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From traditional souks, mosques and UNESCO World Heritage sites, to futuristic skyscrapers, Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital, offers an eclectic mix of old and new.
Among the most striking additions to the modern skyline are the Flame Towers, a trio of soaring structures resembling tongues of fire stretching across the Caspian Sea.
Designed by the US architecture firm HOK and, with Tower 1 standing 182 meters high, they are the tallest buildings in Azerbaijan.
And visitors can stay there: one building is residential, one is for office use, while the third, the Fairmont Baku, 165 meters high, is a modern five-star hotel.
The towers can be seen from virtually any point in the city, but it is at night that they truly come to life. Orange, red and pink LED lights dance across the towers like blazing flames.
For some in Baku they are now a symbol of home.
“You can see the Flame Towers as you fly into the airport, lit up with multicolored lights and illuminating the street,” stylist and media professional Nina Zandnia tells CNN Travel. “They are the signal that lets everyone know that they have reached Azerbaijan.”
So, what’s it like to stay in one of the country’s most familiar landmarks? It is certainly not an ordinary hotel.
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Bold, sometimes bombastic statements begin with the dramatic exterior and continue to the interior.
The venue’s seven-story lobby is dominated by an extravagant chandelier, using five kilometers of wire, decorated with 840 lights and more than 600,000 crystal beads, and weighing a whopping two tons.
Taking pride of place below is a limited edition black and red Fazioli, one of the most expensive pianos in the world. The M Liminal, designed by NYT Line and Philippe Gendre, would be accompanied by Nigar Jamal and Eldar Gasimov in the performance that led Azerbaijan to victory in the 2011 edition of the annual Eurovision singing competition.
Guests should not expect to hear it used in some informal jam session, it is now played only by the best pianists on special occasions.
The tower is home to more than 300 rooms, suites and apartments, ranging in price from $170 up to $5,000 per night.
Even the simplest rooms offer floor-to-ceiling windows and sumptuously large double beds. The decor is a mix of contemporary luxury, with soft carpets and modern furniture. Spacious and comfortable, each hotel room overlooks the city or the bay to the sea.
While lively and glamorous, it has a touch of corporate blandness that doesn’t live up to the regal vibes felt at, say, the nearby Four Seasons.
A typical one-bedroom suite on the 17th floor offers views of the Caspian Sea and, if eligible, access to the Fairmont Gold lounge on the 19th floor, which features a private check-in area and concierge service.
The super-fast elevator to the 17th opens onto a spectacular landing overlooking the bay. Once inside the suite, there is a lobby area, there are more stunning views, a dining room-office, with wooden desk and a four-seater dining table.
Then there is a large living room with rich carpeting with a large sofa and a chair with a jazz signature. The separate bedroom has a huge king-size bed. There is a huge walk-in closet filled with hangers, drawers, and laundry essentials that leads to a large bathroom complete with tub and shower.
There are personalized toiletries in both bathrooms of the suite – yes, your name is printed on the bottle of shampoo, moisturizer and conditioner. It’s a souvenir that just begs to be taken home.
Nice touches, but does the hotel have celebrity appeal? Yes, says Zumrud Ismayilova, the hotel’s PR and marketing manager. Names are not mentioned, but the list apparently includes leaders, royals and celebrities.
“We have had many VIP guests at the hotel, but we have never disclosed who they are,” he tells CNN Travel. “When our guests come to stay with us, they expect privacy and confidentiality and this is exactly what we offer them.”
Positioned right at the tip of the flame, the Royal Suite offers panoramic views of both the city and the sea. There are two bedrooms, both with private bathrooms, a sitting room, a private dining room, a study, a guest bathroom, a kitchen and a large hallway with chandelier – 375 square meters (4,036 square feet) of living space in total.
“The VIP or family will stay in the suite, but the rest of the group tends to occupy the entire floor. We have additional rooms for security and staff, and a suite for other family members,” explains Ismayilova.
There is an open-plan living area, a private study, a dining room suitable for 12 or more guests and a fully equipped kitchen (for the servants, of course). But the main attraction is the large private bathroom with a large oyster-shaped tub complete with a window overlooking the bay.
Hotel amenities are a mixed bag. There’s an elegant spa spread across two floors of the hotel with an indoor pool, sauna, hot tub, hammam, and spaces to relax. There is also a fully equipped gym.
The beautifully designed Sky Garden offers guests the luxury of relaxing on the sun terrace or taking advantage of the poolside sauna whilst gazing out to sea. There’s an S-shaped rooftop pool and outdoor bar, which look better from afar than up close.
It is best to visit it in the evening. When the sun is high, the towers reflect the sun and amplify its heat, turning this area into a frying pan.
As you would expect from a luxury hotel within one of the country’s greatest monuments, the main restaurant Le Bistro offers a wide range of local Azerbaijani wines and delicacies. The Balcon café offers specialty teas and desserts, as well as sushi in the afternoon.
There’s also the Nur lounge, a quirky setting that serves cocktails and snacks, and is a good spot for aperitifs to soak up the atmosphere before moving on to the hotel’s Jazz Club, a local institution.
“We always advise people to go to the Jazz Club after 9pm, because that’s when it really comes alive. It is very popular with both hotel guests and locals and we always offer something new to keep people entertained,” says Ismayilova.
There are two things that most hotels cannot provide: a shopping center and a cinema. Fairmont Flame Towers offers both.
Park Cinema offers guests (and audience members) six screens, including IMAX, showing the latest films in Arabic, English and Russian.
Next door is the Flame Towers shopping centre, due for completion in early 2020. Luxury brands, high street names, cafes and restaurants are all set to take up residence.
Fairmont Flame Towers, 1A Mehdi Huseyn St, Baku 1006, Azerbaijan; +994 12 565 48 48