Friday 30 May 2014

Fashion Victim: Noise & the Melbourne CBD

I’m a fashion victim. But not in an actively chosen way, more a passive-smoking way.

I have no interest in fashion, but it’s been wafting right into my face for years now. Over the last year, it’s been almost unbearable.

I live in an apartment in Melbourne’s Central Business District (what Americans would call the Downtown), across the street from the former General Post Office building.

For several months from late 2013 there were three (count 'em!) construction sites in full swing in the neighbourhood.

The former Myer Lonsdale Street building was being transformed into the Emporium shopping mall; the adjoining Strand Arcade being similarly gutted and rebuilt; and the GPO being noisily reshaped into the home of Swedish fashion chain H&M (pictured above, ruining our sleep at 1.30am in early April).

It was the end run of a decade-long metamorphosis in which the block bounded by Bourke, Elizabeth, Lonsdale and Swanston Streets has become a dedicated fashion hub.

From the initial redevelopment of the GPO from post office to upmarket clothing outlet, through the David Jones and Myer rebuilds on Bourke Street, through the recent construction frenzy, that’s been the unifying story: a resurgent CBD reclaiming its fashion crown from suburban upstarts such as Chapel Street and Chadstone.

In the process, there’s been a massive re-sorting of the kinds of businesses found in and around the block.

When Narrelle Harris and I moved in in 2003, we had a wide variety of shops nearby: the 143-year-old McGills newsagency with its magazines, interstate newspapers and stationery; a second-hand bookshop in the Strand Arcade; a cheap homewares shop a few doors from us on Elizabeth Street.

Slowly but inevitably, they’ve been squeezed out, to be replaced by either food or fashion. Those two business types may seem opposed to each other, but I suspect they live in a yin-yang relationship of mutual dependency.

If you’re not the right shape for the latter, of course, you can cheer yourself up with the former (somewhere, a thousand psychiatrists just nodded sagely and adjusted their serious-looking eyewear).

The problem with this rise of the fashionistas and their noisy engines of reinvention? The city is now full of residents. Near the corner of Elizabeth and Little Bourke alone there are hundreds of people in residence, not to mention the poor souls who’ve been staying at the hotel within the old Money Order Office at the heart of the devastated area.

To be fair, the Melbourne City Council made some effort to restrain the enthusiasm of builders. Construction permits for the GPO building were issued, for example, with a midnight end time – really too late on a weeknight, but something that could be tolerated if it were actually complied with.

As deadlines loomed, however, fines were regarded as loose change compared with the millions of dollars dedicated to creating the fashion hub.

So when the wee small hours were pierced once more by the whine of proximity alarms, the grind of saws and the clanking of heavy machinery, I had two choices: make another stressful and possibly fruitless call to the council’s 24-hour security line, or drag out the foam mattress.

This is what it came to. To escape the endless noise, I bought a cheap foam mattress, which I dragged home on the train from a big furniture place in the outer 'burbs (as the only mattresses one can buy in the CBD are expensive ones).

I placed it behind my desk in the living room, as far as possible from the window, and tried to sleep there. Narrelle endured bravely in the bedroom, as her side of the bed was further from the chaos outside.

At least it’s mostly over. Though internal work continues at the Emporium and Strand Arcade, the three buildings have been opened to the fashion-buying public and our noise issues have mostly reverted to random loud party-goers leaving nightclubs on a Saturday night.

It’s about time. Fashion is no good for me; it keeps me up at night.

Friday 23 May 2014

The Bed Report 8: Shangri-La Muscat, Oman Accommodation Review

Shangri-La's Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa is located on a peninsula on the southeastern edge of Muscat, the capital of Oman.

It feels as if it's a separate town in its own right, as you pass through craggy bare mountains before reaching the resort.

This relative isolation can be a good or bad thing, depending on your vacationing style.

If you're after classy accommodation where you can eat good food and do a lot of relaxing by the pool, it's ideal.

If you want to explore the city, however, it's a bit of a hike - a $25-$35 taxi fare either way, though the resort does run a few free shuttle services to urban attractions including the old port of Muttrah.

You can't fault the resort's setting, strung along a cove between stark brown mountains and the vibrant blue of the Indian Ocean.

It's actually divided into three separate hotels. The Al Waha, at the southeastern end, is the most family-friendly of the three, with a big central swimming pool, a kids' club, and an affordable bistro, Samba, which has a buffet.

In the middle is the Al Bandar Hotel, offering an excellent Middle Eastern buffet at its Al Tanoor restaurant.

At the top end (literally) of the complex is the Al Husn (pictured above). This is the hotel I stayed at, so I'll focus on its facilities here.

Though children can stay at the Al Husn with their families, they can't use the facilities; so for all intents and purposes this is an adults-only hotel. That's not really an issue, as facilities across the other hotels are open to all guests.

The Al Husn has a wonderful, effortless air of quality and discretion. The lobby is distinguished by the simple, clean lines of classic Islamic architecture, and there's the scent of smouldering frankincense in the air.

The lobby leads to a large central courtyard, a pleasant space set with comfortable lounges. Afternoon tea is served here each afternoon, followed by pre-dinner drinks.

Below the courtyard there's a swimming pool set among palm trees, with the hotel's own private beach down a path further on.

So far, so luxurious. My room continued the upmarket theme, with a comfortable king-size bed and elegant furniture resting on a floor of marble tiles. The balcony overlooked the cove and the other hotels, and had a semi-private vibe.

The bathroom, as expected, was a glamorous riot of marble and L'Occitane products.

I must admit to a fondness for a hotel breakfast, and the spread at the Sultanah restaurant was a good one. A cooked component was available on request, and ranged from omelettes to more unconventional choices involving lamb or Japanese ingredients.

The cold selection was excellent, with plenty of Middle Eastern standards such as hommous and labneh. When in the Middle East, I count a meal wasted if it doesn't have hommous on the plate, so I was happy here.

At nighttime Shahrazad, the hotel's Moroccan restaurant, is a beautiful dimly-lit space in which to eat some excellent North African dishes.

The service at the Al Husn was consistently good and, typically for Oman, involved staff from a multitude of countries - during my stay I interacted with staff members from Oman, India, Sri Lanka, Germany, Britain, the Philippines, Indonesia, Burma and even tiny East Timor.

As you'd expect for its rates, a stay at the Al Husn is a consistently good experience. I noted a few flaws during my stay - low water pressure in my shower, slippery tiles by the pool, an ironing board left out after housekeeping had serviced the room - but my overall impression was of well-maintained, tasteful quality.

It'd make a great alternative to the resorts found in popular tropical destinations, if you'd like to try a relaxing holiday in a different, more dramatic type of landscape.

Just the Facts:
Shangri-La's Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa
Al Jissah Street, Muscat, Oman
Phone: +968 2477 6666
Rates: Rooms from $265 per night.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of Oman Tourism.

Sunday 18 May 2014

Percussion at the Muscat Opera

On Thursday night I attended a loud, rhythmic performance at the Royal Opera House here in Muscat, Oman.

Only three years old, the opera house is one of the grandest modern buildings in the Omani capital. I'd been on a tour of the interior earlier in the day, and was greatly impressed by its decor.

Arabian art and architecture had been incorporated into the structure without compromising audience access and the technical requirements of performers - even the acoustic padding had been artfully concealed behind attractive wooden screens.

Came the evening, I joined the rest of the audience milling about the foyer before the performance. There was a lot of finery on display, thanks partly to the venue's dress code.

For men, it stipulated either a jacket, or the traditional dishdasha robe with the mussar headdress. There were plenty of both types of garb in the audience, though I had to borrow a jacket from the box office to fit in.

Although opera is staged here, the Royal Opera House is in reality an international arts centre, hosting a wide range of live performances. This night's, entitled Percussion Nights, was a prime example of this diversity.

Before the main event a South Korean group, Noreum Machi, performed in the foyer.

Then, within the lavish auditorium, we saw (and heard!) a drumming performance from the numerous uniformed members of the Military Drum Corps of the Royal Guard of Oman.

A subset of the Royal Guard, the Steel Band, then performed the Phantom of the Opera on steel drums while wearing Hawaiian shirts. No, really.

Egyptian percussionist Said el Artist (nice name) was next, then Turkish musician Murat Coskun performed with artists from Uzbekistan and Iran playing drums which resembled giant tambourines.

This was all rousing stuff, loud and energising.

Considering the distinct, rhythmic beats of Arabian music, it was never going to be a difficult task for percussionists to spark the enthusiasm of an Omani audience, and the performers had no trouble in getting the audience to clap in time whenever they needed our backing.

But the best came after the interval, when every performer - from individuals to the military musicians - added one by one to a joint performance which shook the building with its vibrations.

It was a joyous, loud, fun night at the opera. One that combined international glamour with its own distinctive beat.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of Oman Tourism. Check out the program of the Royal Opera House Muscat by clicking here.

Sunday 11 May 2014

Across the Mountains of Oman

I'm in Oman on a media tour with two other Aussie travel writers, and yesterday we took the long way round to reach the fertile Jabal Akhdar region in the mountains. Long - and unsealed - but very scenic.

We started at the town of Nakhal outside the Omani capital, Muscat. The big attraction here is an impressive fort which dates back to pre-Islamic times:

Our guide and driver, Said, kindly acted as photo model while checking his iPhone:

Next we headed to the nearby Ayn Al Thawwarah hot springs. As it was a weekend, there were plenty of locals chilling out by and in the beautifully clear water:

Our next stop as we climbed into the mountains was Wadi Bani Awf. It's known in English as Snake Gorge, a spectacular canyon:

 Then began the climb to Jabal Akhdar through the Hajar Mountains.

There's a more direct way to get there from Muscat along sealed roads, but the unsealed route winds through spectacular rugged scenery (though you really have to hire an experienced local driver to take you there, unless you're a superbly experienced four-wheel drive expert).

We paused further on to take in the view of the village of Bilad Sayt:

And some spectacular geology:

And eventually arrived at the Alila Jabal Akhdar resort to this, a celebration of its opening day...

... and this - sunset across the infinity pool. A reward for taking the long way round.

Disclosure time... On this trip I travelled courtesy of Oman Tourism.

Sunday 4 May 2014

The Bed Report 7: Ibis Seoul Insadong Accommodation Review

This shiny new hotel is tucked away in the district of Insadong, east of Seoul's city centre.

It's an interesting area of the South Korean capital: a mix of business and residential, including atmospheric narrow streets lined by small restaurants.

The Ibis Seoul Insadong is located in a narrow street dotted with mini-marts and eateries.

Directly opposite the hotel is a remnant of old Seoul, an enclave of traditional one-storey houses known as hanok.

The Ibis, by contrast, is distinctly and simply modern. Its big lobby area opens onto a cafe-bar and restaurant, both of which are sleekly fitted out.

My 9th floor room echoed this unobtrusive but intelligent design, making the best use of space without the need to make a loud statement. Though compact, it was light and airy.

There was a sizeable desk placed beneath the window, making good use of natural light and the view, and the open cupboard space was neatly tucked into a corner.

The bed was comfortable and it had - praise be! - power sockets placed at a prominent height for late-night charging and use of mobile devices. The free wifi was very good, reliable and fast.

The bathroom was similarly small but well designed, with the shower and sink diagonally opposed in order to maximise their size. The toilet was a marvel of technology, with a set of controls that could impress an airline pilot.

The only problem I had was with the airconditioning; though it seemed its output could be lowered to 18°C, my room was nearly always an uncomfortably warm 25°C. On reporting this, I discovered the aircon was only turned on for a few hours each day, at that time of year.

Luckily the window could be opened to let in the cool night air, a cue for me to gaze down on the tiled rooftops of old Insadong and idly wonder what those houses were like inside.

I did eventually have a closer look at them after a day or so, when I realised a zig-zag through enclave was the quickest route to the nearest Metro station, Jongno-3. Gotta love those beautiful timber doors (see image, left).

Overall the Ibis was a good balance of price and comfort, in an interesting area of Seoul with useful access to other parts of the city worth visiting.

Just the Facts:
Ibis Ambassador Seoul Insadong
31 Samil daero 30 gil, Jongno gu 110-340, Seoul, South Korea
Phone: +82 2 6730 1101
Rates: Rooms from $100 per night.

Disclosure time... for this stay I was given a discounted accommodation rate by Accor Hotels. To read previous accommodation reviews, click on The Bed Report label below.