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10-02-2017

The Queen Is Ageing Gracefully

Hazal Somuncu / Crystal Sunrise Queen Luxury Resort & SPA

"The Queen is ageing gracefully and is now unlikely ever to be rivalled - full review"

I stayed at the Crystal Sunrise Queen before Christmas 2016 when I travelled solo and after New Year when I was in a mixed group of couples and solos, 10 of us in total. This is a review of both these stays. Please refer to my review from the previous winter for much of the detail. I will concentrate on new observations, the changes and my current overall opinion. Even then - there is plenty to say!

The unfortunate headlines involving Turkey last year clearly had had an affect on numbers with both the neighbouring Sentido Perissia and the Barut Hemera hotels closed. The first time I have ever seen these hotels closed. During my earlier stay, we also acquired a conference from another hotel that had closed at short notice. The Sunrise Queen always has a large proportion of repeat guests and these are less fickle than average and so this, combined with the extra business from the closed hotels, made the Sunrise Queen an oasis of activity in an otherwise very quiet Side.

Food
The food is simply the best of any hotel, or indeed cruise ship (Cunard QE2, QM2, Royal Caribbean), I have ever experienced: in quality, choice, variety, presentation, taste and generosity. There were always too many delicious temptations to even sample. Standout features relative to other hotels on the coast were freshly-squeezed orange juice, carrot and tomato juices (included), help-yourself large thermos flasks of quality filter coffee and thick-strained yoghurt at breakfast, always a-la-moment speciality cooking, delicious soups, crusty little rolls, flavoured butters, huge range of dainty au d'oeuvres, salads and cooked veg, several choices of meat and fish cooked in different ways, a themed section from different countries, a Turkish speciality section, pizza, chips and burgers section and desserts that taste even better they they look. There were surprises everyday and so it was always worth conducting a thorough survey before deciding. I appreciated the range of tasty cheeses to finish my wine with.

There was also an a la carte 'late lunch' available as an alternative to the main buffet without reservation (14:30-16:00 daily) with a range of pizzas - my favourite was 'Pizza Queen' - various types of kebab, sizzling fish in spicy tomato sauce (another favourite), plus some fast food and lighter choices, chips, salad and dessert bars. Everything was cooked to order by the chef in front of us (pizzas came from the pizza oven in the main kitchen) and waiter-served hot. 

The evening a la carte restaurant had three themes co-located in one physical restaurant in the winter (there are numerous dedicated themed a la carte restaurants around the grounds closed in the winter) with sublime service and genuine choice off the menu - rather a set meal as is so often the case with hotel 'a la carte' restaurants. This also meant to was possible to choose fewer courses and not be over-faced at the end of the night.

There was a 'late night' dinner ending around midnight with a smaller but ample choice and waiter drinks service. Lastly the help-yourself 'mini-buffet' cabinet with sandwiches and pastries was available all through the night - great for nighttime arrivals and departures.

The room service menu used to include certain food items that could be ordered free-of-charge through the night. These are now paid-for at all times, I assume because the all-night cabinet replaces this concept. I never used the nighttime room service anyway - I generally welcome a pause in the indulgence before I start again!

Another minor change, the a la carte lunch used to open at the same time as the main buffet lunch so that it was possible to choose between the two. I always preferred the atmosphere of the a la carte restaurant so this time it was a case of training myself to wait until 14:30 for lunch. Not a great sacrifice but a change on previous visits. Others I know prefer the huge choice of the buffet. 

A much appreciated tradition at the Sunrise Queen is the 'Old Friends Dinner' - a special dinner served in one of the a la carte restaurants for repeat guests with the management, usually held weekly according to numbers. We had one such invitation and were joined at our table by a couple of new friends and the General Manager, Ali. 

When I arrived at the end of November, main lunch was served exclusively outdoors at the 'Waterfall' restaurant by the beach with the nearby beach bar in full swing too. Sadly these were withdrawn with deteriorating weather in December. The beach bar made a brief reappearance until the temperature plummeted and rains came in January - it was a particularly harsh winter in Turkey this time - I have photos of me in deep snow just an hour from Side.

Bars
The 'Sunset View' bar (10:00-18:00) provided the backdrop to one of my regular daily perches, overlooking the sea from on high, also a popular sunbathing spot and with superb service from a full bar. It was a beautiful place to sit in the winter sunshine, when we had it, and indeed return to watch the sun got low in the sky.

Gone was the 'Irish Bar' of last year, now re-themed 'Bub's Pub' - identical as far as I could tell in every respect. Without stout (e.g. Guinness) the Irish theme was never going to work. Oddly, before the Irish Bar existed, there were cans of Guinness in help-yourself fridges at two of the outside bars. The disappearance of the Guinness coincided the the appearance of the Irish Bar! 

Bub's Pub lacked a barman (though drinks were waiter served from the nearby Lobby Bar) and until the entertainment was moved to Bub's Pub from the equally mis-named 'Disco', the venue was often deserted. This was hardly the pub atmosphere I had expected. It appears a waste of such an atmospheric venue. I would have preferred an assigned barman to make this venue their own and do it justice! Some hotels get the concept of a second 'cosy' bar right - a refuge from the main bar and the organised entertainment where people can talk, play cards and generally make their own entertainment. Instead this was used as a multi-purpose ante-room with no consistent purpose. 

Partly the lack of popularity of the Pub could be explained by the attraction of the Lobby Bar - one of the finest hotel bars I have ever had the pleasure of. It is warm, opulently decorated and furnished and beautifully lit. Most people sit in the variety of comfortable sets of tables and chairs, including chesterfield sofas and high-backed leather chairs, by the windows and around a grand piano all of which feature devastatingly efficient waiter service. Think 'gentleman's club' with more casual alternative seating areas - or simply a classic hotel bar! There are places to sit if you don't want to be seen - in a high-backed chair aside of great columns and foliage - places to sit to be seen, e.g. the bar and everything inbetween. There are 20ft deep chandeliers and everywhere expense, opulence, staff and space!

The bar itself has around a dozen traditional leather bar stools forming the most sociable space in the hotel - it is on the way to and from the main evening restaurant so is the natural place to meet with friends and make new ones as I frequently did. Too many hotels get the lobby bar totally wrong, removing the bar stools and turning the bar into a queuing area with over-worked staff that don't have the time to chat and joke with guests. In this regard, the Sunrise Queen is exemplary. Now if only some of this magic could be carried to 'Bub's Pub'! 

Branded imported drinks were included (except after midnight - yes the bar was open 24 hours) as were martinis, sparkling wine, Irish Cream, cocktails on the menu or by request if not, etc., etc, etc.. I always started my evening with a Bloody Mary made superbly by Ali the eccentric barman. I started calling him 'Ali Bey' ('Mr. Ali') but was corrected because there was only one 'Ali Bey' - the General Manager. I was allowed to call him 'cucuk Ali Bey - 'Little Mr. Ali' :-) 

In the evenings there was a large bar team and usually Murat the Bar Manager himself is in attendance. The staff are all personable, knowledgable and immaculately-presented. 

A grand, curving staircase leads to an upper level overlooking the bar where there are more seating options, card tables, the library (some English books) and all the tour operators folders out of sight of the elegant lobby. This upper level is the 'quiet area' and is connected through a doorway and by a walkway to the 'adult's only' pool and sunbathing terrace, the highest of the 12 swimming pools I have so far found on various levels scattered about :-) 

The 'Disco' is actually a very stylish cabaret-style tiered theatre, with flatteringly dim lighting, an elegantly long, island-style, sit-at bar at the top, farthest away from the stage and at-table waiter service elsewhere. There is an excellent sound system and professional class stage lighting. I will call this the 'night club' henceforth - though it more closely resembles the main theatre of a cruise ship. No other hotel I have visited has such a facility. In the Winter, this is the main venue for the evening shows. Afterwards, the DJ takes over and plays till late.

The minibar offering remains generous with bottles of still and sparkling water, a range of canned fizzy drinks ('light' versions available by request from the minibar waiter) and choice of canned or bottled beer, all restocked daily. I did however miss the packets of nuts and chocolate wafers that were provided on previous visits. 

Entertainment
The animation team had the same regular daily activities that one finds at practically any of the five star hotels on the this coast together with a programme of evening entertainment that repeats weekly. Some of our group took part in the fitness activities, boules ("boccia") on the beach and in some of the evening activities - musical quizzes, dances and karaoke. It was all professionally done and the animation team was one of the better that I have encountered. Water aerobics took place in the large circular indoor pool, winter location of the gym on one side of it and, mercifully, the Sunset View bar on the other. 

I usually avoid animation teams but I will make special mention of animation member Suleyman for the regular extended chats we had when I was in my 'solo' phase before Christmas. I assume he took pity on this 'lone Englishman' but he was very engaging and I enjoyed our chats. By the end of my second visit I was singing karaoke, doing the music quizzes, playing bingo and one evening was shocked to be applauded for my 'free-style' Turkish dancing by, among others, the Bursa Spor football team! I now regret not going the full hog and taking part in the miniclub dancing sessions (the Birdie Dance and the like) :-). Next time! 

We were fortunate enough to be entertained on most nights by three superb professional musicians. A reeds player (saxophones and clarinet) and flautist would play as a duo either in the nightclub or the pub venue and on other nights they would play with the pianist we knew and loved from the previous winter at the grand piano at the lobby bar as a sublime trio. The repertoire of the trio was especially appreciated by our group. 

There is also a cinema (converted from one of the squash courts - the other remains) with two daily screenings, again on a repeating weekly programme. One of the 'Twlight' films is shown in English (though we didn't recognise it by its Turkish name!) while others have English subtitles. 

Guest Demographics
While I would estimate that the single most represented nationality in the hotel was, as usual, German, this time Turkish was probably a close second overall and probably dominant during the conference week, weekends when entire Turkish families tended to visit and during the (unexpected - to me) Turkish school holiday at the end of January. Thankfully I left a couple of days into the school holiday!

Brits were very thin on the ground before Christmas - when I was travelling solo - and after New Year our group of 10 formed the majority of Brits in the hotel. There were many other minority nationalities that I came across at the bar lending a genuine international air to the hotel. Most foreign guests were 50+ age-wise and almost all children, when they appeared, were Turkish. 

Some of our party suffered from the instinctive British reaction to seeing how foreign parents 'allow' their children to behave, i.e. not repressed or sent to bed. This was at its worst during the Turkish school holiday period but it never got out of hand and a quick word from one of our party stopped a group of them playing with the main lifts at reception. 

My experience was that overall everyone was well-mannered, sociable and well-behaved - I never witnessed any drunkenness, falling over, arguments or glasses broken (except rarely by the staff). Even the few Russians I met at the bar, with an unfortunate reputation that precedes them, were exceptionally nice to talk to. Many of the older guests chose to dress up in the evenings and the ambience was very pleasant and convivial.

I always joke that that the Sunrise Queen tends to attract 'higher-functioning' guests, i.e. well-mannered, polite and better dressed, regardless of nationality and that is the prized demographic to me.

A Mature Lady
The Sunrise Queen is around 30 years old now and while clearly constantly maintained, in my experience rooms do vary. I gather that aside from major refurbishment programmes, repairs and replacements are done on an ad-hoc basis as and when they are required and this has led to some inconsistencies between rooms I stayed in. 

Some refurbishments have been done to all rooms, e.g. laminate flooring, large flat-screen TVs, all standard rooms have had their original bathtubs replaced by large, walk-in showers, etc., etc. Other details vary by room, e.g. the presence of the rather endearing bed-side brass-faced remote control box (controls all the lamps and heating/cooling fan speed - once upon a time it used to also control the TV and release the door lock without getting out of bed), whether or not the 'energy saver slot' had been bypassed, age of the taps - one of my rooms this time had a tap with the original Sunrise Queen logo on it, as old as the hotel? - type of shower (my last room had a rather magnificent eight-nozzle unit the like of which I have not seen in a hotel before). 

Given also that the room corridors follow the gentle but varying curve of the hotel such that any two adjacent rooms are slightly different in size and shape (rooms opposite to each other can be drastically different because of the difference between inside and outside the curve) and that the balconies increase in size from the top floor to the bottom (in order to evoke the cascading terraces of Pamukale), it is safe to say that no two rooms in the Sunrise Queen are alike!

When the energy saver slots all worked, they were cleverly linked to discrete indicator lights in the corridor, allowing the chambermaid to know whether a room was occupied and move on to the next without disturbing the occupant. There was also a 'do not disturb button' on the bedside remote. Now that so many energy-saver slots have been bypassed, it is impossible to know if a room is occupied or not and so this protocol has sadly been abandoned. 'Do not disturb' cards are provided. I hope the next refurbishment sees the restoration of the energy saver/occupied light functionality. It was another bit of rare luxury. 

A further aspect to note from the age of the hotel is that it is hard to imagine that such a spatially-opulent hotel could ever be built in such a prime location now. We are blessed in having this wonderful and wholly unique artefact from another era. The OTT architecture, design, spaciousness, quality of materials and prime location on the beach near ancient Side are some of the Sunrise Queen's major assets that can never be taken away. Nor now does it seem possible that the Sunrise Queen ever likely to be rivalled in these regards. 

I am happy to take the spaciousness of the public areas and prime location in exchange for a few room quirks due to age. 

Management and Staff
More ephemeral, yet more significant assets as far as the guest experience is concerned are the peerless, charming, unquenchably witty and dedicated General Manager, Ali Ucas, all his management team and the staff, seen and unseen. Their 'beyond the call of duty' attitude, professionalism, personableness and the extent to which between they together over-deliver on already high expectations including possibly the most generous all-inclusive offering in this part of the World elevate a extraordinary and unique building into an amazing guest experience. The staff are truly special.

Local Information
There is a good selection of shops at the end of the hotel drive and very few had closed mid-winter. For toiletries and general supplies, I found the further of the two mini 'supermarkets' not only to be cheaper but also had marked prices in Lira. Turn left at the end of the drive and walk to the last set of shops. It is on the corner on the main road. Just set in from there was the best value clothes shopping of all the shops here - T-shirts from €2, good copies,of Adidas tracksuits at €18 etc. Again there are fixed prices and even though marked in Euros, paying in Lira was cheaper. 

For a ladies hairdressers, Oscar directly across the road from the hotel comes highly recommended, while for gents I would recommend one of the two barbers just to the right coming from the hotel. My favourite was nearer of the two. Again pay in Lira for the lowest prices: 10 for a shave, 15 for a haircut. If you let them do your eyebrows too you will start to look as immaculate as the male hotel staff. 

There is now a dedicated dolmus stop with shelter just to the right at the end of the drive. The fares are 2 Lira to Side and 3 Lira to Manavgat. The dolmusses are mostly new too, larger and more comfortable. Most of those passing these days are from the more distant hotel areas of Kumkoy, Evrenseki, Colakli and Gundogu and are marked as such. They are not allowed to pick-up outside their own strip so don't feel ignored as they pass. Just look for the ones marked 'Side', a giveaway is that these will usually be curb-crawling for customers while the others will be racing along. Use the same Side dolmusses for the return.

Ancient Side is unmissable for its very significant and extensive ruins - call at the museum housed in the ancient baths at the entrance to the city to gain an idea of how they relate to each other. I helped translate the book on sale there from 'computer-English' to English - without fee regrettably. 

The better value bars in Side are past the Temple of Apollo on the Eastern side of the peninsular. It is still €1 for a large glass of freshly-squeezed orange or pomegranate juice though a large beer is now €3. Out of the bars on the front, facing the harbour, only the 'Apolonik' is within normal prices. I call the front the 'rip-off' zone where, even when I have agreed the price of a drink before sitting down I have been stunned with a charge for using the toilet. Even with a strong constitution and a fat wallet you need to take care here. 

In Manavgat, my favourite pastime is sitting by the river for the ubiquitous lunchtime special of trout, chips and salad. The price is displayed outside every restaurant usually all the same - just agree on the price of drinks before you sit down and don't be afraid to ask around!

If you don't fancy the hotel's expensive (but beautiful) spa, the best value alternative is to book one as a trip with one of the tour offices across the road. The going rate is €10 or €12 depending on office - negotiated down slightly into Lira. For this a car will collect you from security at the end of the drive, take you to the establishment where you can have a sauna, steam room, salt room, peeling and soap massage in the hamam, followed by an oil massage and return car to the hotel. most of our group tried this at different times and with different offices and all agreed it was stunning value. There are 'hamam-type' establishments across the road offering similar packages but these tended to start at €18. If you don't require the massages, the hotel spa's facilities are all free of charge. 

Also of note, especially if like me you travel hand-luggage only, there is a tailor (Signed 'Schneider' in German) which will launder and press clothes beautifully on a next day service for €1 for T and polo shirts and €1.5 for dress shirts. Head left at the end of the drive, first right and is the very last thing you can see raised up a few steps.

So, to summarise....

Pros
+ Prime beach-front location an enjoyable walk to ancient Side
+ Extraordinary architecture, design, facilities, furnishings and decoration
+ Exceptional General Manager, management team and staff
+ Multiple eating, drinking, leisure and entertainment venues even mid-winter
+ First class service and oodles of public space everywhere
+ The most generous all-inclusive offering
+ Great live music and animation team
+ The best food: quality, variety, presentation, themes, a la carte lunches
+ The finest, most sociable lobby bar experience
+ 'High functioning' guests :-)

Cons
x Ageing guest rooms are acquiring their own individual 'personalities'
x Minor service downgrades (minibar nuts, free room service, a la carte lunch times) 
x Still no soup (a.k.a 'consume') spoons in the restaurants 
x The 'pub' is less of a cosy refuge and more an multi-purpose anti-room to the lobby
x I can't afford to live there :-( 

She may be a relatively mature lady and have loads more 'personality' than one is accustomed to in a hotel but since conversion to all-inclusive, this grand Queen is truly in her element. I have zero reservation in recommending her. 

Tim Millea. 1st February, 2017. - Tripadvisor