You can get your kicks from holing up in a luxurious villa and relaxing on a powdery white sand beach or skiing until your legs give out. Resorts feature something for everyone.
Our list of the world's best resorts offers up a dazzling array of amenities: from private yachts to camping butlers, celebrity yoga instructors to celebrity chefs, whirlpool baths to Roman baths, along with virtually every sporting activity one could think of. Some resorts are mountain hideaways, some desert oases, some deserted islands, but all offer lavish and luxurious lodgings, gourmet cuisine, first-rate spas and staff that go beyond all reasonable expectations.
So, how did we come up with this stellar collection of resorts? As we did in our previous travel survey (December 2005), we went to the people in the know: the world's top travel journalists, travel agents, hoteliers (who could not vote for their own properties), avid first-class business and leisure travelers and assorted industry pundits and experts. Cigar Aficionado puts little stock in the vague and statistically unreliable reader polls that many magazines conduct to save effort and money, with their tiny samples of people whose expertise is completely unknown and not quantifiable. Votes in such polls can come from readers who have never visited a place, or worse, are friends of the hotel owner. Instead, we let people whose full-time job is picking the best hotels and resorts do the job for you.
Many things have remained the same since our inaugural Best Hotel survey, but others have changed. According to our experts, Italy again has the best resorts in Europe, and Four Seasons was again the most often-named hotel brand. And smaller was generally better, with tiny resorts coming out on top in several categories. At the same time, we have seen a race to build grander resorts and spas. While new hotels traditionally have experienced growing pains, this generation seems to be ready for prime time: a number of properties that have opened in the past five years leapt right onto our list and many more right into contention. The boom in new hotels includes some top-notch skiing destinations so, with winter almost upon us, we've increased our coverage of luxury ski properties.
BEST RESORTS OVERALL
With votes cast for resorts around the world, the United States managed to reign supreme in this category. Both the world's best large and small resort were located on American soil.
Montage, Laguna Beach, California
Named Best Beach Resort in our 2005 hotel poll, Montage has continued to improve. And it bested all comers by a wide margin. Anne Scully, one of the world's top travel agents, has a great track record for picking ultimate honeymoon destinations for NBC's "Today" show's annual contest. Montage was one of her picks because, in addition to the "incredible setting on Laguna Beach, it has the best accommodations, best spa and best restaurant." Her industry peer, Bill Fischer, who has booked trips for everyone from Tom Cruise to Oprah to Barbara Walters, also picked Montage, as did hoteliers Stephen Brandman, chief operating officer and partner in the chic 60 Thompson hotel chain, and Jonathan Tisch, chairman and chief executive officer of Loews Hotels. Self-proclaimed beach junkie Drew Limsky, travel editor of Elegant Bride magazine, says, "It has the most scenic coastal view in America, and if that weren't enough, it's peerless in terms of design and dining—plus it has one of the most luxurious hotel spas in the world." www.montagelagunabeach.com
Twin Farms, Barnard, Vermont
The former country home of author Sinclair Lewis and his wife, journalist Dorothy Parker, was successfully turned into a fantasy summer camp for well-heeled adults. A repeat winner in the category from our hotel poll, it is the property with the smallest number of rooms (if you can call the 20 huge cottages rooms) to win a coveted five-star rating from Mobil Travel Guide. Guidebook author and New York Times travel contributor Lea Lane calls it "just about perfect in every way, including service, which makes you feel like a pampered houseguest at a billionaire's retreat." Janine Cifelli, vice president of travel marketing agency Sanctuare, says, "It's a place where every creature comfort was quietly and thoughtfully considered. You never get bored of just being there. The attention to detail is just magnificent." www.twinfarms.com
Honorable Mention: California's 30-room Post Ranch Inn, a venerable Big Sur fixture, which Elle Decor editor Vicky Lowry described as "romantic, rugged and where to go to unplug in luxury."
BEST BEACH/OCEAN RESORTS
With so many beautiful oceanside resorts to choose from, the panelists managed to narrow them down to one choice by region.
Montage, Laguna Beach, California
It's no surprise that our overall winner for best resort, which placed so high in part because of its stellar sandy setting, took first place among beach resorts as well. Lowry, a spa expert, praised the "dramatic setting" of the "grand property" and was swayed by "some of the best massages I've ever had." www.montagelagunabeach.com
Honorable Mention: Second place in the vote tally went to a true classic, The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, which sets itself apart from just about every competitor by routinely reinvesting an average of $15 million per year in the vast property. In a business where a million-dollar facelift warrants a flurry of press releases, the the family that owns the already mighty Breakers has quietly poured in more than $225 million since 1990. The investments include a brand new Rees Jones golf course that is one of Florida's best.
Parrot Cay, Turks and Caicos
With so many upscale island resorts, including entries from all the top luxury chains, how did Parrot Cay stun our voters and run away with this category? Christina Ong, owner of COMO hotels, has a very simple approach to business: she takes concepts she is passionate about and builds places that are perfect for them, from Bali to Bhutan to this private island resort on a beautiful and minimally developed island nation (although that is changing). Fortunately for guests, the things Ong feels passionate about are yoga, spa treatments, service and beautiful design. At Parrot Cay (where Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner were married and Keith Richards, Bruce Willis and Donna Karan all have homes, which you can rent), this translates to utter escapist bliss with a healthy slant, and large, gorgeous rooms that spill directly onto a broad, deserted, talcum-soft beach.
Fischer sends his celebrity guests there. Anthony Lassman, author of perhaps the world's most critical travel publication, Nota Bene, sang the praises of Parrot Cay's deluxe villas; and the island resort is a home away from home for George Ruff, principal of the Trinity Group, which owns numerous high-end hotels around the world. www.parrotcay.como.bz
Honorable Mention: The Four Seasons Nevis, St. Lucia's Ladera and the venerable Sandy Lane in Barbados, a previous poll winner, finished in a heated tie for second place, each with passionate proponents.
One&Only Palmilla, Los Cabos, Mexico
Talk about a landslide. The Yucatán Peninsula has been perhaps the fastest developing leisure destination on earth. New hotels from Fairmont, Mandarin Oriental, Four Seasons, Rosewood and others are either open or under construction. Yet all but a single vote in this category was cast for hotels on Mexico's west coast. Los Cabos' One&Only Palmilla edged out our previous "Best Hotel, Mexico" winner, Las Ventanas al Paraiso, by having the better beach. Palmilla also benefited from a huge renovation and expansion by new owners. They added the only outpost of Chicago chef Charlie Trotter and an all-suite wing with private butler service, arguably the world's best. Specialty travel newsletter publishers Anthony Lassman and Dan and Anne Miller, hoteliers Ruff and Brandman, and travel agent Fischer were among Palmilla's avid supporters. Paul McManus, president and CEO of Leading Hotels of the World, says, "If you look at One&Only, their spa product is just absolutely fantastic," and Palmilla is no exception. It is also the only resort in Cabo with its own golf course, a 27-hole layout designed by Jack Nicklaus. www.oneandonlyresorts.com
Honorable Mention: The Four Seasons Punta Mita, just north of Puerto Vallarta, took second place with a strong showing, bolstered by a wave of continuing additions, including a decadent beachfront private home, a new 57-foot, 10-passenger private yacht and an adult-only pool with evening Champagne and caviar bar.
One&Only Reethi Rah, Maldives
This offshore Indian Ocean nation comprises nearly 1,200 islands, and by law, each can hold just one hotel. This creates Robinson Crusoe dream destinations with nearly 100 private-island resorts, including the likes of Four Seasons, COMO hotels, Banyan Tree and Shangri-La. Besides some of the world's best diving, beaches and water sports, the Maldives are famous for excellent customer service and a friendly populace. With all this going for the destination, it takes something special for one resort to stand out, and the One&Only Reethi Rah did just that for Peter Greenberg, travel editor of the "Today" show and chief travel correspondent for the Travel Channel, as well as for Fischer. Reasons for the resort's acclaim run the gamut from its gorgeous thatch-roofed, over-water villas on stilts to its entirely private cottage spa by ESPA (with optional three- to 14-day fitness programs). The resort is also very cigar friendly and features a varied Cuban cigar list. www.oneandonlyresorts.com
BEST GOLF RESORTS
At many resorts, golf is king and here we give you a selection of the best places to play year-round, from the United States to Scotland to the Dominican Republic to New Zealand.
Summer Golf—United States
Destination Kohler, Kohler, Wisconsin
Also known as the American Club for its namesake luxury hotel, this timeless resort sprawls over an entire charming town and includes everything from a variety of lodging choices to a huge spa, equestrian center, shooting facility, multiple restaurants and one-of-a-kind touches (such as owner Kohler Plumbing's design center).
The American Club is a true luxury hotel, with dining to match and, as you might expect from Kohler, some of the finest bathrooms travelers will ever encounter. But the highlights here are four world-class Pete Dye—designed golf courses, headlined by the Straits course, which finished fourth among all American courses in our first annual golf survey (June 2006) and which hosted the 2004 PGA Championship. The 36 holes at the resort's Blackwolf Run facility were good enough for the U.S. Women's Open Golf Championship, which was played here in 1998. David Baum, publisher of specialty travel newsletter Golf Odyssey, calls the 72 holes "the most formidable and fantastic foursome in golf" and the resort "a wonderful combination of unsurpassed golf, impeccable service and modern luxury." www.destinationkohler.com
Winter Golf—United States
Four Seasons Manele Bay, Lanai, Hawaii
Panelists mentioned some great golf resorts such as The Boulders in Arizona and Kiawah Island in South Carolina at which you can tee it up in winter, but the reality is that if you want perfect, warm weather, domestic choices are severely limited to Southern California, the Florida panhandle and all of Hawaii, which garnered most of the votes. The island of Lanai won because it has two stellar golf courses available to guests of two great hotels: the Four Seasons Manele Bay and the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele.
The Jack Nicklaus—designed Challenge at Manele just edged out the hilly, inland Ted Robinson and Greg Norman—designed Experience at Koele course. The Challenge has the most oceanfront exposure, and most dramatic setting, in a state famous for it. Manele just wrapped up a massive $30 million renovation, and the dining, spa and rooms are better than ever. Throw in one of the most beautiful sporting clay courses anywhere, miles of deserted beaches and one of the world's most acclaimed dive sites just offshore, and Lanai is hard to beat. www.fourseasons.com/manelebay
Gleneagles Hotel, Perthshire, Scotland
The leaders of the world chose it for the G8 summit last year, and our experts chose it for a staggering array of golf and non-golf features, including three courses, with two of the best classic inland links in the British Isles: James Braid's Kings and Queens courses. While Jack Nicklaus's modern PGA Centenary course is the subject of much debate among golf critics, and may be out of place here, it was chosen to host the 2014 Ryder Cup; it will put Gleneagles, one of the world's most famous resorts, even more squarely in the spotlight. Everything about the vast property is first-class, from its Country Pursuits program—which includes off-road driving, clay pigeon shooting and The British School of Falconry—to its Michelin-starred dining, making this the granddaddy of grand resorts. Golf Odyssey's David Baum could not stop extolling the resort's virtues, especially its class, history and charm. "The envy of any resort in America, Gleneagles remains the ultimate luxury golf destination in the British Isles," says Baum. www.gleneagles.com
Honorable Mention: The Westin Turnberry, Scotland. This and Gleneagles are head and shoulders above everything else in the British Isles, and they duked it out in similar fashion in our 2006 Best Golf Survey. Turnberry has the better course, the Ailsa, a British Open venue, which features eight consecutive oceanfront holes.
Casa de Campo, La Romana, Dominican Republic
The Caribbean ran away with this one, shaming the rest of the golf travel world, as not a single vote was cast outside these islands. The results, including our second-place finisher, mirrored our last golf survey results for Best Caribbean Resort, with Casa de Campo edging out Sandy Lane in Barbados.
Since it opened in 1971, Pete Dye's Teeth of the Dog course at Casa de Campo has been the Caribbean's No. 1 course, and rates in the world's top-30. Yet some of the resort's many fans argue that his newer Dye Fore course is even better. Aside from its three courses, the resort is on par with another one of our winners, Gleneagles, in terms of having an immense array of recreational offerings, dining choices and non-golf facilities. Baum says, "Stay in one of the villas with doting maid and butler service and you'll feel like a king." Panelist Pat Gallagher chose Casa de Campo to throw himself a very special birthday party for 30 close friends. www.casadecampo.com.do
Honorable Mention: Sandy Lane, Barbados. Still off most golfers' radar screens, but that may change with this December's World Golf Championships-World Cup, inexplicably slated for the strong Tom Fazio—designed Country Club course. This choice is befuddling because the star of the show is a jaw-dropping dazzler, Fazio's Green Monkey. If you haven't heard much about it, you will. A favorite among British players, Sandy Lane was also the top pick of panelist David Naylor-Leyland, owner of Dukes and several other premier London hotels.
Boutique Golf—United States
CordeValle, San Martin, California
This otherwise private and highly rated par-72 Robert Trent Jones Jr. design is at the beck and call of guests of intimate CordeValle. Sprawling over 270 acres, the course challenges even the most intrepid golfer. The Rosewood-run property has just 45 rooms but all are top-notch, in a combination of large and luxurious bungalows, villas and fairway homes. The restaurant and spa are first-rate, and there is even a winery on site with tours and tastings available.
While CordeValle may not be a household name, guests in the know feel right at home in this opulent enclave. It's the kind of place where at first you wonder why more people don't talk about it, and then you become glad that you know and they don't. www.cordevalle.com
Kauri Cliffs, Northland, New Zealand
When financier and golf addict Julian Robertson brought his dream to life on the coast of New Zealand's North Island, it jumped right onto all sorts of "best of" lists for both golf courses and hotels. The visually stunning Kauri Cliffs won in both of our previous travel surveys as well, first as a hotel and then as a golf resort, dominating several categories. This 6,000-acre resort with less then 30 rooms does everything at a world-class level, from lodging to food to service and especially golf. How good is Kauri Cliffs? No other resort received a single vote in this category. Robertson opened a second jaw-dropping New Zealand golf course, the Tom Doak—designed Cape Kidnappers, and while it is not near Kauri Cliffs, the resort's on-site helicopter often shuttles guests between the two properties. www.kauricliffs.com
BEST SKI RESORTS
With winter just around the corner, downhill aficionados will soon be hitting the slopes. Here are the panelists' choices for the best ski resorts in the world.
Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch, Beaver Creek, Colorado
The ski industry has had a renaissance. Suddenly a lot of luxury ski-in/ ski-out hotels are on the map, while just a few years ago there were few choices. The Ritz in Bachelor Gulch, a repeat winner from our 2005 Best Hotels survey, exemplifies the new trend: rustic chic, set in a giant log cabin with cowboy hat—wearing valets and stone and wrought iron at every turn. But it also has a swank spa, large well-appointed rooms, a wonderful club floor, great food and activities—such as nightly sleigh rides to a mountainside restaurant—outdoor pools and fire pits, and direct lift access to Beaver Creek, the nation's poshest ski mountain. Expert skier Kim Fredericks notes the Ritz "exudes warmth with hundreds of fireplaces, in rooms and common areas; cushy down comforters; and a sommelier dedicated to serving the perfect cup of hot chocolate. The 21,000-square-foot spa offers clever treatments, while the intimate candlelit grotto offers respite for those in need of relaxation." www.ritzcarlton.com/resorts/bachelor_gulch
Honorable Mention: Second place was a tie between the nation's first luxury ski-in-ski-out property, the Stein Eriksen Lodge at Deer Valley in Park City, Utah, and the newest one, the Four Seasons Jackson Hole in Wyoming, which combines direct ski access with a village location. Jackson Hole is the nation's best single-mountain ski area, and this posh hotel anchors a much-improved slope-side village that has grown into a true vacation destination.
Les Airelles, Courchevel, France
In Europe it is common for different ski areas to interconnect. No Alpine area on the continent is larger than Courchevel, which links four separate resorts with dozens of lifts and hundreds of trails, plus it has some of the highest altitude slopes in the Alps for more reliable snow conditions. The result is skiing for all abilities even in poor snow years, and Les Airelles is the grande dame of hotels in the area. Its lavish and brightly colored rooms overlook the slopes, and guests feel thoroughly enchanted by the picturesque scenes viewed from their balconies. François Delahaye, COO of the Dorchester Group and general manager of the elegant Plaza Athénée hotel in Paris, picked Les Airelles because it is "the ideal ski resort for the lazy skier! Ski valets take care of your skis, providing you with pre-warmed and dried boots at all times. At the end of the day they exchange them for cozy wool slippers and a glass of hot wine. This charming Alpine chalet hotel takes care of those little 'bothersome' details such as ski-pass photos and ski hire...while you enjoy fresh cherries at Christmas time in the comfort of your room." www.airelles.fr
Honorable Mention: While other French hotels received votes, France didn't sweep the category, thanks to the charms of the acclaimed Badrutt's Palace in St. Moritz, Switzerland, which excels at old-school European luxury and has some of the best trails around.
BEST MISCELLANEOUS RESORTS
Although they don't fit into any of the previous categories, these resorts are nevertheless sure to excite and entice luxury travelers.
Hotel Explora, Torres del Paine, Chile
Another repeat winner from the 2005 Best Hotels survey, this Patagonian favorite had to beat a slew of contenders from Africa to Central America to British Columbia. What continues to set it apart is a combination of a stunning location, at the foot of the rock formation known as the Horns, and a unique approach to adventure. The Explora has a menu of more than a dozen expertly guided adventures, from hikes to horseback riding, kayaking to climbs, and each day, five are offered to all guests at no additional charge. The hotel features fine dining, whirlpool baths in guest rooms and, of course, a spa. www.explora.com
Honorable Mention: Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater Lodge is another property boasting a great location, right on the lip of a wildlife-packed crater. Travelocity.com's Amy Ziff says, "Considering the level of luxury, you could almost forget you were in Africa—except that of course you're on safari in Africa, and you can't help but wonder if a big cat might appear on your deck anytime. Your private butler caters to your every whim and fancy, the fire is stoked, the rose petal bath is drawn, the bed turned down."
Necker Island, British Virgin Islands
In no category has competition tightened up more than this one, and the number of votes cast for private islands, which just a few years ago were available only for the few mega-rich travelers, increased tenfold. While truly private islands such as Necker, Frégate and Musha Cay remain big-ticket vacations, more conventional resorts on their own private islands have multiplied; votes were cast around the globe for Little Palm Island, Florida; Peter Island, British Virgin Islands; Wakaya Club, Fiji; Lizard Island, Australia; North Island, Seychelles; Mackinac Island, Michigan; and winners in other categories, Parrot Cay and One&Only Reethi Rah.
So what sets Necker apart? One must rent the entire island, which happens to be the vacation home of Virgin founder and billionaire Sir Richard Branson. The island features several Balinese-style homes, all of which accommodate up to 28 people, miles of pristine white sand and a huge staff, and costs more than $40,000 a night. Travel agent Scully says, "I have clients who go every year on celebration weeks. It's the truest Robinson Crusoe experience in today's world." www.necker.com
Wakaya Club, Fiji
One of the many resorts jumping on the private-island bandwagon, the Wakaya Club wowed panelists such as Bill Fischer and Peter Greenberg with its nine bures, or traditional Fijian cottages, the island's only lodging, unless you rent the truly stunning owner's home, "The House in the Clouds." Each bure is a large suite with multiple porches, lavish soaking tubs and outdoor showers with lava rocks.
The island is the quintessential South Pacific paradise, with swaying palms, colorful birds, empty beaches and a plethora of water sports—or a whole lot of nothing but relaxation and privacy. A new spa devoted to couples treatments is the latest wonderful touch. www.wakaya.com