Five fantastic hotels within a five-hour flight of Dubai
With the news that Dubai is allowing residents to travel to any foreign destination from June 23, I've pulled together a list of five fantastic hotels worth travelling to within a fairly short flight of here. Whether you decide to jump on a plane immediately or wait a few months, these are a few of my favourites that are worth bookmarking, with flight times alongside to help you plan (not all routes may be operational yet, so do your homework before packing your suitcase).
Stamba Hotel, Tbilisi, Georgia - 3 hours 30 minutes from Dubai to Tbilisi
Take a Soviet-era printing house, fill it with books, art, enormous comfy beds and a fantastic café with a leafy garden, and you've pretty much ticked all the boxes of things I love. Stamba Hotel won me over from the moment I stepped through the door. The bellboys wear black and gold Wes Anderson-esque uniforms, and welcome you warmly into the five-storey book-lined atrium. If you look up you'll still see vestiges of its previous incarnation as a publishing house with print-drying clips running the length of the building. I'm a sucker for brutalism, and this is brutalism brought back to life in the most beautiful way. Light streams through the wide open spaces which have just the right amount of mid-century statement pieces of furniture in them, but just wait until you see the rooms. I stayed in an Aviator Signature Room, and everything about it was practically perfect (and I don't say that lightly). There's a big white sofa to sink into as you read one of the many books that line the wall, and a deep pile off-white carpet. White is such a bold and risky colour in a hotel room and it sets fear into the heart of many a hotelier, but both sofa and carpet here are absolutely spotless, a feat in itself. The bed and linens are outrageously comfy. I would usually sneer at a bathtub being given such a prominent place in a guestroom rather than being tucked behind the bathroom door, but in this open-plan industrial space it just works. And the little touches, such as the Maison Margiela Replica amenities, the McIntosh stereo and La Marzocco espresso machine, show that Stamba is no slouch when it comes to details. If you want to see Tbilisi's bold and beautiful, all you need to do is head downstairs to Café Stamba (which you may remember from my Breakfasts of Champions Part 2 post), one of the city's most stylish spots for a coffee or a bite to eat, whatever the time of day. The pink blush corner bar sits beneath a striking rectangular chandelier. Concrete columns are adorned with green tiles, the colour echoed by the large leafy plants throughout the space. Outside in the verdant courtyard is a vintage taxi, an influencer favourite, and highly desirable Maison Drucker bistro sets in pistachio green and lemon curd yellow. I was tempted to try and squeeze a set into my suitcase. It's about a 20-minute walk from the hotel to the Old Town down Rustaveli Avenue lined with imposing photo-worthy buildings, and just ten minutes to the excellent Dry Bridge antiques market where you can pick up all sorts of treasures from crystal glasses to Russian tea sets, Soviet pins and medals, kitchen utensils, carpets and car parts. There's no better place than Stamba to base yourself for your first taste of the Caucusus in what is one of the world's most charming small cities.
Imaret, Kavala, Greece - 5 hours 20 minutes from Dubai to Thessaloniki
We're stretching our time limit a little here and you still need to drive a couple of hours once you land in Thessaloniki, BUT.... this is one of the most beautiful hotels I've stayed at in a long time so you will thank yourself for making the extra effort. Once a school, orphanage and soup kitchen providing food for the people of the town, Imaret was built in1821 by Muhammad Ali Pasha, founder of the Egyptian dynasty that ended with the 1952 revolution, to give something back to his hometown of Kavala. The building, or buildings as this is really more of a compound, is extraordinary, incorporating multiple orange tree-filled courtyards, ornately carpeted prayer rooms, and a beautiful sunny library with comfy armchairs, chandeliers and views out to sea. Guest rooms are designed with simple luxury in mind - comfy beds, fluffy pillows, and towels bundled like gifts wrapped with ribbon and a sprig of greenery. Kavala used to be part of the Ottoman Empire, and the architecture of Imaret is reflective of that, with domed roofs, arches and metallic lanterns. The central courtyard is now home to a swimming pool, perfect for cooling off after walking up and down the hills of Kavala Old Town on a hot summer's day. Since it's a historical monument, you can join a guided tour to learn more about the story of Imaret - well worth doing, as the tour also opens doors and takes you down narrow tunnels that you wouldn't find on your own. The restaurant, all floor to ceiling windows and Greek summer light, is the best spot for a glass of something cold in the afternoon, with views down onto the harbour and out to sea. Step outside in the daytime and you have sidewalk cafés on the doorstep just perfect for coffee and a game of backgammon, and in the evening tavernas spill out onto the street with great food, drink and that brand of conviviality that only the Greeks know how to deliver. And the fact that the hotel is home to permanent feline residents Chateaux, Zora, Tigaraki and Lukas makes me love it even more. Kavala is off the main tourist track, but it's a lovely small town and worth a visit to stay at Imaret alone.
The Old Harbour Hotel, Fort Kochi, India - 3 hours 35 minutes from Dubai to Kochi
It's a long drive to Fort Kochi from the airport, and with flights from Dubai landing in the middle of the night, you are going to be blissfully happy to arrive at the Old Harbour Hotel. But when you wake up in the morning and see it in daylight you're going to be even happier. The "Old" in the name is key here - the building dates back 300 years, and is built in Dutch style with Portuguese influences, with original architectural features kept intact. The guestrooms may not be Maharajah-level glam, but they're spacious with high ceilings, filled with handsome antique furniture, and have large windows that look out onto the lush gardens and the spectacular rain trees that cover the whole fort. My room was also liberally sprinkled with fresh jasmine blossoms, for me one of the most evocative scents in the world. You couldn't ask for a better location in Fort Kochi than here, with the ingeniously cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, unchanged for centuries, practically on the doorstep. Nothing is far, and a leisurely amble will take you to the Santa Cruz Cathedral with its pretty pastel-coloured interior, the 16th century Church of Saint Francis with Vasco da Gama's original tomb (before he was disinterred and sent on his last ocean voyage to Lisbon 14 years later), and some lovely little boutiques where I filled my bag with hand-printed cottons and kurtas. But perhaps best of all is the fact that you can walk to any number of Kochi's exceptional restaurants to sample some of the best food Kerala has to offer. Do try and have one meal in the hotel though, as the food is really very good. Each morning the chef would come and ask me what I wanted to have for breakfast, and when I said I wanted his favourite local breakfast food, he made idiyappam, thin white rice noodles, with vegetable curry and coconut chutney. Sitting in the courtyard with a cup of tea, in the shade of the wide canopies of the rain trees, is pretty much the loveliest way you could start a day in this lovely town.
Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey - 4 hours 35 minutes from Dubai to Istanbul
How do I even begin to convey my love for Istanbul? Its minaret-studded skyline laid out over seven hills is unlike anywhere else on earth. The surrounding waters of the Bosphorus, full of boats and dolphins, carry with them an energy like no other. Its 500-year-old Grand Bazaar is filled to the rafters with treasures (and a fair amount of tat), its food tempts with every bite from street food to fine dining, and its indecipherable language teases the ears. Not to forget, it's home to friendly and well cared for street cats and dogs. In short, I love everything about the city and I feel a pang of longing when I've been away too long. I love it in winter when it's cold and grey and rainy, and you need to wrap up in a heavy coat and sit in a cosy café, of which there are plenty. And I love it in summer when the sun shines brightly and the colours take on even more intensity, and you can sit by the Bosphorus for hours on end sipping wine and nibbling meze. My favourite place to base myself, and a hotel I'd gazed at in pictures for many years before I actually managed to stay there, is the Four Seasons Hotel in Sultanahmet. During my many years working for the brand, I was fortunate enough to stay there on a number of occasions, for work, long weekend breaks, and even for a friend's 30th birthday. Originally built as a prison in 1918, many of the original Turkish neoclassical features are still intact, and you can see inmates' names carved into some of the marble pillars. It now stands on the edge of the historical district of Sultanahmet proudly displaying its signature yellow walls and its metal-roofed "witch's hat" tower. Breakfast in the sunny flower-filled courtyard is unmissable, a feast of Turkish cheeses, fresh breads, olives, pomegranate juice and Turkish coffee. If you want to base yourself in Istanbul's historical centre there's no better location than this. It's one of the world's greatest walking cities, and it's an easy stroll to the grand Bazaar (although, depending on how much shopping you do, you may need to take a taxi back). And you will definitely want to have a sundowner on rooftop A'ya Terrace, in the shadow of the Hagia Sophia as the sun sets behind the Blue Mosque and the call to prayer rings out. It's the kind of hotel I'd happily be imprisoned in forever.
Hotel Uzbekistan, Tashkent, Uzbekistan - 3 hours 15 minutes from Dubai to Tashkent
It's hard to believe that somewhere as impossibly exotic as Tashkent is only three hours away from Dubai. Not everyone is a fan as it doesn't have the allure of the other Silk Road cities of Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva, names that just trip off the tongue, but it's the gateway to all of these, with shiny Spanish-made high-speed trains making the journey a breeze. Tashkent is home to a brilliant assortment of brutalist buildings, of which the Hotel Uzbekistan takes the medal for best in class. Let's take a step back for a moment - this is far from luxury. You stay at the Hotel Uzbekistan because it's the Hotel Uzbekistan. Its curved facade is covered in a maze of prefab concrete squares which have the impressive effect of blocking the view from every window. During my stay, the entire facade was covered rather incongruously with an LED-display ad for Coca Cola, invisible during the daytime but fizzing and flashing all night long (fortunately my room was on the other side of the building). This aside, you could be forgiven for thinking that the USSR had never come to an end here. On arrival you will be relieved of your passport and told that it will be returned to you "later". Hope that "later" is not too long as you will need it to change money at the money-changing window, another throwback to the old Soviet times. If your dollar bills (the preferred currency at the time of my visit) are not absolutely flawless, they will be rejected. If they are accepted, for US$100 you will walk away a millionaire in Uzbek Sum (and will need to find somewhere to store your huge wads of cash as they definitely won't fit in your wallet). Rooms are a riot of polyester and dim lighting. My bed was adorned with a gold valance and gold cushions that looked like sweet wrappers. The highlight of the hotel on my first night in Tashkent was the Bar Vienna in the lobby, a place that reminded me of hotel bars in Pyongyang for its primary colour banquet furniture and paintings of lush countryside scenes that exist nowhere in nature. Perhaps they used the same interior designer. There's very little independent travel in Uzbekistan and most people tend to travel in groups, so I was quite the anomaly, sitting there on my own with my Pulsar beer. In fact, I was the only person in the whole bar. Don't stay here expecting creature comforts, room service and 300-thread count linens (you're most likely going to be paying under USD80 a night), but do stay here to revel in the faded glory of one of the world's greatest examples of a Soviet modernist hotel.