Islamabad dishes up a surprising and delicious five-star stay in Pakistan

  • Islamabad Serena hotel is the flagship property of the Serena hotel chain
  • Property is owned by a prince and in Leading Hotels of the World network
  • Boasts 357 rooms and 3 presidential suites with Mughal design aesthetic

Although Pakistan might seem the most unlikely of places to find a luxury retreat, the five-star Serena Hotel in the country's capital city, Islamabad, offers a unique experience for travellers to the area.

Owned by spiritual leader and multi-millionaire Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, the 357-room property is nestled amid the lush Margalla Hills and stepping inside is like being transported back to a lost world of Mughal splendour.

Seeking to preserve natural ecosystems and cultures, the company's template infuses traditional heritage with five star luxury and this model also extends to their hotels in Tajikistan and Africa. 

Retreat: Owned by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV and forming part of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, the 357-room Serena Hotel is affiliated with the Leading Hotels of the World

Retreat: Owned by Prince Karim Aga Khan IV and forming part of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, the 357-room Serena Hotel is affiliated with the Leading Hotels of the World

A Mughal heritage is reflected in both the hotel's architecture and interiors which are an intoxicating blend of marble floors, breezy courtyards, fountains, miniature paintings, sprawling split-level gardens. 

This design aesthetic is carried through to the spacious hotel bedrooms with colourful ethnic furnishings, intricately carved wooden furniture, luxurious bathrooms and large windows with panoramic views. 

All furnishings and building materials have been sourced locally giving the hotel a truly authentic feel.  

Luxury: Nestled amid the lush Margalla Hills, stepping into the Serena Hotel is like being transported back to a lost world of Mughal splendour

Luxury: Nestled amid the lush Margalla Hills, stepping into the Serena Hotel is like being transported back to a lost world of Mughal splendour

Finishing touches: All furnishings and building materials have been sourced locally lending the hotel a truly authentic feel

Finishing touches: All furnishings and building materials have been sourced locally lending the hotel a truly authentic feel

The hotel is enveloped by the Margalla Hills, the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range and 70 acres of gardens. 

Beyond the property, the surrounding natural beauty is not to be missed.

This is what sets the hotel apart. Days can be spent just immersing oneself in the mesmerising beauty of the hills which continue along the north of the country to become the mighty Himalayas. 

After a peaceful night's sleep in my generously appointed hotel room, a breakfast of local fresh yoghurt, the area's renowned dried apricots, freshly baked bread from the hotel bakery and eggs while overlooking the Margallas offered much needed indulgence and escapism from the usual frenetic pace of life.

In need of detoxing and de-stressing I headed to the Maisha health spa which has a range of therapeutic treatments, its most popular being the Himalayan Rock Salt Spa treatment.

This 180-minute treatment started with a foot cleansing ritual using warm water, fresh rose petals, oils and Himalayan salt followed by a massage with essential oils and heated Himalayan salt.

Explore: For the more intrepid, well-marked hiking trails to the summit of the Margalla Hills are within easy reach of the hotel

Explore: For the more intrepid, well-marked hiking trails to the summit of the Margalla Hills are within easy reach of the hotel

Treatments: The Himalayan Rock Salt Spa treatment starts with a foot cleansing ritual using warm water, fresh rose petals, oils and Himalayan salt followed by a massage with essential oils and heated Himalayan salt

Treatments: The Himalayan Rock Salt Spa treatment starts with a foot cleansing ritual using warm water, fresh rose petals, oils and Himalayan salt followed by a massage with essential oils and heated Himalayan salt

This 180-minute treatment started with a foot cleansing ritual using warm water, fresh rose petals, oils and Himalayan salt followed by a massage with essential oils and heated Himalayan salt. 

With its unique pink colour, Himalayan salt is renowned for its healing properties and is used for treating a wide range of conditions including asthma, arthritis, eczema and stress. Its reported benefits have been known for centuries and it was even used by Alexander the Great’s army in 320 BC to treat wounds and illnesses.

This massage not only melted away the knots in my back and shoulders but also left me feeling revived and cleansed. 

In fact I was so impressed by the experience, I bought a Himalayan rock salt lamp from the hotel shop. A roughly hewn rock of pure Himalayan salt with a bulb placed inside, these lamps are well known for their air purifying benefits.

Despite the area experiencing balmy weather for a large part of the year, days and evenings can be spent outdoors in the hotel’s extensive outdoor grounds or in one of the two swimming pools.

The rooftop pool affords breathtaking views of the Margalla Hills while evenings can be spent under a canopy of stars unmarred by city lights.

For anyone keen to pick up the pace, there is also a well-equipped gym, personal trainers and yoga teachers.

Freshen up: For those in need of detoxing and de-stressing, the Maisha health spa has a range of therapeutic treatments, its most popular being the Himalayan Rock Salt Spa treatment

Freshen up: For those in need of detoxing and de-stressing, the Maisha health spa has a range of therapeutic treatments, its most popular being the Himalayan Rock Salt Spa treatment

Splendid: Offering the best of South Asian, Continental and Far Eastern cuisines, dining indoors or out in the courtyard is always a sumptuous yet cosy affair

Splendid: Offering the best of South Asian, Continental and Far Eastern cuisines, dining indoors or out in the courtyard is always a sumptuous yet cosy affair

In spite of the hotel’s palatial grandeur, the atmosphere is distinctly casual and laid back.

Offering the best of South Asian, Continental and Far Eastern cuisines, dining indoors or out in the courtyard during my stay was a sumptuous yet cosy affair. 

Desserts using locally cultivated fruits are a special treat with a cup of hot Kashmiri tea flavoured with ground pistachios and almonds.

In particular, the region’s version of rice pudding, known as kheer, served in a small clay dish and infused with saffron and cardamom is a must try.  

Unexpected: For a restorative retreat combined with exceptional natural beauty, the Serena Islamabad offers a quiet and unexpected slice of paradise in an area used to hitting the headlines for very different reasons

Unexpected: For a restorative retreat combined with exceptional natural beauty, the Serena Islamabad offers a quiet and unexpected slice of paradise in an area used to hitting the headlines for very different reasons

Beyond the hotel, sightseeing trips to the Khewra Salt Mines, ancient Buddhist stupas at nearby Taxila and the Hindu Katas Raj temples offer a fascinating glimpse into one of the world’s oldest civilisations.

And I found that one of the best features of the city is the distinct lack of international commercialism and standardised retail outlets which seem to have dominated every corner of the globe. 

This means that local shops offer goods sourced from the region at competitive prices particularly in light of the favourable exchange rate. This means that you buy carpets from Iran, Afghan jewellery, pashmina shawls from Kashmir, handmade bedspreads, tablecloths and other home furnishings from Sindh at bargain prices. 

It’s almost like stepping into Ali Baba’s cave and you invariably leave loaded with unique bespoke purchases.

For the more intrepid, well-marked hiking trails to the summit of the Margalla Hills are within easy reach of the hotel. 

Islamabad is a city which sees all four seasons so it’s best to visit in spring or after the summer when temperatures are warm but not fiercely hot and the city’s greenery is in full bloom.

For a restorative retreat combined with exceptional natural beauty, the Serena Islamabad offers a quiet and unexpected slice of paradise in an area used to hitting the headlines for very different reasons. 

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