Hotel News We Noted: June 28, 2013

l'auberge de sedona property
Image of L’Auberge de Sedona Courtesy of Nick McKeta

Greetings from sunny and hot, hot, HOT Sedona, Arizona, “Hotel News We Noted” fans. It’s a bit cooler down here on Oak Creek, where I’m currently typing this from the balcony of my cottage at L’Auberge de Sedona. So far, this AAA Four Diamond resort is full of lovely surprises, from the quaint feeding of the ducks each morning to the outdoor rain shower (complete with a real live tree) inside the room, and the nighttime star gazing lessons where I got my first glimpse of Saturn through a telescope! Expect a full recap of my trip in next week’s column, or travel along with me – I’m Instagramming live from the @GadlingTravel handle for our weekly #OnTheRoad column.

But for now, here’s your weekly dose of all that’s going on in the hotel world. Feel free to leave tips below or send your comments via email. I’d love to hear from you!

Dress The Part: New Orleans’ International House Undergoes Summer Wardrobe Change
Sure, our wardrobe changes with the seasons, but we’ve never seen a hotel do the same. New Orleans’ International House alters its furnishings, staff attire, foliage and overall ambiance to uphold the New Orleans tradition of “Summer Dress.” Dating back to pre air-conditioning days to keep cool during the steamy months, cotton slipcovers and sisal rugs replace formal upholstery and throw rugs, and native banana leaves, palms, fragrant floating blossoms and spiraling topiary decorate the lobby. Hotel staff will change their uniforms as well. The stylists for the hotel include fashion designer Lisa Iacono (who has worked with names like Proenza Schouler and Betsey Johnson) as well as Interior designer LM Pagano, who has worked with names like Nicolas Cage and Johnny Depp.

Hotel Opening: Fairmont Baku
One of the hottest areas in the world for new luxury properties is probably not a country you’ve heard of. Baku, Azerbaijan has seen an influx of luxury properties in recent months and years, including Four Seasons, Jumeirah and JW Marriott. Now Fairmont has opened their first property in the area. Located in the Flame Towers, the tallest building complex in the country, the 140-room hotel boasts spectacular views of the city of Baku, the old Inner City or the Caspian Sea. Highlights include a 20-foot glass chandelier formed in the shape of water droplets, a world-class, contemporary art collection and the spacious Fairmont Gold rooms and suites.

Cool Summer Vacation at a Hot New Resort: Topnotch Resort
Fresh from a $15 million upgrade, Stowe, Vermont’s Topnotch Resort has re-opened to the public. While we’d normally shy away from a ski resort in the summer, this newly upgraded property offers plenty to do in the off-seasons, including hiking, biking and more. Topnotch added a new lobby, revamped dining outlets, an outdoor wedding venue, a refreshed indoor tennis center and newly renovated guestrooms.

Smells Good To Us: The Grand Del Mar’s Perfume Sessions
We’ve certainly heard of hotels creating custom scents, but this new package from The Grand Del Mar in San Diego raises the bar even more. Wednesdays in July and August, the property is hosting a two-hour natural perfume making class where a local perfumer will give instructions and materials to blend your own custom scent. Open to the public and guests alike, this program seems like a steal at just $100.

Family Travel Package: Capture the Memories
While we certainly take a lot of photos during our travels, it’s rare that most of those images will ever see a life beyond our computer screen, which explains why we like this new package from Preferred Hotel Group. The Preferred Family collection of family-centric hotels has teamed with Shutterfly to allow every traveler checking into the group’s 41 hotels a complimentary photo book of their trip. It may only be a $30 value, but the idea of having someone encourage us to share our vacation snaps with friends and family seems like a great value.

Travel And The Azerbaijani Unibrow

The unibrow is the face of travel.

Let me explain. I recently took a trip to Azerbaijan. I strolled the streets of Baku, which are flanked by plus-sized Beaux Arts palaces, the ground floors of which usually house a designer shop. I ate enough grilled meat to keep a slaughterhouse in business. And I sat in smoky bars nursing Turkish beer. It was all very nice. But what struck me the most about the country was the unibrow. I first saw it on Rashid, a 30-year-old computer programmer I met through a friend. It was like a black cat had rested its tale across his forehead. Furry and thick and stretching from temple to temple, his unibrow was the most prominent aspect of his round face.

The unibrow (or monobrow), which scientifically is called a synophrys, is an embarrassment in modern, Western society and culture. People get made fun of, laughed and pointed at. It’s even worse for women, who have to landscape their brows on a regular basis. People will go through great labor to ensure they have not one but two eye brows.

But in other parts of the world, things are different.I cleared my throat and broached the subject with Rashid.

It turned out, Rashid was proud of his unibrow. “It’s a symbol of bravery and strength,” he said. Rashid explained that in Azeri culture, the unibrow is a traditional look, one that unfortunately is fading away.

“And for women, it is a symbol of virginity and purity,” he told me. “Women will have this unibrow, as you call it, until they are married. When she comes out for the wedding ceremony, it will be the first time she is without it.”

I spent the next few days unibrow spotting. I noticed it on people walking down the street. I noticed it on waiters. I even saw a mannequin that had a unibrow drawn into its forehead with a black marker, an attempt to give it some local flavor, I guess.

And so what does this have to do with travel? Everything. That central, oft-pondered question – why do we travel? What inspires us to get off the couch, put one foot in front of the other, lock our front doors, and go? – can be answered thanks to the unibrow.

Finding the “exotic,” a subjective and problematic term, is becoming harder and harder these days. The world is coalescing into one giant miasma of sameness – at least in some ways. I went to Belarus on a magazine assignment. The goal? To drench myself in an anachronistic post-communist culture that I thought had faded away in other places decades ago. Minsk, the capital, seemed frozen somewhere in 1959. You can stand on the corner of Marx and Engels Streets. You can sit in the shadow of a gargantuan Lenin statue. You can convince yourself that the KGB is following you (because they probably are) and you can try to spot the mustached dictator running the place. But the people I met in Minsk were as clued into things as anywhere else in the world. I heard M.I.A. and Radiohead songs in bars. I talked about American foreign policy with people in cafes. And I noticed a lack of bad teeth and mullets. Belarus, it turns out, is not just babushkas and bread lines.

But they had their own cultural signifiers and that’s what I dove into while I was there – just as I did in Azerbaijan. The unibrow is a proud local tradition and one that physically separates us. It shows the gulf between me and Rashid. And that’s a good thing. It reminds me of why I travel: to see those differences and to relish in them. And while the unibrow stands out, there are other variations on the theme of hair that intrigue me. When I’m traveling I always brake for a mullet (and especially the holy grail: the mullet/mustache combo).

What the unibrow (or the mullet, for that matter) becomes is not just a symbol of otherness or travel or a resistance to the homogenization of that steamroller known as 21st-century globalization; it is a symbol of happiness.

[Unibrow photos by David Farley]

Baku To The Future: The Empty Capital Of Azerbaijan Really Wants You To Visit

In September 2010, on the banks of the Caspian Sea, a plus-sized Azerbaijani flag was raised on a very tall flagpole. With an international audience looking on, Azerbaijani officials proudly made a proclamation: that in Baku, the capital of the country, the world’s largest flagpole at 531 feet now stood, thus besting South Korea and Turkmenistan. Sadly, the odd global flagpole war was not over: a year later, in Tajikistan a 541-foot pole went up and Azerbaijan had to move on to other things.

And that they did. There’s a lot more rising in Baku these days than flagpoles. The city is going through its second oil boom in a century and a half and is suddenly flush with cash. And lots of it. I spent a few days here recently rendezvousing with a friend and traversing a country that few people seem to know exists.

Friends and family members, people I meet at cocktail parties, always ask the same question: where are you going next? Azerbaijan, I’d say in the run-up to my trip here. I received a lot of blank stares in return or sometimes an “Azerbai what?” When I called my cell phone company to get on an international roaming plan, the woman with the southern accent on the other end of the line asked me where I was headed. Her response to hearing Azerbaijan was this: “Now is that in the Paris, France area?”Azerbaijan is in an odd geographical position, wedged between Iran to the south and Russia to the north, it’s a bridge between east and west, Europe and the Middle East. It’s a predominantly Muslim culture but one where its citizens are prone to pounding vodka from time to time. I didn’t bother to tell the woman at my phone company this info. But I could have told her about the rapid changes that are going on here: that in the last year and a half six luxury hotels have opened up. I’m staying at one of them: the Four Seasons. And the only reason I can afford to is because it’s, well, affordable. In fact, the most affordable in the hotel company’s portfolio.

The reason: Baku looks like a place one would want to go. There’s a walled medieval town in the center and block-long Parisian-like buildings outside the walls where the streets are flanked by palm trees and designer shops. There’s a long handsomely designed and landscaped beachside promenade called Bulvar. Yet, no one is really coming to Baku yet. They poured in for the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest but that was it. Getting a visa is difficult. And the price of things, save for the hotels where there is a lot of supply but no demand, is high, on par with Western Europe.

Baku is no stranger to sudden surges of wealth. In the second half o the 19th century, black gold was discovered. People rushed in from all over the place, including the London-based Rothschild family as well as the Nobel brothers from Sweden, who made so much money on oil here that said money is still partly funding the annual prizes that are given out under the Nobel name. The oil barons (both foreign and Azeri) built huge palaces just outside the old city walls. In 1920, the Soviets took over the country and the oil barons fled. The oil industry then fell into disrepair.

And then, in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan was back. After a short skirmish with its neighbor and sworn enemy, Armenia, the country began selling the rights to suck up its oil. In 2006 it opened up a pipeline that goes through neighboring Georgia to Turkey. As a result, according to a New York Times article, from 2006 to 2008, Azerbaijan had the fastest growing economy in the world, at an astounding 28 percent (For comparison’s sake, the United States’ economy during that time grew about 2.2 percent).

If Paris and Dubai had a lovechild it would certainly be Baku. In addition to the Beaux Arts buildings that were a product of the last oil boom, the Baku skyline is now rife with color and avant-garde design: The Zaha Hadid-designed Heydar Aliyev Center looks like a spaceship covered with a humungous billowy blanket and is the first building to really wow me in a very long time; then there are the Flame Towers (pictured), a reference to the country’s fire-loving Zoroastrian past: these three tongue-shaped towers dominate the skyline at night by broadcasting through 10,000 L.E.D.s images of flames (starting in June, one of the towers will be a Fairmont hotel). There’s also a Trump building that looks like it was plucked from the Abu Dhabi skyline and a 1,000-foot TV tower, the tallest structure in the country.

But not for long. An Azeri gazillionaire is building a few manmade islands in the Caspian that will apparently be home to the world’s tallest building. That is, until a country like Tajikistan builds one tall a year later.

The leader of this nation is Ilyam Aliyev, who may be president for some time. Voters in a 2009 referendum decided by an apparent 92 percent of the vote to scrap presidential term limits. Photos of President Aliyev’s father, Heydar, who was president before him, are ubiquitous: his face graces large billboards in and around Baku and well as throughout the countryside, giving the impression that “dear leader,” alive or dead, is always on the watch.

During the time I was here I was often asked what I thought of Azerbaijan, in general, and Baku, in particular. I didn’t really know what to think of it, at first. It seemed Baku had changed so much and so rapidly that there were societal and cultural aspects that haven’t caught up. The nightlife, for example, was forgettable, even though Lonely Planet recently proclaimed it to be one of the best spots on the planet to party (note to LP: did any of you actually come here?).

If they let me back in to Azerbaijan (don’t forget that getting a visa is a pain), I’ll be looking forward to seeing how the country has developed in a few years. By that time, the famous flagpole might have dropped to fifth or sixth tallest in the world. And maybe I’ll see a few tourists here. Enough, anyway, that the only place I’ll be able to stay is a hostel.

[Photo by David Farley]

The Caucasus, Central Asia And British Airways

caucasus and central asia

I traveled to Beirut earlier this year with bmi (British Midland International), the East Midlands-based airline partially absorbed into British Airways in the spring. My Beirut trip was meant to be the third installment in an ongoing series called “Far Europe and Beyond,” which reached a premature end in the lead-up to the airline’s sale to International Airlines Group (IAG), the parent of British Airways and Iberia.

“Far Europe and Beyond” was, as its title suggests, focused on several cities along on Europe’s margins and just beyond. I visited Tbilisi and Yerevan last year, Beirut earlier this year, and had hoped to carry on to three additional cities, one (Baku) within Europe and Almaty and Bishkek (see above), both indisputably outside of Europe.

BA has absorbed many bmi routes and withdrawn others. I did a little cursory research and discovered that two of the cities I originally proposed for the series (Bishkek and Yerevan) have been dropped – as has Tehran, where the Yerevan-London bmi flight I took last October originated.

Last week, in response to an email query, a helpful British Airways spokesperson confirmed that the above destinations have indeed not been included in BA’s winter schedule. When I asked whether or not BA had any intention to initiate new routes to the Caucasus and Central Asia, she told me that there were no immediate plans to do so, and added that she suspected that future route development would focus on destinations further east. She also pointed out that the airline has just begun to fly nonstop between London and Seoul, an exciting development in light of the ascendance of Korean popular culture and the recent debut of a Seoul-based correspondent at Gadling.

Here’s a little plea to British Airways: please bring these cities back, perhaps looped into other routes on a once-a-week basis. What about a stop in Bishkek coming back from Almaty or a stop in Yerevan en route to Tbilisi?If these routes can’t be returned to service, perhaps they could be replaced with similarly enthralling new destinations in the general neighborhood, all direct from London. What about a flight to Uralsk, gateway to the gas reserves of West Kazakhstan’s Karachaganak Field? How about seasonal flights to Georgia’s Black Sea holiday town of Batumi? What about making a big pre-Olympic fuss over Sochi? (The 2014 Winter Olympics are just 15 months away.) Why not resume a previously abandoned route to Ekaterinburg?

Pleasing me would form a terrible basis for route development decisions, granted, but there have to be profitable routes in this general region that are not served by other oneworld alliance airlines.

Do it for the love of commerce and industry in the post-Soviet space, BA.

[Image: Flickr | Thomas Depenbusch]

Luxury Vacation Guide 2012: Baku, Azerbaijan

Alternately called the Paris of the East and the Next Dubai, Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, is poised to become the Middle East’s next big luxury travel destination.

Once the busiest harbor on the ancient Silk Road, Baku is the largest city on the Caspian Sea and in the Caucasus region. A recent flood of oil money has led to massive development in anticipation of a 2020 Olympics bid, and early 2012 will mark the opening of the Flame Towers, an iconic complex which will significantly alter the Baku skyline. With a design inspired by the natural gas-fueled fires that once sprung spontaneously from the Azerbaijan landscape, the towers will house offices, high-end apartments, and a new luxury property from Fairmont.

As a country, Azerbaijan is no stranger to progress, having been the first Muslim country to build operas, theatres, and a democratic republic. Baku’s walled inner city, which contains Shirvanshah’s Palace and Maiden Tower, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, and the city’s cultural agenda includes world-class ballet performances and philharmonic concerts. To boot, Lonely Planet recently ranked Baku one of the world’s top destinations for urban nightlife, alongside Buenos Aires, Dubai, and Cape Town.

[flickr image via teuchterlad]