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The new boat people

Published 2 March 1997
Style Magazine
191st article

Happy sailors: Michael Winner with James and Shirley Sherwood (Vanessa Perry)

There's no doubt about it. I am the guest from hell. I don't want to be invited, I don't want to have to worry about being endlessly pleasant, about keeping to times and events planned by my host. I want to order what I want when I want it, not to have to eat what is served at times not of my choosing.

I care not what it costs to avoid all this. A good hotel nearby is fine. A bedroom in someone else's house is ugh. So I looked hard at the beautifully embossed card which read "James and Shirley Sherwood request the pleasure of the company of Michael Winner aboard the Road to Mandalay from Pagan to Mandalay Burma".

The "Road" is not an old Bob Hope-Bing Crosby movie but an elegant vessel that once glided up the Rhine. Now pushed up no end, it is a terrific Orient-Express adventure that goes up and down the Irrawaddy river. While I was considering my position, a letter arrived signed by James B. Sherwood, super-chief of one of my all-time favourite hotel groups, with a tick on a little box at the bottom denoting "this is a personal letter" With it, a list of 88 other guests, a highly exclusive group of international importants, ambassadors, titled folk - you name them, they had them. Vanessa looked worried as she checked the names. "Well. basically, darling," she said, "you're going to have to be very well behaved." This is not something I am good at.

They must have been nervous, because when I arrived in Rangoon (now Yangon) all the others were booked for one night into a ghastly Russian-built thing called the Inya Lake hotel, whereas I, alone, was put in the Strand hotel, a lovely old colonial spot run by the excellent Amman group. The next day we flew to Pagan (now Bagan) - one of the most beautiful sights ever. A biblical landscape dotted with endless Buddhist temples and pagodas. Oxen drew carts along dusty streets, life unchanged by supposed progress.

The Orient-Express buses took us to the wide Irrawaddy river where was moored the elegant boat. I sought out the only brilliant PR lady I know. Nadia Stancioff. "I do not wish, ever again, to go on your buses!" I said cheerfully. Nadia's smile wavered just a touch "I'd like, please, my own car, my own driver and my own guide. Where the others go in the morning, I will go in the afternoon. I wish to relish these sights undisturbed. On one day I hear we are to go by smaller boat. I would like my own boat." "They'll come off their buses, see you and gnash their teeth," said Nadia. "I don't give a damn," I replied.

Let me be absolutely clear, the Road to Mandalay is one ot the great excursions of the world. Even if you go on the bus (and you'll be overjoyed to hear I got my car!), see it before it vanishes. Burma is hardly touristed at all, the people are beautiful, the atmosphere serene, the architecture old and breathtaking. But there are nasty signs. A big hotel starting here, posters encouraging visitors there. To cruise up the Irrawaddy seeing bamboo rafts floating by, canoes, bamboo tents, wooden huts, life being lived as it has for centuries, is mind-blowing. The food on the boat was excellent, mostly European and prepared by a Welsh chef! It was all tasty, from fish souffles to English tea. The cabins are small but nice, the few staterooms bigger and nicer. Mine had satellite television and telephone. The service was all-over superb. James Sherwood, in peaked cap looking like the manager of a successful baseball team, drunk endless cups of black coffee and hosted guests like mad. His wife, Shirley, dark, petite and full of energy, is everyone's favourite aunt. She bustled about making sure we'd all seen everything.

Only problem was the sun loungers grouped round the deck pool. There were 14 of them for 90 guests. "Do I get an alarm call for 3am and put my paperback and towel on those two?" I said to Carl Henderson, charming boat boss. "Or can you suggest . . ." "I'll do my best, Mr Winner," he said. "That strikes terror into me." I responded ungraciously. "I've only just met you, I don't know what your best is. I'll have the alarm call. Out do the Germans!" "It won't be necessary," said Carl. And he pulled it off!

I have previously written of James Sherwood as my hotel hero. I've had more wonderful times at his places, from the Splendido, Portofino, to the Cipriani, Venice, to the Mount Nelson, Cape Town, than anywhere else. He is now my boat hero, too. Nothing else left for him to achieve really, is there?

Winner's letters

I recommend that Michael Winner visits the Atlantic Bar & Grill in Soho, London. Nowhere have I encountered such arrogance from the greeting staff, and ineptitude and ignorance from the waiting staff. On my visit, an unsmiling doorman let us through to the central foyer where we were informed that we would have a wait of about 20 minutes for our prebooked table and that there was currently no space in the cloakroom for our coats. The waiting staff in Dick's Bar, which is beside the restaurant, were charming and friendly, and there was endless entertainment from the other waiting diners - tipsy businessmen falling off seats. The restaurant, however, was extremely disappointing. Although the room is awe-inspiring and we should have had a perfect night, by the time we had fought through the crush of bodies at the bar and sunk down at our table, we were hot and sweaty. The temperature of the room was ridiculously high and we were uncomfortably hot throughout. We waited a long time, and finally ordered our food, a bottle of wine and a bottle of mineral water. The mineral water never came. Courses for my fellow diners came, but mine failed to appear. When it did arrive, they had brought me the wrong dish. I pointed out the mistake to the waiter and he went off to find the maitre d'. Five minutes later he appeared and informed me that they had given me risotto as they had run out of pithiviers and, after all, both were vegetarian. In the end, he said he would ask the kitchen to cook me a fresh pithiviers, which would take some time. What finally appeared was little more than a veggie pasty. By this time, everyone else had finished. The Atlantic is an impressive place, full of good ideas, but the attitude of the staff ruins it. Perhaps if I had been clad in Donna Karan my treatment would have been better. I shall not be going back to find out.
Annabelle Thorpe, London SW4

I was amused to read about Kleshna Rhind-Tutt's problem in obtaining a second scoop of ice cream at the Criterion restaurant (Letters, February 23), which triggered a memory of a scene involving Jack Nicholson and a waitress in Five Easy Pieces. Clearly, the presumably made-to-order ice creams and the tartes tatins had been made in equal quantities. The solution is obvious - taking a leaf from Nicholson's script: "Waiter, bring us another portion of tarte tatin with ice cream. And, waiter, hold the tarte tatin."
Joseph Sinclair, London NW4