Travel Mango

If your mind is a prisoner of your limited thoughts, help it break free. Travel - Sajjid Mitha

HIT THE SKI SLOPES IN THE HEART OF THE MIDDLE EAST

Lebanon has long been known as a fantastic holiday destination, from the nightlife of Beirut to the ancient wonders of Baalbek and beyond. However, Lebanon is less well known as an international skiing destination. With a number of well established ski resorts, the country mixes Mediterranean style, wonderful hospitality, and pristine slopes just 30 to 60 minutes from Four Seasons Hotel Beirut on the sea.

Lebanon’s six resorts are all within a couple of hours drive from Beirut, making them immediately accessible and well worth a visit on the weekend. Skiing is popular with the locals and the ski season sees slopes replete with locals and tourists alike. Each resort has something to offer and it seems that every skier has a personal favourite.

  • Mzaar is Lebanon’s most famous resort. Located by the villages of Faraya and Kfardebian, Mzaar offers more than 80 kilometres of slopes at up to 2465 metres. Mzaar is also home to the country’s most challenging slopes, though there’s plenty of snow for beginners and intermediate skiers, too. Visitors should partake of some delicious street food at places such as Emm Bashir and Abou Artine.
  • Faqra Club was one of the first private ski clubs in the country, set up in 1974. Visitors can stay at the resort and enjoy stunning chalets, a heated pool, tennis courts and other amenities. With a variety of slopes, the resort caters to all levels and is well appointed in terms of infrastructure. After a long day on the mountain, guests can visit nearby ancient ruins and a natural stone bridge.
  • The Cedars Ski Resort has been in business since the early 1920s and is perfect for beginners, with gentle slopes accessed by wire-lifts. However, the resort also offers some of Lebanon’s best cross country skiing and great après-ski offerings. Found amid the famous Lebanese cedars, the resort is close to the birthplace of famous Lebanese writer Gibran Khalil Gibran and close to Bcharreh, the writer’s birthplace, where The Gibran Museum can be found.
  • Laklouk sits among breathtaking mountains and offers first class alpine and cross country skiing. Surrounded by raw natural beauty, the resort is close to the awe-inspiring Afqa cave and Balaa abyss. Stunning, Laklouk is somewhere utterly unique in the Middle East.
  • Zaarour is the closest resort to Beirut and is the smallest in Lebanon. Offering a wide range of activities, the site offers scenic views of the Sannine Mountain and a kilometre-long cross-country track for the more adventurous skiers out there.
  • Qanat Bakish is famous for the quality of its snow and for open slopes. The village of Qanat Bakish is one of the best preserved Lebanese towns and, together with the freedom found on its slopes, makes this resort something of a hidden wonder.

Whatever you are looking for, Lebanon’s ski resorts offer up something for everyone. Be it the natural beauty of Laklouk, or the cosmopolitan environment of Faraya, Lebanon’s mountains offer the chance to hit the slopes in the heart of the Middle East. For day trip and longer ski excursion planning, talk to the concierge at Four Seasons.

Source: Four Seasons – Press Room

Progressive Oriental House (POH)

Mumbai has a new address and it is indeed an iconic one. It is where a master performs and leaves his audience mesmerised. It is where talent knows no boundaries and one can expect an Oscar winning performance on every visit. If you, my dear reader think I am referring to the recently restored and re-opened Opera House, where entertainment and art have reached dizzying heights, appealing to the most alluring cultural minds, I don’t blame you. But for a connoisseur of good food, a person with a discerning palate, a gourmet, the stage show he looks forward to, is of a different kind. The kind in which the conductor of the orchestra, performs in the kitchen.

While the Chef, I will introduce you to dear reader, may not be a branding juggernaut like Heston Blumenthal, (although he has assisted him at the Fat Duck), to us, he is a master conductor. He crafts his own symphonies from his mind, which we think is nothing short of brilliant.

Chef Vikramjit Roy of Progressive Oriental House (POH) is a Culinary Wizard. He makes dishes which redefine the word ‘stimulating’. They are not only delicious, but they appeal to so many more senses than just your palate.

Laveena and I arrived at POH at Kamla Mills on her birthday eve and were shown to a Private Table for 8 which we were told was booked just for the two of us for the evening. A few minutes after we were seated, the curtains were raised and the grand performance began.

1st Course

Poached chicken, barley & lacto-fermented banana flower salad with an asian pesto made with basil & cashew nuts and a thai chilli vinaigrette. Served on a bed of roasted red pepper coulis.

 

 

2nd Course

Baked sous vide prawns crusted with young almond slices, and later baked sprinkled with lemon zest. This is served with aerated spiced pumpkin puree, compressed pineapple, clove scented cauliflower, pea mash, lemon gel, fermented beetroot. Finally a sauce of fresh black beans and fermented mango is poured over it.

 

 

3rd Course

Scallops from Hokkaido region of Japan served with miso butter, smoked eggplant puree, garlic mash, pickled raspberry and a semolina crisp.

 

 

 

 

4th Course

Crab stick wrapped with crab mousse and then crusted with Crab fakes and baked. It is served with chilli bean saice, spiced corn kernels, stir fired crab meat and a panna cotta of corn and crab water.

 

 

5th Course

Sous vide duck breast crusted with caramelised cashew, served with cashew butter, poached figs and a tamarind duck jus.

 

 

 

 

 

6th course

Salmon crusted with pistachio & amaretto, served on a bed of a sushi rice & turmeric ‘polenta’.

 

 

 

7th Course

Lamb meat balls wrapped with chinese cabbage and cooked. Served with Thai Red curry, thai eggplant and dehydrated eggplant crisp.
This is served with a home made steamed vermicelli noodles.

 

 

 


8th Course

70% bitter single origin chocolate with coriander water, dehydrated coriander powder, coriander seed caramel.

 

 

 

 

9th Course

Apples cooked with soy and then baked in an onion puff, served with soy caramel ice cream, pineapple cooked in soy crisp and sweet soy reduction.

 

 

 

 

10th Course

Rose – Almond milk and rose panna cotta with textures of fruits, a foam of raspberry and a lavender honey poached cryo-fried edible rose.

 

At the end of it all, Laveena said to me that what we experienced at POH was ‘sensory design’. She said, “ no longer is eating out just about fine dining. It is a a multi-sensory experience which involves appreciation of the look of the dish, hearing in detail about what the creator has presented us with, it is about taking a deep whiff of the scents and aromas in play on your plate and finally it is about embracing the miracle with your tongue and allowing the flavours to explode into tastes and nuances you possibly have never experienced before.”

It is not just the use of modern cooking techniques which highlight Chef Vikramjit’s skill with thickeners, enzymes, liquid nitrogen, dehydration, sous vide, and other non-traditional means of cooking. There is so much more to what this young genius does. In search of perfecting what is on your plate, this magician, actually scripts a fairytale and ensures that what is served to you is the ultimate hero of his esculent grand presentation.

If you are looking for a place to celebrate a special occasion, we highly recommend the Chef’s table at POH. We loved it and plan to return real soon.

(The bills we settle at the end of our meals are done so in full and are not discounted. Our review is honest and not influenced in anyway)

Pampered like Royals at Chateau Mcely

On a Crisp autumn morning in October, Laveena and I drove 70 Kms North East of Prague, to Mcely, a beautiful picturesque central Bohemian village in the Czech Republic, with a tiny population of 300. The colours of fall, had cast an umbrella of red and gold, upon many of the narrow village roads and our mood was gloriously happy and mellow as our car drove through several light drizzles of leaves, which delicately fell to the ground, reminding us of the magnificent season we had chosen to be in the Czech Republic.

Less than an hour later, we entered through the gates of Chateau Mcely, a 17th century restored castle, located on the edge of the St. George Forest. A filmy veil of a soft dull mist hung around the castle, adding to the enchantment of this mystical spa hotel and forest retreat. As we walked through the doors of the Chateau, feelings of European nobility entered our hearts. We were handed a cool damp fragrant towel and a refreshing herbal drink in a champagne glass, which helped revitalize us after our car ride from Prague. We were then shown to our very grand suite. Our room had a stunning view of the carefully manicured castle lawns. Nature had carpeted the cool ground with a sheet of randomly scattered caramel coloured leaves. We stepped out for a walk on the five-hectare private grounds that surrounds the chateau. On offer for all guests, is an outdoor whirlpool and sauna and at the reception we were told to take a dip in the natural lake which has been made into a swimming pool.  As we explored the vast grounds, a gardner who was hard at work, asked if we would be interested in mowing the grass or weed the flower beds. Since we rarely get an opportunity to do this back home in India, we said we would love to do both. We pulled on a pair of  gloves and wellies and got right down to work and enjoyed every bit of our time, gardening. We had a quick shower on our return to the castle and then we spent time exploring the main  building. The Baroqueness of the interiors was evident in the palatial finish, with high ceilings, chandeliers, fine tapestry, silk curtains and rich parquet flooring. This elegant accommodation was princely to say the least and we looked forward to our planned three day stay at the castle.

Chateau Mcely, we were told was home to the famous aristocratic Thurn Taxis family of Regensburg, Germany, inventors of the European postal system. Following the Velvet revolution, the family decided against restoring their home and over the years it was weathered down to a state of ruin and dilapidation. That was until Inez Cusumano, a commercial property developer from Slovenia, purchased it from the Czech Government and helped restitute it to its current grandeur. The castle was finally opened to guests in September of 2006 and today Chateau Mcely is a place where guests can enjoy luxury and a meticulous finish with an arresting sense of a soft rural charm.

After yet another enjoyable walk around the grand property, we returned to the Chateau to lunch at the Piano Nobile Restaurant, which in 2015 was recognised as the fifth-best restaurant in the Czech Republic according to Maurer’s Grand Restaurant Guide. We were handed our menus by the shift leader Zdenek Soufek, who was friendly and enthusiastic to serve and please us. He had many recommendations and from the elaborate menu, Laveena chose the seasonal salad of the day to start with and the ‘Label Rouge’ Salmon with quinoa, peas, cucumber and Kikkoman soy sauce. I opted for the Veal tongue with onion marmalade, horseradish espuma and Dandelion honey as a starter and for my mains, I asked for the Cod with White beans, shallots and concasse. Zdenek shared with us some trivia about the Chateau saying that the American writer, Mark Twain had stayed at Chateau Mcely when he had lost his family fortune. It was at Mcely that Twain turned his life around and saw better times thereon. I could have sworn that the food at Chateau Mcely had something to do with Twain’s improved luck, but they didn’t have the young Executive chef Honza Štěrba, at the time. We were lucky to try the young genius’s culinary craft and were not surprised to learn that Maurer’s Grand Restaurant Guide had awarded the Piano Noble at the Chateau as the ‘Best Restaurant in the Czech Republic in 2014’. Zdenek proudly said that at Chateau Mcely’s kitchen, homegrown herbs, were used to garnish all meals and that the meat and fish used in their dishes, were smoked in the chateau smokehouse. We were also told that if we wanted to improve our cooking skills, classes were held on the chateau’s patio with views of the surrounding countryside and these were conducted by Chef Sterba, using only the finest of ingredients.

Later in the evening, we had a massage scheduled at the Mcely Bouquet Spa. As we made our way to the couples suite, the lady accompanying us said that the Mcely Bouquet line of natural and organic skincare products were developed by the owner of the Chateau, Inéz Cusumano. It was her intention to share the herbal and healing heritage of this aristocratic residence, with the Chateau’s guests. On offer were oils, bath salts, masks, serums and balms, many of which we purchased, not only because they smelt and felt great, but because they were also free from any chemical modifications. Manufactured at the castle laboratory, the Mcely Bouquet line of spa products are available only at the Chateau, at their E-Shop and at luxury hotels across the Czech Republic including the Kempinski and the Mandarin Oriental.

We were welcomed by our therapists, Jarmila and Ilona, into the Honey Suite and were asked to choose a fragrance from one of their natural skin product lines. We were offered a Nine Flowers Balm, a Camomile Baby Oil, a Daisy Body Oil, but Laveena and I both wanted to be massaged in white chocolate and over the next 60 minutes, the divine smelling balm we chose, was gently worked into our bodies, by two of the Chateau’s most skilled therapists. Our spa experience at the Honey Suite was divine and after thanking the very talented young ladies, Ilona and Jarmila, we walked back to the castle feeling young and rejuvenated.

The palatial Chateau Mcely has won many an accolade including The Best Hotel in the Czech Republic by Dolce Vita Magazine, the Best Hotel Project in the country by the Czech Real Estate Board and has been voted as The World’s Leading Green Hotel by the World Travel Awards. Our stay at the Chateau was truly memorable as we got a little taste of the old world aristocratic charm of Czech royalty. In fact on our late autumn evening walk, on our second night at Mcely, Laveena said that the ambience at the Chateau was so romantic, she would recommend it to friends who were on the look-out for an ideal wedding destination. Just before we returned to our room to turn in for the night, we visited the basement at the chateau. Here at the 17th century Alchemist Club wine cellar, we both enjoyed a delicious night cap, recommended by Zdenek.

For breakfast the next morning, before our made to order eggs and freshly squeezed orange juice was served to us, we were treated to some caviar and champagne. We were scheduled to leave for Cesky Krumlov later that afternoon so I didn’t have more than a single glass, but enjoyed the treat thoroughly. We were reluctant to leave this Bohemian jewel and wished we could have stayed much longer. At the Chateau, their vision statement reads – “We make a difference in the world by making a difference in yours”. Well they certainly succeeded in making a difference in our lives, as we felt more relaxed and younger than we did before we arrived at this blissful manor. We were wined, massaged and dined and above all we were happy to have experienced the royal pampering at this gorgeous piece of Czech Paradise, a paradise we would love to return to someday soon.

Aria Hotel Prague – Waiting to Applaud our return with a Happy Encore

For our Diwali (The Indian Festival of Lights) holidays this year, Laveena and I travelled to the Czech Republic. Our first stop was Prague, the ever so stunning capital city, steeped in history, with its colourful baroque buildings, red rooftops, narrow pebbled streets, Gothic churches, old bridges and the glorious Vtlava river. Our first impression when our taxi drove into the left-bank neighbourhood of Mala Strana (Lesser Town), was that Prague (or Praha as the Czechs refer to their beloved city), was one of the most beautiful cities either of us had ever set eyes on.

 

Our taxi pulled up outside a rather modest entrance to our hotel, which was located on a nice and quiet street, not far from Prague Castle. When we walked through the heavy swing door at the Aria, and over to the reception, we were welcomed and checked in by a lovely lady named Clara at the front desk. We saw that the lobby was decorated with a grandfather clock, and paintings and sculptures which served as a subtle teaser to the magnificent art Prague has on offer. Behind the front desk was a colourful mural of famous singers.

While being led up to our room by the very tall and friendly bellman Michael, we apprecaited the hotels distinct musical theme. The flooring had mosaic tiles in the shape of musical notes, randomly scattered across it, while natural light poured in through the glass ceiling. Our room was elegant and comfortable but sadly did not overlook the Vrtbovska Garden.

Laveena said that she was pleased to see Molton Brown toiletries in the bath and although we do not usually watch TV when on holiday, it is not often that one finds an Apple TV in their room with a pre-loaded I-Pod exclusively for their use. Michael informed us that we should visit the music library at the Aria and enjoy the vast selection of music on offer. He even said that guests were welcome to use the private cinema where we could watch films on a large screen while seated on comfortable chairs.

Prague is known to be one of the world’s leading musical destinations, and what I loved about the Aria hotel was the fact that so much of it was inspired by music. The tasteful décor had much thought behind it, with each of the four floors representing a genre of music with Brahms and Bernstein for Classical, Elvis and Sinatra for Contemporary, Mozart and Maria Callas for Opera and finally, the floor we were on, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong for Jazz. The carpets in the corridors had on them, musical notes, and as one walked through the hotel, one felt melodies of history carefully interwoven through the architecture of the property.

We were later told that the famous Italian architect Rocco Magnolia and interior designer Lorenzo Carmellini (known for their close association with Gianni Versace) were responsible for the final design and when I asked why an Italian theme in the Czech Republic, the hotel concierge very kindly explained that Mala Strana was known for its Italian Renaissance architecture and the Aria hotel’s design worked in perfect harmony with it. We were indeed impressed when told that the final product was a transformation from a row of modest grey stone and yellow stucco buildings which initially stood here.

When we stepped out for lunch, we appreciated the location of the hotel even more, as it is a short walk from Charles Bridge and the Old Town Square. There are 100s of restaurants and coffee shops one can choose from, but we took the advice of our friends from India, luxury brand and hospitality Ambassador Deepa Harris and one of the country’s leading interior designers, Mustafa Eisa and settled upon Aquarius at the Alchymist Grand Hotel and Spa, a few steps away from the Aria. From Executive Chef Tomas Sysel’s Autumn Tasting Menu, we ordered the Swordfish Tartare with basil, mint and avocado sauce and a sea food plate with octopus carpaccio, tuna sashimi and grilled prawns as starters and for the main course, while Laveena ordered the grilled tuna steak, I had the risotto capesante. We loved our meal and finished with The Alchymist Special,  The Fruit Sabayon which was the ultimate treat to this fine and rather extravagant lunch at the 4 time Michelin Recommended Restaurant. The restaurant manager told us that Aquarius had also featured in the prestigious Zagat Restaurant Review. Laveena and I both agreed that the recognition was well deserved.

Later, we wandered across the 600 year old Charles Bridge, reflecting on the statutes which line this historical marvel. We walked around the charming old town, and on our return to The Aria , through a private entrance from the hotel, we walked over to the Vrtbovska Garden. Despite autumn having set in, the bright red flowers in full bloom, looked resplendent against the background of the elegant staircase, the decorated banisters, the statues, terraces and the green hedges. The receptionist at The Aria had informed us that the Baroque style garden kept its original look from the 18th century and that the Aria was the only hotel in Prague, which offered private entrance access to this glorious Unesco World Heritage garden.

We were back at the hotel in time for High Tea (between 1600-1730) at the ‘Winter Garden’. This is a lovely place to sit back and relax with natural light streaming through yet another glass ceiling. As we sat back on a chaise lounge and sipped on our coffee, we watched twilight turn to evening and talked about how much we had fallen in love with this city, in just a few hours of being here.

The next day we enjoyed a lavish and rather posh breakfast spread, with made to order eggs with caviar, a chilled glass of champagne and strawberries. In the evening, Laveena and I shared a truly enjoyable bottle of a local red wine at the roof-top terrace, an extension of the famed restaurant ‘Coda’ at the Aria. Coda ranks among the finest dining establishments in all of Prague, with a menu put together by the well known Chef David Sasek. Since we were booked elsewhere, we missed on sampling the talented Chef’s craft, although we did spend ample time nursing the bottle of Shiraz, one delicious sip after another. The views of the city of 100 spires from the roof-top at the Aria needs to be cherished, as these are the images of Prague, immortalised by the trained lenses of the world’s finest travel photographers.

After a wonderful two-night stay at the Aria, we were ready to check-out and move on to our next destination, Mcely, a little village, 70 kms outside of Prague. I asked Laveena to summarise her thoughts on the Aria and without hesitation, she said that the experience was so very harmonious and pure, that she was ready to applaud her musical return to this lovely hotel, with a happy encore.