India’s palace hotels are living links to the era of the maharajahs, the 200 years prior to independence when semi- autonomous princes ruled much of the country. The newly restored Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad is now perhaps the most opulent palace hotel of all.
Not only was Hyderabad the largest of the princely states, it was also the wealthiest. When he was deposed in 1948, the last Nizam was adjudged the richest man in the world. Set on a 32-acre estate, the palace was designed in 1894 by a British architect, William Ward Marret, who employed an idiosyncratic combination of styles to create an immense structure that was intended to rival the palaces of European royalty. Escorted to our room by an elegant receptionist, we passed through a library lined with teak and rosewood bookshelves and furnished with a table inlaid with marquetry of breathtaking intricacy and skill. The whole room, our guide informed us, was a replica of one at Windsor Castle in England.
The palace has been converted to contain 60 rooms and suites on an ascending scale of splendor. Our Historical Suite was spacious and comfortable. The prolonged restoration has resulted in quiet and effective air-conditioning, and the bath provided a powerful walk-in shower, a soaking tub, black marble surfaces and art deco ornamental mirrors.
The Falaknuma Palace has two principal restaurants: Celeste, serving European dishes; and Adaa for Indian cuisine, in particular Hyderabadi specialties prepared in the so-called dum, or slow- cooked, style. Throughout our stay, the food was delicious and was served by polished and attentive staff. At lunchtime, we tended to opt for a simple salad in the Rotunda next to the swimming pool. There is also a spa offering a variety of traditional Indian therapies. The Taj Falaknuma is a self- contained world, and for a day or so, it is hard to find any incentive to leave.
Palace Room, $415; Historical Suite, $770; Royal Suite, $1,255. Engine Bowli, Falaknuma, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. Tel. (91) 40-6629-8585 or (866) 969-1825.
The Siam is one of the most talked-about Asian openings in years. This comes as no surprise, given the team involved in its creation — American designer Bill Bensley; New Yorker Jason Friedman, one of the best of a new generation of hotel general managers; and the Sukosols, a Thai family deeply involved with the arts.
The Siam is located in the historic Dusit district, near many of the city’s most famous attractions, including Wat Pho and the Grand Palace. Occupying three acres of landscaped riverfront, the property is centered on the Main Residence, containing an impressive atrium with full-size palms, giant ferns and an elevated black granite fountain. Overall, the interior combines the style of the King Rama V period, 1853-1910, with elements of art deco.
On our arrival, our butler led us to our Pool Villa Courtyard suite. It proved to be a stunningly beautiful little complex containing a stylish living room and a cleverly designed bedroom with a soaring ceiling, ebony floors and a sofa covered in jewel-tone silk. The real showstopper, however, was the bath, with its black-and-white marble floor and huge stall shower. Outside, a large plunge pool was set in a private interior terrace surrounded by lush tropical greenery.
Three century-old Thai teakwood houses now serve as a bar, cooking school and restaurant. The outstanding Chon Thai Restaurant serves utterly delicious local cuisine. Other amenities include a 70-foot infinity pool overlooking the river, and a fine spa.
For such a new property, the service at The Siam is extremely impressive. Overall, it is a hotel that caters to the needs and tastes of the discriminating individual traveler.
Riverview Suite, $720; Pool Villa Riverview, $1,185. 3/2 Thanon Khao, Vachirapayabal, Dusit, Bangkok. Tel. (66) 2206-6999.
The Con Dao Islands, an archipelago of lush mountain ridges and wave-scalloped beaches, lie 150 miles south of Ho Chi Minh City. Once the site of a notorious prison, the archipelago is now two-thirds national park.
Six Senses Con Dao opened on the island of Con Son in December 2010. The architecture of the main public buildings employs the idioms of a Vietnamese fishing village, with a “market square” and chophouses of salt-stained gray wood. The resort comprises 50 villas with private plunge pools. Our Ocean Front Villa was compact but charming, with big picture windows facing the sea. Amenities included a wine fridge and a Bose sound system. The bath area was nearly as large as the bedroom/living room, with a terrazzo soaking tub, two sinks and a daybed. A small, enclosed courtyard garden provided an outdoor shower. (The three- and four-bedroom villas come with lap pools as well as plunge pools, and would be superb for family holidays.)
As with all Six Senses properties, Con Dao has a magnificent spa. But what really distinguishes this resort is the quality of its food. Lunch is served beside the sizeable freshwater pool, or better, at the outstanding open-air Vietnamese restaurant. There, we feasted on irresistible nem (fried spring rolls), soups, and, my favorite, crispy Saigon omelets filled with bean sprouts, shrimp and fresh herbs. A comfortable room, a glorious beach and delicious food all left us disinclined to venture out. Six Senses Con Dao is an outstanding beach resort that is not only an ideal place to unwind at the end of an Asian trip, but a worthy long-haul destination in itself.
Ocean Front Villa, $770. Dat Doc Beach, Con Dao District, Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province. Tel. (84) 64-3831-222.