Glass teams up with luxury city guide publisher Hg2 to explore Baku, capital of Azerbaijan
Baku is a city of enormous contrast. Phrases like ‘melting pot’ and ‘East meets West’ get used far too much in describing certain cities, but here in Baku the clichés really do ring true. This is very much where Europe meets Asia, where Muslim meets Christian, where the former Persian Empire meets the former Soviet one. Hotels, bars and restaurants are constantly opening up, demonstrating a far higher level of sophistication than encountered here for decades. Interior design is cutting edge and concept is all. The service industry is still young, so it would be churlish to expect the level of service of, say, London or New York. That being said, Azeri cuisine is rich and varied, international cuisine well-represented and foodies are extremely well catered for – even oenophiles are in for a pleasant surprise. Aficionados of luxury travel and especially shopaholics will find a lot more than they may have bargained for too, although they may on occasion balk at the price tag.
Nestled in the heart of the Old City, just above the Maiden Tower, The Sultan Inn is arguably Baku’s only true boutique hotel. The hotel is located in a nineteenth century mansion and has just 11 rooms, all with open fires and tastefully decorated in dark wood with sumptuous chocolate brown velvets and gold highlights. Limited floorspace is amply compensated by a clever split-level floor design, so your bed chamber looks down over your cosy, romantic fireside seating area. Service is impeccably discreet and every detail has been taken care of to make your stay as pleasant and relaxing as possible. Up on the roof is an excellent restaurant – The Terrace - and the Q Bar, which share one of Baku’s best terrace views over the Maiden Tower and rooftops of the Old City to the Caspian.
Designed by London-based firm Blue Sky Hospitality, Zakura brings a world-class edge to Baku’s dining scene. Based around the Isikaya bar concept - small, tapas-style dishes – Zakura seeks to give a Bakuvian twist to its food. Slatted shades cast sculptural shadows across silver calligraphy on grey walls with accents of red and gold lacquer. Food is designed by executive chef Kenneth Lim, ex of Nobu London, who brings an appreciable Nobu accent to the menu – the black cod with miso takes you straight back to Park Lane. Excellent sashimi is ever-so-lightly seared and marinated in sesame and soy. Sushi rice is seasoned perfectly, rolls melt in your mouth and the nigiri come topped with the likes of flakes of gold leaf to add a touch of opulence. The Sunday all you can eat buffet for AZN 30 is especially good value.
Baku’s newest and most opulent res- taurant and nightclub, Chinar, is situ- ated on the site of an old team room under a cluster of plane trees, although there’s little evidence of it’s antiquity now under the expanses of glass that box in this contemporary monument to the country’s booming oil trade. Chinar is not the place to go for un- derground grooves, but if you want to watch wealthy Azeri’s at play, then there is no finer theatre in the whole country. Located near to a statue of the mythical Azeri hero, Bahram Gur, Azerbaijan’s answer to Saint George, who was sculpted slaying a dragon, he provides the aesthetic inspiration for much of the 1,500 square metre interior of the club, which has a deeply oriental flavour. The club has all the ac- cessories of opulence - sushi bars, champagne bars, wide screen TVs showing digital art, private dining rooms and superb food from a team imported from Hakkasan in Lon- don, as well as the obligatory late night sounds – but it’s also open during the day for Baku’s answer to tea and cakes for the ladies who lunch, walking their Louboutins and international hairdos. This is the place where glamour and glasnost collide, and the result must be seen to be believed.
Celebrating its first birthday in March 2010, Baku’s premier nightclub, Face, has added a splash of Muscovite glam- our to Bakuvian nights out. With an excellent, if expensive, nouvelle cuisine menu in the upstairs restaurant; glam interior and lighting design; boomingly clear sound and a suitably snooty door policy, it really is like Moscow at its nouveau heights. They even stop the music and play Eye of the Tiger when someone splashes out 1,100AZN for a bottle of Cristal. Cover charges are complex and, for a foreigner, can range from nothing to 60AZN but are usually around the 20-30AZN mark. We would advise calling ahead, fixing a price and getting your name on the door. If sitting, there is a minimum spend per table of 100AZN and 10AZN per person ser- vice, which equates roughly to a bottle of imported spirits, mixers and perhaps a shot or 3 on the side. Again, tables are best reserved ahead, while bar-space is free. Face also plays host to some of the coolest acts in town, recent live shows have included Moscow’s premier hip- hop act Basta and a range of jazz-fusion and electronica artists, mainly from for- mer Eastern bloc countries.
Far and away the best spa experience in Baku and, indeed, arguably also among the best in the world is at the Sabun Nga Spa, recently and deservingly elected to the hallowed ranks of the Leading Hotels of the World’s Leading Spas list. Not so much spa as a fully holistic treatment experience, the Sabun Nga will massage your woes away using a variety of traditional Thai techniques in a setting that would not be out of place in one of the many truly world class spa resorts in Thailand. Quite simply stunning Thai design is married with technique that is perfection itself. Your visit is completed by a specially balanced light Thai meal, prepared by their executive chef and served in their private dining suites. For a satisfying, but more everyday experience, the Aura Wellness Centre at the Excelsior offers a range of treatments, as does the Landmark and Hyatt Health Centres. Both these latter are looking to increase their range of treatments as we go to press, so do contact them directly to find out what is currently on offer.
Hg2 is our abbreviation for A Hedonist's Guide to... - a luxury city guide series coveted by travellers who value both style and substance when it comes to soaking up a city. We're not about the most expensive shops, bars, restaurants and hotels - we're about the best. All our guides are compiled by writers living in each city, with content that is packed with insider knowledge and a voice that is irreverent, inspired, and, above all, intelligent.