For a moment I am lost in a dream. Sitting at a hand painted eighteenth century table, in a gilded Damask chair that might as well be a throne, I accept a glass of champagne from a man wearing a brocaded, gold buttoned vest, buckled shoes, and velvet knickers. Venetian mirrors reflect two white wigged chamber musicians in elaborate party dresses. Their efforts at their instruments, a harpsichord and golden harp, turn the air dense with Baroque texture. Sipping, I channel my inner oligarch and wage war with whether I'd rather be Catherine the Great or Marie Antoinette, and it's only when I look up at the two-ton, dripping chandelier and the frescoed, cupola ceiling that I remember how Marie Antoinette died and elect instead to be the great Empress of Russia. Which makes sense"”after all, that's where I am. Russia.
I reign as queen of Turandot, the Moscow hot spot that took six years to build and cost a pretty fifty million to decorate in the de trop manner of Versailles where even the bathroom is a veritable chamber of ubiquitous Delft. I look down at the Bauscher custom made plates that sit on the table, take a gander at the Chinoise style dÃ©cor that surrounds me and finger the Aubusson tapestries, before opening the extra large, gold-embossed leather menu before me. Maybe its my stomach growling or maybe I catch sight of my contemporary Ferragamo pumps tapping beneath the table, but I awaken suddenly from so much Baroque surrealism and enter the modern age. All those other diners aren't my courtiers, but Russian billionaires, expensively dressed supermodels and well paid government bureaucrats. And I'm merely a hungry tourist ready to gobble up some of the Asian fusion cuisine created by London celebrity chef Alan Yau (of Wagamama fame) in an over-the-top, faux Versailles, in reinvented Moscow. Whew.
Though he's not Russian, and certainly not of this time, I think of George Bernard Shaw the next night as I huddle atop the Ritz Carlton Moscow and sip vodka at its hip rooftop O2 Lounge. My thoughts turn to Shaw because of something he said. "I dislike feeling at home when I am abroad." So, do I George. Thankfully, this cool bar with its red velvet egg-shaped chairs and black slate floor is better than home. Like a magic carpet hovering above historic Tverskaya Street, this terrace bar melds with the pink Muscovite, late evening sky. Almost close enough to touch, a fairytale landscape haunts and thrills. The domes of St. Basils, like whimsical mushrooms from an illustration in a children's book, compete with the vanity of the Kremlin and the eerie, mystical beauty of Red Square.
Indeed, I'm not in Kansas anymore "“ not here in this city of ten million"”and that's the exotic allure. Moscow, for all of its European heritage and new found wealth, has not become heir to the homogenous world. It draws from its past while racing whole hog into the future. Delighting in its very differences and its contrariness, Moscow draws sustenance from deep rooted Slavic melancholy and creates, whether in excess or privation, an altered state of unreality that's mesmerizing to visitors.
Celebrating old world opulence and extremes, the Ritz Carlton Moscow is as intricate and elegant a gift to the modern day traveler as those Faberge' eggs were to the Romanov daughters. Hedonists will thrive comfortably here, but even those less inclined to enjoy lavish pampering will become converts. Who can resist doormen in tall hats with faces like Dr. Zhivago? Or, Frette sheets on feather beds in fulsome suites overlooking Red Square. Or, the meal of a lifetime, a Czar's breakfast that will set you back $700 per person. What's on the menu? A bottle of Crystal champagne, Kobe beef steak with Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and truffle omelette; foie gras “Au Torchon” with caramelized apple and pain brioche, not to mention a selection of imported Italian prosciutto and cheese, Beluga caviar with blinis, sour cream and quail eggs, seasonal fruits, pastries, freshly squeezed juices and hot beverages.
Reigning essentially as destination in itself, this hotel's very opulence hinders guests desire to step outside its doors and experience Moscow. In fact, most visitors want to hunker down and enjoy every aspect of the palace hotel. Why leave when you can be treated like a Czarina within? And indeed, the hotel sparkles like a mini Moscow itself. Consider the convenience of a butler for every experience you seek. Most popular is the night life butler who personally escorts guests through the maze of Moscow's dynamic night life scene, ensuring entrance with ease to all the hottest clubs. Vodka drinkers appreciate the vodka "sommelier" who tutors novices and experts alike on the subtleties of over 400 types of vodka in the Ritz Carlton liquor cabinet. Gourmands revel in culinary ecstasy at Jeroboam, helmed by Heinz Winkler; a Michelin starred, German chef (though some high rollers swear by room service in their Presidential Suite's bullet proof dining room). Personally, I could spend all day in the Ritz Carlton's ESPA spa, marveling at its gold and black mosaic of crystals and luxuriating in a jet lag treatment that equals a full night's sleep.
But if you do plan to leave the hotel, consider visiting in winter when the city's panorama enchants with a frosty romanticism. Departed are the grey tones of the concrete jungle. Instead, Moscow softens, becomes quieter and more voluptuous. Always mysterious, Moscow's enhanced by all those chunks of freshly fallen snow piled high on buildings, church domes, and trees. People slip along the icy streets, wrapped in voluminous coats and adorned with immense hats "“ many of them made from fur. They look a bit like chic urban bears negotiating the city.
My best tips for warming up? Swim with the millionaires at Chaika, a heated outdoor pool in the prestigious Prechistenka district. Though the thermometer commonly reads minus 15 (and I am talking Fahrenheit, folks), swimmers stay surprisingly toasty as they stroke. Afterwards, indulge in a hot chocolate at CafÃ© Pushkin, yet another fabulous restaurant by the creators of Turandot. This one, also just steps from the Kremlin, suggests life in a posh 19th century mansion. Popular with ex-pats living in Russia as well as Moscovites, the cafÃ© compels with three distinctly designed floors, each a thematic treat: a library, a pharmacy, and an entresol.
Fly: Take the American Airline's new direct flight from Dallas to Moscow.
Stay: The Ritz Carlton Moscow www.ritzcarlton.com offers an Imperial Russian faÃ§ade and a chic, contemporary interior. (Rooms begin at $1000 a night)
Eat: Try the famous beluga caviar and blue fin tuna sushi in the Ritz Carlton's O2 Lounge, created by celebrity Japanese chef Seiji Kusano. Try the blini at CafÃ© Pushkin (www.cafe-pushkin.ru) and the grilled Chilean Seabass in honey at Turando (no website available)
Do: Visit some of the metro stations, known as the people's palaces for their chandeliers and compelling artwork. Take in the Kremlin, the Grand Palace and Red Square. Walk down the Old Arbat, a picturesque pedestrian street. See the Faberge eggs in The Armoury, the principle museum of the Kremlin
Shop: Go to GUM, a world famous collection of shops within a 19th century arcade.
Souvenir: Amber jewelry, religious icons, modern art.
Galleries: For very contemporary Russian art, go to ART4.RU. To see more traditional work, try the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts.
What you need to know: A visa is required to visit Russia.
Jet Setters Show Off: Style conscious travelers will want to take along a tote that triggers a tete a tete. Try any on of the Trina Luxury cosmetic and travel bags, sold at Bergdorg Goodman and other luxury boutiques around the country. We love the Kelly Weekender Stripe for chi chi trips and the Bohemian Chic Purse Set for artistic outings. $25 and up.
Globe trotting Becca Hensley can’t resist a good sale, a mysterious side street or a full glass of champagne in a local bar. Austin-based, widely published, she is Senior Travel Writer for Austin Monthly and writes for myriad magazines, such as National Geographic Traveler,Forbes, and Self. An expert in all things luxe, she knows how to ask “how much” in ten languages, revels in the inspired hotel room, and doesn’t bat an eyelash when she sits by a baby on a plane.