Sunday, June 20, 2010

Sayonara, Turkey

Hong Kong, 10 PM - Today was a very long day that began at 6 AM in the mysterious city of Konya in central Turkey, continued on to vibrant Istanbul and then to cosmpolitan Hong Kong (where I'm once again updating this blog from the CX lounge while watching the World Cup on TV), before finally ending at home in Manila perhaps past midnight. But because of all the time differences, it's been more like a 36-hour day from the time I woke up in a proper bed and to the time will be able to call it a night in a proper bed on land once again.

Shopping at the Grand Bazaar

We took the 9 AM Turkish Airlines flight from Konya to Istanbul, and from Istanbul airport, we proceeded directly to the Grand Bazaar to get some last-minute serious shopping done. My managing editor wanted to buy some plates with Ottoman designs, while I was looking for interesting accessories and home accents. As it was the weekend, the Grand Bazaar was full with tourists and locals. We parted ways at Gate#1, planning to meet back in an hour. During that hour, I wandered along jewelry alley, one of the bazaar's main alleys (built in the 13th century, it covers something like 45,000 square meters and houses thousands of shops) and then walked down an alley filled with knick-knack shops until I found a small store selling handmade jewelry made from semi-precious stones. Perhaps it was because the store owner mistook me for 30 -- or does he say this to everyone? -- but I ended up buying several pieces from him at what seemed like excellent prices. More information on this store at the end of this blog, for anyone heading for Istanbul soon.

Luxury at the Park Hyatt Istanbul

For lunch, we headed to the ultra-exclusive Park Hyatt Hotel Istanbul in the posh district of Nisintasi, up on a hill with only a bit of a view of the Bosphorus but lots of fashionable atmosphere. It's housed in a 1920s building with a very downplayed entrance that you'll probably drive past and miss if you're not careful. It used to be the official residence of the Italian ambassador, and the hotel designers cleverly added a glassed-in modern reception area where the garden used to be, so that now the original outer facade of the building is part of an inner wall of the lobby. And all around were the special Park Hyatt touches I love so much: interesting photographs and artwork on the walls, coffeetable books strewn about, and touches of local decor -- in this case, Turkish accents -- to still make you feel you're in Istanbul. Albeit a very chic part of Istanbul.

There are basically three top hotels to stay in, in Istanbul: the grand Ciragan Palace Kempinski, for those who want a taste of traditional, old-fashioned hospitality; the Four Seasons hotels -- they have an intimate one in the old town area of Sultanahmet (this is where JFK Jr stayed on his honeymoon) and a newer one right by the Bosphorus; and the Park Hyatt Istanbul, which is so low-key and private that most ordinary people in Istanbul have not even heard of it. Even our guide and driver had to double-check the address several times because it was not on their radar. But like Park Hyatts everywhere in the world, it's an unmatchable bastion of modern luxury and elegance. This is the kind of hotel celebrities stay in when they don't want to be bothered, and the hotel tycoons book this because it merges flawless service and infrastructure with the comforts of staying in your own private hotel.

At the Park Hyatt Istanbul, we had a nice chat with the hotel's very charming general manager, Harun Dursun, and his senior executives, over lunch in their terrace. After ten days of Turkish food, we were hankering for something more familiar so we'd ordered ceasar's salads and dry aged ribe-eye steaks, accompanied by glasses of Turkish cabernet sauvignon. It was all so civilized and wonderful on that terrace -- the perfect way to end our stay in Turkey -- that my managing editor and I joked about ringing Turkish Airlines up and changing our flights for that night to the same time one year later instead.

Park Hyatt Istanbul's top management were in jolly spirits and excellent form, which was admirable considering they'd just had members of the Pritzker family, the owners of Hyatt worldwide, to stay at the hotel until that very day as they were in Istanbul for an awards ceremony. Of course, they never even hinted at stress -- in fact, they seemed very happy to have had the opportunity -- but I can imagine that having the owners of the entire hotel chain staying at your intimate luxury hotel requires a lot of preparation and planning.

It was a wonderful Western meal, but we were also pressed to try a few of their Turkish specialties, courtesy of the executive chef who had just arrived to take up posting in Istanbul from Moscow's Park Hyatt. How could we not, on our last day in Turkey? So we stayed on for another hour, simply relaxing, as the executive chef sent over plate upon plate of luscious Turkish delights.

After lunch, we booked the hotel's special Body Luxe 90-minute massage, which was a combination of Thai and Swedish massage with special oils from Paris, and a little bit of reflexology thrown in. It was perfect, in anticipation of the long flight back to Asia tonight.

Before (reluctantly) leaving the hotel, however, I couldn't resist taking a peek into the hotel's presidential suite on the top floor. Consisting of 250 square meters in a duplex, it had a marvelous wraparound terrace with a view of the city and the Bosphorous, and a generous living room, an authentic Turkish-style hammam with its own steam room and, on the second floor, an office with a floor-to-ceiling glass wall showcasing beautiful city views. (That's a photo of the 2nd floor office above)

The presidential suite is connected to the other suites so super VIPs like royalty, celebrities and the ultra-wealthy can take over the entire floor (8 suites) and treat it like home. "We had one businessman who rented all the suites on the 8th floor for his family," said Kevin, the director of rooms. "So we took away all the plant dividers that separate the terraces of the 8th floor suites so he could jog around the building's terrace every morning." That seemed like the life, and so again I motioned to my managing editor to consider the possibility of calling Turkish Airlines to postpone our flight for another 365 days.

Taksim for a last (sweet) hurrah..oops, we mean baklava

Finally we were ready to leave, and we headed towards Taksim to have a last hurrah of baklava and a delicious bird's nest-type pastry called Kunefe that is simply deadly for calories and best eaten hot with lots of cream. We'd tasted this earlier with some expatriate friends of mine living in Istanbul, who had very kindly invited us to dinner, and we both felt strongly that we could not leave Istanbul without having this again.

As if all that food wasn't enough, our guide took us back to the Sultanahmet section of town, a few steps from the Blue Mosque, where we entered a rather touristy restaurant and climbed three flights of rickety stairs to a terrace with a view of the old town. Here we had a wonderful kofti (ground beef and lamb in a sausage) dinner that simply forced us to throw our caloric concerns out the window. There were three prayer chantings from different nearby mosques competing for our attention as we ate, but we felt it was strangely comforting. "I'm even going to miss this," my managing editor said.

Flying high with Turkish Airlines

At 1130 PM we boarded our Turkish Airlines flight to Hong Kong. After having experienced both their long-haul international and domestic flights, Turkish Airlines' business class is getting to be one of my favorite business class experiences. Their flat beds are among the most comfortable I've ever experienced because they're long enough to stretch out in fully, and there's enough space in the private cubicle for storage. Lots of airlines now have these private cubicles in business class, but many of them have extremely tight spaces compared to Turkish Airlines. It was also nice to have a little window in the middle so that my managing editor and I could discuss things when we wanted to do so, while at the same time have enough privacy if we just wanted to watch a movie. The meals too come a la carte, beginning with a full Turkish mezze sampler and soup and salad, followed by a choice of hot dishes and an array of desserts including ice creams and cakes. The service, too, is exceptional. The stewardesses are constantly smiling, quick to respond and always ready to help.

I watched a couple of really good movies on Turkish Airlines, so I can vouch for the great selection of new releases and old favorites. I was suprised to see a lot of interesting-looking non-English movies with English subtitles. On the way over, I watched a Korean political comedy/ drama about three very different presidents called Good Morning President. Korean TV and movies are all the rage worldwide now but I found this movie especially good. Highly recommended, especially if you're interested in politics.

Meanwhile, today I saw The Namesake, a movie by Mira Nair, the Indian-American director who made Monsoon Wedding. It was a particularly inisightful movie about relationships within a family, and especially one that has had to deal with various intercultural barriers and differences. Maybe it was the topic concerned, or the fact that I was feeling a little sad at the end of a wonderful trip to Turkey; but I found myself teary-eyed at the end of the movie, which coincidentally was also the time we started our descent into Hong Kong. Talk about a painless long-haul flight (except for the tears at the end of the movie)! We boarded the plane and I was fast asleep in 15 minutes. When I woke up, we were flying near Thailand and I had just enough time to eat a mixture of dinner and breakfast and watch my movie.

And now I'm waiting for my flight to Manila. I was trying to decide whether to ring up friends in Hong Kong to meet up for dinner instead of waiting at the lounge, but I decided to work in the lounge and catch up on blogging and Facebook!


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