Turkish delight?

Sat, May 30, 2009, 01:00

QUENTIN FOTTRELLdanced with Seal and bonded with Tom Jones as $100 bills rained down at the launch of a Russian billionaire’s very own Shangri-La. How good would the world’s most lavish new hotel turn out to be?

THE WHITE-AND-GOLD filigree fencing dances along a dusty road in Antalya, in southern Turkey, and stretches as far as the eye can see. It ostentatiously marks the property of Telman Ismailov, an Azerbaijani-Russian billionaire. It wraps itself protectively around scrubland that will next year become a Jack Nicklaus 18-hole golf course and leads to Ismailov’s glittering centrepiece: the €1 billion Mardan Palace hotel and destination resort. Named after Ismailov’s father, this is his very own Shangri-La.

We were here for the three-day launch party, last weekend. Sharon Stone, Paris Hilton, Richard Gere and Monica Bellucci walked the red carpet, Mariah Carey and Tom Jones sang at a black-tie ball on Saturday, and Seal rocked a barbecue by the beach on Sunday – a beach filled with 9,000 tons of sand imported from Egypt. Jones was reportedly paid more than €1 million to sing, and Gere received a “generous donation” for his foundation. “Rent-a-crowd,” one attendee remarked. Ismailov said: “Everyone is interested in money, but I’ve asked people here as my guests.”

Modelled on Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace, the 3,200sq m lobby is a gilded confection of marble and chandeliers. The hotel has 560 rooms, 15 garden villas, a 7,500sq m spa with a cascading waterfall that stops to allow you to enter with a VIP pass, manufactured snow to cool you down afterwards, 500,000 crystals, 10,000sq m of gold leaf (including in my bathroom) and remote- controlled loos. Oh, and an artificial coral reef where you can swim with a toothless smooth-hound shark.

To get here we flew over factories and tower blocks and the old town of Antalya, with its bazaars and children playing under the water taps of its narrow alleys. There were many clues that this would be no ordinary weekend. The first was the tiny airport. It was divided into two kiosks of equal size; the letters VIP hung over one. And along that lonely road to the Mardan was a building: “State Guest House of the Republic of Azerbaijan.” What was that doing up the road?

Other oddities: we were greeted at the airport with glasses of champagne, a kind gesture followed by a bumbling, bureaucratic and time-consuming counting and stamping of passports. We were further delayed by the arrival of the president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. When we reached the gates of the hotel, guards checked under our car with mirrors for bombs. The hotel entrance was fitted with a metal detector and an X-ray machine. Guards were everywhere, with eyes always on Ismailov and his family. Still, once inside the compound we were relatively free.

The black-tie ball included a spectacular laser show with caped acrobats from the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics flying from wires in the sky and dancers splashing around in giant bubbles that sailed across the pool. The fireworks left our table covered in ash. It was very Pompeii. But Ismailov’s real intention with the Mardan was to re-create the golden age of the Ottoman Empire. Not unlike a grand MGM production of the 1930s, it boldly defied the great recession.

Ismailov said, via an interpreter at the press conference with the stars, that he has always liked visiting this part of the Turkish Riviera. He added: “Right next to our hotel there is the Kremlin Palace hotel, featuring the architecture style of Moscow’s famous Kremlin Palace, and we wanted to display Istanbul’s beauty next to it.”

When he was asked if there was an appetite for such opulence in 2009, Seal interjected: “Whichever way you decide to do it, I think creating jobs is a really good idea, don’t you?

“Mr Ismailov wanted to reflect the flavours of the imperial tradition in this hotel’s silhouette,” Seal said. “When you make an investment you should respect and protect both history and culture.” Ismailov added: “I believe the Mardan Palace will become one of the most popular hotels in Europe and even the whole world, with its high-quality service and facilities.”

Antalya is no Miami. But the billion-euro price tag is likely a fraction of his net worth – and, given the millions he spent on the party, he seems to have no problem affording it.

The hotel rooms are divided into the European wing, with soft creams and clean lines, and the Turkish Anatolian wing, where I had a Superior Room of luxurious turquoise and blue soft furnishings with tassels galore, plus free Wi-Fi. The bathroom was gold plated, with a separate marble wet room, and had a painting of a woman by a fountain being bathed by her slave. My balcony overlooked wasteland, just beyond that ubiquitous fairytale fence, which was a reminder that this was a seductive illusion. Here, the fantasy was that nobody ever said “no”.

Sharon Stone told the mostly Russian, Turkish and British reporters that the hotel provides “dignified” employment. The staff seem genuinely happy. One waiter told me this hotel pays better wages than any other in the area. If you catch their eye for the briefest of moments, they break into a smile. (I have resolved to try this in real life and see what happens.)

Known for her spiritualese purple prose, Stone gushed: “Every detail is so lovingly rendered. It’s an example of Mr Ismailov’s inner grace and generosity.”

That night the celebrities must have exited by a side door to re-enter on the red carpet. They were already staying here. Hot on the heels of the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Paris Hilton trounced in with a feather-light pink dress. “That’s hot!” she said when I introduced myself. “I’m Irish, too.” The real Paris, I suspected, was locked deep inside this squeaky-clean baby-doll persona, at least until the cheque cleared. She later told the crowd, “I love family-run hotels,” adding humbly, “This is no Hilton.”

Stone was also in the zone. She glided into the room smiling at nobody and everybody. She stopped by the grand staircase, ran her hand along the rail and gazed at the stained-glass ceiling as if she was seeing it for the first time. A fire hydrant of a woman in a red dress and matching turban posed with her for a photo. East meets west: two very different fashion palettes. I took my lead from the turban lady for a photo op. Stone maintained a trance-like smile and, as I spoke, chillingly looked around and through me.

The ball was held on a floating island of perspex on the pool. Stone played host. She had problems pronouncing the word Azerbaijan. “Aber . . .” she began. “Azer . . .” So she gave up and said “Chakakhan” instead.

Ismailov didn’t look as if he understood or cared.

Here is a Jewish man building a glittering effigy to a fallen Muslim empire who also has an expensive obsession with western celebrities. He’s transcultural. In 2006 he reportedly paid Jennifer Lopez £1 million to sing at his 50th.

At the beach barbecue on Sunday, as the band played, six motorised paragliders swooped overhead, the canopy of each displaying one letter from M-A-R-D-A-N. During Seal’s set, people ate and drank wine. This wasn’t dinner theatre, so he made a plea for people to stop eating and start dancing. At one point the only people dancing were Seal, my friend and I. He high-fived us for dancing with him and sang as if in a stadium. Seal finished his set by standing on a table of Dom Pérignon, lobster and beluga caviar that had been flown in from Russia on a private jet to make sure it was fresh.

Ismailov was nothing like I’d expected. He is diminutive with a moustache and a childlike desire to party. We met several times, the first at 3am in the lobby, where he was having drinks with friends. He stood up politely to greet us. He doesn’t speak English, so my friend translated his Russian. “You are my guests,” he said. “You are all welcome. Thank you for coming.” Charmed, I’m sure. I imagined him as gruff and fierce, a serious Leonid Brezhnev with a dash of Donald Trump. He was the opposite.

He is chairman of the Russian property group AST, but there is precious little information about Ismailov on the internet. A Wikipedia page on him was deleted. It made me wonder about his incredible wealth, especially for a man who only recently turned 50. Russians and news reports say he made his money investing in China, Russia and Turkey after glasnost, and investing in supermarkets and property at home and abroad. Whatever the explanation, he clearly has no problem spending it.

The hotel has more than 23,000sq m of Italian marble. A well-heeled Russian woman clip-clopped over it, dripping in diamonds. She walked through the lobby with her curly- headed three-year-old little prince . . . who was wearing a pinstriped suit. I imagined his grandfather could have been a labourer or peasant farmer in Stone’s Chakakhan. I was afraid to loiter in the lobby for fear of being set on by an overactive interior decorator and preserved for eternity in an immovable cast of gold.

The resort has 10 a la carte restaurants, one with an aquarium in the bowels of a building modelled on the Maiden’s Tower in Istanbul, and 17 bars, including the three-storey Jungle Club, which has live monkeys in a cage at a bridge leading to the exit. How awful for them: one minute up a tree, the next stuck next to a group of wealthy Russians bumping and grinding in revealing Versace floral-print gowns. At least their antics had something in common with the scantily-clad erotic pole dancers.

Tom Jones came to the Jungle Club and took a booth. I liked that he didn’t disappear to some hidden VVIP inner sanctum. He chatted about his time playing in Las Vegas at the same time as Elvis, and I told him he could stay in my box room in Dublin the next time he plays the O2. He seemed to appreciate the gesture. “We Celts have got to stick together,” he said. In an effort to keep him up to date with the latest hand gestures I insisted not on a handshake but on a 21st-century fist bump.

Later in the Jungle Club $100 bills rained down on the dance floor. I’m not making this up. Trust me to be sitting in the jacks at the time. More $100 bills were scattered across the dance floor at the outdoor barbecue as Ismailov took part in some traditional Russian dancing. Aside from questions of taste, fraternising with a Russian billionaire has its moral dilemmas. At this point I even saw Stone quietly exit stage left. Were they dancing on the grave of communism, I wondered, or on the face of Benjamin Franklin?

This could be about blessing guests with good fortune, but using $100 bills was one excess too far, especially as I was now faced with the unedifying thought of scrambling around on all fours on the dance floor. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted.

But I didn’t. I had had enough. It was a night to remember and a weekend I would never forget, but the party was over. I was dying to get back to the recession. My three-up, three-down in the Coombe wasn’t so bad, after all, with or without Tom Jones staying in my box room.

* Quentin Fottrell was a guest of Mardan Palace (Kundu Koyu, Antalya, Turkey, 00-90-242- 3104100), which opens on Monday. Rooms start at €260 per night for a premium room in low season, climbing to €14,000 for a royal suite with a private pool in high season

Go there

BMI (www.flybmi.com) flies to Antalya from Belfast. Abbey Travel (www.abbey travel.ie) offers charters from Dublin to Antalya. British Airways (www.ba. com) flies to Antalya from Dublin and Cork via London Gatwick. Turkish Airlines (www.thy.com) flies from London Gatwick and Heathrow via Istanbul.