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Hotels and Resorts

Cigar Aficionado's panel of travel experts picks the most luxurious, most outstanding, most exciting range of destinations in the world
Larry Olmsted
From the Print Edition:
Jim Belushi, November/December 2010

(continued from page 11)

Americans have continued to expand their travel horizons, and once-exotic destinations have become more mainstream. Hotel industry trends have come and gone, new high-end chains have sprouted, and in short, today's traveler has more and better choices than ever-making vacation planning, in a way, harder than ever.

We are sticking to our original idea. Most travel publications ask readers to weigh in on their favorite properties. But we believe that readers' polls can be grossly distorted-one good example is a recent survey that named a hotel with a single par-3 golf course as the best golf resort in the Caribbean. The results rely on single visits, from people who may or may not have had a good experience.

We have gone about our travel surveys differently every year for the last five years, focusing on topics like golf, beach or vacation resorts or some speficic segment of the travel industry. We choose a group (usually around 30 people) who work in the travel business, even major hotel executives who are then prohibited from voting for their own properties. Check out cigaraficionado.com for a list of our pollsters and the methodology under a new feature called MagPlus. This year, we are revisiting the topic of our original poll in 2005: The World's Best Hotels and Resorts.

Before we get to the results, here is a roundup of how the travel landscape has changed-or not changed-since 2005.

What's Hot: A back-to-basics approach in the hotel industry, stressing the classic strengths of top operators and managers, service and cuisine. Any investor with enough money can build beautiful rooms with plenty of marble and electronics, but today's more discerning traveler is over flash and fizzle and demands first-rate food and staffing to go with the gorgeous physical plant.

The Pacific Rim continues to emerge as one of travel's shining stars, with a staggering crop of true luxury hotels from all the top brands in both the usual suspect cities, Tokyo and Hong Kong, as well as Beijing, Shanghai, Hanoi, Macao and more. The same is true on the resort front, with impossibly gorgeous beach and spa properties throughout Thailand, Indonesia,
Vietnam and the South Pacific. South America is the other hotbed of new discoveries. For more than a decade, industry pundits have predicted the continent's emergence as vacation destination and this finally seems to be happening with wonderful lodging properties in every shape and size, from city hotels to tiny boutique lodges, tucked amongst historic city centers, ruins, mountains and rainforests, along with lavish golf and beach resorts.

Here at home, nowhere is the recent change to the luxury hotel scene more visible than in the ski business. It is hard to believe that no so long ago there was not a single luxury chain operating a slope-side hotel in this country, with just a few independents like the Little Nell and Stein Eriksen representing the entire upscale ski lodging market. Suddenly everyone has jumped in: Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton, Park Hyatt, Capella, Aman, Rockresorts, St. Regis, Waldorf Astoria, Viceroy, Montage and so on. Just between the winters of 2009 and 2010 the luxury ski hotel selection in the U.S. will have essentially doubled.

Globally, "authenticity" is the industry buzzword, leading to the demise of the cookie-cutter hotel and rise of the sense of place. As obvious as it seems, travelers to Bali want to feel like they are in Bali, but this was not always the case. This search for authenticity has increased interest in destinations like Bhutan and to ancient ruins, and birthed a market for new hotel-based activities like cooking and language classes and even indigenous spa treatments.

Finally, a slew of new, smaller or imported luxury brands that had very little name recognition-or did not even exist-five years ago are stepping up to challenge the big boys. We saw the names Capella, Como, Shangri-La, Aman, Banyan Tree, Rocco Forte and Montage a lot more than in past polls.

What's Not: Hip hotels serving up style over substance are yesterday's news. The experienced concierge who can obtain hard-to-get reservations has proven far more enduring than designer uniforms on valet parking attendants. India, though increasingly an important part of the world's economic and cultural landscape, has failed to ever, in all our polls, put one single luxury vote in the ballot box.

Eastern Europe, once heralded as the next big thing, has been largely ignored by our panelists and the once hot romance of the Greek Isles has shifted quite noticeably to our experts' beloved Italy, and its previously unsung Mediterranean islands, Sicily and Sardinia, which are trending upwards-fast. Celebrity chefs, for a brief time as vital to new hotels as spas, have slipped into the background even as hotel food quality has become more important to guests.

The Caribbean has continued to lose ground to Mexico, where wonderful hotel after wonderful hotel has opened, while in the islands, too-laid-back service standards for the high prices are increasingly being scrutinized by visitors, and in a very rare occurrence, a new Four Seasons in the Bahamas failed and closed quickly. No one heralded hotspot has fallen so far so fast as faddish Dubai, which only yesterday was touted as the "next Las Vegas." Meanwhile, with CityCenter, the Cosmopolitan and new Michelin-starred gastronomic temples, Vegas actually has good news again.

What's the Same: Italy remains the hotel and resort favorite of our experts, and given its tiny size, the nation has a vastly disproportionate number of the word's finest accommodations. Five years ago, in our very first poll, for the category "Best Small Resort, International," all but two lonely votes were cast for properties in Italy. Considering the entire world, our panel was in near-unanimous agreement over one thing: whatever the best was, it was in Italy.

Five years later, we asked them to choose the "Best Hotel or Resort Europe," this time including properties of all sizes and those in cities. It was déjà vu when all but two votes were again cast for Italian properties, large and small, city and country. La dolce vita lives!

Elsewhere, our top vote getters worldwide remained The Four Seasons George V in Paris and the Peninsula Hong Kong, though the latter is facing markedly increased competition. Among boutique urban hotels, New York City has ruled the roost and this is even truer today, with myriad new, upscale small hotels opening in recent years.

URBAN HOTELS

Best Large City Hotel, U.S.

TIE: The Beverly Hills Hotel & Bungalows, California; Peninsula Chicago, Illinois

The only surprise about these two standout selections is that they are not in New York, which in the past has almost exclusively ruled our domestic hotel categories, large and small. The “Pink Palace,” as the Beverly Hills Hotel & Bungalows is known (uber-critic Anthony Lassman of Nota Bene insists guests opt for the bungalows), is a perfect addition to our ranks, as the hotel is coming up on a century in the luxury business and has continued to wow Hollywood stars since the 1920s. Owner of a coveted Forbes (formerly Mobil) five-star rating, “The Beverly Hills Hotel is the epitome of glamour and style with true five-star service and attentiveness,” says celebrity travel agent Jason Miller, president of The Accomplished Traveler. New in 2010 are two 3,500-square-foot “ultra-bungalows.”

The Windy City choice might be more eye raising were the hotel not a Peninsula, a brand that has consistently excelled in Cigar Aficionado rankings and whose Hong Kong flagship is often our number one hotel on earth. Peninsula was the second-most highly rated hotel brand in this poll, and unlike competitors, focuses almost exclusively on big-city properties, like Chicago. “This hotel has it all…Midwestern hospitality and European elegance, luxurious guestrooms, extraordinary spa, and some of the finest dining in the U.S.,” said another superstar travel agent, Anne Scully, President of McCabe World Travel.

Best Small City Hotel, U.S.

The Surrey, New York City

No other city does small in as big a way as New York, which won this category handily in our original poll (The Lowell), in our Best New Hotels Poll (Gansevoort) and now sweeps the top places again. There have been a rash of hot Big Apple hotel openings, some trendy, some understated, but all more neighborhood-oriented than in the past. The Surrey is the best of the bunch, thanks in part to its exclusive rooftop bar, “open to hotel guests and ‘friends of the Surrey’ only, making it the most civilized place in the city for summer cocktails,” according to New Yorker and ForbesLife editor Ann Abel. “I absolutely love this art-filled, sleek boutique hotel,” added top Los Angeles travel agent Stacy Small of Elite Travel International. The Surrey occupies an oversized Upper East Side townhouse whose first life as a residence hotel was the choice of JFK and Bette Davis.

Runner-up: The Greenwich, New York City. The Greenwich also boasts a guest-only bar, in an interior courtyard, along with a standout spa. “It’s not easy to find many ‘cool’ hotels that offer five-star service.  I found this at The Greenwich,” said The Accomplished Traveler’s Jason Miller.

Honorable Mention: 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, which houses not only an incredible art collection and actual museum, but also the world’s largest selection of bourbon and domestic whiskies. This is now the choice for Kentucky Derby bound A-listers.

Best City Hotel, International

Four Seasons George V, Paris

The George V is no newcomer to our list, having dominated Paris, one of the world’s great hotel cities, in our previous polls. What stands out is that in this much more competitive era and crowded luxury hotel market, while other top vote getters are falling back to the pack, this one keeps widening its lead, and was the top vote getter in this entire survey, displacing our previous runaway favorite, the Peninsula Hong Kong.

The George V was the choice of everyone from Nota Bene’s persnickety Anthony Lassman to romantic-honeymoon specialist Carrie Wallace. Several panelists noted that in addition to impeccable service and deluxe accommodations, the hotel was unique in the City of Lights for its open embrace of American travelers. “The surroundings are sumptuous and worthy of Louis XV,” proclaimed longtime luxury travel journalist Debbie Karpowicz Kickham.

Runners-Up: TIE: Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi; Oriental Bangkok, Peninsula Hong Kong. The second place “Pen” was our past grand winner, and along with the venerable Oriental Bangkok, this one-two punch has long been the benchmark for global hotel excellence, while the Metropole Hanoi came out of left field to wow our panelists. “If you’re going to stay at a colonial grand hotel, you have to pull out all the stops. The Metropole does that and has a perfectly central location,” said Abel.

RESORTS

Best Beach Resort, U.S.

TIE: Four Seasons Hualalai, Hawaii; The Breakers, Florida

Our experts went bicoastal on this one, and two states, Hawaii and Florida, utterly dominated with well over 90% of votes cast. A number of hotels were worthy of ballots, but for the 50th State, Hualalai narrowly edged the recently reopened and totally rebuilt Mauna Kea, while the Breakers likewise edged out the much newer and nearby Acqualina. Honeymoon planner Wallace sums up the Four Seasons’ appeal: “Among Hawaii’s many high-rise resorts, this low-rise beauty really stands out. It offers the perfect mix of understated luxury, attentive service, beautiful grounds and world-class facilities.” How many hotels have a saltwater swimming pool cum aquarium carved from black lava and filled with colorful fish and majestic rays? Meanwhile, the family-owned Breakers, which insists on reinvesting ludicrous amounts of money in keeping this grande dame in perfect shape, is no stranger to our poll. Five years ago it swept “Best Large Resort U.S.,” thanks to two golf courses, excellent restaurants and a perfect setting. Well-known travel writer Lynn Seldon repeats what other travelers have said for more than a century: “The location, property, people and food keep me coming back year after year.” Among those in hearty agreement are travel agent Stacy Small and Emmy-award-winning “CBS News” travel editor Peter Greenberg.

Runners Up: Mauna Kea, Hawaii; Acqualina Resort & Spa, Florida. Earthquake damaged Mauna Kea was totally redone, including its famous Robert Trent Jones, Sr. golf course, tweaked into better than ever shape by his son Rees Jones. TheAPosition.com founder Jeff Wallach calls it “recently renovated within an inch of its life.” Acqualina was more of  a surprise, and our experts were wowed by its seaside setting, which travel agent Miller describes as, “The most beautiful beach I’ve seen on the East Coast.”


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