As I peered down at the glimmering city of Bangkok below -- the "sky train" that appeared a miniature toy set and the cars that looked like tiny gold bugs in toothpick-thin streets -- as I tried to forget that a frail metal rail was all that separated me from a half-mile tumble of doom, my thoughts turned to director Gus Van Sant.
It was all the movie maker's doing that I was dining up here at a glamourous rooftop restaurant in the clouds that lacking windows, walls, and roof was a setting straight out of my nightmares.
When I'd mentioned to Van Sant a while back that I would be traveling to Thailand's chaotic capital, his response was immediate: "Go to Vertigo."
Prone to dizzyness a spinning woozyness often kicked off by heights I didn't like the very sound of it.
"Great restaurant on top of the Banyan Tree Hotel. Open air. On the 61st floor."
"An open-air restaurant on the 61st floor?"
"Yeah. Incredible view. Nothing there but a rail. And the waiters are racing up and down stairs carrying big trays and Asian girls are teetering around on stilettoes. Really wild. You gotta go."
"Right, Gus. I'm a dizzy klutz even on ground level. No way would I go there. Not even with a parachute."
"You're a travel writer, Melissa! It's your duty!"
"I'm a travel writer with a deep-rooted fear of heights and a realistic appraisal of my physical capabilities that overcomes any sense of duty," I said. "No way, Gus. No way."
Typically low-key Van Sant was insistent and wouldn't hang up until I promised to check it out.
True to my word, I promptly did check it out finding a photo of Vertigo on the Internet. The mere sight of the tippy-top restaurant shaped like a ship sailing into the sky made my heart palpitate madly and convinced me to never step near the place. I'd once stayed on the 30th floor of the Conrad Tokyo, and actually grew to adore the high-altitude getaway, but Vertigo was twice as high. Besides the Conrad had walls.
"No way," I said to myself, taking in the picture of Vertigo with another shudder. "No way."
Van Sant, however, had planted a meddlesome seed: over the next year, I had countless dreams about shooting up elevators and dining in this restaurant in the sky dreams from which I awoke in a cold sweat, although they were surprisingly thrilling. I became obsessed with the place, and at the mention of Bangkok I'd ask total strangers, "Have you been to Vertigo?" only to hear the same raves I'd heard from Van Sant.
In recent months, outside forces seemed to point me there. Penguin Books commissioned a book about the changing face of Asia, which meant I'd be traipsing about skyscrapered cityscapes where hotels shoot up to stories in the high double digits, and I would be forced to come to grips with my fear of heights.
And besides, I'd recently stayed in my first Banyan Tree hotel the fabulous Banyan Tree al-Areen in Bahrain. That stay was so over-the-top wonderful, that it sold me on this Singapore-headquartered "chain" where at most of their resorts, the hotel "rooms" are actually stunning villas with private pools.
Determined to conquer my fear and live up to my duty (and to check out more Banyan Trees) and bolstered by the fact that photographer Steve Warner would escort me -- I decided to take the plunge (so to speak) and dine at Vertigo, arranging to stay at the hotel upon which it resides, the Banyan Tree Bangkok. The rooftop dinner at Vertigo would be the grand finale of a week of traveling -- to Macau and Hong Kong.
And then I began shooting off my mouth -- announcing to everyone that I'd soon dine in the clouds, and shoving photos of Vertigo (which suddenly appeared in every travel mag I picked up) into the face of anyone within shoving distance, while loudly boasting that yes, believe it or not, I would soon be hanging out there on the sixty-first floor.
Before long, I was waking in the middle of the night, screaming "Noooo! Dear God! What have I done?" And that was before I even got to Macau and Hong Kong.
Once Europeans conquered their "world is flat" phobia, China had a hard time keeping the foreigners out. In the 1500s, Portuguese traders and missionaries sailed in to Macau -- a hopping port in the silk trade -- claiming it as a colony. The British later pushed into Chinese lands, claiming nearby Hong Kong as their colony. (Even the Japanese moved in, grabbing Taiwan). Hong Kong's dramatic rise as international port (and finance center) eclipsed that of Macau, which became a sleepy gambling getaway. The British handed back Hong Kong to China in 1997, and the Portuguese gave back Macau two years later.
Both territories are now officially part of China, but they are special "autonomous regions" and governed independently. STOP ONE: MACAU THE LAS VEGAS OF ASIA WITH A PORTUGUESE TWIST
There's only one problem with Macau: it's such a cutting-edge destination that, until recently, few non-Asians had heard of it. To brag to an American that you were jaunting off to Macau was to hear "Wow, I've never been to South America!" or "Hmm, Macau isn't that an exotic bird?"
In 1999, when the Portuguese returned Macau to China, this twelve-square-mile territory was mostly a backwater famous for pastel-colored houses that were three stories tops. Now it's the fastest-growing tourist destination in the world: the number of tourists skyrocketed to 27 million last year. The reason: the government recently opened up gambling concessions and Las Vegas hotels from the Wynn to the Venetian are swooping in. As a result, Macau has shot up from a city of lowrises to a city of racing skyscrapers almost overnight.
Macau's history lives on: In old taoist temples, worshippers burn swirling spirals of incense and have fortunes told by tossing sticks. Old Portuguese churches now often conduct services in Tagalog for the Filipino workers who fill the pews, and the paintings of Mary and Jesus may look rather different than those in the West (bottom middle). Visitors can stay at Portuguese historical sites converted to hotels such as the hilltop fortress turned five-star sleepery Pousada Sao Tiago.
The territory where the local culture and gene pool blends Asian with Portuguese is still choc-a-bloc with 17th-century chapels alongside even older Chinese taoist temples, but it's Macau's new identity that's put it on the Western map: with little competition elsewhere on the continent, Macau is now "the Las Vegas of Asia" although that billing isn't quite accurate. As Warner put it, "Las Vegas is soulless, while Macau is dripping with history, and if you're bored in Las Vegas you can't just shoot over to Hong Kong on a fast boat."
With all the money being pumped into it, Macau is expanding in every way: even its land size keeps increasing thanks to land reclamation. The horizontal spread is best illustrated along the recently "created" Cotai Strip that physically connects two small islands: tens of billions of dollars are being sunk into development and a dozen high-end hotels are going in. Already home to the vast 3000-room Venetian the Venice-inspired casino-hotel with Renaissance-like ceiling paintings and an indoor canal -- and the months-old Four Seasons next door, the strip is home to two other megaprojects just breaking ground: the Atlantis-inspired Dream Land (with a Hard Rock Hotel, Hyatt Regency, Grand Hyatt and more) and Studio City, where another half dozen big names hotels are set to outdazzle each other.
What I hadn't realized until I got there is that Macau is growing vertically too. Flashy designer hotels of thirty floors and more with names like the Sands and the MGM Grand have shot up everywhere in the last couple years. Which meant that, already fretting about the dinner at Vertigo, I'd first have to contend with my acrophobia in Macau.
Sleepy no more: Macau is a flurry of construction with a dozen skyscraping luxury hotels going in. Between wild designs, the neon flash and pizazz, and the sheer volume of development underway it's hard not to jaw drop. The Wynn Hotel (top left) led the Las Vegas pack in and wows the tourists hourly, when a golden "tree of prosperity" rises in the lobby, and gamblers throw money at it before they throw money at the tables. The Lisboa has Macau's biggest casino and 24-hour entertainment.
The entry into the MGM Grand is so visually overwhelming with a sculpture by Dali in the middle, a huge orange petal
chandelier by Dale Chihuly hanging above, a dramatic wall of illuminated Chihuly sketches to the left, and an entire psychedelic hallway that showcases his blowings in neon colors -- that upon checking in I was dumbstruck and didn't notice the floor on which our room was located.
Then I looked straight ahead to find a sight just as spellbinding: the grand covered courtyard decorated like a movie set of downtown Lisbon -- the Portuguese capital that once held Macau in its colonial portfolio. Peering into chic restaurants, bars, and arched entrances to the sprawling casino, I didn't think to notice the number on the room key.
It wasn't until just before I stepped on the elevator that I looked and it registered: yikes, we were booked on the 28th floor. The elevator whizzed up so quickly, however, that my phobia, which typically kicks up when the elevator rises more than five inches, didn't have time to sink in. Upon swinging open the door, I was so taken by the fetching room with a bathtub behind glass and a dιcor of golds, bronzes and grays -- that by the time I gazed out the window, the view of a bridge stretching across the Pearl River only enthralled me.
I didn't know it would be so easy, but my fear of heights had been conquered, and I shed any anxieties about the upcoming rooftop dinner in Bangkok.
After sightseeing Chinese temples and gardens, colonial fortresses and chapels, (See Macau: Top Ten) and a day feasting on Portuguese food stuffed shrimp bigger than lobster tails, seafood soup, baked bacalau, chorizo in brandy, spice-infused African chicken, crab casseroles, melted goat cheese with honey, and crepes flamed tableside after a night feasting on nouveau Chinese (all vegetarian, no MSG) and after washing down both meals with plenty of fine Portuguese wine (widely available and decently priced), we were off to a rollicking fun start, a festiveness further enhanced when Warner wandered into MGM's snazzy casino, where he reported that's he'd doubled his money at the roulette table (though he never would say how much). Spending the next day visiting old cemeteries and wandering through Macau's most compelling museums (one history, one art, and one about wines, including tasting of fine ports), I
didn't even cringe when stepping into the elevator of the Macau Tower.
No problem at all.
It wasn't until after the doors slid shut, and we began the ascent up and up, that I noticed that the elevator was glass. By the time the doors opened onto the observatory on the 59th floor, I felt all hyperventilatey. While Warner ran around shooting the views, I hovered close to the elevator, spinning. The sight of bungee jumpers strapping into harnesses for their elasticized fall from the top the tower is the world's highest from which to spring off gave me the willies; so did the observatory's floor, much of it being see-through -- offering a view 59 floors down that I didn't want to drink in.
When I recalled that the Vertigo was even higher, I nearly passed out.
By the time the elevator landed on ground level again, I was seriously considering racing to the next phone and canceling the rooftop dinner in Bangkok.
I didn't get around to it though, being kept busy running around to the casinos to see their assorted acts. At the Venetian, we took in an amazing show of the resident troupe Cirque du Soleil whose nightly performances are part dance, part circus, pa
rt special effects theatre, and the drama often unfolds up overhead -- where air balloons float down from the ceiling and bicyclists ride upside down. Waltzers take to the floor nightly at the Lisboa, Macau's highest hotel and just outside the Wynn, every hour, a huge disc on the floor emblazoned with the signs of the zodiac pulls apart and amid lights and dramatic music, a golden oak rises from the floor: it's the Tree of Prosperity, believed to bring good luck to gamblers, though it had no such effect on me.
And by our last night, spent eating tapas, drinking Portuguese wines and hanging out in a suite at Pousada Sao Tiago, which shoots up a whopping three floors I felt confident again; I shrugged off my flipout at the Macau Tower as a result of the earlier tasting of port, not a portent of upcoming disaster.
But then we went to Hong Kong.
Elevator-free Pousada Sao Tiago where rooms wind this way and that across three stories -- grounded me. Built into a 17th century fortress, the hotel -- a popular place to take in tapas on the tree-shaded terrace -- boasted suites with leather floors, abalone tiles in the bathroom, a TV in the mirror over the sink, and a shower that transformed into a wondrous steam bath.STOP TWO: HONG KONG A GLASSY PARADISE
Since Hong Kong is a mere hour-long boat ride away, we couldn't visit Macau without stopping into China's other nearby
autonomous territory; those in a rush can grab a copter and be there in twelve minutes. Well-known as a shopping haven and financial center, Hong Kong, I knew, would be a pulsing metropolis of highrises, but I didn't know how high these babies would shoot; Manhattan seemed miniature compared to this futuristic glasscape that was surprisingly clean and well-organized, and where locals dress flashier than those in Paris or Milan.
Glamour-magnet Hong Kong is also dripping with luxury hotels, and Warner and I checked out the local offerings of two chains that we hadn't yet tried: the Shangri-La, the lavish Chinese-owned chain, and W, Starwood's hipster brand, which boasted the brand-spanking newest hotel in town.
It wasn't until we walked into the art-wrapped and curving marble-staired lobby of the Island Shangri-La, where a string quartet of lovely Asian women was playing, that I discovered the hotel where we were staying our first is not just tall it's the tallest hotel on Hong Kong Island.
Being as I was only half-awake, that reality didn't fully set in until we entered our room on the 32nd floor, which spilled a fabulous view of Victoria Harbor and skyscrapers way down below. Between the basket of fruit and the welcome tea served in a basket of a tea cozy between the muted colors, understated beauty, delicate artwork, and elegant bathroom (with a TV just over the deep tub), the height didn't faze me a bit.
Until, that is, the window washers dropped by: their appearance literally sent me into a tizz. Dashing down to the sixth floor, I instantly recovered, wandering past the dramatic entrance of Cafι Too, lined with towering jars of fruits and oils infused herbs (where the breakfast buffet is an amazing feast), and the swanky Lobster Bar and Grill done up in many shades of blue (where live jazz piano is performed at night) and onto the terrace, where nearby buildings shot up like a post-industrial Redwood Forest.
And looking up at these striking towers some of them geometric interpretations (like a kuala climbing up a tree on the Australian embassy) -- I was overcome by a sense of surreal serenity that seemed to emanate from this glasscape that allowed only a glimpse of blue sky, which itself looked artificial, as though it had been painted in. I made peace with this altitudinous man-made creation, perhaps for the first time appreciating such a sight, as I stood there looking up in true awe.
One quality that sets the Island Shangri-la apart is the abundance of gorgeous Asian-themed artwork that fills the hotel 915 paintings to be exact but the topper is the gigantic Chinese painting that starts in the atrium on the 40th floor and rises up a full 16 stories: it's the world's largest Chinese landscape painting says the Guinness World Book of Records.
And the bubble elevator affords a fantastic view of the huge painting as you glide up to 56th floor since, like the one at the Macau Tower, the bubble elevator is made of glass. Worse, what would have been a quick trip was greatly lengthened by Warner, who upon entering the bubble elevator, casually leaned back against the buttons a faux pas resulting in a stop at every floor on the way up.
The Island Shangri-La's bubble elevator gives a spectacular view of the world's largest Chinese landscape mural. It took 40 artists six months to complete the 167-foot-high mural on silk.
Frankly, I wanted to jump off the upward-bound "people mover" each time the door opened, but restrained myself, not wanting to tip off the kindly PR person Leanne, who was giving us a personal tour, about my crippling fear. Nevertheless, it was obvious I was goofy when I staggered out of the elevator and unsteadily followed her towards Petrus, the renowned French restaurant of chandeliers, impressionist paintings, 18-karat gold plates and award-winning food.
With 1,500 varieties of wine to choose from and some 12,000 bottles on hand at last count, Petrus said to have the best views in Hong Kong -- is famous for its wine tastings, and I was walking like I'd just been to one, or a few in rapid succession. The elevator ride had so done me in that the hallways didn't even look straight, instead appearing to curve but thankfully Leanne pointed out that the appearance wasn't merely a vertiginous hallucination: there are no straight hallways in the entire hotel: it's designed like an oval, since Chinese superstition holds that "dead end" rooms like those at the end of a straight hallway are a magnet for ghosts.
Noticing my trepidation at stepping into the "bubble-lator" again, Leanne suggested we take non-glass elevators for the rest of the tour, and my head stopped swirling as we took in the Library, the swimming pool over which skyscrapers hovered like a modernist sculpture, and elegant suite after elegant suite all with stunning art work, murals and paintings set into walls and all affording dazzling views, which I duly admired from afar. By the time we got to the ground floor and the patisserie where they serve high teas (both English and Asian varieties), I had fully recovered from the spins.
But then Warner and I embarked on a whirlwind city tour, past the art galleries off Hollywood Road, through street markets where they peel tangerines for skins used in traditional Chinese medicine, while tossing away the tangerines themselves. Led by our guide Tom, I fearlessly stepped up on the escalators that rose past street-side temples and trendy international restaurants, and we darted into pharmacies where bat wings and birds nests were weighed out for medical treatments, and deer tails and dried seahorses were piled behind glass. After a dim sum lunch, Tom led us on to the high point of the day, so to speak.
The funicular which travels at about a 45 degree angle up Hong Kong's highest hill.
The problem wasn't the funicular ride. It was what you do when you're out of the funicular that set me a-spin: you walk around on the open-air viewing overlooking Hong Kong to the north, sparkling scrapers, and to the south, a thick green forest covering steep hills, punctuated by the occasional villa owned by one of Hong Kong's super-rich. The view was spectacular, but a three-second glimpse again kicked off another near panic attack, and I again questioned what would happen at Vertigo.
After taking the funicular down to lower altitudes, we stopped at a temple thick with incense smoke. On a whim, I bought the "Chinese Astrology Deluxe Good Fortune Pack" with a jade necklace, jade carvings, a lucky gold card, a mantra and a small carrying pouch -- a set which the saleslady assured me would protect me from all harm and bring me fabulous luck. The question was whether it would keep me from humiliation because I was already feeling deep shame at what was looking inevitable: I had to cancel the dinner. Clearly I was not ready for Vertigo; clearly I would never be.
That evening, however after a trip through the pristine subterranean mall of high-end stores that wove underneath the
hotel and a ride on the squeaky clean subway and a stroll through the litter-free and dazzling downtown, where the locals all looked like they'd stepped off the cover of Vogue, I was once again intoxicated by this gorgeous city, feeling that same serenity I'd felt that afternoon gazing up at the edifices towering like sparkling mountains.
Warner was wowed during our stroll through downtown too being struck by the women: he proclaimed that Chinese women (not the Thai women, as he'd previously asserted) were the most beautiful in the world; I happily noted that unlike the Thai gals, the Chinese rarely noticed him, and not a one had sidled up to slip him her number, an hourly phenomenon in Thailand that really grates on my nerves.
While Warner kept gawking, I returned to loftier thoughts, and I decided for once and for all to kick my irrational fears and carry on with the plan to dine at Vertigo.
But then we went to W Hong Kong.
It promised to be trendy, fashionable and hip: W Hong Kong had only a few weeks before thrown open its doors for a "soft opening" and everyone who learned we'd be staying at the latest hotel of the chain famous for "non-traditional
luxury" cocked an eyebrow and asked for a report. Had they talked to us the first hour we were there, they would have gotten an entirely different report than the one we would have given when we shuffled off the next morning feeling like dinosaur dorks.
It has started off swimmingly: we left the Island Shangri-La in W's Audi Q7, and sped over to Kowloon a connected island, where dredge ships pulled into the harbor.
W's valets and bellhops if such these handsome black-clad guys with headsets could be called were friendly, and once we stepped inside the entry area off to the right is a gleaming mall of designer shops -- the "Wow Factor" was high. The elevator, I noticed with alarm, was glass, but luckily it only went to the 6th floor, and besides the video flashing from the elevator floor gave you something to look at besides the view.
Behind the reception desk on the 6th floor, the wall was illuminated with a flashing pink flower pattern, and lovely shell-like shapes hung from the ceiling in the bar off to the right; between the dancing shadows and scultpures hanging about, W Hong Kong emanated a feeling of being an edgy art gallery/club.
"Cooool," I cooed to Warner, who nodded in agreement.
Warner snapped these shots of W's Living Room, the view and our "Marvelous" room pre-photo black out. Photos: Steve Warner
Happily, our room was on the 16th floor only millimeters off the ground compared to the previous heights from which we'd viewed the world. The elevator, this one not glass, opened on white bookcases filled with faux books painted white; the room number was displayed on sheet music propped on a music stand.
The room -- with an IPod station, a 42-inch flat panel TV in the bedroom, and another TV over the bath -- had arty touches splashed throughout, from the pale mural of butterflies on the wall to the cut-out paper shade on the lamp; the view of ships and boats in reds and greens added a festive touch as if custom-ordered. Furnishings and fixtures were stylish from the deep rectangular sink to the artfully-arranged "Munchie Box" which included such novelties as cannisters of oxygen spray.
Wanting to try some oxygen, I looked everywhere for the price list, finally calling downstairs to ask where to find it.
"It's in the 'Munchie Box,'" said the girl on the other end.
"It's not in the Munchie Box," I said.
She put me on hold and soon was back. "The price list is in the Munchie Box."
"But it's not there."
"It's in the Munchie Box," she repeated.
"No, it's not. Could you send another price list?"
She promised to do so, but it never arrived.
The luggage didn't arrive either after waiting over an hour, I finally called downstairs to request its delivery.
And then we noticed the deal with the water.
I admit that I'm spoiled. Staying in the finest hotels in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, I'm accustomed to amenities. The plush robes, the nice toiletries, the great beds, superior pillows, down comforters and fine cotton sheets those are now a given at every luxury lodging. Stays in Asia (such as those at the Shangri-La and MGM Grand) usually include
complimentary breakfasts -- mind-boggling buffets with fantastic cheeses, cured meats, salmon and seafood, exotic fruits, glazed pastries and loaves of home-made bread, omelettes cooked to order, creamy yogurt and muesli, alongside noodles and dim sum, for starters.
In many highend sleeperies in Asia and the Middle East, you're greeted with a welcome drink, as well as a fruit basket or a tray of glossy chocolates or honeyed pastries; check-ins are often in-suite; internet may be complimentary, in some trendy joints like the Murano long distance calls are so cheap as to be free.
W Hong Kong came through on the robes, the nice toiletries (theirs' from Bliss), and the sumptuous bed and bedding; the press kit conveniently stored on an USB key, a very smart touch came in a purple bag along with a tube of luscious Bliss lemon and sage body butter, a W t-shirt and a W baseball cap with the embroidered message "Well, hello there!"
Whether the "W" of the "W" chain stands for "wow" or "wild" or even "Well, hello there" I'm not sure, but, as Warner noted, the W definitely doesn't stand for "water." I don't recall staying before at one luxury hotel in Asia that didn't offer at least a bottle or two of complimentary H20.
"What does this notice say?" asked Warner, thrusting a bottle of Voss in my face, pointing at the paper collar.
"It warns that those who drink it will pay." And the price tag was over eight bucks.
"Call and ask where they put the complimentary kind." I called; there wasn't any complimentary kind.
Everything at W Hong Kong has hip-n-trendy names rooms and suites were divided into categories like "Fantastic," "Marvelous," and "Wow." Whatever one thinks of the place, it's definitely a colorful alternative to the typical luxury hotel. Photos: W Hong Kong
Most W packages don't automatically include breakfast either, despite rates on par with most of Hong Kong's poshest hotels. Little things like that began to chink away at the experience. But the clincher was the place was so cool as to be frosty; outside of the kind staff at the concierge stand called the "Whatever, Whenever" desk and the sweet valet guys, the place had a knack for making us feel like we weren't deemed hip enough to be seen there.
That evening, after searching an outdoor market for soothsayers who use birds to tell fortunes (we never found them) and instead hanging out at a tea shop where some teas opened up into flowers, and some tea cups changed colors when warmed, I wanted to check out the in-hotel scene. Slipping on a satin off-the-shoulder number, I headed for the "Living Room" W's high-ceilinged bar with the shell sculptures hanging down and a reflective butterfly mural catching the light.
The bar was nearly empty, but I'd heard Hong Kong's nightlife starts late. Settling down with a glass of wine, I began jotting impressions how the sixth floor was all about shadows and light play. A second server appeared, introduced herself, and gave me a once-over checking out my notebook and outfit; I wasn't sure if she thought I was a "working girl" or if she wanted to point me to a nursing home or the YMCA. Despite my suspicions that she was a spy, she seemed friendly enough, asking, "Can I get you a glass of water?" Foolishly, I said yes thinking a glass of water meant a glass of tap water or some form of free water like bartenders often give back in the States, only to have the bottle of Voss delivered and opened before I could protest thereby doubling the bill. Having just dropped nearly $30 for a glass of wine and a "glass of water," I wandered downstairs, where outside the red-wrapped restaurant Fire, I fell into a conversation with British investment bankers about the state of the world.
The only soothsayer we found in Hong Kong's Temple Street Market had an appointment, but we did find decks of groovy playing cards. These samples from the "Old Calendar" and "Old Photos" decks put out by Chinese card makers HCGPK.
Back in the room, I found Warner dressed up and weirded out.
"Went looking for you at the bar," he said, looking bummed. "Wanted a scotch, but everybody was eyeing me. I felt like I was being given a 'cool test' and that I was seriously flunking it. This place makes me feel generationally-challenged. When they look at me, they seem to be thinking, 'Oh Dad, just stay up in your room!'"
The next morning's tour hammered home that idea.
To be fair, W Hong Kong hasn't had its grand opening. To be fair, PR Gal was under pressure: bigwigs from Starwood were in town for a meeting. To be fair, I was cranky having tossed, turned, and shuddered all night thinking about the upcoming dinner at Vertigo. To be fair, W has every right to project whatever image it wishes and to cater to a hipster elite. To be fair, it's definitely a novel take on the luxury idea. To be fair, I think both PR Gal and I felt badly by the end over how bizarrely our interaction had gone. To be unfair, this was the strangest hotel tour I've even taken and it highlighted how thoroughly unprepared I was for the rooftop dinner in Bangkok.
The lounge music was already thumping the next morning when PR Gal met us for coffee. The meeting started badly: her hand was so delicate that when I shook it, I heard the bones crunch. In case there had been a question, she instantly confirmed that we'd come to the wrong place.
"Musicians, fashion models, photographers, artists, entertainers between 25 and 45," she said, when I'd asked who was the hotel's target group. She gave Warner and I a closer assessment. "Even up to 55 is OK." She looked at us more closely. "Well, even older is all right," she said hesitantly, "if they have a youthful frame of mind."
"Ah," I thought. Even though we fell in the age range before it was extended in our honor we didn't have a youthful frame of mind. If only I'd tried the oxygen in the Munchie Box I might have looked and felt more youthful.
I confirmed with her that this was the first W in Asia, and mentioned I'd seen a sign for another W coming in on Macau, saying the company appeared to be growing by leaps and bounds.
"Melissa," she said, "if you're going to ask such detailed questions I'm going to have to arrange an interview with the management." (In fact, I'd already requested one, but the request was disqualifed after I embarrassed myself by mentioning the name of W's founder, who, I was informed, was ancient history.)
So I stopped asking questions. And soon Warner was ordered to stop taking shots. I'd thought he'd been cleared to photograph the place, but PR Gal was ticked when he did especially after he shot one of her, glaring into his lens.
"There are photos in the press pack," she said.
Then she backpedaled. Well, he could take photos on the sixth floor. Which, I pointed out, happened to be the floor we were on. Well, photos of some of the sixth floor. After a few moments of asking permission to take every shot with answers like "Hmmm, well, no
" Warner packed up his camera, ignoring her occasional demands to "Take a picture of that!"
The tour was growing rather chilly, all the more when PR Gal asked Warner where he hailed from.
"I'm a hog farmer from Kansas," he replied with a "Boy Howdy" expression; you could nearly see him in overalls, a blade of wheat hanging out of his mouth.
PR Gal repressed a shudder, and changed the topic to W Hong Kong's dιcor, which she noted is nature-themed.
"For instance," she said, pointing at an oversized bug sculpture on the wall, "that is a mosquito."
Inside the restaurant Kitchen, she pointed out an assemblage of coat hooks on a wall. "And these are hooks," PR Gal explained, "where you can hang your dreams."
The mural behind W's dramatic 76th floor swimming pool was nature-themed, but the view sure wasn't.
With Warner branded a loser, it was now my turn, an opportunity that arose at the outdoor swimming pool perched on the 76th floor. Taking twenty steps out of the elevator, and looking at this quasi-infinity pool that gave the illusion swimmers could dog paddle off into the sky, I suddenly felt like I'd found myself on the wing of an airplane. Buildings below and except for the tower next door coming in, which will be the world's third tallest buildings were way, way down below, looked like rinky dink Lego towers. I could have used a hit of oxygen about then, because I think I'd stopped breathing.
"Look at that mural," exclaimed PR Gal, pointing behind me.
"I can't," I snapped, presuming a photo of it was in the press pack. I couldn't turn my head, I couldn't move: my heart was racing, my head was spinning, I was having the worst attack of acrophobia in my life. To her credit and my great relief, PR Gal quickly pulled me back to the elevator, but I still felt woozy in the 72nd floor Bliss Spa where PR Gal noted they were famous for their triple oxygen treatment, a therapy I was thinking I might need to revive. Off to one side was the clever nail bar, which looked like a candy shop and the utensils were delivered via a moving sushi bar.
W Hong Kong's Bliss spa. The nail bar was tres cool the bottles were displayed on the wall like a color-packed sculpture. Photos: W Hong Kong.
My spinning continued as PR Gal opened the door to the "E Wow Suite."
"Is E Wow for 'Electronic Wow'?" asked Warner.
PR Gal sniffed as though he'd just stepped on a cow paddy.
"E Wow is for Extreme Wow," she said. I felt like we'd failed yet another test, this one exposing our lack of fluency in W speak.
Window-wrapped and heavy on the blacks in the bedroom, with an impressive oversized corner aquarium, glittery black
glass table, and bar in the living area, a windowside tub big enough for an orgy and a toilet all done up in sparkles, the extra-spacious super-suite was certainly unusual. (There wasn't a photo in the press pack, however.)
Another journalist, who she seemed very Vogue-ish, popped in and she must have been extremely-wowish herself (albeit at the far end of the acceptable age range) since the general manager himself was showing her the Extreme Wow Suite.
"Isn't it fantastic?" she raved.
"Yeah, Elton John would just love it," said Warner.
"Except he's too old," I thought. Then again Elton probably does oxygen and has a youthful frame of mind.
PR Gal pointed out the Munchie Box actually a wooden tray brimming with nicely packaged temptations; this one included the price list.
"The great thing about the Munchie Box," said PR Gal, "is you can pick it up and take it with you to bed."
"It would be cheaper," whispered Warner, scanning the price list, "to pick up a call girl and take her with you to bed."
For the rest of the tour the Fantastic Suites, the Marvelous Rooms and everything else, I could only think of one thing: the upcoming dinner at Vertigo in Bangkok. There was no way I could go. And since I hadn't cancelled the reservation there or at the Banyan Tree, I would now have to back out in person.STOP THREE: BANGKOK COMMANDING HEIGHTS
As the plane lifted off in the direction of Bangkok, I was in a fine snarly mood. I'd wreally wanted to wrave about W, now despite the flashy design I was inclined to whine. Caught in a brief rain storm, my hair had frizzed out and my Cleopatra do now looked like an unruly pyramid. Warner who'd dressed up for the W tour was now wearing jeans and a red Indians t-shirt, looking like he indeed might be a hog farmer.
Admittedly, his threads didn't matter to many Thai gals: since he has all his teeth, all his hair, both legs and killer blue eyes the guy is downright handsome he stands out in Thailand, where many love-seeking foreigners are maimed, kinky, bald, losers, in their late nineties, and/or weigh in at over 400 pounds.
As much as I adore the kingdom, it sickens me how Thai women are so brazen in trying to pick him up: pharmacists, cashiers, every waitress in every Thai restaurant we've ever eaten, sneakily try to slip him their number the minute I look away; a sleazy Air Asia stewardess palmed him a steamy note from the aisle the month before, and I won't even get into the nearly pornographic come-ons of a certain Thai housekeeper, who I'd recently caught crawling on the floor supposedly vacuuming while flashing him looks so wanton they made Jezebel seem tame. I'd been thrilled to note that women in both Macau and Hong Kong mostly ignored him, but now we were heading to turf that inflates his ego to the very unbearable size.
I assessed his outfit again.
"You are not wearing that to the Banyan Tree," I hissed.
"I'll change at the airport. Would you chill?"
I couldn't. I hate to wuss out but I had no other choice but to cancel the reservation at Vertigo. Why had I nabbed an assignment for this rooftop dinner? Why in the course of arranging for Warner to take shots had I told the hotel what I was doing? Why had I bragged to everyone in my rolodex that yes, I would be dining there? Why had Gus Van Sant ever told me about the place? Because now I was going to have to wimp out. The 76th floor swimming pool freakout at W Hong Kong had convinced me of that and I shuddered at the memory.
One of the dozen eating spots at Banyan Tree Bangkok.
At the airport, Warner ran off to change money, and I approached the waiting Banyan Tree hostess. The S-series Mercedes Limo was there, the driver spiffed out in white cap, sharp uniform and white gloves. As we glided off towards the Banyan Tree, I looked over at Warner still clad in his blue jeans and red Indians T-shirt.
"There was no time to change," he said sheepishly.
I flashed one of my looks, only to receive a lecture in return.
"Melissa, if Brad Pitt showed up in jeans and a t-shirt nobody would care."
"You're not Brad Pitt."
"It's all about attitude, Melissa."
"You're causing me to have a real bad one towards you."
Our sparring continued the whole ride, but inwardly I was envisioning how I would courteously cancel the dinner at Vertigo and run back to the airport in shame. As the limo turned into the driveway for the Banyan Tree, I gazed up at the 61-story building before us -- a lump in my throat, my stomach knotting up -- as Warner wound up concluding arguments in his defense.
"Look Melissa, nobody is even gonna notice me, much less what I'm wearing. Nobody will even see us when we check in. You are so paranoid."
And then the Mercedes pulled up to the front, the car door was opened, and there stood a dozen of the Banyan Tree's top executives and staff. The general manager. The assistant manager. The head of PR. The media relations executive. The head of food and beverages. And a half dozen more all beautifully-coiffed and wearing the most elegant clothes and beaming the sweetest smiles in what was the warmest welcome we've ever received, and one appreciated all the more since we'd just flunked out of W's cool school.
Then I remembered my hideous frizzed-out pyramid-shaped hairdo. And then I looked at Warner unsuccessfully trying to hide himself and his red Indians t-shirt behind his camera bag. And then I realized that they were there to welcome us to the hotel -- and the dinner at Vertigo and there was no way I could back out of the rooftop dinner on the 61st floor now.
Except for one thing.
"Hope it doesn't rain," said the general manager George as he escorted us into the hotel. "We've had to close Vertigo twenty nights in the past month because of the weather."
I looked up at the gray clouds hovering on the horizon. "Rain!" I silently commanded. "Rain!"
Gray skies, as viewed from the Banyan Tree, promised rain but didn't deliver.
Frazzled and snippety though I'd felt only minutes before, the tension dissipated upon entering the spacious lobby, which looks out onto a tropical garden and where a woman sat lightly tapping on a Thai instrument that's like a xylophone gone exotic. Hostesses escorted us up the elevator for the in-room check-in; distracted by their conversation, I didn't notice how high we were shooting until seconds later, the elevator opened on, eek, the 52nd floor, where candles flickered and the air was scented with sandlewood.
Our rooms were actually "club suites" with a tasteful living room where more candles flickered and incense was burning; on the table stood a bouquet of orchids, a heaping bowl of tropical fruits, a lemongrass welcome drink -- and a bottle of wine. Beyond the turquoise Japanese-like screen sliding door, a lovely mural was painted over the king side bed. The view onto the Chao Phraya River was fantastic and surprisingly didn't make me go weak-kneed, as long as I kept my distance.
After I'd selected the goose down pillows from the pillow menu, the hostess ran through the many percs of the club suite, among them 24-hour use of the executive lounge (where food, booze and wireless internet are free); complimentary drycleaning (four pieces a day); a complimentary 10-minute head and shoulder massage; roundtrip limo to the airport or a 90 minute master massage, personalized letterhead stationary, if desired. Someone arrived bearing a ceramic tray with the welcome gift from the spa -- exfoliating salt scrub; inside the bathroom were cosmetic bags with wood brushes and fine toiletries, in the closet hung four robes two cotton, two satin. At night, sweets appeared bedside along with gifts, such as bundles of incense and sachets.
Banyan Tree rules in the world of amenities, and I was blissed out drinking them in. Including the complimentary water bottles of which stood in most every corner.
After I dashed off to have my hair de-pyramided at the 21st floor spa, known for treatments such as "rain mist," where you are massaged while experiencing a sauna/steam room simultaneously, PR exec Bancha a personable young gent decked out in a fine suit and his equally affable (and well-dressed) colleague "Pop" led us on a tour, including of the two-story presidential suite. It was impressive with two living rooms, a kitchen, and a dining room, and offers such a sweeping, majestic view of the city that to wake up there would make you feel like a king, even if you're a woman.
"Think of the dinner parties we could have here wouldja," said Warner, hovering over the long dining room table that stretched out along the front wall, which was mostly an arching window. I was, however, busy obsessing about the dinner we'd be having in mere hours on the roof. If I could get there.
The hotel's been undergoing a head-to-toe makeover by next year every corner will have been renovated -- and Pop gave us a preview of a whole new wing of flashy contemporary suites igoing in. Chic and decorated in muted gold tones, they epitomized understated luxury with well-thought-out design and a sumptousness that was evident but didn't whack you over the head.
Heightwise, I was doing just fine. I was beginning to think that maybe I could pull off the dinner after all.
Until, that is, I gazed out of the wall-sized window next to a bathtub, and involuntarily shuddered.
Bancha caught it.
"Melissa," he said, looking me straight in the eyes, "you're afraid of heights!"
"Well, a little. Kinda. A wee bit."
"But you have a reservation at Vertigo tonight!"
"And don't I know it. I've been thinking of nothing but for the past month."
I looked out the window again, this time upward. The sky had unfortunately cleared. No sign of rain.
"Are you up for it, Melissa?"
It was the moment I was dreading. The one where I was going to have to fess up and back out.
But I couldn't.
"Well, I certainly hope so."
He flashed me a look both wary, but kind.
"I think we better take you up for a trial run."
Yikes. The moment of truth.
Maybe it was the color: a gorgeous and energizing cobalt blue emanated from the Latitude 59 Bar. For some reason, I didn't have the least bit of fear there even though it was on the 59h floor. Then again, it had walls.
"Ok follow me," said Bancha, leading me up a curved stairway. "Now try the terrace."
I followed him right out on a small open terrace off the bar, barely flinching, and hardly gritting my teeth.
He led me to another flight of stairs, this one entirely open.
"Vertigo's right up there," he said. "Why don't you go check it out while it's light?"
I looked at that flight of stairs, about twenty of them. I'd gotten this far; those open-air steps were all that stood in my way. I tried to lift up my foot. It ignored my command. I tried again. But the psychological barrier was too great.
"Bancha, I'll wait to conquer those stairs tonight."
Frankly, I wasn't sure I could do it and although he reassured me, I knew Bancha wasn't sure I could make it up either.
And that's when I remembered the Chinese Astrology Deluxe Good Fortune kit that I'd bought in the temple in Hong Kong.
Back in the suite, I tried out the salt scrub, took a bath with the scented oils, slipped into a robe, and ripped open the plastic-wrapped Chinese Astrology Deluxe Good Fortune kit. It was no doubt "psychological" as was my phobia but I somehow felt calmer and more confident when I picked up the carved jade pendant on white silver chain, and the smaller jade carvings on yellow strings (with a guide on how to tie lucky knots), and the gold card with a picture of a goddess. Unseen comfort seem to pour out when I opened a small red envelope that held a tiny packet, with a mantra inside (written in Chinese).
Recalling the promise of the temple saleslady that the kit would protect me from harm and bring me fabulous fortune, I placed all the charms in the handy good luck bag of red silk, and slipped the bag into my beaded evening purse, happy that I'd ignored Warner's scoffs when I packed it along with several other evening bags. "It's too small to hold anything," he'd chided. Well, it was the perfect size for carrying the Deluxe Good Luck kit with me to dinner. I slipped on an outfit from India (that Warner hates) and walked out.
Warner gave my outfit a funny look and opened his mouth, then wisely closed it. The charms were indeed working like a charm, and my trust in their powers only increased when one of the hostesses suddenly appeared in the hallway. "Love your outfit," she said.
Warner loved the executive lounge, he noted, as we stepped into the elevator. He'd been up there for the previous hour working on the Internet, eating caviar and drinking scotch.
"How many girls gave you their numbers so far?" I asked.
He looked mystified. "None. Everybody was real friendly they all called me 'Mr. Warner,' but they're really professional here. It's obvious the staff is very well-trained."
The elevator opened on the 59th floor, and we climbed the covered stairs, following my previous walk-through. We crossed the terrace of the Latitude 59 Bar. And there we were -- at the foot of the open-air stairs that led to Vertigo. I pulled my bag close. And I walked up the steps effortlessly.
"Oh my god!" said Warner, as we were seated at the table happily in the center of the terrace, not too close to the rails, so I wouldn't have to fret about fork-dropping from these heights. "This is so cool! Wow! Amazing!" He grabbed his camera, and began taking shots, running up and down stairs that connected the different levels on the terrace, yelling over at me, "This is so incredible!"
It was, I had to admit, truly exhilarating the setting creating a euphoria that I've rarely felt. The lilacs of twilight were deepening, turning into magentas and purples, the inky black of night was just beginning to trickle down over the skyline that spread out below like twinkling jewels. An unusual mix of diners was being led to the tables: formally-dressed older couples in jackets and evening dresses, jean-clad hipsters, young couples in love, tourists from East and West, well-heeled locals; a table of gay Thai men celebrated a birthday to our left, a musician from Ireland and his family dined to our right. And everywhere, everybody was wowwed, swept away in the adrenaline high of hanging out at that height.
Suddenly the soft breeze turned into a gust, rustling the white table clothes. A drop plunked down on my hand. Then another.
"Don't rain!" I commanded. And thanks to my good luck charms, the rain stopped.
Then the procession of food began, each plate arriving under silver dome, each course matched by wine.
The feast opened with a salad of warm goat cheese, smoked duck and pecan, served with a delicate Sauvignon Blanc from Chile.
"Fantastic!" declared Warner.
A puree of butternut squash was presented, the dome pulled off with panache by the waiter, who laughed at our expressions when we noticed that the bowls contained only cubed squash. "And here is the rest," he announced, gracefully pouring in the creamy soup from small silver pitchers.
"Yum!" announced Warner.
For the main course, he opted for sirloin steak, served with an Australian Shiraz/Cabernet, while I went for the roasted Wild Tasmanian Salmon, matched with a glass of Chardonnay from New Zealand.
"This is the best dinner I've ever had in my life," Warner cooed. For me, it was the most perfect, from the beautifully-prepared food to the awesome setting to the impeccable service, which was the finest we"d experienced in years.
After dessert -- a luscious baked cheese cake drizzled with fruit coulis and served with Australian Brut -- I walked over to the bar to check out the view from the highest point of the terrace, passing the table of Thai men en route, and wishing happy birthday to the birthday boy. When I returned to the table, Warner looked odd.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Somebody finally gave me their number."
"Who?" I scanned the crowd trying to assess which gal had been waiting for my brief absence from his side to numerically fling herself on him this time.
"The birthday boy," he said glumly. "I thought you'd enjoy that."
Those charms did indeed have special powers.
The amazing dinner now over, Warner wanted to return to the executive lounge for a nightcap. But I lingered on the rooftop, perching at the bar, where I ordered a glass of dessert wine. As I peered down at the glimmering city of Bangkok below -- the "sky train" that appeared a miniature toy set and the cars that looked like tiny gold bugs in toothpick-thin streets-- as I ignored the fact that a frail metal rail was all that separated me from a half-mile tumble of doom, my thoughts turned to director Gus Van Sant. I tipped my glass in the direction of Portland, silently thanking Gus was directing me here. And then I tipped my glass in the direction of Hong Kong, silently thanking the temple for providing the charms that helped me conquer my fear.
It wasn't until I returned to the suite that I noticed my beaded cocktail bag was still on the bed, the magic charms still wrapped in the silk bag tucked within. Looking at the bag slung over my shoulder, I realized I'd grabbed the wrong purse.Text: Copyright Melissa Rossi, 2008.
Steve Warner photos: Copyright Steve Warner, 2008.
Travel writer and author Melissa Rossi is gallivanting across Asia researching the next book of her What Every American Should Know series for Plume/Penguin Books. The fifth volume of the series, about the Middle East, comes out in December 2008. Photographer and mapmaker Steve Warner, who indeed is Kansas-born (although he isn't a hog farmer), is traveling across Asia with Rossi.Reprinted with permission - www.LuxuryTravelMagazine.com