Kiev’s grand gesture

Fairmont Grand Hotel

Amy Hughes

Growing up in New England we used to say, “It’s cold enough to snow” when temperatures dropped. In Kiev, it’s the opposite. On this late January weekend, I learn to say, “It’s warm enough to snow.” Thankfully, I’m well prepared with a heavy wool duffel coat and multiple layers. It’s a great excuse to trot out a winter hat collection and my friend has been desperate to wear a new fur coat she bought in Athens during the height of the summer heat, and the financial crisis. In case you’re wondering, Athens is definitely the place to buy fur coats and other luxury goods these days. But we’re in Kiev, where the only thing to buy is vodka – great quality and lots of it.

We enter the Fairmont, which has a unique location down by the undeveloped waterfront. It’s situated just off a main street lined with restaurants and shops leading to one of the city’s universities.

Just around the corner, a funicular travels up a steep hill to the central part of Kiev with its wide boulevards and St. Michael’s Cathedral, a working monastery and one of a handful of beautiful, gold-domed churches all within walking distance. We were expecting austere, Spartan views around the city, and instead, each church surprises us with a different pastel colour of the rainbow, one is green, another pale blue, yellow, and even a periwinkle colour.

English isn’t widely spoken here, yet we’re greeted warmly at the front desk before we’re shown to a suite large enough to house a foreign diplomacy delegation. From the sitting room, through the corridor, and into the bedroom, there are fantastic views of the iced over Dnipro River. The beds are grand, covered in fine linens, and comfortable.

As is the case with so many hotels, the heating system is tightly controlled, and presumes every guest prefers a tropical climate in the dead of winter. At 3am, we struggle, opening windows and thrashing duvets to escape the heat pumping through the vents. We manage to get it a bit cooler the next night, but this is not a problem unique to the Fairmont. All hotels should allow guests a full range on individual thermostats.

Grand… suites at the Fairmont

Heating sorted, we test the Illy coffee machine (thumbs up) before heading for breakfast, a vast array of typical things, along with smoked fish, meats, cheeses, and interesting honeys: pistachio, balsamic and three spice. I’ve been to the Middle East, and other parts of Eastern Europe, where gourmet honey is the norm, but I’ve never seen these before. And this is where the Fairmont excels.

There are four different kinds of home-made granola, a selection of nuts, and even soy milk. This is no Soviet culinary wasteland. I’ve eaten breakfast at five-star resorts with a smaller assortment than this. And when we tell the waiter we’d love a coffee refill, but are in a hurry to squeeze in some sights, he returns with takeaway cups full of a rich roast. It’s a simple, but ingenious touch other hotels could learn from.

After a full day out, walking like grannies to avoid the ultimate wipe out (and we’ve seen some Ukrainian grannies take a tumble), it’s time for a blind vodka taste test.

The no-smoking rules aren’t quite as advanced here, and the Fairmont’s bar is a welcome haven for cigarette, cigar and even shisha pipe smokers. With a low hum of trendy music in the background, we set about sampling raspberry, honey, and cinnamon vodka before retiring. They taste a bit more like cordials, but warm us up, nonetheless.

Everything about this hotel is dignified, traditional, and comfortable. It stays far away from bling, with excellent, attentive service and trusty, reliable, understated elegance.

The hotel and the city are perfect for a 48-hour break, and if you can stomach the cold, come in the winter. It’s a romantic city made all the more so by falling snow.

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