Mary Gostelow checks out the latest in innovative Seoul

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In case you have not heard, Seoul’s luxury hotels are constantly innovating.

Four Seasons Hotel Seoul has introduced pop-up, clear-sided tents to put in family rooms, they save housekeeping time and kids love it so much they pressure parents to bring them back for yet another staycation.

Ritz-Carlton Seoul is no more. Long live Le Méridien Seoul. Apparently Jeon Yong Sin, CEO of the 1983-vintage building’s owner, Cheonwon Industry, wanted a change of brand, and was prepared to spend (Radu Cernia, GM of Ritz-Carlton Seoul, wanted to stay in town as his wife is Korean, so he has moved to JW Marriott Seoul, itself currently being renovated).

The former Ritz-Carlton re-opened September 2017 as the 375-room Le Méridien, still in the Marriott family as it turns out, and David Collins Studio has given it a completely new look. This included removing a floor above what is now Chef’s Palette, an airy double-height restaurant. One other change is that the lobby is now like one giant catwalk, with lots of Hollywood about it. Art makes a statement, where you can see Bloom, by Hee-Kyung Kim, known for her consistent theme of life energy. Looking from the lobby level to one floor below and you can see into part of M Contemporary, which encompasses seven different art venues throughout the hotel. I am looking down into a gallery for pop-up exhibitions, currently called ‘Hi-Pop’, with several Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup cans – this will be taken down April 15th, 2018, with an ode to Marc Chagall starting April 28th, 2018.

Last November, after a month-long re-do, Park Hyatt Seoul‘s Timber House Music Bar/Dining, originally designed for the hotel’s 2005 by Super Potato, flaunted its new look. It is still themed as the inside of a Korean house – lined with timber of course. But now it has a new, younger, look. Live music is no longer present, although a grand piano remains just in case anyone wants to tinkle on the keys. Instead, GM Thomas Harlander has cleverly brought in McIntosh MC302 Power Amplifiers and a pair of Pioneer turntables, and a DJ of course, and he is buying his way up to what will eventually be a collection of 5000 vinyls. Even on a Tuesday night the venue was almost packed (you can reach it from the street, down 32 concrete steps, which makes it seem like a free-standing place).

I was with Thomas Harlander, and his colleague Adrian Slater, Area GM based at Grand Hyatt Seoul, and we all had a jolly good time. The food is whatever-you-want. The two guys seemed to like a local stew called tteoik-bbooki – it is rice and pork skin – so much they ate more than one.

This hotel, however, is great for location. It is two steps to Samseong metro station and the hotel has a complimentary shuttle to the airport express bus, five minutes away: the bus runs every 15 minutes and since it can use dedicated bus lanes, it gets to the airport in an hour, which is far less time than most limousines.

This is one of those Hyatts that require elevators up to the 24th floor reception, and then down to your room – I loved suite 2205, with its Aesop toiletries and large wet area (see the view to the right). In the morning I took an elevator up to level 23, went through the stylish Park Club, with lots of members, and then stairs up to the Technogym next to a 50-ft glass-walled indoor pool. Breakfast was up to the 24th floor, change elevators, down to the second floor Cornerstone. I remembered that Korean breakfasts are some of the most copious, anywhere, from daringly-simple egg displays to such local specialities as abalone porridge, and various kimchi stews with steamed rice – and, for me, the luxury of a hotel is one that produces really good coffee and western early-morning necessities.

Back at his base hotel, New Zealand-born Adrian Slater has not been idle. Since 1978, the hill-top Grand Hyatt Seoul, a gentle 20-floor crescent on 20 acres of Yongsan land, has dominated this part of town.  Everyone in the area knows it, has used it and still uses it. Every winter, families come to the outdoor skating rink (it is such fun for guests to down at the rink, illuminated until midnight).  Year-round, regulars swim in the indoor pool, providing a ying-yang experience, swim as if in Hawaii, but indoors, or go directly outside, to the skating rink – there is something for everyone.

About 55 per cent of hotel rooms’ business is domestic, and these people, as well as the locals who have come here regularly for up to 40 years to dine and enjoy the experience, want something new. Adrian Slater, and his colleague, Hyatt Asia-Pacific’s food guru Andreas Stalder, recently re-designed the hotel’s lobby lounge. It still has a Filipino quartet, live every evening, but now the lobby hosts two elegant and bijou buffet tables: one offering a variety of tapas, the other specialising in desserts. Wearing my devil’s advocate hat, I have to say “why has no-one thought of this before?”. The most important thing is to say well-done Mr Stalder, and also Hyatt.

Grand Hyatt Seoul, among its many dining options, used to have a Paris Grill, a few steps down from the main lobby.  This has gone and is now the spacious Grand Club, open from 6.30am. There are also newly-conceptualised main restaurants, like Teppan. This cleverly has two C-shaped tables, which makes it possible for a partial as well as a whole buy-out-one memorable feature that your chef first presents the ingredients, on a tray. My dinner, with each course shown as products for my inspection, started with foie gras on brioche with local strawberries and finished with fried rice with beef, black sesame and fried egg – I simply could not manage the set-meal’s finale, banana flambéed and served with rum and raisin ice cream. Thank goodness the gym is 24/7 as I needed a serious workout before a perfect room service breakfast arrived the next morning on highly-starched linens, exactly as requested at 5.30 before leaving at six for that drive back to the airport.

Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world.  Read her daily travelogue,

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