comes to presenting the crème de la crème of fine dining at any one of the eateries. In line with this gastronomical passion, perhaps one of the best experiences is provided by the breakfast service offered every morning at the River Cafe and Terrace. It’s a gastronomical adventure where over 100 staff members’ provide a high quality food service ranging from authentic western and eastern cooked breakfast to traditional Thai treats. And what’s more is that nothing beats the feeling of having a breakfast in the open river front. Try indulging in exotic delicacy such as fresh passion fruit, or original homemade fruit preservatives along with the homemade delicious thick fruit flavoured yogurt. Now, that’s priceless in a place such as Bangkok.
The Peninsula Bangkok is well aquatinted to promoting special packages such as the Golf or Medical package. The latter forms part of a "Health and Holiday" package is a new vacation alternative that combines health benefits and a holiday retreat. It includes the annual health check from your choice from two international hospitals - BNH and Bumrungrad Hospitals. It goes nicely well with the growing trend of “Medical Tourism”. While on the other hand for Golf lovers, there is a special package called the "The Ultimate Golf Vacation Package" where golf players can enjoy an exclusive golfing experience at the Thai Country Club combined with impeccable hospitality from The Peninsula Bangkok.
The Peninsula Bangkok academy is very much popular in Bangkok as it is in the other Peninsula hotels around the world. The "Siam Journey" is the latest academy programme that was created by the Spa team to share the Thai heritage of wellness with international guests, enabling them to take the experience home and practice it in their daily lives. It is one of the principals of The Peninsula Spa by ESPA to offer an educational experience, and this programme was designed to help guests learn how to balance their body and mind with a variety of Thai massage techniques, including Thai acupressure, herbal compression and basic meditation.
The vast majority of the luxury spa therapy offered at the Peninsula Spa, known as the ESPA, derives from the Ayurveda and from Thai elements’. A treatise that is believed to have originated some 5,000 years ago. The core principle of Ayurvedic is the smooth maintenance and promotion of health, the prevention of disease- as well as its cure. It works for both the healthy and those not so-sprightly. When the body gets disturbed, morbid matter appear and they need to be removed. This is done in a combination of various therapies that include herbal tonics, massages and dietary regimens (herbal Chinese after a massage is offered to sooth down the heels and emotions).