Cool Rides in Singapore

The emblem of the leaping tiger on the gate looked oddly familiar. Yet, the connection eluded me like the sighting of a big cat on a South Indian wildlife safari.

I ran through all the wild felines in my head—it wasn’t the logo of a tiger park and enough Tiger Beer had been consumed in the past to know this was different My itinerary, titled ‘Cultured Leopard, Rising Tiger: Finding Your Tao in Haw Par Villa’, didn’t reveal much either. I had turned up for a new walk curated by The Original Singapore Walks company without the faintest idea. And then the penny dropped.

A distant memory from a trek, a faded label, the smell of camphor, yellow ointment stains on the clothes — the tiger of Tiger Balm! The guide Geraldine welcomed the group and led us up the slope as she outlined the tale of the Aw brothers, Boon Haw and Boon Par (called the ‘Tiger’ and ‘Leopard’, respectively), who transformed their father’s homegrown business that was set up in 1860 into an empire.

“So what’s Tiger Balm for?” enquired an Aussie visitor. Geraldine was aghast at his ignorance. “Shoulder rub, neck pull, backache, pain, sprain, congested chest, mosquito bite, anything and everything under the sun!”

On our walk, we learnt that Tiger Balm was originally white and labourers often complained that it was too gentle. One day, Boon Haw noticed that the jar of ointment at home was stained red. He learnt that his wife had been chewing seere (betel leaf), which stained her lips and fingers red. Her constant use had turned the balm ochre!

In his eureka moment, Tiger added a yellow pigment, the workers loved the new ‘stronger’ balm and the rest is history.

In 1921, Haw aka Tiger made Singapore the headquarters of the Tiger Balm business. In 1937, he built a sea-facing villa. Since the restricted entry of non-Europeans to Shanghai’s Huangpu Park was a controversy at the time, Tiger set up an elaborate garden and threw it open to all.

The sculptures mirrored Chinese mythology, Taoist folklore and legends — from Madam White Snake, the Eight Immortals and the Ten Courts of Hell to Commissioner Lin who played a key role in the Opium Wars. Moral science met mythology met tacky sculpture.

There was cool stuff as well: the 1925 Buick Californian Hardtop modified into a ‘Tiger Car’ with a horn like a tiger’s roar and the idol of Kwanon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy (after whom the camera company Canon was named). Sadly, Haw Par Villa was destroyed after World War II and the family business eventually sold. However, the legend of Tiger Balm continues to live.

Besides this freaky tour, there was a new historical Battlebox tour at Fort Canning. Built in the late 1930s, the bombproof-chamber set nine metres underground served as the headquarters of the Malaya Command during World War II. It was here on February 15, 1942 that the British made the decision to surrender Singapore to the Japanese, an act described as “the worst and largest capitulation in British military history”.

For history and war buffs, the new Fort Siloso Walkway is a great way to explore Singapore’s only preserved coastal fort. At the western edge of Sentosa Island, just a stone’s throw from Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort, the lift transports you 36.3m to a viewing deck. The 200m-long walkway snakes above the canopy with stunning views of the sea and harbour and ends at the first of many gun placements. While entry to the lift and fort is free, the 90-minute guided tour for S$20 is worth every cent. Staying at the beach-facing Rasa Sen to sage you a complimentary coupon.

When Stamford Raffles came to Singapore in 1819, he found its location ideal for a trading settlement. It was at the crossroads of the monsoon wind and sailing ships could arrive here with ease. The early fortifications — Fort Canning, Palmer and Fullerton — protected the trading hub by the Singapore river. But the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 led to a direct trade route from Europe to Asia Pacific.

Since the Singapore river was too shallow to accommodate the new steam ships, trade operations moved to the deep waters of Sentosa. Sentosa was once tagged Bulao Panjang, Malay for ‘Long Island’, and Pulao Blakang Maki or ‘Island of Death’, for the bodies of sailors killed by pirates that washed ashore.

When the British first came here, many died and the island was hurriedly abandoned. What was regarded as the Asian curse’ turned out to be malaria But the need for newer forts made the British blast the mountaintop of Mount Siloso to erect a coastal fort in the west, Fort Serapong in the centre of the island (now a golf course) and Fort Connaught in the east (which made way for Sentosa Cove).

Giant pulleys hauled cannons up the steep inclines over a bed of logs, aided by Chinese coolies. Since the Chinese didn’t have a problem cooking beef or pork they also ended up being cooks! At the barracks, life-size models depict the soldiers’ life among cooks, tailors and dhobis.

During World War II, while the British expected a naval assault from Sentosa or Changi, the Japanese attacked through the Malayan peninsula, taking them by surprise. The cannons had to be turned towards land but the hull-piercing shells meant for ships didn’t cause much damage.

The Japanese took control of the water supply and pushed for an unconditional surrender. The WW II Surrender Chambers recreate the scene of capitulation and show their clever psychological warfare tactics.

Despite being fewer in number with supplies for only two days, the Japanese turned up in big numbers and in full military regalia to give the impression of a large force. The three years of occupation were the darkest days in Singapore’s history with mass executions on beaches.

It was only after a complete rebranding exercise that the island was christened Sentosa, after the Sanskrit santosha, meaning joy and fulfilment. With tourist attractions like Universal Studios and its amazing 4D Transformer and Battlestar Galactica rides, Madame Tussauds, S.E.A. Aquarium, Skyline Luge, MegaZip, i-Fly and Resorts World, Sentosa has become an essential stopover in everyone’s Singapore itinerary. You could spend a week here without running out of things to do.

Back in town, I find that the Indian Heritage Centre had moved out of Little IndiaArcade to a new four-storey building. Inspired by the Indian baoli (stepwell) and mirroring the hexagonal design of the paved street, the glass-fronted building gives the impression of a jewel by day and a glowing lantern by night.

The galleries span two millennia of cultural transfusion in SoutheastAsia caused by waves of migration between the century CE and the 21stcentury: Hindu-Buddhist icons, motifs from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, arduous sea journeys undertaken by migrants to distant port towns during the establishment of the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore (1786-1824), their culture and contributions to Singapore form the broad theme.

Aimed with a tab and aided by augmented reality, it’s storytelling taken to another level. The headgear section actually encourages visitors to choose a pagri or topi for a selfie.

The National Gallery Singapore, which opened last November, is spread over 6,90,000 sq ft and is the largest museum and visual arts venue in Singapore. With 8,000 artworks, it is also the largest public collection of Singapore and Southeast Asian art in the world.

The self-portraits of Georgette Chen, Liu Kang’s ‘Life by the River’, the wildlife themes of Indonesian artist Raden Saleh and art installations such as Matthew Ngui’s ‘Chair’ are stunning, while Cheong Soo Pieng’s ‘Drying Salted Fish’, featured on the back of the Singaporean $50 bill, lets visitors dick pictures against a 3D version of the same.

The gallery is housed in two national monuments—the former Supreme Court Building and City Hall. Beautifully restored with an award-winning glass and metal facade that seamlessly conjoins the two buildings in a make-believe bamboo lattice, it’s a delight to explore the prison cells, Rotunda (round library) and chambers.

The terrace deck overlooks the padang (ground) and the Singapore skyline. It was in the City Hall that Admiral Lord Mountbatten accepted the Japanese surrender on September 12, 1945.

Adding to Singapore’s impressive roster of museums — the Singapore Philatelic Museum, Peranakan Museum, Changi Museum, Malay Heritage Centre, ArtScience Museum and National Museum of Singapore — is the new Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum. Part of Sir Stamford Raffles’ Museum of Biodiversity Research, started in 1849, itforms the current Heritage Gallery section with taxidermy kits, stuffed birds and cabinets of curiosities housing collectibles that survived World War II.

Tracing the history of life on earth, the 20 zones across two floors have over 500,000 Southeast Asian animal and plant specimens ranging from the microscopic to the enormous. Highlights include the world’s largest crab (Japanese spider crab) and the smallest (coral spider crab), trilobite fossils, three dinosaurs from America (Prince, Apollonia and Twinky) and a 10.6m female sperm whale Jubi Lee, which washed ashore in Singapore in 2015 and was unveiled in March this year. The dinosaur zone runs a Light Show every half hour, all day long.

Singaporeans love their laser shows, be it Wings of Time (S$18,7.40 pm, 8.40 pm) at Sentosa, Wonder Full (free entry, 8pm, 9.30pm) at Marina Bay Sands or Garden Rhapsody (free entry, 7.45pm, 8.45pm) at the Supertree grove in Gardens by the Bay.

A great perch to see the city by night is the Singapore Flyer, which at165m was the world’s tallest ferns wheel until the High Roller of Las Vegas upstaged it in 2014.

While at the Flyer, try the new 737-800 flight simulator and sit in the captain’s seat of the world’s most popular jet airliner. Learn to take off, cruise and land the plane at an airport of your choice in an immersive experience with real-size cockpits and fully-functional aircraft controls.

The Flyer also lets you reserve a pod fora private three-course dinner. But if you’re not into slow travel or slow food, hop on to the new GOURMETbus to take your taste buds for a ride. Singapore always has a new trick up its sleeve.


Escape Stress at Mexico’s Isla Mujeres

In this year of massive rallies and protests, daily calls to your congressional representatives and feeling tethered to your Twitter feed or cable news, there’s got to be a way to recharge.

For women who want to reconnect to an ancient, calmer energy, let us throw this name in the ring: Isla Mujeres, aka the “Island of Women.” Located in the Caribbean Sea about 8 miles off the coast of Cancun, this wisp of an island {just 5 miles long and 0.3 miles wide) offers an easy-going ambience.

With its powdery beaches and undulating palms, Isla Mujeres feels far away from the tequila-fueled party scene on the Mexican mainland — and very distant from the non-stop news cycle at home. A girlfriends’ getaway on the beach is some­thing that deserves a bipartisan endorsement, right?

On Punta Sur, at the south­ernmost tip of the island, there’s a temple ruin devoted to the Mayan goddess Ixchel. “Ixchel was the goddess of the moon, and she was associated with healing and fertility,” says Gus­tavo Rodriguez Orozco, director of tourism for Isla Mujeres. “For centuries, Mayan women came to this island to seek her help.” Local people still tend to believe that Ixchel will help them resolve fertility issues, he adds.

the lighthouse punta sur

The lighthouse at Punta Sur

Of course, men are welcome. Isla Mujeres promotes itself as a romantic destination, the perfect locale for idyllic weddings on a beach lit by Tiki torches. But you won’t feel like the odd woman out if you don’t come with a guy on your arm. And some say there’s a definite feminine vibe in the salt-tinged air.

“You can sense a different energy here (among women),” says Marcia Collado, a yoga instructor at the Zoetiy Villa Rolandi Isla Mujeres Cancun resort. “Since the island is sacred to the Mayan moon goddess, I think (its) history empowers us, allowing us to keep in touch with our femininity.”

Zoetry Villa Rolandi

Outdoor poolside at Zoetry Villa Rolandi

To help guests get in touch with their inner goddesses, the resort’s spa offers a Mayan massage that incorporates Mayan healing practices, and they use Mayan herbs and mineral salts in a body treatment called Villa Rolandi’s Secret.

Whether it’s mystical Mayan power or simply the power of suggestion, few would deny that this sleepy island has restorative qualities, especially if you slow down to its leisurely rhythms.

Let the unwinding begin as you ride the ferry from Cancun across the stunningly aqua waters of the Bahia de Mujeres. There’s no real rush to get anywhere once you arrive; in fact, most guests get around via golf cart at slow-motion pace.

You’ll likely be tempted by Playa Norte, considered to be one of the best beaches in Mexico. It’s also easy to spend hours (and days) swimming and snorkeling in the calm waters of the western side of the island, where the coral reef sits offshore. Add some art to your undersea journey with a visit to the MUSA Underwater Sculpture Museum, a dreamlike installation of 500-plus permanent life-size sculptures, such as Benidiciones, designed to provide habitat for marine life.

musa underwater museum fingers

MUSA Underwater Museum

If you like your indolence spiked with adven­ture, swim with whale sharks! Few things are as empowering — and humbling — as sharing the sea with a creature that can measure up to 65 feet long and weigh more than 12 tons. The sharks arrive in these waters in July and August to feed and mate. To swim with whale sharks, you need to go out with an outfitter (try Solo Buceo, which offers two-hour, early-morning trips from mid-May to mid-September). It’s OK to be a beginner, but it’s not OK to touch the whale sharks. Snorkeling alongside these polka-dotted giants is truly exhilarating. The largest congrega­tion of whale sharks in the world happens off the coast of Cancun, scientists say.

And we can all appreciate how powerful a large gathering can be.

Where to Eat

MANGO CAFE

mango cafe isla mujeres
Colorful, lively Mango Cafe draws a mix of locals and tourists for dishes like coconut French toast, fish tacos and stuffed poblano peppers. If it’s not totally authentic Mexican, it sure is playful and fun. And it wouldn’t be vacation if someone in your party didn’t order a mango mi­mosa. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

SUNSET GRILL
Every island should have at least one place where you can eat lovely food and watch a sherbet-hued sunset over the water. On Isla Mujeres, this place fills the bill. Think lobster quesadillas, ceviche, grilled shrimp and paella — tasty, sure, but you’ll remember the setting much longer.

LOLO LORENA
Born in Belgium, chef Lolo Lorena serves a multi-course gourmet meal at communal tables in a courtyard setting. It’s a bit like being a dinner guest at a private party with a wonderful hostess. Her somewhat pricey 5- to 10-course meals are a fusion of flavors, based on what’s available and what Lolo is inspired to cook, but count on a memorable evening.


In A Calm Shell: Roseate House, Delhi

Walking into the warm brown lobby, it’s quite easy to forget that you are in Delhi’s buzzing Aerocity. Softlighting, a smattering of coffee table books, an old black telephone under the stairs and quotations on pillars.

Roseate House has all the comforts that a global traveller is used to. Run by the Bird Group, under the disciplined eye of Ankur Bhatia and his wife Smriti, the hotel is a book in which the guest is the protagonist.

So you don’t find floors, but chapters. And I found the book, Bathtub by Atjun Puri, in my room and browsed through the six travel stories. Thukral and Tagra have made six artworks for the hotel.

On breaking away from the normal crispy white found in hotel rooms, Bhatia said that it has been scientifically proven that brown calms the mind. There are soft cream bedsheets and brown towels and bathrobes. My room faced the Worldmark shopping mall.

Lunch was at DEL, the multi-cuisine bistro. Interestingly, the dishes from different parts of the world have the code of that city, much like what you see on the flight tickets. Hence DEL means Delhi! What I enjoyed: beetroot and burrata salad and duck confit — fresh and well prepared.

A quick nap and I was on my way to Aheli, the spa, for the signature massage. Jasmine, the spa manager, was a familiar face and she told me that pine oil was the USP. And I was ready for the famed tea from Singapore, TWG, at Roasted.

I wish I had brought back some bags of the 1837 Black Tea with me. Kheer, the restaurant for Indian cuisine was getting ready to open its doors for guests, as was Tara, the rooftop dining spot for Japanese food. After tasting four cocktails and talking about fitness with Deepak Rawat, F&B manager, at the Chidya Ghar bar, I was ready to call it a day.

The hotel has spaces for meetings, a VIP lounge, exclusive Club Privé, a gym and swimming pool. The best part—movie screenings in the evening at Upstage, the theatre for resident guests only.

The Information

LOCATION: Roseate House New Delhi, Asset 10, Hospitality District, Aerocity, New Delhi

ACCOMMODATION: Standard rooms, Club rooms, Executive Suite, Panoramic Suite, Corporate Suite, Junior Suite, Terrace Suite, Presidential Suite and The Villa

TARIFF: From ₹12,000


Eat, Pray, Rejuvenate at Atmantan Resort – Maharashtra

Two hours by flight and another hour and a half by car trans ported me from Delhi to an unspoiled part of Pune district, Mulshi. Situated in the lap of the Sahyadri mountains, Atmantan Resort is in its maiden year of operation, and has won two awards in the 2016 Wellness Travel Awards at the World Travel Market in London. I was curious to see what the fuss was all about.

The rooms here are modern, luxurious and comfortable. But the first thing I did after a warm reception, which included an aarti, was to grab some lunch. Fresh mountain air makes you ravenously hungry.

I enjoyed a delicious meal at the Vistara restaurant, that began with a carrot and ginger soup, a salad with vine-ripened tomato and bocconcini, followed by a wholesome Indian thali with small portions of yellow lentil, beetroot subs with Indian spices, lemon-rice pulao and spinach roti, and ended with raisin cake—all washed down with ginger-lemon-honey tea.

One meal and I knew their food philosophy resonated with mine. They set-ire what they call spa cuisine, which has its roots in the belief that locavorian food best maintains and restores health. But that doesn’t translate to boring food. It looks and tastes fabulous, and is a fusion of international culinary styles, from macrobiotic to Ayurveda, Mediterranean to Asian.

Atmantan is a retreat-only destination with a minimum three-night stay, comprising meals, spa and wellness therapies, consultations and fitness activities. After lunch, I underwent a body composition analysis and a consultation with the inhouse doctor, Dr Manoj Kutteri, who is also the wellness director at Atmantan.

There are eight packages: Atmantan Living, SpaLife, Master Cleanse, Weight Balance, Journey Through Yoga, Ayurveda Panchakarma, Holistic Health, and Fitness Challenge. I decided on a combination of two, with sessions customised to my needs.

My first therapy was an invigorating massage, a variation of the Swedish version. For the hour that I was being kneaded with energizing oil by Deki, a soft-spoken girl from Butham, I left Delhi far behind. Dusk was reserved for Omkara meditation.

Chanting in unison with various people from different parts of the country and beyond, I realised that we were all perhaps looking for the same thing— some moments of peace away from the maddening lives we create for ourselves.

Dinner comprised lime and mushroom soup, okra subzi, chickpea ,asa;a, beetroot roti and brown rice, with delish pongal to top it all — accompanied by lemongrass and ginger tea. It’s amazing what a single day of eating right, massage therapy and meditation can do to cleanse your body and mind.

By the time I was back in the room, the bath I had ordered from their bath menu —sleep ritual aromatherapy salt infused bath — was ready and waiting. True to its name, it ensured I slept like a baby that night.

Next morning I was up at 5am, before my alarm could go off. The day begins early in a wellness retreat, with yogic kriyas at 6am. Eternally worried about my arthritic genes, I reached the class before time and performed hatha yoga with Dr Kaithikesh; I have no shame in admitting that I was the stiffest person in the group.

The breakfast was most welcome, with a view of the Sahyadris to behold. An hour later, I headed to the spa for a moxibustion and cupping session, followed by a soothing head massage, done the Ayurvedic way.

Just a stroll in the resort is enough to rejuvenate spirits. Spread over 40 acres of a lush valley, Atmantan has 72 rooms including a1,500 sq ft single bed room villa, reportedly a favourite of celebrities.

The Wellness Pavilion is spread over a remarkable 50,000 sq ft and houses the spa, fitness as well as consultation and wellness facilities. There are 23 customised therapy rooms including a hammam room, afitness and physiotherapy wing, an indoor salt pool, a salon and a wellness retail outlet.

There is also a recreation zone where one can play croquet, mini golf, table tennis, pool, foosball, etc. Treks are also organised.

My evening was spent getting a lymphatic drainage massage, sipping reinvigorating juices at Bistro Tejus and meditating. The resort holds yoga classes at their amphitheatre called Prana, that overlooks a serene horizon.

On my second yoga outing, I fared far better. I’d earned myself some pampering and a luxury facial at the salon was just what the proverbial doctor ordered. After another hearty lunch, I got a taste of piece de resistance—their signature massage, which incorporates the best elements of multiple therapies.

As my time there neared its end, I underwent departure counselling that included some lifestyle measures as takeaways. My last meal was at their open-air restaurant Chantara, which opens just two nights a week. As I sat eating innovative grills under the starlit sky of the Sandayris, I breathed in lungfuls of silence. I would need it back in the city.

The Information

LOCATION: Mulshi, Pune. Atmantan Resort is 58 km from Pune airport, and a 3.5-hour drive from Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.

ACCOMMODATION: 72 rooms; one suite

TARIFF: For three nights, singles: ₹175,000 (Asoka &Arjuna rooms), ₹93,000 (Acacia rooms), ₹165,000 (Mango Tree Villa); valid till March 2017


Behind the Paints at Lake Nahargarh Palace – Rajasthan

Luxurious beds, warm service, great food and surprisingly good art. I cameback from a jüSTa property after a Holi weekend with happy memories. Almost 10 years on, I find that it wasn’t a flash in the pan.

Aesthetics continue to shape the jüSTa experience. The car, from Udaipur airport, gobbles up the kilometres along a new highway to the rural vistas of Chittorgarh and finally on to the lovely Nahargarh water palace, set on a private lake. Originally a royal hunting lodge, it was converted into a palace by Raja Jitendra Singh Rathore of Ralavata and is now managed as a four-star hotel by the jüSTa group.

Amidst the shimmer of the blue water, Lake Nahargarh Palace rises gracefully to welcome the boat transporting me and my companions, a fellow journalist and a son of Bengal—Pandit Santanu Bandyopad-hyay, part of the bill of fare for Chitrashala 2016.

An annual international art residency driven der Ashish Vohra, the event gives artists from different parts of the globe a chance to mingle in the former palace’s chambers and gardens. This year’s Chitrashala is set to be a rich experience, with 40 artists from home and abroad participating. Among them are Jogen Chowdhury, Peter Markus, Reiner Langer and several from Jordan, Egypt, China and France as well as a few displaced artists from Syria, Iran and Iraq.

The minute the boat reaches the palace, I go bounding up the ramp and gaze around at the tranquil surrounds, set against the pale hills of the Aravalli range on the far side of the lake, where horses graze on a patch of green. Horseriding, wildlife safaris, forest treks and birding at the lakeside are some of the activities on offer here.

An unfussy check-in at the surprisingly minimalistic reception and traditional Rajasthan hospitality sets the tone for my stay. My room, an airy retreat which is alive with jewel-toned cushions and bedspread, and art on the wall, is one of many set along the wraparound verandah leading directly to the Fountain Lawn (set in Charbagh-style) and riotous flowering bushes.

Several stairways lead directly to the first-floor rooms. I like the deluxe rooms (twin beds or a massive king-size bed) with a pool view or garden view, along with shower and bathtub options (state your preference when booking). Even better are the first-floor suites with picture windows opening up to a lake view. They come with a living room and a separate bedroom area, each with their own TV sets.

From the garden, there’s a neat little exit which opens on to the swimming pool overlooking the lake. I linger, long after the livid sunset disappears into the lake, to watch the stars come out one by one.

On the first floor, breakfast buffets are served in a multicuisne restaurant that offers views of the central courtyard and lawns, while another side offers a balcony seating with a lake view. On the first night, we relish the scrumptious barbequed fare conjured up by Chef Bishen.

On a pearly dawn, I step out on the lawns and see Peter Markus (a painter from Hungary who has discovered his Indian roots) up on the first floor verandah working on the piece he would show on the retreat’s final day. It’s a novel experience—mingling with the artists as they work on their easels set up on a clingwrap -protected verandah. Over lunches and dinners, language barriers limp away as stories unfold — stories of creativity, of human courage and of brave smiles drowning out the saddening events of the Middle East.

Planning a quiet holiday or an intimate get-together? Lake Nahargarh Palace is great for that, even though the wi-fi is erratic. Access from the highway is a bit fiddly as there’s a short drive through a ratty village— but it’s worth it. Check ahead, though, if there’s a big fat wedding going on. That can single-handedly turn the tranquillity of the place upside down.

The Information

LOCATION: Village Parsoli, just off the Udaipur-Kota highway, about 45km from Chittorgarh

ACCOMMODATION: 40 deluxe rooms and suites

TARIFF: For a 2N stay including all meals: ₹13,000 for a deluxe room, ₹15,000 for a suite, applicable from April to September 2017, taxes extra

CONTACT: +91-9590777000


Where Sun Never Goes Down: Portimao

Come for the beaches, but be sure to soak up the colour and culture of this charming town in Portugal’s ever-sunny Algarve.

Get outdoors

Golfis everywhere in Portugal — and with top-class courses on offer, Portimao sits at the top of the list for anyone looking to tee off in the sun. There are plenty more activities available: walking and cycling routes criss-cross the landscape, petrol heads will love a spin on the Algarve International Circuit, and Portimao’s marina is the perfect spot for watersports.

Let loose

An eclectic mix after-dark options will suit everytaste: from buzzing nightclubs and vibrant bars to relaxed restaurants and sunset walks along the Arade River, there’s no shortage of things to do even when the sun has set.

Discover

Wind through Portimao’s cobbled streets and explore the museums, fashion, food and furniture shops, and the Baroque gem of Portimao’s main church, before drinking inthe sweeping sea views from Santa Catarina Fortress in nearby Praia da Rocha.

Tuck in

The Algarve doesn’t disappoint when it comes to delicious seafood, with freshly grilled sardines a speciality of Portimao. A number of bars, cafes and restaurants offer an ideal spot to enjoy the area’s cuisine coupled with a generous glass of sweet rosé — a must in this area of Portugal.


Brisbane: A Gateway to the Tropics

Home to the blue Banksy, helicopter pub crawls and a flourishing live music scene, Brisbane is shaking off its reputation as a mere gateway to the tropics.

It’s curious, but Australia’s most laid-back city divides opinion. In one corner, you’ve got those who dismiss Brisbane as little more than an urban gateway to Queensland’s more alluring tropical destinations, while in the other, them are the enthusiasts who point to its sun-drenched climate, outdoor way of life and a thriving nightlife.

Architecturally, the city is certainly distinct. Sprawled along the Brisbane River and its tributaries, the riverfront is shadowed by a hotchpotch of questionable high-rise developments, while the suburbs are filled with traditional tin-roof houses wrapped in breezy verandahs known as Queenslanders.

On the outskirts, the landscape is decidedly green, giving way to the wineries and sprawling properties of the Scenic Rim —a region of forested national parks.

For international visitors, most of the action happens in the city’s CBD, spilling over into South Bank, where you’ll find Brisbane’s major galleries, museums and parklands. Nearby lies the inner city enclave of West End, while further up the river you’ll find the newly gentrified, but suitably grungy precincts of Newstead and Teneriffe, followed by posh hubs Ascot and Hamilton.

Come nightfall, most revellers head to the previously seedy, but now hip pubs, bars and restaurants of Fortitude Valley. Closer to the CBD, Caxton Street is popular with university students keen for a pint, while Burnett Lane, tucked behind Queen Street Mall, is the current darling of the trendy set thanks to a string of new openings.

Brisbane hasn’t yet been fully hit by the lockout laws that have curtailed nightlife in other East Coast cities. Instead, the bars have flourished, fuelling an exceptional live music scene. The city has long been an incubator for Australian indie bands, and you can’t spend a night on the town without catching live tunes.

Come the weekend, Brisbane’s appeal lies in the quirky smaller events visitors passing through often miss: a pizza box art show one weekend, a food t ruck music festival the next, or a jailbreak-themed movie and inmate-led tour at a heritage listed jail.

The best thing of Brisbane, however, is its people. There’s an ease with which the city conducts itself, a friendliness more notable here than elsewhere in Australia. While Sydney and Melbourne bicker about which is best, Brisbane kicks back with a beer, stretches in the sun and enjoys the good life.

See & Do

RIVERLIFE: Brisbane is a city that likes to be active. Burn off a little excess energy at Riverlife on Kangaroo Point, one of the city’s most popular local fitness hubs.

Best known for its cliff side abseiling experience, they also offer daily paddle boarding and kayaking tours of the Brisbane River. Those keen on a more relaxed workout can also hire bikes and rollerblades to explore the surrounding foreshore.

SOUTH BANK: Stretching along the river opposite the CBD, South Bank is effectively the city’s lifestyle and cultural hub, home to the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA), Queensland Museum and Sciencentre. Alongside the Brisbane Wheel and the city’s Brisbane sign, there are park lands and a lagoon-style swimming spot open to the public, while during weekends there’s free live music at the riverfront amphitheatre.

HELICOPTER TOURS: Pterodactyl Helicopters’ tailor-made tours of the Scenic Rim get you out of the city and up into the air. Best described as a flying pub-crawl, guests touch down in the back paddocks of family- owned wineries and nearby country pubs, sampling the local produce, wine and beer, before taking off again fora bird’s-eye view of the surrounding mountains.

BRISBANE GREETERS TOURS: Departing at 10am daily, Brisbane’s free Brisbane Greeters tours offer a surprisingly comprehensive overview on the best of the city. Run by volunteer guides, tours are often tailored to their specific interests or knowledge, and it’s this personal perspective that make these intimate, six-person tours work.

STORY BRIDGE ADVENTURE CLIMB: Brisbane’s Story Bridge has been the city’s postcard- perfect backdrop for years, but since 2005 it has also forged a new identity as a giant adult’s jungle gym, offering adventure climbs and abseiling tours for those keen enough to conquer their fear of heights. Sunset climbs offer the best views.

LONE PINE SANCTUARY: Tick a few boxes on your animal encounters list by heading to Lone Pine Sanctuary, a 90-year-old Brisbane institution. Best reached via a river cruise from the CBD, visitors can feed kangaroos or cuddle a koala.

Buy

JAMES STREET: Located in Fortitude Valley, this meticulously landscaped shopping hub offers the creme de la creme of Australian brands. Broken up by a liberal scattering of al fresco cafes and homeware stores, it features designers such as Zimmerman, Camilla, Scanlan Theodore and Sass &Bide, as well as Brisbane activewear giant Lorna Jane.

BRISBANE ARCADE: Heritage-listed Brisbane Arcade is the perfect antidote to the same-same retail outlets occupying Queen Street Mall. Along with browsing the bridal boutiques, speciality jewellers and one of the city’s best-loved tea salons, keep an eye out for the resident ghost, rumoured to wander from shop to shop.

UBERMEN: Raising the bar for men’s fashion is homegrown label Ubermen — it opened in the CBD in 2014 and has since gained something of a cult following. Popular for its free stylist service, it also offers accessories and lifestyle products.

Eat

EAT STREET MARKETS: Arguably Brisbane’s best food experience, offering everything from freshly shucked oysters to Vietnamese cuisine, with craft ales, live music, expansive chill-out areas and a bustling crowd.

NODO: Nodo exemplifies the best of Australian cafe culture: a menu that covers everything from baked doughnuts to healthy green bowls, along with the critical ingredient any respectable Australian cafe needs: good coffee.

ESQUIRE: Serving up modern Australian fine dining with the obligatory sweeping views of the Brisbane River, Esquire offers a daily changing market menu, with dishes ranging from lamb with black cardamom to anchovies and basil.

After Hours

THE TRIFFID: Owned by a member of one of Brisbane’s most successful bands, Powderfinger, The Triffid is the kind of venue musicians and fans dream of, with a container-park beer garden outside and an intimate performance space located inside an old World War Two aircraft hangar.

LEFTY’SOLD TIME MUSIC HALL: With ornate chandeliers, red velvet drapes, and taxidermy lining the walls, Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall doesn’t hold back on the kitsch or cool, with a hidden mermaid-themed bar inside and a regular billing of live honky-tonk, bluegrass and country music.

RIVERBAR: A favourite with the after-work crowd, Riverbar specialises in al fresco sunset drinks with sweeping views. Expect tasty shared plates, great beers and lazy cocktails. Its convenient CBD location near the Eagle Street Pier ferry terminal doesn’t hurt either.

Sleep

IBIS STYLES ELIZABETH STREET: Offering good value for money and decent views of the Brisbane River, this Ibis has bright, functional rooms in a central location and includes free continental breakfast.

HEAL HOUSE: Located in Newstead, Heal House is one for the architectural buffs keen to live like a local in a large suburban Queenslander, with breakfast served on the verandah and a choice of three rooms with en suites for guests.

HOTEL INCHCOLM: With one of the best minibars you’ll ever see (including thankfully, a kettle), the Hotel Inchcolm offers visitors sophisticated art deco cool without sacrificing comfort. Don’t miss dining in its award-winning modern Australian restaurant, Thomson’s Reserve.

Like A Local

THE BLU ART XINJA: Brisbane’s answer to Banksy has left his blue mark all over Brisbane — but you have to know where to look. Locals have made a game of trying to spot the guerilla street artist’s work as it pops up — and before it’s taken down. The best example of ‘blue art’ is in Burnett Lane.

NEWSTEAD BREWING CO: The global craft beer phenomenon continues in Brisbane (a place where the climate thankfully warrants the thirst). To sample the city’s best, aficionados should head to the Newstead Brewing Co, popular for their lazy afternoon Sunday sessions.

MOUNT COOT-THA: Four miles from the CBD, Mount Coot-tha is known to international visitors as a lookout point offering the best views of Brisbane — but to locals it’s more popular for the walking tracks and bike trails through the surrounding bush land.

Essentials

Getting There & Around

Emirates codesharing with Qantas have connections from Newcastle, Manchester Birmingham and London to Brisbane (via Dubai). Singapore Airlines fly from Manchester and London to Brisbane via Singapore. Etihad Airways has connections via Abu Dhabi from London, Manchester and Edinburgh.

Brisbane Airtrain links Brisbane Airport and the CBD in 23 minutes. Tickets cost A$17.50 (£10.50).

Trains, buses and ferries connect the city. Customers require a prepaid Go Card, available from local railway stations. Two free buses, the City Loop and Spring Hill Loop, run between 7am to 6pm weekdays. A free (but horribly congested) Cityhopper ferry service travels between North Quay and New Farm.

Brisbane’s bike share scheme, CityCycle, has more than 150 pit stops with the first half-hour’s hire free; a week’s hire costs A$11 (£6.60).

How to Do It

TRAVELBAG has a seven-night package with three nights in Brisbane and four nights on the Gold Coast, including flights, from £899 per person, based on two people sharing.


City Life of Beirut

An alluring coastal capital with an endearingly split personality, Beirut is the thriving Arabian port city on the Med that refuses to be defined by its recent past.

Banquo has at least stopped bleeding. The clots have congealed and fallen away, leaving only the wounds in his flanks — ash-rimmed holes, blackened punctures, smoky scorches. But he’s here at the banquet nonetheless; a dead presence eyeing the guests who mill at his feet. And so I watch him in turn, this dread spectacle, and start to feel uncomfortable.

Catching sight of Beirut’s notorious Holiday Inn is an experience that tugs at the lungs. It makes me gasp. There’s something of Macbeth’s friend-turned-phantom-tormentor to this 26-storey wreck in the Minet el Hosn quarter.

All about it, the Lebanese capital is chasing the future in a blur of cash and glamour: chauffeured cars pulling up outside the five-star Phoenicia Hotel next door, and the Four Seasons and Le Vendome hotels beyond; sails fluttering at Le Yacht Club, the marina and chic residential complex on Zaitunay Bay.

But the Holiday Inn only wants to discuss the past: the Lebanese Civil War of 1975-1990, which transformed it from a glitzy debutante (it opened in 1974) into a blood-stained memory of what occurs when a cosmopolitan city becomes a charnel house of internecine conflict.

For two years (1975-1977) it was coveted not by tourists, but guerilla fighters who wanted its upper floors for snipers’ nests. So it was treated to a confetti shower of artillery to the point that, four decades on, it’s irredeemable.

The companies who co-own it — one Lebanese, one Kuwaiti — can’t agree on whether to demolish or renovate it, though the latter is implausible. And so it stands there, shrieking of a dispute between disparate militias that, though 27 years into yesterday, still shapes perceptions of Lebanon, casting it as a hell-hole of hostages and gunfire.

This is now a ridiculous idea, easily dispelled if you wander around Beirut on foot, along the Corniche promenade that flirts with the Mediterranean for three gilded miles; into the districts which present various versions of the city — resurgent Downtown, heavily rebuilt; Hamra and Ras-Beirut, full of Arabic chatter and strong coffee; Accrafieh and Gemayzeh, still dreaming of the French colonial era in their cafes and galleries; Verdun, merging Paris and the Middle East in its restaurants and luxury malls.

Together, they create an urban tapestry whose intricate craftsmanship is apparent whether you’re sipping a cocktail on Rue Monot or gazing at antiquity in the National Museum of Beirut. I find myself in the latter, staring in admiration at the tomb of Ahiram, a king who reigned in Byblos, 25 miles up the coast, in 1,000BC.

There, on the side of the sarcophagus, is the earliest known example of the Phoenician alphabet, a potent symbol of early communication and a reminder of two things: that Lebanon was a seat of civilisation while much of Europe was still squatting in the mud, and that the tale of its capital stretches far beyond 15 years in the abyss, however loudly Banquo moans and wails.

A Resurrection of Sorts

If the Holiday Inn is a scab of war, then Beirut’s Downtown is a sticking plaster on scar tissue. So damaged was the heart of the city due east of Minet el Hosn that it had to be re-created. And it was, by Rafic Hariri, prime minister of Lebanon between 1992 and 2004 (aside from a brief window in 1998-2000), who redrew the core of the capital as a polished zone of shops and sophistication fanning out around the pivotal Place de l’Etoile.

Perhaps it’s a little too sophisticated. Sitting in Al Balad, a Lebanese restaurant just off the square on Rue Hussein el Ahdab, I get the feeling that something isn’t right. True, there’s nothing wrong with the meal in front of me, a perfectly pleasant platter of grilled lamb. But out in the street, there’s an absence of reality, a dearth of authenticity.

Hariri revived his metropolis in fabric, but not in spirit, for Downtown lacks any of the scratches and scuffs that you might expect of an Arabian city. The pavements am smooth, manicured, and the road surfaces — thanks to the adjacent position of the national parliament and the security issues that go with it —are largely free of traffic, with cars backed up behind checkpoints.

The same applies, directly north, in the reconstructed souks. The location of Beirut’s main market zone is the same as in the city’s halcyon 1960s, but the space delineated by Avenue Mir Majid Arslan, Rue Weygand, Rue Patriarch Howayek and Rue Allenby is not the manic hive of citrus fruits, kitchenware and spices it once was.

Business seems brisk as I stroll through Souk al-Tawileh and Souk al-Jamil — but it’s Christian Louboutin and Louis Vuitton who are doing the selling. Pedlars do not peddle; hagglers do not haggle. It’s as if the 21st century has expunged all that came before, using a whitewash of luxury.

Listen carefully, however, and former epochs whisper. On the south-east edge of Place de l’Etoile, St George’s Orthodox Cathedral remembers its late 19th-century origins in a swirl of incense and candlelight. Behind, scattered pillars and columns reach back further, to the Roman incarnation of Beirut.

And if the Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque is a pretender, a newcomer hewn between 2002 and 2008 as part of Downtown’s reemergence, it rises with such elegance — four 65m-tall minarets lancing the sky, a soaring blue dome that wouldn’t seem out of context in Ottoman Istanbul — that its youth is invisible.

Meanwhile, over in Hamra, Beirut is struggling to contain itself. At a table on the street outside Cafe Hamra, an argument has broken out. Perhaps it’s not an altercation, more a heated discussion. But the four men seated in a cluster are ripping into their subject matter like lions into a zebra carcass.

A fist is raised, the table is banged with sufficient power for the eight small cups and three laden ashtrays on its circular top to tremble in concern. For a moment I’m fearful that the scene will unravel into violence. But then them are shrugs, nodded heads, handshakes, and the quartet rises in friendship, their gloopy dregs of coffee still shaking from the force of their conversation.

If Downtown is a sanitised vision of how a Middle Eastern city should look in 2017, Hamra, to the west, is the truth. It’s the soul of Beirut, a glowing ember of Arabic clutter and cacophony. Minibuses and taxis stutter along Rue Hamra, its main east-to-west drag, exhaust fumes billowing, horns honking with an incessant impatience that never succeeds in soothing the congestion. The stores fringing the thoroughfare are just as crowded, with locals shopping not for $800 handbags but for washing powder, irons, shampoo, cartons of orange juice. It’s a maze which, for all its mundanity, demands exploration.

And so I explore, down the narrow lanes of Rue Antoun Gemayel, Rue Yamout and Rue Ibrahim Abdul Aal, through a press of people and purpose, until I drop back onto Rue Hamra and into coffeehouse Bread Republic, where the game of call and response between staff and regular customers is as representative a flavour of Lebanon as the mint tea in front of me.

But then it all slopes away. At its west end, Rue Hamra becomes Rue Kuwait and drifts downhill through the adjacent district of Ras-Beirut to connect with the Corniche, which forges south here as Avenue General de Gaulle.

Suddenly, the Mediterranean dominates the picture, a green-grey carpet wrapping itself around the off-shore outcrops of Pigeon Rocks in a flurry of white flecks — and I struggle to connect the dots. Ras-Beirut wears a faint shadow. It was here that British captives Terry Waite and John McCarthy were held in dank basements.

Yet today, there’s only warmth and light, holidaymakers turning their faces towards the sunshine on Ramlet Al-Bayda Beach, a crescent of sand which could happily grace the Cote D’Azur, as any ghosts of the dark decades are blown away on the breeze.

A Gallic Throwback

Catchphrases become cliches for good reason. And Beirut’s oft-quoted status as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ is a description born of fact. Not because an Eiffel Tower rears tall on Place des Martyrs, but because the French Mandate of Lebanon and Syria (1923-1946), the post-First World War partitioning of the collapsed Ottoman Empire by Europe’s key states, left its mark. It’s perhaps less pronounced than it was.

But ambling along Rue Gouraud, the arterial avenue in easterly Gemayzeh — so far east that it was on the other side of the infamous barbed-wire Green Line which divided Beirut during the civil war — I’m not wholly convinced that this isn’t the Rue de Rivoli where it skirts the hem of the Marais. There are jewellers and gem stores, cafes which blink woozily at the afternoon. Urbanista deals in patterned-milk lattes and laptop tip-tap.

And when my lunch —pink-raw slices of seared tuna, doused in sesame seeds, on delicate slivers of toast — arrives, thoughts of conflict feel far removed.

Montmartre feels closer, in effect. The bohemian hilltop of Paris is echoed on Saint Nicholas Stairs, ascending 500 metres southwards, small galleries pitted along its gradient.

Laboratoire D’Art revels in painting, sculpture and photography; it’s a permanent exhibition spot in a place which was hosting outdoor art shows before the civil war, and has picked up the thread again, earning the moniker ‘Escalier De L’Art’. And so I go up, one step, two, to the 125th; this corridor of creativity impersonating the French capital all the way.

My reward at the top is not the Sacre Coeur but the Cathedral of Saint Nicholas, a Greek Orthodox bastion offset by the Jardin Saint Nicholas, a pretty pocket of green. Then Gemayzeh seeps into the sub-district of Accrafieh and the party begins. Rue Monot is an antidote to the idea of the Middle East as a dour region of pious self-restraint, its doors opening onto bars and drinkeries.

Pacifico delights in a Mexican ambience and a long list of tequilas; 370 pines for a Marais back lane in its cocktail menu and chic vibe; O Monot finishes the sentence, a boutique retreat of 41 rooms, decorated with slabs of modern art, where the sense of denial that the Louvre is not a five-minute walk away is near-palpable.

France simply won’t take the hint that its mandate has expired. While, officially, the broad boulevard which cuts south from Hamra, through Snoubra, ultimately ending its journey where it hits the Corniche, bears the title ‘Rue Rachid Karami’, it’s known locally as Rue Verdun. Liberté, egalité and fraternité link arms on this two-mile drag whose name salutes the First World War battle which saved the French nation, and its identity, in 1916.

And yet, in the neighbourhood of Verdun, another identity has coalesced: the European and Middle Eastern strands of Beirut intermingling. The former has its say at the north end of the strip, where Hotel Le Bristol, a grand old dame, sings of that white-gloved, coat-tailed version of hospitality which feels most at home in the capitals of the Old World.

The latter finds expression in Leila, the best restaurant on the street, a Lebanese gastronomic delight, where Beirut displays a dash of liberté, egalité and fraternité of its own — all-women groups of diners pooled at booth tables, dissecting meze dishes over laughter and Tuesday evening chatter, heads unbowed to the conventions of a portion of the planet that can be all too masculine.

There are further knots of girls’-night-out togetherness amid the flash and sparkle of the Dunes Center. But my attention is caught, in this gleaming glass complex of retail outlets and cascading elevators, not by the gold watches in their reinforced showcases, but by the intriguing sign for the main hotel. ‘Holiday Inn Beirut Dunes’, it reads.

The property isn’t new — it opened as far back as 1998. But the accommodation giant’s move to an alternative address in the city feels, nonetheless, like a stride away from the desiccated corpse that still clings to its brand. Two miles to the north-east, Banquo grumbles. It seems the banquet will outlast him.

Getting There & Around

British Airways operates a daily flight from Heathrow. Middle East Airlines, Lebanon’s national carrier, offers a daily service on the same route. ba.com mea.com.lb

Public transport within the city is limited, but Beirut is easily explored on foot, and Uber cabs are increasingly common. Taxis into town from the airport should cost US$25 (120).

When to Go

Lebanon has a southern Mediterranean climate akin to Turkey and Cyprus. Temperatures dip to around 15C between January and February, but crest 30C during July and August.

How to Do It

KIRKER HOLIDAYS offers three-night breaks at the Four Seasons from £1,279 per person, including return flights, private transfers and breakfast.

WILDFRONTIERS sells an eight-day ‘Lebanon: Jewel Of The Levant’ group tour with four nights in Beirut. From 11,690 per person, land only.


The Capital of Mexican Taste – Mexico City

Tienes hambre? Then make sure to pack your appetite (and some stretchy pants) for a trip to Mexico City. The vivacious metropolis combines Old World charm with a red-hot culinary scene that’s currently taking the food world by storm.

“Mexico City is a hot spot because of its diversity and quality. You can get any kind of food you’re looking for, from excellent tacos to amazing fine dining experiences,” says Elizabeth Chichino, who handles public relations for the restaurant Lorea. “And many Mexican chefs have traveled the world and learned from great restaurants that no matter the concept, quality is the cornerstone for growth.”

Whether your taste in dining runs haute cuisine or hole-in-the-wall, there’s a multitude of mouthwatering meals to discover. Here’s where to dig in:

Begin your day with a hearty breakfast at Fonda Mayora. The latest venture from renowned chef Gerardo Vazquez Lugo is a go-to for a great morning.

Fonda Mayora Restaurant

Fonda Mayora Restaurant

Land a table outdoors, order the fresh bread basket with local honey and soak up the scene. Don’t leave without trying the hueuos encamisados, eggs baked inside fresh tortillas. If this seems slightly excessive, just remember you’ll need the energy to explore the city’s top food haunts on foot.

Start burning off those calories by wandering La Merced, one of Mexico’s largest food markets, located about a mile southeast of the city’s famed central plaza, the zocalo. Vendors of all stripes — spice merchants, torta slingers, even insect sellers — cram the narrow passageways with intriguing snacks and edible souvenirs you can take home.

Take a breather from the bus­tling market with a wine-fueled lunch at Amaya.

Owned by restaurateur Jair Tellez, the eatery pours natural, organic and biodynamic wines from Mexican and Latin American producers alongside delicious wood-fired dishes such as roasted cauliflower with tahini guacamole.

amaya restaurant mexico

Amaya Restaurant and its unique interior design

For dinner, try to score a seat at the buzzed-about Fonda Fina the restaurant doesn’t take reservations. Opt for the rotisserie chicken with mole or the tender grilled octopus, but don’t leave without requesting the teporocho (slang for someone so drunk that he can’t get off the sidewalk). The potent, Long Island iced-tealike concoction is playfully served in a paper bag.

If you’d rather sample the city’s molecular gas­tronomy scene, try Lorea, which presents guests with just two tasting menus for an exquisite, haute cuisine experience. No matter which one you choose, all meals here look like plated works of art.

Launch day two with Mexican coffee and a cinnamon-sugar-laced churro as you stroll Mercado Roma, a two-story, modern-day food hall packed with gourmet eats and drinks.

mercado roma

Mercado Roma food hall

Upstairs at Sereni, the creative culinary abilities of chef Fernando Martinez — known for spotlighting the top ingredients from his home state of Michoacan — are on full display in thoughtful dishes like marinated trout from the city of Zitacuaro with smoky chile mayo and caviar.

To prove Mexico City is a global hub for gourmands, make stops at Merkava for Jerusalem-inspired hummus with pillowy pita bread, and then try the pintxos bar at Sagardi for tiny snack bites straight out of Spain’s Basque Country.

Feeling full yet? Don’t leave without a mouthwatering six- or seven-course meal at world-renowned Pujol. Reimagined in 2017, Enrique Olvera’s much-celebrated restaurant moved to a new location complete with a backyard garden and an updated menu. Luckily, crowd favorites like the baby corn and famous mole madre, which mellows for an unbelievable 700 days, still made the menu. It’s a tasty bookend to a toothsome tour of Mexico City.

Where to Stay

hotel w mexico city

W Mexico City Hotel

Even if you’re stuffed, save room for a night-cap (say, a gin and tonic sorbet) at J by Jose Andres in the fashion-forward  W Hotel, before hitting the sheets. Located in the stylish Polanco neighborhood, it’s an ideal place to call home base during your south-of-the-border binge fest.


Modernism Is Always in Style in Palm Springs – California

The sun rises over California’s Little San Bernardino Mountains, casting its dazzling light across the city of Palm Springs. This desert gem is awash in color: vibrant reds and pinks of bougainvillea and oleander, deep green palm fronds, the brilliant blue of a cloudless sky.

But the regional landscape isn’t the only thing prompting visitors to reach for their oversized Jackie O-style Francois Pinton sunglasses. The city’s showy homes and buildings — with incandescent white or desert sand facades, sparkling plate glass windows and pops of silver, metal, teal and orange on trim and doorways — are just as blindingly beautiful.

In fact, it is the architecture of this place — the largest concentration of midcentury modern buildings in the U.S. — that is behind Palm Springs’ revival as a Hollywood hideaway and top tourist destination.

“It’s an extraordinary and surprising paradise,” says Robert Imber, a 25-year resident and owner of Palm Springs Modern Tours. “It’s a desert… that is surrounded by these mountains. We have oases; we have a 60-foot waterfall, and then we have this historic architecture. It is beautiful, and it’s unique.”

A community of roughly 45,000 people, Palm Springs basks in 350 days of sunshine a year, winter highs in the low 70s and a year- round outdoor lifestyle that has beckoned celebrities since the 1920s, when silent-screen legend Gloria Swanson owned a home here.

Many celebrities followed — Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Cary Grant, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and the entire Rat Pack, including Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. The confluence of these moneyed vacationers wanting getaways that reflected their discriminating taste and the postwar building boom created a setting for some of the era’s top architects — Albert Frey, John Lautner, Richard Neutra and Donald Wexler, to name a few — to build remarkable works.

palm springs bob hope house

Bob Hope’s Palm Springs estate

“The architects were responding to the environment. With air conditioning, there was a lot more they could do. They were experimenting with this new indoor-outdoor lifestyle, with homes opening to the swimming pools and glass walls to showcase the mountains,” says Chris Menrad, president of the Palm Springs Modern Committee, also known as

When midcentury modern fell out of favor in the late 1970s and 1980s, newcomers built larger, newer homes elsewhere in the Coachella Valley, leaving many of the city’s iconic homes and buildings untouched by time, but also neglected.
ModCom.

The late 1990s brought renewed interest, according to Menrad. Fashion photographers began scouting unusual spaces for photo shoots, and hipsters with an eye for architecture snatched up vintage 1940s, ’50s and ’60s homes at reasonable prices.

A Vanity Fair article on Palm Springs in 1999 simply fanned the flames, Menrad adds. “That huge spread followed by a renewed Zeitgeist for the style, with Mad Men and all, lit a fuse. Summer used to be a dead time, but now, weekends are always full.”

Today, visitors can enjoy the retro vibe in boutique hotels, resorts and restaurants, as well as public buildings and thousands of homes. For a small taste, they can pick up a map of iconic buildings at the Palm Springs Visitors Center, a brilliant Albert Frey-designed gas station saved from the wrecking ball in the 1990s.

Or they can download the self-guided ModCom Mid-Century Modern Tour app and design their experience around it. Narrated by architectural historians, the app highlights more than the exteriors of the midcentury buildings and includes videos of site interiors — an advantage over a map, since many buildings are privately owned and not tourable.

Private tours also can be arranged through Palm Springs Modern Tours, three-hour immersions into form and design from the comfort of a minivan. Imber, one of the city’s best-known architecture aficianados, serves as driver and guide, sharing his extensive knowledge of the area’s buildings and quirky insider tidbits on topics ranging from Hollywood-heyday gossip to California architects, designers and builders.

dinah shore palm springs estate

Dinah Shore Estate – Palm Springs

For those wanting more, ModCom hosts Modernism Week, which took place over 11 days in February this year and included more than 250 events, from specialty tours and lectures to panel discussions, education courses and, because this is Palm Springs, parties. A fall preview is set for Oct. 20-22.

American pop-culture comedian and connoisseur Charles Phoenix served as a bus tour guide during Modernism Week. When he drives from Los Angeles to Palm Springs and sees the visitor center’s distinctive sweeping canopy, any stress melts away.

“I feel like the world, the rest of the world somehow, doesn’t even exist anymore,” he says. Imber agrees: “Even those of us, we who live here, are really awed by this place every day.”

Make a Trip of It

Reservoir: Diners at Reservoir in the Arrive Hotel sit in Scandinavian-style chairs, underneath a butterfly roof, dipping into ceviche or shared tacos while overlooking the hotel pool, bar and toasty fire pits.

Mr. Lyons:

mr. lyons palm springs

Mr. Lyons Restaurant – Palm Springs

Sink into the deep green velvet banquettes of this clubby steak-house, order a classic dry martini, Manhattan or sidecar, and you’ll feel Rat-Pack cool in a restaurant that’s been around  since the late 1940s when Frank Sinatra built his weekend getaway in Palm Springs.

L’Horizon: This William Cody-designed Hollywood retreat built in 1952 has been reimagined as 25-room luxury celebration of modernism, from the George Mulhauser chairs and cooper fireplaces in some rooms to a center court infinity-edge pool where guests enjoy complimentary foot and back massages.

Orbit In and Hideaway: These authentic midcentury modern properties have the same ownership. The Orbit In’s nine rooms boasts themes from top designers, including Eero Saarinen; the Hideaway’s 10 rooms have stunning mountain views.