by Fiona Maclachlan
High summer was an exciting time in Azerbaijan´s Qabala region this year. The second Qabala International Music Festival brought visitors from far and wide, many more than have ever been accommodated in Qabala in living memory.
But Qabala was prepared and ready, with not only the existing excellent Qafqaz Resort hotels but also the brand new Qafqaz Riverside Hotel.
Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, officially opened the hotel just hours before his wife, Mehriban Aliyeva, opened the International Music Festival.
The hotel’s first guests were the eighty members of the UK´s prestigious Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Suleyman, Operations Manager first at the Qafqaz Resort and now at the Qafqaz Riverside, was calm and unflustered. "It all went well", he said. "The guests are happy."
And certainly this was the impression I was given when chatting to orchestra members. "We never usually get to stay somewhere as nice as this", was a typical comment. "We´ve had time to relax and really enjoy the facilities and countryside here," was another. And "We certainly didn´t expect anything like this!" another would add.
And no wonder.
A sweeping drive through immaculate flower and tree-filled gardens with fountains leads to the hotel entrance.
The vast light-filled entrance atrium with its elegant balustrade, white marble curving staircases, sparkling crystal chandeliers and the centrepiece white grand piano, provides an opulent and delightful welcome. The predominance of white and cream is at once restful, with the delicate touches of gold adding extra luxury. The staff at the reception desk are ready to greet you and, to the rear of the entrance lobby, a little tucked away, a bar provides drinks and a relaxed convivial atmosphere.
The designer is Turkish and sourced the interior furnishings from Turkey, Italy, Germany and Spain. But Azerbaijan is far from forgotten with a shebeke-inspired design subtly but cleverly incorporated throughout.
A feeling of space runs throughout the hotel, with the light-filled second floor lobby overlooking the two-storey entrance atrium. Gold-coloured pillars, intimate seating areas, large windows looking out on to the stunning forested mountain scenery let the sunlight in… Here´s the Cigar Bar, and a Brasserie Restaurant too, serving both international and Azerbaijani national dishes. The games room here is excellent for a bit of time out for the children, and there´s a smart billiards room for the grown-ups.
Conference Meeting Rooms are as luxurious and welcoming as the rest of the hotel, with soft cream leather seats. It´s becoming popular, Suleyman tells me, for companies to bring their people to the regions rather than to Baku, and they already have bookings from various companies for this excellent facility. I guess the new roads help too.
The health and beauty areas are also accessed from here, and Pinar, manager of the beauty centre, will be pleased to help you. The gym overlooks a stunning indoor swimming pool, which has huge windows in the walls and ceilings, providing plenty of light. The Turkish Bath is for both men and women, the sauna smells inviting, and there´s a vitamin bar too. At the rear of the hotel there is a terrace which seems to go on forever, leading to turquoise swimming pools and a music stage. This is a wonderful outside venue and was used to excellent effect for the poolside reception following the opening of the music festival.
Room types are all of a high standard and have the opulent furnishings in keeping with the hotel, with touches of turquoise reflecting the clear blue of the swimming pools. The best room is the Imperial Suite and this has its own lift for privacy. Complete with many extras giving added luxury, this suite is immediately inviting. The magnificent view from the south-facing balcony commandeers the whole entrance to the valley. The other rooms are beautiful too, with the option of a duplex suite and some flexibility in interconnecting rooms.
The Riverside complex includes cottages, similar to the high standard of those at the Qafqaz Resort, with a choice of 1, 2 or 3 bedrooms.
Beyond the cottages, the new fun-filled Ganjlik Luna Park attracts children of all ages, from tots to very ´grown-up´ adults!
Together with the nearby Qafqaz Resort Hotels and all their associated leisure opportunities, Qabala now boasts a stunning complex of hotels set in a truly magnificent location. The addition of the new Qafqaz Riverside is another step in creating a fabulous tourist facility.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were unanimous in their praise of the music festival, of the Qabala scenery, and of the Riverside Hotel. I like to remember one comment, from Andy Sippings, Chairman of the Orchestra. He explained that they arrived in the dark, went to bed and slept, and next morning he saw from his bedroom window, for the first time, the scenery of Azerbaijan. "It is fantastic," he said with enthusiasm.