News & Reviews News 6 month summary of 2019 (July-December)

Let’s start the traditions rolling.  No, not having that creepy uncle still coming to visit every year (why do the creepy ones live so long)?  I’m talking about my 6 month summary.

August

Ballyfin

Each time I stay here the service gets better and the weather gets worse. Climate change is a cruel beast and it turns out coming to Ireland in November, as I did last time, is a better time of year than August.  It hit the dizzy peaks of 11C one early afternoon, which I think is actually the point you consider hell freezing over.  I forgot that my father’s homeland is home to leprechauns and rainbows, the latter you cannot get without a tonne of rain.

They say never go back –  they were almost right.  Ballyfin is still wonder, just not quite as wonderful.  This was mostly exacerbated by having to spend so long inside to avoid the downpour that I can now almost understand Irish.  It didn’t help that we visited the brand-spanking new Adare Manor afterwards, which really put the hard product into perspective.  When we could escape, it just allowed enough time to do some clay pigeon shooting, which perfectly summarised Ballyfin when the guy tutoring us was also one of the butlers and did the 4pm daily house tours.  It’s that classic Irish homeliness that I’ll pretend I can remember from my childhood.

With no children under 12 allowed, it’s perfect for couples looking for a place to relax.  I still love this hotel and will return, but I’m struggling to forgive them for pushing Irish cheese onto me at every opportunity.  I’ve never seen a country so proud of something so bad.

Adare Manor

Adare Manor reminded me of a modern version of Ashford Castle.  Actually, I take that back, the only thing that resembles Ashford is being near a river.  That’s the end of that strain of thought.

It has clearly benefitted from a substantial amount of money.  The kind of money that buys you the rights to host a World Cup or escape Japan in a private jet.  The hard product is pure class, the activities and facilities are impressive and they’ve put a real emphasis into the food (having just won a Michelin star), but the golf is clearly the selling point – something neither of us play.  So for us, it’s not a destination worthy hotel, i.e. don’t go to Ireland just for it.  The sheer scale of it means it lacks the intimacy that some of other top European destination properties, such as the aforementioned Ballyfin, and Villa Feltrinelli or Park Hotel Vitznau.  It’s a good property, yet I cannot help but feel that it would have been a much better one if the weather was better.  Misery breeds misery.  We did muster up the energy to try the falconry, where we couldn’t quite believe that for £250 you just hold some birds for about 10 minutes.  I could do that in Trafalgar Square and it’d cost nothing except a visit afterwards to the doctors and the World Health Organisation. Three, free meals a day in quarantine is not to be sniffed at.

The recognition was surprisingly impressive for such an extensive hotel, although small service issues did creep in with more regularity that I felt the longer we stayed the more we’d see.

September

Singita Boulders

This was my first solo trip in many years.  It came just a few months after getting married, so naturally I decided to spend my time with another man.  Between the sunsets and sunrises, it was like a romance novel.  He sure did want to spend a lot of time with me; every morning he awoke at 5am and couldn’t be happier to see me.  Long into the evenings he kept trying to impress me with his knowledge, all whilst sat in remarkably close proximity.  I’d say they should make it a movie, but I’m quite sure they’ve already done it a few times already.

Like Lebombo and Sweni, Boulders and Ebony lodges are separated by a quick walk, with Boulders elevated and Ebony down by the river.  The problem with both lodges is that I’ve now been to so many safari camps that many of them begin to feel the same.  I had to keep double checking my notes and photos, just to write this short summary, as it had already blended into half the other African properties I’ve stayed in.  The dark woods, rustic, colonial style.  The design didn’t do anything for me, but ultimately I was there for the safari and it was marvellous.  My luck was still in, as I was in a private vehicle with a highly enthusiastic guide (that annoyingly was a better photographer than me) and had an absolutely wonderful time.

The guide: perfect; service: wonderful, food: pretty darn good, but the lodge has seen better days.  Or rather, I’ve seen better lodges on other days.  I was surprised to see so many people rave about it, but then people are surprised whenever I complete a sentence.  Life is full of wonder.  I stayed in Boulders for 2 nights and then went down to Ebony – I really wish I hadn’t.  They actually did offer to swap me back, but I owed it to at least try it and naively thought I’d actually write about it, which we all know is well beyond my limited means.

The lodges are on private reserves, so you’re only bothered by rhinos (7 spotted on one morning drive), leopards, wild dogs and that kinda boring stuff.  It’s a great place to visit, I just would have enjoyed the camp more if it felt that extra level of luxurious, like most of their other camps.  The funny thing is that I would return, but I’d likely try out some other lodges first.  In terms of a safari experience though, it was almost perfect.

Singita Ebony

Let’s look at the positives: the pool can be heated; it’s still Singita; you’re a 5 minute walk away from Boulders.  In summary, I would pick Boulders.

The Farmstead

I really love this property.  Be aware that you will be sharing the reserve with other properties, but enjoy everything else on offer.

December

Bulgari Dubai

I heard iffy reports, so could not quite believe it when it turned out to be quite so excellent.  Superb product, a private beach, excellent service, good spa and little to complain about.  This will be our choice next time we return to Dubai.

Wild Coast Tented Lodge

Even though this is peak time to travel, it rained almost non-stop for 2 days.  So if you need a full review about just the room, I can do that.

Very similar to Ranthambore, you’re more likely to see a selfie-stick than any actual animals.  Then if you do see an animal, you’re more likely to wish you stayed at home, as the hysteria of the crowds sounds like a rock concert and you’ll have to go onto Instagram to see what the animal actually was.

With 36 rooms, Wild Coast is incredibly dense for a safari lodge, but they did a good enough job in not making it feel overly crowded. The highlight was definitely not the safari experience, but the food. I really mean it: that food was insane, In the certifiably good way.  Whenever I see a menu that contains 8 different ethnicities, I’m expecting some plate of fermented horse piss, but this was really classy cooking.

The rooms are decent and a big step-up on Jawai, India’s answer to a leopard camp, yet they really lack privacy which is aggravated by the glass windows, the lack of vegetation and staff just randomly showing up unannounced.  But what surprised me the most was how bad the service was.  This is the same company as Tea Trails, who absolutely excel in service.

We went out on one drive, saw a leopard with approximately half the population of Sri Lanka present, and decided that was it for us.  As a safari destination, it’s slightly ahead of India, but well behind Africa.

Resplendent Ceylon Tea Trails

Excellent service, medicore food, astonishing location.  If they could just swap the chefs at Wild Coast, their sister property, they would be invincible.  I really failed to understand the concept behind Tea Trails prior to arrival, due to some nonsense about bungalows, but it finally made sense when we arrived: there are 5 bungalows, all with different room categories in.  Each bungalow is in an entirely different location, offering a different view and feel.  Even an idiot could get it.  We had a chance to visit two properties and loved both equally.  This is a quality resort.

Joali

Probably competing for 3rd place in the Hotels to Expire in: Maldives Edition.  Joali is a wonderful property, only let down by overly eager staff.  It is the first realistic competitor to Cheval Blanc and Velaa, although I don’t think it’s quite as good….yet. They are already doing construction work based on customer feedback, having only been open a year, so I think within 12-24 months it will definitely be seen in the same light. Entry level rooms aren’t great, but their higher room categories are still a lot cheaper than Cheval Blanc, and seeing that they’re a complete rip-off of Gathy’s design it means everyone wins. Except maybe Cheval Blanc.

Kudadoo

All-inclusive is an absolute delight.  When I die, I’m charging for my funeral – my death shouldn’t be so great that people get to come and eat for free and enjoy themselves.  Be sad and pay up.  Kudadoo isn’t so great it’s worth dying over, but it’s a good, but not quite spectacular, addition to the Maldives, which has a touch of Japan in the Maldives.  And the food is to die for.  Oh.Themes 1

Soneva Jani

Dreadful

Nautilus

Brilliant.  I will have to stop picking the hotels soon, as once again my wife picked here and once again I wasn’t too bothered to go, but it was near flawless.  Whilst Joali is superb, it very much has a Cheval Blanc feel to it, whilst there is nothing else in The Maldives like The Nautilus.

Conclusion

Good things sometimes come in small packages.  Compared to 2018, this was barely enough to fill a weekend, but we wanted to focus on real quality and we (mostly) got it.

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 3rd Jan '20

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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