For two people who claim to hate top-ten lists, we certainly create a lot of them.
This list is for self-preservation, and to compensate for our rapidly diminishing memories. If we’re put on the spot and people ask us our favorite hotel in the world, we draw a complete blank. It’s almost as embarrassing as not remembering where we ate last night (which often happens).
After reading these same types of lists from Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler and USA Today and Food & Wine and Bon Appétit and Tablet Hotels (clickbait, anyone?), we needed to create our own. All those lists seem mostly nuts to us, with a few exceptions.
This isn’t a compilation put together by a bunch of different travel writers. These are hotels we’ve personally sought out and experienced for ourselves, and, in some cases, have returned to several times, because they’re just that good.
Our criteria is not arbitrary. These, frankly, are jaw-dropping destinations. Most of them are small. The locations are often some of the most stunning you’ll ever see. The service, food (most of the time), and attention to design and attention to detail is off the charts. They’re great learning experiences for us to apply in our work.
Is a hotel in itself a vacation destination?
We’re definitely not sit-around-the-hotel travelers (in case you haven’t picked up on that yet), but, well, these are:
This stunner is set on the Arabian Peninsula, between the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman. It borders UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. Looking across the water, you can wave at Iran. But, you know—they probably won’t wave back.
If you make it past all of that, welcome to Zighy Bay. A hotel group (Six Senses, one of the best) bought an entire small village right on the water, gave the people jobs and homes, and set about creating an OMG-worthy hotel—the kind of place that you reach via parasail or dune buggy. And they created their own time zone called “Zighy Time.” (And yes, that is a picture of our room above). Enough said.
It was a really warm day, and after about 70 kilometers of bicycling up and down some intense hills, we arrived at the outside guard desk. They looked at our sweaty faces and probably smelled our days’ worth of bicycling and took it in stride, escorting us to grand rooms in Villa Milocer on the Adriatic, secretly hoping someone was coming behind us with a car, clean clothes, and a big credit card.
This Aman bought an island, which had a 600-year-old village on it. The company then converted said island village into a stunning hotel. Our first few nights were at Villa Milocer, overlooking the village, and our last few nights were in the village itself. Neither should be missed, especially since you already made it to this location. In Montenegro. Repeat: You’re there already. Not the time to skimp—the Tablet folks agree with us, naming it as a top destination for the next year.
The only problem with the Nam Hai is that they designed the hotel rooms with roughly six different level changes and steps throughout, cascading down to the outside beach. Have you ever gotten up in the middle of the night after a few bottles of wine and tried to find the bathroom, only to encounter a minefield of steps? It doesn’t end well.
That aside, this spot, on the South China Sea outside of Da Nang, is pure magic (Tablet just called out this spot, too). And if you stumble down those steps, the service is so good that someone is probably waiting there to pick you up.
We just got back from Tasmania and can sincerely say it’s the end of the earth. (Or, at least, the other end of the earth.) Tasmania as an island is rough, rugged, and beautiful, yet offers one of the most over-the-top hotel experiences in the world. (There were real tears from our fellow traveler when we had to leave.) The Saffire Freycinet is an all-inclusive experience on Coles Bay, with uninterrupted views of the Freycinet park and the Tasman Sea. And in case you didn’t think that literally everyone wants to hang out there, they have a retirement community for Tasmanian devils.
The only spot on this list where we’ve stayed repeatedly—as in more than once. As in almost annually. It’s perched on a hill in the Luberon Valley, with views of some of the most magical little villages in Provence, including Bonnieux and LaCoste. We’ve witnessed La Coquillade’s transformation over the last decade, as it’s evolved from a small 25-room hotel to a full-fledged destination with a top-notch winery and a BMC bike shop (the owner also, conveniently, owns BMC). It’s got everything you need, but we’re happiest on our outdoor patio with a bottle of wine, watching the sun set over Luberon Valley. It’s our happy place. It’s the happy place.
The Singular was our last hotel stay at the end of our Patagonia Sur trip, which consisted of several remarkable hotel stays. It was possibly the best hotel renovation we’ve ever seen, retaining the character of an old sheep-processing station/ factory situated across the water with a view of Puerto Natales. The incredible food, collection of common areas, all the Chilean wine you can drink, and the steam room didn’t hurt, either.
Location, location, location, location, location, location. All of the hotels on this list defy our general “better location, worse experience” rule (although there are always exceptions), but this one… Just look at it (the white spec in the middle of the photo).
The exterior of Vina Vik makes a grand statement, but the reason we loved it is was because they designed the hotel to ensure that every room had singularly the best view, and an individual style. Also, the ping-pong table made for a pretty fun wine-fueled tournament at the end of the bike trip. It’s part of a winery, and although the dinner service was a bit stuffy, the design and overall service was spot-on throughout our stay.
The pictures of the Douro Valley don’t do it justice. And when you find a hotel nestled in those spectacular rows of grapes overlooking the river, it’s not to be missed. Six Senses does everything well in terms of service, food, and wine, but sometimes it comes down to a simple meat and cheese board paired with a bottle of local wine, sitting by the outdoor firepit under the stars.
The Gangtey Lodge is the one on this list that almost no one will make it to (although Bhutan is a must see). The shame is that of the above, this is probably the most memorable experience. It is actually Nirvana. The hotel consists of about eight rooms in a dramatic mountain setting, where they give you neck rubs upon arrival. When you get your morning coffee on the expansive outdoor deck, they bring you heated blankets. The food was, very unexpectedly, incredible. We could go on and on. This place is just special.
And in the “I’m a dumbass” category:
Our best dumbass luxury hotel experience moment (and this is a hard one to choose, because there are a lot of dumb moments we’ve had) was checking into the Burj al Arab in Dubai (the one with the sail). We were escorted up to the 20th-something floor of this obnoxiously exuberant, over-the-top, with “colored lighting to an inch of its life” kind of hotel. They brought us into a two-story reception area with a full bar, common area with piano, and full views of the Palm Islands development (a housing development shaped liked a palm tree). After the short check-in process, they gave the obligatory “Enjoy your stay” and “If you need anything…” phrases. We looked at each other, confused.
I asked: “Where is our room?”
They said: “You’re in it.”
These aren’t as hard to get to because they’re closer to actual cities (or sort-of cities), with airports instead of hanglides. But they’re still not exactly next door…
- Cavas Wine Lodge, Mendoza, Argentina
- Oberoi, Udaipur, India
- La Mamounia, Marrakech, Morrocco
- Riad Farnatchi, Marrakech, Morrocco
- Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, Thailand
- Ritz Carlton, Kyoto, Japan
- Peninsula, Hong Kong, China (or just go to the Felix restaurant and enjoy the view, especially from the men’s restroom)
- Four Seasons, Sultanahmet, Istanbul, Turkey
- Peninsula Beijing, China