A panoramic view of Baku and the Flame Towers. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP PHOTO
A panoramic view of Baku and the Flame Towers. Giuseppe Cacace / AFP PHOTO

The new luxury destinations – Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan



The south of Almaty slopes upwards until its city limits meet the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains. To the north, its boundaries are halted by the vast steppe flatlands. This simple geography lesson – downhill for north, uphill for south – helps the uninitiated find their way around Kazakhstan’s largest city. This is key, as construction – one of Almaty’s fastest growing sectors – constantly reworks the landscape. The city’s development has even drawn parallels with New York City’s 20th-century building boom.

I start my Almaty adventure at the Donatello Boutique Hotel, one of the city’s newest buildings. Arriving in a beaten up BMW taxi – a contrast to the black Bentleys and snow-white Range Rovers that pass us – the hotel is easy to find as it squats at the far end of Dostyk Avenue, at the doorstep of the Tien Shan.

From a distance, it looks like a three-tier wedding-cake, all Palladian-style columns and arches, but its lack of corporate gloss is refreshing. Branded business hotels, like Rixos and InterContinental, are popular in Almaty, but the city has long cried out for a more personal place to stay.

With 22 guestrooms, a buzzy bar and a basement spa, it is the first hotel in Kazakhstan to be added to the Small Luxury Hotels portfolio, highlighting a shift in the city’s leisure market. The timing is optimum too. As of July this year, UAE nationals – along with 10 other nationalities – have no longer required a visa to enter Kazakhstan for visits of up to 15 days. This is part of Kazakhstan’s US$10 billion (Dh36.7 billion) push to develop its tourism sector by 2020.

To get to the lobby, I pass a cluster of guests who – making the most of the warmer months – lounge on white sofas and tuck into pasta and steaks. Italian food is all the rage in Kazakhstan’s former capital, a good thing when you consider that traditionally horsemeat was the mainstay of most menus. Inside the lobby a fire roars, while just off it, well-heeled locals sip vodka under glossy Flos Skygarden lamps in the den-like Donatello Club lounge. This is Kazakhstan putting on the glitz.

My room on the third floor is small but perfectly formed, equipped with an off-white leather sofa and Louis XV armchairs. The craggy mountains loom outside, just visible through gauzy curtains. My guidebook informs me that these epic 4,000 metre peaks provide a natural barrier against the infamous buran, the biting wind that travels thousands of miles south to Almaty from Siberia. To the left of the window, I can make out the enormous Royal Tulip hotel where last summer, Kanye West performed at the wedding of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s grandson.

The Donatello is conveniently wedged between downtown Almaty and the Shymbulak Ski Resort. Virtually unknown outside of central Asia, this resort made the headlines earlier this year when Prince Harry and Cressida Bonas arrived there on a private jet, care of Burak Oymen, a Turkish-born property developer. Oymen, who owns Shymbulak through his company Capital Partners, also owns Almaty’s luxury 36-floor Esentai Tower, built at a cost of US$450 million (Dh1.6billion), and launched by supermodel Eva Herzigova in 2012.

Like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the Esentai Tower was designed by the American firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and it is the destination of choice for wealthy Kazakhs, who go there to shop for Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Stella McCartney. Last year, the region's first Six Senses Spa opened in the Tower, part of the brand new Ritz-Carlton hotel (www.ritzcarlton.com), which has taken over the top 10 floors.

The next morning I head out to explore. Glimpses of apple orchards are visible through the taxi windows as we travel along Dostyk Avenue. Almaty, whose previous name “Alma-Ata” means “father of apples” in Kazakh, is believed to be the birthplace of the apple. Oak, poplar and birch trees line the roads, adding to the pastoral vibe.

Soon, downtown, the neoclassical Abai Opera and Ballet Theatre pans into view, as does the gourmet Parisian grocery shop, Hediard. Both are a far stretch from the city’s humble origins as a military outpost for the Tsars.

Jumping out, I head north on Pushkin Street by foot. Here travel agencies advertise Haj pilgrimages to Mecca and Almaty’s mosque sits lit by a watery sun. On its south-facing wall, a sign illustrates suitable clothing advice for visitors. Such signs are deemed necessary for a population relearning Islam after seven decades of atheist communist rule.

A few metres away, in a leafy square, some shamans offer guidance to passers-by. Nomadic shamanism dominated early Kazakh belief-systems and despite marauding invaders like Tamerlane – who destroyed Almaty in the 14th-century – and the Soviet abolition of religious freedoms, Kazakh’s earliest form of religion lives on today. I stop and ask one woman, called Zhaksygul, about her work. Like many of the 3,000 or so healers in Almaty, she tells me she is from the southern desert city of Turkistan.

“Once,” Zhaksygul says, “people from Almaty would travel to my city to meet me. Now, they are all too busy with business, so I have come to them. I have much more work and money nowadays. More than ever before.” It seems even shamans from the remote corners of the country are benefitting from Kazakhstan’s newly found riches.

Like Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan has a complex religious and cultural history. Once part of the Persian Empire, its capital Baku can trace its roots back to the Egyptian's Book of the Dead and the country has swapped names and rulers umpteen times over the past two millennia. Thankfully, getting there is much less complicated. It is an easy three-hour flight from Almaty to Baku – straight over the Caspian Sea – with Kazakhstan's national carrier, Air Astana.

I arrive in Baku at sundown and head straight for Khojaly Avenue to have dinner at the celebrated Azeri restaurant Sumakh (www.sumakh.az; 0099 4124 80212). Autumnal coloured Azeri carpets hang on the walls, and tables of chattering families – all dressed up for the occasion – crowd the restaurant.

Sumakh, I had been told, has a highly capable kitchen, so I point to anything that takes my fancy on the menu. First, the waiter brings a trio of salads: tomato and roasted aubergine, selected local cheeses and a “shepherd’s salad” of tiny spring onions, dill, coriander, purple basil and cucumbers. Next, a plate of crescent- shaped qutab arrives. Onto these delicious doughy pockets, stuffed with herbs and pumpkin, I spoon sumac and dollops of xama (sour cream). Lastly, I sample a small bowl of dograma, a cold soup made from sour milk, potato and cucumber, which is refreshingly tart. Cups of tea follow, served in tiny crystal glasses.

Azeri cuisine’s strength is its ingredients. Seasonal vegetables – plump from sunshine – are naturally organic and are so packed with flavour that they make their western equivalents seem utterly tasteless in comparison. It is rumoured that restaurateur Arkady Novikov – of London’s Novikov Restaurant – will only source his tomatoes from the markets of Baku, so good are they.

Next, I check into the JW Marriott Absheron, which offers the best “Baku-by-night” views. My room, on the 14th floor, boasts huge floor-to-ceiling windows that perfectly frame the Caspian-fronting bulvar (promenade) and the city’s adventurous building projects. The newly built Flame Towers dominate the skyline. Built by HOK architects – the firm responsible for the Dubai Marina and Abu Dhabi National Oil Company headquarters – they are the tallest buildings in Baku at 190m and their curved sides flicker with 10,000 lights giving the impression of moving flames. Home to a brand new Lamborghini dealership and the new luxury Fairmont Baku hotel, the towers stand like a lit beacon of newly found wealth and is among of the buildings that earn Baku the moniker of “post-Soviet Dubai”.

After unpacking, I head outside to the terrace. The warm evening means it is busy and the air is rich with the sweet smell of apple tobacco puffed from shishas. Huge comfy chairs encourage long chats and tea ceremonies and the atmosphere is relaxed and confident, like Baku itself. Business deals are being done on tables around me, but most people are unwinding post-work. Beyond, yachts park at the busy harbour and families stroll along the promenade.

There is a strong sense of transformation and the city is full of exciting new projects. One man who is busy setting trends is the Frenchman Henry Chebaane. A former manager at London’s Berkeley hotel, Chebaane now runs London-based Blue Sky Hospitality. In Baku, he has created Sahil, once a huge rickety Soviet-style kebab place that is now a smart “seaside dining destination” on the Caspian seafront. Chinar – a hugely popular restaurant and nightclub – was Chebaane’s first project in Baku five years ago and it still attracts everyone from heads of state to fashionable locals.

Back in the UK, I ask Chebaane what factors he considers and what he strives for when designing the city’s most popular restaurants. “A sense of place. Culturally relevant but within the global zeitgeist. Softly spoken but assertive and compelling design with layers of meaning, storytelling and questions that open the imagination of the audience,” he says. This statement sums up Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Two countries that – while focused on traditions – are taking a galactic leap into the future and are opening their arms to welcome the world.

COMPANY PROFILE

Company: Eco Way
Started: December 2023
Founder: Ivan Kroshnyi
Based: Dubai, UAE
Industry: Electric vehicles
Investors: Bootstrapped with undisclosed funding. Looking to raise funds from outside

PROFILE OF HALAN

Started: November 2017

Founders: Mounir Nakhla, Ahmed Mohsen and Mohamed Aboulnaga

Based: Cairo, Egypt

Sector: transport and logistics

Size: 150+ employees

Investment: approximately $8 million

Investors include: Singapore’s Battery Road Digital Holdings, Egypt’s Algebra Ventures, Uber co-founder and former CTO Oscar Salazar

THE SPECS

Engine: 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder

Transmission: Constant Variable (CVT)

Power: 141bhp 

Torque: 250Nm 

Price: Dh64,500

On sale: Now

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Almouneer
Started: 2017
Founders: Dr Noha Khater and Rania Kadry
Based: Egypt
Number of staff: 120
Investment: Bootstrapped, with support from Insead and Egyptian government, seed round of
$3.6 million led by Global Ventures

TWISTERS

Director: Lee Isaac Chung

Starring: Glenn Powell, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Anthony Ramos

Rating: 2.5/5

The biog

Name: Dhabia Khalifa AlQubaisi

Age: 23

How she spends spare time: Playing with cats at the clinic and feeding them

Inspiration: My father. He’s a hard working man who has been through a lot to provide us with everything we need

Favourite book: Attitude, emotions and the psychology of cats by Dr Nicholes Dodman

Favourit film: 101 Dalmatians - it remind me of my childhood and began my love of dogs 

Word of advice: By being patient, good things will come and by staying positive you’ll have the will to continue to love what you're doing

COMPANY PROFILE

Name: SmartCrowd
Started: 2018
Founder: Siddiq Farid and Musfique Ahmed
Based: Dubai
Sector: FinTech / PropTech
Initial investment: $650,000
Current number of staff: 35
Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Various institutional investors and notable angel investors (500 MENA, Shurooq, Mada, Seedstar, Tricap)

Roll of honour 2019-2020

Dubai Rugby Sevens
Winners: Dubai Hurricanes
Runners up: Bahrain

West Asia Premiership
Winners: Bahrain
Runners up: UAE Premiership

UAE Premiership
}Winners: Dubai Exiles
Runners up: Dubai Hurricanes

UAE Division One
Winners: Abu Dhabi Saracens
Runners up: Dubai Hurricanes II

UAE Division Two
Winners: Barrelhouse
Runners up: RAK Rugby

Sleep Well Beast
The National
4AD

THE SPECS

Aston Martin Rapide AMR

Engine: 6.0-litre V12

Transmission: Touchtronic III eight-speed automatic

Power: 595bhp

Torque: 630Nm

Price: Dh999,563

Company Profile

Name: HyveGeo
Started: 2023
Founders: Abdulaziz bin Redha, Dr Samsurin Welch, Eva Morales and Dr Harjit Singh
Based: Cambridge and Dubai
Number of employees: 8
Industry: Sustainability & Environment
Funding: $200,000 plus undisclosed grant
Investors: Venture capital and government

Your Guide to the Home
  • Level 1 has a valet service if you choose not to park in the basement level. This level houses all the kitchenware, including covetable brand French Bull, along with a wide array of outdoor furnishings, lamps and lighting solutions, textiles like curtains, towels, cushions and bedding, and plenty of other home accessories.
  • Level 2 features curated inspiration zones and solutions for bedrooms, living rooms and dining spaces. This is also where you’d go to customise your sofas and beds, and pick and choose from more than a dozen mattress options.
  • Level 3 features The Home’s “man cave” set-up and a display of industrial and rustic furnishings. This level also has a mother’s room, a play area for children with staff to watch over the kids, furniture for nurseries and children’s rooms, and the store’s design studio.
     

Cracks in the Wall

Ben White, Pluto Press 

RESULTS

Tottenham 1

Jan Vertonghen 13'

Norwich 1

Josip Drmic 78'

2-3 on penalties

COMPANY PROFILE

Company name: Revibe
Started: 2022
Founders: Hamza Iraqui and Abdessamad Ben Zakour
Based: UAE
Industry: Refurbished electronics
Funds raised so far: $10m
Investors: Flat6Labs, Resonance and various others

Company Profile

Company name: Hoopla
Date started: March 2023
Founder: Jacqueline Perrottet
Based: Dubai
Number of staff: 10
Investment stage: Pre-seed
Investment required: $500,000

Herc's Adventures

Developer: Big Ape Productions
Publisher: LucasArts
Console: PlayStation 1 & 5, Sega Saturn
Rating: 4/5

Living in...

This article is part of a guide on where to live in the UAE. Our reporters will profile some of the country’s most desirable districts, provide an estimate of rental prices and introduce you to some of the residents who call each area home.

Biggest applause

Asked to rate Boris Johnson's leadership out of 10, Mr Sunak awarded a full 10 for delivering Brexit — remarks that earned him his biggest round of applause of the night. "My views are clear, when he was great he was great and it got to a point where we need to move forward. In delivering a solution to Brexit and winning an election that's a 10/10 - you've got to give the guy credit for that, no-one else could probably have done that."

Final round

25 under -  Antoine Rozner (FRA)

23 - Francesco Laporta (ITA), Mike Lorenzo-Vera (FRA), Andy Sullivan (ENG), Matt Wallace (ENG)

21 - Grant Forrest (SCO)

20 - Ross Fisher (ENG)

19 - Steven Brown (ENG), Joakim Lagergren (SWE), Niklas Lemke (SWE), Marc Warren (SCO), Bernd Wiesberger (AUT)

EMIRATES'S REVISED A350 DEPLOYMENT SCHEDULE

Edinburgh: November 4 (unchanged)

Bahrain: November 15 (from September 15); second daily service from January 1

Kuwait: November 15 (from September 16)

Mumbai: January 1 (from October 27)

Ahmedabad: January 1 (from October 27)

Colombo: January 2 (from January 1)

Muscat: March 1 (from December 1)

Lyon: March 1 (from December 1)

Bologna: March 1 (from December 1)

Source: Emirates

Company Profile

Company name: Namara
Started: June 2022
Founder: Mohammed Alnamara
Based: Dubai
Sector: Microfinance
Current number of staff: 16
Investment stage: Series A
Investors: Family offices

The National Archives, Abu Dhabi

Founded over 50 years ago, the National Archives collects valuable historical material relating to the UAE, and is the oldest and richest archive relating to the Arabian Gulf.

Much of the material can be viewed on line at the Arabian Gulf Digital Archive - https://www.agda.ae/en