Major travel magazines crown a great many "bests" each year: best hotels, best resorts, best spas, etc. But most of these lists are based on reader polls, which are flawed because they use tiny samples of unqualified travelers, who may or may not have visited any of the places rated. Cigar Aficionado decided to take a different approach to crowning the top hotels and resorts in the world.
We asked the people in the know—leading travel journalists, travel agents, hotel critics, hoteliers (who could not vote for their own products), international business travelers and specialists in different travel fields, including golf, spas and resorts—for their top picks because they have visited high-end properties on almost every continent and thus, have many informed opinions on what is deluxe and what is sub-par. Luxury, world-class and five-star are terms tossed about so loosely these days that they have almost lost their meaning.
Many good hotels and resorts exist, but only a few are truly great.
Nothing takes the wind out of the sails of an upscale vacation faster than spending an arm and a leg on a hotel only to find out that your choice of lodging is second-rate at best.
Rating agencies, from AAA to Mobil to Michelin, are pretty consistent and a good place to start, but each covers only a small portion of the globe, and then, only broad categories. Travel magazines have lists that often run the gamut from unreliable to ridiculous. The readers' polls save the publication a lot of money it would otherwise have to spend on actual research and inspection. The readers might just like the hotel's ads or they might have stayed at a hotel on their honeymoon 20 years ago, and still feel enough of a soft spot to give it a high rating, even if the hotel has changed hands a dozen times since and gone into decline. A reader used to one-star accommodations who splurges for a three-star hotel might think it is the world's best, simply because he has no basis for comparison. In many cases, the samples are so small that one reader can swing the results, and often the readers are given multiple choices from which to pick, rather than making their own selections, ensuring that properties preselected by the magazines will win.
That didn't happen with our poll. Our travel experts chose properties on their own and were not in contact with each other, so votes weren't skewed for one hotel over another. They cast their very informed votes and only in areas for which they are qualified (no spa experts picking golf courses or vice versa). The experiment was a success, since many of the panelists picked some of the same luxury properties.
Cesar Ritz did much to create the modern luxury hotel, but his most important contribution may have been coining the phrase, "The customer is never wrong." This credo helped propel Ritz from a mere hotel manager to a dictionary definition (we have him to thank for the phrase "putting on the Ritz," and that glamorous things are called "ritzy"). While Ritz may be gone, his philosophy lives on at deluxe hotels across the globe. Here are the travel experts' picks and our choices for hotels and resorts that live by Ritz's motto.
BEST URBAN HOTELS
Nowhere is the competition among top hoteliers as fierce as in big cities, where the best hotels have to please everyone, from demanding business travelers to well-heeled vacationers to visiting dignitaries and movie stars. Big cities are homes to all the top chains, as well as some of the world's most famous and historic hotels.
United States: Best Large City Hotel
TIE: Four Seasons Hotel, New York, and the Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park
These two properties edged out a Who's Who of local runners-up, including the St. Regis and The Ritz-Carlton New York, Battery Park. The Four Seasons is a city icon with 52 stories of limestone-clad elegance designed by I.M. Pei, who has been doing exterior work on a pair of presidential suites and a penthouse suite over the past few years. The hotel claims that the suites are the nation's most expensive at $15,000 and more than $30,000 a night, respectively. They are also the highest hotel rooms in New York. www.fourseasons.com/newyorkfs/index.html
The Ritz has quickly made a splash since opening in 2002 across from Central Park, and has perhaps the best views in the city. "There simply is no better hotel there at this time," says travel agent Anne Scully. "The rooms put the guests in the lap of luxury. Famous Norman at the bar mixes the perfect cocktail. This is a hotel where everyone does know the guests' names." Both are among just 21 hotels in America to win both five stars from Mobil and five diamonds from AAA. www.ritzcarlton.com/hotels/new_york_central_park/
United States: Best Small City Hotel
The Lowell, New York
The Lowell edged out Philadelphia's Rittenhouse and Boston's 15 Beacon. Experts love it for its mix of intimacy (only 47 suites and 23 rooms) and luxury (marble baths and Bulgari bathroom amenities), all in the tony Upper East Side. "[It's] like staying with a friend," says syndicated travel columnist Everett Potter, "if that friend owned a small hotel where you're coddled and pampered." www.lowellhotel.com
International: Best Large City Hotel
The Peninsula Hong Kong
No hotel in the survey outperformed "the Pen," which has kept much newer and flashier rivals at arm's length with a history of exceptional service. Its spacious rooms blend East and West and many afford stunning views of Hong Kong. After arriving via the rooftop helipad or Rolls-Royce limousines, guests can unwind in the spa or have high tea in the Lobby. www.hongkong.peninsula.com
Honorable Mention: The Peninsula Bangkok, with five themed suites that offer views of the city and boast custom-designed furniture featuring opulent fabrics. The Grand Hyatt Shanghai, the world's highest hotel, which freelance journalist Chris McGinnis calls "the most dramatic perch anywhere in China, Asia or maybe the world."
International: Best Small City Hotel
Mandarin Oriental, Munich
This was the hardest fought category, with the Mandarin narrowly beating out a dozen contenders tied for second place. Travel editor Peter Greenberg calls it "the true definition of efficiency and style," and frequent European business traveler Pat Gallagher says, "Central location, wonderful breakfasts, very comfortable rooms—it is, however, the exceptional service that sets it apart." During Oktoberfest, when it was impossible to get table reservations in the popular beer tents—they're sold out nearly a year in advance and worth their weight in gold—a staffer offered Gallagher's party his personal reservation. www.mandarinoriental.com
Honorable Mention: The family-run Goring in London, which has 71 guest rooms and a private garden; Villa San Michele, on the outskirts of Florence, which was once a monastery and features rich tapestries and views of the Arno Valley. La Mamounia in Marrakech, Morocco, with its opulent private villas and Turkish bath.
Whether it's the beach, the mountains or a medieval hill town in Tuscany, for many travelers "vacation" means a resort. Here are our picks:
United States: Best Beach Resort
TIE: Bacara Resort & Spa, Santa Barbara, California and Montage Resort & Spa, Laguna Beach, California
When it comes to King of the Beach, Southern California gets the crown, winning accolades even from other hoteliers. The Bacara, with its understated Mediterranean-style elegance, features spectacular coastal views in an intimate and pampered setting. Stephen Brandman, a partner in and chief operating officer of Thompson Hotels and a frequent Los Angeles visitor, says, "You can be completely pampered in their villas and all three pools are great—and don't forget the cabanas by the pool!" www.bacararesort.com
White-sand beaches and a beachfront spa lure visitors to the Montage. Jonathan Tisch, chairman and chief executive officer of Loews Hotels, calls Montage his favorite non-Loews hotel in the nation, saying, "The architecture and interior design graciously represent the California coastline, and combined with superb service and wonderful dining options, it's a perfect resort." www.montagelagunabeach.com
Honorable Mention: The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, with its unspoiled beach and award-winning golf courses; Amelia Island Plantation in Florida, which features beachfront villas and championship golf.
International: Best Beach Resort
TIE: Four Seasons Bali at Jimbaran Bay, Bali, Indonesia, and Necker Island, British Virgin Islands
Among the glut of great resorts on Bali, the first of two Four Seasons stood out. The Balinese are famous for their hospitality and attention to detail, and the Four Seasons, which features villas with private pools and gardens, doesn't disappoint. Stephen Brandman, former director of quality and standards for the Intercontinental hotels, notes, "Nothing in the world compares. The staff is the best in the world. Probably the most romantic place on the planet." www.fourseasons.com/jimbaranbay/index.html
Sir Richard Branson's private island—cum—vacation home shares first place honors on the list because of its unique get-away-from-it-all vibe and its ultra-exclusivity (guests can reserve the island for $30,000 to $42,000 a night—with a five-night minimum). Shari Mycek, a travel writer and editor, says, "If you have the money, the ultimate barefoot luxury is Necker Island. Deliriously luxurious. It may be set in the British Virgin Islands, but everything about it sings Bali." www.necker.com
Honorable Mention: The award-winning Palazzo Sasso in Ravello on Italy's Amalfi Coast, which features a two-star Michelin restaurant and stunning views of picturesque fishing villages. The One&Only Kanuhura in the Maldives, which offers 100 private villas with views of the blue sea and a reef for scuba divers.
United States: Best Large Resort
The Breakers Palm Beach, Florida
For more than a century, the Breakers has dominated the grand hotel scene in south Florida, and according to our experts, it rules the roost for the entire nation. The Breakers is a unique, family-owned hotel that reinvests an average of $15 million a year in improvements. The resort has two golf courses, a renowned spa, a beach club and much more on 140 acres of ultra-exclusive real estate along chic Worth Avenue on the island of Palm Beach. www.thebreakers.com
United States: Best Small Resort
Twin Farms, Barnard, Vermont
Sometimes a place lives up to its hype. Such is the case with ultra-exclusive Twin Farms, the tiny Vermont boutique resort that has earned the No. 4 ranking for top small hotel in the country from the Zagat Survey and gets a five-star rating from Mobil despite having just 20 rooms (if you can call customized luxury cottages, adorned with fine art, rooms). Travel agent Bill Fischer sends his A-list clients there, and guidebook author and New York Times travel contributor Lea Lane says, "Once the home of author Sinclair Lewis and his wife, journalist Dorothy Parker, this incredible compound of themed cottages and outbuildings is the ultimate in casual elegance. You feel you're at a lavish house party with a secret, gazillionaire host." www.twinfarms.com
International: Best Large Resort
Gleneagles Hotel, Scotland
Simply put, there is no resort on earth to rival Gleneagles' world-class sporting facilities. This is a case where quantity and quality happily coexist, and everything from the golf to the British School of Falconry to the Equestrian School to the Off Road Driving and Shooting schools are near the tops in their fields. As Anne Scully notes, "The three golf courses make it famous, but the other activities give you a total resort experience. And there is no end to the rare malt Scotches at the bar." www.gleneagles.com
International: Best Small Resort
Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, Gargano, Italy
Our experts had a hard time agreeing on anything, but they did agree that when it came to small foreign luxury resorts, Italy topped the list. All but one respondent picked an Italian property, with the 213-year-old Villa Feltrinelli, which features hand-painted frescoes, Venetian glass lamps and iron bathtubs, eking out first place. It is another of Bill Fischer's celebrity hideaways, and Anthony Lassman, owner of the travel publication Nota Bene, says, "Bob Burns, the original founder of Regent Hotels, has outstandingly converted this magnificent villa on the shores of Lake Garda into a small resort property of impeccable quality. Nota Bene would give it the award for the finest night turndown service of any hotel in the world." www.villafeltrinelli.com
Honorable Mention: Palazzo Sasso in Ravello on the Amalfi Coast; Villa d'Este on Lake Como in northern Italy, which offers picture-perfect views of the famous lake amid opulent furnishings and personalized service; The family-owned Le Sirenuse in Positano on the Amalfi Coast, which caters to guests who want traditional Italian elegance and contemporary service and amenities.
United States: Best Golf Resort
TIE: Pebble Beach Resorts, California, and Sea Island, Georgia
Pebble Beach may be the most popular resort destination in the golf world, but that may be because it has the perennially highest-rated public course on earth, in addition to another U.S. Top 10 and a Top 50 course. Throw in two luxury hotels and an even more impressive boutique property, and you have a lot of golf resort. Robert Pedrero, editor of The Golf Insider newsletter, the nation's premier critical golf travel publication, says, "Yes, it has three courses ranked in the Top 100 and good upscale lodging and spa at Casa Palmero, but the reality is simple: if you had one more resort golf trip in your life, where would you go? Almost anyone who loves golf would pick Pebble, because of the history and its role in the game." www.pebblebeach.com
Sea Island counters with the new Lodge at Sea Island, among the most luxurious golf hotels ever built, and is completely rebuilding its trademark Cloister hotel. It also boasts three courses, plus many more facilities, all on a private island. Evan Rothman, former executive editor of Golf Magazine and a former editor at Travel & Leisure Golf, says, "It has the best combination of accommodations between the Cloister and the Lodge, as well as one of the most beautiful and memorable courses in the world, Seaside. Throw in spectacular food, world-class Southern hospitality and two other excellent layouts, and you've got a golf spot that's hard to beat." www.seaisland.com
International: Best Golf Resort
TIE: Sandy Lane, Barbados, and The Westin Turn-berry Resort Scotland, Ayrshire, Scotland
The world golf resort scene is more complicated, because many of the top must-play locales overseas such as St. Andrews are not actually resorts. For an under-one-roof combination of great golf and lodging, Sandy Lane in Barbados and Scotland's Turnberry stood out.
The Green Monkey at Sandy Lane is hands down the best course in the Caribbean and perhaps Tom Fazio's best effort, while The Country Club 18-hole course is excellent as well. The legendary Old-Nine course is still luring golf aficionados to the posh retreat. The Golf Insider's Pedrero says, "Sandy Lane has one of the best hotel spas anywhere." www.sandylane.com
The Westin Turnberry offers some of Scotland's finest lodging, dining and spa facilities, but its crown jewel is the Ailsa Course, the sole British Open venue that is a resort course, featuring eight consecutive oceanfront holes beyond compare, plus an impressive second course. www.turnberry.co.uk
United States: Best Spa Resort
Miraval Life in Balance, Catalina, Arizona
Every great hotel has a spa these days, but there are still destinations that draw spa-goers and health seekers just for their wellness and pampering. Of these, Miraval, which offers ancient Eastern and traditional Western body treatments, stands head and shoulders above the rest. Travel agents Bill Fischer and Anne Scully were unanimous about this pick, and Scully says "they take care of your soul, mind and spirit...not in any order." www.miravalresort.com
Honorable Mention: Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, which is world-renowned for its attention to improving the body, mind and soul and has spread its philosophy to properties around the country.
International: Best Spa Resort
TIE: Paraíso de la Bonita Resort & Thalasso, Mexico, and Spa Village at Pangkor Laut, Malaysia
On Mexico's up-and-coming Riviera Maya, the Paraíso de la Bonita features a unique seawater swimming pool that won over Valarie D'Elia, a radio and TV travel host. "You will find yourself awash in decorator details and drenched in luxury with French-style thalasso treatments," she says. www.paraisodelabonita.com
Unique as a spa concept, the Spa Village includes various "healing huts" offering treatments from traditional Chinese medicine, Malay, or Ayurvedic therapies, plus villas on stilts over the sea. Shari Mycek, a travel writer and editor, says, "The decadently upscale Spa Village is all about true Malaysian healing." www.pangkorlautresort.com
BEST ADVENTURE HOTELS
Sometimes getting away from it all just isn't enough. A growing number of vacationers want an action-packed vacation that doesn't sacrifice luxury. These are the top hotels for thrill seekers.
Best Ski Hotel
The Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch, Colorado
Since it opened three years ago, this fantastic, giant log cabin at the Bachelor Gulch base area of the exclusive Beaver Creek ski resort has been a runaway hit. Unique features range from a Playboy Mansion-esque co-ed grotto in the spa to a loaner "house dog" for taking on hikes. Valarie D'Elia says, "It is the fanciest log cabin you'll ever see and blends in with the surrounding national forest, evoking the feel of the Old West. There are 100 fireplaces, adding to the cozy ambience; the one in the Great Room [is] three stories tall." www.ritzcarlton.com/resorts/bachelor_gulch
Honorable Mention: The twin resorts of Vail/Beaver Creek dominated, with kudos going to the Sonnenalp Resort of Vail for its myriad winter activities that include Nordic skiing and snowboarding; The Park Hyatt Beaver Creek, where you can ski on relatively uncrowded slopes, is home to the best hotel-based instructional program in the industry, Technique Weeks.
Best Safari Lodge
TIE: Royal Malewane, Singita and Ulusaba private game reserves, South Africa
The three-way tie was surprising, but not as surprising as the dominance of South Africa's Kruger National Park. Many of the world's safari lodges are located in East Africa, but you would never guess that from our experts, who were finally unanimous in their accolades: every pick was in or connected to Kruger, clearly the place for a true luxury safari experience.
Nota Bene's Lassman was one of the Royal Malewane backers, due to its "excellent service and traditional colonial accommodation." Singita is three resorts in one, focusing on romance, modern comforts and families. Virgin Records founder Richard Branson's Ulusaba is really two resorts in one: Safari Lodge has 10 tree-house suites, seven of which are linked by rope bridges, while Rock Lodge has eight more suites atop an 800-foot boulder pile. Anne Scully calls it "the perfect family game reserve." www.royalmalewane.com, www.singita.com, www.ulusaba.com
Honorable Mention: Other Kruger camps were close behind, including Mala Mala Game Reserve, Conservation Corporation Africa Ngala Tented Camp and Londolozi Tree Camp.
Best Adventure/Eco Resort
Hotel Explora, Torres del Paine, Chile
Nominees ran the gamut from Costa Rica to the Seychelles, but none could match this property within Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. The Hotel Explora is luxurious, yet intimate, with just 30 rooms, and boasts vistas of the park's most dramatic feature, a rock formation known as the Horns. Journalist Steve Jermanok describes the sight as "a twisted mass of monoliths rising sharply from the Patagonian steppe, an ever-changing glacial landscape where guanacos (orange and white llamas), rheas (ostriches) and flamingos congregate near watering holes." www.explora.com
Larry Olmsted is a frequent traveler and contributor to Cigar Aficionado.