Pearl River Delta’s Top Hotels

Hong Kong’s Big Four – the Mandarin Oriental, the Landmark Mandarin Oriental, The Peninsula, and the Four Seasons – have had their status as the most luxurious hostelries in town reaffirmed. All of them maintained their 5-star ratings in the 2010 Forbes Travel Guide hotel and spa awards, which were announced Tuesday.

“The Forbes Travel Guide is one of the most respected publications in the travel industry, and to have gained 5 stars for 2 consecutive years is testament to the dedication, hard work, and effort made by our 850 colleagues every day to ensure that our guests receive the quality and service for which Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, is renowned,” says Jonas Schuermann, general manager of the hotel.

In Macau, which is a 1 hour jet foil ride away, the Wynn Macau also retained its 5-star ranking. The Altira, which used to be called the Crown, was elevated from 4 to 5 stars. No hotels in Beijing earned 5 stars, and no other cities in Greater China were included in the survey.

“We are delighted to receive these highly sought-after awards for the second year running, and they are a testament to the exceptional service delivered by my Wynn Macau colleagues. “ says Ian Michael Coughlan, president of the hotel.

According to Rainy Chan, general manager of The Peninsula Hong Kong, staff training is the key to the hotel’s continued success. “You can buy the best hardware available and hire good people for your hotel, but it is how you make your good people ‘great’ that is important,” she says “The staff are the soul of our hotels, and I believe investing in training is the best way forward to long-term success.”

Five hotels in Hong Kong retained their 4-star status. Included were the Conrad Hong Kong, the Grand Hyatt Hong Kong, the InterContinental Hong Kong, the Kowloon Shangri-La, and the Island Shangri-La.

In Macau, the newly opened Four Seasons Hotel Macau received 4 stars. It was also retained by the Grand Lapa Hotel Macau, which was previously known as the Mandarin Oriental Macau, the MGM Grand Macau, and the Sands Macau.

In Beijing, Aman at Summer Palace and The Regent, Beijing, received 4 stars for the first time. The Grand Hyatt, the Raffles, the St. Regis, the Shangri-La, and The Peninsula all had their 5-star rating reaffirmed.

This year is the first edition of the former Mobil Travel Guide awards since the brand’s transfer from Mobil to Forbes, which was recently announced. The list has defined the industry’s highest standard for excellence in hospitality for more than 50 years.

The Pearl River Delta’s Top Six Hotels

The Altira Macau, formerly known as the Crown Macau, is located on the island of Taipa in Macau. As the tallest building on the island, it offers breathtaking views of the Macau peninsula. There are 216 guest rooms, including 24 suites and 8 villas, several F&B outlets, a spa, a private club, casinos, and other facilities.

The Four Seasons Hotel Hong Kong is located at the international finance centre in Central on Hong Kong Island. Near the waterfront, it affords stunning views of Victoria Harbour and the Kowloon Peninsula beyond. There are 399 guest rooms, including 54 suites, 5 F&B outlets, a spa, and other facilities.

The Landmark Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, is located in the heart of Central on Hong Kong Island. It has the intimacy of a very high end boutique hotel. There are 133 guest rooms and suites, 2 F&B outlets, a spa, and other facilities.

The Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, occupies a full city block in the heart of Central on Hong Kong Island. Since it opened in 1963, it has been widely recognized as one of the world’s premier hotels. There are 502 guest rooms and suites, 10 F&B outlets, a spa, and other facilities.

The Peninsula Hong Kong occupies a full city block in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui on the Kowloon Peninsula. Hong Kong’s 1st hotel. the Penn, as it is known by loyal guests, has been associated with style, fine dining, and attention to detail for 3 generations. There are 300 guest rooms and suites, 9 F&B outlets, and a spa, among other facilities.

The Wynn Macau is located on the Macau Peninsula. Unlike many hotels with casinos, this one has picture windows in most public areas with views of lovely landscaped gardens. There are 600 guest rooms, including 120 one-bedroom suites and 20 two-bedroom suites, seven F&B outlets, a spa, and casinos, among other facilities.

Copyright: Michael Taylor

Greater China’s Top Spas

Hong Kong has long been known as a Shopper’s Paradise. It has great Chinese restaurants, a spectacular harbour, and a well-deserved reputation for having some of the world’s most luxurious hotels. But spas? They’re not the first thing that generally comes to mind when people think of Greater China’s most dynamic city.

The same can be said about Macau, just a 1 hour’s jet foil ride away. Mention the former Portuguese enclave, and most people will think of gambling. A few might think of heritage architecture or baroque churches. But spas? No likely.

The 2010 Forbes Travel Guide hotel and spa award winners were announced Tuesday, and – surprisingly enough – five spas in the two cities were awarded five stars. The Mandarin Spa and The Peninsula Spa by ESPA retained their 5-star status. The Oriental Spa at The Landmark Mandarin Oriental moved up from 4 to 5 stars. Two other spas, Plateau Spa and The Spa at Four Seasons Hong Kong, retained their 4 star status.
 
In Macau, Spa at Wynn Macau retained its 5 stars. The Spa at Altira moved up from 4 to 5 stars. The Spa at The Four Seasons Macau earned its first 4 stars. Six Senses Spa at the MGM Grand Macau and V Spa at The Venetian Macao all retained their 4 star ranking.
 
In Beijing, the only other city in Greater China surveyed for the ranking, 4 stars were awarded to The Spa at Ritz-Carlton, Spa at Aman Resort at Summer Palace and The Peninsula Spa.
 
A total of 18 spas were awarded 5-star status worldwide. All of the rest were in the United States. Another 100 spas received 4-star ratings.

Until 2008, guides were limited to the United States and Canada. In that year, its first two international editions – one for Beijing and another for Hong Kong and Macau – were launched. More international destinations are expected to added in the years to come.

Properties are inspected without advance warning. There are two types of inspections: facility inspections and service evaluations. Facility inspectors rate spas on cleanliness, physical condition and location. Those spas passing the first inspection are evaluated a second time by an anonymous inspector, whose evaluation is based on more than 500 service standards.

The Forbes Travel Guide was formerly known as the Mobil Travel Guide. The transition was announced recently in the Accidental Travel Writer. The list has a history of more than 50 years.

Copyright: Michael Taylor

Eight Wonders of the World

The ancient Greeks believed that there were Seven Wonders of the World. These included the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Mausoleum of Maussollos at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes, and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Not surprisingly, they were all located around the Mediterranean.

In 2001, the Swiss-based New7Wonders Foundation launched an initiative to select the New Seven Wonders of the World. Much to the annoyance of Egypt – home to the only surviving remnant from the original Wonders of the Ancient World – the Great Pyramid of Giza was in contention with such 20th century marvels as the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Sydney Opera House in Australia.

The results, announced in the summer of 2007, were as follow: the Great Wall of China; Petra, an archaeological site in Jordan; Christ the Redeemer, a statue of Jesus Christ built atop Corcovado Mountain in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro; Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas, in Peru; Chichen Itza, a pre-Columbian architectural site in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula; the Roman Colosseum, an amphitheater located in the heart of Rome, Italy; and the Taj Mahal, a mausoleum located in Agra, India, which was built by a Mughal emperor in memory of his favourite wife. The Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt was named an “honorary candidate,” bringing the total to eight.

Continental Airlines has launched an on-line auction, allowing frequent flyers to bid their miles on a premium round-the-world trip, visiting the Eight Wonders of the World.

“We are pleased to celebrate joining Star Alliance by bringing this unique auction package to our most loyal customers,” says Mark Bergsrud, Continental’s senior vice president of marketing programmes and distribution. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

The winning bidder and a companion will travel from their hometown to Continental’s Houston, Texas, hub at Bush Intercontinental Airport in the United States.

From there, they will travel by business class on Continental and other Star Alliance airlines, making stops at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Rome, Italy; Delhi, India; Cairo, Egypt; Beijing, China; Mexico City, Mexico; and Lima, Peru. They will stay at Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide properties and take private tours of each of the Eight Wonders. Bidding closes on 9 December 2009.

Copyright: Michael Taylor

From Los Angeles to New York – the Long Way!

Have you ever sat on the sofa watching The Amazing Race and said, “I could do that!”? Well, here is your chance! For US$9,900 per person, 25 couples will compete in the sixth annual three-week international travel adventure competition, known as The Global Scavenger Hunt. They will embark from Los Angeles on 9 April 2010 and head for New York. But instead of traveling East, they will head West, visiting at least 10 nations while circumnavigating the globe. Participants will not be informed ahead of time what the actual stops will be.

“We had some good chuckles at the World Travel Market in London last week,” says Event Director William D. Chalmers. “The challenge has been made that’s for sure. Travel agents always claim that they are the best travelers, but someone in London observed that they were more a kin to high school guidance counselors – that they are good at telling you where to go, but have never personally been there themselves! We’ve had some wonderful travel writers compete in previous events thinking they were the great travelers – but this is no [familiarization] trip, no press junket. The Global Scavenger Hunt is a serious competition, and they all seemed to wilt under the marathon-like pressure of actually having to do competition scavenges themselves.”

The Global Scavenger Hunt was launched in 2000, long before the hugely popular reality show Amazing Race went on the air. It is all about allowing real travelers to compete in a real competition for all the right reasons – the love of travel, trusting strangers in strange lands, and giving something back to the planet.

A cultural immersion at its best, the event is designed to reignite the magic of travel and be more of a rally, rather than a flat out race. The object is to test each team’s ability to combat the challenges of travel in the 21st Century; not only the inevitable jetlag, language difficulties, cultural differences, strange foods, logistical snafus, along with team dynamics in the atmosphere of a well-organized competition.

Couch potatoes and armchair travelers need not apply! The sixth annual Global Scavenger Hunt is for Type-A globetrotters craving adventure, competition, and world-class fun – all while serving as a roaming travel ambassador.

The Global Scavenger Hunt is limited to 25 two-person teams (singles may apply). The entry fee of US$9,900 per person covers all international airfares, 23 nights in first class hotels, and about 40% of meals. Teams are interviewed for suitability. Visit and apply online at GlobalScavengerHunt.com.

Pictured: a beautiful sunset reflected against the Manhattan skyline.
Photo Credit: nycgo.com
Copyright: Michael Taylor

Eight Great Cuisines of China

The Cantonese are reputedly China’s most adventuresome eaters. According to a popular saying, they will eat anything with two wings except airplanes and anything with four legs except tables.

The Hunanese like their food hot – so hot that Chairman Mao, who was born in the province, maintained that one of the reasons that so many revolutionaries were born there was because of the province’s spicy cuisine.

The Empress Dowager, also known as Cixi, was so self-indulgent that she diverted funds intended to strengthen China’s navy to have a luxurious marble yacht built for herself. Ironically, despite her profligate ways, one of her favourite dishes was a Zhejiang speciality known as Beggar’s Chicken.

During the second world war, China’s national capital was moved from Nanjing to Chongqing in Sichuan Province. When Chiang Kai-shek fled the mainland for Taiwan in 1948, most of the wartime capital’s top chefs went with him. As a result, some foodies maintain that the best Sichuanese restaurants are in Taiwan – not Sichuan.

Beijing might be the nation’s capital, but its signature dish – Peking Duck – has its roots in Shandong Province rather than Beijing.

What is often passed off as Shanghainese cuisine, meanwhile, actually has its roots in neighboring Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, where fresh ingredients, extravagant presentation, slightly sweet flavours and hot and cold dim sum are favoured.

Food experts have traditionally divided Chinese cuisine into eight regional varieties, which can be broadly grouped into two distinct cooking styles: northern and southern.

“Cuisines south of Yangtze River are lighter, fresher and sweeter,” says Lau Ping-lui, chef at the Spring Moon Chinese Restaurant at The Peninsula Hong Kong. “Cuisines north of the river are saltier and have stronger flavours.”

By far the most popular style of Chinese cooking is Cantonese, which gets its name from the city of Canton, now known in English as Guangzhou.

“Cantonese cuisine stands out from the rest because Cantonese chefs demand the freshest ingredients, and they enhance flavours without masking them,” says Alam Lin, F&B manager at The Ritz-Carlton Guangzhou. “It is also the most diverse and has evolved the most.”

Next to Cantonese cuisine, two of the most popular cooking styles are Hunanese and Sichuanese. Both are fiery, both have strong flavours and both can be rather oily. However, the peppers favoured by Sichuanese chefs – known as ma la (or numbing hot) in Putonghua – differ markedly in taste from those used in Hunanese fare.

Zhejiang and Jiangsu are respectively home to two of China’s most beautiful cities, Hangzhou and Suzhou. They are also home to two of its finest cooking styles. The cuisines of these two cities – as well as other neighboring communities south of the Yangtze River – are sometimes lumped together as Jiangnan cuisine.

As the birthplace of Confucius and several other notable Chinese scholars, Shandong is also home to one of the country’s most respected cuisines. It is lighter, crisper, tenderer and not as oily as some of the other styles of Chinese cooking.

Anhuinese cuisine is perhaps one of China’s best kept culinary secrets. The flavours are rich and subtle thanks to the careful use to hams and sugared candies to enrich and deepen flavours.

Strong on seafood, Fujianese cuisine is popular in Taiwan, where it is often referred to as Taiwanese food. Interestingly, whereas beef does not figure prominently in Fujianese cooking, Taiwanese beef noodles are one of the most popular dishes on the island.

For Cantonese cuisine, the jury is still out on which city does it better: Hong Kong or Guangzhou. Guangzhou is where it was born, but during the 50s, 60s and 70s, most of the city’s top chefs fled to Hong Kong. With China’s growing prosperity, however, a number of Hong Kong’s best chefs are now being lured back to the mainland, where they head the kitchens of Chinese restaurants at five-star hotels. Thanks to fresher ingredients and a more diverse selection of foodstuffs, Guangzhou is starting to reassert its former reputation as China’s culinary capital.

“Diners here have become more demanding,” says Jacky Chan, Chinese executive chef at the Shangri-La hotel Guangzhou. “They have more money so they expect better food.”

Shenzhen is your best bet for other types of Chinese food. A city of migrants, 70 to 80 per cent of its population was not born in Guangdong. As a result, it has a vast number of restaurants representing all of the eight cuisines, and the food tends to be both authentic and tasty. The only type that is hard to track down is Fujianese food. There are no full-scale restaurants serving it, but there are several fast food shops selling Fujian style dumplings and noodles at rock bottom prices.

Hullett House Opens in Hong Kong

On 26 November 1996, just months before Hong Kong’s historic return to Chinese sovereignty, the then British colony’s Marine Police formally beat their last retreat from the gracious old white stucco edifice – to the strains of bagpipes and drums – that had served as their headquarters for 112 years and 68 days.

“They did so in the form of a grand parade commanded by Superintendent Laurence Knox and made up of representative contingents from all over the command, including one dressed in the distinctive uniform which was discontinued in 1974,” writes Iain Ward, a former member of the Hong Kong Police Force, a Hong Kong Marine Police historian, and author of Mariners: The Hong Kong Marine Police 1948-1997.

“Retired Mariners from all over the world came back to witness the event, and the party afterwards – starting in the palatial new Officers’ Mess at Sai Wan Ho and ending up in the old Mariners’ Rest in Tsim Sha Tsui (to ‘finish the beer stocks off’) – can be imagined.”

The stately building’s fate was in question following the handover, with greedy real estate developers eager to tear it down and redevelop the property with yet another towering high rise.

Fortunately, saner heads prevailed, and it was decided to renovate the building, turning it into a boutique hotel with fine dining outlets. A luxurious terraced shopping mall with designer boutiques and a public plaza would be built at its base.

Renamed Hullett House, it threw opened its doors Tuesday. The hostelry has 13 spacious and individually designed guest rooms – each with a large private balcony and ceiling fans. There are also 5 themed F&B outlets. St. George is a fine dining Western restaurant. The Parlour serves English style breakfasts and afternoon tea. Loong Toh Yuen has Hong Kong style dim sum and innovative Cantonese style dishes. There are both indoor and outdoor dining areas, with al fresco seating in the 50 Pigeons Courtyard.

Stables Grill serves grilled dishes and tasty tapas in the old horse stables. Mariners’ Rest serves pub grub and grog in what was originally the sergeants’ mess.

Hullett House was named in honour of Richmond William Hullett, a 19th century Engilsh academic and scholar that lived and worked in Asia. As a dedicated botanist, he discovered the Bauhinia, which was adopted as colonial Hong Kong’s official flower in 1965. Since the handover, it has served at the Hong Kong SAR’s official symbol, gracing its flag, coinage and stamps.

Copyright: Michael Taylor

Cantonese Cuisine

Cantonese cuisine can be interpreted two ways. Either it is the cooking style of Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong Province, which was formerly known in English as Canton – thus Cantonese. Or it is a catch all phrase for the many and varied cooking styles found across Guangdong Province. Since there are three other distinct provincial cooking styles of merit – Chiu Chow, Hakka and Shun Tak – I prefer the former interpretation.

Guangzhou was once thought of as the culinary capital of China. According to an old Chinese saying, it was best to be born in Suzhou, live in Hangzhou, eat in Guangzhou and die in Guizhou. Why? The people in Suzhou were the best looking so it was the best place in which to be born. Hangzhou had the most beautiful scenery so it was the best place in which to live. Guangzhou had the best food so it was the best place in which to eat. And Guizhou had the best wood for making coffins so it was the best place in which to die.

Guangzhou’s stature as a culinary super star started to fade following the communist conquest of mainland China in 1949, which sent waves of refugees – including many of Guangdong Province’s top chefs – fleeing to Hong Kong. More followed during the Anti-Rightest Campaign in the mid-50s, the Great Leap Forward in the late 50s, and the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. By the 1970s, Hong Kong had replaced Guangzhou as China’s culinary capital.

In Hong Kong, Cantonese cuisine has continued to evolve, and a new cooking style – influenced by Japanese, Southeast Asian and Western cuisines – has emerged in recent years. I like to refer to this as Nouvelle Cantonese.

With China’s newfound wealth, diners in the mainland are now becoming more discerning. To meet their rising expectations, restaurants – especially those located within five-star hotels – are offering hefty salaries to attract Hong Kong’s best chefs to oversee their kitchens. In the mainland, they have access to a wider variety of ingredients, and the ingredients also tend to be fresher because they are closer to the source. In Hong Kong nearly everything has to be imported.

After interviewing chefs and sampling food in both cities, I would have to say that overall the standards in Hong Kong tend to be higher, and the chefs here tend to be a bit more innovative than their counterparts in Guangzhou. But my hand’s down favourite Cantonese dish was sampled recently at a five-star hotel in Guangzhou. The Wasabi Mayonnaise Coasted Crispy Prawns with Mango Salsa and Pomelo at the Lai Heen Restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton Guangzhou were to die for.

Copyright: Michael Taylor