Sunday, 4 June 2017

The Hatta Fort Hotel Makeover. And Chickens.

Sheikh Rashid opens the Hatta Fort, 1981

We walked into the reception of the Hatta Fort and peered around the transformed area. 'Good morning,' smiled the receptionist.

'Good morning,' we replied. 'We're here for a chicken.'

His smile faltered. 'Check-in?'

'Oh, no. Chicken.'

You could see him realising that perhaps this was going to be a long, long day...

The small and delightful Hatta Fort Hotel nestles way up in the Hajar Mountains, the rocky range that runs down the spine of the UAE and gives rain to the country's Eastern coastal towns. The hotel's been there since Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum, first declared it open back in 1981 - a weekend treat for romantic couples and a destination for various groups from bikers and wadi bashers to companies organising team building events and conferences.

1981 again: the Gazebo restaurant notably absent!

Back in the day, it was home to all sorts of expatty events, murder weekends and meetings of the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs (Ah, darling, the quenelles of crustacean were simply divine). We've been going there since the  late '80s to enjoy quick getaways in the tranquility of the mountains, walking in the grounds or driving around and exploring the Hatta tracks. These peregrinatory pleasures are now, thanks to the hardening of the Omani border, no longer possible - and the road to the hotel is no longer the Dubai-Awir-Lahbab-Hatta highway, again because of that border. You have to take the Mileiha road, which snakes around the Omani border. But the Hatta Fort nevertheless still makes for a glorious weekend away from it all.

The Hatta Fort was for many, many years managed by the same chap, one Sergio Magnaldi. At one stage he tried to retire but came back again. He ran a small but tight ship, the happiness of the staff was always notable and over the years it became clear that the people who worked at the Hatta Fort tended to stick around.

The hotel's really something of an old friend. The chalet-style rooms with their round '70s spotlights and tall wooden roofs, the Jeema restaurant with its classical French menu enlivened by some truly glorious curries and, of course, the amazing Roumoul Bar - my favourite bar in the world. I kid you not. The interior of the Roumoul Bar was pure James Bond: a huge, curving leather-sided walnut counter dominated the brown velour-walled room with its rich walnut panelled ceiling home to little glittering brass spotlights. You were instantly transported back in time when you pulled up a chair at the counter. Cocktail shakers would rattle. Home made crisps and - for a while - dishes of canapes would appear. And all was well with the world.

The Hatta Fort's rooms circa 1981. Spot the wall decoration.

You can perhaps imagine how we felt when word reached us that the Hatta Fort was being renovated. Clearly the potential to ruin the whole thing was enormous. Sergio's wife had already had a go at updating the rooms years ago and had made an awful job of it, installing insane tin dogs, huge red bed-heads and utterly inappropriate lighting fixtures, as well as introducing faux-antique 'Marina Trading' style chests and strange chaise longues into the rooms. And, for some reason, odd swathes of leopard skin print material draped around. The hotel managed to rise above the whole thing. Would it survive a complete makeover?

The room post Mrs Sergio - note the chicken has survived the changes.

And if they were going to completely remodel the rooms, what about the brass and enamel chickens that used to hang on the walls? They had been there since the year dot and had even survived Mrs Sergio's reforms. They were pure '70s, fantastic dangly things made up of sweeping leaves of brass and bronze with shiny enamel-centred flowers and things. Sarah nagged me for weeks to get in touch with the hotel and see if we could rescue a chicken. Finally, I sent them the email. Did they by any chance save any of the chickens when they'd redone the rooms? Could we buy one?

Just before the weekend, the reply came. Yes, they had managed to track down a chicken. Yes, we could have it. They'd be pleased to see us whenever we came next. Sarah couldn't wait. Nothing would do but that we hoiked off up there tout de suite. And so Saturday saw us noodling through the mountain roads on our chicken rescuing mission.

The Hatta Fort Hotel today

We had made up our minds to be brave. Change is inevitable and you can't get mired in the past. What to us was a comfortingly familiar, retro delight probably looked to the rest of the world as dated and dowdy. We told each other these things as we pulled up to the hotel. It was something we'd just have to take on the chin.

A new pergola outside the reception was the first sign of change. There were 'on brand' new burgundy umbrellas around the pool. And the reception area itself was transformed and made funky: slate tiled floors, silver and gold furnishings, a lot more airy and spacious. This time round, someone had brought in a real interior designer. It is different, very different. But it is also very nicely done.

We met the older members of staff, one by one. What did we think of it all? The Jeema restaurant and Roumoul were closed by day because of Ramadan, but the chaps took us up for a quick peek around. The restaurant has been rethought totally - airier, lighter and more open. The buffet had been brought into the main dining room. And then, gulp, on to the Roumoul Bar.

Oh, my dears, but it's gone. The new bar is a faint, flickering shadow of former glories. It's nice, mind - again whites and silvers and blacks, slate and grey. All very modern and even a tad chic. But it's not the Roumoul Bar As Was. And you know what? We lived through it. We had a shrug, agreed with the chaps that yes, it was a little sad and its loss a shame but we all have to move on.

And that was that.

We went downstairs and explored one of the rooms - they've been done up very nicely, in fact. In place of the chicken on the wall is a framed piece of calligraphy and the dark wood beamed roofs have been painted white - pale ash bedheads and furnishings add to the airiness. They've kept the Hatta stone walls and the bathrooms have just been teased a little to lift them to the new style. Had other old regulars been horrified? Yes, a couple, the duty manager smiled. But while a few had found it hard to settle, the vast majority had approved. We knew what he meant - it was a lot of change to a place that had become, for many, something of an institution.

The new chalets - beautifully bright, but *gasp* chickenless!

But as we drove home and chatted, our Hatta Chicken safely in the back of the car, we realised that what hadn't changed about the Hatta Fort was the most important thing of all. The staff were still there and were still the same happy, friendly, helpful and smiley bunch. They're as clearly happy to be there as you are. You rather feel like royalty, wandering the grounds and being recognised with grins and murmurs of 'Welcome back' from everyone you encounter.

Apart from the outstanding food (including one of the better breakfast buffets to be had in the Emirates) and the whole tranquility of the mountains thing, it's the staff who always made the Hatta Fort Hotel that little bit more special. And they're still there, as they always are.

And last, and by no means least, we've got the chicken!


Alexander said...

BTW, I've had the old B&W pics of the hotel in 1981 on my hard disk for years and haven't got the faintest idea where they came from, so if they're yours do please feel free to let me know! Cheers.

liza said...

nice post

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