The New Istanbul: Raffles

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I have never been tempted to avail myself of anything from a hotel suite before; not so much as a bottle of travel-sized shampoo. But, at Raffles Istanbul, I’m ashamed to admit I found myself giving the idea of folding a bathrobe into my suitcase some serious thought. That bathrobe has to be worn to be believed. At every hotel I’ve ever stayed in before, the robe has remained hung, untouched. At Raffles Istanbul, I was barely out of it. I would have worn it out on the town if I could.

I first noticed it when Mrs L, barely an hour beyond check-in, had changed out of her jacket and jeans and into one as she carried about the business of getting settled in. It was barely 4 in the afternoon. There was, admittedly, a lot to settle into. Most hotel suites one can cover in minutes, acclimatising instantly before the lure to explore a city calls, but the Horizon suites at Raffles Istanbul aren’t so much suites as apartments; the double aspect balcony alone, with its views across the modern city one way and the Bosphorus the other, are enough to suggest you can see the city without leaving your suite at all.

Raffles Istanbul suite

The hotel occupies a prime position over this iconic landscape. Rising high above the new Zorlu centre, itself rising high above the city atop one of its highest vantage points, it’s no surprise the architects have made a feature of the balconies. It is, if you will, symbolic of Istanbul’s transformation, and certainly something I noticed since I’d last visited. It’s telling of the city’s rise to prominence that when I last logged on to Apple’s website, the key image that greeted me on their homepage was that of their new store at the Zorlu. It, too, is home to Jamie Oliver and Tom Aitken dining venues, every major brand on the King’s Road and Raffles’ own ‘arcade’ there – a private, upmarket bazaar, if you will, on the mall floor of the hotel – is a walk through the finest jewellers and outfitters to grace a retail space.

But, if Istanbul is catching up to its neighbours as we settle into the 21st century, where does Raffles – the embodiment of tradition – fit in? Well, that’s just it. It’s the 21st century. Never mind where Raffles came from, it’s what it stands for now. So when the owners of Istanbul’s newest, shiniest venue, an ultra-modern state-of-the-art arts, retail and event facility and a statement to the city’s modernity, opened the bidding to the hotels of the world, they only had one in mind.

But what’s lacking in the traditional Raffles architecture is there in its artistry; the familiar icons of the brand (the Long Bar, the Writers’ Bar et al) are all present but – and this is the point – it has not attempted to replicate the original. Why would it? It’s not in Singapore, it’s in Istanbul. And Istanbul in the last ten years has announced itself as a major cosmopolitan metropolis on the world stage. A population of 16 million, the evidence of wealth, of influence is everywhere, of modernity colliding with tradition. And this, coincidentally, is what suits the Raffles offering. And if Istanbul is the new, vibrant, energetic world capital, then the Zorlu is its beating heart.

Raffles Istanbul Lavinia

The hotel – and its place here – announces itself as soon as you enter. The lobby is cavernous, but it’s deceptive in size. It’s devoted not to the hustle and bustle of arrivals and departures, but to the Lavinia Lounge (so named for the gargantuan bronze sculpture that looms over the tea sippers and business meetings that take place there). It’s intended to be contemporary and creative and is epitomised by the 14-panel hyper-photo installation that dominates the back wall; the Dohmabahce Palace envisioned by French photographer Jean-Francois Rauzier, it is symbolic of Raffles’ – and the city’s – grandeur. The reception, incidentally, is tucked discreetly to the side since ‘check in’ as we know it, conducted by iPad, becomes absorbed into the greeting as one is ushered to one’s suite. At least that is the ambition. It is altogether a blend of tech meeting tradition, of comfort meeting sophistication, of aesthetic and application. The decor, a proliferation of marble and mosaic, is a reflection of the grand age of Byzantine Istanbul, brought up to date with striking lines, angles and organic form. And that’s just the lobby.

Back inside our suite, I’m overcome. I’ve been in hotels where detail is forsaken in favour of a sort of functional minimalism. Furnishings are usually luscious, sure, but decor is often a token gesture. Here, it’s like walking into your own living room; if you’re a Wall Street trader. Sculptures adorn shelves that back on to a mirrored wall, there are books galore to pore over, the orchids in vases are real and the piece de resistance, the mini bar, is not so much a mini bar as a…well, bar. That Wall Street reference wasn’t glib. This mini bar is unlike anything I’ve seen in my years of gracing five star hotels. It’s a floor-to-ceiling shelf of gorgeousness that I could have merrily tucked into, cocooned in my bathrobe, and with the room’s remote control at my fingertips, playing with the light settings and shifting the curtains and sunblinds back and forth, for at least an afternoon. And this is not just for the enjoyment of executives. Our baby, too, had a mini bar of sorts; arranged across a sideboard in the walk-in wardrobe, a panoply of paraphernalia that made me seem inadequate as a parent, including – something we definitely packed for home – a Raffles branded bib and babygro.

Raffles Istanbul Writers Bar

In spite of the city opening up to us, we couldn’t not take advantage of some of Raffles’ legendary hospitality and, of the two dining options, decided on Turkish at Rocca over tapas at Arola. But any evening begins with an aperitif in one of the bars, naturally, and for me, there was only one, the Writers’ Bar. Cosying into the confines of this glorified library, the signature cocktails are all named for famous novels. While Mrs L sipped on a Painted Veil (Grey Goose with lychee and jasmine), I passed up an opportunity to pass out with a Vertigo and instead took a steady path with a steadfast negroni. Only this being Raffles it was mixed with their own Rosso vermouth and, this being Turkey, it was served in a samovar. Well, it had to be, really.

Suitably enlivened, we wandered down to Rocca, where I had affirmed that there’s an honesty to Turkish waiters that’s rather refreshing. Ask any waiter in London or New York what they’d recommend from the menu and the answer is usually, “It’s all good”. At Rocca, however, I was angling for the Bosphorus fish stew when the waiter steered me towards the seabass. I might have thought that a dash of effrontery were it not for the following evening, where, at one of the city’s oldest riverside restaurants, on requesting a particular dish, the waiter quite candidly replied, “No, you wouldn’t like that. Have the kebab.” I had to respect his gall. But he was right, and so was our man at Raffles, both were excellent dishes. Though in each case I can’t say I had any basis for comparison.

Raffles Istanbul Rocca

It’s symbolic of Istanbul’s confidence, I think. I last visited the city some ten years ago and in that time it’s gone from a twee – some might say backward – European wannabe, to a world leader, nipping at the heels of its cosmopolitan rivals and forging its own identity. It’s seldom that somewhere visited for a second time can have quite the same impact as the first. But Istanbul is one such place. Not, simply, by virtue of the change it has undergone but its very fabric has the capacity to entrance you like precious few places on earth can. That iconic view over the old city, with minarets silhouetted against the sunset, the capacious interior of the Hagia Sofia, the smells of chestnut carts in Sultanhamet Square, crossing the Galata bridge, the air thick with salt from the Marmara sea and the mighty Bosphorus. But there’s now more to it; it’s a city where tradition rubs shoulders with modernity and, far from being an incongruous attraction, it would seem Raffles is the ideal fit for such a destination, actively merging the two.

I begrudgingly packed on our final morning, as I always do when it comes to parting a glorious destination but, on this occasion, I was downbeat doubly so. I glanced around the suite for a final time, taking in some ideas for my humble abode back in London, and then I stared at the neatly folded bathrobe in my suitcase. Then, with a withering sigh, I took it out and placed it back on the hook in the bathroom.

For more information on Raffles Istanbul, including details of the spa, dining and a panoply of exquisite photos to tempt you further, visit www.raffles.com.

Next week Larry continues his immersion in Istanbul with a visit to designers a la mode, Armaggan, and a stay at their exquisite Bosphorus suites…

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