Raffles Istanbul: Asian hospitality & European timelessness

From the balcony of Raffles Istanbul Hotel, the Bosphorus Bridge sparkles at night — both from its dramatic lighting and the trail of headlights during rush-hour traffic. Photos by Raffles Istanbul
A mural by French artist Jean-Francois Rauzier, who reimagined the Dolmabahce Palace of the Ottoman Empire, adorns the grand lobby of Raffles Istanbul.

A funny thing happens over dinner the first time I am at Raffles Istanbul in Beşiktaş in October last year. I am craving mushroom pasta which I had seen in the in-room dining menu the night before, but the problem is that we are at the hotel’s Rocca restaurant which specializes in Turkish cuisine.

In this beautiful, contemporary one-year-old space where hundreds of wineglasses were used to create a translucent dividing wall, the menu is exclusively Turkish food — there is no mushroom pasta.

A huge abstract bronze sculpture “Lavinia” by artist Martin Dawe, which was inspired by the famous Turkish poem of the same name.

My (now ex-) boyfriend is chatting with the hotel’s assistant executive chef standing to the side of our table while I am making my order with a waiter standing next to the chef.

The waiter says, “I will have to ask the kitchen if they can make pasta for you, we don’t have it on our menu.”

“Well, the chef is right beside you, why don’t you ask him?” I reply.

The chef turns to the waiter and says, “Go tell the kitchen to make it for her.”

This is chef Mehmet Ali, a man so charming and kind that when he offered to make me poached eggs with yogurt for breakfast on our first morning,  I couldn’t say no even if I was thinking “What? Eggs and yogurt?”

The indoor pool for post-summer guests features a jacuzzi on one side and glass pendants from the ceiling.

But how could this tapsilog-loving, sunny-side-up girl say no to this nice man?  He would come to our table every morning and ask if he could make us anything off the menu,  would chat with the bf in Turkish while I finished my eggs and yogurt.

Unlike the original colonial-style Raffles Hotel in Singapore, which started as a private beach house in 1887, everything about Raffles Istanbul is very new (it opened only in 2014). It’s located at Zorlu Center, a new complex of office and residential towers, a performance art theater, and a luxury mall.

And yet the hotel is already gaining praise for bringing the tradition of Asian hospitality and impeccable service into this old city. Public relations manager Esin Sungur says with a laugh that the Raffles philosophy is that “even before we know the question, the answer is yes.”

Every Raffles Hotel in the world has a Long Bar, which serves the signature Singapore Sling.
Arola by the Michelin-starred chef Sergi Arola offers creative tapas-style plates.

And, yes, Raffles Istanbul is very expensive but you do get what you pay for because luxury is indeed in the details — not just of the space or the well-appointed rooms but also in  how personalized the service is.

You don’t even have to ask. The hotel goes the extra mile with its team of butlers that are assigned to every room. One of them is Hulya Zengin, who says there have been guests she’s assisted for special occasions such as marriage proposals, anniversaries and birthdays.

For one guest,  Hulya and her team arranged a romantic dinner with music, flowers and candles on the balcony for the guy’s proposal.  Hulya herself is newly married and maybe it’s the romantic in her that makes her want guests to have their special time, too.

Raffles’ team of butlers go the extra mile to make every stay special. Our butler Hulya  Zengin decorated the room the first time with red balloons, flowers and candles. Photo by Tanya Lara
The second time we booked at Raffles, the reservations team remembered to assign Hulya again (middle photo). This time it was pink balloons, which we later released from the balcony. Photo by Tanya Lara

For us, because I had mentioned in an email that we were in a long-distance relationship, Hulya decorated our room with  balloons, flowers, handwritten quotes,  and candles on the two times we stayed last year.

I was wondering why they had asked me to email them pictures, and it turned out to be a surprise. When we got there, there were framed pictures of us in the spring and summer of last year all around the room, and red balloons, sparkling confetti and rose petals scattered on the floor and bed (the confetti was a challenge to clear up).

The second time we were there, he and I were talking about whether it was easier for me to move to Istanbul or for him to expand his family’s business in Manila. He said I would never find a job as a journalist in his city; I said that wasn’t my question.

He had sent me to Bebek while he was at work the next day, that beautiful waterside and quiet part of the city. He was messaging me while I was at Starbucks overlooking the Bosphorus, that he was excited to live in Manila. I said, wait, hold your horses — you have to see the country first (he would do so four months later, in March this year).

Some bathrooms have a dramatic view of the Bosphorous or cityscape.
Every time we stayed at Raffles, we would watch Istanbul turn dark and then a new day start with an orange glow. Photo by Sami Bas

The balloons were pink on our second stay. He met Hulya for the first time while she and I seemed like old friends by then.

The room’s decor made us forget the argument we had on the metro, when he dragged my  heavy suitcase to and from the long walk at the Gayrettepe stop to get to Zorlu Center.

“Why is this so heavy?” He glared at me, his eyes almost bursting from their sockets. “When we reach the hotel, you will open your suitcase and I will throw away every unnecessary thing that you packed.” I had come from a five-day tour across Anatolya and did not actually buy anything, except for an overpriced leather coat for $800 in Izmir over which he was livid, but I had three pairs of boots, two pairs of shoes, two coats and several jackets in there. I laughed and said, “You will do no such thing.”

Surrounded by pink balloons, I opened my suitcase and handed him the chocolate-covered polvoron and dried mangoes that he so loved…and he forgot about his annoyance that I had over-packed yet again and his plan of throwing out my stuff.

On the TV’s audio selection, we found violinist André Rieu’s version of The Rose and we must have played it a hundred times in the time we spent there.

It was playing  when he brought the pink balloons out on the balcony in the cold November air later that night. “Make a wish and then let them go,” he told me taking a video on his phone.

And so I did. I let go of the strings and we watched the balloons float, carried by the autumn wind into Istanbul’s dark skies until we couldn’t see them anymore.

Rocca restaurant, where the most delicious breakfast buffet spread is served.
Turkish breakfast is one of the healthiest breakfasts I’ve ever seen with fresh and varied choices of cheeses, fruits and vegetables.

* * *

Designed by Sandra Cortner of Hirsch Bedner Associates (HBA), a leading firm in hospitality design with works from Atlanta to Moscow, Shanghai to LA, Raffles Istanbul at Zorlu Center was a unique project.

Istanbul itself was HBA’s main inspiration for the design with the “interiors reflecting the jewels of the Byzantine era, only worn by the Emperor and Empress of the time. These jewel tones are referenced throughout — in the palette and selected artworks.”

Cortner says, “The first question was, what would a guest coming into this landmark building expect? It would not be historical, classic interiors, for sure. Neither would the space be aggressively contemporary. It was decided to make it transitional, timeless. We needed to connect it with the destination to give the sense of place.”

“Art is part of the fabric of every Raffles hotel — incorporated into the overall design, seamlessly, which is how we came to our concept, ‘The Dream of Istanbul.’ Not everything has to be literal; you may have abstract sides to it, dreams, fantasies. You wake up in a room with a bed backdrop inspired by the chandeliers of the Hagia Sophia but they are not photographs; they are soft and volatile, painted on canvas.”

Roca restaurant takes on a different ambience in the evening.
Rich fabrics and textures in the modern bedrooms.

You see the references to the city’s history as you pass through the vestibule and stand under the crystal chandelier in the grand lobby: a huge abstract bronze sculpture “Lavinia” by artist Martin Dawe, which was inspired by the famous Turkish poem of the same name and a mural by French artist Jean-Francois Rauzier who reimagined the Dolmabahce Palace of the Ottoman Empire.

The 181-room hotel remains true to its DNA with the signature Long Bar (yes, it has the Singapore Sling as well and this drink celebrates its centenary this year) and Writers Bars. It also has the very popular Spanish restaurant Arola by Michelin-star chef Sergi Arola, a favorite of the well-heeled.

Another space that’s show-stopping is the hotel’s award-winning spa. Designers at Hirsch Bedner Associates made this 3,000-sqm. spa a true oasis with dazzling details.

We so loved the facilities here. Above the indoor pool and cascading from the ceiling are design elements in geometric shapes, giving it a translucent feel. The spa has three Turkish hamams, seven treatment rooms, a male and female relaxation areas with saunas, steam rooms, Jacuzzis and ice fountains; and a fitness center, yoga and and pilates studios.

If sultans still reigned in Turkey today, surely this would be the hotel they would converge, because Raffles blends European timelessness and Asian warmth— in a city that is timeless itself.

(This story first appeared in the Philippine Star in 2015 and has been updated.)

Classy, calm and completely convenient, Raffles is part of Zorlu Center with its mall, cinemas, performing arts theater, and is connected to the metro stop Gayrettepe. 

Where I’ve been wandering

Some wanderings in 2014 and 2013: (upper photos) Rome, Provence, Barcelona; (middle) Vienna, Amsterdam; (bottom) Marseilles, Paris, Paros, Prague. (Photos by @iamtanyalara)

So, Macedonia makes it the 50th country I’ve visited in my lifetime. This post should really be titled “How I learned to make interactive maps” to remember where I’ve been.

A couple of years ago, an acquaintance mentioned to my colleagues that she had traveled to Guam with me on a coverage. I said I had never set foot in Guam. Ever. But she was so insistent that for a second I thought: did I really go to Guam and  forget all about it?

The answer is no. I had never been there, but it led me to think that there might be places that are slipping from my memory, though I loved being there at the time. (I forget where I put my car keys at least once a week, or is that twice?)

While I don’t keep a diary, working as a journalist all my life has taught me to mentally store details, atmosphere and conversations, to  take down notes even when I am not working. After I started my travel blog in January, I told my friend Cedric in Paris that I wanted to make maps of my wanderings to remind me of the stories I’ve been wanting to write for years, also because I’ve lost  thousands of pictures from some trips because I keep accidentally deleting them en masse.

He taught my how to do it over Skype, which was frustrating at first because I don’t know how to do shit on Google, then it got fun — and then obsessive. Each map can only have a maximum of 10 layers, and I’ve done mine per country. You can be as specific as per city and its sights or attractions if you have the time.

So here’s an example of how you can plot your travels. Trust me, don’t start until the weekend because if you’re anything like me, you’re not gonna stop till they are finished. Start mapping!