Five years is a long time in the travel business. That's how long it's been since Cigar Aficionado first tackled the notion of selecting the Best Hotels and Resorts in the World. Since then, there are many more luxury hotels and resorts, despite the tough economy of the last two years.
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.
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.
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.”
Best Beach Resort Destination, International
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
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
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.
Honorable Mention: Deer Valley Ski Resort, Utah suffers from too much of a great thing. Its array of luxury hotels split the vote, and with two third-place finishers, Stein Eriksen Lodge and St. Regis Deercrest, Deer Valley was our top overall luxury ski destination. This dynamic duo will soon become a terrific trio with the addition of the new Montage this winter, and Deer Valley cements its ritzy reputation.
Best Ski Destination, International
Most of the world’s top-hotel general managers learned their craft in Ithaca, New York or Switzerland, the homes of the finest hotel schools. Like its watches, Switzerland’s hotels have become famous for enduring quality, precision and painstaking attention to detail, and when you throw in the Alps, this combination makes Switzerland to skiing what Thailand is to spas and Bali to beach resorts: No. 1. Our experts’ consensus was simple: if you leave the U.S., the best ski accommodations are here.
Favorites: Riffelalp Resort, Zermatt; Badrutt’s Palace, St. Moritz; Omnia, Zermatt. The Riffelalp’s signature feature is stunning views of the Matterhorn from virtually everywhere on the property, but especially from the highest altitude outdoor pool in Europe, complete with jetted tubs and massage showers. The spa and gastronomy are first class as well. The Omnia won as Best New Ski Hotel in our previous poll, and also showcases the local icon, the Matterhorn, with floor to ceiling glass and modern architecture that led one panelist to describe it as “luxe lodgings more like something out of Singapore or South Beach than Switzerland.” Badrutt’s is one of Europe’s classic grand hotels, but the one that happens to be in Switzerland’s most sophisticated ski town, the Aspen of the Alps.
Best Safari Lodge/Property (Worldwide)
Singita Lodges, South Africa and Tanzania
Upscale safaris are among the “authentic” travel experiences that have benefitted from the changing landscape of the last five years, with more vacationers forgoing the epic scale of the traditional hotel-to-hotel East African package tour experience for the intimate seclusion and luxury that until recently only South Africa offered. Thanks in large part to Singita, a leading operator of these deluxe boutique lodges, the possibilities have expanded as they opened three similar lodges in Tanzania.
Singita tied for first in our original poll, but its collection of nine game preserve lodges broke out for a runaway win in a category where it faced daunting competition. High-powered travel agent Anne Scully’s Singita favorite was Boulder Lodge, “a Zen experience in the South African Bush. This lodge lends itself to the best safari experience while enjoying fine dining, fantastic wines and world-class service. Private suites with plunge pools overlook the river.” Honeymoon specialist Carrie Wallace of MoonRings does a lot of safari business and knows the product well, and she singles out Singita’s Grumeti Reserve in Tanzania. “The three lodges each take advantage of their setting to deliver a quintessential Serengeti safari experience. How they deliver such a luxurious experience in the middle of the Serengeti is remarkable.”
Best adventure/wilderness resort (Worldwide)
Four Seasons Tented Camp
Golden Triangle, Thailand
This Toronto-based luxury brand has consistently been our panelists’ favorite since our polls began, but Golden Triangle is unlike any other Four Seasons on earth—in a good way. Comprised of just 15 tents—albeit deluxe tents with hand-hammered copper tubs and teak furnishings—this is a satellite escapist property to the larger mothership resort 175-miles away at Chiang Mai. Run like a deluxe African safari lodge, it is all-inclusive and features daily guided excursions, including elephant rides, hikes and river cruising in traditional long tail canoes. Activities, food and drink are bundled as three- or four-night packages, simply called “The Camp Experience,” and this is a place to experience things, not lounge around. As Wallace puts it, “Guests have more to look forward to here than just elegant tents and fabulous service. How many of their friends can say they’ve been a mahout (elephant trainer)? Such a unique experience in such a beautiful setting!”
Runner-Up: Explora Posada de Mike Rapu, Easter Island, Chile. For a tiny hotel chain (four properties) based entirely in one country (Chile), Explora has lit up our polls. Its Patagonia resort, Hotel Salto Chico, won our inaugural poll in this category, then won again for Best Adventure/Eco Resort in our all-resort poll, and then this property on Easter Island won for Best New Adventure/Eco Resort. The facility is excellent, but it is the combination of location and by far the best guides that make Posada de Mike Rapu a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. As a ruins junkie myself, I have been and can safely say that other top sites such as Machu Picchu and Tulum pale in comparison with the Moai of Easter Island.
BEST BY REGION
Best Hotel New York City
Apparently size does not matter. The Surrey won earlier for Top U.S. Small Hotel, and was also our favorite at any size in the Big Apple, the nation’s most competitive hotel market. While most new hotels go through growing pains, this was not the case here, according to Abel, “I stayed here last December, just a month after opening, and not a hair was out of place.” It beat our defending champion, the Four Seasons, which fell into a tie with up-and-coming Mandarin Oriental, which had previously scored in our Best New Hotels Poll.
Runners-Up: TIE: Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental.
Best Hotel London
In previous polls, London was never able to yield a clear winner, suffering from an overabundance of top luxury properties. This time, however, despite plenty of votes spread among all the usual suspects, from the timeless Connaught to the hipper Haymarket by Firmdale, The Lanesborough won, and convincingly, showing a fundamental shift in the English capital. Amy Ziff, former Travelocity editor-at-large and longtime travel journalist says, “The Lanesborough is not just a classic hotel, it has become an institution. You’ll always be in style, and its fabulous location in Knightsbridge overlooks Hyde Park. Your personal butler will get you acclimated to the surroundings, and, things only go up from there.”
Runners-Up: TIE: The Goring, Dorchester, One Aldwych.
Best Hotel Los Angeles
The Beverly Hills Hotel & Bungalows
Tying for the nation’s Best Large Hotel, this one easily carried Los Angeles, with its combination of classic timelessness and up-to-the-minute relevance, especially among the A-listers who frequent it and the countless stars who choose it to host interviews. It also enjoys an incredible location in the heart of the city’s most desirable neighborhood. “With its hidden bungalows and iconic Old Hollywood nature, the ‘Pink Palace’ will have you posing poolside in your fluffy robe or taking an important phone call with the other glitterati in the Polo Lounge,” says golf and travel writer and broadcaster Michael Patrick Shiels.
Runners-Ups: TIE: Beverly Wilshire, Peninsula Beverly Hills.
Best Hotel Paris
Four Seasons George V
Best in Paris, best anywhere. Perhaps the only hotel on earth famed for its incredibly excessive lobby flower arrangements, the George V won in a landslide and was the world’s top vote getter in this poll. Nonetheless, the other grand dames of Paris had a good showing, with votes cast for the Meurice, Plaza Athenee and Crillon, which finished second. To journalist Everett Potter the George V’s appeal is simple: “They get all the details correct.” Carrie Wallace is quick to recommend it to romantic honeymooners, because “they understand the mentality of their U.S.-based guests without compromising their French credentials.” Not surprisingly, this hotel easily won the same category five years ago, prompting Nota Bene’s Lassman to credit it with, “The finest hotel service in Europe with arguably the most polished room service of any hotel in the world.”
Runner-Up: Hotel Crillon.
Best Hotel Las Vegas
This upscale tower hotel within the larger Wynn Las Vegas was a bit of a surprise, edging out the luxury non-gaming Four Seasons, new Mandarin Oriental, over-the-top Mansions at MGM, butler served MGM Skylofts, and everything else bright and shiny in town. Then again, it was Steve Wynn who repeatedly rewrote the Vegas hospitality rulebook and raised the bar over several decades, and this is his latest and greatest feat. Former USA Today travel editor Chris Gray explains the appeal: “The casino hotel for those who don’t like casino hotels, Steve Wynn’s Encore seems geared for Monaco rather than the masses. Plus, natural light! When’s the last time you saw that in a Vegas casino?”
Runner-Up: Mandarin Oriental
Best Hotel/Resort Europe
TIE: Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, Lake Garda, Italy; Hotel Splendido, Portofino, Italy
There is no doubt about it—Italy has the world’s best hotels. Feltrinelli won our original poll, and this time tied with the Splendido, a spectacular property that has the best location in what many consider the most beautiful seaside town on earth, the pastel fantasy that is Portofino. If this is not enough, the Splendido also owns the best spot on the actual harbor, maintaining a satellite restaurant, where the front row seats coveted by passing throngs are reserved for hotel guests. In the case of the Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, set in Mussolini’s former villa, be careful what you wish for when booking, because Carrie Wallace reports that, “After staying at this idyllic lakeside hideaway, many clients claim that they have been ‘spoiled for life.’ ”
Honorable Mention: The Rest of Italy. As in previous polls, Italy totally dominated the world beyond the U.S. borders, and other acclaimed choices included Verdura Resort, Sicily; Palazzo Sasso, Ravello; Il San Pietro, Positano; Four Seasons, Florence; and the Cipriani, Venice (a previous winner).
Best Hotel/Resort Caribbean
Jade Mountain, St. Lucia
One of the best new things to come online since our inaugural poll in 2005 is this fantasy creation of architect owner Nick Troubetzkoy. Untroubled by any rules of the hotel industry, Troubetzkoy indulged his every whim to create a one-of-a-kind property perched on a mountaintop, above a beach he also owns, with some of the world’s greatest views, including St. Lucia’s famed twin peaks, the Pitons, and the stunning sea. “It’s one of the most photographed resorts in the world due to its dramatic architecture and stunning scenery, yet also one of the most exclusive. Everyone dreams of visiting Jade Mountain,” says Jetsetter’s Farryn Wiener. There are just 28 suites, each butler serviced, an incredible array of facilities, dining options and activities, including one of the finest scuba centers in the Caribbean, and each open-air suite is more like a luxury home. My wife’s reaction upon arrival was, “this is all ours?” The suites are called “sanctuaries,” and as Valarie D’Elia, host of the popular “Travel With Val” segment on NY1, puts it, “Each of the ‘sanctuaries’ at Jade Mountain has one missing wall exposed to the elements, facing the fuzzy Piton mountains. I felt like I was watching an IMAX movie, tuned to the same glorious scene.” Every Sanctuary also has an open-air infinity pool and multilevel decks.
Runner-Up: Parrott Cay, Turks & Caicos (a previous winner)
Best Hotel/Resort Mexico
One & Only Palmilla, Los Cabos
Air conditioned golf carts on the Jack Nicklaus Signature course is typical of the spare-no-comfort approach taken at the One & Only Palmilla, especially for guests in the newer butler-served luxury wing. A complete rethinking of a longtime favorite Los Cabos hotel, this won earlier for Best New Beach Resort, Mexico, and was previously a runner-up in this category. The biggest news is that it displaced multiple previous winner Las Ventanas al Paraiso, long regarded by our panelists as the world’s benchmark for luxury tropical resorts. “It boasts the only swimmable beach in Cabo. The attention to detail is impeccable—the light fixtures alone impress, and as the sun sets staffers meticulously set countless candlelit lanterns along paths and flowerbeds, and the property takes on a magical air. More than just a gimmick or glorified housekeeping, butler service here is memorable,” says Elaine Srnka, editor of Virtuoso Life. Anne Scully adds, “Luxurious suites complete with butler service keep the guests coming back year after year. This resort has the best among the best in dining, golf, spa, deep-sea fishing and yacht charters,” as the resort has its own marina.
Runner-Up: Las Ventanas al Paraiso, Los Cabos (a previous winner)
Notable Mention: Two newer resort communities fared very well in our polls, but simply had too much of a good thing, splitting votes between their own multiple luxury hotels. Either Punta Mita, on the West Coast, with its Four Seasons and St. Regis, or Mayakoba, on the East Coast, with its Rosewood and Banyan Tree, would be the top vote-getter if considered a single resort.
Best City Hotel Far East
Peninsula Hong Kong
Don’t call for a bellman until you are ready to leave, because they might be knocking before you hang up, such is the service at this legend. Five years ago we called the Pen the “800-pound gorilla of our survey, no other hotel could touch the Peninsula.” Today, that honor has shifted thousands of miles west to Paris’s George V. After a massive wave of ultra-luxury openings across Asia, especially in Tokyo, Hong Kong and pre-Olympics Beijing, the margin is much, much closer but the venerable Peninsula still wins, with several properties nipping at its heels. Ironically, these include several sister hotels, or as top tier travel agent Jason Miller puts it, “Peninsula Hong Kong, Peninsula Beijing, Peninsula Shanghai, Peninsula Tokyo, Peninsula wins the prize in the Far East!”
Runners-Up: TIE: Peninsula, Tokyo; Peninsula, Bangkok; Shangri-La, Tokyo; Sofitel Legend Metropole, Hanoi.
Best Resort Far East
Four Seasons Chiang Mai, Thailand
Another previous winner in this category still claiming its throne, this property is even better thanks to its association with smaller sibling, the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, which shines in two other categories. “You couldn’t ask for a more tranquil, quintessentially Asian setting for a resort. It’s not hard to pass the entire day on your verandah gazing across the bright green rice paddies,” says Wallace. Of course, if you want to get off the verandah, the resort, smack in the cultural heart of Thailand, offers a culinary school with four Thai cooking classes, plus a chef’s tour of the local market, every day. There are two golf courses within five minutes, balloon rides, and many other local activities.
Runner-Up: Amankila, Bali.
Best Hotel/Resort Australia/New Zealand
South Ocean Lodge, Kangaroo Island, Australia
“I still remember the hundreds of kangaroos hopping around us at sunset…this is a visit to Jurassic Park with a five-star luxury resort attached… views of the wild southern ocean from one of the 21 suites... look for the koala bears in the trees and the wallabies running around playfully,” recalls Anne Scully fondly. Despite a fine collection of urban hotels in both Melbourne and Sydney, our experts picked this tiny sanctuary on off-the-beaten-path Kangaroo Island, often called “Australia’s Galapagos.” The luxury lodge sits on bluffs with tremendous views and is almost entirely glass for nonstop jaw dropping.
Runner Up: Park Hyatt, Sydney.
Notable Mention: Because New Zealand is much less urbanized, and tourists visit for nature’s grandeur, votes were widely split amongst several smaller, far-flung properties worthy of mention: Kauri Cliffs; Cape Kidnappers; Whare Kea Lodge. “I’m not someone who says ‘Oh my God!,’ but when I stayed at Whare Kea this year, OMG (or OMFG) was all I could manage for three days,” recalls Abel, who made this her most impassioned pick in the poll.
Best Hotel/Resort South/Central America
Blancaneaux Lodge, Belize
First The Godfather, then fine California wines, now a beloved eco-luxury resort in Belize. Blancaneaux is the work of acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola and has quickly garnered praise throughout the travel
industry. “Francis Ford Coppola’s Blancaneaux Lodge truly feels like a movie set; perched in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, one of Belize’s oldest national parks, 21 thatched-roof villas and cabanas are built into a hillside above the swift-moving Privassion Creek and waterfall…perfect for those who want a rustic hideaway with luxurious extras,” says Wiener, while Srnka simply says, “Love Blancaneaux Lodge.”
Runner Up: Four Seasons Peninsula Papagayo, Costa Rica.
Best Urban Hotel Spa, U.S.
Mandarin Oriental Miami
It’s not enough that Miami’s top hotel has a wonderful setting overlooking the Bay from Brickell Key, or that it is home to Azul, widely considered Miami’s best fine-dining restaurant, but also has an incredible, three-story spa that includes half a dozen VIP suites with floor-to-ceiling windows. The spa offers every wellness bell and whistle from an elaborate treatment menu to belly dancing lessons. It has won countless awards, yet is being improved again with an extensive renovation to be complete by the end of 2010. “This celebrity-favorite city spa promises to be even better when it emerges from an October refurbishment,” says Srnka.
Honorable Mention: The rest of Miami. When it comes to urban spas, this South Florida city was tops, with panelists praising several properties including the Viceroy and Canyon Ranch Miami Beach.
Favorite Large Hotel & Resort Chain/Brand
This is the first time we formally added this as a category, though in all our past polls the clear majority of votes across the board went to Four Seasons. Little has changed in regards to this love affair over five years—except there are a lot more of them. While Paris’s George V and the Thai and Balinese properties were the most cited favorites, our panelists praised everything from the Costa Rican golf resort to urban powerhouses in New York, Sydney and Vegas. The consistency of service was the hallmark, but in recent years Four Seasons has made great strides in avoiding a “cookie- cutter” image. “It’s always reliable but not always the same,” observes Amy Ziff. Debbi Karpowicz Kickham says, “They move heaven and earth to provide stellar, unexpectedly wonderful service,” while Michael Patrick Shiels believes that “Four Seasons is consistently creative in an understated manner, yet there is always an elegant crispness and reliable simplicity.”
Second Place: Peninsula. While the flagship Hong Kong hotel has been our dominant global winner for years, and again won its category despite stiff competition, every single Peninsula property on earth, with the sole exception of Manila, received votes in this poll. “When it comes to urban hotels, Peninsula sets the pace. Pick one in any city and you’ll be happy,” says Wallace. Next up is a new Paris hotel in 2012.
Third Place: Mandarin Oriental. Much larger than Peninsula, Mandarin covers much of the same ground in big cities like Tokyo, but also is by far the dominant hotel in many lower-profile destinations like Munich and Barcelona. The brand also has more resort properties, from Chiang Mai to Mexico’s Riviera Maya, and the new Las Vegas hotel in CityCenter was a poll favorite.
Honorable Mention: Park Hyatt, which initially had difficulty creating its own name recognition apart from the broader Hyatt brand, is finally getting the respect it deserves, with several properties making our list and many more getting votes. Milan, Sydney, Melbourne, Beaver Creek, Colorado and Buenos Aires are among the standouts.
Favorite Small Hotel & Resort Chain/Brand
Combining the best of exquisite Asian service, an ultra-relaxing Zen aesthetic and a penchant for small hotels in perfect settings, Aman pioneered the current boutique luxury lodge craze, and has now taken its act —very successfully—to places like Beijing. Even more so than large brand winner Four Seasons, Aman manages to maintain a consistency of excellence but with radically different properties, like a string of remote outposts in Bhutan and a ranch-style Utah escape. “It’s all about the guest experience, and Aman excels on all levels, from thoughtful (and often not thought of) locales to construction to design and décor and of course over-the-top service. Amanfayun in China, for example, is woven throughout a village,” says Srnka. “What I love about Aman is that they strive to incorporate authentic, local culture into the guest experience. Staff training is clearly a top priority as service levels are arguably the best of any chain,” said MoonRing’s Wallace.
Second Place: Montage We asked for “small” chains and we got it. Our panelists loved Montage to death—though there are only two hotels open. The original Laguna Beach Montage won for Best Beach Resort, U.S., in our initial pool, and since then, Montage Beverly Hills opened with a spectacular location across the street from Spago in the heart of the glitz. But that’s it, yet our panelists heaped praise and noted the great anticipation surrounding the about-to-open (late-Dec. 2010) Deer Valley, Utah, ski property, which many are predicting will be the world’s best ski hotel.
Third Place: TIE: Capella, COMO Hotels & Resorts. Capella is the result of a longtime Ritz Carlton executive’s desire to build an even better mousetrap, and by panelists’ accounts it seems to be working, though the motto, “the world’s first six-star hotel and resort management company” is a self-proclaimed boast more typically associated with cruise lines and Dubai hotels eager to award themselves ratings no one else will give them. To date, Capella has only opened in offbeat locations, from Telluride to Veldene, Austria, though major-city hotels are on the drawing board. COMO, another fast-rising Asia-based chain, competes directly with Aman and its style of properties in places like Bali and Bhutan, runs the celebrity favorite Parrot Cay in the Turks & Caicos, is a previous winner and also operates more traditional luxury urban hotels in London.
Honorable Mention: Orient-Express. Panelists largely skipped this as a brand, even while voting over and over again for its hotels. That is precisely because Orient-Express has taken great pains to not be perceived as a “chain”—there is absolutely nothing cookie-cutter about it. The main ideology is to take one-of-a-kind historic buildings and lovingly convert them into one-of-a-kind hotels, often with the absolute best setting. Their Sanctuary Lodge in Peru, for instance, is the only sound choice for visitors to famed Machu Pichhu, period. Likewise their Hotel Splendido in Portofino occupies some of the finest real estate on earth, while the Villa San Michele outside Florence still has original frescoes by Michelangelo on the wall. Several hotels made our list or got high acclaim, including the Observatory Sydney, Splendido, Cipriani and so on. The thing I personally love about Orient-Express is that almost anywhere you find one, you know it is going to be the best—and most memorable—in town.
Larry Olmsted is contributing editor for Cigar Aficionado.