After the 25-minute drive from the airport, which brings the first-time visitor up close and personal with Syria's ever-so-slightly-scary Stalinist suburbs, most will feel a sense of relief arriving at the Four Seasons, where a warm but comfortingly professional welcome awaits - exactly what you would expect from the Canadian hotel group. There are security scanners inside the front entrance - but it hardly feels like a place on a state of alert.
The hotel itself is a self-contained hulk of a building - 18 storeys high with a white stone ziggurat-style exterior. It faces a pleasant park; behind it is a modern shopping mall. While some may be disappointed that it isn't located in the Old City, it's for the best, as it doesn't belong there. Its location is the gritty downtown area of Damascus (sometimes called the "new town"), a 15-minute walk from the edge of the Old City. The hotel sits across the road from both the National Museum and the Army Museum, which forms part of a picturesque Ottoman-style mosque complex, Takiyya as-Suleimaniyya, which also houses a market.
The housekeeping staff were so relentlessly attentive I had to put the "do not disturb" sign on the door. At breakfast things were patchier - sometimes my cappuccino (which seemed to come from another part of the hotel) would arrive quickly, sometimes not. As it was a buffet, it seemed quicker to request and get things myself than wait for them to arrive. Service in the XO Bar and the Al Halabi restaurant was swifter. The concierge service is probably unmatched in Damascus and is well-used by those not staying in the hotel.
The hotel has 297 rooms including 54 suites and 12 long-stay serviced apartments. I had a small executive suite facing the park, and I could just about see the Old City from the sitting-room window. The room was decorated tastefully, in soft beige and green, with antique-style furniture, a spacious marble bathroom, two flat-screen televisions, a DVD player, high-speed internet access, thick curtains and double glazing. It didn't have the visual opulence of some of Damascus' most expensive boutique hotels, but it offered practical, homely luxury, comfort, silence and privacy - something anyone who has spent a day in the Old City will appreciate.
One of the highlights. Al Halabi offers the type of intimacy and ravishing Damascene extravagance everyone visiting the city wants at least a taste of. The interior, created by the Beirut-based Maison Tarazi, comprises a stunning hand-carved and painted Damascene ceiling, Oriental paintings, chandeliers, wrought-iron screens and antiques. The chef, Mohamad Helal, is from Aleppo and his food reflects that - Syrian food with a spicy, zesty Turkish-Armenian twist. There is mezze, fresh seafood, mixed grill and Arabic bread and Syrian deserts. I loved the shahba hummus - pureed chickpeas with chilli nut sauce ($2; Dh8), the lafaief soujouk - fried sausage rolls with lamb meat, rolled in bread with garlic, chilli paste, cumin, coriander and chilli powder ($7; Dh24), the cherry kebab ($20; Dh73 and the Armenian salad ($5; Dh20).
The Four Seasons accommodates both businesspeople and holidaymakers, seemingly without either group impinging on the other. Its opening at the end of 2005 has apparently signalled a new confidence and optimism, helping to bolster the city's position as both a leisure and business destination. It's clearly a centre for influential Syrian politicians and businessmen and President Bashir al-Assad is apparently a frequent visitor to Al Halabi. Most foreign guests are from Europe or the Gulf: breakfast sees scruffy British tourists alongside suited businessmen and families from across the region. Overall, the atmosphere is relaxed and low-key.
The Balloran Spa was small but I loved its welcoming staff and the cosy relaxation area with complimentary teas and iced water with lemon. The hotel is convenient for meeting friends, as everyone knows where it is and access by road is easy. The XO bar on the ground floor, with its snug, dark interior and wafts of cigar smoke, was the perfect place for a nightcap.
It was tiresome that taxi drivers used the fact that you were staying at the Four Seasons to try to double or treble their normal rates. To avoid the hassle of arguing (and the traffic) I walked to and from the Old City - but this meant dodging cars on the main road next to the hotel or taking the footbridge over it. There were also hefty charges for internet use.
The type of 24-hour personalised service offered here isn't available anywhere else in Syria. But what most distinguishes this hotel isn't its service and amenities so much as the way it still retains a relaxed, cosmopolitan ambiance. It's a good base for someone who wants a hassle-free trip to the city, or a few nights of luxury on a longer trip.
The bottom line
Double rooms cost from $509 (Dh1,870) including taxes and breakfast for two. Until December 31, there is one free night for every three consecutive nights booked.
Four Seasons Damascus, Shukri Al Quatli Street, Damascus (www.fourseasons.com/damascus; 00963 11 339 1000).