Grand Tour

Ever want to get away from it all?  For an around-the-world jaunt? Who hasn’t? Here, join Austinite Wes Marshall in the first of a two-part travel series as he guides us on a trip of a lifetime, through Spain and then India

The fascination with a trip around the world started when I was a little kid playing with globes, imagining where I could go. We got married young and adulthood brought its own set of adventures, but we just couldn’t seem to put the time together for the dream trip. We were locked up with the business of living. But finally, this year, we decided to make it happen. I had a major birthday coming up and that seemed like a good enough excuse, so away we planned.

Though they don’t publicize it heavily, most of the major airlines offer is called an RTW (see sidebar, Round the World) fare. They all have different rules, but in general, you pay a fixed price, pick whether you want to head east or west and then you can make almost unlimited stops of your choice. You also pay the landing taxes and the fuel surcharges. That’s it. It’s an incredible deal even for those with no budget. Also, the airlines have a special desk just for folks buying these tickets, so be sure to ask to be transferred the first chance you get. While many readers will employ someone or an entity like Andrew Harper to handle the details, I like the high wire act of doing the research and planning myself.

The whole world was available, but I knew I wanted to spend my birthday in a great restaurant. After many years of travel, my three favorite food cities are Lyon, Singapore and Barcelona. The latter just happened to slot perfectly into our plans, so Barcelona was where we began. My wife, Emily, had always wanted to see the Taj Mahal and despite all of our trips through Asia, we had missed Vietnam, so that was on both our lists. And, I was desperate to get Emily to Kangaroo Island off the coast of Adelaide in South Australia, my concept of paradise. We toyed with a few other stops, but you can only go so many places in a month. We finally settled on Austin-to Barcelona to New Delhi toAgra (home of the Taj Mahal), Saigon then up the Mekong Delta-before Adelaide, onto Kangaroo Island and Sydney before heading home..

We wanted to be selective on our hotels What’s more, I can’t recommend running around these beautiful locales with something like a Frommer’s guide stuck to your nose, missing most of the local essence so you that can read someone else’s description. If you are going to spend your precious time and money to go to an extraordinary place, you should take advantage of a top quality private guide. So I interviewed dozens of licensed professionals and found the finest guides you can imagine. So here is a full lineup of recommendations targeted to our readers with the very best of the best of the hotels, restaurants, guides and things to do.

Barcelona:  Authentic And Adventurous

Barcelona is one of the world’s great party spots. The club scene is electric and locals are often seen strolling home at 8 or 9 in the morning after a night of adventure. There’s a lifetime’s worth of fantastic restaurants and the only boring ones are the tourist places. Hint: restaurants that open before 9pm do so for Americans. At around 11pm is a trendy time to arrive for dinner and many of the best clubs don’t even open until 2am or 3am. When it comes to hotels, the list of luxury spots is endless. Still, there are two you shouldn’t miss, one in town and one on the water.

The Mandarin Oriental Barcelona is of the quality level of their best Asian properties. The rooms are to a high standard of luxury, especially the private suites, which have beautiful nighttime city views. The hotel’s location is ideal, right in town, one block from the infamous Rambla. The Michelin-starred Moments restaurant is the Mandarin’s big gun, but we had a magnificent meal in Blanc. In a city offering so many entertainment opportunities, there is nothing more valuable than a top notch concierge and it was at the Mandarin that we met the person we would nominate for the Oscar for Best Concierge. That wasAlbert Pérez, who not only had an encyclopedic knowledge of the restaurants, shops and museums of Barcelona, but also had a magician’s ability to pull last minute reservations from restaurants that supposedly take weeks to get into. Insider tip:  ask him about seeing Gaudi’s architecture and you will be greatly rewarded.

After a couple of very happy days, we moved over to The Hotel Arts, part of the Ritz-Carlton chain. We stayed on the Club Floor, which I highly recommend. The designers of the Club Floor have gotten everything just right, from the moment they whisk you out of the busy lobby up to the tranquil 33rd floor. There you have a gorgeous view of the city and your own personal team of stunningly competent concierges. The Arts has a highly reputed restaurant called Enoteca, where Chef Paco Pérez has created the most gorgeous cuisine in a dizzying marriage of flavors. The restaurant is dazzling, the service perfect and the sommelier selected wines that were luxurious and perfectly matched. It was absolutely one of the greatest hotel dining experiences of my life, and don’t ever underestimate the value of being able to shuffle up to your room with a pleasant buzz and not having to find a cab.

So where did we dine for my birthday? Lunch was at Monvínic, an astounding wine bar. It is not for profit to start with (only in Europe), has eight certified sommeliers on staff, there is a fully stocked library in multiple languages, and the cellar is deep. Their restaurant is killer, to boot. Dinner was at Passadís del Pep, down a long walkway. When the door opens, you receive a friendly greeting, are ushered to a table, and the food starts coming. No menu. No choices. It’s heavily tilted to seafood and count on around ten courses and at least three hours.

If you’re new to Barcelona, do hire a guide. Friends who live in Barcelona have told me that hithisisbarcelona.com is very dependable. In any case, invest some money in an extended telephone conversation with the person who will be guiding you to make sure you get along and that they understand what you are hoping to accomplish.

India: Old World Intrigue

Our next stop was New Delhi. From dozens of luxury hotels, we chose the Aman, the place for visitors looking for a lavish retreat, outstanding security, and complete anonymity. A member of management, the most senior available always greets the new arrivals. You’ll go through an efficient security scan that is polite, but much like what it takes to get into the West Wing of the White House. Once inside, the Aman is quiet, relaxed and sumptuous and having a place of respite in a dynamic city like New Delhi is vital. With a population of 19 million (that they know of) and a vibrancy that puts New York City firmly in the shade, moments of relaxation are a palliative to your mental health. There was a time when I would have said the Oriental in Bangkok during the 1980’s was the best hotel experience imaginable yet now the Aman beats it in every way.

Our guide in Delhi, was Srinivasan Rajendran, aka Raj, the choice of the dozen potential guides I I had interviewed while looking for someone with the exact mixture of savvy about food, history and Old Delhi’s back alleys. We spent an entire day prowling around the crowded streets of Old Delhi. Raj even took us into the back alleyways of the mammoth spice market where we’d find little stalls serving delicious street food like curried plantains stuffed in naan, chicken burra, mutton keema, roomali roti and biryani.

We spent the following day visiting historical sights and in between, Raj gave us a starter lecture on the incredibly rich history of the Indian people. He told us about the accomplishments in science and the arts under the Guptas during Europe’s Dark Ages, all the way up to the Mughals, the richest single dynasty to have ever existed. Then, he showed us the dramatic contrast of the few simple possessions of Mahatma Gandhi. We even walked the same steps the frail old man did on his way to being assassinated and were entirely mesmerized.

We left for Agra early in the morning. Agra is only 130 miles from New Delhi. Should be simple, right? There is one First Class train per day and it’s at the bone-numbing 6:15A.M. You want to make sure you have someone from the hotel accompany you. The most common scam is the tractable pricing from baggage handlers, with an occasional ticket swapping swindle thrown in for extra fun. This is the only place we found any cons or stings in New Delhi, but it is common at the train stations. Be wise.

The supposed two hour trip took just over four hours. Blame a foggy morning and a careful engineer. Our guide, Rajiv Rajawat , whisked us off to the massive, thousand year old Agra Fort, a place with many hidden treasures. One tiny room is completely closed to the public because its art is so delicate. Here, the Mughal Emperor would have a servant hold up candles and see its reflections multiply through thousands of tiny mirrors embedded in the ceiling. Then, as the servant moved around, the lights would dance. The room is strictly locked up and off limits, but Rajiv knew the fellow who could get us in. He lit two candles and started walking the room. The scene was pure magic.

After lunch, the fog lifted and we were able to see the Taj Mahal in its full glory. As we walked through its entrance, the incredible sight brought my wife to tears and that by itself was worth the entire trip for me. You may know that the building took 20,000 workers twenty two years to build in the mid 1600’s. It’s easy to see why, for 350 years, people of all cultures have made the trek to the tiny town of Agra. It’s certainly not for the hotels. There is one nice hotel in Agra, the Oberoi Amarvilas. It is quite expensive and always booked. The second best, the Trident, looks nice on the outside, but it is Holiday Inn-level at best.

We went back to New Delhi the next morning. Rajiv had hired a driver in a very nice car – pressed linen headrests, immaculately clean and air conditioned. The key to driving in India is to trust your driver and understand that those pesky lines in the road are nothing more than pretty decorations. The 130 mile drive back took five hours and depending on your outlook on life, it was either fascinatingly good fun with many opportunities to see colorful people engaging in an exotic life, or a white knuckle dance with death. We loved every mile.

A side note, those tour books will tell you the luxury place to stay in Delhi is the ITC Maurya (where our last three Presidents have stayed). It is actually quite like Disneyland with huge Sikh servants who snap to attention and pop a head-busting salute with such alarming alacrity it is a wonder they don’t decapitate themselves. The hotel’s famous restaurant, the Bukhara, tries to recreate a rustic feast that might occur in a tent in the northwestern part of India. Juxtapose these two terms – “luxury” and “no cutlery.” During our meal international politicians and major Bollywood stars stopped in. My Hindi translation skills are poor, but I believe we were not alone in saying something like this under our breath, “I want a damn fork.”

We had a farewell glass of Champagne at the Aman and went back to the airport, where The Man from the Aman actually filled out all of our paperwork, escorted us to customs and waved goodbye as we headed for Saigon.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. In our next installment, we see fireworks light the entire night sky as we sit outside at the A+ table on the penthouse balcony at one of Saigon’s most chichi restaurants. I didn’t realize it, but I had timed our arrival for Tet, their biggest holiday of the year. Another demonstration of the power of a good concierge. We’ll trek through the jungle to eat elephant ear fish with a family from Hanoi while being serenaded. We’ll have up close encounters with sea lions, wallabies and giant crawfish the size of Maine lobsters. Then there’s that lunch place we had to fly to. Plus, my wife Emily getting to rub shoulders with Leonardo DiCaprio. And, a restaurant in Sydney that ranks in the top five in my life. It’s all ahead. Look for us again in the January/February issue.

GET THERE

Picking an airline is a personal thing. Like most of the major companies, United Airlines has a Round the World program. Now, the bad news is United is monumentally awful. I could burn up this entire article with horror stories from this trip alone, and we only did a couple of legs on United. In fact, USNEWS ranked United as the “Worst Major Carrier” in a story titled “America’s Meanest Airlines:2011.” But, the good news is, booking with United allows you to use Singapore Air, Thai and Swiss, all ranked as some of the world’s great airlines.

Also, we discovered a little trick. We were intending to book in First Class, but found out that most of the longest legs would be in “Business” First. So it actually made sense to book in Business. There were three legs where we felt a tang of jealousy over missing the nicer seats, but the cost difference was $8,000 per person. Costs vary based on fuel surcharges and landing taxes, but First runs about $22,000 a person, Business about $14,000 and Coach about $7,000. For those using miles, it runs about 350,000 miles for First, 260,000 for Business and 180,000 for Coach. Even if you are short and thin (I am neither) I don’t recommend Coach.

STAY THERE

Mandarin Oriental Barcelona
Passeig de Gràcia, 38-40
Barcelona 08007, Spain
T: +34 93 151 88 88
mobcn-reservations@mohg.com

Rooms start at $575 and go up to $3750 a night, depending on size. We selected the $575 a night room overlooking the garden.

Hotel Arts Barcelona
Marina 19–21
08005 Barcelona, Spain
T +34 93 2211000
artsreservations@ritzcarlton.com

Club rooms start at $700 and go up to $7500 a night, depending on size. We selected the $1,075 a night room on the Club Floor.

Aman New Delhi
Lodhi
New Delhi 110003, India
T +91 11 4363 3333
amannewdelhi@amanresorts.com

The Aman’s main building rooms start at $550 and go up to $1200 a night, depending on size. We selected the $625 a night Aman Deluxe room. Each room has a private pool. The Aman’s finest rooms don’t even publish their prices because they serve a diverse group of wealthy people with specific needs. The Aman staff creates a package that caters to any religious or cultural canon, security needs, or personal tastes. These are what drive the pricing for their best rooms.

GUIDE THERE

Hi This is Barcelona hi@hithisisbarcelona.com www.hithisisbarcelona.com

Srinivasan Rajendran “Raj”  raj@go-delhitours.com www.go-delhitours.com +91 98117 22511

Rajiv Rajawat rajivrajawat@yahoo.com +91 89095 20292

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