A recent 9-day 8-night trip I made to Seoul, South Korea was made especially memorable by these four hotels I stayed at.
From excellent service to great food to classy decor, each property offered something different and no less special at the same time.
Although South Korea is currently facing an outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers), the World Health Organisation has said it is not recommending screening of passengers or the imposition of travel or trade restrictions.
For your own safety, while in Seoul, observe good personal hygiene at all times, practise frequent hand washing (before handling food and after going to the toilet), avoid close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections and avoid contact with animals.
1. The Ritz-Carlton, Seoul
The Ritz-Carlton brand is synonymous with 5-star luxury, style, and elegance. Located in the fashionable Gangnam district, The Ritz-Carlton Seoul delivered all of that, and so much more. Everything - from the food to the staff to the room - was faultless.
The check-in was swift. Within five minutes of arriving at the hotel, I was ushered to my Premier Suite Room, which comes with a cosy living room area adjoining the bedroom. The 60sqm room's furniture, in comforting yellow and brown hues, gave the suite an inviting ambience.
The bed was extremely comfortable, with just the right degree of firmness. Of the eight nights I stayed in Seoul, I spent two at the Ritz and had the best sleep here.
The bathroom had an abundant supply of a range of towels (for face, hand, body and feet), something I really appreciate. I also liked it that there were two sinks in the same toilet, which meant that I didn't need to jostle for the water supply with my husband when washing up in the morning or at night.
These are but the icing on this delicious cake. What truly impressed me about The Ritz-Carlton Seoul is how generous they are with Club Level access guests.
As such a guest, I could treat myself to food presentations not once, twice, or thrice, but five times a day. While I am familiar with Club Level food presentations, I had yet to personally experience something on such a scale.
So at the Ritz-Carlton Seoul, I lapped it all up. And my, was the food quality good.
For breakfast, I tried various things, and one offering that stood out was the humble-sounding warm oatmeal with milk and sugar. It was surprisingly delicious. The oatmeal had more bite than the types available in Singapore, and was thick and creamy.
This was also the only hotel out of the four that served the must-try Korean strawberries during breakfast. They were so sweet and juicy that my husband and I shamelessly wolfed down about 15 of them at one sitting.
For lunch, I'd recommend their sushi rolls, which came stuffed with salmon and crabmeat, radish and cucumber. These were crunchy and chewy, with the right balance of savory and sweet flavours.
I did not try their afternoon tea, but I had their evening hors d'oeuvres - the fourth meal presentation of the day that begins at 5pm.
The day I visited, they served up a very flavourful porcini risotto. I had meant to grab a light bite when I wandered into the Lounge, but ended up with many forkfuls worth of the risotto. There were also these grilled peppers that were terribly sweet and tender, which I gladly helped myself to.
Now forgive me if you do not have a sweet tooth, but I just have to talk about their desserts, which were divine.
Their vanilla and yuzu macarons were divine, as were their chocolate caramel cubes and various cookie types. But what was simply delightful were their cakes. I tried their red velvet and vanilla and cheese cakes, which were light, fluffy, creamy, and not-too-sweet all at the same time. The balance in them was excellent.
Because of the wonderful food, warm and kind service staff, and beauty surrounding this hotel - think lovely floral arrangements all around and well-manicured gardens - I was more than a little wistful when the time came for me to bid farewell to The Ritz-Carlton Seoul.
2. Imperial Palace Hotel, Seoul, a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts
The first thing that struck me about Imperial Palace Hotel, Seoul, was its colour - Marsala.
The moment I set foot in the hotel lobby, I was surrounded by Pantone's Colour of the Year 2015.
While not the hotel's intention (I'm sure they've had this colour for years), the earthy, reddish-amber hue works especially beautifully this year for the hotel's classic, European-style, to give it an on-trend vibe.
If you are too lazy to head outside, you can literally spend hours exploring this mammoth of a hotel, located in Seoul's Gangnam district.
The hotel lobby is lovely, with grandiose marble columns and a stage. On the two nights I stayed here, a band performed hit songs from musicals at night.
There are also some edgy-looking modern sculptures on display at the lobby, that make for great pictures.
At virtually every corner and lift landing in this hotel are old-fashioned, country-style plates, cups, vases, and other household items on display. If you, like me, are a lover of art or cannot resist buying pretty homeware, these beauties will keep your eyes constantly occupied and your heart dismayed that none of them are for sale.
In keeping with the theme, the windows around the lifts come with stained glass motifs, with the words Imperial Palace in a Gothic-looking font.
My Executive Room on the hotel's 19th floor was decked out in swathes of gold, marsala, and green. I especially felt like hauling home the sofa in the room, which looked very Victorian and was very comfortable.
The taps and other toilet fittings were brass-coloured and looked very vintage. By now, I was starting to feel a little like royalty from a different time period.
The toiletries were by Molten Brown, a brand I am very agreeable with. I noticed also that everything in the room - from towels and floor rugs to the tissue paper holder - was stamped with the hotel's insignia.
It was nice to see how brand-proud they are.
As a Club Imperial guest, I could head up to the Club Imperial Lounge on the hotel's 20th floor until 10pm daily. There are three offerings a day: breakfast, snacks (until 6pm), and happy hour.
I love the Club Imperial Lounge concept. It was fashioned to look like a hanok, also known as a Korean traditional house.
There were areas where diners could sit on cushions on the floor and eat, or, if you prefer the usual table-and-chair setup, they have those too. Each table came with a succulent in a pot, which I found very quaint.
The buffet line was set up to look like a traditional kitchen, complete with cauldrons, earthenware, a fireplace, and traditional cooking tools.
At breakfast, I thought it was clever how the paper placemat was a one-piece, mini-newspaper of sorts. Printed on it were the previous day's news highlights, with the day's weather forecast too.
These decorative elements aside, I would recommend you have their beef congee for breakfast.
Ladle yourself a generous helping of this, for it is thick, smooth, and comforting to the tummy. Pair this with some of their very tasty cold side-dishes, such as their spinach tossed with sesame oil and seeds, tofu with black sesame dressing, and smoked duck with tomatoes, and you'll be ready to start your day.
Because we stuffed ourselves at breakfast, my husband and I decide some exercise will do us some good.
The Korean hotel gyms have a certain culture and are very big on cleanliness. There is a standard set of exercise attire that you have to put on, right down to the socks that you wear.
We found this rather bemusing, but hey, in Korea, we'll do what the Koreans do.
Highlights of the huge hotel fitness club include their indoor swimming pool, jacuzzi, and rock wall. The swimming pool was mildly heated (good stuff), the jacuzzi had very powerful jets which relieved my muscles (very good stuff), and the rock wall was a feature I found quite unique in a hotel.
Even if you aren't the exercise type, just go to this fitness club to walk about, have fun with the rock wall, and people-watch. It's quite interesting to see how intense the Koreans are about their exercise.
On the last morning before check-out, I went to check out the hotel's gazebo. If not for the wind which was bone-chilling and whipping my hair in my face, I would have hung around this space a bit longer.
It was a serene, picturesque area, perfect for daydreaming and watching the world go by.
Overall, I found it unique that Imperial Palace featured both European and Oriental aspects of the word Imperial.
Because I did not arrange for a hanok stay during this trip, the Oriental spaces such as the Lounge and Gazebo really stood out and showed me that while these areas were vastly different from the European ones, different cultures and periods can exist together in a harmonious way. Charming.
3. The Shilla, Seoul, a member of Preferred Hotels & Resorts
The Shilla is one of the top five hotels in Seoul. Naturally, I had high expectations of everything it had to offer.
From the outside, it already looked promising. Built upon a hill, the tall and thin, reddish-brown brick building rises up like a sturdy slice of kueh lapis. Once inside, I was swept up by the lobby's deliciously warm tones of champagne, brown, beige, and ivory. Very nice.
The hotel underwent a seven-month long renovation in 2013, so everything is very swanky.
Our Deluxe Double room, designed by world-renowned interior designer Peter Remedios, fit the theme of "Timeless Modern" to a T.
Think sleek design and clean lines, with thin, dark strips between wide panels that will bring to mind the panelled walls in a traditional Korean hanok.
On the bed were cushiony, oversized pillows, and I thought it was great that the bedside tables came with charging points. Clearly, this hotel knows what the modern traveller needs. The in-room flatscreen Samsung television deserves a mention too, because the images came out incredibly clear and sharp. Everything seemed extra lifelike.
Before we knew it, it was lunchtime and we had a lunch appointment at La Yeon, the hotel's Korean restaurant on the 23rd floor.
Opened about two years ago, the restaurant has already made its way into the list of Asia's 50 best restaurants for 2015. It is number 38 on the list.
This fine-dining restaurant has the same elegant, classy feel that the hotel exudes.
We started with some nibbles - prawn and potato crisps and dried dates, that proved to be very addictive. They were not the least bit oily, and very fragrant.
Then came the Korean equivalent of an amuse-bouche, an egg custard with mushrooms. Smooth, light, and very tasty. I loved the pretty lacquered, shell-based spoon that I dug into the custard with. This was all very dainty.
Next up was a tender and springy portion of baby octopus, served atop a bed of unique spring vegetables that were slightly furry in texture. The dish came with a Gochujang - red pepper paste - dip. The piquant sauce really enhanced the taste of the various ingredients.
Lightly fried, egg-battered beef slices followed after this. The beef slices came with a generous heap of spring onions, which gave the dish an additional layer of texture, while not stealing the limelight from the yummy pieces of bovine.
Then came the main star of this show.
Abalone bimimbap, served with a chilled pear kimchi soup and a warm spinach miso soup with sliced fish. Everything about this was familiar, yet different.
In Singapore, we're used to eating chicken or beef bimimbap, with the usual raw vegetables like beansprouts, and sliced cucumbers and carrots.
But there was much more to this one. The abalone chunks were juicy and not at all briny, and there was a refined quality to the accompanying vegetables. The mushrooms, sprouts, zucchini and radish slices that were mixed in were super fresh.
I liked that the miso soup did not come with the usual seaweed and beancurd cubes, but with generous chunks of fish.
Moving on to heap praise on the chilled pear kimchi soup. We're so used to eating kimchi in its usual limp form, slathered with chilli paste that this was definitely an eye-opener.
The cabbage in the chilled soup was very refreshing, and its sour-savouriness was well-balanced by the pear's natural sweetness.
Dessert ended this tasteful meal on a happy high note. Beautifully-shaved bingsu came with a dollop of red ginseng ice-cream and creamy rice pudding, and we were also treated to jellied dates with pine nuts and a bowl of chilled cinnamon punch.
I'm running out of food descriptives, so let me just say that everything about the dessert, from taste to texture to presentation, was excellent.
Overall, this was a clean, good, sophisticated Korean meal.
I was full, but not stuffed, and it was very evident to my tastebuds that all ingredients used in the dishes were of the highest quality.
Beyond the food, you will also find yourself appreciating the lovely pieces of custom-made porcelain that the restaurant uses.
The next morning, my husband and I checked out the hotel's facilities.
Any hotel guest must at least take a dip in the pool and sauna. The outdoor pools were not in operation yet because it was still winter season, but the landscaping looked very promising. If only it were summer when we were there!
I'm not complaining much, however, because we got to try the outdoor sauna, which was amazing. Being in a warm snug tub of bubbly water while the air around you is freezing cold was an exciting, multi-sensory experience.
I have already crowed about the food at La Yeon, but really, I must talk about food again because the hotel's buffet breakfast was marvellous.
Usually, I don't find the cooked-food sections fantastic, but the Chinese selection at this one was so good that I had several helpings. The chicken and tofu dishes were good, as was the broccoli with king crab sauce and stir-fried egg noodles with vegetables.
The buffet also has a dim sum section, with a selection of about 5 different types daily.
The hotel showed itself to be at the forefront of modern travellers' nutritional desires because it has a dedicated section for superfoods, offering items such as flax seeds, lentils, and chick peas.
Besides the usual juices, there are also healthy juice mixes, such as a tomato, milk and yam combination, and another one with kale and cucumber. Organic milk is also offered.
The cereals and yoghurt section came with a ton of condiments, and this is excluding the items in the superfoods area. Try their homemade apple yoghurt, which I found unique (not your usual strawberry or blueberry yoghurt), and their homemade granola, which came with chia seeds and quinoa. How original, right?
Those not big on healthy eating will be pleased to hear that the buffet's sweets section is no less wowsome. I had one of the best waffles in my life here. Crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside, the batter was buttery and slightly sweet. No condiments were needed - it was wonderful on its own.
But I must say, go ahead and douse maple syrup or spread cream cheese over it, or dip it into a berry compote or the nuts and honey mixture offered at the desserts station. Whatever you choose to do, you will not regret it.
Before we reluctantly checked out, my husband and I took a stroll around the walking path that winds through the hotel's sculpture garden, which is home to more than 20 sculptures. In this artistic, peaceful space, we had a great time just appreciating art, nature, breathing in cold, fresh air, and waxing lyrical about all the good food we had there.
In every aspect, The Shilla more than exceeded my expectations. If you're visiting Seoul, stay here.
4. Fraser Place Namdaemun, Seoul
The last two nights of my Seoul adventure were spent at Fraser Place Namdaemun, a modern and cosy apartment hotel.
This well-positioned property is within walking distance to Namdaemun Market and the Myeongdong shopping district, so avid shoppers, this is the place to be. Directly opposite the property is an airport shuttle bus stop, which made travelling to the airport for my return flight highly convenient.
I really liked the Deluxe Queen Bed Room which we stayed in. It came with an airy living area, which opened up into the bedroom. The entire room came with pops of colour - cheery paintings, and yellow and green mugs - which gave it a positive atmosphere.
I had noticed by then that the typical Korean colour palette in general involves very earthy shades of browns, greys, and blacks, so the variety of colours in the room was a refreshing change.
The bathroom came with all the necessary amenities, but I must highlight a smart touch in the room - hooks.
This is a small detail that hotels often overlook, which results in users (read: myself) draping clothing and towels all over the place, especially if no towel racks are provided either.
The buffet area in the dining hall at Fraser Place Namdaemun is a densely packed space, but there was no shortage where variety was concerned. Many of the cooked food dishes, which included a Japanese curry, a thick chowder-like broccoli soup, and three types of sausages, were tasty.
The croissants were crisp and buttery, and the cereal varieties, especially one with sweetened cornflakes and almonds, were different from those I had tried in the other hotels.
On the second night here, I found a beautifully-wrapped box of chocolates on the coffee table in the living room. I found that a thoughtful, hospitable touch.
Fraser Place Namdaemun is part of Frasers Hospitality, the hospitality arm of one of Singapore's top property companies, Frasers Centrepoint Limited.
As I observed how well the apartment hotel was run, with warm staff and efficient service, I could not help but feel a sense of pride at how this local brand has made a strong global impact. What a lovely final stop; a taste of home before the journey home.
See you soon, Seoul.
Join me on my lifestyle adventures, snap by snap on Instagram @brybrybanana
Hotels' contact details:
The Ritz Carlton, Seoul
Address: 120 Bongeunsa-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Phone: +82 2-3451-8000
Imperial Palace Hotel, Seoul
Address: 640, Eonju-ro, Gangnam-gu, Seoul, South Korea
Phone: +82 2-3440-8000
The Shilla, Seoul
Address: 249, Dongho-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul
Phone: +82 2-2233-3131
Fraser Place Namdaemun, Seoul
Address: 58, Sejong-Daero, Jung-Gu, Seoul, Korea 100-094