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Friday, 27 December, 2019, 15 : 19 PM [IST]

Istanbul: Encounter with Premium Hospitality on the Bosphorus

While culture, history and heritage abound in Istanbul, what sells more is the narrow, natural strait, Bosphorus, that flows solemnly separating the sprawling city into two continents. P Krishna Kumar who visited the city recently recounts his encounter with luxury hospitality on the banks of Bosphorus.

Istanbul is a city of history and heritage. Palaces, museums, architectural marvels, grand bazaars, all stand side by side marking a rich civilisation that thrived through different eras of history there. Some of the notable ones include the Hagia Sophia, an engineering and architectural marvel from the Byzantine period, to Sultan Ahmed Mosque or Blue Mosque as it is popularly known, from the Ottoman era, to places like Topkapi and Dolmabahçe of the same era, to Grand Bazaar, an old trading hub of the region. While all these are must-see in the Istanbul city itinerary of any visitor to the city, what really stood through the test of times and still charm people and on its banks is Bosporus, the 32-km-long natural strait which while connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, give the city rare positioning being divided between two continents of Asia and Europe.

For one who discerns history and heritage and has been yearning for long to discover Istanbul and Turkey, the opportunity that presented by Turkish Tourism with the support of the flagship carrier, Turkish Airlines, and the hospitality partner, Accor, was a sure shot gift. Moreover, when it was in the company of few corporate travel managers, and the intent was to showcase the luxury hospitality products on the Bosporus, the trip had all the frills.

Since, I have heard and written about the new International Airport of Istanbul from a distance as a travel journalist, there was excitement to see and experience first-hand the largest Greenfield airport in the world. With 1.5 million sq mtr passenger terminal, the airport looked so spacious and therefore partly empty compared to Indian airport standards at the arrival. Although it took a long walk to the passport control desk from the arrival gate, it didn't take much time to clear the access formalities because of the sheer number of desks. The airport in the first phase has a capacity to handle 90 million passengers. It will go up to 200 million at the end of all development stages over the next five years. Except for the free Wi-Fi at the terminal, which couldn't be connected despite repeated attempts, the new airport facilities impressed me.

The international airport which has completed almost a year of technical operations is quite well-connected with the city centre by an express highway. In less than an hour's journey, we ended up in our cosy hotel rooms on Swissotel Istanbul right on the Bosphorus. Nestled within 65 acres of historical garden overlooking the Bosphorus, Swissotel is quite centrally placed to all the key attractions of the city. From the executive floor room, the panoramic view of the busy Bosphorus strait was clear and therefore engaging. Divided between East and West wing, the 566-room and suites resort hotel's 75% of the rooms offers a view of the Bosphorus.

The hotel, because of its unique location, large inventory with sizeable twin rooms is a preferred property for MICE events in the city. The hotel offers 29 meeting rooms with sizes ranging from 40 sq mtr to 1,100 sq mtr, and 6 different restaurants to make choice quite broad for groups and event organisers. "We are both a leisure and MICE property. It's one of the oldest and best-known hotels in the city because of its central, peaceful and secure location. Bosphorus is the unique selling point for Istanbul hotels. We are right on the Bosphorus and 75% of our rooms are Bosphorus facing," said Hakan Taflanoglu, Director of Sales, Swissotel Istanbul. He said that the hotel is gaining popularity with Indians because it understands the market and the Indian guests' tastes and preferences better than others. "This year we did the first Indian wedding. We also had couple of big MICE events from India this year," he informed. For Indian food preferences, Hakan said that while the hotel is equipped for "some Indian experiences", they are open to work with Indian chefs whom organisers want to bring along.

Accor has a sizeable footprint of premium hospitality products in Turkey in general and Istanbul in particular. We visited and counted leading ones from the portfolio like Fairmont, Pullman, Novotel, Sofitel, etc. during our short stay. The 202-room Sofitel right on the busy Taksim Square is the latest addition to the portfolio.

However, the jewel on the crown of Accor in Istanbul is, of course, Raffles Istanbul. For me, one night's stay in one of the 66 palatial residences on the top floor of the luxury hospitality address of the city was something which would not fade away easily from memory. The 251-room hotel with 66 residences at the Zorlu Centre, a popular hub in the city for branded luxury retail, premium dining and performing art, is much beyond a premium address because of the art and design element hidden within. The hotel has some 224 curated pieces of art by local and international artists inside. The hotel's public areas are decorated with a large collection of masterpieces based on the concept of 'the dream of Istanbul'. One of the imposing pieces is a hyper photograph of Dolmabahce Palace by Parisian photographer Jean-Francois Rauzier, by merging different shots of the palace, its artefacts, etc. The chandeliers in the lobby are inspired from the Whirling Dervishes. "It is a modern hotel with a sense of location. We have an art collection inspired from the roots of the city, its civilisation and its prominent elements," said the Director of Sales of the Hotel.

It's also one of the hotels in the world which offers guided tour by art historians of the art elements to provide insights into modern Turkish life and society. Raffles Istanbul also had its share of Indian business in recent years. "We had hosted a very important Indian wedding and few social events including birthday parties in our hotel," the Director said. As part of high-level of personalisation and customisation of services, she recollects how the hotel served masala chai for an Indian group.

Fairmont Quasar Istanbul is another luxury of Istanbul's main business district Mecidiyeköy, offering sophisticated travellers 209 guest rooms, including 25 suites and 40 Fairmont Gold Rooms, with an additional 64 Fairmont Residences. With 2,000 square meters of meeting and event space, Fairmont Quasar Istanbul is ideal for meetings, special events and lavish weddings. Fairmont Gold, the private concierge floor experience at Fairmont Istanbul offers exclusive amenities and highly personalised service designed to exceed the expectations of the most discerning corporate or leisure guests.

For corporate event organisers, Istanbul presents choicest of venues to hold their meeting, conferences, and team-building activities. These include grand mansions like Sait Halim Pasa Mansion where Ottoman – German treaty was signed before the First World War Multi-purpose venues dot along the Bosphorus for small meetings, get-tethers, conferences, etc.

November was not high season for tourism in Turkey and Istanbul. Moreover, escalation of tensions on the borders and other geo-political factors had weighed heavily in my mind as well while landing in Istanbul. However, proving me wrong, Istanbul presented a picture of buzzing destination with tourists all around the attractions irrespective of the travel advisories by many countries. The cruise terminals, the Bosphorus, the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque, the Taksim Square, the Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar all busy and lively with tourists, which, of course, made me think of the stark difference between perceptions and ground realities!!

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