As my travails at Almaty International Airport demonstrate, Kazakhstan is not a destination for the faint of heart. But that should not keep you away. The bustling markets, unique architecture, and glistening monuments make Almaty a city that should not be missed when traveling in Central Asia. And when you are there, an oasis and refuge awaits at the Intercontinental Almaty hotel.
As part of the former Soviet Union, hotel prices in Almaty mimic Russian hotel prices. In other words, expect to pay a lot for a hotel, though not quite at Moscow or St. Petersburg levels. You can use points, but for around $280/night I recommend just paying for it. As high as that may be in a country with average per capita income is around $10,000/year, I think the price-tag is well-worth it, especially when you factor in the complimentary airport shuttle (see below).
Getting around Kazakhstan—even around Almaty—is difficult if you do not speak Kazakh or Russian. My German and English did very little good on the streets, but that is where the hotel played a key role in making my stay a productive one.
The hotel staff was warm and gracious, speaking great English and helping me quickly get acclimated to the city. The concierge laid out a comprehensive plan for me to explore the city and assisted tremendously in helping me get a bearing on the where I was going and how to reach the key sites in Almaty.
But what I appreciated most about the hotel was the property itself—it truly was an oasis. My room was spacious and well-laid out. The bathroom was large and featured many goodies, including an airline-style amenity kit. The water was hot and pressure good, the towels plush and soft, and the bathrobe comfortable.
My deluxe room was large, with a spacious sitting area and desk area and a very comfortable bed. I arrived late in the day and my bed was turned down with slippers waiting for me next to the bed. Presumably because of my Ambassador status, a bottle of red wine and some local snacks (almonds and dried apricots) along with some fresh fruit were sitting on the coffee table.
I am not a Royal Ambassador, so I did not have access to the club lounge, but I did have a superb breakfast in the “Asian Café Restaurant” on the lobby level of the hotel. Culturally, Kazakhs do not eat out much (I really did not run into too many restaurants during my walk around town) and quite honestly, most of the food I ate in Kazakhstan was not that good. But the hotel, perhaps because it is a western five-star hotel or perhaps because I simply chose the wrong places outside the hotel, was much different. The breakfast truly was spectacular, with a huge assortment of items including all the American and European breakfast favorites. I found the fresh squeezed juices and the herb salad with sun-dried tomatoes to be the highlight of my meal.
My time in Kazakhstan did not exactly fall during the most ideal period for me. Work was keeping me busy and I had a number of tasks to complete my final afternoon and evening at the property. The hotel graciously extended my check-out until 6pm and after that time I moved down to the lobby, where I sat for the next five hours working. Wi-Fi is quite expensive at the hotel, but free in the lobby, so not only was I able to get my work done, but I did not even have to pay for internet.
The hotel has two other restaurants—neither of which I was able to try during my stay. The Belvedere Grill Room Restaurant is located on the top floor of the hotel and features French food (and American steaks) while the Bosphorus Restaurant offers Turkish cuisine. There is also a bakery in the lobby that I did avail myself to during my evening of work. A bar and light meal menu is also available in the lobby.
The Intercontinental has a great workout center and swimming pool (I’ll just use the hotel’s stock photos to illustrate) that I also sadly did not have a chance to use. Work came first and while I would have loved nothing more than to spend the evening lifting weights and swimming, booking award tickets took priority.
Finally, the hotel offers complimentary shuttle service to and from the airport. With the taxi cost of about $50 each way (or $40 if you negotiate well), think of that as $80-100 in savings right there. The hotel was lightly filled during my stay and I was the only one catching the late Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt via Astana.
About two hours before the flight, a Mercedes Sprinter pulled up in front of the hotel and I was escorted to the van. Onboard, I had my own “butler”, a young guy named Roman who was quite friendly and engaging during the 25-minute trip to the airport. A choice of beverage and snack was provided and I could not help but to feel a little awkward. But take advantage of this service—it is a great part of the hotel package.
I have nothing bad to say about the hotel. Perhaps if I stayed longer or took full advantage of the hotel amenities I could have found something to nit-pick about, but this was a great property with great staff, great food, and a great room. Most of all, it is an oasis in a country and a city that is not exactly western-friendly.