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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 1)

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.”

Best Beach Resort Destination, International

Bali

No destination on earth has more true luxury hotels per square mile than this fantasy island in Indonesia, where they come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny enclaves of over-the-top private villas to boutique hotels and large luxury beach resorts. Simply put, Bali has so many stunning luxury hotels that no one emerged as the clear winner, but our panel’s consensus was Bali, Bali, Bali.

Favorites: Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay; Amankila; Bulgari. The first of two Four Seasons on Bali, Jimbaran Bay famously led the global luxe resort movement away from mere “rooms” and to private compounds with plunge pools. Beloved boutique operator Aman Resorts got its start here on Bali, and according to Carrie Wallace, “Amankila continues to set the standard for what a romantic beach resort should be. Balinese to the core, guests naturally absorb the local culture whether they try to or not.” Bulgari’s Bali property is the luxury-style company’s first resort and features 59 ultra-deluxe villas.

Best Boutique Resort, U.S.

Twin Farms, Vermont

This bucolic Vermont farm, once home of author Sinclair Lewis and his wife, journalist Dorothy Parker, has been turned into a compound of architecturally unique, individually decorated and artwork-laden luxury homes that has been compared to both an adult summer camp and a stay at the home of an eccentric billionaire. Either way it works, as Twin Farms has consistently been one of the most decorated hotels on the planet, despite having less than two dozen units. It has earned the top U.S. ranking for Small Hotel from the Zagat Survey and has consistently received the five-Star rating from Forbes/Mobil.

I recently revisited it and was immediately and forcefully reminded why it is so amazing. This is the nation’s most luxurious all-inclusive lodging, and though the setting leads to all sorts of oddball guest requests, nothing is too much for the attentive staff. The very elaborate and delicious seasonal farm-to-table philosophy existed here long before it became trendy elsewhere, and still excels.

Runners-Up: TIE: Amangiri, Utah; Post Ranch Inn, California. While Aman’s first foray into the U.S. market underwhelmed with a Jackson, Wyoming resort far removed from the fabled ski slopes, the follow-up, this back-to-nature escape on 600 desert acres in the Four Corners region wowed our experts. “It is the only resort I have ever seen that I felt God was the head architect,” says Anne Scully, who has been to a lot of beautiful resorts. The Post Ranch Inn is no surprise to travelers seeking these kinds of intimate experiences, having long been one of the nation’s top such choices, combining great service with excellent food and an incomparable Big Sur setting.

Honorable Mention: Not many of our panelists have had a chance to get to the brand new Grand del Mar resort in San Diego, but those who have are wowed by this opulent up-and-comer built in the style of a European grand hotel. The buzz is already that this may be the last no-expense-spared monument to opulence built in this country for a very long time.

Best Golf Resort, U.S.

The Sanctuary Hotel, Kiawah Island Golf Resort, South Carolina

Showing just how dramatically the luxury landscape has changed in the past five years, The Sanctuary not only won a category previously dominated by Pebble Beach and Sea Island, but it won by a convincing margin. With the PGA Championship, its first Major, coming to the resort’s famed Ocean Course, the Sanctuary’s stock should only continue to rise. “True Southern Hospitality from the moment you arrive. Not one detail left out.  World class golf!” declares Miller.

As a longtime golf writer who has been to virtually every top resort on the globe, I’ve long thought Kiawah’s 90-holes were the best golf on the east coast, but now with The Sanctuary there is finally world class lodging to match. “I was thoroughly impressed by this South Carolina gem. The architecture seemed to capture the unique character of the region. Staff were very accommodating and helpful and the spa and golf offerings were fabulous,” says Brian Richardson, vice president of rival Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, which itself operates some of the world’s highest-profile golf properties. “Quite simply, Kiawah has everything for the golfer—and golf widows and widowers,” says golf and travel journalist Lynn Seldon.

Second Place: Bandon Dunes, Oregon. This dichotomy illustrated the different interpretations our panelists had of “golf resort.” Like the Sanctuary, third-place winners Pebble Beach and Pinehurst excelled across the board, with multiple top golf courses, several hotels and endless dining and activity choices, making these the most complete resorts. Some purists voted on the basis of quality of golf, pure and simple, and they overwhelmingly came out in support of low-key Bandon Dunes, which has the nation’s top-ranked public course according to Golf Magazine, and three of the top 10. TheAPosition.com founder Jeff Wallach follows this logic: “Hands down, if golf is the most important part of this category, Bandon Dunes is the best golf resort on the planet.” Where Bandon fails to shine is off the courses, with very basic lodging and dining. “The best golf is definitely at Bandon, but it’s not much on the resort front,” says Robert Pedrero, founder of The Golf Insider (now part of Golf Odyssey). “If you didn’t play golf you’d be miserable there.”

Third Place: TIE: Pebble Beach, California; Pinehurst, North Carolina. “While Bandon Dunes now offers a peerless collection of four golf courses, our choice is still Pebble Beach Resort, America’s shrine to the game,” declared David Baum, owner and editor of Golf Odyssey, the nation’s leading critical golf travel newsletter. Pinehurst has the most courses of any domestic resort and won accolades for its southern hospitality and one-of-a-kind historic and spiritual ambiance, or as golf writer and broadcaster Michael Patrick Shiels puts it, “our St Andrews.”

Best Golf Resort, International

Gleneagles, Scotland

Some things never change. While our golf rankings got pretty shaken up here at home, overseas the status quo prevailed, with Gleneagles winning again, just as it did in our initial 2005 poll and our 2006 Best Resort poll. Our voters took a much different approach than they did at home, since virtually no one believed that Gleneagles has the best golf in this category, but rather is such an incredible overall resort. It combines true luxury with first-class facilities at every turn, from Michelin-starred dining to a state-of-the-art equestrian center, a shooting compound with sporting clays, a famed off-road driving school, elaborate falconry programs, and virtually every other activity you could imagine, along with some you could not. Its classic King’s and Queen’s courses by James Braid are widely considered among the finest examples of “inland links style,” while its much-criticized modern course by Jack Nicklaus has shrugged off the comments and was chosen to host Europe’s next Ryder Cup. “It’s the glaring choice, right in the middle of Scotland, close to lots of other great courses, but with the caveat that you don’t go just for the golf, you go for the awesome activities,” says Pedrero.

Runners Up: Kauri Cliffs, New Zealand; Old Course Hotel, Scotland; Westin Turnberry, Scotland; Mission Hills, China.

Baum champions stunning Kauri Cliffs, our previous winner for “Best Single Course Resort Overall,” and not surprisingly, he describes it as “the world’s finest single course getaway.” The Old Course Hotel, while unaffiliated with the famed courses of the Links Trust, wins for its perfect location alongside the world’s first course, plus a lavish spa and excellent restaurants. Turnberry, another previous winner, wows not with lodging or food, but rather with a British Open venue our panelists consider one of the world’s very best, the Ailsa. Finally, I had to throw my support behind Mission Hills —even though many of our panelist have not been yet, it is the world’s largest golf resort, has first rate courses (a dozen of them!), impressive dining, a very full array of resort facilities, eager-to-please service, and in short, would be an error of omission not to recognize. Or as Pedrero puts it, “It’s the obvious answer for those who know about it, and in years to come, a lot more people are going to know about it.”

Best Spa Resort, U.S.

Canyon Ranch, Tucson, Arizona

Arizona is the undisputed champ of spa vacations, according to our experts. Five years ago, they chose Tucson’s Miraval, with Canyon Ranch a close second. In our all-resort poll, Sedona’s Mii Amo took top position, and while both still had fans, Canyon Ranch finally nabbed the top spot, and by a sizable margin (its sister property, Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires, Massachusetts, which previously won for “Best Wellness/Fitness Hotel,” also fared well). Spa, beauty and travel writer Debbie Karpowicz Kickham cannot believe the “fantastic low-calorie food,” or that the chocolate chip cookies had just 85 calories, and raves about the Euphoria spa treatment. “I’m relaxed just writing about it!” Luxury travel agent Stacy Small, “CBS News” travel editor Peter Greenberg and prolific travel writer Everett Potter are among the many knowledgeable experts who loved Canyon Ranch.

Notable Mention: California’s Cal-a-vie, is unique in combining a more traditional luxury resort experience and fine dining with the full destination spa experience and “ass-kicking fitness,” according to Ann Abel, a longtime spa expert and former executive editor of Spa Finder magazine, who proclaimed, “Finally, a break from New Age Zen!”

Best Spa Resort Destination, International

Thailand

Like our International Beach Resort category, won by Bali, this was more a matter of where to go than where to stay for our panel, who found so many great options that no clear winner emerged—especially in Thailand, where most of the votes were cast.

Favorites: Banyan Tree Phuket; Six Senses Phuket; Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle. Banyan Tree properties showed up with noticeable frequency in this poll, making it one of several successfully expanding luxury brands out of the Pacific Rim. Six Senses, a spa-specific brand, was a runner-up in our previous resort poll and has been a panelist spa favorite for years. The smallest of all Four Seasons, Tented Camp Golden Triangle, was extremely popular with panelists and also won another category outright, Best Adventure/Wilderness Resort.

ADVENTURE & ACTIVE-TRAVEL HOTELS

Best Ski Hotel, U.S.

Four Seasons Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Our winner combines white-glove service with a prime location at the base of what many consider the best ski mountain in the country, if not the world. I’ve been several times and everything from “Base Camp,” as the ski concierge is known, to the après-ski sushi is first in class. “S’mores and cocktails at the hot tub, a spa that my wife loves, a great concierge, all right next to the lifts and tram, plus Jackson is a great town, it just doesn’t get any better,” says Patrick Gallagher, our road warrior business expert who also happens to be an avid skier with high standards. Thanks to a recent onslaught of luxury slopeside properties, this turned out to be our most competitive category, and one of the most changed since our original poll. Our previous winner, the Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch, hung on for a second place tie, but it is clear that newer properties have raised the stakes. Expect this trend to continue, with another Four Seasons opening this winter in Vail, while the new Montage at Deer Valley, Utah may well be the most heralded luxury hotel opening of 2010.

Runners-Up: TIE: Ritz Carlton Bachelor Gulch, Colorado; Little Nell, Aspen, Colorado. Previous winner the Ritz continues to wow with its upscale log cabin aesthetic, the new outpost of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago, and sumptuous spa complete with a “grotto,” but some bemoan its out-of -the way location. The Little Nell, on the other hand, has the best location in Aspen’s gold-plated real estate market, and after a thorough renovation this tried-and-true gem, one of the nation’s original slope-side luxury hotels, is better than ever. Its exquisite Montagna restaurant is also arguably Aspen’s best.


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