Whisper it, but are hotels becoming dull? Frette-Egyptian-cotton this, widescreen-plasma
that ... close the curtains, crack open the minibar, and you could be anywhere from
Khartoum to Kowloon. Where's the history? Where's the magic? Where, frankly, is
Step forward the colonial hotel. One hundred years after the abolition
of slavery, Empire may not have left a lot to be proud of, but the hotels scattered
in its wake are a start. How about staying where the British surrendered Hong Kong
to the Japanese in 1941? Or in a hotel still boasting TE Lawrence's unpaid bar bill?
A tea-planters' boarding house in Darjeeling?
A hotel that inspired Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile? Now, there's romance...
OLD CATARACT, Egypt
On the banks of the Nile, south of Aswan, where big, grey boulders emerge from the
water and give Elephantine Island its name, is the Old Cataract Hotel. Built in
1899, it immediately became a postcruise haven for all well-heeled travellers to
Egypt. Agatha Christie was a guest on numerous occasions, setting several of the
scenes in Death on the Nile here.
Then – as now – the summer temperatures soared into the 100s, and Aswan remains
famous for its energy-sapping bustle, but inside the jealously guarded Cataract
you can find an oasis of shade and sophistication.
The Moorish dining hall is fantastically atmospheric, and the sunset views over
the Nile are unbeatable, either while smoking a shisha or sipping a cocktail.
The 131 rooms are high-ceilinged and atmospheric, despite a creeping tendency towards
Details: Old Cataract Hotel (0870 609 0964, www.sofitel.com ) has
doubles from £101.
Contact Mediterranean Experience (0845 277 3304, www.medexperience.co.uk ) for packages.
WINDAMERE HOTEL, India
A 19th-century boarding house for bachelor Brit tea planters in
Darjeeling, the Windamere is an unashamed slice
of starched Victoriana. Chambermaids slip hot-water bottles into your bed as you
sip G&Ts in the piano bar; lampshades in the "new" wing – formerly Loreto Convent
– predate Vivien Leigh's time here as a girl; while fellow guests inevitably include
sun-dried chief constables stationed here before the war. Best, though, is the view
from the gardens as you take tiffin: tea plantations below, with
28,169ft Kangchenjunga – third-highest mountain on earth – above.
Details: Windamere (00 91 354 225 4041,
www.windamerehotel.com) has doubles from £106, full-board. Contact TransIndus
(020 8566 2729, www.transindus.com ) for packages.
BARON HOTEL, Syria
After climbing the ramparts of Aleppo's magnificent citadel and strolling through
its covered souk, there's no finer spot for a recuperative G&T than the bar
of the Baron Hotel. It was built in the early 1900s for Orient-Express passengers,
who at that time pushed on to Baghdad, and the old settees sag from the seats of
Charles Lindbergh, Yuri Gagarin, Charles de Gaulle and Theodore Roosevelt. Agatha
Christie started Murder on the Orient Express on the terrace, and King Faisal proclaimed
Syrian independence from a balcony.
But it's Lawrence of Arabia, with his casual attitude towards settling a tab, who
gets pole position in the roll call of fame: his unpaid drinks bill is framed above
The hotel may have clanky plumbing and creaky corridors, but it's a treat, and it's
still run today by the family who opened it.
Details: Baron Hotel (00 963 212 110881) has doubles from £27,
B&B. Fly to Aleppo from Heathrow with British Airways, from £714.
GREEN HOTEL, India
It was built in the 1920s as a bijou palace on the outskirts of the city for the
maharaja of Mysore's three daughters, and later became a film studio; now it's a
ravishing small hotel, with 31 quirkily decorated rooms and all profits going to
local charities. It's the perfect place to relax and play a board game – perhaps
by the croquet lawn, sitting under a ceiling fan on the ivy-clad veranda, or in
a nook by stained-glass windows. The little restaurant in the garden does superb
south Indian specialities, from £1, and be sure that you book into the original
building for its pukka patina.
Details: Green Hotel (00 91 821 425 5000, www.greenhotelindia.com)
has doubles from £40, B&B. British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com ) flies
nonstop from Heathrow to Bangalore, from £409, a 2½hr train ride away.
DOS TALAS, Argentina
South America is almost creaking with converted estancias and palacios, and Cuzco's
La Casona ( www.inkaterra.com/cusco ), an 11-suite, 16th-century mansion opening
in December, is just the latest in a string of colonial hotels fit for a conquistador.
For now, however, our favourite is Dos Talas, two hours south of Buenos Aires, near
Dolores, and run by the fifth-generation descendants of Pedro Luro, the Basque pioneer
who built the estancia in 1858. Set in nearly 4,000 private acres, with a foreverness
of pampas beyond, Dos Talas has a stable of horses, and a tick list of more than
300 species of birds. That's if you even make it outside: bedrooms here are whitewashed
and littered with original antiques, with vast picture-window views from the bed,
and a turret snug just begging you to curl up with a glass of malbec.
Details: Dos Talas (00 54 224544 3020, www.dostalas.com.ar ) has
doubles from £125, full-board, including activities. Contact Last Frontiers (01296
653000, www.lastfrontiers.com ) for packages.
PENINSULA HOTEL, Hong Kong
The Peninsula has held court over the southern tip of Kowloon ever since opening
its doors in 1928. The grand ballroom was the hot ticket of Hong Kong society until
the Japanese interrupted the dancing, and in 1941 the British actually surrendered
the territory by candlelight in room 336. The service is immaculate, the rooms supremely
tasteful, with European elegance and Chinese flourishes. The hotel is on its sixth
fleet of Peninsula-green Rolls-Royces, employed to glide guests on airport transfers,
and is one of the few colonial classics to have added an extension that actually
works. The 28-floor tower brings the Pen bang up to date too, with the Starck-designed
Felix restaurant: famous for fabulous harbour views, and the floor-to-ceiling windows
behind the gents' urinals.
Details: The Peninsula (00 800 2828 3888, www.peninsula.com ) has
doubles from £233. Contact CTS Horizons (020 7836 4338, www.ctshorizons.com ) for
FOREIGN CORRESPONDENTS' CLUB, Cambodia
The art deco-style residence of the former French governor has been reinvented as
a boutique hotel-cum-hip nightspot. The mansion's makeover includes 31 cutting-edge
rooms – the beige and cream calm that you'd expect – plus bold contemporary art,
a spa and a beautiful black-tiled swimming pool perfect for dusting off after a
day at Angkor's temples.
Whether you stay here or not, you have to drop by in the evening, when the large
pond is lit by candles and the ceiling fans are at full tilt. You can grab a steak,
play on the black billiard table, watch the sky darken over a cocktail, or salute
the many skittering geckos with a cold bottle of Angkor beer.
Details: The FCC ( www.fcccambodia.com ) has doubles from £59,
B&B. Contact Bailey Robinson (01488 689777, www.baileyrobinson.com ) for packages.
MOUNT NELSON, South Africa
This place makes a powerful first impression. There's an Athenian-style gateway
of pillars and an avenue of tall palms to be whisked through, and the magnificent
pink-painted main building has the elevated horizon of Table Mountain right behind.
We've been saving our grande dame epithet for Nellie, as she is known. Opened in
1899 and a destination for new arrivals from the Union-Castle steamships, she's
been a crucible of Cape society ever since. The 201 good-sized rooms are sprinkled
with antiques and Union-Castle memorabilia; there are suitably grand public spaces,
a vast pool, high tea on the lawn and plenty of dining options.
Details: Mount Nelson Hotel (0845 077 2222, www.mountnelson.co.za
) has doubles from £282, B&B. Contact ITC Classics (01244 355550, www.itcclassics.co.uk
) for packages.
STRAWBERRY HILL, Jamaica
More than 3,000ft above the Caribbean, with veranda views from all 12 private villas
over the Blue Mountain coffee estate, this one-time plantation house, complete with
the only full-service Aveda spa in the Caribbean, is an almost painfully romantic
Purchased 35 years ago by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, Strawberry Hill
was where Bob Marley convalesced after being shot in 1976, and it's easy to see
why: hummingbirds buzz by your hammock, butterflies flit in and out of your airy,
teak-floored rooms, fireflies flicker above your muslin mosquito net as you drift
off in your mahogany four-poster. There's hiking and yoga, a 60ft pool and sauna,
but rum punch in a teak armchair on your veranda takes some beating.
Details: Strawberry Hill (01895 450731, www.strawberryhillresort.com)
has doubles from £199, full-board. Contact Seasons in Style (01244 202000, www.seasonsinstyle.com)
CORSTORPHINE HOUSE, New Zealand
Built in 1863, this Palladian-style mansion overlooking Dunedin harbour was once
the family seat of the well-to-do Sideys, only becoming a hotel in 1998, when it
was restored to within a high-arched inch of its 19th-century grandeur. However,
while downstairs it's all iron-lace verandas, chandeliers and white-panelled ceilings,
upstairs the bedrooms look like something an eccentric Victorian collector might
have cobbled together with lottery funding. There are eight bizarre but utterly
seductive rooms themed along Egyptian, Japanese, Scandinavian, French, Scottish,
Indian, Moroccan and art-deco lines. Only five minutes from the centre of South
Island's second-biggest city, Corstorphine House – with 12 landscaped acres, a fruit
orchard and herb garden – feels a million miles from the humdrum modern world.
Details: Corstorphine House (00 64 3 487 1000, www.corstorphine.co.nz
) has doubles from £159, B&B. Contact Bridge & Wickers (020 7483 6555, www.bridgeandwickers.co.uk
) for packages.
NORTH BUNDALEER, Australia
Nearly 120 miles north of Adelaide, set in 400 acres of bush and farmland on the
edge of the outback, North Bundaleer is a bizarre, obstinately luxurious triumph
of pioneering can-do. Dating from 1901, but restored only a few years ago, the four-bedroom
hotel has lost none of its outrageous pioneer chic, with antiques everywhere: William
Morris wallpaper and a mahogany partners' desk in the library; freestanding baths
and 1740s Chinese toile wallpaper in the bedrooms; and a French rose-marble fireplace
in the drawing room that wouldn't look out of place in Versailles.
This far from Adelaide, with views of the unforgiving wilderness from the verandas,
the sense of folly is intense – and completely exhilarating. Fabulous food, exceptionally
friendly hosts – it's a house party and Peter Carey novel all rolled into one.
Details: North Bundaleer (00 61 8 8665 4024, www.northbundaleer.com.au
) has doubles from £150, B&B. Contact Audley Travel (01993 838800, www.audleytravel.com
) for packages.
RAFFLES HOTEL, Singapore
Standing, in the words of Somerset Maugham, "for all the fables of the exotic east",
the Raffles – named after the founder of the colony, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles
– is a 120-year-old icon of eastern colonialism at its most shamelessly grandiose.
The last wild tiger on the island is said to have been shot under the bar and billiard
room in 1902, and the Singapore sling was invented here at the Long Bar not long
after; while Japanese soldiers are said to have found guests enjoying one last waltz
when Singapore fell in 1942. From Coward to Conrad, Chaplin to Kipling, the ghosts
of guests past are everywhere.
After a £52m face-lift in 1991, the Raffles today has inevitably lost a little of
its original eccentricity, but there's still the odd glorious echo: 14ft-high ceilings,
overhead fans, the largest collection of oriental carpets in the world, and peanut
shells on the floor of the Long Bar.
Details: Raffles Hotel (00 65 6337 1886, www.raffles.com ) has
doubles from £404, room only. Contact Western & Oriental Travel (0845 277 3355,
GALLE FACE, Sri Lanka
Built overlooking Colombo's seafront in 1864, Galle Face has a guest list – Mountbatten,
Tito, Hirohito, Nixon, Nehru – that reads like Who's Who (try to wangle a look at
the guest book). Refined service at the Peninsula in Hong Hong It's not hard to
see why they came: frangipani fills the air, teak floorboards creak underfoot, epaulettes
and handlebar moustaches are standard issue among the staff – it's not a hotel,
it's an institution. And it's magical. They may have refurbished the south wing
two years back, but make no mistake, the GFH, as it is known by locals, is still
the grand old burra memsahib of colonial hotels.
Details: Galle Face Hotel (00 94 11 254 1010, www.gallefacehotel.com
) has doubles from £52. Contact Cox & Kings (020 7873 5000, www.coxandkings.co.uk
) for packages.
EASTERN & ORIENTAL, Malaysia
Hogging 800ft of Penang's George Town seafront, the E&O looks like a liner moored
on the strait of Malacca. When it opened in 1885, the island's other establishments
were lost in its wake, with all of high society hightailing it to the E&O. Malaysia's
breakneck progress spotlights the changeless calm of the E&O's classy exterior,
with its busy, whitewashed facade, and delicate minarets sprouting from the red-tiled
You'll be greeted by a topi-toting doorman, and ushered into a world of bygone style
– wicker and rattan, marble and crystal. It reopened in 2001, after a loving yet
ambitious refurbishment, with 101 suites and 24-hour butler service.
Details: Eastern & Oriental Hotel (00 604 222 2000, www.e-o-hotel.com
) has deluxe suites from £77, B&B. Contact Magic of the Orient (0117 311 6050,
www.magicoftheorient.co.uk ) for packages.
NORFOLK HOTEL, Kenya
The mock-Edwardian frontage of the Norfolk Hotel is a Nairobi landmark; its red-roofed
portico has shaded the arrival of every colonial chancer before they settled into
their Happy Valley homes. Grandee and coiner of the term "white hunter", Lord Delamere
is still remembered in the eponymous terrace and bar, a traditional meeting place.
The hotel has fine public spaces, a good pool and the renowned Ibis restaurant,
and there's an ox wagon, a rickshaw and a 1928 A-model Ford in the garden. But fate
doesn't seem fond of the Norfolk, which has been burnt down, blown up and brutishly
extended. Let's hope that the new owner, Fairmont Hotels, makes a better job of
the current overhaul.
Details: Norfolk Hotel (0845 071 0153, www.fairmont.com/norfolkhotel
) has doubles from £153.
Contact Somak Holidays (020 8423 3000, www.somak.co.uk ) for packages.