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June 9, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 22 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Illustration by Emilio Rivera III

The Grandes Dames
They may not be renowned for their computer-powered efficiency (though you might be surprised). Nor do they boast rooms that can be instantly transformed into an office (but who needs an office these days?). What they offer is graceful ways and heaps of nostalgia. They're the grandes dames -- Asia's fine old hotels. And here's what makes some of them so appealing.

Hotel Sofitel Central Hua Hin (formerly the Railway Hotel)
Tawaraya Inn, Kyoto
Oberoi Maidens
Hotel Continental, Ho Chi Minh City
Strand Hotel, Yangon
E & O, Penang
Galle Face, Colombo

Hotel Sofitel Central Hua Hin (formerly the Railway Hotel)

Steam locomotives no longer puff their way along the 200-km line from Bangkok to the Thai royal sea resort of Hua Hin on the Gulf of Thailand. But taking the train, now powered by a giant diesel engine, is still the most fitting way to reach the old Railway Hotel, which these days goes under the name of Hotel Sofitel Central Hua Hin. Disembark onto the platform of the venerable but refurbished Hua Hin Station, hail a samlor (rickshaw), and bump down the road for a less-than-triumphal entry into this five-star property.

Basic Room $118 + tax
Best Room $185 up inclusive of tax
Business Center Limited facilities
Health Club Yes
Swimming Pool Yes
Tel. 66-32-512036
Fax 66-32-511014

The State Railways of Thailand opened the Railway Hotel in 1923 as a seaside getaway for VIPs and the Thai elite. It remained that way throughout the 1930s and even during World War II, when some families fled there in fear of Allied bombing of Bangkok. Now, in calmer times, the railway authority leases the property to the Sofitel-Central partnership. The colonial-style, three-story building, with 214 rooms decked out in teak, stands on 15 hectares of land on the beach, underrated and not immediately noticeable (thank heavens) to visitors to the resort.

Says Swiss general manager Guy Poujoulat, 41: "Where else can you find a hotel with such style and charm?" Good question -- though he acknowledges that a seaside property of this one's age offers plenty of challenges in terms of repairs and renovation. When Sofitel took charge in 1984, it added wings in the traditional style, maintaining the old-world charm.

Don't come to the Railway Hotel if you want heated night life and hectic day pursuits. Try brash Pattaya or the popular beaches of Phuket for that. The Hua Hin resort is the ideal place to lie back and relax, best savored by clinging couples, families with young children and retired folk, a large percentage of them from northern Europe. Asians are conspicuous by their absence. They tend to prefer the high-rise glamour of the Melia Hua Hin Hotel next door, though Thai families do enjoy the bungalows on the Sofitel's adjacent property, called Central Hua Hin Village (Central comes from the hotel's management by the Central Group).

Hua Hin no longer attracts hunters to "shoot leopards, deer, hares and doves," as a 1920s guidebook put it. Golf and hanging out at the beach are the attraction. But film crews have been drawn to the hotel -- and, it is whispered, so have ghosts, though that probably has more to do with Thai belief in the supernatural than anything else. The old colonial wing and original entrance were used as the set for Hotel Le Phnom Penh in the 1983 shooting of The Killing Fields. The late Noel Coward is one of many to have taken time-out at the hotel. Just like the town itself, the old Railway Hotel rarely catches the eye in an era when glitz counts. But Hua Hin's best hotel may even yet reassert itself as a prime destination for stressed-out Bangkokians. Just wait until the airport reopens.

Asiaweek Pictures
Understated: Three centuries of elegance at Kyoto's Tawaraya Inn

Tawaraya Inn, Kyoto

For 300 years the Tawaraya Inn in Kyoto has been synonymous with elegance and exclusivity. One of the city's oldest ryokan, it has only 19 rooms, each one perfection in understated style. The guest book is rich with praise, such as this comment from American Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow: "I found here what I had hoped to find in Japan, human scale, tranquillity and beauty."

Leave your street shoes at the entrance, where they will be whisked away to be polished for when you are ready to leave. Put on the house slippers and follow your kimono-clad hostess down the corridor to your room. Naturally, it will have the traditional tatami mats on the floor, with a tokonoma enclave in the corner displaying a classical scroll and a vase of seasonal flowers. The maid will slide open the paper-and-wood doors to reveal a modest but mossily green classical Japanese garden. Walls block out the noise and hustle and bustle of downtown Kyoto.

Tea and cakes appear on the black lacquered table as if by magic. And the sweet-smelling wooden ofuro bath will be brimming with clear water, heated precisely to 40 degrees. The Tawaraya is known, among other qualities, for the excellence of its cuisine. Dinner is taken in the room on tableware and utensils of museum quality, chosen to match the seasons. At night, maids spread out the futon bedding -- linen sheets in the summer, cashmere blankets or down-filled quilts in winter.

Basic Room $325 including dinner
Best Room $695
Business Center No
Health Club No
Swimming Pool No
Tel. 81-75-211-5566
Fax 81-75-211-2204
E-mail None

The ancient city of Kyoto, which until the mid-19th century had been the nation's capital for a thousand years, is still a center for Japanese crafts. "We live with the traditions of Kyoto," says hotel owner Satow Okazaki Toshi. "They represent beauty in daily life." There is nothing so vulgar as a room refrigerator or one of those coin-operated television sets that can be found in most Japanese hotels.

The same family has owned the inn for 11 generations. It was started by Okazaki Wasuke, a textile merchant from the village of Tawara. He sent his son to open a trading post in the imperial capital, allowing his staff to stay there as boarders. Then he began offering rooms to other visitors. Slowly the Tawaraya gained a reputation for excellence. By by the turn of the century, it was the place to stay in Kyoto for dignitaries from the new capital, Tokyo.

But the inn is now facing an unprecedented challenge to its serenity. A local developer hopes to build a five-story apartment building right alongside it. Tawaraya fans, including historians and artists, mobilized to protest the development last year, claiming it would destroy an important part of the city's cultural heritage. Will profit or history triumph?

Oberoi Maidens

The Oberoi Maidens hotel in Delhi is one of a clutch of colonial-style hotels that sprang up in British India after the opening of the Suez Canal and the advent of a regular steamship service. Often they were known by the names of their original proprietors: Flashman's in Rawalpindi, Faletti's in Lahore, and Reynolds in Karachi. Maidens, founded in 1900 by an ex-British officer whose first name now seems to have mysteriously melted into Indian history, maintains the tradition.

Basic Room $45 + tax
Best Room $120 up + tax
Business Center No
Health Club No
Swimming Pool Yes
Tel. 91-11-3975464
Fax 91-11- 3980771

By 1943, the property had passed from its colonial owners into the hands of a young Indian named M.S. Oberoi, who still watches over operations at the age of 102. Even so, Maidens strives to maintain the atmosphere of the British Raj. It has a well-stocked "Cavalry Bar" and a "Curzon Room," named after Lord Curzon, one of the more celebrated British viceroys in India. Its walls are adorned with yellowed black-and-white photographs left over from the colonial era.

No hotel really qualifies as a grande dame without having played host to celebrity guests. The Prince of Wales stayed at Maidens on a tour of India, shortly before becoming King Edward VIII and later abdicating the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. The Anglo-Indian architect Sir Edwin Lutyens lived in the hotel while designing the huge vice-regal palace (now the home of India's president) and the imperial capital, New Delhi.

Now surrounded by nondescript government office buildings, Maidens stands out with its striking white exterior and immaculately preserved turn-of-the-century colonial architecture. But its owners have moved with the times. Maidens was the first hotel in India to install modern plumbing, the first to be air-conditioned, the first to have a disco (now closed) and the first to offer a luxury swimming pool (cutely named the "Mermaiden").

But few people stay at Maidens for the pool or any of the other modern amenities. They come to experience life from another era. A standard room, stuffed with heavy British-style furniture and creaking beds, is considerably larger than a suite in a more modern hotel, and a suite looks like a luxury apartment. One half expects to see a punkah-wallah languidly pulling on a heavy fan or hear the cry "bearer! bearer!" from the room next door.

Hotel Continental, Ho Chi Minh City

Immortalized in Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American, Ho Chi Minh City's Hotel Continental exudes a feeling of history that goes far beyond its French colonial architecture and the period furnishings in its rooms. If Vietnam's history was not made here, it was undoubtedly discussed and argued over by the journalists, diplomats, spies, soldiers and assorted others who once frequented the open-air café -- now regrettably history itself -- for which the Continental was once famous.

Basic Room $60 + tax
Best Room $110 + tax
Business Center Yes
Health Club Yes
Swimming Pool No
Tel. 84-8-829-9201
Fax 84-8-824-1772

The Continental, one of the city's oldest hotels, was built in 1880. It was purchased in 1930 by Frenchman Matthieu Franchini, and quickly became a place for colonial society to gather. In the early-evening cocktail hour, the Continental's Cyclo Bar, situated along the fashionable Rue Catinat, was the perfect venue from which to watch Saigon and its plentiful scandals pass by.

With the Viet Minh's victory over the French in 1954, an era ended. Franchini returned to France and his son Philippe took over. Philippe was to reinvigorate the hotel. The Continental became the meeting place for journalists covering the Vietnam War and for all the multi-plumed hangers-on anxious to make a dollar out of chaos. It was home to a number of foreign news bureaus. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Continental was confiscated by the Communist authorities and eventually closed its doors.

In 1989, it reopened for business, renovated with a most unproletarian respect for its architectural legacy, both inside and out. Unfortunately, new city regulations meant the end for the former sidewalk café that had given the hotel so much of its character. Instead, the Continental now offers the La Dolce Vita bar in its inner courtyard, where guests can enjoy a quiet drink in the intoxicating scent of 120-year-old frangipani trees.

Fitted with elevators and satellite television, the Continental is now a fully modern hotel with an Old World charm. The staff speak near-fluent English, and in some cases French. There are two restaurants, one serving Italian food, the other Vietnamese. Rather than boozing journalists, most of the guests these days are Japanese or European tourists.

With so much history and a central location in Ho Chi Minh City, the Continental is a particularly appealing destination for first-time visitors to Vietnam. Entering the lobby is to step back in time 25 or more years. Venturing out the front door plunges you into a whirlwind of motorbikes, cyclos and the frenetic activity that characterizes the new Vietnam.

Strand Hotel, Yangon

The Strand Hotel in Yangon has that elusive quality: atmosphere. It oozes it -- which is perhaps not surprising since it will be 100 years old next year. Now operated by the Singapore-based GHM group, it has never looked better. Sure, it has had its ups and downs. During World War II, it was taken over by the Japanese and what is now The Strand Bar was used as a stable for the officers' horses. After the war, there was a brief renaissance, but then, following Ne Win's coup of 1962, it fell into decrepitude -- like the rest of the country.

Basic Suite $300
Best Suite $900
Business Center Limited facilities
Health Club No
Swimming Pool No
Tel. 951-243-377
Fax 951-289-880

Former general manager John Reed recalls: "There were stories of rats running over your feet during dinner, menus offering well over 100 items, but rarely more than three or four available, the bar lined with numerous bottles, but all sitting empty, hot water available only between six and eight in the morning and no electricity after 10 at night."

But that was then and this is now. After a $15-million renovation, the old lady reopened in November 1993, lovingly brought back to the way she was. The hotel, which faces the riverfront Strand Road, is surprisingly small (32 suites). As current general manager Sally Baughen notes: "It's like a very grand, gracious old guest house more than a hotel." Painted a lovely cream, with polished wooden floors and wicker chairs, the Strand transports you into another world. And you pay for it. Rack rates are by far the most expensive in Myanmar -- but in truth should be ignored (good discounts can be negotiated, especially during the April-September low season). If you are flush, try the Strand Suite and feel like a rajah as you experience fabulous turn-of-the century luxury.

But be ready to feel a bit lonely. Due to Myanmar's political ostracism and the city's hotel glut, the Strand is often empty. On a year-round basis, occupancy averages only about 30%. But, heck, it is wonderfully tranquil -- though not always quiet, especially during the "Stranded Hours" in the bar between 5 p.m. and 8 p.m., when all drinks are half price (a beer is $1, a Strand cocktail $1.50). Diplomats, businessmen and locals congregate for gossip, sundowners and remarkable bar snacks. Friday nights are best, when Apollo Jolly plays the same piano tunes he has performed for decades. You can make international phone calls and send faxes and e-mail -- though since Myanmar is still generally Internet-unconnected, receiving messages is done via the hotel's e-mail link. But this is not a businessman's hotel. It's for lovers and seekers of charm, tranquillity and atmosphere -- a complete break from the madness of the rest of the world.

E & O, Penang

It used to be called the finest hotel East of Suez. At the height of the British Empire, the Eastern and Oriental Hotel in George Town, Penang, was an "Oasis of civilization" for the Westerner visiting or living in the region. Now the hotel is a construction site, but its owners plan to reopen it by December, restored to its former glory.

Basic Room $223 + tax
Best Room $473 up + tax
Business Center Yes
Health Club Yes
Swimming Pool Yes
Tel. 60-3-255-6868
Fax 60-3-255-9898

The E&O, as it is known, is the result of a merger of the Eastern Hotel (built in 1884) and the Oriental (1887) -- two of many great establishments in the region founded by the Sarkies family, Armenians who migrated to East Asia from India. The flamboyant personality of Arshak Sarkies is closely associated with the E&O. Famed for waltzing around the ballroom with a glass of whisky balanced atop his bald head, he owned and ran the hotel until 1931. On Sundays the British would gather to listen to the E&O's resident orchestra, composed of musicians from India, the Philippines and Malaya, or stroll in their finery along the long seafront. The drinks were Western, with Malay names -- stengah for whisky and soda and pahits for gin and bitters. That golden era ended with the Great Depression, when the money ran out for the hotel and its guests. Sarkies eventually died a broken man and his widow and daughter were ignominiously evicted from their suite in the hotel. The property then went through a number of owners and became forlornly run-down.

Now one wing is being restored -- with all the services updated. The taps and showerheads are brand new but in the style of a century ago. Ditto for the light switches. The façade of the old West wing has also been retained, so from the outside the E&O will look as she did in the 1920s -- with some of the biggest rooms anywhere in the world. Normal "rooms" are really suites and the suites are vast. "We will be selling a piece of history, the mystique of the E&O with a special service," promises general manager Richard Bamford.

Galle Face, Colombo

The many fans of the Galle Face cite several reasons for loving Colombo's grande dame. For some, the 136-year-old establishment's oceanside location, braced against the salty spray, is unmatched for its beauty and drama. The calming sound of sea waves lapping the boardwalk, they swear, is the ultimate antidote to urban stress. Just spend a couple of days reading on the verandah overlooking the checkerboard pattern on the lawn and your pulse rate will slide. Others rejoice that the Galle Face has not been given the makeover that has spoiled other Asian properties. It is still a hotel, and not a shopping and restaurant complex with a luxury inn at the front.

Basic Room $30 up + tax
Best Room $160 + tax
Business Center Yes
Health Club No
Swimming Pool Yes
Tel. 94-1-541-010
Fax 94-1-541-072

Many regulars remember owner-hotelier Cyril Gardiner, the eccentric whose personal touches are evident in the hotel he loved above all his other varied business interests. Gardiner died in 1996, but his Australian-educated son and successor Sanjeev has kept many of his dad's touches, including quaint notices urging guests heading for the lift to use the stairs to get some exercise, and not to smoke in bed -- "The ashes we find may be yours."

Still, Sanjeev Gardiner has pressed on with some modest, but much-needed modernization. All the rooms save 10 are air- conditioned and now have amenities standard at other deluxe hotels, such as a mini-bar and satellite TV. The banqueting facilities, a useful money-spinner in the low season and when Sri Lanka's ongoing ethnic strife keeps the tourists and businesspeople away, have been improved. There is now a billiard room and a new seafood restaurant. The roof has been repaired and modern kitchen equipment installed. The exterior of the building is completely repainted section-by-section once a year. While the tropical salt-spray breeze is part of the Galle Face's charm, the management has to think of guest comfort. A new lounge in the lobby has been air-conditioned, while preserving the open and airy feel of the front hall.

The list of VIPs who have stayed at the Galle Face is studded with the rich and famous. But, says Sanjeev Gardiner, the hotel is mindful of its devotees around the world who keep its good name going by word of mouth. "We have a good relationship with our clients," he explains. "So we want to create a culture where the guest doesn't feel like he is coming to a hotel, but to his home in Sri Lanka. Everything we do is with the long-term view." While the Galle Face recently arrived in the dotcom age -- it now has a website -- this old lady is still firmly rooted in her own gracious past.

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