Scents & Sensuality: A Fragrant Immersion at Andaz Amsterdam Prinsengracht Hotel

 

When a scent journey is afoot in Amsterdam, you can practically smell the excitement in the air. More specifically, aromas of heritage, hallmark Dutch playfulness and dry-witted humor permeate the spaces of the Andaz Amsterdam Prinsengracht hotel. And a dynamic duo of noses from The Society of Scent, co-founders and renowned perfumers Frederic Jacques and Jean-Claude Delville, are apparently up to the task of capturing this very spirited essence.

In fact, Andaz Hotels and Resorts recently announced an exciting collaboration with the agency: In their travels to each of the key properties around the world, these gentlemen will create a series of custom scents and experiences to weave into the storyline of each hotel, its culture, and enriched surroundings – thereby bringing to life one of the fives senses of Andaz in immersive and unexpected ways.

We had an opportunity to be on the ground in Amsterdam with the team, and to relish in their raw research, moments of inspired talks with creatives, and the way smell can achieve more purposeful applications in the hospitality/tourism industries.

 

 

The adventure began upon our arrival, where we were wonderfully wooed by our stay at the Andaz Prinsengracht property itself. Formerly a public library, designer and art director Marcel Wanders was tasked with transforming the space along with its current 122 rooms and 5 suites. Described as the “Lady Gaga of Design,” we chatted with his creative team, who explained that the hotel is infused with a charmed sentiment that honors elements of the past, but are depicted with a contemporary sensibility.

Delft blue, the Dutch Golden Age, navigation and adventure all helped inform the vision for the property; these classic components were then interlaced with quirky wallpaper and furniture, mixed media art, 50 video installations (the largest collection of its kind found in any European hotel), and overlaid with a kind of Alice in Wonderland aesthetic. In striking this fine balance of sophistication and whimsy, Wanders activates the imagination all while offering guests a meaningful sense of place.

Once settled in, the narrative of the nose continued with the Society of Scent team fulfilling an essential standard by chatting with the lifeblood at each Andaz – the staff – who live and breathe the property everyday; and here, they spoke with bar manager Martin Eisma and Chef Sander Bierenbroodspot. Both are innovators who nudge boundaries and dazzle the senses with their food and beverages, so it was apparent that scent and memory deeply informs their philosophies and practices. For instance, Eisma makes a potent expression of the four seasons with his Where Everything Grows cocktail. For him, the drink gives provenance to the natural beauty of the city at different times of the year. Just before serving, he sprays the drink with a tincture of whiskey and beetroot to prime your senses and to bring you a taste (and earthy smells) of his memories of the Dutch outdoors.

 

 

Chef Sander brought us a humble yet heartfelt palette cleanser of amarena cherries, homemade yogurt dashed with lime, and meringue shards during our multi-coursed dinner. As the syrupy-tangy aroma wafted up into our olfactory cortices, he explained that the smells of these ingredients remind him of his childhood which inspired him to make this creation. For The Society of Scent, it’s experiences such as these that incentivize them even further to “push that needle forward” in regards to harnessing this powerful relationship of scent encoded memories.

To take it a step(s) further, they ultimately wants to implement scent for restorative/holistic purposes, which venture into health and wellness realms, and The Society of Scent explain that these thoughtfully crafted and meaningful expressions will be more appreciated by the well-versed travelers. Although there is nothing wrong with simply introducing a lobby with fragrance, to instead use scents to add value to people’s lives which include opportunities to soothe jet-lagged travelers, to quell anxiety, and to boost energy levels – as an alternative to, say, caffeine – to give a few examples.

Above all else, for the duo, it was necessary to integrate individual signature scents (at each property) in a natural and organic manner. “It must harmoniously mingle with the environment rather than intrude upon it,” Delville explains. “Scent will always be present wherever you go. Here, we’re harnessing its capabilities to transform spaces, but it has to be done with a purpose and fit with the narrative of the hotel and its surroundings.” With this framework in mind, it is about providing options to enhance experiential stays, rather than have the scents feel forced, gimmicky, and/or disingenuous.

 

 

We also ventured outside for more “scentspiration”:  foliage, forestry, and crisp air first greeted us as we rode our city Stadsfiets bikes through the city. Then our senses were tingled from the saline-kissed seas during our canal ride on a vintage salon boat with Stichting Maritieme Zaken. Our visit culminated in sensory sensational florals, with a stroll through Keukenhof Tulip Fields, followed by a chat with famed Director and Head Florist Alexander Posthuma at APBloem.

Both experiences had our master perfumers in a giddy euphoria; and while it was obvious that in The Society of Scent’s 120+ combined years of experience and work with a plethora of flower species (which serve the formulaic basis for their scents and fragrances), Jacques and Delville continue to exude a childlike sense of awe and admiration – behaving as though they were smelling these blossoms for the first time and falling in love all over again.

We’re excited to see this joy and passion translated into the Andaz scents, and The Society of Scent add, “at the conclusion of our research, we’ll develop one custom scent and experience for every hotel and also one ‘product’ that’s brand-wide, in each hotel’s scent.”

Amsterdam carries a special place in our heart, but our trip this time was significantly enhanced by being given a rare glimpse of these artisans in action, as they delighted, played, and gathered their inspired ingredients in the field. We’re in great anticipation to smell the final fruits of their labor.

 

 

 

BlackBook Rooms With a View: The Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo

 

At the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo nothing gets…lost in translation. Most assuredly, it is because they provide guests with a very strong “sense of place.” Indeed, in fulfilling this philosophy, the newly renovated property pulls from the cultural and historical, enriched and inspired by the past, present and future.

Situated in the Nihonbashi district, which is arguably the financial and commercial hub of this exceedingly hyper but cosmopolitan city; in fact, this area was considered the historical birthplace of modern Japan (when the “new” capital shifted from Kyoto to Tokyo). From artisans and merchants to entrepreneurs, all walks of life would be lured here with the prospect of opportunity and success. Today, it remains a multilayered, rich neighborhood tapestry interwoven with department stores, dizzying skyscrapers, and prestigious financial institutions.  

 

 

This year was all about rejuvenation, as the hotel’s 179 guest rooms and suites were smartly renovated and refreshed. Determined to showcase local talents, the team sought out renowned textile designer Reiko Sudo and art director Ryu Kosaka, who transformed all of the rooms and spaces to better exemplify the “Woods and Water” theme – to which the brand pays sincere honor. To be sure, the Japanese maintain a respectful relationship with nature, and the Mandarin Oriental draws earnestly on that relationship. 

The standout suites are gilded in autumn gold, orange and purple wisteria, along with sakura flower embroidery on the headboards. Then there’s the locally sourced Bamboo flooring, Japanese tapestries, handcrafted chests made from the wood of Paulownia trees, and Japanese style lamps (made from washi paper) – all of which lend authenticity and exhibit resolute attention to fine details.

Oh, and did we mention the majestic views of Mount Fuji from your room via floor to ceiling windows. (They even supply you with a pair of binoculars for pristine sightings.) It’s particularly stunning when illuminated by the sunshine. 

 

 

Elsewhere, everything from the cascading waterfall at the entrance down to the opulent bonsai tree that greets you in the lobby help to set the tone and sophistication of the hotel, harmoniously marrying city and countryside in its aesthetic presentation. 

The “sense of place” ideology also makes for an oasis of tranquility that is the in-house spa. You’re transported to the wilds of Japan’s vast meadows, bamboo forests and undulating valley greens; an with it being situated on the 37th floor, it also offers a little bit of Heaven. While in the crystal steam room, dry sauna and/or infinity pools, you’re greeted by the sprawling views of the city below and, it being the 37th floor, the very heavens above.

Most importantly, there’s a genuine commitment here to providing physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. The “Woods and Water” design theme dovetails with their signature services such as The Essence of Tokyo and its pampering-perfected Totally Tokyo ‘Five Journeys from Nihombashi’ treatment. Here, skilled staff utilize local ingredients which encompass Sakura blossoms (a seasonal treat offered from now until April 30th), pine, bamboo, rice bran and plum to transport you to new states of euphoria – soothing mind, body and spirit. The journey includes a scrub, cleanse, massage and stretch. 

 

 

For pleasures of a more epicurean sort, you needn’t even leave the property. They are, in fact, the only hotel in the country to have three Michelin starred restaurants within its pearly walls – including Signature for French fare, Tapas Bar for molecular gastronomy, and Sense for Chinese. More impressive is the range of cuisines offered – there are twelve restaurants/bars/eateries in total!.

When we couldn’t decide between the wealth of options, our helpful concierge team quickly booked us in at Sense. Also situated on the 37th floor, the restaurant’s seductive decor is merely enhanced by the twinkling lights below, and the perfumed aromas wafting out of the kitchen. The fine dining here is fanciful, to say the least, drawing from Chinese heritage, while utilizing local Japanese ingredients to offer dining delicacies of an unexpected sort. Standouts included stir fried A5 Wagyu, crisp suckling pig skin on squishy bao, and buxomly braised abalone on morning glory greens – all ideally paired with a succession of their particularly inspired tea cocktails, crafted by their expert bar team.

While Tokyo offers a plethora of joys, we admit we looked forward to nothing as much as making a beeline back to our plush suite, for a hot soak using their specialty green tea bath salts; and sleep came only after a treat from their impressive in-suite pillow menu. Though it’s those breathtaking views that will surely most linger in our memories. 

 

BlackBook Rooms With a View: The Hilton Osaka

 

When you’ve flown halfway around the world to Osaka, Japan – it’s a relief to know you have comfortable dwellings at hand in which to recuperate from the jet lag. And we simply adored our stay at the Hilton Osaka – though not just for the rest and rejuvenation. Location-wise, one couldn’t be more ideally situated, being steps from JR Osaka Station and just 25 minutes from Osaka International Airport. And the striking, 35 story-high property is actually situated in the Umeda district- a bustling playground for business, shopping and entertainment.  

Of course, while it’s a tired cliché, East really does meet West in the most stylish of ways at this hotel. Considered a bastion of luxury since opening its doors in 1986, it was given a recent refresh of its 562 guest rooms (3 of which are Japanese Tatami Suites). Moreover, the attentive team at Hashimoto Yukio Design imagined each space by embedding rooms with welcome Japanese flourishes, including green tea colored rugs dotted with cherry blossoms, crimson accent pieces, use of native tochi wood, yukata robes, and shoji screens – the latter which open to reveal sprawling, awe-inspiring skyscraper views of the cosmopolitan city below.

 

 

We got our contemporary culture fix by hitting the National Museum of Art, where we thrilled to the current exhibition, Christian Boltanski: Lifetime, a comprehensive survey of the exalted French artist’s oeuvre. Then we delved into Japan‘s fascinating history with a visit Osaka Castle, a 16th tribute to the country’s unification, before hitting the seemingly limitless historic landmarks in Kyoto – just 43 km away.

But we admittedly were content to mostly hole up at the Hilton, where four of the five dining options were just given culinary makeovers. Indeed, they have conceptualized new menus for Folk Kitchen (all day dining), Centrum Grill & Wine (showcasing a worldly selection of fine labels from around the globe) and My Place Cafe (perfect for happy hour cocktails and tea time fare).

 

 

Though our two fave spots turned out to be KawaUme Japanese Cuisine & Sushi (with new menus by 2-Michelin Star Chef Kazuo Takagi) and Tenka Teppanyaki. The former is a must because you absolutely cannot leave Osaka without trying their finest seasonal ingredients such as uni and fugu, best enjoyed with their locally brewed sake. The latter is a delectable jewel, where chefs wield their skillful showmanship, ingredients are given ample respect, and guests are provided with a meticulously crafted dining experience. Enjoy creative fare like foie croquettes stuffed with seasonal strawberries, and coveted cuts such as kobe beef sirloin, and buttery A5 wagyu filet – all masterfully grilled before your eyes, and best savored with one of their more than 250 varieties of wine.

In our glorious and perpetual food coma, we were perfectly happy each night to waddle back to our king size bed and down-filled sheets – mesmerized by the glow of the spectacular Osaka cityscape.

 

Sybaritic New Orleans: Three Days of Bananas Foster, Ritual Massages and, Yes, Old School Jazz

International House Hotel

 

New Orleans emanates the sort of magic, myth and mystery that lures you to explore it with indelible gusto. And while we have covered its inspirational side and its spookier side, our most recent visit saw us indulging in something a bit more sybaritic.

The city has been celebrating its 300th birthday, with parties and events galore; and with dapper party hats donned, we immersed ourselves in not just its culture and history, but also its ability to seduce at every turn. We delightfully sauntered, meandered, drank, dined and indulged – especially at its ghoulishly delightful Voodoo Music + Arts Experience. Though things took a turn towards the more heady as we took in the dazzling 16th and 17th Century works of the The Orléans Collection at NOMA.

Here’s what we did.

 

A Stylish Stay

International House Hotel (IHH) was the very first boutique property in NOLA, fitted into a historic, landmark building dating to 1906 (its previous life was as the world’s first international trade center). Preserving its Beaux-Arts style, the hotel greets you with its soaring ceilings and ornate pilasters; owner Sean Cummings and interior designer LM Pagano collaborated to further imbue the space with such elegant flourishes as pressed tin ceilings, opulent chandeliers, wrought iron tables, and antique velvet furnishings – all of which evoke elemental New Orleans. Each of the 117 rooms, suites and penthouses deftly juxtapose sexy sophistication and soothing serenity. And its situated on the cusp of the French Quarter.

 

 

Maestro of Mixology

The International House’s Loa Bar (the name refers to deities or holy spirits) is a sanctuary of showstopping sips, with lasciviously rouge-y digs that are complete with sensual mood lighting. Alan Walter, the Creative Director and Mixologist – they call him “Spirit Handler” – endeavors to respect, educate and honor divine spirits through his apothecary inspired cocktail program. For special events (such as Fet Gede, aka All Souls Day, or the biggie, St. John’s Eve), he’ll get the blessings, consultation and guidance from local Vodou High Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman to craft special drinks that are tied to the celebratory ceremonies. But the Loa menu is inventive and imaginative all year round. High praise for our favorites: Cicada (Vodka, crème de cacao, crème de menthe, cucumber) and the Arabesque (reposado tequila, plantain, fino sherry, thyme).

Spiritual Serenity

The Voodoo Ritual massage at the Ritz Carlton New Orleans weaves the history and culture of voodoo into its treatments. For this unique therapeutic service, staff used locally made herbal poultices that were rhythmically and methodically kneaded over our entire bodies. It was coupled with a surround sound blend of voodoo chants and beats, as we became one with ourselves and the elements, while inhaling aromas of absinthe, vetiver, cypress and moss. We happily submitted mind, body and soul for this truly profound and culturally immersive treatment.

 

 

Tableside Martini Service

Dickie Brennan’s, one of New Orleans’ revered culinary institutions, left us in a hazy gastronomic stupor. Their steakhouse fare is given a Creole and/or Cajun twist, with feature favorites including BBQ shrimp, bone marrow pie, and prime cowboy ribeye. But even better? Glorious, bygone-era showmanship via their Tableside Martini Service. Our poison of choice? The ultra-luxe Black & Gold Martini, with Hendrick’s Gin, Cajun Caviar stuffed olives and edible 24K gold-leaf. Swank.

Epicurean Euphoria

Not to play favorites, but Restaurant R’evolution is NOLA gourmand grandeur at its absolute finest. In the heart of the French Quarter, the interior pays style homage to the classic dining rooms of the St. Charles Avenue mansions of the 1800s, from the inviting ambiance of the Market Room, to the bar themed like a French Quarter carriageway, illuminated by gas lanterns. The food is a “modern interpretation of Creole and Cajun classics,” under the direction of James Beard Award winning Chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto. Gracious, thoughtful service accompanied imaginative dishes like crab stuffed frogs legs, boudin stuffed quail enveloped in a heady gumbo, seared sea scallops with foie gras, and wonderfully light sheep ricotta gnocchi with lobster. Dessert was also a decadent treat, especially the Creole Cream Cheese Bread Pudding Crème Brûlée. (N.B. their Coravin system allows one to sample rare vintages by the glass).

 

 

Legs and Eggs

At SoBou, brunch is kicked up about a thousand notches. We loved their soulful renditions of street food classics: cracklings, pork belly baos, shrimp po’boys, and crab beignets; but we also took in their famous Burlesque Brunch show. In an homage to the popular clubs of the 1940s, sultry Bella Blue revived the beloved art form, set to live music. Meanwhile, Chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez seduced us with a three course menu, complete with Brunch Hooch Punch. Our faves included the cochon de lait deviled eggs and blackened geaux fish with asparagus & corn risotto & confit garlic whipped cream. And it went without saying that we would order the cherries jubilee & white chocolate bread pudding for dessert. It’s cooked to order, and while we were patiently waiting through its 25-minute preparation, we took time to fully appreciate the ambiance – echoing its former life as a heritage pharmacy, with old bottles decoratively lining the walls.

Foster the Banana People

Brunch at Brennan’s is an institution, with pillowy, fluffy biscuits, spiced turtle soup, and lip-smacking fried chicken with cornbread waffles. But it was the tableside bananas foster that we were most dazzled by. Flambéed right before our eyes was a gooey, boozed-up brown sugar + butter mix that’s carefully draped with vanilla bean ice cream and warmed banana slices. Better still, this star staple is getting a makeover – as Brennan’s is in the process of producing its own banana liqueur and rum. Not a fan of bananas? We also tried their fanciful rendition of black forest cake – a plump, chocolate shaped cherry stuffed with delicate mousse and placed on chocolate “soil.” It was a cherry-bomb of textures and tastes.

 

 

Brunching + Biking 

Over at the new hotel The Eliza Jane, on-site restaurant Couvant‘s brasserie-styled space offers sophisticated yet approachable regional French cuisine – with a seasonal, locally sourced menu conceived by Chef Brad McDonald. Here, we happily tucked into buxom brioche slathered with homemade ricotta & jam, hearty granola (oats, pecans, roasted peaches), soft & sexy omelettes stuffed with chevril, chives and tarragon, and gloriously golden-brown pain perdu farci, stuffed with bird’s custard. We “rode” it off with one of the city’s Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours, which offers guided cycling through beloved NOLA neighborhoods. We highly recommend the three-hour Garden District Tour (with gregarious guide Teddy), where we got to eye a few celebrity homes (Peyton Manning, Sandra Bullock), 19th century Antebellum mansions, Lafayette Square, and Coliseum Square Park… to name a few highlights.

French Quarter Photography Fix

Since 1973, A Gallery for Fine Photography has been a landmark fixture in the French Quarter. Independently owned and operated by photographer Joshua Mann Pailet, it features two floors of visionary, meticulously curated collections, with a rotating gallery of featured photographers. The more than 3500 photos include works by legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams. The perfect antidote to the “fast photos” of social media, we felt as if we were immersing ourselves in the whole history of photography – and left with a profound new appreciation for the art form.

 

 

Authentic NOLA Souvenirs

The city is certainly not lacking for talented artisans/craftspeople. And we visited Hazelnut for New Orleans Toile fabrics and other authentic home goods; Krewe, where NOLA native Stirling Barrett crafts killer shades and colorful handmade eyewear; and Mignon Faget, hand-crafted jewelry whose family roots stretch back to the 18th century.

Spiritual Retreat

Spearheaded by the aforementioned High Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman, the New Orleans Healing Center is a holistic, safe, sustainable space that aims to “educate, heal, fulfill and empower the individual and the community.” Eager to understand more about the Vodou religion, we learned that it relates to “promoting physical, nutritional, emotional, intellectual, environmental and spiritual well-being.” Her Fet Gede Celebration is a procession centered upon feeding and honoring the dead, or as she explained it, “By honoring the deceased, we embrace the meaning of our own lives and open space for generations yet to come.”

All That New Orleans Jazz

We made a point to soak up the live sounds at the historic Preservation Hall, where, since 1961, they’ve endeavored to “protect, preserve and perpetuate traditional New Orleans Jazz.” Every night, NOLA’s finest channel the city’s musical legacy, stretching all the way back to the genesis of jazz itself. Best of all, no phones are allowed; it’s one of the rare instances where the musicians implore you to be present in the moment and just enjoy their vibrant living history. From Dixieland to swing tributes, the spirit of Louis Armstrong lives on gloriously in this place.

 

 

 

 

BlackBook Layover: 42 Hours in Dazzling Doha

 

Situated on the Arabian Peninsula, Qatar is a nation that captivates the senses with its endless wonders. Wanderlusters and jetsetters take note: this country is the next emerging hotspot, especially when all eyes are on Doha (the capital city), whose current priority endeavors have been mostly about prepping for the FIFA 2022 World Cup. His Highness Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani has been the driving force behind it all; his visionary efforts and governing responsibilities (taking over for his father as of June 2013) have resulted in the nation’s immense growth and development, with everything that goes along with that.

In fact, Qatar is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. It’s mostly been about oil – but this has recently afforded the young nation (independence was gained in 1971) opportunities for expansion into other industries such as aviation and tourism.

The best way to get a feel for it is to pull an Anthony Bourdain, and plan a layover. Especially since those travelers who opt to stop for 24-72 hours when flying with Qatar Airways, can do it at no extra cost – and enjoy year-round sunshine, a bourgeoning cultural scene and celeb chef restaurants galore.

Here’s what we did.

 

 

Arrive

Land at Hamad International Airport in the evening. Opened in 2014, it is a state-of-the-art, 40,000 square foot facility, whose undulating ripple design was conceived by HOK. The captivating structure is only bolstering Doha’s reputation as a world-class destination…but looks aren’t all: with an emphasis on wellbeing and relaxation, facility features here include a rejuvenation lounge, and wellness area, pool, squash court and spa. You won’t find that at Laguardia.

Sleep

Four Seasons Doha is the epitome of palatial pleasure. If it’s not the attentive and thoughtful service, the private Arabian Gulf Beach access, or the bevy of fine fare to feast upon (which includes 10 bars and restaurants, along with impromptu visits from culinary legends like Chef Nobu Matsuhisa) that get you hooked – those sprawling suite accommodations, cushy king sized beds and airy balconies that overlook the shining waters definitely will.

 

 

Morning

Visit the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA). While approaching, be dazzled by “the eyes of Doha – conceived by visionary architect I.M. Pei – whose “gaze” peers out into the infinite beauty of the city’s Corniche waterfront, situated on the Arabian Gulf. Inside, 14 centuries of fine art and artifacts from across the Islamic world are housed under this one roof. And best of all, admission to permanent galleries (and guided tours) are free; only the specialty shows require an admission fee.
Brunch at Alain Ducasse’s IDAM inside MIA, his very first restaurant in the Middle East. Be welcomed with refined service, artistic plating and a cultural melange of French Mediterranean cuisine, with a heady Arabic twist. Most indicative of this? The wow-worthy flavorgasm of their tender camel dish, infused with foie gras and black truffles, completed with souffléed potatoes.

 

 

Afternoon

The newly minted Qatar National Library which opened in late April of this year is not only an educational hub, but a living artistic entity. The open concept design, conceived by OMA, is futuristically approachable, with touch screens and shelving robots. The library is anchored with its showstopping “excavation site”; made to look like an archaeological dig, it houses their cherished Heritage Collection, which consists of texts and manuscripts that stretch back to Arab-Islamic antiquity. Peruse the shelves and cozy up with a good book and turmeric latte from Safahat, their on-site café.
Situated in the center of Doha, Souq Waqif is a traditional cultural hub founded over a century ago where locals still love to congregate and socialize. The marketplace was renovated in 2006 to preserve its hallmark Qatari architecture. Here, a plethora of wares can be found, everything from live falcons to fanciful frocks; the infinite bustling alleyways and shops could tire out even the most ardent of shopaholics. And be on the lookout for antique goods and lively streetside auctions.
Then sit and soak up the atmosphere at Aspire Park, a stunning oasis that many aquatic animals call home for locals and visitors, it is a resplendent retreat from the bustle of daily life. First opened in 2006 for the Asian Games, today, the social space is perfect for soaking up lush greenery, playing sports, jogging and people watching. Our favorite spot is settling beside the tranquility of the streaming foundations, which allows us to delight in even more of Doha.

Souq Waqif

 

Evening

Local merchant boats called dhow have been afforded a second life. Today, visitors can sail away on these traditional wooden vessels in Corniche Bay, which evokes the country’s seafaring past and provenance as pearl divers. Then take a short stroll through the green pedestrian zone and watch out for a dazzling display of color; gloriously illuminated at night, Doha’s Corniche is a waterfront promenade of 2.7 miles (from its central business direct to West Bay) and offers progressive skyline vistas.
Get glammed up and head over to the W Hotel for a tapas-style dinner at Spice Market. A Jean-Georges restaurant, the menu and concept is helmed by Executive Chef Alvrie Manangka, who offers diners a culinary sojourn into Southeast Asian food. Share everything family style and be transported from one country to another via your tastebuds. Dining delights include shrimp, foie + truffle shumai; wagyu cheeks with yuzu plum glaze and spiced peanut brittle; and roasted black sea bass fillet with Cambodian-style curry sauce.

 

dhow

 

Morning Farewell

Before making your way back to the airport, explore the desert with an exciting sand dune bashing safari, ideally done when the sun is just beginning to peak up over the horizon. We recommend going with Q- Explorer, whose founders (born and bred Qataris Abdullah and Hameed) know the roller-coaster terrain like the back of their hands.
Finish the adventure with a serenity-inducing swim in the Inland Sea (Khor Al Adaid), an opulent natural wonder and UNESCO recognized nature reserve with its own ecosystem.
Qatar’s bucolic beauty, immersive experiences and deep reverence for longstanding tradition and culture makes a short stay a little difficult. But we were promising our return before we even checked out.

 

 

 

BlackBook Rooms w/ a View: Hotel Excelsior Dubrovnik

 

Dubrovnik is an absolutely stunning confluence of historic provenance and natural beauty. So who could blame us for readily making return trips here? Especially when we’re entering low-season – when the onslaught of tourists has dissipated, and you can relish the city’s beauty without the usual overcrowding.

Perhaps our fave place to lay our heads there is the 5-star Hotel Excelsior Dubrovnik (part of the Adriatic Luxury Hotels collection), whose glorious cliffside outpost along the Adriatic Sea continues to captivate and seduce.

The hotel was erected in 1913, with prime views of the UNESCO World Heritage protected Old City (a mere 5 minute walking distance away); but this old-soul doesn’t give away its age easily. The once royal property (called Villa Odak) was recently given restorative and renovated love, with a chic refurbishment of its 158 rooms.

 

 

And TLC it justly deserves, as it remains a living, breathing vestige of cultural significance. Today, the two halves of the hotel co-habitat with grace; the original wing greeted famous guests such as Elizabeth Taylor and Queen Elizabeth II…and the new tower section (built in the 1960s), recently hosted the cast and crew of a little show called Game of Thrones.

The attention to detail begins even before you see your room, when you first step into the airy, art-adorned lobby – which affords some of the property’s most awe-inspiring vistas. You’ll readily cultivate a Balkan state-of-mind when the panoramic dynamism of the Dalmatian coast and sunny sapphire skies engulf you at every turn.

All the room and suites have been laced with a fresh contemporary aesthetic – whose vision was spearheaded by local designers Studio Franić Šekoranja. All-at-once minimalist yet elegant and richly appointed, the focus is very much on those covet-worthy views of the Adriatic Sea. Principals Dean Franic and Saša Šekoranja note that they strived to mirror the beauty of the natural environment, appointing the rooms with honey-blond furnishings and ocean blue accents. Velvet seating adds a luxe touch to each chamber.

 

 

Our favorite part? With a signature Hendricks Rose cocktail in hand, it is exercising the art of fjaka and retreating to our private balcony terrace that overlooks the coast and Otok Lokrum island.

And if we’re segueing into the epicurean, we loved their in-house restaurant Sensus, for Chef Petar Obad’s modern interpretation of Mediterranean classics. We’re still relishing that grilled Dalmatian lobster + unctuous foie gras dish. But if you’re feeling bold, we urge you to leave the decision-making with the chef himself, who’ll take you on a multi-coursed, gastronomic journey with local, renowned Croatian wines to match – everything from Dingač to Postup to Plavac Mali will allow you to traverse the beauty of this country via what’s in your glass.

Or if you fancy yourself an elegant patio scenario, grab a table at Prora Beach Restaurant, a darling, stone-covered nook that oozes romance. You will thank yourself for indulging in their seafood paella, which features a fisherman’s bounty of plump grilled shrimp, mussels, scallops on the half shell, and sweet squid on a bed of delicate couscous.

 

 

If you’re hungry for adventure, the concierge desk arranges bespoke trips that connect you with local artisans and community-minded citizens. One of the highlights is a day trip through Pelješac Peninsula, which includes a visit to a Ston oyster farm, and a flight tasting at the legendary Grgich Winery; it all culminates with a feast at Antunovic Family Farm. The luncheon features traditional braised lamb and veal shank, Croatian peka bread, charcuterie, donkey cheese and milk, and walnut liqueur…all lovingly homemade.

If you’ve just closed that IPO, however, we strenuously advise staying at their sister property Villa Agave, which is conveniently situated next door. Like your own private piece of paradise, the sprawling property happened to be a favorite “home away from home” of director Francis Ford Coppola.

It comes with private catered meals, a sprawling hot tub, luxurious swimming pool, secluded cliffside beach, and on-site spa treatments from Hotel Excelsior’s Energy Clinic, out on the terrace, while enjoying views of the sunset.

Like the Pearl of the Adriatic itself, old and new worlds readily converge to produce an inimitable experience at Hotel Excelsior. And it’s especially lovely here in autumn.

 

 

BlackBook Rooms With a View: The Motif Seattle Hotel

 

The Emerald City is where art, nature, culture, and quirkiness uniquely collide – which is why we’re always so drawn to it.

Most recently we took up at Motif Seattle: A Destination Hotel there (part of the Destination Hotels collection) – most especially for the views. The four-year old boutique property just underwent a $10 million dollar makeover, and the space exudes a Pacific Northwestern charm that speaks perfectly to its location. Situated on Fifth Avenue between Pike and Union Streets, it’s nestled in the heart of downtown, and is quickly accessible to the landmark attractions: Olympic Mountains, Space Needle, Pike Place Market, and Chihuly Garden.

First constructed in the 1940s, the building housing the Motif was once home to the People’s World Bank Headquarters…hence its rather modest looking grey facade. However, the adage that “it’s what’s inside that counts” certainly holds true here.

 

 

Best feature: many of the 319 stylish guest rooms have sweeping views of the shoreline and mountains. The suites, especially, were made over by Degen & Degen, and Managing Principal for Interiors Anita Degen explains that “for us, it was an opportunity to design from the heart, and be able to throw out the rulebook.” We loved how each floor greets you with a Seattle scene or landmark, taken by a local photographer. And upon entering the rooms, each one is graced with natural woods, citrine wallpaper, ash carpeting – as a nod to the overcast days – and a “rainy day corner,” where guests can hang up their (likely soaking) outdoor gear. They exude a mix of funky urbanism and woodland outdoorsy-ness.

A nice touch? Coffee table books that showcase song lyrics from exalted Seattle musicians, from Jimi Hendrix to Macklemore, and album covers turned art mosaic pieces.

The city’s tekkies are also catered to: the hotel is installing Alexa embedded technology into all of the rooms, where everything from ordering breakfast in bed to private yoga sessions with Live Love Flow on the rooftop is as easy as saying, “Alexa, can you…?” But for those just seeking rest, rooms offer guests a new “Sleep Well in Seattle” in-room amenity, that includes vials of SOM sleep formula and lavender oil to ease your body into a restful slumber.

 

 

But for nightowls, Motif also marries music and drink at the 5th floor Frolik Kitchen + Cocktails, where you can not only seek happy hour on the outdoor patio, but groove to local bands such as The Fame Riot, while sipping on Millionaire cocktails (top shelf mixes such as their Best Martini Ever, that features Nolet’s reserve gin, and Cocchi Americano Bianco – and will set you back at least two Benjamins). Accompanying nibbles include the sublime Frolik Dungeness Crab Tots, which sees their potato taters fried to a golden brown glory, tossed with old bay seasoning, slathered with cheese sauce and topped with a mountain of locally caught Dungeness crab.

For the artistically inclined, there’s also the Motif’s Visiting Artist Program, another way of injecting local talent into the DNA of the hotel. This year it’s Julie Conway, who uses fire and glass to create objects with multifaceted beauty, including jewelry, light fixtures, flatware, restaurant interior decor, museum installations and so on. In fact, her artistry is reflected in the hotel’s logo itself, envelopes, guest amenities, key cards and stationary – which are revamped every two years when a new artist takes residency.

Though it hardly need be said – it seems we have a new favorite hotel in The Emerald City.

 

 

 

From Anchovies in Dubrovnik to Donuts in Zagreb: An Exquisite Culinary Whirl Through Croatia

Panorama Restaurant & Bar, Dubrovnik

 

Carving out enchantment in Croatia isn’t difficult – but visits to this pearl of the Adriatic Sea should absolutely extend beyond the more obvious cities of Dubrovnik and Zagreb. Indeed, in this ethereal land known for its otherworldly sites – as vividly depicted in Game of Thrones – there’s so much more to see.

We took the Kompas Adriatic Cruise on M/S Stella Maris, the compact luxury ship that allows for unprecedented access to sights and delights of those lesser known gems. Beginning in Dubrovnik and sailing north towards its final port-of-call in Poreč, the ship’s gracious and knowledgeable staff complement unique personal touches like lively info sessions, surprise island detours, and Croatian language lessons.

 

M/S Stella Maris

 

We were admittedly on a gastronomic mission – and thankfully, there’s an ocean’s worth of culinary gems at every stop.

Croatian fare is something of a crossroads of diversity and regional specificity, perhaps most easily divided up by coastal and mainland/continental fare. The former utilizes a lot of fresh seafood (squid, shrimp, lobster, octopus) and plenty of their award-winning Croatian olive oil – which is enhanced by an ample dose of fresh herbs and spices (think oregano, marjoram, cinnamon, rosemary); you’ll also recognize quite a lot of Mediterranean influences and resemblances to Greek and Italian (Venetian) cuisines.

 

Hvar

 

The latter is heavily characterized by Slavic influences, as well as some Austrian, Hungarian, and Turkish (due to proximity and historical rule). You’ll see meat, fresh-water fish and vegetable dishes fortified by headier ingredients such as sweet paprika, roasted garlic and black pepper; and moreover, instead of olive oil, it’s sunflower oil and/or animal fats, such as pork lard for cooking and frying.

Highlights in the overall include cheese made from fresh sheep or goat’s milk from the Island of Pag, spicy sausages (kulen) from Slavonia, Dalmatian prosciutto, truffles from Istria…we could go on.

Here were some of the highlights.

 

Dubrovnik

Take the cable car up Srđ Hill and soak up sweeping panoramic views of the Old City of Dubrovnik, the island of Lokrum, the bay of Lapad, and the Elaphite Islands. Perched atop the hill is Panorama Restaurant and Bar; and considering your location along the Dalmatian coast – here, you must exercise your gustatory duty to eat freshly caught seafood. We recommend the Dalmatian Trilogy, a swimmingly delicious trio of octopus, marinated shrimps, and anchovies – best enjoyed with a glass of summer à la Grgić Pošip (2015).

 

Panorama Restaurant & Bar

 

Mljet

Take a stroll through Mljet National Park – this cherished green island oasis is situated on the Dalmatian south. It is the oldest national park along the Adriatic sea and hosts a wealth of flora and fauna, along with two unique features: the Great Lake and Small Lake. The latter on which you can take a small boat over to the Isle of St. Mary, where the 12th century Benedictine monastery awaits. The building is a bit of an anomaly; due to it being redesigned numerous times, architectural styles collide: Renaissance meets Romanesque meets Baroque. For a break from the history lesson, wander down to Restaurant Melita. With views overlooking the lake, enjoy a romantic meal on the terrace with local cheeses, black risotto and our favorite, grilled mljet lobster.

Korčula

Millenia-old winemaking traditions are revered here. So a visit and chat with Mr. Branimir Cebalo in his Lumbarda vineyard at Grk Cebalo is very much in order. Located about two miles from the Old Town of Korčula, they offer tours of the grounds and wine tasting: we recommend his Grk white wine, which offers reserved intensity and is gorgeously layered. Then make your way back to the shoreline to Lešić Dimitri Palace Restaurant – or more simply, LD Terrace. It recently entered the Michelin Guide and their Dalmatian fare with contemporary flourishes ideally complements the patio-perfect views of the Adriatic Sea. We recommend the gambero rosso & rose galić dish, which features local sweet, raw prawns, and a lush bisque that’s finished with a drizzle of herb-infused oil.

 

Lešić Dimitri Palace Restaurant 

 

Hvar

You probably know it as the island where international celebs and folks with fancy yachts congregate; but beyond the ritzy-glitz, there’s authenticity and charm waiting to be discovered. Wander the streets of this seaside town and make your way over to the Španjola, a Spanish fortress built in the 15th and 16th centuries. As you stand on historic antiquity, take in sunny views of the quaint town, the Adriatic and nearby the Pakleni Islands. Then head to the local Hvar Market for a basket of the freshest, sweetest strawberries you’ve ever tasted in your life. Sometimes life’s simple pleasures are just as sublime.

Split

Part of the Dalmatia region, this bustling city is the second-largest in Croatia and spread over a central peninsula. Head below ground for a brief respite from the crowds, explore the palatial rooms beneath the surface of a Roman Emperor’s namesake Diocletian’s Palace, deemed a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. Then, wander over to the chic and lively Bokeria Kitchen and Wine bar for stellar Croatian wines (we recommend a medium-bodied white Stina vugava, from Brač); pair with the smoked and charred octopus, made with sweet stewed chickpeas and tomatoes.

 

Bokeria Kitchen 

 

Primošten

Located in the northeast town of Sibenik, Krka National Park is accessible nature at its finest. It’s a natural karst phenomena and rich in endemic species, but allows for leisurely strolls due to the many wooden paths. There are 360°views of lush forestry, streams, and seven waterfalls to behold –  of which the most famous and stunningly beautiful is Skradinski buk. After a jaunty workout, grab a seat by the sheltered overwater patio at Konoba Toni. The mixed grill is a must and features locally caught orada (sea bass), brancin (sea bream), calamari, clams, and shrimp. Fresh, sweet and tender – all else that’s required is a drizzle of local Croatian olive oil, lemon and salt.

Zadar

Situated along the Dalmatian coast, the past and present greet one another with a cool connectedness. With over 3000 years of history, a wander through the Old City of Zadar and you’ll be face-to-face with Roman forum ruins. Then encounter the present/future with art installations by Nikola Bašić along the coastline, which feature his psychedelic solar-powered Greetings to the Sun and water-symphonic Sea Organ. Then, get an ample fill of people watching on the patio of Pet Bunara as you tuck into Croatian-Mediterranean fare such as stuffed calamari that’s filled to the gills with a mixture of barley, Dalmatian bacon, goat cheese, fish sauce, capers and chives. And remember to take a peek inside the restaurant itself; its digs are built upon the archaeological ruins of the Old City walls – which you can see through their glass floor.

 

Pet Bunara

 

Rovinj

It’s hard to resist the charms of this impossibly romantic town. Situated on the western coast of the Istrian Peninsula, Rovinj’s Old City is a basket weave of narrow winding cobbled streets, stone archways, flower-dotted window sills, and a central harbor lined with little batanas. Wander up to the foot of the Church of St. Euphemia for inspired views, baroque architecture and insights into its famed namesake martyr; then snake down around the back (with swimsuit in tow) to the Plaža Baluota and its swimming nook. Enjoy the crystal waters of the Adriatic Sea and views of neighboring Katarina and Banjol islands. Afterwards, head over to Gelateria Italia for baseball-sized scoops of gelato (two, if you please) – obvious winners are the pistachio and the Crema Siciliana (blood orange).

Zagreb

From that final port of call of Poreč, opt to venture into Zagreb, the capital – the three-hour drive meanders through majestic mountains and evergreen farmlands. Upon arrival, make your way over to St. Mark’s Church, and don’t be surprised to be surrounded by numerous wedding parties and a sea of brides in white waiting their turn outside in the courtyard to tie the knot at this historic 13th century gem. To this day, it is picture-perfect, even though a portion of the building was constructed in 1880; it still features the medieval coats of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia, and the emblem of Zagreb. Ironically, the Museum of Broken Relationships happens to be situated a few feet away from all the “happily-ever-after” related going-ons. If the name isn’t enough of a giveaway, it showcases stories of heartbreak from all over the world. If you consider that the love of food is the most reliable form of affection, seek it out a block over and dine at local favorite Konoba Didov San, for Croatian comfort food. The restaurant inside is a tiny, cozy nook of a spot but in warm weather, seek out patio pleasures with charming views of the neighborhood and the Magdalenić-Drašković-Jelačić Palace. Try the Snails à la Dida – plump puževi sit in a rich gravy that includes roasted garlic and onion, and it’s served with crunchy polenta that’s riddled with crispy lardons. But true love will be found in the form of their fried fluffy donuts, served with their exquisite homemade cheese – the perfectly delicious ending to a delectable tour of culinary Croatia.

 

St. Mark’s Church

 

 

 

D.C. Power Stay: The Storied Willard Intercontinental Gets a Swish Makeover

 

 

What do the Dalai Lama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln all have in common? Aside from the notably obvious fact that they were/are all unparalleled visionaries and history-changing leaders, they have all stayed at the legendary Willard InterContinental in Washington, D.C. – a hotel which has left its own significant mark on history. More recently, it has been the choice of the likes of Tom Cruise and George Clooney.

Now, despite the perpetually contentious political environment we’re embroiled in (with our over-tweeting, 3D-gun-blueprint-endorsing president ever looming over Pennsylvania Avenue) we unequivocally believe that this is as good a time as ever to visit our nation’s capitol. And the Willard offers charm, charisma and the best opportunity for real historic immersion.

Actually located right in the heart of all the political machinations, the luxury hotel with its Beaux-Arts style atmosphere has also affectionately earned the title “Residence of Presidents” – as it has hosted nearly every American POTUS since Franklin Pierce in 1853. But its cultural proximity is also impressive, so near as it is to the Renwick Gallery, Ford’s Theatre, Spy Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

 

International Spy Museum

 

This year, there’s even more cause for celebration, as The Willard is throwing its own 200th birthday fête throughout 2018. In honor of its storied bicentennial, it was recently given a 6-month, $18 million dollar renovation. 335 guestrooms and suites, along with their respective corridors, have been refreshed by Parker-Torres Design – and we loved how the look is transitional, straddling the line between contemporary and classic…which was intentional. Miriam Torres, Principal at the design and interior architectural firm notes that “our most important objective was to respect the history of this Grand Dame hotel.”

And indeed, upgrades are aplenty, while it is apparent that they preserved the soul and integrity of the spaces. Classic guest rooms exhibit sophistication with peacock blue tones, gold, and ivory; meanwhile, the sprawling suites utilize warm creams, beiges and chocolate browns. Opulence comes by way of luxe drapery, textured wallpaper, crystal chandeliers and marble showers. Rooms are also amongst the largest in the city, with sizes ranging from a comfortable 375 sq.ft. to a palatial 3000 sq.ft.

 

 

Of the pied-à-terre styled guestrooms, our favorites would have to be the Oval and Jenny Lind suites. The former’s curvaceous sitting room is accented with regal red and offers sweeping views of Pennsylvania Avenue; the latter is a frequently requested room for brides-to-be (and was recently featured in the film The Greatest Showman); graced with robin’s egg blue tones, it’s decorated with more feminine flourishes, including a cushy canopy bed that’s situated under a domed cupola, and a serenity-inducing sunken jacuzzi.

If you’re able to tear yourself away from the plush rooms and their views of Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and the US Capitol building, then wander down to the main lobby for teatime in Peacock Alley. Posh but unstuffy and with notably friendly service, it offers bespoke brews from J’enwey Tea Co.’s owner Lisa Marie. And of course, there’s the famous meltingly-tender scones that are best smeared with cloud-like clotted cream and zippy housemade lemon curd.

Or for a culinary détente with our great ally France, there’s the recently renovated Café du Parc. Decor hallmarks include orb lighting, French-brasserie style tables, and navy blue banquettes – while on the menu, crafted by Chef Guy Ododi, stand-out delicacies include gloriously gooey french onion soup, seared scallops, decadent beef bourguignon and lobster + lamb (a refined take on surf and turf, in our humble opinion). Cafe du Parc also features a popular outdoor patio, with ice cream and crepe cart.

 

 

The adjacent Occidental Grill is considered a DC dining institution, and its illustrious history dates back over 110 years – evidenced by walls that are lined with portraits of famous faces. The menu and food philosophy was conceived by chef Jake Addeo, who’s cooked alongside greats such as Fortunato Nicotra and Lidia Bastianich. Obvious staples include their popular Roseda Farm dry-aged NY Strip Steak; but it’s the intermingling of the flavors of Italia and America that defines the experience, with favorites such as the sinfully unctuous burrata and pan-seared ricotta gnocchi with white asparagus cream.

Finally, a stay at the Willard really should include a History Happy Hour visit to the Round Robin Bar. Held every month, it’s a hands-on mixology event lead by beloved barman Jim Hewes. We learned how the Mint Julep was introduced in the mid-1800s by statesman Henry Clay – and today it’s the Willard’s signature drink, successfully quenching the thirst of over 20,000 guests and visitors annually.

You can visit D.C., take in the culture, and forget our current troubles for a bit with a walk through the hotel’s historic on-site gallery and museum. Being face to face with wise and humble leaders who championed camaraderie and cooperation amongst one another for the good of the country actually gave us a bit of hope; and with any luck, the tides will turn and we’ll soon have a chance to return to those days of civility, respect, and honor – those qualities so perfectly embodied by the Willard.