Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

2009 set to be a big year for Vilnius

January 2, 2009

Happy new Year to Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius. The city celebrated the start of its year as European Capital of Culture 2009 with an extravaganza of music, theatrics, lights and fireworks. Vilnius is also celebrating its millennium: the first time the city is mentioned is in chronicles from the year 1009.

I visited Vilnius last year on a Baltics press trip hosted by Reval Hotels, to write a feature for ttgbusiness


I’d not been to the region before, I think I was expecting some sort of grim, grey hangover from the soviet era.

What I found was an immaculately restored, Unesco world heritage site, packed with beautiful architecture and fascinating history, and brimming with optimism and confidence.

The Hotel Lietuva was symbolic of this new confidence: the 22-story tower was the old, KGB-bugged soviet Intourist hotel − now totally revamped into a slick, modern property with cool Scandinavian décor and state-of-the-art conference facilities.

The country has enthusiastically embraced the EU in its eagerness to cast off the shackles of its hulking neighbour. Initially it suffered a major brain drain as many of its bright youngsters fled to all points in western Europe. But people say there’s now a steady trickle back.

The excellent tourist guides are full of fascinating tales, from ancient empires through to Nazi horrors, then KGB antics and Cold War paranoia. But they are more keen to talk about Lithuania’s bright future, rather than dwell on the past.

Of course in the current economic climate, the country’s immediate future is as uncertain as everywhere else. But Vilnius is definitely a destination to watch.

Happy new year everyone.


From Russia with love

November 7, 2008

img_1504I recently headed to St Petersburg with 25 top luxury travel agents for Orient Express’s Bellini Club conference.

The Bellini Club consists of OE’s favourite agents – the Brit contingent being part of an international group which sales boss David Hester described as the 75 “best agents in Europe”.

See more news on this in the latest edition of ttgluxury

See my pics here.

And here’s a whole lot more

For this memorable two-day extravaganza the group stayed at OE’s Grand Hotel Europe. It’s an amazing place in the heart of this handsome, canal-laced city, and it’s absolutely steeped in history.
The guest list here includes dozens of royals, heads of state and dictators  – a who’s who of world leaders over the last 130 years.

Emperors and presidents aside, how’s this for an eclectic roll call? – Rasputin, Tchaikovsky, George Bernard Shaw, Maxim Gorky, Pink Floyd and Helen Mirren (these picked at random from a 50-strong list).

At the opening reception in the Mezzanine Café, premium vodkas flowed from samovars sculpted from ice – heartily sampled by the Brit posse, I might add – followed by dinner in the magnificent art deco ballroom.

The following day saw the presentations, seminars and workshops – more on that in ttgluxury.
The top GM’s from around the world had gathered here to update us on the latest developments, upgrades and newbuilds across OE’s 51 operations worldwide: Venice, Brazil, Burgundy, Cape Town, Madeira, Botswana, NYC, Santa Barbara, Burma, Machu Picchu…. and plenty more: not too shabby a destination list, I’m sure you’ll agree.

At the closing ceremony, three major awards were handed out. The Brits put in a good innings: Hallmark Travel co-owner Charmaine Hallmark will be heading to Venice’s Cipriani Hotel – travelling (of course) onboard the Orient Express – after winning the Best Client promotion award. She won it for her highly successful Orient Express evening, hosting selected top clients at a themed gala dinner onboard the Bluebell steam railway in Sussex.

Then the group boarded two coaches to head out of town to the fabled Catherine Palace for our closing dinner. We cruised through the appalling St P rush-hour traffic by means of a police escort, complete with flashing blue lights. Like Soviet Commissars of yore, we ploughed down the middle of the road, with the traffic parting like the Red Sea before Moses.
The palace was superlative – a vast, overblown turquoise Versailles, surreally floodlit in the twilight.
After visiting the inevitable vodka ice bar, we were given a fascinating tour of the palace, an incredibly ornate confection of history, wealth and craftsmanship. A five-course dinner in the gilt and mirrored ballroom was accompanied by opera singers, ballet, a state orchestra and young ballroom dancers. (Also spectacular was the balletic, military precision of the tightly choreographed GHE waiting staff.)

David Hester, in his closing speech, summed up the whole, memorable two days’ combination of fairytale enchantment and getting down to business. He quoted from a famous Fred & Ginger number: “There may be trouble ahead. But while there’s music and moonlight and love and romance, let’s face the music and dance.”

Na Zdorov’ye!