The Big Idea: Hospitality Goes Domestic
In 2020, travel feels more precious and precarious than ever before. So it’s fitting that the boundaries between hotels and homes have become so deliberately blurred, simultaneously giving travelers the familiar comfort of home with the indulgence of a hotel.
Until recently, five-star hotels opted for one of two overarching styles: chintzy palace or minimalist temple, both aimed to offer guests a distinctly different experience from their houses. Now there’s no set template. Indeed, many new spots borrow design details from domestic settings, often with the chance to buy everything from the bedding to the lamps, so one of your bedrooms can evoke your favorite hotel anytime. This overlap has birthed the “home-tel,” a new type of luxury lodging that combines the best of both worlds: approachable, residence- style design paired with the glamour and convenience of a classic hotel.
Look at the so-called “dispersed hotels,” where abandoned, usually historic mansions and houses are renovated and repurposed into a network of rentable rooms, such as the Casas del XVI in the Dominican Republic or the General Kyoto in Japan. The newest safari lodges aren’t grouped together but rather stand alone as villas set in the veldt, like a high-end homestead among the wild animals, such as Cheetah Plains in South Africa’s Sabi Sands Game Reserve.
Oetker Collection has expanded beyond the five-star hotels, such as Le Bristol, for which it’s known, and introduced its Masterpiece Estates, hand-selected homes with the cachet of a deluxe resort and the convenience of staying with a friend. The Collection, a new luxury group, straddles both hotel operation and house rental, with accommodations that range from a private villa in St. Barts to a hotel with 11 rooms, suites and apartments in the toniest Parisian district and available for a single guest to use as a private mansion.
Vacation clubs are tweaking their approach, nimbly navigating the divide. Exclusive Resorts now allows its members to use their annual allocation on both homes and hotel rooms, such as Rosewood Little Dix Bay, depending on their mood. And, of course, there’s home-sharing. It upended mass-market accommodation in recent years via Airbnb and others, and has now arrived in the upscale niche, too. New firms such as Domio and Veeve feature portfolios of luxury properties, each fully stocked with amenities to order and with staff on call at a moment’s notice. That’s one thing that hasn’t changed: Wherever you stay, you shouldn’t want to leave.
Small-Ship Excursion: Aqua Expeditions
The 198-foot long Aqua Blu started life as the HMS Beagle, an explorer vessel in the British navy, before it was snapped up by a wealthy family and co-opted as a private yacht almost 20 years ago. Last year, it entered its third incarnation: as one of the most luxurious private cruise ships in the world, sailing between various hard-to-reach sites in the Indonesian archipelago under the Aqua Expeditions banner.
The four-deck, 15-suite ship operates three distinct itineraries. It could take you to dive or snorkel around the Raja Ampat Islands, where the warm sea is home to three-quarters of the world’s known coral species. Then again, you could opt to see the dinosaur-like dragon lizards of the UNESCO-protected Komodo National Park, or hop among the nutmeg-tree-covered Spice Islands. No matter your destination, there is an embarrassment of staff on board, from marine biologists to dive instructors, who can finesse the experience.
It’s the latest ship in the burgeoning fleet of ultra-luxury cruises operated by Italian-American entrepreneur Francesco Galli Zugaro. Next up later this year: the almost completed Aqua Nera, a new-build sister ship that’s under construction in Vietnam and will be stationed in Peru for wildlife-focused journeys down the Amazon.
Private Villas: Masterpiece Estates by the Oetker Collection
This year, luxury hotelier Oetker (which runs the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc, among others) added two new properties to its recently established Masterpiece Estates portfolio. Gordon Castle is in Scotland’s Speyside, a superb whisky-tasting and salmon-fishing site, while in Wiltshire in England, there’s Stockton House, an Elizabethan-era mansion known for prime partridge shooting.
Book a stay at either of these or the six other private homes in the collection, and it’s more akin to a weekend in the country with friends than a formal hotel stay. The estates range in size from 9 to 22 bedrooms. Each is an outdoorsy mecca and comes with an on-site host with country-life bona fides who’s able to facilitate guests’ every need. Famously, those loaned-out lords of the manor include James Middleton, brother-in-law to Prince William.
It’s a typically ingenious approach to home stays from the privately held German hotel firm—and well-timed, too, as we enter a period when private villas, or hotel buyouts, will be more prized than ever, as sanitary as they are chic. And per Oetker’s outgoing CEO, Frank Marrenbach, the estates won’t remain restricted to the British Isles for long, with a site in Italy under consideration next.
Five-Star Spa: Lily of the Valley Hotel and Spa La Croix-Valmer, France
If it was good enough for Catherine Deneuve . . . Europe’s best new spa has a secret weapon: Deneuve’s former private massage therapist is the head of treatment at the half-acre Lily of the Valley complex, which opened last summer just outside Saint-Tropez. Twenty minutes’ drive from Les Caves du Roy and it’s a world apart. The sprawling site, designed by Philippe Starck, is centered on a 21,000-square-foot wellness village, where the emphasis is on indulgent improvement.
More zingy than Zen, the focus here is as much on good-lifing (the Frenchified art de vivre) as it is on getting healthy. Come to train for a marathon, or simply spend a day toggling between the hammam and snow shower. Book time with the naturopath, the dietician or each in turn. Bulk up, slim down, re-energize, decompress, repeat.
The 44-room hotel is a passion project of media magnate Alain Weill and his daughter, Lucie, longtime visitors to the area, and is open year-round, a rarity for the Côte d’Azur. The room to book is undeniably the Lily Suite, with its 325-square-foot terrace that overlooks the beach and bay of Gigaro below.
Under-the-Radar Beach: Mozambique
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Bazaruto Archipelago off Mozambique’s southern coast was the weekending hot spot for expat colonials. Indeed, the evocative remnants of the midcentury hotel on nearby Santa Carolina Island are the only lingering evidence of what once was—and what’s evoked in Bob Dylan’s “Mozambique.” That hotel might be in ruins, but what drew visitors in the first place remains: untrafficked, largely undeveloped swaths of white-sand beaches and turquoise water, matching or even bettering the Maldives on the other side of the Indian Ocean, especially at sundown while bobbing on the calm sea in a traditional fishing boat, or dhow.
The two main islands, Bazaruto and Benguerra, have been home to luxury properties for some time, including outposts of andBeyond and Azura. But this year marks the arrival of Kisawa Sanctuary, which is likely to put the region on multiple must-see lists. A passion project of Vista- Jet scion Nina Flohr, the 12-bungalow, ultra-luxury hotel is all-inclusive, whether you’re diving, boating or enjoying spa treatments. Each cottage, on its own one-acre plot, was sustainably produced, including elements made in situ, using a 3-D printer that turns sand and seawater into masonry, perhaps, or flooring. The roof, though, is thoroughly traditional—thatched—as a nod to the local style.
One to Watch: Harsha L’Acqua
Harsha L’Acqua believes one element of luxury hospitality is often overlooked, especially in far-flung destinations: staff. There’s high turnover, in part because jobs are given to people shipped in for the task, uninvested in the destination. It’s hard, too, for travelers to soak up local culture if a hotel is staffed entirely with non-natives. “Find people who want and need the job, then you’re going to reduce your turnover levels,” she says. “You’re also entering markets more mindfully.”
That’s where her five-year-old nonprofit comes in: Saira Hospitality was launched to help link high-end hotels with local hires—call it sustainable staffing. Saira offers hospitality training via an intensive pop-up course that lasts between two to eight weeks. It’s designed to teach long-term hospitality skills to local students; they also visit five-star hotels during the process, to better understand the guest’s perspective firsthand. Of course, hiring locally also ensures that the economy around the hotel sees an uplift after it opens. “Creating a relationship with your neighborhood, even before you open, is vital for hotels to succeed,” L’Acqua says.
L’Acqua, herself a Six Senses and Aman alumna and Cornell grad, has helped staff properties such as Necker and Moskito Islands, and the Four Seasons Los Cabos at Costa Palmas, in this way. She’s just partnered with Habitas, where Saira collaborated on their new properties in Namibia and will work long-term on other ones in Mexico. “Guests are looking for that connection with the community,” explains L’Acqua. “More and more people are gravitating toward companies with purpose. They have to.”
Adventure Destination: Rio Palena Patagonia, Chile
In recent years, Eleven Experience has carved out its own angle in adventure travel: hard-to-reach luxury lodges in far-flung locales, whether in the Rockies or rural Iceland, and tailor-made for fly-fishing enthusiasts. The latest lodge to join the roster is the 13-acre Rio Palena in Chilean Patagonia, which opened last winter.
Deliberately set back from the world down a long dirt road, Rio Palena is best reached by helicopter, and indeed, the daily excursion to the trout-packed glacial lakes that litter this region takes place in the lodge’s own chopper. An on-call, on-staff guide can help you land the best catch. At day’s end, you’ll be whisked back to the lodge for alfresco asado cookouts and pisco sours—at least after you’ve soaked away the day’s aches in a cedarwood tub. And with just seven rooms, it’s ideal for a small group who want to snap up the entire hotel as a private lodge.
You can kayak, paddleboard or whitewater raft on the rivers, too. Better still, why not come back this summer or fall, when the lodge is repurposed as a heli-skiing base? That chopper will drop guests anywhere that suits their skill set, from steep mountaintops to shallow glaciers, across the Andes.
Country Pile: The Langley Buckinghamshire, UK
This grand Palladian mansion, built as a hunting lodge for a British duke more than 250 years ago, sits handsomely in 150 acres of pristine parkland. Wander those grounds and you’re transported back to the era of pioneering landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who designed them—think waddling ducks and wafting scents of rosemary and lavender. If you’d rather unwind inside, there’s an enormous spa: around 17,200 square feet of marble, with all the accoutrements a modern-day wallower demands, from rose-quartz and Himalayan salt rooms to heated, post-plunge beds.
But this hotel stands out, as it excels at both retox and detox. Connoisseurs of cigars and Cognac can drink in a den named after a fellow that loved them both, too: Winston Churchill, a descendant of the lodge’s first owner. The humidor on the back wall here will thrill cigar aficionados, stocked with Cuban legends—think Bolivar Soberano Limited Edition and Montecristo Maltes. The Cognac assortment is impressive, with sky-high vintage bottles from under-the-radar producers. Come here for a snifter of Hermitage 1893 for around $1,200 a shot, or Marie Louise, named after Napoleon Bonaparte’s second wife, for around $400.
New Hot Spot: Six Senses Bhutan
Four years. Five lodges. Six Senses. With the opening of its latest property, Bumthang, in March, the hotelier just completed its most ambitious project yet: a network of spa-infused lodges dotted throughout the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. It was a simple idea, ambitiously executed: Where better for wellness-minded travelers to dawdle than this deeply spiritual Buddhist nation, whose monarch emphasizesGNH, or gross national happiness, over GNP?
Each of the properties follows the standard Six Senses approach to mindful wellness—think infinity pools and spacious terraces, mostly fashioned from timber and stone. But the Bhutan hotels are intended to complement each other as part of a multi-site journey, or khamsa, across the country’s central and western valleys. There’s one in the modern capital, Thimphu, and another in its historic counterpart, Punakha; the third sits in the lush, rice-paddy-filled Paro Valley, while the fourth, in Gantgey, is close to one of the most important Buddhist monasteries and also ideal for bird watchers. The last to open was Bumthang, which emphasizes the outdoors: It sits on a hillside surrounded by pine trees, with a new sapling planted in the vestibule of each of its eight rooms in a nod to that locale.
Renovation: Raffles Singapore Singapore
The first thing you notice checking into the newly reopened Raffles hotel? There’s no front desk. Check-in is handled in-suite by each guest’s dedicated butler, who’ll remain on call for the rest of your stay. It’s one of the many updates at this world-famous hotel, a national monument in Singapore, where interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud reconceived the entire property, restoring the fading beauty to five-star glory. It reopened last August after an almost two-year shutdown. The 115 suites, with a modern Asian-inflected feel, feature custom furnishings, such as a trunk-style minibar stocked with complimentary snacks. She didn’t skimp on practical details, though: The floorboards were removed, restored and soundproofed before reinstallation.
It remains the urban oasis it always was, set amid a full square city block of tropical gardens surrounded by skyscrapers. But now there’s a new bocce lawn, a seven-room spa and a luxury retail arcade. For a hotel that gave the world its own cocktail—the Singapore Sling was invented here—it’s fitting that the food and beverage has been boosted, too, with chef Anne-Sophie Pic’s Singapore debut plus an exclusive concept by Alain Ducasse and Yì by Jereme Leung, a homecoming for the globe-trotting, Singapore-born chef. One thing that hasn’t changed: the spectacular, English-style afternoon tea, now served in the lobby under bespoke chandeliers.
New Luxury Destination: Rwanda
The landlocked African nation, once synonymous with civil war, has recently earned a new reputation as one of the best high-end safari destinations on the continent. In part, it’s thanks to the aggressive approach to animal protection adopted by its government: See how, for instance, the price of a permit to visit Rwanda’s prized mountain gorillas doubled to $1,500 to prevent too much tourism. Simultaneously, a raft of fine hotels have appeared, almost overnight, across the country for the same reason: Both Singita and One&Only have prime sites close to those gorillas in Volcanoes National Park on the northwest, while One&Only also operates a second property further south, close to Nyungwe Forest, which teems with chimpanzees. The latest arrival: Magashi Camp from Wilderness Safaris, which opened on the border with Tanzania. The six tented rooms there sit on the lake in Akagera National Park, where eastern black rhinos have been reintroduced, safe here from the widespread poaching elsewhere.
There’s more to come, too: New luxury hotels are set for the scenic shores of Lake Kivu. Success seems assured, especially as Rwanda president Paul Kagame’s silent consigliere is Ian Khama: The erstwhile president of Botswana has been sharing lessons he has learned while devising sub-Saharan Africa’s first success story in high-end tourism in that country.
Short-Haul Beach: Los Cabos
Los Cabos long lumbered under an unfortunate reputation for all-inclusive mega-resorts and beach bars, crammed with boozed-up bargain tourists. In the last few years, though, it has successfully ditched such associations, swapping spring breakers for boldfacers. It’s a good thing, too: The countryside here is breathtaking—gorgeous coastal cliffs that tumble into the inky Pacific Ocean—and the blissful year-round climate only adds to the appeal. The group of communities dotted around the tip of Baja California, which collectively make up Los Cabos, have shifted gears to become one of the snazziest holiday spots in Mexico.
Three four-star properties opened here last year, all of them clustered around the southern tip, in or near Cabo San Lucas: Zadún, just the fourth entry to Ritz-Carlton’s highest-end collection, Reserve, plus an outpost of the Robert De Niro–owned Nobu Hotel. A 1 Hotel, the eco-luxe project from Starwood alum Barry Sternlicht, will join them soon. More intriguingly, though, on the less built-up East Cape, developer Jason Grosfeld opened his first hotel project last fall, the 141-room Four Seasons, with an Amanvari, the first Mexico property for the chain, set to join it next door in 2021.
Humanitarian: Four Seasons New York New York
This hotel went from five-star property to five-star general as the Covid-19 pandemic surged Stateside. It was the first of its kind in the world to welcome an entirely new clientele: frontline medical personnel. On the personal edict of the building’s owner, billionaire Ty Warner, it tapped Dr. Robert Quigley, a surgeon and expert in health-care management, to reconfigure its operations to be CDC-compliant.
Quigley enacted a series of protocols like floor markings that show direct paths to the elevators, which are limited to one rider at a time. Four Seasons staff received special safeguarding training, while human interaction was minimized, with food provided as boxed meals and keys collected from a table. Daily housekeeping was swapped out for a 72-hour deep-cleaning protocol to take place between each guest; decorative pillows were even removed from beds, to minimize germ spreading. Eight days later, the all-new Four Seasons welcomed the first medical guests, from the New York State Nurses Association.
Other properties across the world quickly followed this template—Claridge’s in London, for instance, set aside 40 rooms for medical workers—but it was this New York icon which truly showed leadership in a time of crisis.
Best New Cabin: ANA First Class
It’s not every day that an airline taps a world-famous architect to redesign its cabins. But that’s exactly what All Nippon Airways did when it enlisted Kengo Kuma, the mind behind Tokyo’s spectacular National Stadium, to create new business- and first-class suites for its long-haul fleet of Boeing 777-300ERs.
They reflect the architect’s signature nature-inspired aesthetic, with stone-colored upholstery and accents of Japanese timbers such as rosewood and ash. The real standouts, naturally, are in first class, rivaling any of the top-tier Middle Eastern carriers. Dubbed the Suite, the spacious new fixtures are more like mini-cabins and feature industry-leading 43-inch 4K entertainment monitors, plus ergonomic bedding and Ginza-branded beauty products in Globe-Trotter pouches.
Experience them on one of six jets flying between New York’s JFK and both of Tokyo’s airports, Narita and Haneda; book a trip to the latter, though, as that’s where ANA recently opened three new lounges, too—all of them, of course, overseen by Kengo Kuma too.