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Not my choice of lifestyle, but a great destination

Published 2 May 2010
News Review
876th article

Geraldine and Michael sampled epicurean delights and disasters in Dubrovnik (Nikolina Vicelic)

When I told people I'd abandoned the Auberge du Pere Bise after its incompetent reservation procedures, and was going to Dubrovnik, they asked, "Why?"

The charming PR lady of the Excelsior hotel, Nikolina Vicelic, said, "We want to make Dubrovnik a lifestyle destination." No chance, dear. But it was a marvellous place - I had a great time.

The old town is large, unspoilt. In spite of being warned of dreadful food I had a historic meal in Dubrovnik and two outside. Plus some shockers.

The Excelsior does not epitomise top-class luxury. It's practical. The dining room seats 600 people; there are conference rooms, one for 500 delegates; it does a lot of Irish and Spanish weddings. It's a typical Communist blob built in 1970.

My Dubrovnik guide said, "It looks like a fist in the eye. When the Serbs shelled Dubrovnik we all hoped they'd demolish the Excelsior." If they had, another monstrosity would have risen in its place.

Our suite was superb. Enormous, nicely furnished, with a vast terrace and a stunning view of the sea and the old town. The hotel interior is well designed. A lot of fine rugs enliven the marble floors.

A great thing about Croatia is the people. They're immensely pleasant, smiling, willing. The fact that the coffee was cold every morning, the croissants and breads inferior, the jams horrendous, is kind of incidental.

The bathroom was so complex you needed a 100-page instruction book. The bath water never left. The taps resembled bollards with knobs on; the shower, a spaceship. Simplicity was not rampant.

There's a fantastic dining terrace where I had my first (and only) hotel lunch. Two cut-up pieces of john dory, one so salty it was practically inedible, the other overcooked and dry. I ate one dinner at the hotel's sushi restaurant. My soup was watery, the fish heavy, the desserts on both occasions okay, but surrounded by cheap catering cream. A lifestyle experience? Not exactly. Strangely, the bread I ate at lunch was warm and wonderful. At dinner it was like rubber. I tried to pull it apart and it stretched endlessly. Geraldine thought her sushi was superb.

In the suite the TV channels didn't correspond to the printed list. There was no instruction on how to work the safe. The concierge said, "Your room key opens the safe." Why not tell us in advance? The room key is knocked off in plastic at the desk. So the safety element of a code or lock combination, which you normally choose, is gone.

In spite of these few (okay, many) quibbles, I enjoyed myself. The hotel owner, Goran Strok, and his wife, Renata, were supremely hospitable. They showed us round. If they didn't, Nikolina and the delightful hotel manager, Jasna Durkovic, did.

I suggest you visit Dubrovnik before it goes. New buildings are raising their hideous heads. It'll look like the Costa Brava soon. Now it has great atmosphere and architectural beauty beyond belief.

We had a terrific meal in Nautika, by the walls of the old town. It's owned by a jolly local, Mato Durovic. The marinated scampi with goat's cheese were incredible, fresh from the Adriatic. The medallions of young veal, prosecco, sweet raisin and white wine sauce with a mousse of peas and potato cone, magnificent. Like the nearby castle on a rock, rising from the sea, where Daniel Day-Lewis performed Hamlet.

My dessert was skorup, described as cream cake with butter, eggs, almonds and lemon zest. Another triumph.

To unbalance that I had one of the worst meals ever in Gil's, a ghastly restaurant owned by a Russian and run by Gilles Camilleri, a surly, arrogant, inhospitable ghoul.

There's a phrase: "Everything but the kitchen sink." This dump was so appallingly over-decorated, the kitchen sink, metaphorically, was ever present. To add to the horror, the staff played discotheque music, loudly.

I had tasteless cod "in tajine". "Nothing in it to light you up," I dictated. Renata had john dory with pork. Big clumsy bits of both. Ridiculous.

My starter was "burrata cheese, beetroot, ginger apple, watermelon granite". The waiter said, "Be sure to eat all of it together."

Later, faced with an equally miserable dessert, "Gil's cube: light, milky ganache in an emulsion of lime and violets", the waiter instructed: "Start at the top and work your way down."

I dictated, "Thank you very much. It's my plate of food. I bought it. I can eat it how I bloody well like."

The Gil's experience was horrific. See Dubrovnik. Avoid Gil's.

  • At a Dubrovnik cash machine I tried to withdraw 2,000 krone (£270) on my Amex gold card. "Transaction refused." When asked, Raymond Joabar, UK boss of Amex, who'd personally arranged the facility, said my maximum withdrawal was £200 a week. I spend some £300,000 a year with Amex. Why wasn't I told of this ludicrous restriction before? Joabar explained if I went from gold card to platinum I could draw £285 a week. But that would cost £300 a year. The words "bloomin' liberty" come to mind.

    Michael's missives

    What are your plans for the 100 Winner dolls which now have a considerable rarity value? I suggest you give one to every reader who sends a letter of praise. They should last for years.
    Don Roberts, Cheshire

    Thank you for saying "Peter Wood, boss of esure, has gone completely nuts" in regard to my destroying Winner dolls. I was concerned that a piece of your cranium might choke an over-enthusiastic child. If you promise not to give them to children I could give you a few more if you're desperate.
    Peter Wood CBE, Reigate

    The impossible has happened. You were photographed last week with someone worse dressed than yourself.
    Dennis Pallis, Kent

    Can you believe the Grosvenor House hotel has no Marmite? Even worse, room service sent Vegemite as a substitute in my hangover cure breakfast. Get on the case, man.
    Julie Stonel, Surrey

    I asked the Hilton hotel, Templepatrick, Antrim, for a chocolate birthday cake with "Happy 90th birthday" on it for my mother. A horribly dry cake with no greeting was plonked in front of her. When I asked for cream a 50p-sized squirt from a canister was added. I asked to take the cake remains home. They were provided in the original box from the local Tesco supermarket. The manager said the chef was too busy to bake a cake!
    Bradley Lightbody, West Yorkshire

    Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or email michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk