For us, hotels are more than just a place to sleep. We seek experiences, especially those with aspects that we can apply to our daily design business.
Through a lot of trial and error, this quest has resulted in a list of favorite US hotel experiences, all of which make for a great vacation without a lengthy flight. It’s also given us a long list of lessons learned—but that’s another conversation entirely (and not one we’re afraid to have, so stay tuned).
A great hotel experience is about more than location. It’s about every point of contact, including service, space, food and beverage, and attention to detail. We forced ourselves into a top 10 list, with a few added honorable mentions (as well as a wish list for what’s to come).
- San Ysidro Ranch*, Montecito, CA
- Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN
- Wickanninish Inn, Tofino, Vancouver Island (not USA, but still North America)
- Bardessono, Yountville, CA
- SingleThread Farms, Healdsburg, CA
- Inn at Little Washington, Washington, VA
- Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur, CA
- Amangani, Jackson Hole, WY
- L’Auberge Carmel, Carmel, CA
- Amangiri, Canyon Point, UT
San Ysidro Ranch*, Montecito, CA
*We kept SYR on the list, even though it’s currently under renovation due to the fires and mudslides of 2017. We’re certain that when it’s back up and running, it will be better than ever.
Why so memorable?
- Sitting on a bench in the spectacular gardens, watching the busy hummingbirds near sunset, while the hotel staff brings wine and fresh cookies.
- Walking into the bar on property, Plow & Angel, and having the bartender remember you from a year or two ago.
- Arriving to a welcome gift and personal note in the room. Not to be outdone by their turndown service, including fresh lavender on your pillow and yet more treats.
The location is an oasis in middle of luxury houses in Montecito, CA, between the Pacific and spectacular hiking hills (and by luxury, I mean luxury. Oprah has a house a mile or so away). It’s intimate in scale, and details in the rooms and building make each spot an individual experience, designed to make you feel like you’re at home (or what you wish your home was).
Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN
Have you seen the Chevy Chase movie Funny Farm? They stage everything perfectly to try to sell a house (“Cue the deer”).
Blackberry Farm is the same (cue the foal), but it’s real all the time.
Blackberry Farm started much smaller than it is now. It’s dramatically different from the first time we stayed: Today there are cooking schools, events, and many more room options. However, they’ve kept the level of service and attention to detail high enough that it’s one of the best hotel destinations in the country, and it’s only a 25-minute drive from Knoxville.
Blackberry Farm looks like a rolling horse farm, complete with the estate house where you dreamed of growing up. With the backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains, the entire property is absolutely ideal. The fish in the trout stream are actually trained to jump on your fly-fishing line, no matter how big of an idiot you are.
Wickanninish Inn, Tofino, Vancouver Island (not USA, but still North America)
At Wickanninish Inn, you’re not just looking at the Pacific Ocean—you’re part of it. The waves lick the rocks right beneath your room.
The teeny tiny town of Tofino is on the westernmost coast of Vancouver Island, and it’s a fun and funky little berg. You can fly from Vancouver, the San Juan Islands, or Seattle. Or you can fly or ferry into Victoria or Nanaimo and drive, but it’s a haul.
Although it’s not easy to reach, once you get there, it’s incredible getaway. Try salmon fishing, surfing, kayaking, whale watching, or just walk on the beach. Or hang out on your room’s patio in your underwear and watch the waves for hours.
Bardessono, Yountville, CA
The architecture and landscape blend seamlessly at Bardessono, in the heart of Yountville, a small, walkable town within the craziness of Napa.
Food note: You’re in the town that Thomas Keller built, and within walking distance are about 10 fantastic restaurants. Bottega, Redd Wood, Ad Hoc, Bouchon, The French Laundry, Bouchon Bakery, Oakville Grocery. No need to drive.
On a totally still early morning, the only sound you hear is the roar of flames powering the hot air balloons flying directly overhead. After the damn balloons wake you up, walk a block to Bouchon Bakery before the tourists arrive, and load up.
SingleThread Farms, Healdsburg, CA
In the heart of Healdsburg (another spectacular wine country area), SingleThread only has five rooms, so you’d expect a pretty high level of attention—both attention to you and attention to detail. And you do get both, also with a pretty high emphasis on food (through breakfast and dinner).
At SingleThread, it’s the small things you notice, from the casually personal service to the stocked free mini bar, from to the incredibly expensive Zalto glasses to the Aesop bath products. (See the https://sheadesign.com/healdsburg-ca-the-perfect-day-on-repeat/) for more details on the food and hotel
Inn at Little Washington, Washington, VA
This hotel was one of the original “wow factor” inns designed with the restaurant as the draw (it was a James Beard winner back before people knew what that was), and then added high-end rooms to make it a true destination.
We think the service staff hides in the walls of the rooms. If you leave for even five minutes, they tidy and restock, and are miraculously gone when you return.
This area of Virginia is a short drive from Washington, and close to some great history if you’re into Civil War battlegrounds. Another great place for hiking and biking.
Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur, CA
Post Ranch Inn is literally perched over the ocean.
If the location alone wasn’t enough (it’s a little south of Carmel near Big Sur, where California beauty is in its full glory), the level of service and detail in the rooms certainly are. Another great example of a stocked, free mini-bar. (It’s amazing how free water and snacks can make such an impression; why don’t more hotels learn from that?)
Amangani, Jackson Hole, WY
Jackson Hole speaks for itself as a great winter ski, and summer hike and fly-fish destination, without the Aspen pretension. So leave it to the Aman to put the most luxurious, stunning, simply sophisticated hotel with a view of a cattle field—which is backdropped by the Grand Tetons, so you can entertain yourself by sitting on your deck and watching the designer cows convene, disperse, and reconvene for hours.
L’Auberge Carmel, Carmel, CA
L’Auberge is an intimate little place in one of California’s best coastal “small” towns, complete with an incredible restaurant, compliments of Justin Cogley. Now that they’ve remodeled the rooms, it’s even better.
Start the day by getting up early and heading down to the ocean to walk the beach or the path and watch all the little prancer dogs, followed by an incredible breakfast. End the day in the hotel’s amazing courtyard with a glass of wine.
Amangiri, Canyon Point, Utah
Yes, we have two Amans on the list, and with good reason. Their hotels all over the world give you a completely memorable experience from beginning to end. For this one, the destination and location speak for themselves (read: stunning), but the Aman level of service and detailing takes it over the top.
Montage, Newport Beach, CA: You don’t have to walk to the beach to watch the sunset, the hotel is on the beach.
Enchantment Resort, Sedona AZ: A “mountain” escape, with views of the famous Sedona rocks and colors, and fabulous hiking right out your back door.
Hotel Cheval, Paso Robles, CA: Intimate scale and design detail you would never think you’d find in Paso Robles. The outdoor courtyard with wood-burning fireplaces is the best place to spend a cool evening
Pitcher Inn, Warren, VT: Small, quintessential New England Inn on a rushing stream.
What’s next on our list?
- Ocean House, Watch Hill, RI
- The Willows Inn on Lummi Island, WA