Even if you don’t manage to bag dinner with this month’s WAG cover-man, “Filinta” star and international heartthrob Onur Tuna, there are plenty of other reasons to visit Istanbul.
Sitting at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, where the Black Sea meets the Mediterranean, this vast and cacophonous city was the fifth most-popular tourist destination in the world last year. Empires have come and gone from here, but Istanbul endures. Egyptian obelisks lie scattered with almost profligate abandon around the city, and the 6th century Byzantine dome of the great Hagia Sophia still dominates its skyline. Older than Athens, as clamorous as Cairo, more sprawling than Los Angeles, Istanbul is a feast for the senses, a Technicolor cavalcade, a riot of scents and sounds.
Huge it may be, but Istanbul is also encouragingly approachable. In the central Sultanahmet district, itself relatively compact, the monumental Hagia Sophia, or Church of the Holy Wisdom (which is now a museum), gives way to the whimsical Topkapi palace, with its strollable pavilions, follies and gardens. The domes and minarets of the fabled Blue Mosque nearby quickly become reassuring landmarks. And even though Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar — 60 streets of shops and stalls attracting nearly 100 million visitors a year — could hardly be called intimate, it is almost impossible to get lost. By some curious natural phenomenon, you find yourself miraculously at your starting point just when you had given up hope of ever seeing a familiar face or place again.
Even Istanbul’s nightlife, which incidentally runs the gamut from anachronistically glamorous (think Melina Mercouri-types swathed in diamonds and furs) to downright tawdry, is mainly confined to the districts of Galata and waterfront Karaköy, both a short and inexpensive Uber ride away from your hotel.
Ah, hotels. Not so very long ago, there was only one hotel in Istanbul where you might reasonably have wanted to hang your hat. The Istanbul Hilton was as swish and cosmopolitan as it was quirky and charming. With a very sweet smile and always a “yess-pliss,” the young lady at the front desk would invite the next guest to step forward. It was adorable. The elevator operator, meanwhile, liked to hum an old Turkish lullaby to himself as he pressed the floor buttons, oblivious to any guests. But nobody minded because the Hilton had all the creature comforts and a view of the Bosphorus proverbially to die for — and besides, we lived in an age where eccentricity was valued.
These days, though, you’re spoiled for choice. From the glitzy Ciragan Palace, complete with infinity pool and helipad, to Vault Karaköy, an independent hotel situated in a former bank, as seductive and comfortable as it is well-located, to hipster Soho House with its barbershop, hammams and oh-so-chic branch of Cecconi’s restaurant, there is something for everyone in this mighty metropolis.
My choice, down Constantinople way, however, is the Four Seasons, of which there are not one, but two in the city. The original, Four Seasons Sultanahmet, with historic sites and delicious shopping on the doorstep, is in a former prison, construction of which began exactly 100 years ago. It’s a gorgeous property (not an obvious cell or a penal treadmill in sight), whose public rooms as well as its guestrooms are gems of brightly upholstered perfection, with the atmosphere more of a well-run private townhouse than a busy city hostelry.
Situated in the former Atik Pasha Palace, right on the Bosphorus and 10 years old this year, the newer Four Seasons is a horse of a different color, where some years ago I was invited to take part in “Four Seasons University.”
Along with some other lucky travel journalists and key sales professionals from all over the world, I arrived in Istanbul for a voyage of discovery, to learn how this exceptional group goes about its business — the business of luxury hotel-keeping. For two whole days we studied front and back of house, seeing how housekeeping typically makes a bed Four Seasons-style (don’t forget those hospital corners, boys and girls), or learning the correct way to prepare a cocktail, or fillet a fish, or conduct a celebrity check-out (hint: the same way as any other check-out. At Four Seasons, all guests are celebrities.)
At a Four Seasons property, be it in Chiang Mai, Boston or Florence, not only does every glass sparkle or piece of fruit shine front of house, so too does every engineer’s wrench gleam behind the scenes. It’s all part of the culture, a phrase we heard repeated in a variety of contexts over the period. Excellence prevails in all things, in all departments, because nothing less than excellence will do.
Another tenet of Four Seasons is treating others as you would wish to be treated yourself. At Four Seasons Bosphorus, management and staff eat together in a canteen that serves food that other five-star hotels would be proud to serve their guests. Treat your staffers right and they in turn will treat your guests right, runs the philosophy. They will also stay loyal to you, which is why the sense of family at Four Seasons is palpable.
I’m not in Four Seasons’ pay nor, I hope, in its debt, but I have stayed at a few and have no hesitation in calling them the world’s best hotel group. I can also tell you, at the risk of sounding breathy and overexcited, that the Margherita pizza at Four Seasons Bosphorus is, in my humble opinion, beyond equal, anywhere, and I would further add that if the personable and fair-of-face Mr. Onur Tuna has not already done so, he should order one the next time he’s in town, along with an ice cold Turkish beer.
He might also want to check in just to drop some laundry off, while he’s about it. On my last day of a recent visit, I called housekeeping at noon and asked if by any chance they could pick up a bag of shirts and have them laundered the same day.
“Mr. Wayne, what time do you need your shirts by?” asked the lady on the other end of the line.
I commented that I was leaving for the airport at 8 that evening, so wondered if we could say around 7 to be safe.
“Then let us aim for 5 p.m. That way, you will not have a moment’s anxiety,” came the sweet reply.
Confidence, charm and, of course, manifest efficiency are all Four Seasons hallmarks. I was working in my room when the shirts were returned at 4:59 p.m., precisely, better pressed and folded than when they had been new.
In the Four Seasons University of how things are done, I declare myself a willing and perpetual student.