Bristol vs the world

A travel (and sometimes fashion) blog about exploring Bristol and the rest of the world, one post at a time.

Category: Hotels

Where to stay Wednesday: Casa dos Lóios, Porto

 

Things have been a bit quiet around here as of late – for which I apologies. Again. This time I blame the sun, making me want to be outside and get out and about and stuff. Anyway, I’m here now and that’s what matters!

Casa dos Loios

Casa dos Loios

I’ve stayed in – probably – more than my fair share of hotels for a 26-year-old. I’ve been lucky enough to sleep in beds wider than my 6″1 boyfriend is long. A wooden-floored duplex under canvas. Ones themed on chocolate, or the Wild West, or New Mexico – the latter coming complete with crash-landed alien spaceships and half buried, rusting cars. Old and new, big and small, grand and understated.

But none of these buildings were as immediately, incredibly breathtaking as Casa dos Loios.

It’s a good thing one of team members was carrying my suitcase, because I’m pretty sure I would have dropped it in shock. Which probably wouldn’t have been great for either the suitcase, or their beautiful, wooden floors.

Casa dos Loios

Formerly home to the Ferraz Mello family, Casa dos Loios occupies a 16th/17th-century townhouse in central Porto, resplendent with wide, high-ceilinged staircases, large windows with decorative frames and beautiful plasterwork on the ceilings. (Actually, it slightly resembled (a smaller version of) some of the Trust properties I’ve visited (/worked on the Guidebooks for and seen pictures of)). Complementary furniture, such as an old wireless, is found throughout the two floors – named ‘Ruby’ and ‘Tawny’ after the two red types of the drink for which this city is famous. (Did you know you can get white (‘Branco’) Port? Very nice it is, too.)

Although our room wasn’t quite as amazing, this was because we booked the smallest possible option on a special deal through booking.com – the rack rate of just over £60 wasn’t even advertised on the list in our room, as I think there’s only two of these rooms in the whole hotel. And for the price we paid, it was perfectly adequate, just a touch on the small side and without any of the building features you might find in some of the more expensive rooms. You still get all the other benefits of staying here though, from complimentary toiletries to the amazing breakfast (more on that below). 

For example, if you fancy shelling out a bit more (a not-that-expensive-really £120 a night, especially as it sleeps four) then you could stay in this:

Casa dos Loios

For those looking for something in the middle, here’s a typical double:

Casa dos Loios

 

Sometimes I find hotels that look so fancy a little intimidating, like the staff and other guests are looking at your like ‘why are you here exactly’? Casa dos Loios is the exact opposite of this. Other guests included a young family, a young group of friends and couples young and old – and all of us were given service as exceptional as the building (and just as impressive too – we heard one person switch languages, seemingly effortlessly, about four times in the course of us eating our breakfast). Casa dos Loios is part of the small ‘Shiado’ chain of guesthouses, and the first one outside of Lisbon. (I like discovering new places, but we were so impressed with Casa do Bairro when we last went to Lisbon in 2011 that we decided to stay there again, and also felt that their Porto venture should be a safe bet.) The ethos is to provide a comfortable, homely place to relax with friendly customer service – and Casa dos Loios definitely achieves that. In fact, I’d even argue that the staff here were even better than those in Casa do Bairro – high praise indeed.

We were sat down, offered a drink and then our host went over the map of Lisbon, recommending places to see, eat and drink based on the amount of time we had and – seemingly – our age (one recommendation – a bar – was prefixed with ‘because you’re young’). They included key tourist sites, but also harder to find miradouros (viewpoints) and some of his personal favourites. In case that’s not enough to keep you occupied, the hotel information binder in the bedrooms also includes tips on places to eat, and a cork board in the dining room features cards brought back from previous guests from places they’d recommend. Both restaurants we went to during our stay were recommended, and neither disappointed (more on those in a Food Friday soon).

Casa dos Loios

The friendly nature of the staff continued throughout our stay – if you popped into the kitchen to grab a tea/coffee/cake (all complimentary) they would chat to you about your day, your plans – but never to the point of being intrusive. There’s also plenty of places to relax outside of your hotel room, either in the dining room or outside in the sun-soaked patio area. There’s no bar, but there is an ‘honesty fridge’ from which you can take wine, beer or soft drinks (though (shh) you’d be better off popping to the supermarket next door).

And then there’s the breakfast. I get the impression that the Portuguese have something of a sweet tooth, because breakfast foods here seem to consist of a lot of home-made cakes and donut-type things. A perfect start to the day in my books. If you’re not into starting your day on a sugar high (why on earth not?!), you could choose from a selection of continental savoury items, fruit or cereal. But I highly recommend going for the cake. Especially the donuts. And then have them again later in the day as an afternoon snack.

Casa dos Loios

The location is excellent too. It’s right on the Rua das Flores, which is full of lovely little cafes, restaurants and specialist boutiques (we particularly liked the one selling products made of cork). You can walk to pretty much all the main tourist attractions in Porto within 25 minutes, and most are much closer – practically on your doorstep. (Though, admittedly, Porto isn’t particularly huge.)

The only minor negative of the hotel might be that the walls didn’t seem particularly thick, and we could hear people in the corridor. However we weren’t kept awake or woken up at any point, so while very light sleepers may have a problem, I have no complaints.

Another thing that didn’t affect us, but might others, is that the entire guesthouse is situated up a – quite long – flight of stairs. I don’t know if there was a lift, so this is something worth enquiring about if you have mobility issues.

If you don’t mind missing a few components of bigger hotels – a bar, restaurant, paid-for movies, nothing I wished we had access to, especially considering you’re in the heart of Porto – then you can’t go wrong with Casa dos Loios. A friendly and relaxing retreat, set in a stunning period building, this is the perfect base for exploring Porto.

Casa dos Loios

Where to stay Wednesday: Village House, Santubong

dsc_6365From sweaty sightseeing in Singapore to monkeys stealing our dinner post-trekking in Bako National Park, Borneo (more on that later): after a fantastic, but hectic, first week in Asia, we decided a change in pace was in order.

Dominated by the eponymous mountain, the Santubong peninsula is less than an hour from Kuching – the capital of Sarawak, Borneo – by mini bus. But it feels a world away. As we drove, concrete shops and mid-rises gave way to jungle and stilt-houses. The only traffic we encountered was caused by a seemingly constant stream of guests in beautiful outfits going to a wedding, which even mid-morning appeared to already be in full-swing. (Does anyone know the customs of traditional Malay/Borneo weddings? I’d love to read about them). Kuching isn’t particularly fast-paced, especially compared to a lot of Asian cities (or cities in general), but after spending a few days there you really appreciate how peaceful this surrounding countryside is.
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Tucked away down a gravel track, the idyllic Village House is the perfect place to stay in the area. We felt at home from the minute we walked into the frangipani-lined courtyard and were handed our ‘Welcome’ iced teas.

Comprising of just 14 bedrooms, this u-shaped hotel is built in traditional stilt-house style around a stunning pool/courtyard area. Underneath the bedrooms you’ll find the small restaurant, and seating and loungers for the pool. There’s also a bar, fancier upstairs ‘dining room’ type area (featuring a stunning wooden-carved table) and a living room full of books, television and dvds and – most importantly – board games. All of the rooms are decorated in traditional Sarawak style, with local craft pieces dotted throughout.

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We stayed in a Village Double, the standard private room, which are priced from 250 ringitt (about £50) a night (twins cost the same). Although a bit on the small side, we found it perfectly suited our needs: traditional Malay sarongs provided, enough space to dump our rucksacks, a decently-sized, modern bathroom and – most importantly – a four poster bed. To be honest, we spent most of our time relaxing by the pool anyway.

However if you want something a bit more luxurious or somewhere a bit more private to relax, the two Rajah Rooms have a sitting area, private veranda and mod cons like a television and Nespresso coffee machine. These start from 460 Ringitt a night (about £90).

At the other end of the spectrum, those just wanting a bed can book into the plainer dorm-style rooms, which sleep up to six people in bunkbeds. A night here costs 93 ringitt (just under £20).

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Arguably the real stand-out of this hotel is the staff and service. Not only helpful – they’re full of recommendations and there’s a number of trips they can help you to plan such as to the nearby Cultural Village and firefly cruises – they’re also very friendly, stopping to chat and ask about your day. Just little touches, such as bringing your drink to you at the pool, really makes this place feel luxurious. Admittedly so far this is all in a good day’s work – especially by Asian hospitality standards (which are generally amazing). But they really went above and beyond for us: one of the girls stayed late to print our plane boarding passes. Another came in extra-early on our last day to unlock and make sure we got our taxi to the airport, even providing us with sandwiches to take with as we were missing out on breakfast.

Talking of food, if there’s one downside to the Village House, it’s that the eating here is little costly (by Sarawak standards). Also, if you want dinner then you have to make your mind up about it quite early: you have to pre-order by mid-afternoon. Understandable considering the size of the hotel, but perhaps not ideal for the more fleet of foot. You could probably organise to eat elsewhere – I’ve read good things about some seafood restaurants in a nearby village – but you’d have to plan that too unless you had your own car. However everything we ate here was pretty tasty so, so long as you accept that you’re paying the Sarawak version of hotel prices, we didn’t find being confined to the hotel for mealtimes too much of a problem. And breakfast is included in the cost of your stay, so that’s one meal you don’t have to worry about budgeting for.

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If you can bear to drag yourself away from the beautiful hotel, the surrounding area is worth exploring. Although a bit too rocky for sunbathing, the quiet beach – just down a sandy path – is the ideal location to watch the sun set. We also enjoyed walking into Santubong Village itself: an older lady sitting outside a shop, chopping coconuts ready for the next day. Roadside food stalls. Families going for a spin round the roads on their mopeds. John got chatting (sort of) to football-playing children, bonding over Manchester City. Later on, the call to prayer from the local mosque echoed through the village.

Stunning, entrancing, relaxing, we felt utterly spoilt for the entirety of our two nights here. Our only regret is that we didn’t stay longer.

The important details
Website: http://www.villagehouse.com.my/villagehouse/
Pricing: Range from about £20 p/night for a dorm bed to around £90 for the Rajah Rooms. Standard doubles/twins are around £45/£50. Price includes breakfast.
Location: Near Santubong Village, 20 miles from Kuching.
Any other extras?: Welcome drinks. Board games, dvds and books can be borrowed.
Recommended?: Absolutely. This was by far and away our favourite hotel of the trip.
Any reason not to?: If you like to be able to get around easily without a car then you could feel a little claustrophobic – you’ll be relying on wheeled vehicles to get most places from here. Not recommended if you don’t like to ‘stop’; this is strictly a ‘getting away from it all’ kind of hotel. Though if anywhere can convince you to take an unplanned break, it’s here.
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Where to stay Wednesday: The New Majestic Hotel, Singapore

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In May-June 2013,  J (my partner – because apparently we’ve got to the stage in our lives where they’re no longer a ‘boyfriend’ but ‘manfriend’ feels too old and too Sex and the City cliché) and I went on the holiday of a lifetime to Malaysian Borneo, via Singapore. This is the first of a series of posts from the trip.

Baths are one of those things that are always so much better in my head. It’ll be just like an advert, I think, I’ll look like a Bath Goddess, with water and bubbles up to my neck with just my glowing face on show. I’ll make content sighing noises as I become absorbed by a magazine or book. The reality is never like that. The water doesn’t come quite high enough, which results in either having to lie at an awkward angle or your top half getting a bit cold. Reading is impossible, unless you don’t mind sacrificing either a limb to the cold or the book to soggy pages (I don’t even like bent spines, so you can imagine my feelings on this). And then, when you’ve finally got yourself into a semi-comfortable position and are starting to relax, the water starts to go a bit lukewarm and you have to drag yourself out again. That’s when you encounter the worst part of this experience – the cold, cold air, and cold, cold tiles that inevitably await you, which even a fluffy towel that has been strategically arranged over a radiator on full blast can’t counter. So instead of being the relaxed, glowing goddess you envisioned, you’re shivery and frustrated and not even that clean because you’ve been sat in water with your own dirt for half an hour.

So you can imagine how excited I was when I discovered the dream solution to all my bathing woes: the outdoor bathtubs in Singapore’s New Majestic Hotel. It doesn’t matter if the water doesn’t come up high on you, because it’s always 30 degrees outside. So you can make the most of the high-sided vintage-style bathtub and get yourself into a comfortable reading position without having to make the choice of cold body parts vs book pulp/mess. And the aforementioned temperature means there’s definitely no need for the it’s-so-cold hopabout when you finally drag yourself out; in fact the air is so warm that you barely need a towel to get dry. (There are awnings you can pull over to cover the private veranda area where the bath is, so no opportunities for voyeurs. Which is good, because apparently it’s illegal to be naked in your own home in Singapore, so I’m not sure how they’d take to unintentional displays of nudity. And based on some of the warning signs we saw about for other crimes, I don’t want to find out either!)

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The outdoor bath tubs are just one of the many fun features of this boutique design hotel. There’s also art installations in the lobby (and, more importantly, a bookshop), portholes in the pool (so diners in the restaurant can watch swimmers…) and each of the 30 rooms is unique, many decorated by local artists. Our room was ‘One Day I Just Drifted Off and Floated Away’, which was CAT THEMED.

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To get the outdoor bath tubs and veranda you want to book a ‘Premier Garden Wing’ room – not much more than the cheapest category and definitely worth the extra! However if you really want to splash out, then the attic rooms look pretty special too.

New Majestic Attic Room

However as you can probably tell from the photo above – in most rooms (judging from photos – and definitely in ours) the bathrooms are quite exposed. In that there isn’t a separate one. Our toilet was hidden by frosted glass. Fine for those of us in long-term relationships, and actually quite a fun and space-saving design idea. But probably not one for new couples who still want to maintain a bit of mystery about their toileting habits.

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We were also quite taken with the cute ceramic Chinese-style teacups in our room, which a less honest version of myself would have been very tempted to permanently borrow. (I feel like the thought may have been crossing my mind when this photo was taken – shifty eyes…)

Teacup Testing

The hotel’s location on the outskirts of Chinatown was also ideal. We preferred this area as a place to stay to Orchard Road and Marina Bay – we didn’t dislike those places, but we felt Chinatown had a bit more charm to it. It’s also home to a few food courts, perfect for cheap but tasty eats (more on that later). And while most of the key sites were within walking distance if you wanted them to be, as we were still acclimatising to the heat and humidity we really appreciated being a very short walk from Outram Park SMRT (Metro) station.

Overall a great experience that I’d highly recommend – especially the Garden rooms. That really was one fine bath.

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The Essentials

Website: http://www.newmajestichotel.com
Pricing: List prices start from 238SGD (about £115). Premier Garden Rooms (with the outdoor baths) start at around 268SGD (about £130). Splashing out on an Attic Suite will set you back about 385.20 a night (just under £190). Prices include breakfast, but not taxes and fees – so remember to budget a bit more if you’re booking directly via the website.
Location: On the outskirts of Chinatown, near Outram Park SMRT stop – which is handily on the same line as the airport.
Any other extras?: Lots! Non-alcoholic drinks in the mini-bar are complimentary; Kiehls toiletries; Nespresso machine; iPod dock; ginormous bathrobes
Recommended?: Absolutely. The prices may not sound cheap, but Singapore isn’t an easy place to do ‘budget’ – when we were looking, it actually seemed quite good value for money compared to other hotels in a similar price range. I also have to mention the staff, who were really friendly and helpful.
Any reason not to?: If you prefer your hotels traditional then this probably isn’t the place for you. Also while we really liked the location, some might find staying in the Marina Bay/City Hall or Orchard Road areas more convenient.

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Photo Credits: New Majestic Hotel exterior: Wikipedia (Creative Commons License); Room Photo – One Day I Just Drifted Off…: Black Tomato; Room Photo – Attic Room: New Majestic Hotel; Pool photo: New Majestic Hotel. All others are my own, please credit if using.

Casa do Bairro B&B

Looking out onto the courtyard. Photo Credit: Eureka Booking

They say first impressions are everything, and Casa do Bairro B&B in Santa Catarina has been paying attention. Even before we arrived we were treated to a friendly but informative exchange of emails, and the first thing we noticed when we finally arrived was the scent of fresh lavender in the pretty courtyard. From there, things just got better and better.

We were greeted by Portuguese-for-John. After we had settled into our (lovely) room, he sat us down to give us a brief introduction to Lisbon. The B&B provides a map of the city centre, and they’ve marked some of their personal recommendations for restaurants, bars, museums and other attractions on there: we probably would’t have ventured into either the Cantinho da Paz restaurant (to be discussed in more detail in tomorrow’s Food Friday – make sure you check back!), or the Fashion and Design Museum without this guidance, and both turned out to be fantastic finds. Portuguese-for-John also highlighted some of his particular favourites of the highlighted attractions and gave us a brief introduction to the city in general. His main tip? “Get lost”. Excellent advice, as it turns out
Casa do Bairro bedroom. Photo Credit: Casa do Bairro
Throughout our stay the staff were always friendly and willing to help in any way they could without overstepping the mark – perfect hosts!
But it wasn’t just the staff that made this B&B. Although the interiors weren’t anything fancy, they were modern, clean and more than adequate. We even had a tiny bit of a sea view from our window. The location in Santa Catarina was perfect for us: close to the bars of the Bairro Alto without being in the midst of the action and noise, and within walking distance of the main city centre, stops for the famous Tram 28 route and other tram and train stops that will take you to Bélem, Sintra and Cascais. I particularly loved being so close to the Placa de Santa Catarina, a square and miradouro that up fills up with younger, bohemian Lisboetas during summer afternoons. The ideal location for a €1 glass of sangria sipped from a plastic cup under the Portuguese sun.
Photos of Casa do Bairro B&B and Apartments, Lisbon
Breakfast time. Photo Credit: TripAdvisor
The bright and airy breakfast room. Photo Credit: Casa do Bairro
But back to the B&B because I haven’t written about the breakfasts yet. And they were some breakfasts. Produced by the staff, they consisted of typical Continental fare and fruit, but also some incredible pastries. Portuguese-for-John’s take on French Toast was to die for! And then there was the genuinely freshly squeezed orange juice…
Talking of food, there is also an honesty fridge. It is a little more expensive than the nearby supermarkets and shops, but still a fair price if you want to pick something up without having to venture out. 
If you prefer to be a bit more independent on your travels, the B&B also owns some nearby apartments. You can even get in on the B&B breakfast for €7 per person – it may sound steep, but it’s probably worth it one day, providing the French Toast is on offer. 
There’s a reason the Casa do Bairro currently holds the number one B&B spot on TripAdvisor. A friendly and calm escape with a modern but homely feel in a great location, this really is an exceptional place to stay when in Lisbon.

Reception. Photo Credit: Eureka Booking
Price: Rooms start at €74 off-peak
All rooms have a private bathroom, television and bright colours!