Some hotels haven’t always been spots for weary travelers to conduct business, be pampered or simply lay down their heads. Here are a few amazing places to stay that used to be everything from prisons to monasteries.
The magnificent Parador de León San Marcos, a former 16th-century monastery in Leon, Spain, has lovely paintings, carvings and tapestries in public areas. You can enjoy a stay at the parador during our 2014 program “In the Footsteps of St. James: El Camino de Santiago.”
In Cusco, Peru, the elegant Hotel Monasterio was originally built in 1595. “Hotel Monasterio sits on the site of Inca Amaru Qhala’s palace,” explains the hotel’s website. “Three years later, the Spanish took it over and founded the Seminary of San Antonio Abad.” Remodeled as a hotel in 1965, it has a beautiful courtyard. A stay at this stunning hotel is part of our 2014 South American Highlights program.
Instead of pilgrims and seminarians, some hotels once housed prisoners. The luxurious Four Seasons Sultanahmet in Istanbul’s old city is “housed in a century-old neoclassical Turkish prison.” The hotel is located a short stroll from major sites including the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.
Another establishment that used to be a jail is The Långholmen Hotel in Sweden. The hotel assures us that: “Today, you are met by a modern hotel with newly renovated ‘cells’ (2008) with daring design solutions and free access to wireless broadband.” The hotel also has a museum, From Crime to Chains, which offers insight in to Långholmen’s past.
In contrast, many great hotels around the world used to be palaces. The Taj Lake Palace in Udaipur was once the summer home of Maharana Jagat Singh II, 62nd successor to the royal dynasty of Mewar. Located in the middle of Lake Pichola, this distinctive hotel has mosaics, a lovely courtyard, richly colored frescoes and ornately carved furniture. Fun fact: the James Bond film Octopussy was filmed on the premises.
Near Udaipur, magical Devi Garh is a stunning former fortress. This heritage hotel “was the royal residence of the rulers of Delwara principality, from the middle of the 18th century until the mid-20th century.” Today this all-suites property is also a wellness destination: travelers can relax at the spa or experience yoga on the rooftop.
The Umaaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur was built between 1928 and 1943 for the grandfather of the present Maharaja. Designed by Edwardian architect Henry Lanchester, the building is a blend of Eastern and Western architectural influences. According to the hotel’s website: “Its majestic 105-foot-high cupola is influenced by the Renaissance, while the towers draw inspiration from Rajput tradition.”
Another fabulous palace hotel in India is the Rambagh Palace in Jaipur. Built in 1835 for the queen’s favorite handmaiden Kesar Badaran, the mansion was later refurbished as a royal guesthouse and hunting lodge. According to the hotel’s website, “Rambagh remained the home of Jaipur’s Royalty until 1957, when it was first converted into an upscale hotel.”
Of course, hotels outside of India were also once homes to royalty.
Istanbul’s fabulous Ciragan Palace on the Bosporus, now a five-star hotel that is part of the Kempinski chain, is a former Ottoman palace. Designed by Armenian palace architect Nigoğayos Balyan, the building was destroyed by a fire in 1910 and served as a football stadium before a Japanese company bought and restored it in 1989. It was renovated again in 2007. The hotel’s lavish Sultan’s suite was featured in a CNN story on the world’s most expensive hotel suites.
Hotel Los Seises in Seville was once the palace of the Archbishop of Spain. According to the hotel’s website, “As part of a refurbished sixteenth-century palace, the hotel’s rooms contain wonderful museum pieces, Roman mosaics, Renaissance paneling, Arab décor, tiles, paving and columns.” It also has a lovely terrace with a swimming pool and stunning views of the Cathedral and La Giralda.
Not interested in sleeping like a royal? Several historic hotels have also served as government buildings, hospitals and more.
The Hotel im Wasserturm in Cologne, Germany, was once Europe’s largest watertower. As the hotel’s website explains: “the 140-year-old listed brickwork building is now presented with truly exceptional interior design of classic modernity. Partly destroyed during World War II, rebuilt in the early 90s and configured in three rings by British engineer John Moore — the Wasserturm is a journey through time and local history.”
In England, the London Marriott County Hall occupies the building that used to be the home to the city’s government. Some rooms have views of iconic sites such as Big Ben, the Thames and the London Eye.
The Abbasi Hotel in Isfahan, Iran, was built about 300 years ago as a caravansary. King Soltan Hossein attributed the complex of buildings to his mother, which is why it was called “the school and caravansary of Madar-shah” (which means “king’s mother”). Today the hotel is known for its splendid décor and lovely central garden.
Hostal dos Reis Católicos, located at the Plaza do Obradoiro in Santiago de Compostela, was formerly a hospital. The hotel, which dates back to 1499, is considered one of the oldest in the world and once provided shelter to pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago. The parador is another place where our travelers will stay during the 2014 “Camino de Santiago” trip.
Are there any other hotels that you would add to this list?
A new journey organized by London’s Hurlingham Travel, a bespoke luxury travel company, has made headlines for being the “World’s Most Expensive Holiday.” The trip, which would take two years, costs a hefty £990,000 (approximately $1.5 million). Whoever is lucky enough to be able to afford the holiday would visit hundreds of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Destinations included on this high-priced adventure include the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Pyramids in Egypt, the Forbidden City in China, and the site of Machu Picchu in Peru. Currently, the trip is for sale on British website VeryFirstTo.com. The website promises business-class flights whenever it is possible and accommodations in hotels such as the Cipriani in Venice and Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton.
Don’t have a million bucks to spend on a vacation? Trips organized by Academic Arrangements Abroad might not visit hundreds of World Heritage sites, but many of our travel programs include spots on the UNESCO list. For example, our Rajasthan program features a sunrise viewing of the Taj Mahal as well as a stop at the Jantar Mantar Observatory. Travelers on “In the Realm of Angkor: The Splendors of Thailand & Cambodia” admire the magnificent 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat. The 19 perfectly aligned Windmills of Kinderdjik, built in the 17th century and placed on the list of UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1997, are part of our 2014 “Dutch & Flemish Landscapes” program. And a cruise from Porto travels through Portugal’s Douro River Valley, the world’s first demarcated wine region.
After a long winter, spring has finally arrived and flowers are blossoming in the park near our New York offices. We’re excited to see the change of season, but as travel specialists we’re also aware that hitting the road lets you enjoy fabulous flora all year round.
Some of Academic Arrangements Abroad’s programs have featured events such as the Chelsea Flower Show, and during journeys our travelers often stay at hotels with amazing gardens, such as La Mamounia in Morocco, the Oberoi Udaivilas in India and the Merrion Hotel in Ireland.
Here are a few of the world’s best hotels for garden lovers:
Built by James Barry for the Duke of Sutherland, this great Thames-side mansion is known for its stunning gardens. Owned, managed and maintained by the National Trust, the grounds include 376 acres of formal gardens and woodlands. You can also get lost in a maze, which opened in 2011. Our upcoming “Noble Dukes & Victorian Masterpieces” program features an optional Clivenden Postlude.
This luxurious hotel has a park, which it describes as “more than a green oasis in the heart of the city.” It includes seasonal flowers, fruit trees and hundred-year-old olive trees. There’s also an organic vegetable garden where the hotel’s chefs harvest herbs, tomatoes, turnips, lettuce, radishes, rhubarb and “lesser-known plants.”
This five-star hotel has two landscaped period gardens, which were designed by Irish landscape artist Jim Reynolds. The smaller one, “Lady Mornington’s Garden,” links The Main House to the Garden Wing, where many guest rooms have garden views. Both of the gardens “re-create the feel of an 18th-century garden with box hedges, water features, pathways, statuary and obelisks.” During our 2013 “Houses of the Irish Aristocracy” program, travelers will stay at this historic hotel.
Located on the shores of Lake Pichola, the Oberoi Udaivilas is surrounded by contemporary terraced gardens. In the April 2010 issue of Garden Design , Emily Young wrote, “Landscape architect Bill Bensley of Bensley Design Studios in Thailand researched traditional Mewari gardens to give visitors the royal treatment from the moment they arrive and are greeted by two stone elephants and pink-blooming Bauhinia trees.” You can escape the winter chill and stay at the Oberoi Udaivilas during our 2014 Rajasthan program.
Hailed by Condé Nast Traveler and Travel & Leisure as one of the best hotels in the world, the opulent Villa d’Este overlooks Lake Como. The resort is also known for its gardens, which attract admirers from around the globe. Landmarks in the garden include a 500-year-old plane tree. A recent addition is a Chef’s Garden, where fresh vegetables, berries and herbs are grown.
What are some of your favorite gardens at hotels around the world?
By Ingrid Ahlgren
We asked Arrangements Abroad staff members to tell us about their dream trips. Where would they go, and what would they like to see or do on these journeys of a lifetime?
Assistant Tour Coordinator Stephanie Tack, who has an MFA in dance, would love to travel to Bali and see the island’s dances, theatrical performances and music rituals.
“I would like to talk with the dance teacher about dance and ritual in their culture and observe young students learning and maybe participate in a dance class,” she explains. “I would also like to observe locals practicing Balinese Gamelan music and learn more about the intricate rhythms and how the instruments are made.”
“Her sights, sounds, smells and serendipitous experiences are never twice the same — and the spectacle of color always leaves me speechless,” she says. “From the smelly camels and dusty smiles of Pushkar, to the quiet terraces and rose-petal baths at the magical hotels of Udaipur, India is a surreal celebration of life — I always have to pinch myself when the journey ends.”
Several years ago, Senior Editor Sara Welch took a luxury barge cruise with her mother through the south of France.
The seven-day cruise on the Rhone River started in Nîmes and ended in Lyon. Shore excursions included the Papal Palace in Avignon, the Cisterican Abbey in Sénanque, the ochre quarries of Roussillon, Aigues-Mortes (medieval town surrounded by salt flats — purple waters and pink flamingoes), and Arles, which was Sara’s favorite.
She explains: “van Gogh painted over 200 canvases in 444 days here before slicing off his ear. Arles’ ancient streets are shaded with fig trees and wisteria vines, and at night you can see the same sky that inspired The Starry Night.”
The scenery during the voyage included bright yellow sunflowers bobbing in the breeze, vineyards, olive groves and fields of lavender. Sara adds that the food was fabulous: “roast pork with stewed apples, fresh anchovies wrapped around olives, and lots of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.”
What is your dream trip?
Among our most popular tour directors, Christine Pagnani has headed up tours to destinations including India and Burma. This coming year she’ll travel with Academic Arrangements Abroad on programs including Dutch & Flemish Landscapes, Artistic Traditions of Korea & Japan, Sicily By Sea and Dukes, Popes & Painters.
Find out more about Christine below.
Hometown: Haleiwa on Oahu’s beautiful North Shore, equally known for Bonzai Pipeline and Matsumoto’s shaved ice.
Last book I read: The Glass Room
City you most recommend to friends: Just about any city in Italy.
City you would drop everything to go see: Any city that presents a new experience.
Tour you were on recently: Burma, where our Met group had the memorable opportunity to meet with and speak with Daw Aung San Su Kyi.
Special skill: Bargain hunting, finding a truly local experience and connecting with people.
Your most visited websites: united.com, seatguru.com, nytimes.com.
Something about you that surprises people: Climbed the Great Wall of China when pregnant with my older daughter.
Three things you can’t travel without: Electric toothbrush, an over-stuffed carry on and an open mind.
Number of trips traveled on: I lost count in 1977, but well over 100.
At Academic Arrangements Abroad one of our favorite trips each winter is “Gardens of the Caribbean.” During this coming year’s sojourn aboard the sailing yacht Sea Cloud II, travelers – accompanied by horticulturist Patrick Bowe –visit some of the islands’ top gardens. Tortola’s J.R. O’Neal Botanic garden includes an array of indigenous and exotic tropical plants. On Sint Eustatius, garden buffs will have the opportunity to join an excursion to the Miriam C. Schmidt Botanical Garden, a haven for the island’s rich biodiversity. And on Nevis, they will discover the five-acre botanic garden.
On other programs with Academic Arrangements Abroad, travelers also stroll through spectacular outdoor spaces. These include Holland’s magnificent Keukenhof Gardens, where over a million flowering bulbs provide a vast carpet of color. In Korea, visitors to Changdeokgung Palace will explore the grounds including Biwon, the palace’s secret garden. A journey through North India includes visits to Humayun’s Tomb, a prototype of Indian garden tombs, and the famed Lodi Gardens in Delhi.
We asked staff members to share recommendations for gardens around the globe. Here are their suggestions.
Ute Keyes, Manager, Operations and Development, says one of her favorite gardens is in Schwetzingen Palace in Germany, which she visited frequently when she was a student in Heidelberg. Surrounding the palace are both a symmetrically designed French baroque garden and an English landscape garden.
“It’s not too big and not too small—just the right size for strolling on a Sunday afternoon,” says Ute, who adds that the best time to see Schwetzingen is in May, June and July, when everything is in bloom.
Director of Operations Erin Sorensen favors the Scilly gardens in Tresco in the United Kingdom. “They are beautiful and surprising, as they feature tropical plants in England and are somewhat remote (people take boats or helicopters to reach them),” she says. “The unique weather patterns in that area create the right climate for those plants.”
Tour director Eleni Papachristou feels any springtime garden program with Patrick Bowe is memorable. Eleni explains, “He gets so excited about each and every blossom, and his passion is contagious.”
What are some of your favorite gardens?
The Golden Eagle-Trans Siberian Express would have made Marco Polo’s life a lot easier. And I imagine he would have really been grateful to retire to the opulent bar car after a lavish dinner and discuss the day’s events with other adventurous spirits. Today, we can travel on this legendary train to exotic locales like Samarkand, to see the mausoleum of the mighty Tamerlane; and 2,014-year-old Bukhara, to tour the enchantingly named Palace of the Moon and Stars.
Another fascinating destination whose great distances can be covered easily by train is India. Your Golden Chariot awaits to whisk you in coaches fit for a maharajah across the southern states of Karnataka and Goa. Discover sublime temples, ancient kingdoms and the famous carved caves at Badami. Relax on Goa’s celebrated beaches and conclude in cosmopolitan Mumbai.
Scotland is perhaps less exotic but certainly not less compelling. Be “piped” aboard the Edwardian-style Royal Scotsman and settle in with a cup of tea or a wee dram as you travel into the heart of the scenic Scottish Highlands. Pass lochs and waterfalls, rugged castles and rolling hills, picturesque villages and pine-clad mountains reflected in mirror-like lochs.
Oh, how to decide?
When you think of northern India, what comes to mind are sumptuous palaces, arresting forts and, of course, the Taj Mahal. Entranced by these edifices, you are forgiven for overlooking their splendid gardens.
However, they are worth a closer look. For example, observe the traditional Rajput courtyard gardens of the Amber Fort in Jaipur with their inspiring views of the sensational geometry of the lake gardens below. And how about the 32-acre, 250-year-old garden at Samode Bagh, northwest of Jaipur, centered on a canal with 42 fountains?
If you study them, it will become clear that the gardens of the Taj Mahal are integral parts of the monument’s design. And when in Agra, no garden lover worth her mulch would miss the terraced lawns, fountains, reflecting pools and pavilions of the Oberoi Amarvilas Hotel. Or the series of courtyard gardens at Agra Fort that exemplify the peak of Mughal garden design.
And there’s so much more. Enough to fill a book…such as the gorgeous forthcoming tome on the subject of Indian gardens by noted horticulturist, architectural historian and author of ten beautiful and meticulously researched titles on the gardens of the world, Patrick Bowe, to whom these descriptions are to be credited.