The Soul of Luxury
Times Travel, May 2006
A friend of mine, a seasoned traveller who leaves the tourist trail behind, complained to me, 'Travel journalism nowadays isn't travel, it's hotels.' Tired, I had just booked six nights at the luxury hotel I'd plucked from the internet, telling my partner, 'For once I'm not bothered about things to see – and I'm certainly not going to write about it. I just want to read and rest in a fabulous place.' So – quite unintentionally – my friend made me feel trivial for having joined the breed of pampered fatcats. How could I see a hotel as a destination in its own right? My chosen holiday was a Club Suite at the luxurious Chedi, just outside Muscat in Oman – a trip in which all that mattered was all 'arrival,' with no metaphorical 'journey'to speak of at all.
The truth is, I've always had an ambivalent attitude to luxury. When I was young I despised it as the province of rich, middleaged people who needed four waiters to serve one silver dish, and would bawl them out of they got something wrong. Over-priced hotel boutiques, celebrity patronage, gilt mirrors and fusty swags, snooty desk staff, soulless lobbies boasting more stars than my corner of the sky…not for me. I speak as one who stayed at the George V in Paris once, and detested it. Though never a back-packer, I tended to equate virtue with the small family-run hotel, even if it meant small rooms and mediocre food.
Then I discovered the laid-back chill of rolling across the great roads of the USA, with nothing booked; the lottery of pitching up at a small motel whose winking neon illuminated threadbare towels, encrustation of dirt along the skirting, sheets too small, lights too sparse, and the audible, questionable lives of strangers next door. Unpack in seconds and head out for a beer. If a place was too grotty you could stuff your last quibbles into your tiny bag and move on to a Super 8 or Best Western, which suddenly took on the patina of class. I liked that. It told me I did not require 'nice' toiletries by the bath but gained street cred by coping with a sachet of detergent and a donut for breakfast.
Yet nobody could describe that as restful. That's not what it's about, rather an edgy, febrile, shifting consciousness in flux: the journey as jazz, riffing like Kerouac's prose. In middle age I admitted the need for something else. This wouldn't be the 'luxury' of those impossible hotel restaurants or the concierge who can sort you tickets for any show in town….No, for me the definition is absolute beauty and tranquilly, with (naturally) such good food you look forward to dinner. It's a mixture of aesthetic and restrained comfort. I found it at the Elounda Beach in Crete where I had two wonderful holidays with my ex-husband, and at the peaceful spa, Chiva Som in Thailand, where my daughter and I did a 'mother-daughter' retreat, complete with a daily massage and other pampering. Times like that you sit on your terrace, listen to water and birdsong, and know that luxury can indeed have a soul – and that its purpose is to bring balm to your own.
So it was with the Chedi. After a difficult couple of years, and with no holidays except journalistic travel trips (so no end to writing), I needed a rest, read about the Chedi and decided to book the last available room - in the most expensive bracket. It was a good decision. Met at Oman airport in a Mercedes, welcomed into a lobby dominated by a vast central couch piled with Arabian cushions, then escorted to the suite through still, dark water gardens illuminated by flaring braziers ….we knew this was instant karma. The suite consisted of a sitting room which led to a small private terrace, a vast candlelit bedroom, and a superb bathroom with both a state-of-the-art shower and a deep square stone bath, like one Scheherazade might have wallowed in. No detail of furnishing or lighting jarred. It was more perfect even than we'd imagined. There were two iPods (to take to the pool) plus speakers, two televisions (never used), and a welcome tray. 'Look,' said my boyfriend, 'they've left us some juices as well as the food.' But the elegant glass decanters contained whiskey, gin and vodka - in addition to which the beer and juices in the minibar came 'free' with the room. That first night we sat on our terrace gazing out in the direction of the Gulf of Oman, listening to the silence, sipping vodka and tonic – and I felt stress immediately start to roll away.
The Chedi acknowledges that some people might love children but do not want to hear their cries of delight (or quarrels) disturbing the peace of the day – so there are two, equally beautiful, pools, the one nearest Club Suites child free. It also knows that people who pay for the top-price rooms want a little exclusivity, and so each night there was cocktail hour in the superb library, when you could chat to other 'Club' guests or not. For me one of the most wonderful aspects of the hotel was not the choice of three excellent restaurants (and within the main one a choice of five different cuisines prepared in separate kitchens) but the grounds themselves. A series of pools unfold around you as you walk through, reflecting greenery and the pure lines of Arabic architecture - so that with the sea and beach and hotel swimming areas on one side and the magnificently landscaped pools on the other, you seem to float towards an inner stillness.
We did go 'out' – taking two half day tours to visit first the few sights of the city (including the impressive new Mosque), and to view dolphins in the bay. That was enough for me. Six days only in such a place, and it must become the destination. Beyond Muscat was the emptiness of the desert and the green of the wadis, and we planned to return one day and spend a night with the Bedouin. Maybe drive to visit the great forts along the coast…..But not this time. This trip was about settling into a state of calm, and that you can only do in a place which slows you down and wraps you round, offering – beyond mere luxury - a sense of sanctuary.
Three years ago, at a testing time in my life, I spent a night at one of the most beautiful hotels in California – the Post Ranch Inn, at Big Sur. It was possibly the most sublime place I have ever been to – so high above the Pacific the surface of the sea ripples imperceptibly, like beaten silver. You stay in individual 'tree houses,' as beautifully designed as anywhere in the world, and when the sun drops swiftly beyond the curve of the horizon, warm sage scenting the air, the sky shows an impossible depth of violet to indigo. At night, after an excellent dinner, you star-gaze through a telescope on the terrace. It was there that for the first time I fully realised how deep peace comes at a price, yet is priceless. Interestingly I was sent to the Post Ranch Inn by a girl selling dresses in Santa Cruz. 'Isn't it very expensive?' I demurred. She said, 'If ever people I know visit this part of California I tell them they have to stay at least one night at that hotel. You have to think you've got one life, and you're in one place, at one time – so why not? You gotta go for what's special.'