LUXURY HOME STAYS
Imagine staying in a castle in the Scottish Highlands, throwing a party for your pals Hogwarts-style in The Great Hall, complete with a roaring Inglenook fireplace. Then an elaborate meal served at a 16-seater dining table, after which you retire for the night in a king-sized poster bed. Or how about a weekend in a hilltop villa on Lake Como in Italy, a five-bedroom dream home with lake-facing bathrooms and a covered terrace?
It may not belong to actor George Clooney, but you never know whose house you're staying in when you sign up as a member of Stay One Degree - a Hong Kong-based service that lets holidaymakers stay in private apartments, chateaus, ski chalets and even super yachts, and for owners of such properties to rent them out.
Think of it as a super-exclusive, membership-based Airbnb, which allows you to connect with the homeowners, who, in turn, feel more secure in that they're renting their abode to a friend or a friend of a friend.
"There is a chain of trust as the guest staying in the house is a trusted connection," says co-founder and chief executive Thomas Bennett, a former investment banker.
Stay One Degree has properties listed in 42 countries and hopes to have 1,000 homes by the first quarter of 2018. Mr Bennett says it has "thousands" of members. Membership is free and you do not need to list your home to be a member.
Members are screened to ensure that they are of the "right" background. If they are keen on a particular home, they can connect directly with the owner through the website. Sometimes, Mr Bennett makes the introduction. The social network model allows members to grow their connections into a large community of sorts, who are comfortable renting to and from one another.
Homeowners have the final say on whether they want to rent their home out to a particular guest. "This way, they can be sure that their home is not rented out to strangers or the wrong crowd," explains Mr Bennett. The company charges an 8 per cent commission for every booking made through the website, which he says is lower than other luxury rental companies.
Rents are set by the homeowners. "Sometimes, guests even get a discount because of this trusted friendship," he adds.
Like the members, all the properties listed are strictly vetted before they are listed on the website. They must meet certain criteria, such as stunning architecture and interiors or a fantastic view. Rents vary from £100 (S$185) to well over £10,000 a night.
Mr Bennett himself knows the pitfalls of holiday rental. Not only has he paid inflated prices for nondescript homes, his holiday home in Spain, which he rented out to a bunch of strangers, was trashed by them. Hence, he decided to start Stay One Degree with his partner Jorge Munoz.
So far, things have worked out, with no ugly experiences reported by guests or homeowners. "Most homeowners choose to list with us, because of our social network model, which means some of the homes can be found only through us," he adds.
By Tay Suan Chiang
WHITE-GLOVE ART TOURS
Want to know more about the region's art scenes, but do not know where to start? Ms Audrey Yeo, the founder of Yeo Workshop art gallery, can help.
The gallerist with a decade's worth of experience has been taking art-lovers on whirlwind tours of the region's scenes since 2016. A typical bespoke itinerary consists of visits to secluded artist studios, high-end galleries, chi chi lifestyle hubs and architecturally splendid sites. In some instances, the artists will cook a meal and dine with you as you discover more about their art.
For other meals, Ms Yeo will book you a seat at a great restaurant, where the conversation around art can continue.
She says: "Yes, you could go to some of these galleries or restaurants on your own. But we offer you a curated insider experience where you'll meet terrific artists in their studios, to which you would otherwise have limited access, and attend special parties and dinners."
She adds: "As a long-time art consultant, I also give you a 360-degrees understanding of the art history, art production and market of the particular city. And I'm always on hand to answer any of your questions."
The tours started in 2016 under the banner of Ms Yeo's Arnoldii Arts Club. At first, it was only to Yogyakarta. But the popularity and success of the tours convinced her to also include Bangkok, Manila and Hong Kong. Typically, the tours take place during a major art event, such as Bangkok's Galleries' Night in February, Manila's Art Fair Philippines and Biennale in early March, Art Basel Hong Kong in late March, and ArtJog in June.
Ms Yeo keeps the groups small, with participant numbers typically ranging from five to 15. Registration to the Bangkok trip is closed, while the one for Manila has already attracted 10 registrants. For Hong Kong, "we have more than we can take", she reveals.
For art-lovers, these white-glove tours are not just a chance to see art, meet artists and get a comprehensive understanding of the art scenes. It also means spending time with other art-lovers and comparing notes in convivial settings.
Ms Yeo's Yeo Workshop in Gillman Barracks represents several strong regional artists such as Thai artist Santi Wangchuan, who creates gorgeous hand-woven artworks using techniques passed down from his family, and Indonesia's Maryanto, whose ecologically-engaged art examines land use in Indonesia. It has also shown the works of promising young Singaporean artists such as Stephanie J Burt, Fyerool Darma and Sarah Choo Jing, whose current solo show at Ms Yeo's gallery is outstanding.
Asked which of the region's art scenes ranks as her favourite, Ms Yeo replies: "Yogyakarta, because it has a down-to-earth luxury and a hidden, spiritual artistic community you won't find elsewhere. That said, the other scenes are also terrific in their own way: Bangkok has a colourful and emerging art scene that marks it as the one to watch in the future; Manila has a deep and serious art scene with amazing collections, culture and artists; and Hong Kong offers a top-flight art city experience with blue-chip galleries and experimental warehouse projects."
By Helmi Yusof
For more information, e-mail Ms Yeo at email@example.com
BANGKOK INSIDER GOURMET TOURS
A local market free of tourists but full of live, jumping river prawns and flower crabs ambling around in their tanks. Have them grilled or steamed on the spot and enjoy them in the airy, clean, cooked food section of the market, where numerous stalls dish up a plethora of pungent, spicy, savoury and tangy flavours that are synonymous with Thai street food.
Next, you are off to a nondescript coffee shop, where the star is a bubbling pot of collagen-rich soup with melt-in-the-mouth beef and tendons. Then you are in Chinatown in the daytime rather than night, tucking into plates of fragrant, wok hei-infused flat noodles; by dusk, you are outside the city in an open-air kelong setting, feasting on plump local oysters, squid, deep-fried garoupa, crabs and shrimp that were swimming just minutes ago. And have we mentioned tom yam porridge with chicken feet and pig's intestines, koo chye kueh and crunchy fried banana fritters?
Always wanted to explore real, local Thai food, but either had no one to take you or were too lazy to do the research? Welcome to BKK Gourmet - a bespoke dining tour that takes away the guesswork and immerses you into a world of authentic Thai food. As the tour is curated by a Singaporean foodie and tested on several Singaporean stomachs including ours, you can rest assured that you will not be taken to some weird, dodgy places that serve mystery seafood in their tom yam goong. By the time you are done, Or Tor Kor market or Siam Paragon's food court will never have the same appeal again.
The idea for a bespoke gourmet tour came about at the behest of Mr Justiny Tang's friends and relatives, who had experienced the makan trips he organised for them whenever they went to Bangkok. He would arrange transport and a complete itinerary and send them on a whirlwind day of full-on eating.
Mr Tang - whose day job is managing director of Lao Zi Hao Confectionery, one of the largest mooncake manufacturers in Singapore in terms of volume - is your typical food-loving Singaporean whose Bangkok dining adventure began with the chance meeting of a friendly, English-speaking taxi driver who spent time showing him a totally different side of Thai cooking.
Their friendship grew over his regular visits to Bangkok and, before long, he was eating in places where he was often the only foreigner.
"My friends know I love to eat and I'm quite fussy about quality. I also enjoy trying different things - I'll try anything once," laughs the jovial Mr Tang.
So why start a tour?
"Everybody likes to go to insider places that other people don't really know about. For me, it's the thrill of finding such places and sharing with my friends. You can always do the research and find the same places, but not everyone has the time or patience to do so. What I do is customise an itinerary according to your taste and arrange door-to-door transport, because these places are not near a BTS station. There's no need to think. You just have to show up and bring your appetite."
He plans to launch his tours after Chinese New Year, when the factory becomes less busy. He expects to charge $300 upwards a person (minimum of two people) for a full-day tour, depending on the choice of transport and itinerary. Everything is included except for alcohol. And since it's a private tour, you never have to sit with strangers.
In the meantime, he is brimming with ideas for his itineraries, including stops to indulge in durian, longans and other fruits in season. "And foot or body massages - to relax between meals," he laughs.
By Jaime Ee
For enquiries, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
SCORE WORLD CUP TICKETS
The World Cup is the holy grail for football fiends and it also means that not everybody will get to make the pilgrimage. That's because tickets are available only via a balloting process through organising body Fifa.
Unsurprisingly, there is pent-up demand for the tournament taking place from June 14 to July 15 in Russia: the first phase of balloting, which took place late last year, saw 3.5 million fans applying for just 740,000 tickets.
Those who got left out have until April to try again in the second round, while anything unsold or returned will be released in the final phase that takes place from April 18 to July 15. Prices range from 6,300 roubles (S$145) for a mid-tier Group Stage match to 66,000 roubles for a top-tier ticket to the finals at Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium.
If you prefer not to take a chance or have no time to do all the legwork, including sorting out flights and accommodation, then the solution is to book a package through Satguru Travel & Tours, which has more than 100 offices in 60 countries.
Its Singapore outpost is the first to start the ball rolling, with a Sports Tourism department, after the company noticed a growing demand from fans wanting to attend the world's top sporting events.
It offered packages to the English Premier League games last year and the response so far has been overwhelming, says the department's manager Shahrul Nazrin.
Satguru has access to all the home games of the top six English clubs: Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal; and a four-day, three-night weekend package that includes flight, hotel, city tour and match ticket starts at about $3,300 a person.
For the upcoming World Cup, the company offers a variety of packages. Follow Your Team allows fans to catch their favourite national squad in all three of its Group Stage games taking place in different cities. So if you pick England, for instance, you will be cheering Gareth Southgate's men through their Group G clashes against Belgium, Panama and Tunisia in Volgograd, Nizhny Novgorod and Kaliningrad respectively. Prices range from $11,000 to $12,000 (depending on team) and include all domestic transfers within Russia and 12-nights accommodation.
Those who cannot afford to spend so much time away can opt for the shorter Round of 16, Quarter Final, or Semi-Final and Final package, while a four-day, three-night package to catch just one game in Moscow (excluding flight) will cost $4,500.
Satguru also has five-day, four-night VVIP packages which include business-class flight, limousine transfers, five-star accommodation and lounge hospitality match ticket, where you catch the game from a suite while sipping on champagne for a cool $35,000 a person.
Mr Shahrul says Satguru makes attending the World Cup easier by doing all the necessary arrangements so football fans can check the tournament off their bucket list with minimal fuss. He was at the last tournament in Brazil in 2014 and can attest to the hassle of travelling overseas to attend the games on your own.
"Russia is also not the easiest country to visit because it can be tricky applying for a visa, but it is having an open door policy during the World Cup, where your ticket automatically becomes your visa," he adds.
Satguru has set its sights on offering packages for major rugby, cricket and tennis games in the future, but up next is basketball. "We hope to offer that by June - just in time for the NBA finals," reveals Mr Shahrul.
By Dylan Tan
For more information, check @satgurusingapore on Facebook, call 6337-2919 or e-mail email@example.com