When Muchi Gubwe was a fledgling hotel concierge in Cape Town, he would often refer to his seasoned colleagues as “moving encyclopedias.”
“Forget Google,” Mr. Gubwe, now the head concierge at the Mount Nelson, a Belmond hotel in the city’s Gardens neighborhood, said on a video call last month. “These are the people you need to speak to.”
The Times took Mr. Gubwe’s advice. We asked him and four of his counterparts at luxury hotels around the world — including Gurkan Aslan, from the Peninsula Istanbul; Pissinee Rajatabhothi, from the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok; David Gonzalez, from the Langham, Chicago; and Igor Alvim, from the Fasano Rio de Janeiro — to recommend experiences in their cities that would be stellar gifts for the holidays.
All five are members of Les Clefs d’Or (in English, the Golden Keys), a professional association of hotel concierges headquartered in Paris.
Like Mr. Gubwe, Mr. Gonzalez and Mr. Alvim spoke with The Times via video call, while the interviews with Mr. Aslan was in person and Ms. Rajatabhothi, by email. Their remarks were edited and condensed for clarity.
Chief concierge, the Peninsula Istanbul
A must is a Bosporus cruise because that’s the most magical part of a visit to Istanbul. We advise a minimum of two to three hours.
Picture yourself sailing between two continents. It’s very special, especially for proposals. Many guests prefer to do that right in the middle of the Bosporus with a romantic private dinner on a private yacht during sunset, with champagne. We arrange catering from the hotel. And we have our own pier here.
Cruising up towards the Black Sea, you see all the old Ottoman houses on the water. As you go north, it gets more beautiful, more green. We have created some seasonal experiences such as in May, when the Judas trees bloom — they look like lollipops, with a very special purple color.
Sometimes, guests are looking for different things to see and do, especially in the summertime, and want to get out of the city and swim, which you cannot do on the Bosporus. If you have the day, you can rent a boat to visit the Princes’ Islands, a group of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara. During the Ottoman period, some of the princes were exiled there.
Only four of them are open for public visits: Kinaliada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and Buyukada. The islands are quite famous for their fresh seafood.
Sedef, the island farthest from the city in the archipelago, is private. It belongs to one of the wealthiest families of Turkey. They have a small private beach, as well as a restaurant open to the public called Elio Sedef. We can arrange swimming tours there.
Every hour of the boat rental is 500 euros [$530] plus tax, plus catering. For the Princes’ Islands excursion, you need at least seven to eight hours.
If you plan to go to the last island — and you really have the whole day, say 10 hours — we could end the day with a Bosporus visit, where you sail between the continents, see the colorful lights of the bridges and maybe you stop at one of the nice seafood restaurants on the way towards the Black Sea.
Head concierge, Mount Nelson in Cape Town
One of the experiences I was proud of curating is the Wild Wine Adventure through the Constantia wine region, about 20 minutes’ drive outside of Cape Town. It’s an excursion that we designed, and the best part is the accessibility we offer.
You go out for a full-day tour with one of our expert guides. Your first stop is at Klein Constantia, where you meet the winemaker himself. He talks about the grape variety, the cultivation, all that information that some wine drinkers would not really have thought about. And then you drive into the vineyards in an open-top Jeep — especially in the summer, the best thing ever.
Then you go to Beau Constantia, where you do a tasting with one of the youngest female winemakers in South Africa. Megan Van Der Merwe, who is 31, will come out and welcome you to the property and do a bit of tasting.
Hop on to that Jeep again and you go to a viewpoint. From there, you pop open a bubbly as you’re looking out into the Constantia vineyards. And you know what? A golf game starts. This is where you hit a biodegradable golf ball from that viewpoint into the vineyards, where it becomes manure.
The tour is 8,250 South African rand ($440) for two people. Included is the wine tasting and a three-course lunch at Tryn, one of the best restaurants in the Constantia region, and where we have exclusive seating.
We also offer a combination of gourmet picnic and gin tasting, very interesting for nature lovers. They pick you up from the hotel, you go to the helipad, they fly you 50 minutes up to Mystic Cliffs. (The name says it all.)
It’s in the Baskloof nature reserve. The helicopter lands, and there’s a guide waiting for you. You walk slowly into the fynbos, a type of vegetation which is unique to South Africa. Before you know it, there’s a picnic setting right in front of you. We send amenities — canapés, drinks — including a gin from Mount Nelson. It’s pink.
In terms of cost, you’re looking at about $650 per person.
Chief Concierge, Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok
Bangkok is a city of contrasts. It has delicious local cuisine and is also home to international chefs. You can wander along the bustling, modern streets of Sukhumvit and, just 30 minutes later, find yourself riding a bicycle, exploring the charming local villages of Bang Krachao.
The Chao Phraya River, often called the River of the Kings, boasts magnificent temples and vibrant local communities. Exploring Bangkok from the river provides insight into the city’s rich history, as this is where it all began.
One experience that we recommend is a sunset cruise on the luxurious Hacker-Craft boat. It offers breathtaking views of riverside communities and Bangkok landmarks, such as the Temple of Dawn, but from a vantage point on the water. A photo of you with the Temple of Dawn silhouetted against the sunset is truly a sight worth capturing — the perfect Instagrammable moment. The journey has rates beginning at $900 for a 60-minute cruise that includes a bottle of champagne for two.
For those looking to create culinary memories, the city offers diverse gourmet offerings, from street food to Michelin-starred dining. Our hotel houses the two Michelin star Le Normandie by Alain Roux, celebrated as Thailand’s top French fine dining restaurant.
To elevate the experience, guests can witness a fireworks display over the Chao Phraya River, from the panoramic floor-to-ceiling windows of the restaurant. This unforgettable moment can be organized by the culinary team, with prices starting at $6,500 for two.
Assistant Chief Concierge, the Langham, Chicago
One experience that really pops out is the Art Institute, which prides itself on having one of the largest collections of Impressionist art and Egyptian artifacts outside of the Louvre in France.
We offer a private three-hour tour, where you have a curated guide who walks you behind the scenes. It costs $500 and will accommodate up to 12 guests, all for the same price. You get to see rooms and art that is not even on display yet. You get to see art that’s being restored or new art that’s being created, and you get to speak with some of the artists as well.
You might see them unboxing new exhibits that are coming in. We just had van Gogh. And from van Gogh, we switched to Remedios Varo, who is like the female Mexican Salvador Dalí. She’s got these really beautiful, surrealistic paintings.
And of course they’ll see the permanent paintings, like Chagall’s “America Windows,” which are absolutely beautiful, and “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” which is Seurat’s masterpiece. One of my favorites is Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” Just gorgeous, beautiful modern Impressionist art. We have a bit of everything at the Art Institute.
Another idea that we just came up with is the two-hour mixology experience at our restaurant, Travelle. It’s either $100 or $150 per person based on the type of spirit that you want to use. For all top-shelf spirits, it’s $150.
Our two mixologists at Travelle will teach you a signature cocktail of the Langham, but they are also masters of the dealer’s choice. So if a guest comes in and says, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to learn how to make a cocktail with this spirit, this flavor profile, with this kind of glassware,” they will teach you on the spot. And when you’re having this cocktail experience, you’re also enjoying some of the best views of the Chicago River.
Chief Concierge, Fasano Rio de Janeiro
The Rio de Janeiro Carnival is very special. And nowadays, the samba school rehearsals are taking place. We recommend the school called Salgueiro. It’s one of the most traditional in Rio. We have an experience for our guests where we get a private driver that takes them to the Salgueiro rehearsals, which are in the north zone, near Tijuca, about 20 to 30 minutes away.
The rehearsals take place every Saturday leading up to Carnival. They start at 9 p.m. and go until 4 a.m. But the drums get loud about 11:30 p.m. It’s noisy. And our guests love the experience. It’s impossible for you to stay seated — impossible. Everybody’s dancing and shaking.
We recommend getting a private box, known as a camarote, that fits up to 10 people because you have your own space to dance and enjoy the music and drinks. It’s 1,500 Brazilian reais, about $300, for the complete box, for 10.
We can also get our guests the best camarotes for Carnival. In 2024, the main parades are on Sunday, Feb. 11 and Monday, Feb. 12 and the Champions Parade is on Saturday, Feb. 17. The performances take place in the Sambadrome, which is downtown. You have six samba schools performing per night, and it takes one hour for each one. It starts around 8 p.m. and goes all night.
The top camarotes cost around 4,000 to 5,000 reais per person, per day. But when it gets closer to Carnival, they go from 5,000 to 10,000 reais.
You see a lot of colors and joy. Everybody’s singing and dancing. I believe it’s the greatest show on Earth.
For guests who are coming to the hotel outside of Carnival, we offer a private helicopter tour. A 60-minute flight costs 2,635 reais per person, with a two-person minimum. You fly over Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, the main beaches in Rio — like Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana — and the Botanical Garden. You also go over the Museum of Tomorrow downtown, the Sambadrome and Maracanã stadium.
It’s incredible because when you’re flying over Christ the Redeemer, you get so close to the statue, it seems like you’re going to touch his hands.