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Complete Qatar: Where a ‘Shukran’ goes a long way

Urban Land Institute event coordinator Agnes Gomori joined C&IT, Qatar Tourism Authority and a host of international associations and event agencies for Complete Qatar, a four-day familiarisation and educational visit to Doha. Gomori shares her first impressions on the destination for C&I Traveller, while outlining the benefits for potential large-scale events.

What is the first destination coming to mind when planning an event in the Middle East? For most events planners, Dubai and Abu Dhabi would come up as an obvious choice.

Qatar might be a lesser known destination, but no doubt it is about to change. I’ve got my first taste of the Middle East when in early November I was invited to take part in the ‘Complete Qatar’ destination experience organised by C&IT and Qatar Tourism Authority.

So, what does Qatar have to offer? Besides the year-round sunshine, friendly locals and authentic food, the country is one of the top five safest places to visit in the world.

For me, what stood out right away is that the Qataris are take pride in keeping to their traditions and in fact recognising it as one of the main selling points when it comes to promoting their country. And rightly so: during our five-day trip we visited numerous sites such as the Qatar National Convention Centre, with its breath-taking design and facilities, not to mention the QNCC’s friendly and professional staff or the ever so elegant The Ritz-Carlton, Doha. Again, the staff here went the extra mile to make us feel welcomed and surprised us with an evening picnic in the hotel’s spacious, exotic garden.

Qatar National Convention Centre

Qatar National Convention Centre

It was clear that Qatar doesn’t feel the need to ‘copycat’ the western world in order to attract western business. They provide excellent venues for conferences, exhibitions that can comfortably accommodate up to 5,000 delegates, but the are happy to host small meetings and seminars, too. And, as a standard the majority of meeting rooms are equipped with state of the art technology.

Qatar has world famous horse breeding traditions and we were lucky enough to visit Al Shaqab, where we could admire some of the Arabian horses close-up. Later in the day we took part in a Desert Safari excursion where we were divided into small groups to go for dune bashing. I must admit this was one of the only activities I was afraid of, but once I was there the excitement of my fellow ‘dune bashers’ quickly caught on. We stopped in the desert to watch the sunset, and then returned to the desert camp where there was an opportunity to have our picture taken with the camels. We finished our day with a BBQ on a Dhow Cruise.

Out of the 2.3 million of Qatar’s population nearly 90% are expats, so why is Doha not more known yet as a destination? As we learnt from Embrace Doha, Arabian specialists, while visiting Souq Waqif, after the discovery of oil, the Qataris no longer had to rely on the fishing industry, but it was only in the 1970s after the country gained independence that the first hotel was built in Doha. Still it wasn’t until the early 2000s that Qatar stared to attract foreign business investors, which was down to the fact that the hotel sector started to develop in a the rapid manner.

While we had our tour around the Souq Waqif, we visited the Falcon Hospital where we learnt that the Qataris keep falcons not as a hobby but as an investment. As our tour guide told us: “A single with a high breed falcon and a good sword is a considered to be a ‘good catch’ for women looking to marry”

Doha skyline seen through the arches at the Museum of Islamic art, Doha, Qatar

Doha skyline seen through the arches at the Museum of Islamic art, Doha, Qatar

And this is something that Qatar prides itself: Doha doesn’t want to become just a tourist attraction. Its main focus is on attracting business events and business visitors while carefully keeping to their traditions.

In Doha there was never a danger of the city showing itself as being too touristy or cliché. It was beautifully demonstrated when visiting the Museum of Islamic Art.

And as for the high quality hospitality, we were spoiled by our host Grant Hyatt Doha not just by the great selection of authentic food they provided but also the spacious rooms with a tranquilising view.

Lastly I’d like to thank Qatar Airways for flying us to Doha. Out of all the long haul flights this was the first time I didn’t suffer from jetlag apparently is was down to the air quality on the flight!

As you have guessed, I’ll be back!

Three of the best… destinations for Corporate Social Responsibility incentives

“When the client announced they were doing a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programme within their incentive package it brought the company together, not just the people who had qualified and were on the trip, but the rest of the employees, too,” Lynne Embling, director, Global Incentives.

Zambia, with Global Incentives

Although Zambia might seem like a far-flung place for most travellers, the southern African destination is on the rise for incentive planners with an eye for excitement and unique experiences.

Aside from adrenalin excursions like bungee jumping and helicopter tours to Victoria Falls, paying a visit to the local communities, who rely heavily on volunteers to help improve their way of live through building schools and renovating orphanages, is always the highlight of the trip.

When Global Incentives brought a group of European delegates to Zambia their response to the destination and the people they met was extremely positive. “At the end of the event, at the last dinner, the delegates were in tears because they knew they had given a lot to the children but they were proud of themselves for making it part of their trip,” said Embling.

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The company travelled to the Ebenezer orphanage and school where they helped complete two key projects: painting and decorating the new computer room and library, which was stocked with equipment shipped over from the company’s office, and constructing and clearing spaces for a basketball court, all achieved with the help from the children.

Embling adds: “CSR is to the benefit of the people at the destination, whether it be children or whoever, but delegates like to know they’ve given something back to these communities. It makes people feel like they’re not doing it for themselves.”

Bali, with Hands Up Incentives

Represented by a chain of islands stretching 500,000km across Indonesia, Bali is consistently revered as a paradise on earth. Incentive travel agency Hands Up Incentives is well experienced in introducing groups to the local community, to villages like Karangasem in East Bali where more than 365,000 people inhabit the country’s most beautiful landscapes.

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On the course of a five-day itinerary groups can dive into the local culture sampling traditional cuisine with produce grown and picked from the surrounding farmland as well as taking part in community schemes where CSR can significantly improve the lives of the local residents. For instance, helping the physically disabled residents of the village build bathrooms for the households helps to secure a better quality of life for them and their families, with as many as seven bathrooms being built across two days.

Furthermore, the stunning nature that surrounds Bali allows for a scintillating itinerary to be constructed either side of the group’s visit to Karangasem whether it’s surfing and cooking lessons to a walking tour of the temples and ancient monasterial caves in the Ubud area.

Cambodia

For Colt Technology, no incentive trip is complete without a CSR activity. “It’s part of our brand ethos to give something back to the communities we visit,” says Sullivan. “We encourage our staff to give back in day-to-day life and we apply these values to our recognition trips. Sometimes people have been a bit sceptical before taking part in the activity, but it’s always the highlight of every trip.”

The company was searching for the right CSR programme that reflected these ambitions and found exactly what they were looking for in Cambodia. The delegation worked at a local school to improve infrastructure, refurbishing furniture, building classroom space from bamboo and reeds and creating a fence around the school to keep animals out.

“This all aimed to improve health and safety for the children and could be done in a short space of time with a large group of people and a well-thought-out plan,” says Sullivan.

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Nine reasons why Downtown LA is California’s hottest destination

Staples Centre

The home of the Los Angeles Lakers is the illuminating focal point of Downtown’s LA Live metropolis, and whether it’s basketball or the hottest act in town, LA explodes into life when the Staples Centre opens its doors.

The venue offers event suites for groups of 12 to 132 for corporate hospitality, which includes VIP suite access, catering options and customised experiences, such as celebrity visits and photo opportunities.

staplescentre

JW Marriott Los Angeles LA Live

A huge part of Downtown LA’s rejuvenation has been fuelled by the flurry of hotel openings from charming boutiques to striking business behemoths. JW Marriott Hotel Los Angeles L.A. LIVE is certainly the latter and with 878 rooms in total it is one of the city’s most stylish stays.

jwmarriott

The Broad

LA welcomed its breathtaking museum of contemporary art in September and it has been the talk of the town ever since. The three-storey facility opened at a cost of an eye-watering £105m and includes 4,000sqm of exhibition space, as well as a lecture hall and public lobby.

thebroad

Walt Disney Concert Hall

The Walt Disney Concert Hall, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is located just a stones throw from The Broad and while the design is just as impressive, it couldn’t be more different.

Designed by Frank Gehry, the stainless steel curves bend in the sky to create not only one of the most striking pieces of modern architecture in Los Angeles, but on the planet.

Groups can enter for an evening show orchestrated by the city’s renowned conductors or for dinner at the award-winning Patina.

OUE Skyspace

Skyspace is California’s tallest open-air observation deck offering mesmerising views of the LA territory from nearly 1,000ft above the city.

GRAMMY Museum

A must-see on any visit to Downtown LA, the GRAMMY Museum celebrates the legacy of musical legends past and present showcasing the art and technology behind the recording process of numerous genres.

Restaurants

Downtown LA is where the locals go to eat, with some of the best restaurants in the city all located within a few square miles. The likes of Redbird, a tapas-style favourite with numerous options for private dining and Otium, located adjacent to The Broad serving Latin-inspired cuisine are ideal for relaxing al fresco dining besides the California sunset.

Also not to be missed is the Grand Central Market. The bustling street food market has been a downtown landmark since 1917 and is a great spot for world cuisines and indulgent deserts.

Bars

Nightlife in LA has always offered an eclectic variety and what is evidently on the rise in this area of the city are the rooftop and speakeasy joints. A perfect spot for after dinner drinks is Perch, a French-inspired rooftop bistro floating beneath downtown’s enormous skyscrapers where groups can sit beside the outdoor fireplaces and enjoy live music until closing time.

perchdowntown

Los Angeles Convention Centre

In the heart of Downtown LA is the city’s premier convention venue, the LACC, which just happens to be the US’ largest convention centre. The venue consists of a 67,000sqm exhibit hall and 64 column-free meeting rooms, in addition to a newly renovated 299-seat auditorium.

3 hotel bars for the perfect nightcap

Le Bar, Beachcomber Hotels’ Royal Palm Marrakech, Morocco

Let’s start with Le Bar. The entrance is made through a towering doorway, which opens into a large foyer where a huddle of sofas and arm chairs are warmed beside a dusky fireplace.

Through a second looming doorway is the bar where black and gold is everywhere to be seen in this ‘in-the-round’ setting. The black granite palette and woollen rugs draped on the walls make some corners of the venue seem large and others intimate, a clever technique to create a suitable setting for the hotel’s solo travellers or visiting corporate groups, like a hybrid of a winter chalet and Arabian grandeur.

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Chasing Aurora

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With the Northern Lights top of the bucket list, Tromso has long been high on my list of places to visit. So when the invite for a FAM trip to Tromso from Innovation Norway and Visit Tromso appeared in my inbox a couple of months ago, there was no way I was going pass up the opportunity.

So there we were, with suitcases bulging full of thermals and ski clothes at Gatwick on Friday 30 November, ready for our Arctic Adventure. None of the UK agency members of our group had visited Tromso before, and for many of us, it was our first time in Norway.

And Tromso did not disappoint. We arrived Friday evening and were surprised to find temperature above zero degrees, yet still feeling decidedly chillier than back home. After checking into Clarion Hotel The Edge, one of the city’s newest hotels and a great option for both meetings and incentives, we were treated to a fabulous welcome dinner and introduced to our wonderful host for the three days, Visit Tromo’s Trude Pettersen, who instantly made us feel at ease.

Waking on Saturday morning was a little strange as it was still so dark – I’d forgotten that there is little sunlight in the Arctic during the winter months and even bought some sunglasses at Gatwick as I’d forgotten mine (much to the hilarity of our hosts – at least I wasn’t the only one :-).

And so our adventure began in earnest with a whale safari where we were lucky enough to see orcas and not only spot a group of around eight humpback whales – but also at hunting time. Seeing the giant creatures rise up out of the water to take in herring was a sight to remember. And chilled to the bone, as we set off back to Tromso on our boat, we tucked into a warming reindeer stew and some red wine to top off our amazing experience.

We were then lucky enough to test out the brand new Arctic Escape Room, which literally opened the day before our arrival. Split into teams of two, we had to break into an office to find evidence against a fictional criminal John Winter and uncover hidden clues and decipher codes around the room to break out again. Both teams successfully escaped – but kudos to Team 1 for the best time – our slightly more chaotic approach paid off!

Slightly buzzing with adrenaline, we hopped on our bus to head to Sommaroy (Summer) Island for a Christmas Table (Christmas buffet Norweigan-style) at the Sommaroy Arctic Hotel – a stunning location, where our hunt for the Aurora was to begin. As with all natural phenomena – there are no guarantees with the Northern Lights and the previous week had not been a good one. While we all tried to pretend we would not be too disappointed if Madame Aurora failed to appear – it was clear that this is what we all came for. And as luck would have it, as we walked out of the hotel after a fabulous dinner, there was a clear glimmer of green on the horizon.

A quick drive on the bus to one of Tromso Safari’s base camp and there she was in all her splendour, dancing through the sky – the best form of after dinner entertainment. It truly was a moment I will never forget. Oh, and we were lucky enough to be accompanied by the amazing professional photographer, Ole Salomonsen of Arctic Light Photo, for our own personal Aurora photo shoot.

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And the highlights just kept coming, with Sunday spent visiting Camp Tamok for husky and reindeer sledding and driving snowmobiles through the Arctic Wilderness, before another delicious dinner at Fiskekompaniet Sjosiden, and then an evening on the Spa Boat, Vulkana – a converted old traditional fishing boat with its own hamam, hot tub and sauna. The more daring members of our group also took a midnight dip in the Norweigan sea.

On Monday, we took in a tour of Tromso and visited a number of the city’s hotels, including Scandic Ishavshotel and Radisson Blu, and the group were genuinely surprised by how competitive the prices were, particularly at Comfort Hotel Xpress, which is room-only so not suitable for meetings, but great for small incentive groups or conference overspill from nearby hotels.

Norway may not be the cheapest European destination, but it’s safe, which in the light of recent global terror attacks, is increasingly important, and stunning. So if you are looking for an alternative winter incentive destination, Tromso, with its twice-weekly direct Gatwick flights via Norweigan airlines, is definitely worth considering.

Cairns and Port Douglas: three of the best experiences

GBRUK buyers have sampled an exhilarating itinerary in Cairns and Port Douglas in Australia, part of a three-day educational programme following on from Dreamtime 2015, Tourism Australia’s business incentive showcase which took place in Adelaide, South Australia from 6-8 December. The group visited Cairns from 9-11 December, hosted by partners including Etihad Airways, Virgin Australia and Cairns and Great Barrier Reef Business Events.

Great Barrier Reef
Located off the coast from Cairns, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef system and the only living thing that can be seen from space. Groups will be spoilt for choice – our options, provided by Quicksilver Tours on the renowned Agincourt Reef, included diving, helicopter rides, a snorkelling tour and a submarine experience. These options enabled the group to get up close and very personal with marine life on the reef, made up of more than 2,900 individual reefs, 600 continental islands, 300 coral cays and 150 inshore mangrove islands. Introductory and certified dives offered a 40-minute encounter with marine life, while helicopter rides with GBR Helicopters (each seating between three and six people), provided stunning and breathtaking views of the reef. A semi-submersible tour and a helmet dive was also available – perfect for those who didn’t want to get their hair wet,

Rainforest experience
Groups can enjoy a sumptuous sit-down dinner in one of the oldest rainforests on earth, at Flames of the Forest, located in Tropical North Queensland and around a 10-minute drive from Port Douglas. The venue offers a sit-down dining experience with local food specialities including kangaroo, suited for between 30 and up to  850 guests, Our group was lucky enough to experience a pyrotechnic show with cocktails and canapés before our sit-down dinner, with additional  live entertainment throughout the evening.

Boonooloo Beach House
For an evening with a difference, head to Boonooloo Beach House, around a 75-minute drive from Cairns and 30 minutes from Port Douglas. The Beach House in Newell Beach has an enviable location – where the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest meets the Great Barrier Reef. The venue caters for sit-down dinners for up to 80 or cocktails and canapés for 110, with views towards Port Douglas, Low Isles and Snapper Island.On the evening we visited, our group enjoyed a relaxed evening on the beachfront with live entertainment.

Food glorious food – but let’s not forget the wine

FoodblogAdelaide, South Australia’s capital city, is known as the recycling capital of Australia and the city of churches. For incentive groups, however, there are two much more enticing and appetising facts – the city has the most restaurants per capita than any other city in the country and it also produces around 70% of the country’s wine. Foodie enthusiasts will be spoilt for choice with the city’s upmarket dining options and the wine experiences on offer. Ten representatives from UK agencies and myself were lucky enough to get a taste of some of these during Dreamtime 2015, Tourism Australia’s business events showcase, hosted in Adelaide from 6-9 December.

Orana: Raspberries with green ants, kangaroo crackling, Kangaroo Island scallops, magpie goose and damper bread cooked on hot coals are just some of the dishes on offer at Orana, located on Rundle Street, which opened just over two years ago. The restaurant – styled like an elegant dining room, can comfortably seat groups of up to 35 on round tables or up to 20 on one long table. Scottish-born chef Jock Zonfrillo takes diners on an immersive journey based on native, indigenous Australian ingredients, with the look of every dish as impressive as the flavours. The green ants were a particular favourite, providing a crunchy contrast to the sweetened raspberries.

Africola: The design of Africola is worth a visit alone. The brainchild of chef Duncan Welgemoed, who previously worked with Heston Blumenthal and Raymond Blanc in the UK, Africola is located in former pub on the corner of East and North Terraces. The setting has colour and lots of it, alongside quirky décor, and there are a range of different seating options, including a bar area, dining booths and tables. In total, the restaurant can seat groups of between 100 to 110. The South-African inspired menu has won rave reviews since the place opened last November.

The Star of Greece: Located in Port Willunga, around 40 minutes by car from the city centre, in the Mclaren Vale area (home to some of Adelaide’s finest wineries), Star of Greece offers stunning coastal views and caters for up to 80 seated or 100 for cocktails. Groups can dine on dishes including Kangaroo Island King George Whiting, Coorong Angus Beef eye fillet and Kangaroo Island salt and pepper squid.

Penfolds Magill Estate: The iconic Penfolds winery, which dates back more than 150 years, is steeped in history, culture and wine and is just a 20-minute drive from the centre of Adelaide. This summer, it unveiled a new cellar door and restaurant – the Magill Estate Kitchen, a sister offering and a more affordable option to the existing Magill Estate Restaurant. The Kitchen concept seats up to 60 and groups of up to 20 can also enjoy wine tastings, tours and a private dinner in the cellar. The Cellar Door area features private and open plan spaces dedicated to wine education and wine tastings.

A taste of the Caribbean

The Dominican Republic’s first tourist was reportedly Christopher Columbus, back in 1492. An island with a rich history, it is the most visited destination in the Caribbean, according to figures reported last year from the Caribbean Tourism Organisation and in May, travel firm Expedia declared the island its leading travel destination. It’s not hard to see why – the Dominican Republic has all the essential ingredients that the word Caribbean conjures – (merengue) music, rum, lots of cigars, sandy beaches and turquoise water, as well as a sophisticated and growing hotel infrastructure.

We (myself and nine event planners) were eager to see all this for ourselves and discover what else the destination offered, on a recent fam to the Dominican Republic hosted by Air Europa, Melia Hotels International and DMC Connect. The destination is undeniably popular with US travellers – understandably so given its pDRBlogroximity to the US but perhaps less so with UK travellers when compared to other Caribbean destinations. While some of the planners on the trip had previously visited the Caribbean, none had been to the Dominican Republic so it was a perfect opportunity to challenge our perceptions.

We started with a fast and efficient security clearance through the fast track at Gatwick Airport – which was most welcome considering this was a Thursday morning during October half term. We then gathered in the Clubrooms from No1 Lounges at Gatwick South Terminal, a luxury departure lounge with private rooms and waiter service, which opened in October. Overlooking the runway, the space is ideal for small groups.

After a quick stopover in Madrid, we boarded our second flight to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic and the first European city in the Americas. The transfer by road from the capital to the Punta Cana resort area on the east coast of the island, where we were based for the duration of the fam, is long at around two to three hours, but there are direct flights twice a week to the resort from Madrid with Air Europa.

The transfer, however, did give us an opportunity to appreciate the scale of the island – the Dominican Republic is the second largest Caribbean nation after Cuba, and the Punta Cana area in particular is home to many all-inclusive resorts. Our first stop, where we stayed for two nights, was the Melia Caribe Tropical, which was also huge – with 1,138 rooms, it is the largest Melia hotel in the Caribbean and we quite happily hopped from buggy to buggy during our site inspection the following day.

Despite its size, the hotel works well for both large and small groups, as the property is divided in two areas – the main hotel and The Level, an adults-only part (and where we stayed for two nights).  This area has 408 rooms, its own private beach, pool, bar and restaurant, making you feel as if you were in a more intimate setting – ideal for those that want a more boutique atmosphere. The second part of our stay was at the much smaller but equally impressive 484-room Paradisus Palma Real, also in Punta Cana, where we were treated to the Royal Service experience, again an adults-only boutique hotel within the resort, but this time with butler service. We also visited the Paradisus Punta Cana, located on Punta Cana beach, which offers a similar Royal Service experience and where we enjoyed a barbecue lunch in the hotel grounds. We were impressed by the group dining options available at all three resorts – while the Dominican Republic has a reputation as an all-inclusive resort island, the quality at the restaurants was consistently and surprisingly good.

Incentives-wise, there is plenty to keep groups occupied. Our time was spent with a trip on a pirate ship, snorkelling, swimming with sharks and getting up close and personal with stingrays. One standout experience was a trip to Sanoa Island and the Parque Nacional del Este. We all felt we were getting our taste of the true Caribbean (cue desert island, palm trees and sparkling clear water) with the trip including a stop at a beautiful and relatively deserted sand bank (admittedly, we did get there before the other boats) for yet more rum and the chance to spot some friendly starfish.

All good things sadly have to come to an end and we rounded off our trip with a visit to Coco Bongo – the only place to be and to be seen in downtown Punta Cana. The cheesy entertainment – with people alternatively miming and singing to Broadway hits and iconic movies like Moulin Rouge and Cabaret has to be seen to be believed but for sheer entertainment and atmosphere, it was almost up there with the best (maybe depending on how many rums were consumed) and reminiscent of a Las Vegas show. More importantly, we all came away with a new perspective on the Dominican Republic as a Caribbean destination that had most definitely made its mark.

Greece: Athens highlights and the stunning Costa Navarino

Athens, steeped in history and culture, can’t fail to impress as a destination with the iconic Acropolis towering over the city. What left a bigger impression on event planners on a recent fam, however, was the fact that tourism and infrastructure is largely unaffected by the negative headlines on the country’s financial crisis.

Most planners on the trip, hosted by Aegean Airlines, DMC Event Makers and Pearl Representation, had visited Athens previously, but none too recently. The Greek economy isn’t a new story of course and we were all well aware of reports of queues at ATMs and city protests. Our stay pylos– hosted by Aegean Airlines, Starwood Hotels, DMC Event Makers and Pearl Representation, kicked off with two days in the capital, staying at the Hotel Grand Bretagne and included a tour of the Acropolis and a walk around the historic and bustling neighbourhood of Plaka. There was no sign of any unrest – it’s very much a case of business as usual in Greece.

Costa Navarino, located on a remote corner of southwest Pelopponese, was also a revelation. Journey by car can be long – around three and a half to four hours from Athens depending on the traffic but it’s a scenic route that crosses the Corinth Canal, which separates Peloponnese from mainland Greece. Groups can also fly to Kalamata on the Peloponnese – the capital city of the Messenia region, and an hour’s drive away. However you get there, what greets you at the destination is well worth the effort.

The Navarino Dunes at Costa Navarino is home to two five-star Starwood properties – the 321-room The Romanos, a Luxury Collection property and The Westin Resort, which offers 445 rooms – both have stunning views over the Ionian Sea. The House of Events, which lies between the two hotels, offers 5,000msq of events space, with the Great Hall catering for up to 1,600 people.

Incentive-wise, groups will be spoiled for choice, with two 18-hole golf courses (and a third in the pipeline), cycling trips, spa treatments and team building activities available. You can also visit the extensive ruins of Ancient Messini.

Groups can also visit Navarino Bay and the charming towns of Pylos, Gialova and Marathos (the latter offers some good options for group dining, particularly for those with a love of seafood) and have a picnic lunch at Voidokilia Beach, a stunning stretch of sand in the shape of the Greek letter omega.

Rotterdam: Exploring Amsterdam’s ‘hipster sister’

People who live in Rotterdam have an interesting way of explaining the differences between themselves and their two neighbours. “Amsterdam spends the money; The Hague saves the money; and Rotterdam earns the money.”

What Kim, Rotterdam resident and my guide for the day, was illustrating over a coffee on a crisp, sunny, morning is that Rotterdam is where things are happening, where hotels and businesses are not only opening but thriving and where people in the city are actively making it a better and smarter place to live.

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Luchtsingel footbridge

Take, for example, Luchtsingel. The north and the south of the city used to be divided by a busy highway that was surrounded by bellowing grey concrete walls. The public wanted a more attractive connection between the two sides of the city and one where children could play and feel safe. A proposal was put forward for a footbridge, which was deemed too expensive by the council.

What followed was a crowdfunded campaign to raise money for the bridge that would be designed by local architects and give a significant face lift to the area. Residents and local businesses all poured their money in and the bridge was built. Made from 17,000 planks of wood, each piece has a contributors name carved into it. And, the design is resounding. The bright yellow walkway takes pedestrians over the traffic onto one of the best known streets in Rotterdam, Coolsingel, which is where my day of exploring began.

Our first stop was Schieblock, an office tower that once posed an intimidating shadow over the area before the
footbridge and newly planted trees lit the place up. The outside is run down but its location at the foot of Coolsingel, an area I am told is like “that Shoreditch place in London”, has seen a number of start-ups and tech companies move in, transforming its interior into a modern working environment. We hopped into the lift, slid the shutters behind us and rose to the top floor as I wondered when Shoreditch gained international status.

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Schieblock, Rotterdam’s highest rooftop garden

We exited and climbed a flight of stairs onto the rooftop where I could see almost all of Rotterdam. The towering World Trade Centre building reflected the sunlight onto the Rhine River, which is hurdled by a number of impressive bridges and on a clear day, and at a squint, the spikes of the The Hague skyline can be spotted on the horizon.

Walking around the corner I realised why we paid Schieblock a visit as my eyes were taken off the city and onto row after row of thick and tall greenery. This happened to be Rotterdam’s largest rooftop garden. Growing from dozens of beds of soil were plants and vegetables, some stretching well into the sky, while others were quietly attended to at their gardener’s feet. The wall I leant on was part of an extension, no bigger than a small cafe, with large windows that let the morning’s sun pour in. The space can fit roughly 20 people or less for small meetings, lunches or even drinks receptions while the sun sets, creating a perfect space for delegates to unearth one of Rotterdam’s best hidden gems.

We dropped back down to ground level and made our way up the Coolsingel and through the city centre where the city’s mixed and sometimes peculiar design really comes to life.

During World War II, large parts of Rotterdam were completely flattened, meaning much of the city had to be rebuilt. This came at an interesting time as the Industrial Revolution meant new resources and materials were at the city’s disposal, which became a cradle for the new Dutch Modernism movement and its most esteemed architects. This gave Rotterdam a head start when it came to Europe’s urban renewal in the 70’s and De Rotterdam, the stunning Markthal, and the new Rotterdam Centraal station are examples of how the city has continued to lead the way in this century, as well.

After crossing the enormous Erasmus Bridge, I gawped at the enormous De Rotterdam, the largest building in the Netherlands, and perhaps the most bizarre. De Rotterdam is three disjointed towers that look like giant rectangular building blocks have clumsily been dropped on top of one another. They hover perilously over the edge and it seems like a strong gust of wind could topple the entire thing into the Rhine River.

De Rotterdam and the Rhine River

De Rotterdam and the Rhine River

Inside one of the towers is the 278-room nhow Rotterdam hotel, which includes selection of meeting rooms and an outdoor terrace perched 30m above the water. Art and architecture have combined to make this not only one of the city’s coolest hangout spots, but one of the trendiest hotels to spend a night or two in. And, it has competition.

The nearby 72-room Hotel New York is a bustling boutique, which sits inside the former head office of Holland America Line where thousands of emigrants once left for North America. It also happens to serve some of the best seafood in the city. The Inntel Hotels Rotterdam Centre looks across the river at the nhow and inside is one of the most breathtaking event spaces in the city where a two-storey meeting room leans over the river from the top floor. The nhow hosts pop ups throughout the year, showcasing urban art, fashion and photography all done at the hands of local talent.

The tour ended on board the SS Rotterdam, an iconic 1950s transatlantic ocean liner that saw Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald perform on its stage on a number of occasions during its heyday. Since anchoring permanently, it has been reinvented as a 250-room hotel, with conference facilities for up to 500. Aside from several necessary renovations – and a much needed paint job after former American owners decided to pain the ship jet black, the SS Rotterdam still emits that feeling of grandeur and amongst the city’s many modern and boutique venues, it offers an inviting blast to the past.

Our scrumptious lunch of chicken and vegetables (and chips and mayonaise, because of course) was enjoyed on the ship’s Lido Terrace and we toasted Rotterdam’s rare sunshine, although the deck’s shallow pool will have to be enjoyed another time.