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Hey Big Spender: Hotels For When Money Is No Object

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With certain exceptions, our travel style involves cheap and cheerful hostels, cozy apartments and hotels at the inexpensive end of the scale. (Our Tripadvisor reviews tend to be biased toward our more expensive experiences, as I haven't reviewed many of the cheaper places.) Yet we've wandered through a few fairly nice hotels, either because they were attractions in themselves or out of pure curiousity. In the unlikely event that I one day try to re-experience this trip with a budget two orders of magnitude greater, these are the places that I'd love to book.

I should note that these are not necessarily the nicest hotels that we know of in any given city, but the best that we've seen on this trip. For example, if I could stay for free at any hotel in London, I'd rather see what the Savoy is like than the Metropolitan. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever been amazed by any hotel so much as I was by the Taj Falaknuma in Hyderabad, where you can quite literally sleep like a prince. For reference, I've included some prices of the nicer, lottery-winner level rooms.

La Mamounia, Marrakech, Morocco (Churchill Suite, ~$2,200/night): Located near the medina (and only a few blocks away from our current apartment), La Mamounia looks less Moroccan and more European than its website suggests. Wandering through its halls, the colonial influence is easy to discern, but this is classic colonial, not a cookie-cutter continenal hotel. In the evening, when the hurrying throngs have whipped up enough dust in the market to inspire previously unknown allergies, La Mamounia is a clear, quiet and clean oasis. We dropped by to try a drink at the Churchill Bar, which was both overpriced and somewhat disappointing: despite displaying several nicer brands of alcohol, a Manhattan with a price tag over $20 was mixed with Four Roses. Setting aside the mediocre drinks, the Churchill and Italian bars are both elegant and comfortable, and I was impressed by the attentiveness and professionalism of the staff. If you're looking for a "low-cost" way to enjoy this location, the Sunday brunch is only about $150. If you try it, tell me how it goes. (That said, we encountered a first for a high-class hotel on this trip: free wifi in public areas.)

The Metropolitan, London, England (Park Suite, ~$1,000): We stopped for a drink at the sister of the Bangkok Metropolitan after picking up our Tanzanian visas from the nearby embassy. Far from the most extravagant hotel in Mayfair, let alone London, it nonetheless has a top-class bar which continues the Metropolitan tradition of knowledgeable and skilled bartenders. Worth it just for a tipple.

The Taj Falaknuma Palace, Hyderabad, India (Grand Presidential Suite, price on request, upwards of $4,350): Pity Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, who had this palace built in the shape of a scorpion (for astrological reasons), only to realize that he had gone over budget. He ended up giving the palace to Nizam VI, the then-ruler of Hyderabad. The Nizam thoughtfully gave Vikar-ul-Umra the entire amount spent on its construction, saving him from financial catastrophe.

Taj Hotels have leased the palace and converted it into an extravagant fantasy. When we dined here one evening at a family gathering, we were able to watch as one of the guests arrived. A horse-drawn carriage drove him from the gates to the front courtyard. At this point an employee--although courtier seems more accurate--hoisted a gold mace and escorted the new tenant as if he were royalty up the marble steps to reception, as another attendant dropped rose petals before him from an upper balcony. Kitschy, yes, and perhaps they only do this for certain guests, but it fits with the setting. The Grand Presidential Suite, "once the sanctum sanctorum of the Nizam himself," is the most opulent option in a hotel filled with extravagant choices, and features a private pool.

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Photo by friends J & J

The Oberoi, Agra, India (Kohinoor Suite, ~$5500): The bar at the Oberoi possesses a unique alchemical secret: it can transform the most staid and ordinary cocktail into one of the best of your life. The Manhattan recipe? Take a standard combination of rye, vermouth and bitters, and serve suffused with scarlet light filtered through tall, ornate windows that frame the sunset-pinked marble of the Taj Mahal. The Oberoi's view of Agra's unquestioned wonder of the world must be seen to be believed, and only hotel guests are allowed to have their drinks served on the balcony.

Unlike La Mamounia, the Oberoi's style speaks more to Agra's mughal heritage than colonial refinement, lightly reminding the visitor that he is elsewhere rather than giving hints of the comforts of home. We didn't get much further than the bar and the opulent lobby, itself an orgy of marble and stone, but supposedly each room has its own view of the Taj Mahal.

Farenheit, Goa, India (Spectacular Suite, ~$340): A boutique hotel on Goa's Baga Beach, Farenheit immediately distinguishes itself from its backpacker surroundings with funky modern styling and almost everpresent service. (It's the only hotel I've ever seen advertise Playstation on Demand, though I don't know why one would take them up on the offer with an amazing beach a short walk out back.) We stopped here for lunch, and were impressed by the ocean-view outdoor restaurant, reached by a hike of about a hundred meters through a private garden. The restaurant sits at the upper border of a few dozen meters more of private sandy walk, which hold a table for beachside massages and shade-giving umbrellas, before ending at the semi-public beach. The hotel is friendly to a fault: knowing that we were only diners, not guests, they nonetheless hooked us up with their beach activity organizer to arrange jetskis and parasailing, and invited me to look at a room "for next time." Service is not always a given in Goa, making Farenheit a welcome exception.

The Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, Thailand (Heritage Author Suite, ~$1350): To the best of my knowledge, Merchant Ivory never set a movie in the Author's Wing of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, but I imagine that this oversight will one day be rectified. It's the kind of quiet, refined place where you expect to glance across the room and find an Antony Hopkins lookalike chatting with a younger Emma Thompson in hushed, embarassed voices. The wing has a very different feel from the newer parts of the hotel, which while undeniably beautiful would be perfectly at home if you rebuilt them in London or New York, and every conversation seems hushed by ten decibels under the high ceilings. We arrived too late for their famous afternoon teas, but still enjoyed a brewed pot while sunset gradually fell over our white wicker chairs and pale china dishes.

The Author's Lounge is nestled under the sets of suites named for the famous authors that have stayed at the hotel. My master plan to stay on the cheap is taking shape already: first, write a novel that compares favorably with the works of Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham, or at least Jeffery Archer.....

The Chill Ko Chang, Ko Chang, Thailand (The Pool Villa, ~$485): Another beachside boutique that stands out from its backpacker surroundings, the minimalist white walls of The Chill's villas frame plunge pools and numerous relaxation areas. We noticed this spot simply because its stark modern style stood out from the options surrounding it, but we didn't even eat here: it's way too expensive in comparison to tasty options right down the road.

Hotel Lisboa, Macau (Royal Suite, ~$260): Like its sister Las Vegas, Macau is home to several world class luxury hotels, and I doubt that the Lisboa would make the typical top ten list. But while somewhat run down (Lisboa was built in 1969) and perhaps not the most grand spot in this former Portuguese colony, it is definitely unique. Described as "a Chinese version of Las Vegas on acid," Lisboa is a sight to behold. Th designer has proved that interesting things can be done with a hodgepodge of high-class building materials, a fondness for gold leaf, and absolutely no sense of restraint. Black marble mosaics in one reception hall give way to beige stone and red carpet hallways in another, making it feel as if the hotel grew organically away from a central core. If you wish to get from the spa to a restaurant (Portas do Sol is a good option), please allot an extra fifteen minutes travel time for get lost in the rat warren of interconnected passageways. I've heard that the strange architecture, in which right angles are rare and halls confusingly loop back on themselves, may be blamed on feng shui, but I have no idea if this is true.

Intercontinental Hotel West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam (Presidential Suite, ~$2400): Combining a typical luxury hotel with a collection of villas set astride a vast artificial lake, I can only imagine that this hotel will get better as Hanoi becomes more prosperous. The villas, and the Sunset Bar, possess some of the best views of the skyline. Hanoi doesn't have the enormous skyscrapers of Hong Kong yet, but the intention is there, and in twenty years I suspect that the vista will be filled with neon and glitter. Much as I loved Hanoi, it is a city that is best appreciated from a distance, rather than right in the center amidst the noise and traffic (where our hotel was).

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The Sunset Bar

Hotel de la Paix, Siem Reap, Cambodia (Duplex Spa Suite, ~$700): I don't know much about this boutique, but I'd like to. There are certainly nicer hotels in Siem Reap, but they are mostly set outside the hustle of the old market area, while Hotel de la Paix is right in the middle of things. Every guest house in the area strives to evoke ancient Angkor or old world charm, but Hotel de la Paix stands in proudly modern, a contrast in black and white. The sandwich bar downstairs, our sole first-hand experience with the hotel, has classy if somewhat overpriced sandwiches and salads. Another advantage: it's the landmark that every tuk-tuk driver knows. If you want to get directions from anywhere to anywhere in Siem Reap, you'll probably hear, "Go down this road until you get to de la Paix, then turn right...."

The Faena Hotel and Universe, Buenos Aires, Argentina (Faena Suite, upwards of $6500): Back in October, I described the Library Lounge at the Faena Hotel as "faux-19th century tacky, as if Russell Crowe's character in Master & Commander had resigned from the Royal Navy, purchased an upscale French bordello and converted it into an unofficial officers' club." The rest of the hotel retains the same aesthetic sensibility, if not the exact same style. Nothing that we saw here could be described as subtle, and you could torture a minimalist interior decorator by tying him up in the corner of any given room and propping his eyes open. Somehow the decor manages the delicate balance between unrestrained and cacophanous, and from the pictures on the website it looks like the suites share the same decorative flair.

Fallen Angel, Cuzco, Peru (The Red Room, price unknown): Fallen Angel restaurant, bar and guest house give entirely new meaning to the words "high in the Andes." The restaurant is a showcase for local artists, and the walls overflow with with the poppish maelstrom of color and variety that this implies. Several tables have been cobbled together from bathtubs converted into goldfish bowls and covered with glass. While neither the drinks nor the food are anything special, the guide who led us through Huchuy Qosqo laughed when I mentioned it, and gave us a few tales of wild parties. I doubt that this is the place for those seeking quiet contemplation in the upper altitudes.

The rooms are advertised on postcards located near the door. Each is based on a color, and they all appear to have slightly different features. I remember that one had a garishly upholstered bench press that clashed with the bed, and I don't recall the others being any more subtle.

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This gentleman watches over the bar at Fallen Angel

Hotel Frontenac, Quebec, Canada (Frontenac Suite, ~$800): It seems so long ago that we passed through here on the roadtrip. Practically a castle itself, many of the Frontenac's rooms have commanding views of the Saint Lawrence. The inside is bathes in a Canadian forest worth of hardwood, and oozes a sense of relaxation.

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Of course, now I need to find some way to fund a trip like this....

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