It wasn’t a vintage year for hotels. Major projects stalled, big renovations failed to impress, and the industry as a whole had a serious moment of reckoning (more about that below). But those setbacks just allowed the exceptional properties to rise proudly above the rest and remind us that, every so often, a wonderful hotel is more than just a fine place to stay. It can bring you closer to nature—as with Shinta Mani Wild, an innovative resort that graces the treetops of Cambodia’s Southern Cardamom National Park—or take you into uncharted waters, which is literally the case with Guntû, a new floating hotel on Japan’s Seto Inland Sea. Of course, not every winner on our list goes to such extremes: A few, like the Rosewood Hong Kong and Los Angeles’s reimagined Sunset Tower Hotel, stand out more simply for their scrupulous attention to detail and impeccable service. Each of these properties, however, whether in an exotic jungle or a concrete one, on an island or in the middle of the African savanna, proved that the pleasures of a truly remarkable hotel can make the difference between a good trip and a great one.
Kudadoo Maldives Private Island
In 1985, when Swedish entrepreneur Lars Petre arrived in the Maldives for the first time, there were only a handful of places to stay. More than 30 years later, of course, things couldn’t be more different, and among the many, many luxury resorts spread across the nation’s hundreds of islands is a trio of upscale properties by Petre himself, including the exclusive favorite Hurawalhi. But it’s the businessman’s fourth resort that, several decades on, is bringing something entirely new to the islands: Kudadoo, which debuted last December, is a mash-up of all the best modern resort characteristics—eco-friendly, adults-only, ultra-remote—with one new twist: It’s all-inclusive.
Kudadoo makes you forget what you thought you knew about the carbon-copy Maldives resort, not to mention the overpromising/underdelivering concept of an all-inclusive. Designed by New York–based architect Yuji Yamazaki, the 15 residences have a touch of Japanese ryokan aesthetic, but with 21st-century additions, from sprawling lap pools to high-tech sound systems. With a butler on hand 24/7, there’s little reason to venture very far—unless you’re lured by the resort’s “retreat,” which comes with a solar-powered Himalayan salt room; a cheese room and wine cellar; a sea- breeze-cooled spa; and a bar and dining room helmed by a chef trained by Joël Robuchon and Alain Ducasse. Of course, the biggest perk is that you won’t have to pull out your wallet to enjoy any of it—something that an old-school Maldives original like Petre no doubt welcomes more than anyone else. Lisa Grainger.
AndBeyond Tengile River Lodge
Part of the appeal of any safari is the joy of slowing down to nature’s pace. But that doesn’t mean you have to give up all instant gratification—not at andBeyond Tengile River Lodge anyway. The Sabi Sand resort, which opened in December, has cracked the code when it comes to ultimate game sightings, and it’s all due to location, location, location. The solar-powered lodge claims access to 26,000 acres of wilderness along the Sand River, just outside of South Africa’s in-demand Kruger National Park, which makes easy work of sniffing out leopards, lions and other predators—all without the hindrance of other safari-goers. And then there’s the camp itself, endowed with more luxuries than are necessary in the bush and yet impossible to turn down. Tengile means “tranquil” in the local Tsonga language, and that translates to nine massive suites with bespoke furniture and private pools, spa treatments by South Africa’s upscale Healing Earth skincare brand and gourmet plant-based meals served with wine pairings under the stars. There are no guarantees on safari—after all, isn’t that another part of the appeal?—but this comes as close as you’ll find to perfecting the unpredictable sub-Saharan wildlife experience. Jane Broughton.
You might say it was frustration that led Marcy Holthus to open Washington School House. After years traveling the globe and staying at the world’s foremost properties, the San Diego–based investor realized something important was missing from the average hotel: originality. So she took matters into her own hands, converting a 19th-century limestone schoolhouse in Park City, Utah, into a 12-bedroom ski chalet that, in the eight years since it opened, has become a cult favorite among like-minded travelers.
It was clear to Holthus she was on to something. In 2017 she set to work on her second hotel—another conversion project, this time in the Loire Valley of France—and, in August of last year, announced the launch of Pilot Hotels. The name of her brand came from her long-time love of sailing, but it could be argued that it’s a self-reference, too, as Holthus stands at the helm of a new age for luxury hotels that throws the old touchstones of reliability and predictability out the window in favor of surprises at every turn. Her sophomore effort, Hotel Château du Grand-Lucé, which officially opens this month, is a true embodiment of its maker’s ethos, featuring a mix of historic and contemporary furniture and art, acres of classic French gardens and even a cocktail bar in a converted 18th-century chapel. It’s the kind of hotel that could never be replicated or standardized—and we’re hoping to see many more like it (and yet, totally unlike it) in Pilot’s future. Casey Hatfield-Chiotti.
Shinta Mani Wild
Bill Bensley had proven himself the doyen of hotel design long before Shinta Mani Wild. The Bangkok-based architect has built his name on innovation for decades, producing near-impossible projects such as the Royal Istana (a Malaysian palace he spent 15 years renovating) and the Capella Ubud (where he convinced the owner to downsize from 133 to 22 rooms in the name of saving an entire forest). But Bensley’s latest creation is perhaps his most spectacular: Hidden among Cambodia’s Southern Cardamom National Park, Shinta Mani Wild is, as the designer says, “the culmination of my life’s work,” set on a swatch of once-imperiled land that, as of last November, features a collection of 15 tents set along a mile of rippling river.
Though the handcrafted textiles and elevated terraces with daybeds and hammered-metal bathtubs are as eye-catching as we’d expect, it’s the resort’s labyrinthine footprint—winding in and out of the canopy and balanced almost precariously on the edge of a thundering waterfall—that proves Bensley’s still got it. Everything is positioned perfectly for bird’s-eye views of the flora and fauna below, and nothing has been built at the expense of the ecosystem—not even the arrival, which isn’t via road or boat, but rather by a zip line that traverses more than 70 feet over the verdant river valley. It’s the kind of out-of-this-world experience you’d never dream of. Unless you’re Bill Bensley. Sandra Ramani.
The problem with some “best-of” lists is that they compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. But what happens when a kumquat drops from the sky? We’re forced to rethink our methods and invoke a new standard of judgment. Guntû is this year’s kumquat: The floating ryokan set in Japan’s Seto Inland Sea can’t quite be classified as a hotel—it’s a boat—but given that the 38-passenger craft putters along no more than 100 miles of placid sea, it isn’t fair to measure it against a ship or yacht, either. Thus, we’ve decided this unlike-anything-else newcomer is, simply, the best new adventure.
A decade ago, few foreigners had even heard of the Seto Inland Sea, let alone endeavored to visit it. But as the region grows into a world-renowned art destination—it’s home to both the Benesse Art Site and the Setouchi Triennale—the demand for a stylish place to stay has increased. And Guntû has delivered. The 266-foot, three-deck boat is anything but seafaring in style, designed more like a contemporary hotel with an immaculate white spiral staircase in the entrance hall and floor-to-ceiling windows in the 19 guest rooms. There are crisp white kimonos in the wardrobes, ofuro tubs on the terraces and 46 almost-invisible staff, from a sushi master to a shiatsu therapist. But this floating oasis is more than luxury. One day, smart navy-blue tenders might whizz guests to Shinto shrines on Miyajima Island; the next, they’ll take them to see cherry blossoms in bloom on Sagi Island. And come evening the action is right there on Guntû, where sushi and sake are served under a sky full of stars. ($3,575–$8,935 for two nights, based on double occupancy.) Lisa Grainger.
The British countryside has long been saturated with aristocratic estates, more than a few of which have been transformed into prim and grandiose hotels. In the last year alone, in fact, more than a few old estates from Maidenhead to Leatherhead have gotten the multimillion-dollar treatment. But none were as meticulously executed (nor as postponed) as Heckfield Place.
After six years of delays, the reimagined 18th- century Georgian manor in Hampshire finally made its debut last September—and it has proven itself worth the wait. Owner Gerald Chen, a dedicated if meticulous businessman, searched high and low for the right project designer, finally settling on Ben Thompson, a relative unknown at the time. But the young creative has risen to the challenge, bringing a striking new look to the old manse with a mishmash of antiques, artisan-made furnishings and British contemporary paintings from Chan’s own art collection. The 400-plus-acre grounds, including a 19th-century arboretum, have been given an overhaul as well, and a biodynamic farm and garden supply ingredients that populate everything from the restaurant menu—which was developed by culinary director Skye Gyngell of London’s acclaimed Spring—to the spa menu. Then there’s the service: The staff can take care of every whim and wish, from a private screening in the theater to a tasting in the 280-bin wine cellar. It’s enough to make you feel like a guest in a noble home, rather than just another country hotel. Jen Murphy.
Rosewood Hong Kong
There was a lot riding on the Rosewood Hong Kong. The hotel, which opened its doors on March 17, wasn’t just the latest in a string of new properties for the fast-growing brand—it was a chance for CEO Sonia Cheng to make her mark. The young entrepreneur has been firing on all cylinders to elevate her marque ever since her family acquired Rosewood in 2011, and this project, rising 65 stories above the Kowloon waterfront, is her vision for the future.
Of course, there’s no better place to glimpse the future than Hong Kong, and given the city’s glut of luxury hotels, Cheng’s new creation is no doubt in good company. But what makes the Rosewood Hong Kong a success is that this decidedly un-cookie-cutter property is completely distinct among its neighbors. Beyond the standard blend of East and West design (a trademark of nearly every new hotel in the city since the turn of the century) is a more residential—one might even say familial—style. It skips the classicism of the nearby Peninsula and Ritz-Carlton in favor of a more contemporary vibe, whether it’s in the DarkSide, a moody cocktail bar that pays homage to Kowloon’s once-seedy reputation, or in the guest rooms, which feel far more relaxed than the gold-and-lacquered accommodations we’ve all but grown tired of. That doesn’t mean the five-star routine has been abandoned, though: For evidence of old-school opulence look no further than the Manor Suite, which comes with a massive sculptural tub all in Arabescotto marble and, like many rooms, the staunch services of a butler. That it’s all done in a way that feels casually familiar is by design—and a promise that Cheng is just getting started when it comes to the future of her brand. Jackie Caradonio.
Bigger isn’t always better, but when it comes to the subject of golf, this year at least, bigger turned out to be the best. When Mammoth Dunes at Sand Valley Resort debuted last summer, it made plenty of waves for its substantial size. Stretching almost 7,000 yards, with extra-wide—some even argued unnecessarily wide—fairways, the David McLay Kidd course was no doubt true to its name. But the par-73 green giant turned out to be massively fun, too: Those sweeping, broad slopes and 80-foot-tall sand dunes aren’t nearly as intimidating in actual play—in fact, they’re like insurance, correcting against little mistakes that would have big consequences on other courses.
As Kidd explains it, you don’t have to be perfect to be successful at Mammoth—an idea that doesn’t often get much traction in the fastidious world of golf. “We don’t want you to score easily, but we’ll show you mercy if you stumble,” he says. “You have to hit good shots to make birdie or better, but we’ll give you a chance if you hit a marginal shot, because making birdie is the best thing in golf—no matter how you do it.” Shaun Tolson.
Sunset Tower Hotel
The classic dilemma of the hotel renovation—update, but don’t change too much; still attempt to wow, but not too much—has left us with many a disappointing “rebirth.” But last August, Sunset Tower Hotel, a Hollywood institution that had seen better days, proved that, occasionally, a hotel can get it just right.
Helmed by new owner and developer Jeff Klein (who’s fast becoming a fixture on the next-gen Hollywood scene), the Tower’s makeover was a careful balance of preservation and renovation. The art deco structure on Sunset Boulevard was built in 1929 and is one of LA’s finest examples of the city’s glamorous bygone style. It was only prudent, then, that its crenelated rooflines and original curved windows remained untouched. But inside, the 81-room hotel is delivering a new Hollywood aesthetic, marked by a salmon-pink-and-black palette, custom gold wallpaper and 96-gallon bathtubs. Klein clearly has no fear of change: He added a modern bar to the dining terrace, filling it with brushed velvet banquettes and suede seating. He transformed John Wayne’s old apartment into a 7,000-square-foot gym and spa. And in the Tower Bar, he installed former fashion-magazine maven Gabé Doppelt to schmooze devoted stalwarts and drum up young, new business. It all comes together to make a hotel that hasn’t merely kept up, but moved up—a rare feat for an old legend. Janice O’Leary.
When Miraval first opened in the desert of Tucson, Ariz., in 1995, it taught us two things about wellness retreats: They don’t have to be miserable affairs—no starvation tactics or torture workouts required—and location is everything. Of course, Arizona has a wellness vibe virtually baked into its arid landscapes. Its rocky outcroppings and sculptural succulents are perfect complements to the flowing attire and prismatic crystals that meditative types seem so fond of. But to find a second location that would equally capture the Miraval ethos, not to mention the typical guest’s deep sensibilities, was no doubt a challenge.
At last, however, that challenge appears to have been overcome. In January, Miraval opened its long-awaited second retreat on 220 acres of Hill Country reserve just outside of Austin, Tex. Surrounded by rolling peaks on the edge of the sparkling Lake Travis, the setting looks nothing like Tucson, and yet it’s clear that it has that same special something that made the first location so successful. The 117 rooms feel more like treehouses than hotel accommodations, with natural woods and stones (plus Tibetan singing bowls and meditation pillows) inside and perch-like balconies and terraces outside. And everything—from the Life in Balance Spa to the cooking school—is set in the shade of sprawling cedar trees (an Austin trademark).
Miraval has always done a great job of sending its guests outside, so beyond the spa and restaurant, there’s all the activities that local Austinites love (hiking, kayaking, standup paddleboarding, and yoga among them) as well as a few new only-in-Austin offerings, such as equine therapy (this is cowboy country after all) and a climbing wall and ropes course. The retreat also stepped up its culinary game, tapping nearby farms to keep everything fresh, and relying on native ingredients to produce a largely plant-based cuisine. As far as sophomore efforts go, this one was a long time coming, but upon a little bit of reflection (and a few Austin-inspired treatments), we’re pretty sure it was well worth the wait. Jackie Caradonio.
Yes, you can order Champagne and caviar any time, and anywhere, on Seabourn Ovation. And no, that’s not even close to the coolest amenity on the new ship (Thomas Keller’s steakhouse is). But a cruise on Ovation isn’t simply a matter of extravagance and indulgence—it’s also an immersive experience that takes you deeper at each destination along the way.
Consider, for instance, an Ovation expedition through the Baltic Sea. While most cruise lines might stop for a night in St. Petersburg, Ovation drops anchor for three full days. What’s more, the ship’s relatively small size—300 cabins for 600 passengers, paltry by today’s standards—allows it to effectively cut in line, skipping past the outer slips and docking directly next to customs for easy ingress and egress (or as easy as it can be in red-tape Russia). Ovation, which debuted last May, offers similarly exclusive access to ports of call from Tallinn to Tangier, on itineraries spanning the Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic, Adriatic, Mediterranean and Irish seas. Bruce Wallin.
Built in stylish St.-Germain-des-Prés in 1910, the Hotel Lutetia hummed along as the place for artists and writers to hob knob on Paris’ Left Bank for more than a century. But after several ownership changes and refurbishments reflective of their various eras (some better executed than others), the grand dame needed a new look. Thus, in 2014, her storied doors were shuttered for the first time ever, to embark on a four-year makeover that was equal parts revival and reinvention.
Architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte was tasked with the mammoth project of meticulously restoring the undulating Art Nouveau façade adorned with sculpted trellises, grape bunches and dancing cherubs. He also worked with French artisans to uncover long-hidden original details, the most magnificent of which was a grand ceiling fresco by the French painter Adrien Karbowsky that, hidden beneath nearly a dozen layers of paint, took roughly 17,000 hours to restore.
In other areas of the hotel, Wilmotte started fresh. When the hotel reopened last summer, regulars discovered that the dark old salon had been demolished to make room for an inner courtyard, and the number of guest rooms had been reduced from 233 to 184. The former flooded the first-floor public spaces with natural light while the latter allowed for the addition of 47 luxurious suites. Meanwhile, every room got a much-needed contemporary update, with Murano glass fixtures, oak floors, and a beige-and-navy-blue color scheme.
But the real Parisian vibe occurs in the spaces that are revered by guests and locals alike: Bar Josephine (named for frequent guest Josephine Baker), Le Saint Germain Restaurant (set beneath a dramatic glass ceiling), and Brasserie Lutetia (with three-Michelin-starred chef Gérald Passedat at the helm) have already brought the city’s stylish denizens in from morning until the wee hours of the night. It’s a homecoming, really—for them as well as the grand Lutetia. Casey Hatfield-Chiotti.
You can’t prepare for Iguazú Falls. The magnitude of its cascades—which run for nearly two miles up the Brazilian–Argentine border—is impossible to imagine from a book, a photo or even a video. But once you arrive, you’ll find that size is only the half of it; sound—the thunderous power of 275 mighty waterfalls rushing all at once—is perhaps the most magnificent part of this natural wonder. And even when you’re at Awasi Iguazú, a short drive away from that impossible-to-forget site, you’ll find that if you concentrate, you can still hear that rumble echoing within your head.
Luckily, you’ll have plenty of other sounds to keep you company: the coo of tapirs, the screech of parrots, and the rustle of leaves in the trees above as monkeys jump from limb to limb. Opened in March, the lodge appears to have fallen into the dense rainforest from the sky, its 14 villas and their private swimming pools jungle paradises where the foliage runs right up against your window. It’s a welcome retreat in a place that has never had much luxury to speak of—the artfully prepared cuisine and curated collection of wine are another indisputable first in these parts—but it’s also a much-appreciated contrast to the drama of Iguazú: calm, peaceful and completely hidden away, it’s the place you want to return to after your first (or second or third—it never gets old) encounter with the thunder and rumble just up the road. Jackie Caradonio.
Belmond Cap Juluca
Anguilla’s Maundays Bay has held a certain amount of clout for decades—and it’s all because of Cap Juluca. The legendary beach resort, with its iconic Greco-Moorish architecture and location on a perfect crescent-shaped stretch of sand, has been a bastion of Caribbean class since it first opened in 1988. But by the time Hurricane Irma landed on its shores in September 2017, the property had long seen better days. Already in the midst of a more than $100 million renovation by Belmond, the resort was waylaid for months before it finally revealed its new look last December.
You’d be tempted to say the new Belmond Cap Juluca is a different property altogether if it weren’t for its classic architecture, still perfectly intact. But behind those familiar white walls is surprise after surprise, from the dramatic (totally new interiors, thanks to New York’s Rottet Studio) to practical (all-new plumbing and electricity). And then there are the additions: a new spa—something loyal guests had long lamented the absence of—and an exceptional food-and-beverage lineup helmed by British chef Andy Gaskin that includes an update to longtime favorite Pimms (now with a chic new look and inventive seafood-heavy menu) and an offshoot of Venetian institution Cipriani called Cip’s. One thing that hasn’t changed? Maundays Bay—its slender palm trees, white sands and all. And we couldn’t be happier for it. Jackie Caradonio.
If you prefer to roll out of bed and onto the mountain, you can’t beat the location of Caldera House. The eight-room hotel in Teton Village is steps from Jackson Hole Mountain Resort’s iconic red tram. Four 5,000-square-foot, four-bedroom suites and four 1,500-square-foot, two-bedroom suites feel like alpine penthouses, with furnishings by Hans Wegner and John Pawson, Boffe kitchens and heated balconies outfit with gas grills and fire pits. Collaborations with Olympians like Bode Miller help guests play out their adventure fantasies, while partnerships with Jackson Hole legends such as ski equipment guru Gov Carrigan and Italian chef Paulie O’Connor let them feel like locals. Jennifer Murphy.
There’s no lack of great wine in Champagne, but the region has had a dearth of luxurious retreats. Last year, it got an upgrade with the opening of the Royal Champagne Hotel and Spa, located nearly halfway between the region’s two pillars, Épernay and Reims. The 49 rooms and suites have a clean-lined and modern zen ambiance but still feel plush with custom furnishings and soaking tubs as well as natural woods. Views overlook the hotel’s infinity pool and nearby vineyards of the Marne Valley and stretch to Épernay. The dining is exquisite, with Le Royal already earning a Michelin star, a fine match for the region’s beautiful sparkling wine, of which you can expect a selection of 200 bottles. Every detail is thoughtful and well chosen, from the bubbly glass light sculptures in the lobby to the house-made confiture for croissants in the morning to the fully stocked yoga studio. Treatments include high-tech facials and languid massages, but wellness extends to the indoor and outdoor pools and a 24-hour fitness center for international guests on myriad time zones. Walls of windows allow light to infuse the resort’s many spaces. This is exactly what Champagne needed and what weary, perhaps slightly tipsy, travelers need as a respite between tastings. Janice O’Leary.