July 3, 2012
Hanoi is one of my favorite cities in Southeast Asia, a place where history lingers on as the spirited people of Vietnam charge into the future. I love especially its French colonial character, a vestige of decades when the tricolor waved over the country. Badly beaten by nationalist armies, the French finally pulled out of Vietnam in 1954, but the U.S. took up the battle against the same enemy in an effort to stem the spread of communism.
When the last American troops evacuated and the north and south reunited in 1973, Vietnam seemed to disappear behind the red walls of its communist regime, stagnating economically until free market reforms were instituted in 2005, stimulating an explosion of growth, with unbridled development in its wake. Saigon shot up, but Hanoi lagged somewhat behind, which helped keep its French colonial architecture and ambience intact. So travelers can still feel the subtle, seductive French-Vietnamese cultural blending that infused couture, art, literature and cuisine during the colonial era in Hanoi.
Embarked on a grand mission civilisatrice, the French colonial administration laid wide, tree-lined boulevards patterned on the Champs Élysées, installed electric lights and built villas in a hybrid style known as Norman Pagoda. With them came the language of Voltaire, Impressionist art, café society and Catholicism, a faith still practiced by an estimated six million Vietnamese.
A first stop for flâneurs is St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a neo-Gothic edifice with twin bell towers to match those of Notre Dame de Paris, completed in 1886 several blocks west of Hoan Kiem Lake. Black Flag guerrillas laid siege to the neighborhood in 1883, forcing harassed French colonists to hide in Ba Da Temple down the block; later the communists closed the cathedral, though worship resumed in 1990, reaching an annual climax at Christmas when choirs sing and little girls wearing traditional red and yellow ao dai tunics perform in a pageant.
Next catch a bicycle taxi—known as a pousse-pousse, which means push-push in French—to the Hanoi Opera House, inspired by the beautiful Palais Garnier in Paris. A yellow and white neo-Classical confection on August Revolution Square, it celebrated its centennial last year and often hosts performances by the Vietnam National Orchestra and Ballet. You have to attend an event to see the marble staircase, French murals and chandeliers inside, as well as the balcony where the Vietminh took control of the city in 1945.
Nearby is the Hotel Metropole, which opened in 1901, one of the most luxurious hotels in Asia, attracting luminaries like Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard on honeymoon, Graham Greene and Joan Baez, who had to take refuge in an underground shelter during U.S. bombing raids in 1972. American war correspondent Stanley Karnow saw the hotel at its nadir during the war. “Paint flaked from the ceilings, its bathroom fixtures leaked and rats scurried around its lobby,” he wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam: A History.
But the Metropole re-emerged victoriously after a 1990 restoration, a perfect evocation of the colonial era, beginning with the vintage Citroën parked in the porte- cochere. The three-story lobby yields to intimate sitting rooms lined in dark, precious wood, prints, chinoiserie furniture, orchids and silk, where it’s easy to imagine men in white linen smoking opium-laced cigarettes. Additions were built to the rear, but the rooms in the old section summon up the colonial era best with elegant entryways, sitting areas and beds underneath slowly revolving ceiling fans.
It’s unwise to romanticize the colonial period, of course. French rule impoverished landowners, encouraged opium addiction and almost broke the spirit of a people with a long love of independence. All that’s behind the country now, but the French-Vietnamese style perseveres, a special enchantment for visitors to Hanoi.
June 18, 2012
My mother, a great traveler, used to say that all you do is sleep in a hotel. So where you stay doesn’t matter as long as there’s Paris or Barcelona outside the door. Well, yes, one can take that approach, passing by the Connaught in London, the Raffles in Singapore, the Athenee Palace in Bucharest without checking in. But great hotels are often tourist sites in themselves with rich histories and distinctive architecture. So even if I’m staying in some very cheap and basic place, I make it a habit to peek into five-star havens, maybe have a drink at the bar or powder my nose in the restrooms with their gold-plated fixtures and cloth hand towels. Very refreshing, but a jolt when I have to face the depressing reality of my own not-so-sumptuous digs.
Best is to split the difference, I have found, to find mid-range places to stay, neither too luxurious nor too austere. When I’m lucky and do my homework I sometimes end up in hotels that please me just as deeply as any luxury palace could. Places with character and careful, loving management. Here’s a short list of some of my favorites:
The Hotel Las Golondrinas is a happy choice in Oaxaca, Mexico, a provincial capital surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur, site of Zapotec and Mixtec archaeological sites, predating the Aztec empire. The hotel, about a ten-minute walk from the town’s pretty zócalo, is a modest, low-rise complex built around a series of courtyards, decorated with ceramics, easy chairs, fountains and bougainvillea. Rooms are bare, but very tidy and the staff is friendly. Reserve ahead, though, because Las Golondrinas is popular with Norte Americanos, especially academics. Doubles are about $70.
Whole books have been written about the riads of Morocco, occupying old aristocratic town houses with interior courtyards, rooftop terraces, colorful tile and hanging brass lamps. I tried several in Marrakech, but ended up happier than Scheherazade at Le Gallia, a 17-room French-Moroccan hideaway near the Place Jemaa el-Fnaa. Doubles are about $75, with breakfast featuring tartines as tasty as any on the Left Bank.
Speaking of Paris, where searching for a nice, modestly priced hotel room can seem futile, I’ve become a devotee of the Hotel les Degrés de Notre Dame. Tucked in the maze of streets east of St. Michel metro on the Left Bank, it has a restaurant/bar where guests check in, five floors with no elevator—a factor that scares people off, but keeps rates down—and ten guest chambers with wooden beams, cubbyholes and old-fashioned furniture. Two of them have a sliver of a view of Notre Dame’s apse, where Victor Hugo’s hunchback rang the bells. Doubles start around $150.
Rome is as tough a nut to crack as Paris, but there’s one inn I can recommend there: Hotel Navona, around the corner from the Pantheon on via dei Sediari. It occupies several floors of an old palazzo, set around a central courtyard decorated with stones from the Baths of Agrippa, which occupied the site in Roman times. The proprietor is an architect who keeps making changes, adding rooms, updating the décor. But ask for one of the old rooms because they have the most character, even if the bathrooms are tight and the furniture alla nonna. Standard doubles start around $130.
This summer London is bound to be booked up tight, what with the Olympics. So watch the games on TV and go later. Even so, you should reserve ahead at the Celtic, the new home of St. Margaret’s Hotel, a great old London chestnut that recently had to move a few blocks away from its previous location to a refurbished Georgian building on Guilford Street near Russell Square in Bloomsbury. Fans of St. Margaret’s, who were legion, can rest assured that the homey, shipshape ambience has moved along with the beds and drapes because the Celtic remains in the good hands of the Marazzi family, Bloomsbury hoteliers since 1952. Doubles are about $150, including a stout English breakfast.
June 13, 2012
This year the Hotel Astoria celebrates its 100th anniversary in St. Petersburg, Russia. I’m celebrating, too, because I got to stay there one white winter shortly after it was purchased and refurbished by the British hotelier Sir Rocco Forte in 1997. Other grand hotels may be more famous, but the Astoria holds its own place of pride among them.
A Russian icon in the Art Nouveau style on St. Isaac’s Square near the Neva River, the Astoria evokes a Belle Epoque world of grand dukes, ballerinas and Fabergé eggs. Everyone from Rasputin to Isadora Duncan stayed there, drinking tea from gold-rimmed teacups made by the czar’s favorite Lomonosov porcelain factory or swilling Russian Standard vodka at its velvet and wood-lined Kandinsky Bar.
All that was swept away by the Bolshevik Revolution, but the hotel soldiered on. Lenin gave a speech from its balcony in 1919 and during World War II Hitler planned to mark the city’s surrender in the Astoria, though Leningrad endured the 900-day German siege, proving the Führer premature.
The Astoria is sumptuous in an Old World way, not over-the-top like other modernized grand hotels, with soaring, chandelier-bedizened ceilings, voluminous swagged drapes, vanilla ice cream-colored molding and red-carpeted staircases. My room had a foyer separated from the sleeping chamber by etched-glass doors and a hand-embroidered bedspread, blissfully quiet even though its window looked directly over busy St. Isaac’s Square. There I watched snow coat the gold dome of the cathedral, sat reading Robert K. Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra or dressed for the ballet at the nearby Mariinsky Theatre.
As part of the centennial celebration, special boxes at the Mariinsky are available to hotel guests, and jazz evenings return to the Astoria, a tradition begun in the 1920s. If you go, please raise a Russian Standard on the rocks in at the Kandinsky Bar. I’ll be doing the same in spirit.
June 11, 2012
Some scholars say Bermuda inspired Prospero’s island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Others claim it was modeled on the Mediterranean’s Corfu. But I’m pretty sure that the exiled Duke of Milan turned sorcerer in the South Pacific. “Be not afraid, the isle if full of noises,” says Prospero’s woebegotten slave Caliban, a description that admirably suits the island of Huahine about 110 miles northwest of Tahiti.
It’s a mecca for the sunburned, barefoot crew who drop out for a spell to pilot sailboats among the 130 islets that make up French Polynesia. Otherwise, most tourists head for Bora Bora with its fabled lagoon or the diver’s paradise of Rangiroa, leaving Huahine a lazy, slow-lane, off-the-beaten-track South Pacific backwater with only a handful of resorts, a half dozen sleepy villages chiefly populated by mangy dogs and one main town, Fare, where there’s a ferry port, airstrip and hordes of mosquitoes.
Huahine is actually two islands—Huahine Nui, the bigger one, and littler Huahini Iti—connected by a bridge. Both are ringed by skinny sand spits known as motus, where islanders grow watermelons with sweet, yellow meat. The interior is all volcanic mountains carpeted in tropical jungle that can only be broached with machetes, where early settlers, possibly from Samoa, built temples—or marae. Now atmospheric ruins covered in creepers, they are the island’s only tourist attraction, apart from yacht harbors, wild beaches and noises that I started to hear almost as soon as I got there.
I hove-to in a perfect Lord Jim sort of place, the Pension Enite outside Fare, where the room rate included a perfect French Polynesian dinner, headlined by steamed clams, sautéed fish and a half carafe of table wine from Burgundy or the Rhone; oenophiles are lucky for whatever they get on Huahine. My room in a garden-framed bungalow had well-mopped linoleum floors, Polynesian fabric curtains and a slowly circling ceiling fan. Still, it was hot, so I left the door open.
I was in the middle of a Jungian dream about my childhood when the sound of heavy breathing made me rise up from unconsciousness and open my eyes to see two bare feet underneath the curtain at the room’s entrance. Size 3, maybe. Then a little hand reached to the hook just inside the door, where most guests must have left valuables in the past, though I didn’t. My money belt was under my pillow and I still marvel over the instinct that brought me out of a deep, tropical sleep to shriek get out of here in high-school French.
Pat, pat, pat went the little feet, in retreat. The next morning, I told the pension’s unflappable French proprietor about it and found that the little sneak thief had made off with the lower half of my two-piece swimming suit, which I’d left to dry on a line outside. God knows what he wanted with my bikini bottom.
After that a lot more weird things happened to me on Huahine, not least getting chased by a pack of wild dogs on a path leading through the jungle to temple ruins and some misadventures on a motor-scooter ride around Huahini Nui. I could tell you about them, but instead will call to mind what Prospero said at the end of the play: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.”
June 7, 2012
Did anybody else see The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel over the Memorial Day weekend? Somebody must have because the film, which opened on May 4, continues to do well at the box office, and that’s compared with a slew of big-budget blockbusters—Men in Black 3, Battleship, The Avengers—that have come along since then. Marigold’s popularity has been credited to John Madden, who also directed Shakespeare in Love, and to its 24-karat gold cast, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, all of them over 60. (The film is based on These Foolish Things, a novel by Deborah Moggach about a group of English oldsters who move to a retirement hotel in India.) But the movie’s reception is also seen as proof that there’s a market for movies about people who aren’t young and beautiful, just interesting—as are the characters in Marigold, coping with end-of-life transitions in a drastically foreign place.
And let’s not forget another major factor in Marigold’s success: India, specifically the western state of Rajasthan, long a favorite with travelers for its mighty hill forts, bedizened palaces, teeming markets and lost desert villages. The hotel in the book—Moggach called it the Dunroamin—is located in the dreamy lake city of Udaipur, though the movie was filmed in Jaipur to the north. I recognized the setting immediately because I began a tour of Rajasthan there ten years ago.
It was in Jaipur—known as the Pink City for the color it was painted when England’s Prince Albert came to visit in 1876—that I learned how to take wild rides in auto-rickshaws without fear, tasted my spinach paneer at a vegetarian restaurant downtown, climbed to Amber Palace built by Raja Man Singh in 1592, and had a fine gin and tonic in the style of Prince Albert at the Polo Bar in the Rambagh Palace Hotel, where the Maharani of Jaipur lived until 1957. And I only have to look as far as my bedroom to remember a daylong shopping expedition aimed at finding the perfect quilted cotton spread, decorated in woodblock prints, a specialty in Jaipur. Mine is in shades of blue—soft and beautiful, albeit somewhat threadbare now.
I went on from there to Udaipur, the Jain temple complex at Ranakpur, Kumbhalgarh Fort and Jaisalmer, the last Thar Desert outpost before the Pakistani border. But Jaipur remains most deeply etched in my memory, which is why I took so much pleasure in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The $13 ticket price is a small amount to pay for a trip to Rajasthan.