Silk Road Sophistication: A Review of The Ritz-Carlton, Almaty, in Kazakhstan
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After spending a week shopping and eating my way through Istanbul, I decided to get a little adventurous and check out a new country: Kazakhstan. Following a brief stay in the capital, Astana, and an exciting 14-hour-long train ride, I arrived in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city and former capital.
Almaty served as the capital of the various iterations of the Kazakh state from 1929 until 1997, when the federal government was relocated to Astana. It is now home to the stunning Ritz-Carlton, Almaty, which is just 5 years old. It also turned out to be arguably one of the best hotels I've ever stayed in.
I booked my reservation directly through the Ritz-Carlton website, which offered the best rates by over $50 a night compared to Kayak, Orbitz, Hotels.com, etc. I paid 115,248 Kazakh tenge ($305) per night, and booked the reservation using The Platinum Card® from American Express. The booking process on the Ritz's easy-to-navigate website took all of five minutes, and I was on my way. This property is a Category 4 in the new Marriott Bonvoy chart, meaning free nights will run you 25,000 points per night. And, this means that this property is one at which you can use Marriott Category 1-4 free night certificates.
The Ritz-Carlton, Almaty, was on the upper floors (22 through 30) of the Esentai Tower on Al Farabi Avenue. The location was not in the city center, but an Uber to the Green Bazaar (Zhibek Zholy) downtown only took 10 minutes, and Almaty International Airport (ALA) was only 30 minutes by car.
It's worth noting that there was very little within walking distance of the hotel. Unless you're shopping or eating at the modern Esentai Mall next door, or buying a new car at the Bentley dealer downstairs, you need a taxi. Fortunately, Uber worked quite well in Kazakhstan, and wait times from the hotel were rarely more than two or three minutes. Al Farabi Avenue did get very busy, though, around rush hour, and getting downtown between 5pm and 7pm could take up to 40 minutes. (Normally it only takes five to 10.)
I quickly learned in Astana that my broken Russian and Turkish was barely enough to communicate with taxi drivers. I stopped by the Ritz in Astana, explained that I had a reservation in Almaty for the following day, and asked if they'd be able to arrange transportation from the train station. The staff was all too happy to help. I was even given the option of being picked up in a Mercedes, but given that it was more than three times the price of a normal car, I figured I'd survive without the Benz for the 10-minute drive to the hotel.
I arrived in Almaty the next morning to find a driver holding up a sign with my name, and was greeted in English with a warm, "Good morning, Mr. du Pont! Welcome to Almaty!"
Upon arrival at the hotel, I was again greeted by name and told to please take the elevator to the 30th-floor lobby.
"Please leave your bags with us and we'll deliver them straight to your room."
No problem! Given the way I pack, I was happy not to have to schlep my steamer trunks around anymore.
I was quickly and efficiently checked in by two staff members whose English was impeccable, to say the least. I had requested an early check-in (before 3pm), as my train arrived from Astana at 9:30am, and indeed my room was ready for me when I got to the hotel at 10am.
Honestly, it was hard to pay attention to the staff and the check-in process, because the views from the lobby were so distracting. Floor-to-ceiling windows offered unobstructed views of the city to one side and the mountains to the other. Glistening marble floors beautifully reflected the natural light that flooded into the lobby, making the space seem even more grand Initial impression: I'm going to like this place a lot.
As if the lobby weren't impressive enough, I was absolutely blown away by my 26th-floor room. I had sweeping views of the mountains, the city, and the Kazakh steppe. After spending 14 hours on a train, the second thing that caught my eye was the king bed. I almost felt guilty for wanting to plop down and wrinkle the crisp, freshly ironed sheets. Almost.
The large flat-screen TV was lit up with a customized welcome message.
Next to the TV was a desk that included three outlets, which could accommodate most plugs. Very handy!
Rooms also featured s Nespresso-style coffee machine, as well as water bottles placed at the coffee bar, by the bed and in the bathroom. Clearly, they wanted me to stay hydrated.
The top drawer next to the bed featured a control panel for the lighting, temperature, blinds and "do not disturb" sign.
The room and bathroom all had marble accents and floors, and were also featured throughout the hotel. The bathroom featured his-and-her sinks and a bathtub that even accommodated my 6-feet, 3-inch frame. (Not sure if it would fit TPG, who's 6 feet, 7 inches, but I was in the clear.)
Large mirrors over the sinks each featured heated squares, so they didn't fog up while I simmered under the rainfall shower. And a large window to the room allowed natural light into the bathroom, which was a welcome touch. Heated floors were a welcome addition too, when I was stumbling into the bathroom barefoot at o'dark thirty.
The shower and toilet were each enclosed. The shower featured not only a rainfall-style shower head with phenomenal water pressure, but also a movable wand that was more like a pressure washer when turned up to full strength. Hydroexfoliation, here I come!
Asprey cosmetics and amenities were stocked in the bathroom, typical for a Ritz.
All in all, top marks for the room! As much as I wanted to get out and see the city, I was perfectly comfortable curled up in my little slice of Kazakh heaven.
The Ritz-Carlton, Almaty, offered guests a number of amenities, most notably its Six Senses Spa, which I, of course, took full advantage of.
There was a large swimming pool and hot tub in the wet area, as well as sun beds and large windows with views of the mountains. Not a bad place to go for a swim without braving the extreme weather that Almaty often contends with.
On two occasions, I had the place all to myself, which was divine. The mood lighting added a nice aesthetic touch. On the other occasion, though, the pool was being used as a playground for some kids, which definitely diminished from the ambience and made it impossible to relax.
The spa area also featured a traditional hammam as well as a sauna.
A full range of spa treatments was offered. I indulged in the Destress Journey, which included a facial, a full-body massage and a soak in the hammam. I was invited to change into a plush bathrobe and served tea before and after, filled out a form so that my masseur would know how rough or gentle to be with me (I told him to go for it and work out those knots!) All in all, I was mercilessly spoiled for two-plus hours and enjoyed every minute of it.
Besides the spa, there was a small business center in the lobby, and thankfully I wasn't charged to print anything. There was a currency exchange as well as an ATM, also in the lobby. Twelve meeting rooms of various sizes were available.
And lastly, the hotel offered VIP airport service. I did not use it, but found the concept confusing regardless. The service apparently included a personal escort, personal assistance with customs and immigration and access to lounges at the airport. This was interesting because, even as a business-class passenger, I wasn't allowed to use the fast-track lane at the airport because it wasn't staffed. The sign was there, but it seemed to be more a smoke-and-coffee station for immigration officers who were indifferent to the lines forming behind them. And the VIP lounge at the airport was as basic as they come — not something I'd want to pay extra for.
Food and Beverage
Every night of my stay, I stopped by the Sky Lounge and Bar, on the 30th floor across from the lobby. Where better to have a cocktail than sunken into a plush couch gazing out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the snow-capped mountains?
Its innovative cocktail menu included local specials like the Kazakhstani Cool, the Almaty Mule and the Mountains Calling. Strictly for research purposes, I made sure to try all three. The Almaty Mule was definitely my favorite. Classic cocktails were also available, as was an extensive (and expensive) wine list.
Vista was the hotel's restaurant, where its extensive buffet breakfast was served. There were all manner of Western, Russian, Kazakh and Asian options available.
A fresh fruit bar as well as eggs to order were available.
Fresh-squeezed juices were also there.
Cereals and granola with dried fruit and a selection of milks also showed up.
And a tower of baked goods and other carb-filled treats were smack in the middle of the restaurant.
Fresh coffee or tea was brought to the table, and filter-style coffee was available, as were espresso-based drinks. As always, breakfast was served with the backdrop of the stunning 30th-floor views that I never got tired of.
Vista also served dinner, and the Ritz also was home to Bar&Grill, a steakhouse where you could get even more red meat, assuming you hadn't overdosed on shashlik already. (I had.)
I would absolutely stay at the Ritz-Carlton, Almaty, again without a second thought. I cannot imagine that there are any other hotels in the city that measure up. There were hardly any faults to be found here. I did notice that the housekeeping staff didn't replace the stationery in the rooms or the amenities in the bathroom, but that's hardly something I'll hold against them. In comparison to the stellar service I received throughout my stay here, that's small change. I was treated like royalty from start to finish. Staff always greeted you, the rooms were beyond comfortable, and I love that the entire hotel is situated above the 25th floor — there's little to no chance that you'll not have a view, no matter where you are in the hotel.
The fact that the hotel isn't right in the center of town could potentially be a drawback if you have business (or pleasure) in the center of the city, but I never paid more than $4 for an Uber to or from, and it usually didn't take more than 10 to 15 minutes.