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Seduced by a higher level of grace

7 Apr

As published in Business Day newspaper, April 7, 2017

Click here to read the on-line version as published in Business Day newspaper.

 

By BRIAN BERKMAN

The Chao Phraya snakes through Bangkok like an arterial vein bringing sustenance to the city. Any doubt that this is the river of kings is pressed from the mind the way that searing chilli in the hot and sour Tom Yum soup opens the nose. Just note the bridges that join the river to the land. The Bhumibol Bridges named after the most recently deceased king and his father, and bridges to honour Kings Rama 3 , 4, 7 and 8.

The best hotels in Bangkok are along the river and none more historic than The Oriental or known by its full name The Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Bangkok. The MO is not alone, on the opposite side of the river the storied Peninsula Hotels towers among many grand and special hotels: The Anantara, Riverside and Shangri-La among them. The more recently opened Avani, just behind The Anantara, sits at a more affordable price point and prices continue to drop the further from the river you go.

Not just because the MO was the first hotel to open in Bangkok, 140 years ago or because of its literary roots with Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maughn, James Michener even our own Wilbur Smith who has a suite named after him but because of an excessively high staff to guest ratio and, mind you, not just any staff but staff who must be tested for telepathy and the level of empathy and insight into human needs expected from Carl Jung himself. The guest experience at MO cannot be explained – it has to be lived. From arrival in the high ceilinged foyer to breathing the air scented by the myriad flowers in the hotel’s gravity defying floral displays. It is the most pleasing sensation – a sudden quiet amplified by the bustle of the city.

Lift doors open with your floor pressed before you arrive – how each member of staff that you encounter knows your name and which floor you are on is one of the great hotel mysteries. Perhaps they all have FBI-style earpieces and secret contact lenses that broadcast guest photos or, more likely, a practiced memory and profound sense of attention to detail. The extraordinary staff aside, personalisation extends to check-in inside your suite where writing paper with your gold embossed name is waiting at your desk. There is a purpose designed cubby for your shoes that allows your butler to remove them for buffing as you sleep only find them, without disturbing you in anyway, gleaming and wrapped in tissue paper before morning.

Most high-end hotels and resorts lavish attention on their guests and provide magnificent surroundings and facilities but the MO Bangkok is different. Here you ask your waiter not to bring you another coffee. A tissue asked for to catch a sneeze one day is waiting at your table the next. Not satisfied with iced water and a bowl of apples poolside, staff come by with shot glasses of ice creams and platters of decoratively cut fruits. Another magazine similar to the one you were reading before you’ve even put yours down. A selection of sun creams is quietly provided. Rather than being creepy, the intense attention and concern shown is the most seductive of things.

Join the other sophisticates for Afternoon Tea in the hotel’s white cane furnished Author’s Lounge. As with everything at the MO, more is also offered at tea. The traditional cream tea of scones and clotted cream is, of course, available, but so too is an Oriental version with chicken satay and steamed pork buns along with Thai confectionery.

The fact that this hotel has 324 rooms and is frequently at capacity makes the successful personalised service even more extraordinary.

The Grand Royal Suite upgrade was completed one year ago. The six-bedroom, 600 square metre suite now occupies the entire first floor of the Authors’ Wing, which was the original 1876-built Oriental Hotel. As you’d expect, The Grand Royal Suite has private lift access and has a one-bedroom, 315 square metre Royal Suite and the adjoining 165 square metre Ambassador Suite with two bedrooms, as well as three further separate guest rooms to accommodate family, personal staff and security detail. Designed to be lavish, one might host another Head of State or fellow royal in the lounge or grand dining room of your suite or have 12 to dinner prepared in your private kitchen. The biggest television screen you ever did see, gargantuan crystal chandeliers above the bath and a myriad other excesses are also all beautifully elegant. This hotel gets non-garish opulence right.

Lord Jim, the hotel’s fine dining seafood restaurant is named after a Joseph Conrad character while French restaurant La Normandie is known as the the Thai Queen’s favourite.

Everything about a stay at MO Bangkok will be memorable including the price which is upwards of R4500 for an entry-level room while The Oriental Suite (sleeps five) will cost about R55000.

While there are so many things to keep you at the property, including the vast spa, fitness centre, cooking school and traditional Thai restaurant on the opposite  side of the river, the MO has free teak water shuttles to the skytrain and transport hub. Don’t miss Jim Thompson’s House, also on the river or a visit to The Royal Palace where the river bends, if you must go out.

 

 

 

My article in Business Day about new elite travel agency

28 Mar

As published in Business Day newspaper, Monday, March 27, 2017.

Franschhoek’s Susan Huxter helped put that town on the map and now, with her new Cartology Travel business, is mapping the globe. Read the interview I wrote for Business Day newspaper, here.

Happily bogged down and at sea exploring Argentina.

25 Mar

Please click here to read about our trekking in the bogs of Argentina. First published in Business Day Newspaper

First published in Business Day Newspaper.

First published in Business Day Newspaper.

Blue Train draws foreign plaudits

20 Mar

Please click here to read my article about our visit on The Blue Train, printed in Business Day newspaper on March 17, 2017.

As published in Business Day Newspaper, March 17, 2017.

As published in Business Day Newspaper, March 17, 2017.

 

Until you’ve been seen by a wild animal you haven’t really been seen.

30 Jan

 

Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 9.39.49 AMClick here to read this piece as published on BizCommunity.com

First published in the January 2017 issue of Juice Magazine.

By BRIAN BERKMAN

Until you’ve been seen by a wild animal you haven’t really been seen.

Forearms outstretched over the gym’s water fountain the way an antsy  antelope does at a waterhole, I asses the predators in my tribe, those chiselled and buff men at the gym who preen and pose and remind me of my diminished stature. The lore of the bush isn’t so removed from the lore of the gym. What the bold and beefy at the gym don’t know is that despite my flabby underarms and saggy tummy skin, I’ve been tracking two of the  most dangerous Big 5 on foot.

Before you think I’m telling fibs, it was under the careful guidance of Royal Malewane’s professional field guide Nik Vounnou and tracker Patrick Moyeni both armed with many years’ experience in the bush, a rifle and an back-up side arm for dangerous game.

JP and I walk in single file behind Nik and Patrick and climb to the top of a termite mound. There is a large herd of buffalo, just a Screen Shot 2017-01-12 at 9.40.20 AMfew meters ahead, and a white rhino and her calf.

Qualifications in the bush matter

I worry that the beasts will hear the agitated beating of my heart, made worse by my stifled breathing. This is a first for me. I’ve never been as close to buffalo on foot before. Nik is quietly explaining that from our elevated position we are safe in the event that the buffalo notice us and want to  explore us, rather than the other way around. As the 2012 winner of the FGASA Safari Guide of The Year competition, a holder of a National Diploma in Nature Conservation and a FGASA Level III Professional Field Guide with National and SKS-Birding, we knew we were in good hands even when one of the daggaboys – the name given to the older (and often fiercely tempered) buffalo that cake their horns in mud to protect themselves from the flies and biting ticks spied us as we left our termite mound to continue our journey.

Until you’ve been seen by a wild animal you haven’t really been seen. There is almost a spiritual quality about it, the very antithesis of the social persona we so readily share on Facebook and others. Being seen by an animal is really being seen.

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 11.40.41 AMDon’t sniff at the lessons dung can teach us

We find a civet latrine. A number of animals mark their spatial prowess by spraying urine while others return to the same place to defecate. Nik holds up a handful of civet droppings and pushes aside thin white bony bands. “That was a shongololo – a type of millipede that ended life as a civet snack. You can see the calcified exoskeleton”, he points out.

At another site we look deep into a rhino turd. “The black colour is an indication of the oxidised tannins in grass so that belongs to the grass-eating White Rhino. In a lighter coloured stool he pulls apart the compacted leaves to reveal twigs and their 45 degree bite mark. The Black Rhino has jaws at 45 degree angles and finding these angled pieces is a clear indication where they came from.”

October drought leaves carcasses

During our October 2016 visit the area in the Thornybush Private Game Reserve, near Kruger Park’s Orpen Gate, is so dry that about 15 buffalo have died from the lack of nutrition in the plants and grasses.

Scattered scatology

As a guest at a luxury lodge it is hard to see near starving animals, their once majestic frames reduced to skin stretched taut over ribs and spine. On our morning game drive we see a recently dead zebra. When the anti-poaching rangers found it they cut open the belly to make it easier for vultures and other animals to penetrate the innards before they putrified in the heat and poisoned the meat. We take a closer look. While on our walk the day before we came near a buffalo corpse that had the stench of death about it, hanging heavy like too much cheap perfume. By contrast, even close-up, the zebra gave off no scent at all. Nik said it would be okay to feel its skin, if I wanted to. Not yet even cold to the touch, the zebra felt just like it was sleeping rather than dead. Because of the gasses produced by the bacteria that breakdown the cellulose in the herbivore’s diet, the colon dissented out of the animal like a snake creeping out. When Nik touches the bowel it sounds like the tapping on a drum. At another site he points out the scatterings of marble-sized dark-coloured pellets. “What produced these?”, he asked us. Wanting to sound as sleuth-like as possible I suggested an antelope that was defecating on the run which might account for the spread-out nature of the droppings. “No”, he said, “these were from a giraffe and it was simply from the great height that they were dropped which produced the spray effect.”

That night, at one of Royal Malewane’s bush dinners cooked under the stars, we talked about the elephants that have to keep eating as they absorb very little at a time and I ask about the damage the elephants cause by killing the trees from which they strip the cambium bark.  “There is no emotion or malice in nature”, he remarks, “yes, the tree dies but something else lives because of it. The poorly digested elephant dung provides nutrition for beetles and insects. Returning to the zebra cadaver some hours later it appears as if meticulous pathologists have been at work. Not only is there little trace of the innards but all the soft meat has already been eaten away. As punishing as the drought is for some, other predators such as Royal Malewane’s seven lionesses we spy are fat and glossed as a result of the easy pickings.

For some a visit to a luxury game lodge is about the pampering relaxation that comes with it. For me it is about the education I get from having private time and space to learn from arguably the best qualified field guides in the land. The privilege that comes from a stay at Royal Malewane (part of The Royal Portfolio) is not only the exquisite cuisine and bespoke luxury but the opportunity to see and be seen eye to eye with the beasts of the wild. That’s what comes from being at the top of the food chain, for now.

www.theroyalportfolio.com

 

Along Asia’s Tracks

3 Jun

Premier Magazine, June 2016

Premier Magazine, June 2016

The Eastern & Oriental Express journey from Singapore to Bangkok is one of the most romantic, comfortable yet sad rail journeys of our time. Read about our experience on board in the June issue of Premier Magazine.

Visiting Singapore

2 Jun

Refined Magazine, June 2016

Refined Magazine, June 2016

We loved our stay in Singapore for many reasons not least of which was our location at the exceptional Mandarin Oriental on Marina Bay. Read about our experience there in the current issue of Refined Magazine.

Our stay at Mandarin Oriental Bangkok

18 May

Screen Shot 2016-05-18 at 8.12.51 AMThe highlight of our recent South-East Asia visit was a stay at the Mandarin Oriental in Bangkok – quite possibly the best hotel I have ever stayed at.

Read about our experience here:

Taking to the rails for a journey to the heart

2 Oct

First published in Juice Magazine, October 2015 issue.

Rovos Rail story Oct 2015 Cover

Ardmore Ceramics’ exotic Noahide style is nowhere more evident than in their Natal Midlands home, near Howick. where animals leap from or cling to the most beautiful of stages. There, among the animal, people and plant creations available for purchase, is the Bonnie Ntshalintshali museum, dedicated to the memory and early work of Ardmore founder, Fée Halsted’s friend and co-artist.

The story of how Fée and Bonnie went on to create a thriving business – an important community-based art producer now showcased in collections and art museums around the world, is retold on one of the Rovos Rail, Pretoria to Durban three-day safaris. Providing access to the creative process and an insider’s view in a way not available to walk-ins, is what makes this and other Rovos-arranged outings, such special experiences.

Steam haul

Preparing to leave Rovos Rail Station in Pretoria on a Friday at 10am for a three day journey into Durban, our group of strangers seem awkward together. The steam enthusiasts – a key component of each Rovos Rail passenger list, are outside quizzing the steam locomotive driver Willem Ras. As one of only five remaining steam drivers, his face is as deeply lined as the rail network when viewed from the sky.

RovosRailPg1Willem seems nonplussed with the questions about this leaver or that valve and eyes his Tupperware with sarmies and the Pall Mall cigarettes in his breast pocket as an imminent reward following our departure. For many reasons – the fire risk and environmental cost chief among them – a steam haul much beyond Rovos Rail’s Pretoria station is not practical. Rovos Rail has recently refurbished another diesel loco and these are preferred. As Rovos Rail elects to use the original rail network rather than the busy, newer commercial lines used by rail commuters and for freight, the experience on board chugging along at little more than 60 Km is frequently free from passing traffic.

After a welcome, typically by founder Rohan Vos himself, passengers are called to meet with their hosts to board the The Pride of Africa, a beautifully restored vintage train that has elevated train travel to the luxury of yesteryear where time and care were things we valued.

Stateroom interiors are panelled in warm timber hues, while emerald green carpets with gold woven diamonds cushion your feet even when not wearing the slippers and generous robe provided in your wardrobe.  Accent lights with elegant Edwardian blown glass shades remind you that the journey you’re about to take it one that reaches back in time. To help create this mood, use of technology is not only discouraged but restricted in public places. The only way to curdle cream on board is to take a mobile phone call while in the dining car!

Dressing for dinner

Although formality in dress is encouraged and a jacket and tie is a requirement for dinner, the Rovos Rail experience is unexpectedly relaxed (and, of course, relaxing). Interactions with staff, many young but all superbly trained, and preemptive in their desire to serve, are as comfortable as they’d be with your staff at home.

As a fully inclusive offering you’d expect staff to discourage yet another tot of premium whisky or bottle of Meerlust Rubicon yet they do exactly the opposite. You will get the feeling from the moment you arrive until the moment that you leave that staff believe you are under nourished and require constant feeding and watering. Despite them catering to the most exacting dietary requirements, the vastness and delicious quality of the offering will, I’m afraid, mean that you will depart with additional kilos in among your photos and happy memories. Rather than try to avoid this, it is best to wear your best, slinkiest outfit on your first night as by day three it will be too tight. I speak from experience.

During the almost two thousand meter climb from the Witwatersrand to Heidelberg and onwards as the Drakensberg comes into view conversation, so awkward and stilted at the start, flows as easily as the tea and coffee being poured in the comfortably elegant lounge car. People sitting on the benches in the open-backed observation car are clinking gins and tonic  brimming crystalware, the bright yellow lemon melding into the setting sun.RovosRailPag2

With a multi-course lunch, beautifully paired with fine South African wines and a traditional afternoon tea (cucumber sandwiches, scones and cakes) under our belts, it is time to dress for dinner.

Because your stateroom (even a single-bedded Pullman) is larger than any equivalent you might find on rails and as you have a private bathroom with toilet, basin and a shower cubicle, some suites have baths too) as well as plenty wardrobe space, dressing for dinner is a pleasure. No more so if your finery as been freshly pressed as part of the fully inclusive laundry service.

If the lavish dinner and cocktails don’t ensure a good night’s sleep, the fact the train stops for some hours at historic Elandslaagte station will. An indication of the high level of care and consideration is that ear plugs are included in amenities offered in your room, along with a protective plastic eye mask  in the event you’d like to look outside your window into oncoming traffic.

Early morning safari

There’s a 6am wake-up call with coffee brought to your suite if you’d prefer not to make your own (a kettle and fully-stocked mini bar are in your suite) in preparation for a morning game drive on the 20, 000 hectare Malaria free Nambiti Reserve, a big five retreat.

The Sundays River flows through the Nambiti and the biodiversity is unusually rich offering savanna, grasslands, thorn veld and tall Acacia trees. Because of this, great animal and bird sightings are practically guaranteed. Remember to wear layers as early mornings can be freezing while temperatures can shoot up by the time you return to the train.

Like everything Rovos Rail does, excursions are exceptionally luxurious with red-carpet welcomes and silver trays with  a champagne cocktail or sherry at the ready once you’ve returned your offered warm or chilled towel.

Such a premium experience comes at a premium price but when considered as a total package (especially if you typically fly business class and stay at five-star hotels), it represents outstanding value for money. People on board weren’t only silver-haired, well-heeled international travellers. An incentive group from Tupperware South Africa were on board, at least two of the couples we spoke to had been gifted the trip by their children while others, friends travelling Africa together from the UK, elected to stay at B&B’s elsewhere so that they could use their travel budget to enjoy The Rovos Rail experience.

Churchill, Gandhi and Majuba Hill

There is a second opportunity for a game safari at the Spionkop Reserve but I recommend rather listening to historian and raconteur Raymond Heron talk about the battle for Ladysmith while overlooking Majuba Hill. I was amazed to hear that Winston Churchill and Mahatma Gandhi met on that hill while Churchill was a war correspondent and Gandhi worked for the Red Cross during the South African War.

The visit to Ardmore Ceramics is another highlight as the journey draws to a close. Pulling into Durban’s station late afternoon the group of strangers we curtly nodded to on arrival now leave with hugs and exchanged contact details as friends. One embarks Rovos Rail expecting a luxury journey from one place to another. The journey of the heart is the happiest byproduct.

www.Rovos.com

Just cruising: Finance-friendly vacay

2 Sep

 

Just Cruising Screen Shot 2015-09-02 at 11.05.13 AM

First published in the September issue of SKYE Magazine:

Cruising abroad luxury liners is far cheaper than people imagine. When you consider that the cruise price is typically inclusive of travel, accommodation, food and non-alcoholic beverages as well as service and high quality entertainment, there are only a handful of times that you need to dip your hand into your pocket while on board. This doesn’t, of course, stop them from enticing us to spend at every opportunity, but if you follow some of these tips, you will find a cruise-cation the very best  and cost-efficient way to travel.

Dry-cleaning, inexplicably, is cheaper on board than it is in South Africa. So, rather than fret about having your finery laundered before you travel, and then worrying about it creasing, send a stash for laundry the very first moment you begin your cruise. If you like dressing up, all liners offer formal nights. While on some liners formal attire is an instruction rather than a recommendation like it is on Royal Caribbean International (RCI) you can expect to have three formal nights on a 10-day itinerary. Typically though the second night on board is a formal one which is why you must get your gear into the laundry pronto.

Although not cost efficient, many ships also give you the opportunity of hiring a formal getup so it is possible to travel simply with hand luggage if you choose to. While on board The Grandeur of the Seas, a RCI Vision-class ship, we met fellow South Africans who not only travelled simply with carry-on bags but were also frequent cruisers. After chatting to Anton Bergstrom I learned he’d worked in the cruise industry since 1991 and had travelled on more than 42 ships. “Book an inside cabin. You’ll save as much as $300 on a week’s itinerary and if you just plan to use your stateroom to sleep and change in, it makes sense. In my experience most inside rooms are very similar in size to outside ones and the primary difference is not having a window,” he says.

Anton adds: “To say it is ‘all included’ means nothing for people who haven’t cruised before. You might pay 30 Pounds to see a show in the UK and I’ve found the quality of the nightly entertainment to be equal to London or Broadway shows. Even if you only eat at the Burger King, it will still cost two of you $100 a day for food and that doesn’t include train or bus or taxi fare. For the same quality, quantity and variety of food on a ship you’d pay $800 a day which makes cruising truly amazing value.” he says.

For budgeting purposes give yourself a $150 a day when planning a cruise so a 10-day jaunt will weigh in at $1500 per person. Of course there are cheaper liners and many more costly ones but $150 a day is realistic for most five-star ships. Anton says when comparing offerings it is essential to calculate a total daily rate. “Remember that on RCI service charges and port taxes are included in the price and not all lines include these in their package”, he says suggesting that the only way to truly compare price is to add in all the excluded costs.

I like to pre-book and pay for shore excursions well in advance so that while I’m cruising I don’t have to ferret money away or arrive home to a big credit card bill. I also enjoy the process of researching and booking a trip which I find extends the excitement and pleasure of the cruise way beyond the 10 days that I’m on board.

Anton says to book a cruise one year in advance just by paying a deposit and you then have until 90-days before cruising to pay the outstanding amount. “If the price has dropped just cancel and rebook at the lower rate without penalty.”

I recommend that you sign up to the ship’s loyalty programme. Crown & Anchor, RCI’s programme is free to join and offers meaningful discounts. While on our Caribbean cruise we took advantage of the Crown & Anchor Next Cruise deal for 50% off the second person’s fee as well as an on-board credit of $175. This will go a far way to covering essentials like Wifi, Starbucks Coffee and speciality dining. If you enjoy a drink, cocktails are around $8 while a Californian Chardonnay will set you back $42.

Anton recommends dollar-based ships like RCI and Celebrity and rather than Euro-based ships like Cunard as these are better priced for South Africans. “Many cruise lines have demand-driven prices which change whereas with RCI the price you get quoted is the price you will pay – it doesn’t go up when more people book for the cruise.” he says.

Anton warns that many of the cruise lines penalise South Africans as we are not considered a primary market. He says this means that people booking from within the USA and UK get a lower rate on many other lines, RCI however, charges everyone the same. “In terms of cost you will pay less to cruise internationally (including your air arrangements) then you will pay on a cruise that markets itself to South Africa.”

I recommend you take a view about the ports you plan to visit: In the Caribbean we elected to book all our shore excursions via RCI but on a European itinerary when we were confident about being able to make our own arrangements we did so. One important thing to note: If you are booked on a ship’s excursion and you are delayed returning to the ship, the ship will wait for you which they will not do otherwise. When you consider what it will cost you to have to catch up with your ship at the next port, I don’t believe the risk is worth the imagined saving.

If you’re heading to the Western Caribbean (Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Jamaica and Haiti) I heartily recommend booking a snorkelling excursion in Cozumel and don’t even think of skipping swimming with the stingrays on Grand Cayman. This is a must-do wildlife experience.

We sailed out of Baltimore, USA in December and while you will need a warm coat, gloves and a beanie we totally overpacked winter clothing. The average USA inside temperature was about 23 degrees Celsius so wearing any more than a jersey indoors left us as steamy as being on the balmy beaches of Montego Bay.

Speak to the folks at Cruises International about planning a trip. I bet you’ll be as hooked as we are. www.Cruises.co.za 011-327-0327

 

Follow this link to read the original magazine version online.