Now you’re talking: five-star and frugal

Vibrant ... Beijing's Dongcheng district.
Vibrant ... Beijing's Dongcheng district. Photo: Getty Images

Kerry-Anne Walsh makes the most of a strong dollar to live it up on a budget odyssey.

If sipping champagne while jetting at the pointy end of the plane is an unrequited goal, pack your bags while the Australian dollar remains strong - who knows how long it will last?

Travelling executive on an economy budget isn't difficult. All that's needed is to target a market, plan ahead, choose the right time of year and exploit the international airline and hotel wrangle for the tourism dollar, still weakened by the 2008 global financial crisis.

We took a trip to Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing that involved luxurious stays and front-of-plane travel impossible in the days of the weak Aussie dollar. And I drank more French champagne than was necessary and am happy to report its allure isn't dulled by repetition.

A bell hanging in a temple in Beihai Park, Dongcheng.
A bell hanging in a temple in Beihai Park, Dongcheng. 

The flight path to the good life started by snapping up bargain fares on business and premium economy seats, which I combined with sale economy seats that I upgraded to business using frequent-flyer points.

It can be a juggling act: do you grab a deal three months out or wait and see if a better deal comes along? Mix it up - early on I snaffled ridiculously cheap deals from Canberra to Melbourne, the springboard for our odyssey; and later pounced on a business-class deal to Singapore, at the equivalent of an economy fare.

The battle between Qantas and Virgin Australia has given an extra edge to the airline price war, with both offering discounted business-class fares and sometimes "companion" two-for-one specials.

I aimed for a blend of luxury, comfort and uniqueness when plotting accommodation. A starting point was cut-price accommodation sites offering deals from two months to 24 hours ahead. Some charge more than 20 per cent commission to the hotel concerned, so if you go directly to the hotel websites you'll usually get even more attractive one-day and package deals.

Most hotels offer a discount of 20 per cent for booking 14 days in advance; others, up to 30 per cent for 30 days in advance. Some toss in spa treatments, full breakfasts or club privileges to entice. I chose a quirky, upmarket hotel in Singapore, a unique, comfortable hutong hotel in Beijing and one of Asia's most awarded hotels in Hong Kong.

First stop was Singapore, relaxed after an easy 7½-hour flight from Melbourne. It's best to choose off-seasons, such as our winter when it's very hot in Asia; or our summer when it's cold (but not by some Australian regional standards) in Asia. These times can be lean for hotel operators in Asia, sparking a ferocious price war.

We stayed at the newish Grand Park Orchard (+65 6603 8888, parkhotelgroup.com), a five-star hotel just off shopaholic's paradise, Orchard Road. As a relatively new kid on the block, it offered a special on a king club room for about $250 a double (or twin). Club privileges include gourmet breakfasts, afternoon tea, night canapes and cocktails and club access all day (tea, coffee, computers and free internet access, lounging rights).

It's one of a new breed of arty hotels emerging in the increasingly eclectic and sophisticated tourist destination of Singapore, a city trying to shake its reputation as simply a stopover bed to Europe. Hotels such as the Grand Park Orchard are enticing travellers to linger longer.

Our room was comfortably sized, the bed linen crisp, the pillows plump. A startling purple reclining chair with matching footstool sat by the floor-to-ceiling window; a desk a necessary inclusion. Even the lights - a barometer of a good or bad hotel - were funky and functional.

Another barometer is the bathroom. The Grand Orchard's passed with flying colours: a spacious glass-encased shower cubicle stretched across the room, with a large, square rain shower.

The hotel itself is awash with colour. The Marilyn Monroe-esque painting splashed behind the bed was arresting at first but fit with the multipatterned bold carpets in the foyers and the primary-coloured stools and chairs dotting the open spaces and lounges.

A highlight was the Crystal Club Lounge. The service was impeccable, the food and drinks (yes, free-flowing French champagne) sublime and plentiful. After a day of sightseeing and shopping, the bountiful gourmet canapes were more than enough to satisfy this gourmand's needs.

 

BEIJING

Three nights later, it was off to Beijing. We nabbed a great deal flying business class via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific. It added a couple of hours of stopover time but when the lag time is spent in an airline lounge it adds to the experience.

We chose a small, traditional hotel in the hutong district of Dongcheng, Ji House (+86 4008 106 868, agoda.com), four kilometres from Tiananmen Square and about 30 kilometres from the airport. Rumoured to be an abode of scholars and poets in the Yuan Dynasty, it has been restored to its past elegant glory. Eight enormous double rooms with en suites and king-size beds look on to the courtyard with a persimmon tree and fish pond - deemed essential for good luck.

Rooms are each uniquely decorated in rich colours and accessories and antique-style Chinese furniture. The tariff includes a Western or delicious Chinese breakfast for two (we chose Chinese - red bean stew, congee with pickled vegetables and savoury pastries), served in a small, homely room at one end of the cobbled courtyard. All this - plus helpful staff to write Chinese instructions on bits of paper for notoriously unhelpful Beijing taxi drivers - for just $80 a room.

Make sure when you book online that the hotel sends you the Chinese instructions to hand to the taxi driver at the airport. The hotel is down the narrowest of alleyways in a traditional area that seems miles from anywhere when arriving by night but in the light of day explodes into a fascinating mix of old and new: hip bolthole bars and coffee places nudge up against tiny courtyard homes where generations of families live together. The district is about six or eight kilometres to the city centre, which can take 40 minutes in a taxi on Beijing's choked roads.

 

HONG KONG

Five days later we touched down in a Hong Kong looking remarkably unpolluted compared with the pea-soup air of Beijing. We stayed in one of Asia's crown jewel hotels, the InterContinental (+852 2721 1211, hongkong-ic.intercontinental.com) in Salisbury Road, Kowloon. Its relaxed but impeccably decorated rooms and restaurants result in it consistently being placed in the top 10 Asian hotels and among the top 500 in the world. In 2011, it scooped the Gold List Award of China Tourism and Best Business Hotel.

Two-thirds of the 500 hotel rooms and suites overlook Victoria Harbour, the pulsating heart of Hong Kong. The rooms are spacious and the amenities and inclusions first-class. A 100-centimetre LCD TV, Bose home entertainment sound system with iPod dock and wi-fi internet access is standard for guestrooms and suites. All rooms have Italian marble bathrooms with large sunken baths and a separate enclosed shower. Heaven!

But it's the view that's to die for - not only from the hotel room but from most vantage points in the hotel. Floor-to-ceiling glass in our room offered mesmerising views, day and night, of the frenetic harbour. The lobby lounge was crowded from breakfast until late with locals and tourists taking advantage of the view and the ambience. High tea at the InterContinental is one of Hong Kong's great family pleasures - turn up early or miss out.

The lobby is also a great vantage point as Kowloon's nightly light and sound show explodes over the harbour, and the harbour front's Avenue of Stars teems with locals and tourists.

On the first floor sits the executive lounge. Oh my. Breakfast is five-star, generous high teas pack on the kilos, and cocktails and canapes between 5.30pm and 8pm are gourmet fare of chef-hat status (there are three internationally award-winning restaurants in the hotel, by the by).

Drinks (yep, the best bubbly) are delivered by silently efficient attendants formally kitted out in crisp black and white.

Any guest who books into the hotel has the option of buying access to the executive floor. A stay at one of Asia's finest can cost as little as $350 a night, with executive privileges costing about an extra $100 a person each day.

Among many good things about Hong Kong is the public transport. A taxi to Kowloon Station (about $8), an easy bullet train ride to the airport ($15) and pretty soon we're winging home. And eager for the next luxury adventure that won't break the budget.

Comments