Where to go and stay in Asia

Where to go and stay in Asia

Speaking from his experiences as a columnist traveling to Asia, Tom Plate offers recommendations for those visiting the continent

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Los Angeles --- Frequent travel to Asia, since this regular column began in 1996, has been one of the great joys of my life. Notwithstanding regular airport hassles (especially in the U.S.) and unpredictable weather outcrops (can happen anywhere), Asia has been the place to be to observe the phenomenal unfolding of contemporary dramatic geopolitical history as it is happening.

I tell my students and my friends to go west (from Los Angeles) in order to see the East -- and to do it as often as they can. But when I am asked for personal recommendations on airlines, hotels and restaurants, I can only offer them tips based on my own particular preferences and experiences. What follows here is an entirely personalized list of hotels, air carriers and a few eateries that over the years I have found more than satisfactory -- and sometimes quite brilliant.

This is not a scientific listing. Omissions are inevitable and serious injustices (to those not on the list) are unavoidable. But since people do ask me for my favorites, I am not too shy to answer -- because I do have them, proudly.

Where does this columnist stay?

In Tokyo I do try, but cannot ever, tear myself away from the old but legendary Okura Hotel. It is undeniable that the far more contemporary Park Hyatt became the hot hostelry in Japan's capital after the surprise 2003 hit comedy Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray, was shot there. But the Okura, for me, captures some of the core qualities of Japan, including a sense of tranquility, deep tradition and personal contemplation. The quiet, elegant, under-furnished lobby is almost a deconstruction of the prototypical large lobby of a busy American hotel, which can feel like a frazzled train station at rush hour.

In Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, I almost always stay at a Shangri-La hotel. This enormously successful Asian hotel chain makes a point of converting the business traveler’s otherwise plodding itinerary into a kind of happy party. Hong Kong's Island Shangri-La offers a level of service second to none anywhere I have been in Asia. In Taipei, Taiwan, you might want to try the soaring Far Eastern Plaza Hotel, another stellar Shangri-La gem.

Service and courtesy are essential parts of the South Korean culture, too. In Seoul, the sprawling and bustling capital, excellent hotels can be found dotting the city almost as frequently as sidewalk Ginseng vendors. My favorite is the Westin Chosun Hotel, if only because of the illustrious off-the-lobby restaurant called Ninth Gate. Just about every table has a magnificent view via the floor-to-ceiling glass wall of the exquisite Temple of Heaven, a sight for any traveler’s poor eyes. The magnificent temple is just a handful of yards away.

Singapore -- one of my favorite stops -- offers many five-star hotels, all worthy. My personal favorites are the Singapore Shangri-La (the chain's flagship) and, of course, the historic Raffles Hotel. The former feels like a splashy, relaxed resort and the latter like a movie set in which you are one of the stars. Bangkok, Thailand is also chockablock with great hotels, again including the Shangri-La, which is banked on the main river's edge, and the spectacular Grand Hyatt Erawan Bangkok Hotel. Speaking of the Hyatt chain, in Bali, Indonesia, the Grand Hyatt is also absolutely fantastic.

In Saigon, I like to stay at the relatively new Park Hyatt, with its central location across the street from the old Opera House and a crack service level worthy of the best British hotel. In the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi, probably the marquee attraction in lodging is the old Metropole Hotel, which feels like it just stepped out of the previous century with French military officers getting happily sloshed at the outdoor pool bar.

The capital of India is famous for many attractions. On the hotel front, however, surely the size alone of the ITC Maurya Sheraton -- at 442 rooms -- makes it one of the city's standouts. The chirpy staff is superb, almost everyone working there since 2000 can recall some cute anecdote from former President Bill Clinton's gregarious visit, and the on-site Bukhara restaurant is sometimes touted as the best Indian restaurant anywhere. But -- not having eaten at all of them -- who am I to say?

We'll have more recommendations with further columns, time and travel; but you probably cannot go wrong with any of the above. How best to get there? We are all well aware of the mounting bad news about air travel today, but there is still some good news -- especially in Asia. The vast region offers great airlines and some of the world's leading international airports. Among the later are the glitteringly brilliant facilities of Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul and Singapore, especially; their international airports put Los Angeles International Airport entirely to shame. As for the airlines of Asia: Fear not to fly Singapore Airlines, Cathay-Pacific, EVA (Taiwan), Asiana and Korean Air. They are better than anything we have in the States.

Traveling well is an art (and a bit of luck). But it also helps to have an abundance of experience. This was some of mine. Bon voyage!