Room service: Shangri-La Bosphorus, Istanbul
Asian fusion on a great divide
Istanbul has some impressive hotels that fall into the ultra-luxury category, but the newest contender for the city's most luxurious experience is the Shangri-La, the Asian chain which opened its first European venture in Paris in 2010 and is shortly to appear between floors 34 and 52 of London's Shard.
The 186 rooms of Shangri-La Istanbul are housed in a less palatial setting than its direct competitors, the Kempinski and the Four Seasons, both of which have properties on the same stretch of Bosphorus waterfront. But what the converted 1930s tobacco factory lacks in external opulence it wants to make up for with its service ethos.
From car door to reception, the arriving guest runs a gauntlet of exceptionally polite, smartly dressed staff, who greet and make one feel somewhat like a sultan breezing past genuflecting courtiers in the chambers of the next-door Dolmabahce Palace. The lobby is decorated in the standard language of overblown international luxury – marble, gold and cascading chandeliers, with a few Oriental touches. Visitors are met by ornate flower displays and a string quartet, the members of which will presumably soon want to throw in their instruments from playing Eine kleine Nachtmusik approximately 712 times a day.
Arrival at the lift presents a welcome respite from all the attentiveness, and indeed while the staff are at your every beck and call, if there is a criticism to be made of the Shangri-La's attitude it is perhaps that the exceptional service on which it prides itself can sometimes stray from helpful to fatiguing. (Pause for a second by the impressive array of cheese at breakfast, and there will come a whisper in the ear: "Would you like me to hold your plate while you think, Sir?")
The hotel's two restaurants explore Asian themes, with Ist Too offering Turkish/pan-Asian fusion while giving impressive views across the Bosphorus to the continent itself. The basement Shang Palace is a high-end Cantonese joint with duck ovens imported from China and specialities including the most succulent lamb chops I have ever eaten, cooked with onions and Chinese spices. Istanbul, while a gourmet's paradise, has surprisingly little to offer if visitors want to venture beyond the cuisine of Turkey, and thus the restaurant is something of a novelty for the city.
The Shangri-La is a little way out from the tourist sights of Sultanahmet, but provides a fantastic starting point for exploring other parts of Istanbul. The Besiktas ferry terminal is just outside, offering regular commuter boats across the Bosphorus to the Asian districts of Kadikoy and Uskudar, as well as a twice-daily tourist boat that, for a modest 25 lira (£9), will take you on a five-hour excursion to the mouth of the Black Sea and back, with a stop-off for lunch. The nightlife and bustle of Taksim and Istiklal Street are just a 10-minute taxi ride away, and Besiktas itself is full of authentic, cheap dining gems.
The room interiors are much more restrained than the public areas; a colour scheme of creams and greys allows centre stage to be retained by the alluring blue of the Bosphorus, visible from most of the hotel's windows.
My room had a sweeping panoramic vista across to Topkapi Palace and the entrance of the Bosphorus into the Sea of Marmara. It was only the prospect of opening the curtains to unveil this extraordinary sight in the morning that persuaded me that it was worth dragging my limbs from the cocoon of soft linens I had created somewhere in the middle of the impossibly large bed.
Subtle art adorned the white and caramel walls, while the bathroom, clad in black marble and filled with Bulgari toiletries, was of a more overtly luxurious hue.
Even though the service was occasionally suffocating, it seems churlish to complain, as it was very welcome at one point during my stay. My break coincided with mass anti-government protests in Istanbul earlier this year, and with the Prime Minister's residence next door, the hotel became a hub for clashes with police. Having ignored advice and ventured out for dinner to the pleasant suburb of Ortakoy, a 15-minute walk along the river, I found myself stranded on the wrong side of police barricades and clouds of tear gas.
The hotel not only raised an employee from bed to find me, pick me up and escort me back through the barricades, but the charming woman in question actually did a passable impression of someone who was delighted to have been given the task.
The platitudes about service that "goes the extra mile" had actually come true.
Shangri-La Bosphorus, Sinanpasa Mah, Hayrettin Iskelesi Sok, No1, Besiktas, Istanbul, Turkey (00 90 212 275 8888; shangri-la.com/istanbul)
Doubles start at €550, room only.
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