Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017
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The Dining Dynasty

Tokyo, 10PM: a travelling executive, after a long day of meetings, soaks in the public baths known as onsen and contemplates a sake nightcap. Hong Kong, 9pm: a hospital CEO pulls back his wall-to-wall drapes and gazes out at Victoria Harbour and the Hong Kong skyline, one of the greatest panoramic views on the planet. Bali, 9PM: a Canadian physician floats blissfully in his plunge pool, melodic degung music wafting from the CD system in his villa. Bangkok, 8PM: a travel photographer celebrates his day with a Thai feast roaring with chillies, garlic and lemon grass. The trick here is that everyone might be, at the same moment in time, a guest at Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Asia branch.

Toronto-based Four Seasons, in what is one of the great Canadian success stories of the past century, ranks as the largest operator of luxury hotels in the world. Canadians may be aware of this and know of Four Seasons properties in Nevis or in Hawaii, but they're probably unaware of the remarkable expansions in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

There are already hotels in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Jakarta and Bali. A new location in Shanghai is in the works for 2002 and others will follow. Company helmsman, Canadian Isadore Sharp may be a family man, straight arrow and nice guy, but he's conquered more of Asia than Genghis Khan. That's not bad for a Ryerson Polytechnic grad who started with a motor hotel on Toronto's Jarvis Street in 1960. Today, Sharp presides over an empire of 49 hotels and resorts in 21 countries. In 1999, company revenues amounted to $2.4 billion.

It's no secret that Four Seasons caters to the well-heeled business traveller, with legendary standards: comfort and quiet, sumptuous interior designs, stellar international restaurants, trouble-shooting concierges, access to fully-appointed business centres around the clock, 24-hour room service and a range of amenities, from complimentary shoeshines to top-of-the-line toiletries.

For most of us, a stay at a Four Seasons is a special treat. And it goes without saying that the Four Seasons is more than just hotels. The company exerts a painstaking effort to marry their hotels to the cultures in which they exist, and this effort turns a stay at a Four Seasons into a unique experience. Nowhere does this ring more true than in Asia, where the company manages hotels under both the Four Seasons and Regent "brands." Herein, I proffer some subjective notes from my journeys into Asia.

Four Seasons Chinzan-so, Tokyo
Imagine thermostatically controlled toilet seats, heated water jets and gusts of warm air that pamper your backside. Is this technology or culture?

There are culture shows in the hotel's Shinto shrine for weddings and other happy ceremonial occasions. In the onsen, while Western businessmen occupy themselves with instruments of torture in the fitness room, the Japanese take to the hot springs baths, where they soak to attain the exalted state of the dishmop.

The hotel's Miyaki restaurant boasts a sushi-sashimi bar that dispenses the freshest possible fish. The seating has been comfortably arranged for the procession of courses known as kaiseki. But I save my thrills for the gleaming stainless-steel teppan grill, where Shinichi Doshita redefines the art of sashimi. Doshita works his ingredients with deft silence, his eyes flickering with amusement. The 10 gaijin (the Japanese word for foreigners) at the table gasp as shrimp, lobster and abalone hit the grill flapping. The seafood, which is barely warmed through, makes you wonder why you've wasted your life on anything else.

Instead of discarding the shrimp heads, the chef zaps them with wine and brandy and browns them to a crisp. We gaijin aren't used to shrimp heads, but we're not going to say no to an adventure either. They go down as smoothly as softshell crab and the flavours of the fruits of the sea explode across the palate.

Regent Hong Kong
Unquestionably Hong Kong's eternal candidate for world's best hotel, the Regent boasts a guest list that extends from Frank Sinatra to Gerard Depardieu, Steven Spielberg to Bernardo Bertolucci, Gore Vidal to the King of Tonga. A fleet of Daimlers, Mercedes and Rolls-Royces are lined up in the cobblestone piazza out front.

The hotel's view is simply spellbinding. From the lobby, the restaurant and my bedroom, a panorama of Victoria Harbour, the Hong Kong skyline and the traffic of sampans and cruise ships unfolds before me. Thank the venerable Chinese belief in feng shui or geomancy. A feng shui master told the hotel's builders that its location lay in the path of nine dragons descending from the hills of Kowloon to bathe (only a dragon could survive in these filthy waters). The hotel responded by installing a phalanx of three-storey-high panoramic windows. Dragons, it seems, have no problem with picture windows.

According to the International Herald-Tribune, the hotel's restaurant, Lai Ching Heen, is one of the top 10 in the world. It is certainly the best place to find refined Cantonese food. Run by chefs Cheung Kam-Chuen and Chan Yan-Tak, Lai Ching Heen delivers perfection: the seafood is incomparably delicate, the fowl the fairest imaginable and the pork succulent. The signature dish, Kam-Chuen's scallops, is easily one of the best dishes I've encountered in 20 years of travel writing. The scallops are capped with a mixture of shrimp, Yunnan ham and fresh coriander, sandwiched between crunchy slices of Asian pear, dusted with corn flour and then deep-fried.

Regent Bangkok
At five in the morning, I clamber out of bed in an Ayutthaya hotel, dress myself in a 35 mm Nikon camera and trundle off to the restored ruin of Wat Chaiwathanarum, a temple complex used by Siamese royalty until the Burmese invasion of 1767. I capture the day's first golden light as it washes over the faces of the temple's Buddhas and reap a photographer's high.

By mid-afternoon, I'm wilting in the Southeast Asian swelter. At the Regent, the glassed-in shower sweeps away the sweat of days spent in hotels without hot water. The air conditioning is a welcome change from the sticky heat. The king-size bed engulfs me, sending me into a deep nap. Later, I dine in the Spice Market, the hotel's Thai restaurant, decorated like an old spice port. The kitchen is run by an all-female brigade of chefs, a rarity anywhere in the world. I eat catfish, stuffed squid and lobster fried in a cloud of garlic, chilies and lemon grass. It's been a traveller's perfect day, with a morning spent toiling among the ruins and an evening spent in shameless luxury.

 

Regent Resort Chiang Mai
Designed by Thai architect Chulathat Kitibutr, the Regent Chiang Mai unfurls around rice paddies in the Mae Rim Valley in the north of Thailand. The property draws on the old Lanna -- land of a million rice fields -- culture of the north for its atmosphere, design and a volley of cultural accents from sculptures and weavings to a spirit house built to woo the benign presence that wards off evil spirits and bad luck.

I am intensely happy in one of the 67 airy pavilions. This is like owning your own rice paddy. The resort proves to be a fine base for exploring Chiang Mai's celebrated Night Market and the hill tribe villages of the Thai north.

In the mornings, the albino water buffalo go to work in the rice paddies. I've come to enjoy watching them before loping over to the terrace for the Thai breakfast I've also come to love: congee, a cauldron of silken rice porridge with garlic chicken dumplings, Thai sausage laced with lemon grass and chilies, fried tofu croutons, shallots, scallions, red chilies, green chilies, ginger and soy.

Regent Kuala Lumpur
In Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, hip Chinese foodies gravitate towards Lai Ching Yuen in the Regent Hotel. Here, there are no glaring lights, no crimson walls, no dragons, no tacky chinoiserie and no plastic tablecloths. Instead, illuminated glass etchings, Burmese teas, jade green-and-silver table settings and service so smooth, it's unnoticeable.

Chef Frankie Woo's lunchtime salvo is an eye-popping dim sum tray of 30 dishes, a bold new turn on an old trick. Take your pick from deep-fried yam puffs that are magically stuffed with an exciting blend of black, straw and button mushrooms; soft rice flour pancakes stuffed with tiny shrimp and drizzled with pungent XO chili sauce; vegetarian rolls loaded with tofu and black mushrooms that are sure to delight that gastronomically oppressed minority. And yes, there's even chicken feet on the menu.

Thereafter? Those not impressed with braised shark's fin with bird's nest can move right on to flamed prawns with Chinese herbs, charred salmon with pickled ginger, stir-fried chicken with mango, deep-fried duck with yam and emu -- yes, emu -- with black pepper sauce.

Four Seasons Singapore
You can take things with you when you leave this take-out hotel. Unsurprisingly, guests have purchased almost 1000 beds and 500 pillows since this property opened. But creature comforts quickly give way to the pleasures of the table. The hotel's executive chef is Martin Aw Yong, who at 40, is the first Singaporean to run a five-star hotel kitchen, breaking the monopoly of the Swiss and Austrian chef mafia. If the Chinese invented firecrackers, then Martin Aw Yong is dynamite.

Welcome to Aw Yong's theatre of world cuisine. In his East-West adventure, foie gras turns up in an infusion in sweet corn cappuccino. Sea-sweet scallops are both hot-smoked and rare enough to qualify as a tartare, with crisp papaya chips on the side. The flattened quail is a juicy bird paired with pumpkin risotto and presented on black ceramic plates. Poached Atlantic cod flaunts a dollop of oscietra caviar. For such inventions, the gods created a Chinese-sounding word: wow.

Four Seasons Resort Bali, Jimbaran Bay
While giving a personal tour of our villa accommodation, I take my wife through the secret garden tucked away against the walls with an outdoor shower. I whisk her through the marble bathroom, past the free-standing soaker tub, to the bedroom, with its king-size bed veiled in mosquito netting and shuttered doors that face the South China Sea. Come, step out into the walled courtyard to the open-air, thatched-roof living and dining room.

The Cost of Paradise Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay Rates start at $800 per night for a villa. Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan Rates start at $649 per night Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Chinzan-so Rates start at $685 per night The Regent Bangkok Rates start at $335 per night The Regent Chiang Mai Resort & Spa Rates start at $556 per night for a villa The Regent Hong Kong Rates start at $638 per night The Regent Kuala LumpurRates start at $205 per night Four Seasons (www.fourseasons.com) reservations can be made through the Worldwide Reservations Office at (800) 268-6282, while Regent reservations can be made through Carlson Group at (800) 545-4000.

Gourmet's well-heeled readers have recently anointed the Four Seasons Resort at Jimbaran Bay Southeast Asia's top hotel, and even more significantly, the most romantic resort on the planet. In two decades of travel writing, this is as close as I've come to hotel heaven -- the hotel is the destination. I've met people who've flown all the way to Bali and never left their villas except for meals.

We spa -- yes, it's a verb now -- in the sunny new facility. This being the romantic resort, we choose the spa's Royal Lulur treatment for two, which is based on the wedding rites of Indonesian royals. The two-hour treatment begins with an herbal massage and follows with a full-body scrub using a coarse paste of turmeric, sandalwood and spices. Just as we start smelling like a particularly fragrant curry, we move to the adjoining garden where we're slathered -- eeeek! -- in chilled yogurt, a tonic for the pores. We're finally left to soak in a double tub with flower petals floating on the surface, a dreamy meld of sense and sensuality.

At Taman Wantilan, the resort's principal restaurant, chef Marc Miron from Hull, Quebec, embraces the Tropical Paradise with an oeuvre including rock lobster spring rolls, Balinese-style minced satays, rack of lamb in a tamarind sauce and duck betutu, Bali's great ceremonial dish that swoons with ginger and chilies. Hotel guests cheer on the spices that used to bewitch Western traders in sailing ships and still cast their sultry spell over modern journeyers like Miron.

Four Seasons Resort Bali, Sayan
Just outside the arts and crafts centre of Ubud, the Sayan property is the flip side of Jimbaran Bay. If Jimbaran reaches out to the shining sea, Sayan reaches into the rice terrace, the rushing river and the jungle. Its design is the most radical in the Four Seasons 42-hotel portfolio. It looks as though it has just touched down on the valley floor and guests invariably liken it to a flying saucer of the Close Encounters variety.

You enter at roof level, where there is a giant lotus pond, and descend through the reception, restaurant and spa to 46 sumptuously appointed villas with outdoor living rooms, spacious sundecks and extra-large plunge pools. Our villa has a view of bamboo, ginger, papaya, eggplant, lemon grass and tiered rice terraces.

At the open-air Ayung Terrace, we dine on lemon grass-scented lobster satay with sweet basil and Balinese roast suckling pig. With its wafting aroma and crisp skin, the juicy flesh slides easily off the bone.

After dinner, we practically roll downhill to the villa. It's our last night in Bali. We hop into the plunge pool in the steamy, clear night. Constellations, hanging above us like lanterns, render Sayan a five-billion-star hotel. Paradise found: we understand why people forsake their homes and flee to such a place. We float on our backs, vowing not to budge until security comes to carry us out, weeping.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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