Going First Class in Turkey

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in town Upon arrival, we were taken in tow by United Travel Services Inc., a member of Virtuoso that has been delivering luxury travel product in Turkey for 28 years, and delivered to the Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul, which sits regally, over the Bosphorus and the only Ottoman Empire Palace to do so. Now that’s first class.

Our arrival was met by the first snowfall in Istanbul in three years, a not-so-welcome anomaly that lasted for the entire 3-day stay. The hotel itself is a beauty, connected to the original Ottoman Palace by an enclosed walkway. The rooms are sumptuous and comfortably elegant with balconies overlooking the Bosphorus or the former Palace garden, Yildiz Park, once the hunting forest of the Sultans.

After settling in, lunch was served in the hotel’s Gazebo Lounge, overlooking the Bosphorus with beautiful views of the boats and freighters lining up for their journey through the straits. The menu offers a variety of contemporary eastern and western food—a reasonable selection since Istanbul straddles both the European and Asian continents—and serves up a High Tea buffet between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. every day. It’s also a hotspot for the local crowd.

Later on, after a tour of this incredibly beautiful hotel—the palace suites in the palace itself are particularly elegant with sweeping views of the Bosphorus, chandeliers and butler service—we had a unique, traditional Ottoman dining experience in the Hotel’s Tugra restaurant. This wasn’t just a meal, it was an experience.

The restaurant is furnished in rich Ottoman decor with subdued lighting and live classical Turkish music humming in the background—three young Turkish women playing traditional music that was amazingly rich and melodious, but not in the least bit obtrusive. The food itself was amazing—plate after plate of traditional Turkish dishes prepared especially by the chef with specialties such as lamb Kulbasti and Testi kebab—all served with deliciously classic wines and finished up with the traditional candy stick trolley, “Macun.” The staff says to be sure and tell clients visiting in warmer weather to ask for a table on Tugra’s summer terrace, lit by the moon, a candle and the Bosphorus Bridge.

And still one last unforgettable experience at the hotel—a traditional Turkish bath in the hotel’s Sanitas Spa’s hammam, a truly delicious experience, especially on a cold, snowy Istanbul day. When you enter the spa—which also includes a full range of massage, beauty, fitness center and spa services—you change into a lush terry cloth robe and paper underwear for propriety’s sake and an attendant leads you into the steam room for five minutes. Next, you’re led into the hammam itself where you’re laid upon the traditional stone table sans robe and the ecstasy begins. It starts with the masseuse pouring bucket after bucket of warm water over you—kind of like washing the family dog in winter—and then the bath begins, with silky smooth soap being massaged into your body for about a half-hour, loosening up the tight muscles and leaving you wondering if you’ve died and gone to heaven. When the hour ends way sooner than it should have, you finish up with a cup of Turkish tea, lying on a settee in a dimly lit room. Oh, oh—peel me a grape Beulah!

Clients should also know that the Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul will be sponsoring around 25 meetings during Istanbul’s turn as the European Capital of Culture this year, hosting a variety of art and culture projects. The first one will be “Portable Art,” a project that brings contemporary art by artists such as Kezban Arca Batibeki, Gülsün Karamustafa, Susan Albrecht, and Julie Upmeyer to different districts of Istanbul. The basic idea is to attract people of all ages and all walks of life to experience art and to become more creative and daring in expressing themselves. The Ciragan Palace Kempinski Art Gallery will be hosting the “Contemporary Inconvenience” exhibition of this project during the summer period. Accommodation rates run from approximately $650 dbl per night.

Over the 3-day stay, there was also time to experience some of Istanbul’s marvelous attractions such as its famous mosques, the Dolmabahce Palace, the Spice Market and the Grand Covered Bazaar. But there will be details on those attractions and others in next month’s onsite review by our Mexico editor Sarah Muñoz.