Travel by Design

April 2015

There is a good chance interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud had a hand in your last hotel stay. One of the World's top hotel designers - with upcoming projects at the five star Gainsborough Bath Spa in Bath in England, Island House in the Bahamas and reconceiving the suites at New York's iconic Plaza Hotel - the Lisborn-born, New York based designer spares a few minutes between flights to share some of her travel stories, including canoeing among piranhas, the lure of dirt roads and why she'll always greet strangers with a smile. By Mark Ellwood

What is your earliest travel memory?
It was with my mother, and I was 11 years old. We had a wonderful Jaguar sports car, and we drove across Spain and France, visiting all the Chateaux of the Loire. It was when I first learnt how to indulge when you travel: beautiful hotels, seeing exquisite places and travelling in a beautiful car. It was a very formative trip and a great bonding moment with my mother.

Your family traveled a lot, then?
In my family, there is a saying: our idea of an adventure or time away from a city is when you travel over at least 5 kilometers of dirt road; you get somewhere you're bound to like.

Whats the most exotic trip you've taken?
For years I was a single mum, and impromtu, I went to Brazil for Christmas and New Year (my sister lived in Rio). I love being outdoors and I love adventure, and I just got claustrophobia being inside all the time. I thought, "Where does one go in Brazil that one wouldn't go to often in life again?" It had to be the Amazon.

Did you go alone?
I had my children with me, who were 12 and 15 years old then, and I took them up the river, along with my nephew and neice, who were 17 and 16 at the time. We spent 10 days in dugout canoes and stayed with local villagers along the way. I can still remember the first few piranhas that jumped into the canoe, and a baby croc sraddling the bow.

For an explorer like you, if you could only travel to one place again and never grow bored, where would it be?
No one is allowed to be bored around me. That's a serious problem! And it would be Harbor Island in the Bahamas. For someone who travels as much as I do, I think finding places that make you extremely happy, close to home, is a very smart idea. It has a beautiful beach, where I walk every day, and I adore the ocean; I'm always in it.

You're one of the World's foremost experts for interior design of hotels. Which are your favourites?
The Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. Look, I know I designed it, but I love it, I just love it. It's set in a garden, in a valley full of flowers and it's so intimate. Every guest gets spoilt. Otherwise, I really love Amansara in Cambodia, and I am just now getting to work on a hotel I've always loved because of its story-thats the Raffles in Singapore.

What's the most essential element in an outstanding hotel room?
The bed. It has to be impeccably clean and very comfortable. I can deal without many other things, but the comfort of a bed, the touch of the sheets, the beautiful pillows-you need a good night's sleep because that's why you're there.

What's your guiding principle when you design a hotel room?
It needs to be very calming and charming. It's all about the person's comfort, whether padding around barefoot or having a shower or reading a book in bed at night.

Designing hotels across the World, you must accure a hoard of frequent flyer miles.
I go to China a couple of times a year, Europe at least a dozen or two, to LA many, many times and Africa, too. Passport-wise, I burn through them continuously-propably three or four passports in the last 10 years, even after putting extra pages into them. But I've kept them all; there are so many good stories behind those pages.

Any favourite airports?
Nairobi may not be a good airport, but you know you're arriving in Kenya: everything is slightly chaotic, but the people are friendly and it just has a different feel. The building is beautiful, too-no longer a pale yellow, it's turned to cognac.

Do you ever encounter great design in airports?
There's a wonderful lounge at Doha airport that is rather good for VIPs. It has lots of private space and an area where chefs are cooking food for you. You just feel very taken care of. And of course, the Cathay Pacific lounges in Hong Kong were at the forefront of lounge design. It's just a pity they're now a bit overcrowded.

Do you have any onboard rituals?
I usually have a fabulous old shahtoosh that I wrap over my head to create my own tent. I'll sleep or read happily. And I am an aficionado of essential oils by Floracopeia, it's based in California, and focuses on sustainability by working with the local people and replanting. I use the patchouli oil to calm me down and eucalyptus for easier breathing.

After all your travels, is there anywhere on your bucket list you've not yet seen?
Capri. I'd like to go there. And in September, I'm going to Cuba with a wonderful friend who is Cuban-American. I'm really looking forward to that!

And when you get there? I know you have a particular approach in every destination.
I make eye contact with people. It's something that not everyone does, and when I do, I smile. When you go somewhere and someone doesn't smile back, it tells you a lot about the atmosphere of the place, either people are too hurried or too threatened. It's one of the reasons I love Japan-everything is done with such great ceremony. I love Kyoto, such a beautiful city. The Golden Pavillions are to die for and we were there on New Year's, when it was covered in snow. In Japan, there is such great respect for each other, and that's the biggest part of going to a place. It's all about the people and how you engage.