An invitation to dream and live the life of a Sultan…

Travel is personal, it’s like a journey of self discovery, whether it is a holiday, visiting friends and relative or a business trip. We tend to forget how much we are actually learning on every trip we make – discovering places, meeting people, living the most diverse experiences and, ultimately, the beautiful stories we can tell our children and grandchildren when we shall not be able to travel as much as we used to. Luxury in travel is all of these exceptional experiences which make up moments and these moments are memories to cherish for the rest of our lives. Luxury travel is undoubtedly about comfort and service.

For now more than half a century, Four Seasons has been redefining luxury through understated design, spectacular locations and a service standard that feels natural, genuine and familiar.

As the first time I visit Istanbul in winter, I was amazed by the exceptional experiences this season provides too. Of course, Istanbul is about its amazing Bosphorus views, green scenery, beautiful tulips and outdoor diners in the old town or overlooking the Sea. But I discovered that winter in Istanbul is a unique invitation to relaxation – what better a season to enjoy a traditional hammam, and meditation. Watching the seagulls amid smaller or larger ships pass by, from my room in the Palace building of the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus, through the tall bow shaped windows has made me think of the days a Sultan would gaze at the Bosphorus from the nearby Dolmabahce Palace, one of Turkey’s architectural treasures and most valued historical palace (also considered one of the most glamorous palaces in the world).

The hammam ritual at the stunning SPA of the Four Seasons Bosphorus has been a true bliss and I am at a loss for words to describe the  ultimate pampering experience – an authentic hammam built with an extreme attention to detail, identical to the traditional hammams centuries ago. It’s just that the Four Seasons provides the private use of such a large hammam, where, in the hands of my therapist, by his name Bedat, I felt once again like a Sultan. The purifying experience of the hammam goes beyond the actual ritual of cleansing and nourishing one’s skin. I firmly believe that it is a soul purifying, making you, in a way, slow down and again, leave behind the stress of your everyday life. Following my afternoon hammam ritual, I took Bedat’s advice and lay in bed – it’s only I fell asleep at an unusually early hour for me, waking up after a 12 hour baby sleep, feeling truly refreshed and rejuvenated.

The following day, after a busy schedule of meetings and a cold 2 degree Celsius breeze outside the hotel, I returned to the hotel and I headed straight to the SPA, without booking any treatment – I enjoyed every minute of the steam room (the receptionist handed me two small bowls of salt and oil) and I had a wonderful body scrub, which I washed off in one of the rain-showers, where the hotel has carefully placed the natural amenities by local brand Raed. The swimming pool and its adjacent huge jacuzzi are not to be missed – especially during the winter season they perfectly replace the time I used to spend on the terrace of the hotel sunbathing by the pool.

As this was my third stay at the Four Seasons Bosphorus, I could not help but notice the many improvements that have been made both in terms of facilities and service – the Acqua Restaurant is welcoming this Spring, Italian Chef Sebastiano Spriveri (arriving from Four Seasons Milan) for an exquisit Italian menu, come the warm weather, the hotel’s terrace will reopen its grill restaurant with authentic Turkish dishes, the natural bath salts in every room, the traditional cotton hand embroidered Turkish robes in each room, organic fruit juices in the minibars, the new Tropical Magnolia treatment at the SPA, complimentary wi-fi which is now available not only in rooms but also in the limousines of the hotel (BMW 7 series).

And again, winter has made me appreciate and enjoy the stunning flower installations in the lobby even more, probably already a serious competition for Four Seasons George V‘s very own artistic director, Jeff Leatham. The winter season also seems to be  attracting more locals,  the afternoon tea in the Bar and lounge, by the fireplace, watching the Bosphorus making up for yet another special moment, which hotel guests and locals enjoy equally.

Two years since my last visit, I have to admit I was impressed with how well kept the entire property is – the attention to detail, both in service and facilities is second to none. What a better welcome than people recognizing you by name while you barely step out of a taxi  on your arrival? The hotel’s Manager, Nihat, a magician when it comes to service, even remembered the exact spot we chatted two years ago. Staff from the Aqua Restaurant, Front Office, Concierge and SPA Reception would so warmly greet me by name every time I would pass by. Name recognition is probably one of the service details Four Seasons has mastered, no other luxury hotel chain getting it right at such a level of perfection.

Hammam at the SPA, Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul, at the Bosphorus

To make my journey to Istanbul truly memorable, I could not leave without experiencing the first opened Four Seasons in Istanbul, The Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet, in the old center of Istanbul, the spiritual heart of the Ottoman Empire and till today, the soul of all proud Turkish. Surrounded by some of the world’s most spectacular museums and mosques, the Four Seasons is an oasis in the middle of small town within the metropolis of the capital – with its winding cobbled streets, low rise houses and countless traditional restaurants with terraces, antique and souvenir shops. With only 65 rooms and suites, the Sultanahmet property of the Four Seasons redefines personalized service and provides a most tranquil environment with most rooms overlooking the beautiful courtyard garden.

The afternoon prayers from the nearby mosques, the fountains and the birds make up a unique moment which I cherished while at this exceptional property. Much like in the case of the Bosphorus property, Sultanahmet is a subtle reflection of the local culture, with an incredible sense of place, from the traditional art work, color palette inspired by the Hagia Sophia Mosque, carpets (including hanging carpets) as well as Turkish traditional dishes in the menus of the restaurants.

I was fortunate to be able to do a tour of the area with Kadir, one of the Concierges of the hotel, a very young, proud Turkish who wears a traditional mustache and who has spoken to me about his love for his country and why he felt sad for his country abandoning many traditions to become more Western, with the risk of losing its identity. During our walk, I was impressed with how proud and appreciative he was of his job at the Four Seasons – the fact that he was fortunate to be able to work in all departments and from a housekeeping job, he was given the opportunity to work for the concierge. I asked him if 7 years was not too much to work for the same company and he gave me a firm No.

Kadir took me on a ”behind the scenes” tour of Hürrem Sultan, a traditional hammam built in 1556, which is now in final stages of renovation. As it is 5 minutes walk from the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, I am sure this will be an exceptional experience, given the level of perfection and quality in the renovations works, or better to say restoration.

During my stay, I realized how the two properties can be combined on any trip you might take to Istanbul, during any season, whether you are on business and wish to explore the old town or you are on a leisure trip and besides the old town, you wish to enjoy the Bosphorus. In summer, one can hide in the shade of an authentic cafe in the old town, while at the Four Seasons Bosphorus, a large swimming pool and sunbathing await.

Although London is the only other city where Four Seasons has two properties, Istanbul is by far the perfect illustration of the Four Seasons DNA, in terms of local feel and creating a memorable experience through the innate hospitality of the Turkish people.

Oliver Petcu in Istanbul