Recent Articles


By Roger Weatherburn Baker

After three years of renovations costing $176 million, Morocco's legendary world-class hotel in the heart of the ancient imperial city of Marrakech opened its gates to the rich and famous once more on September 29. But this time it's more exclusive than ever.

Enjoying a global reputation as one of the finest hotels in the world, La Mamounia has been a jet set favorite since it opened in 1923. Built on the grounds of a palace and gardens that were a gift of a king 200 years ago to his son Prince Moulay Mamoun, this oasis of luxury has been a Mecca for the wealthy and well-connected for decades.

Located at the foot of the snow-capped Atlas Mountains on the edge of the Sahara Desert, La Mamounia has attracted celebrities from Charlie Chaplin to Tom Cruise, from Franklin Roosevelt to Jacques Chirac, from Charles Aznavour to Elton John.


To read more of this 1,500 word feature please contact the author.

From Babouches to Berbers
Exotic Morocco Beats Expectations

by Roger Weatherburn Baker

Tell someone you're going to Morocco and it doesn't have quite the same reaction as London, Paris or Rome. Morocco is exotic, off the beaten path and a little different. Mention places like Casablanca and Marrakech and romantic images are conjured up as quickly as you can say abracadabra.

Some will see dark-skinned Moors, Arabs and Berbers with colorful turbans and curved swords sweeping across desert sands. Some might imagine mountain fortresses, desert camel trains and crowded kasbahs. Or brown-eyed women in veiled jellabas gliding by on soft-soled babouches.

Hollywood, of course, is mostly responsible for planting these images in our mind. Some of us can still remember Humphrey Bogart saying "Here's looking at you, kid" to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. But since the days of black and white classics, dozens of major motion pictures have been filmed in Morocco from Lawrence of Arabia, to Babel and The Gladiator.

So much so that when some visitors arrive in the country for the first time it's almost with a sense of deja vu. Fueling that sense of returning to the familiar is the fact that dress, customs and practices have remained as unchanged for the most part as the landscape and the walled medinas within it. Morocco is an ancient land and its citizens go about their business pretty much as they have done for centuries, especially in the vast, open countryside or within the teeming city medinas.


To read more of this 1,500 word feature please contact the author.

Inside Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons
England's Top Restaurant Celebrates
a Quarter Century of Two Michelin Stars

by Roger Weatherburn Baker

Cocktails were served on weathered wooden benches on a lawn shaved close enough to be a billiard table. Bees zigzagged over the beds of lavender. Young men in suits hovered within sight of the slightest nod. Bronze sculptures pretended to play croquet.

We were in the grounds of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, the immaculate 15th century manor house deep in England's Oxfordshire countryside that Maitre de la Confrerie de la Chaine des Rottisseurs Raymond Blanc OBE has turned into a 32-room hotel and restaurant generally regarded as one of the best in Europe.

It was the summer of 2009. A vintage year for Monsieur Blanc. He was celebrating the silver anniversary of his fabled eatery, one of few restaurants in the world to hold a two Michelin star rating every year for a quarter of a century, and the only one to train a new Michelin starred chef every one of those 25 years.

We had arrived earlier in the day, wife, son and daughter-in-law in a rented car that begrudged my rusty gear-crushing and was as happy to arrive as we were. We glided past a sentry discreetly hidden in the hedgerow to come to a crunching stop in the hotel's graveled courtyard. Tipped off by the sentry no doubt, a young suit emerged almost before the key was out of the ignition. He scooped up our tired luggage with the kind of respect I had previously thought was reserved only for the latest collection of matching valises from Louis Vuitton.

A bevy of smartly dressed young people greeted us, crowding the small hallway that served as a lobby. After they'd efficiently fussed over our admission rights and deemed us suitably armed with an ample supply of guilt-edged credit cards, we were released to the interior, popping out of the tight little lobby like corks out of champagne bottles.

But once beyond the household guards, we were in a world of understated luxury where all was peace and tranquility. Escorted outside down a brick pathway through Relais & Chateaux award-winning gardens, then inside through badge-reading glass doors and along softly padded corridors, we arrived at our elegant suites, which preeminent British designer Sir Terence Conran described as "a hymn of contemporary style." Light, airy and spacious, each of our rooms had French doors that opened to a charming brick patio and garden. No surprise Le Manoir was voted the #1 Hotel in the British Isles by Conde Nast Traveler USA. We couldn't wait until dinner.

After cocktails on the lawn, we were again escorted, this time into one of Le Manoir's several cozy dining rooms, each a sea of white linens and sparkling silver. We all opted for the ten-course Menu Gourmand, "which gives you the opportunity to savor Raymond Blanc's seasonal specialties."

The summer menu was expertly presented by silent, well-drilled servers as polished as the silver. It featured such delights as a salad of Cornish crab, mango, yogurt and Oscietra caviar; grilled Icelandic halibut with Kalamata olives; roasted Orkney scallops with curry oil and roasted breast of Aylesbury duck. The quality of the deserts, cheeses and wines, of course, kept pace with the star entrees. No one taste smothered another. Each was designed to complement. The result: a harmonious dining experience delicately orchestrated from start to finish. Just what you might expect from a chef acknowledged as one of the finest in the world.

What many don't know is that he almost began at the top of his game. At age 23, Raymond Blanc traveled from his native France to England where his first job was a waiter in a small seaside town. When the chef became ill, he took over. Two years later that restaurant had gained entry into the Michelin Guide. A scant five years more, and Blanc had his own restaurant named Britain's Restaurant of the Year less than twelve months after it opened.

Now aged 60 with dozens of accolades behind him including the Order of the British Empire bestowed by the Queen last year, he is not about to rest on his laurels. "We've just spent 300,000 pounds ($475,000) upgrading our kitchen ranges," he says. "We're going for that third Michelin star."


If you go:

Rooms range from 450 pounds ($720) to 950 pounds ($1,500) per night, including French breakfast.
Sample dinner menus are available from 49 pounds ($78) to 95 pounds ($150) per person. Raymond Blanc's Menu Gourmand is 116 pounds per person ($185).

Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons
Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford OX44 7PD, England
Tel: 011-44-1844-278881

Built for Sultans, Owned by a King
by Roger Weatherburn Baker

First, you pass a brace of tall, courteous doormen willing to relieve you of the burden of even the smallest package. Inside, you're greeted by the "service brigade," a troop of handsome young men and women wearing bright red uniforms and broad smiles who patrol the vast marble lobby 24 hours a day ready to assist any guest in need.

You keep walking, past the Izmir-tiled walls and stuffed Ottoman couches. Ahead through open glass doors you catch a glimpse of manicured gardens and an umbrella-fringed waterside terrace. Within seconds you're outside. And there it is, right in front of you. The Bosphorus. One of the most exotic stretches of water in the world.

Busy with grimy ferries, gleaming white yachts and flash power-boats, the world's narrowest strait connects the Sea of Maramar, the Mediterranean and Europe to the south with the Black Sea and Russia to the north.

To the south, the horizon is punctured by the needle minarets of Islam and the distinctive humped dome of Haghia Sophia, one of the most inspired architectural wonders of the world. To the north, the waterway's banks are lined with elegant 18th century villas known as yahs. Once the summer residences of the grand viziers and other high-ranking court officials, today they're mostly the multi-million dollar homes of rich and famous Istanbulians and Russian oligarchs.

This is the five-star Ciragan Palace hotel, once an official residence of the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. This is a hotel where VIPs are as common as $100 tips. This is a hotel that has accommodated royalty, celebrities and too many movers to shake. This is a hotel with lobby boutiques selling multi-karat diamonds and antique harem lamps. It's hard to imagine the place was a shell not long ago and its bare grounds used by the local soccer team.

Originally constructed of wood in the 16th century, the palace was rebuilt of marble in the 19th century and became the sultan's official residence in 1855. But its rebirth was short lived. As the once enormous Ottoman Empire shrank, so did the influence and power of its rulers. By the early 1900s, the sultans were gone and their palace had become the Parliament Building. As a final indignity, it was devastated by fire in 1910 and soon after its grounds were used as a soccer pitch.

But then along came Kempinski Hotels. In 1990, the international luxury hotel chain, which began in Berlin in 1897 but is now owned by the King of Thailand, began a multimillion dollar restoration project. The marble palace now set among magnificent gardens has ten sumptuous suites, a gourmet restaurant and an adjacent 300-room property for those who can't afford the oil sheik prices of the Palace suites.

There are three reasons for choosing to stay at the Ciragan Palace. It's arguably the best hotel in Istanbul; there are other luxury hotels but this is the only one that includes a palace within its grounds. It has a drop-dead location. And it has an extraordinary restaurant.

This is a hotel that not only has an award-winning dining option, but one that serves individual dishes that have won gold medals. Here amidst stone and marble columns under crystal chandeliers, you can truly dine like a vizier, and I'm not kidding. Listing menu options is boring, I know. But consider these.

Let's start with soup. Your choice might be sour lentil soup with fried eggplant and chickpeas; a dish that originated in Persia during the 15th and 16th century Ottoman period. A second could be trotters soup served with vinegar and garlic, often consumed during the Ramadan fast in Ottoman times. A third might be red gurnard soup with wheat and garden vegetables based on a 1764 recipe from the Sultan's kitchen.

Hot starters include stuffed vine leaves, minced lamb and beef cooked with sour cherries or deep fried beef liver leaves served with red onions. Main courses include oven-baked partridge stuffed with minced chicken, apricot and plums; an oven-baked white onion stuffed with minced meat, pistachio and raisins served with mint-flavored tomato sauce and homemade yogurt; and, of course the gold medal-winning thyme marinated lamb loin served on smoked eggplant puree and Ottoman rice. All served with a stunning collection of international wines.

After all that, if you can make it back to your room without assistance, you're still in good enough shape to consider your pillow menu. Yes, beside every bed is a menu of pillow options for those who prefer hard or soft, eider down or hypoallergenic.

Open the windows and climb into bed. At dawn, an early morning breeze wafting across the Bosphorus will stir the sheer drapes at your window while the calls to morning prayer will stir memories of Byzantium. You will have spent the night like a sultan. Minus access to the harem, of course.

The Ghosts of Castle Stuart

by Roger Weatherburn Baker

"We've all been strangled at one time or another and many of our overnight guests say they've seen and felt things." She smiled shyly, half-expecting me to scoff at her. But I didn't. I knew she was deadly serious and had plenty of reason to be.

Her name was Caroline Stuart, the 30-something daughter of Charles and Elizabeth Stuart, current owners of Castle Stuart, reputed to be one of the oldest and most haunted castles in Scotland.

Built during the time of the clans in 1625, the twin-towered manse is now an eight-bedroom hotel chosen by the actress Helen Mirren for her wedding and by members of the cast of Harry Potter for a Christmas celebration. But tonight it was all about the ghosts.

Caroline was telling castle tales while we waited for dinner to be served. Outside under stormy skies to the west, Scotland's northern-most city of Inverness glimmered in the distance across the steel-gray waters of Beauly Firth. Inside, a log fire crackled in the stone fireplace, its flames flickering shadows on the wood-panelled walls hung with historic oil paintings. The table was set with tartan place settings, antique silverware and glass goblets that shone in the candlelight.

It was an elegant scene that made it hard to imagine the castle has a history of hauntings going back centuries. And that they continue to this day. But Caroline swears the stories are true. So does her father. He's written a book that details his first spine-chilling experience back in 1977. That was the year he acquired the castle that had then been a ruin for more than 300 years.

One night, his story goes, he was alone, working late when he experienced horror first hand. He was halfway up a ladder, delicately probing the ancient stonework for a concealed staircase when suddenly he punched through the stonework and heard a terrible primeval scream.

Scared half to death, he almost fell off the ladder, raced to the castle door, tore it open and dashed to the relative safety of his car outside. He was badly shaken but eventually began to rationalize what had happened. After he calmed down, he realized he'd left his work lights still ablaze. A frugal Scot, he forced himself to go back. Inside, he ran to the ladder, scrambled to turn off the lights then rushed back to the castle door his heart pounding. But this time the door wouldn't open. He was trapped! Ther hairs rose on the back of his neck. He shivered with sudden cold. He pulled and pulled in a desperate panic but the door still refused to budge. Then suddenly it gave in, exploding open toward him with a brute force that smashed his body to the ground. He stagered up and ran.

The next day he was treated for cracked ribs, and his hair had begun to turn prematurely gray. He never told the others working on the castle restoration for fear they would down tools and never return to the site. But Charles, his wife and daughter have had many experiences since. Such as the breath-taking sensation of being strangled in their beds.

No-one since has heard the walls scream. But the dining room's paintings have stirred a shiver or two. They show kilted Jacobite rebels being slaughtered by government red coats at the Battle of Culloden. The infamous conflict took place two and a half centuries ago just a few windswept fields to the south of where we sat. It was a day the flower of Scotland died trying to secure Britain's throne for the Stuart aristocrat Bonnie Prince Charlie. Troops passed by the castle on their way to the battle. Some guests claim they still hear heavy footsteps on the gravel outside. Others claim they hear the groans of the wounded. Some say they've seen a clan soldier on the stairs, his severed head under his arm.

One guest was determined to ignore any scary sounds she might hear by lying in bed on her stomach with the sheets pulled over her head. It didn't help. She felt an icy hand slowly creep across the sheets, grip her shoulder then try to pull her over on her back. She struggled desperately with the chilling force, fighting to keep her head and shoulders buried in the pillow. Slowly, resisting all the while, she was able to slip deeper and deeper under the sheets, inch by terrified inch, until finally the sensation melted away.

From the beginning, owners and tenants of Castle Stuart never lasted very long, sometimes staying in residence only a few days. One day the castle pased into the possession of the Earl of Moray. Before moving in he decided to test the castle's reputation. He offered a reward to anyone willing to spend the night in the East Tower. Big Angus, a local poacher "afraid of neither man nor beast," volunteered. It was to be his downfall. He leapt from the tower's window in the middle of the night to be found in the courtyard the next morning with a look of abject terror frozen on his face.

Now it was my turn. Like Angus, I had volunteered to spend the night in that same room. After dinner, I climbed the nearly one hundred stone steps up the tightly curled spiral staircase. My head spun with Caroline's stories. Already, I began to imagine something sinister lurking behind each dimly-lit curve of the climb. By the time I reached the room I was trying hard not to behave like a nervous wreck.

In bed with the lights off I waited tense and alert. A meagre light shone through the Angus window crowding the room with lumpy shadows. The wind outside the lofty eerie swept whispers around the tower.

Then it was morning. I was still in bed. I had not taken a suicidal leap to the other world. I remembered the whisky I'd had at dinner. This was Scotland, I remembered. Maybe the gods really do smile on those who have a wee dram before retiring. I had drifted off to an undisturbed sleep. Maybe Angus had tried the same remedy but had simply had too much and took a drunken tumble to his death. Or maybe he saw something I didn't. Something or someone who's still there.


If you go:
Rooms average $250 a night, which includes a full Highland Breakfast. A four-course dinner with wine is $75 per person. There is a piper in attendance most evenings. The entire castle can be rented for $3,300 per night.

The castle is a short distance from Inverness airport. Nearby roads indicate the route with brown "historic interest" official direction signs.

Castle Stuart, Petty Parish, Inverness IV2 7JH, Scotland.
Tel: 001-44-463-790-745

The X Man of Haute Cuisine

by Roger Weatherburn Baker

Even four decades later, Ned Kelly recalls a life-changing moment in his childhood very clearly. Growing up in Yonkers one of a tight clan of 12 children born of first-generation Irish-Americans, he remembers when he was about twelve or thirteen he asked his younger brother Peter what game he'd like to play that day. "Restaurants", Peter said. "Let's play Chateau Kelly."

Today, Peter Xavier Kelly is the X Man of Haute Cuisine. Owner of four of the most critically acclaimed restaurants outside Manhattan. Top toque in the affluent New York suburb of Westchester County that sprouts more restaurants than mushrooms in a damp basement. Ned is his particularly affable Director of Service.

Standing in the center of the vaulted glass box that is X2O, Peter's newest culinary success on the banks of the Hudson River in Yonkers, Ned continues. "He actually wrote out a menu," he said, still conveying surprise, "with entrees like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then he handed it to me, and looking at the other kids, tossed me one of mom's dishcloths and said 'take their orders.' " Ned still chuckles at the memory. "I went along with it, " he said, "and asked him what today's special was. He said 'toast', and we all laughed."

Today Peter's making toast of his competition. And laughing all the way to the bank.

The celebrity chef who's been named New York State Restauranteur of the Year began working his way to the top of the food chain at aged 14. While slicing and dicing through various area kitchens, he skewered a degree in Business Administration from Marist College then opened his first restaurant in 1983 at the tenderized age of 23. That restaurant was Xaviars at Garrison, which closed in 2002.

"Even radio signals have trouble finding you in the rugged terrain of Garrison," wrote Cameron Morfit in the New York Times. "We thought Peter might be a little crazy", Ned admitted. " I mean, opening a restaurant miles from anywhere on an old golf course cut in half by a rural road ... but it was a success." So much so, four years later it was followed by Xaviars at Piermont (1987), the Freelance Cafe at Piermont(1989), Restaurant X (1997) and X2O - Xaviars on the Hudson (2007).

All Chef Kelley's prior culinary chateaux pale in comparison with his newest double- decker room with a view housed atop a ferry boat pier built in 1902. Ferries shuttled between here and the New Jersey shore for 53 years before the Tappen Zee Bridge. Now commuter ferries carry passengers to Manhattan's Battery Park.

X2O is a glass, steel and concrete structure with open trusses and decorative ironwork literally suspended over the water. Through its floor to ceiling windows, Gotham's towers twinkle on the horizon downriver to the south. Facing the romantically setting sun across the water to the west are the wooded cliffs of the Palisades.

Outside is stone, water, wood and spectacular vistas. Inside is more of the same. Even the views are represented in muted hues by the subtle, evocative art of the master Hudson River landscape painter Jon Beerman, whose work is also on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Just being beside the river in this elegantly restored historic landmark on a summer's evening is a treat in itself. But, of course, there's more: exceptionally professional service, delightful gourmet innovations and a selection of over 3,000 wines from around the world. After all, this is not just any restaurant but one owned by Peter X. Kelly. The man whose latest move in his chateau restaurant game brings new meaning to Brand X.

Asia Minor Enters the Major Leagues

Known in earlier times as Anatolia and Asia Minor, Turkey is a land that has witnessed the rise and fall of many great civilizations. As such, it has inherited a legacy of outstanding art and architecture that ranks among the foremost in the world. It's been said there are more ancient buildings and monuments, ruins and excavations in Turkey than Greece and Italy combined. But that's not all. Long neglected as a tourist destination, today the world is finding out there's a wealth to see and do in a country as varied as its people. Here are some of the must-see highlights that explain why Turkey delights.


It's a city that assaults the senses; a city of dazzling sights, pungent smells and exotic sounds. Sights of richly colored mosaic patterns on harem walls. Smells of ginger and vanilla spices from Africa and the Orient. Sounds of high-pitched prayers from ancient minarets.

It straddles the Bosphorus, one of the most strategically important bodies of water in the world, connecting Europe with Asia. The Romans called it Byzantium and made it the capital of their Empire. But they weren't the only ones to leave their mark. There were others, such as Persians, Arabs and the Crusaders.

Known for a thousand years as Constantinople, this great center of religion and learning, power and wealth was an important stop along the Silk Road, the busiest port on the Mediterranean and the richest city in Christendom. Hunkered down behind massive impregnable walls punctured by fortified gates and strengthened by almost 200 towers, the ancient city prospered for centuries, withstanding wave after wave of assorted assaults until it was finally captured by Mehmet II in 1453 marking the beginning of the Ottoman Empire.

Today, the city's cobbled streets swelter under an intense summer sun and seethe with a population of 10 million Europeans, Asians, Muslims and Arabs dressed in garb and speaking languages as colorful and varied as their origin. It's easy to imagine nothing much has changed through the ages.

To view the full text of this article please click here.