It has never been clearer that the most important part of a travel experience is the people. Distinctive architecture, stylish interior design and lavish amenities are all worthy attributes, but no hotel or restaurant receives an Andrew Harper recommendation without staff members who are warm, efficient and sincere. In the extraordinarily difficult year of 2020, we had the good fortune to encounter numerous exceptional individuals who rose to the occasion.
La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise, Prague
Gourmet Czech cuisine was all but impossible to find on my first visit to Prague 20 years ago, but now high-end restaurants serving impressive renditions of local recipes can be found even in provincial cities like Brno and Karlovy Vary. Improbable as it may sound, Prague itself has become a culinary destination, a place one could visit primarily to experience unique food traditions. The restaurant that started the Czech food revolution was La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise, founded by chef Oldřich Sahajdák. He harnesses the best of the country’s seasonal ingredients and uses them in modern versions of old dishes from the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The results delight the eye and burst with deep, complex flavor, as our recent visit to La Degustation reconfirmed. A tour of Prague’s constellation of gastronomic stars leaves no doubt that the Czech capital is now a world-class food city. That is due, in no small part, to the pioneering efforts of chef Sahajdák.
Although our travels have been truncated this year, we still managed to visit a range of hotels. On our trips we noticed two consistent reactions among employees. In some places, they seemed weary and wary. Elsewhere, however, the staff appeared to relish the pandemic as a challenge. Of nowhere was this more true than the Mayflower Inn. When we arrived, the valet parking attendant dealt with both our vehicle and our luggage with aplomb; the receptionist, shielded by a plexiglass screen, was affability and charm personified; and just as we were about to be escorted to our room, a member of the management team appeared to bump elbows in lieu of a handshake. At lunch on the terrace, the servers wore masks and plastic gloves but still managed to seem animated and cheerful. And afterward, in the resort’s magnificent spa, we were treated to a tour that was far more comprehensive than mere duty might have required. It’s a truism, but adversity does often bring out the best in people.
Duende, Maison Albar Hotels - L’Imperator, Nîmes, France
A great sommelier doesn’t just compile and curate a distinguished wine list. Instead, when this métier is practiced to the highest standards, the sommelier becomes a host or hostess, educator, entertainer and guide. This is exactly what young sommelier Logan Thouillez does for the two restaurants at L’Imperator hotel in Nîmes: L’Impé, a brasserie, and the seven-table Duende, both by Pierre Gagnaire. The wine list at Duende was built to showcase five exceptional winemakers from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. The most exciting thing to do here, however, is to let Thouillez make a wine pairing with each course, since his knowledge is ignited by his imagination. We were immediately impressed by one of the most original Roussillon wines we’ve ever sampled, a 2018 Domaine de Nénu rosé, served with a deconstructed bouillabaisse. Thouillez’s choices grew bolder as the meal progressed, culminating with a biodynamic and oak-aged 2017 Domaine Ostertag Zellberg Pinot Gris with a cold dish of mussels and sea snails with cucumber in a sauce of Pélardon cheese.
Though Marugal has created some of the more distinctive hotels in Europe since it launched in 2003 — including Palacio Solecio, Málaga; Torralbenc, Menorca; URSO Hotel & Spa, Madrid; and Akelarre, San Sebastián — the company remains under the radar. That’s because it is a consultancy and operational service provider. “Our goal never was to be a public hotel brand; we’re strictly business to business,” says Marugal’s Spanish-American founder, Pablo Carrington. “A hotel should distill the essence of the place where it’s located and tell a story,” he says. “Design is very important to our properties, too, but it can’t be design for design’s sake. Our design is function driven.” Carrington insists that luxury meant much the same thing to everyone in the hotel business until the late 1980s. But today, with exponential growth of boutique hotels, the two primary denominators of luxury are space and service. Carrington speculates that people will travel less compulsively in the post-COVID world. “More than ever, sophisticated travelers will want hotels with a soul,” he says.
Devour Tours, San Sebastián, Spain
Eating well is a primary reason for visiting San Sebastián, the Spanish city known for its pintxo bars and many Michelin-starred restaurants. A food tour there was a highlight of our visit, due chiefly to the charm of our English-speaking guide, Ania Wielechowska. She began our pintxo-and-wine tour with a fun lesson on the Basque language, so we could say a proper “thank-you.” Our tastings began with fermented apple cider, Donostia’s most famous beverage, and she taught us how to pour it, from high above the glass. Over three hours we visited six of San Sebastián’s well-regarded bars, trying all manner of pintxos: mussels in a picante tomato sauce: mussels in vinegar and onion; various styles of Ibérico ham; cubes of Idiazábal, an unpasteurized sheep milk cheese; and the famous “La Gilda,” a skewer of green olives, anchovies and a guindilla pepper. Ania’s enthusiasm for Basque cuisine was infectious, for she talked even the least adventurous of us into trying the night’s most peculiar pairing: fresh anchovies slathered with blueberry jam!