The 15 best hotels and resorts around the world
Great hotels, like charismatic people, have that extra, undefinable something that can have nothing to do with private pools, personal butlers or thread count.
Some hotels are legendary, some eccentric, some have atmosphere, and some provide service that makes you realise what service actually is.
Certainly, luxury counts, but after a while even spa baths, Molton Brown moisturiser and Egyptian cotton become the new norm. The era of big chain hotels is waning, despite their promise of comfort and consistency.
Travellers are choosing more distinctive hotels in their desire for personal service, unique features and some connection with local culture – something Airbnb takes to its ultimate incarnation: the neighbour's house. In the era of "experiential' travel", guests want to be entertained and enlightened, not just pampered.
Here, with these thoughts in mind, based on our own diverse experiences of hotels around the world, from the best bar to the best bathroom and the best pool to the best pool, are our ingredients in creating the utlimate hotel.
HOTEL CIPRIANI, VENICE
It's one thing to have a limousine waiting for you at the airport. A speedboat, however – now that is glamorous. Particularly one made of mahogany.
Whether you strike a gloriously sunny day, light dancing off the waves, or encounter Venice in a minor-key mood, mist rising from the water, the speedboat transfer to the Hotel Cipriani, perched on the island of Guidecca, treats you to some unforgettable views.
Every time you hop on the Cipriani launch, which shuttles guests to and from the heart of town 24 hours a day, you get to watch St Mark's Square drawing ever closer, like the zoom shot that opens a spectacular movie.
Doubles from NZ$1005; Fondamenta San Giovanni 10. See belmond.com
THE PENINSULA HONG KONG
Ah, the hotel limo. It's the ultimate indulgence to be picked up at the airport in a car you will never be able to afford, by a driver who dresses better than you. And the ultimate, drop-dead heaven-on-wheels limo is The Peninsula Hong Kong's bespoke Rolls-Royce Phantom EWB (extended wheel base).
Take a deep breath and smell that tan leather upholstery. Run your hand over the gleaming burr walnut cabinetwork. Take a cooling handtowel from its built-in coolbox or turn on the 12-inch TV screen. The Pen's dedicated fleet manager, Martin Oxley, looks after 14 Phantoms and a team of 21 specially selected drivers, who make more than 1000 return journeys a month between Chek Lap Kok airport and the hotel for $485 a trip.
Superior rooms from NZ$983 plus 10 per cent service charge. Salisbury Road, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong. See hongkong.peninsula.com
HOTEL WINDAMERE, DARJEELING, INDIA
Woken by the sound of bells and chanting from the temple on the hilltop above, I fling open my curtains to see the rising sun glistening on the distant summit of Kanchenjunga, The Five Treasures of Snows, a cresting wave of ice and the third highest peak on the planet. Surveying the town from its flowery slopes on the flanks of Observatory Hill, Windamere began life as a boarding house for single colonial chaps.
Spilling down from a high ridge surrounded by corn rowed tea plantations at 2100 metres, Darjeeling is the most scenic and satisfying of all India's hill stations. My morning walk takes me up to the Chowrasta, The Mall, to mingle among knots of peoples drawn from the snow-browed valleys of the Himalayas – Nepalese, Tibetans, Bhutias and Lepchas, the original inhabitants of these hills. "Pony?" asks one hopefully, but just then a clap of thunder allows me to politely withdraw to the princely breakfast awaiting me at Windamere.
Doubles from NZ$315; Observatory Hill, Darjeeling, India. See windamerehotel.com
EXPLORA PATAGONIA, CHILE
Patagonia was never that high on my must-visit list, until I saw a shot of the hotel nestled into a spectacular snow-covered landscape, beside a lake watched over by soaring peaks. That, I thought, is a place where I want to wake up. Eventually, it happened. It was quite a journey. I flew from Sydney to Santiago, then on to Punta Arenas in Chile's deep south.
From there, the car transfer should have taken around five hours. However, we broke down on the way. By the time we entered the Torres del Paine National Park, it was the early hours of the morning, I was into my second day without sleep, and had little interest in the vague shapes looming through the darkness.
Instead, I went to my room, drew the blinds and crashed. Waking at eleven the next morning, I showered, dressed, and did some stretches before going for the big reveal. I drew back the blinds – and saw a view that was even better than I expected. Mountains, lakes, snow-covered slopes: and not a human in sight. During my mid-winter visit, there were only two other guests in the hotel.
Every window in the dining room offers the same panorama. I could have happily sat there all day, but staying at Explora is all about exploring that stunning landscape. Over the next few days, I rode through fields trickling with snow melt, hiked along rocky shores as icebergs floated past, trekked up mountains where condors wheeled, and had unexpected encounters with guanaco, a doe-eyed relative of the llama. It was wild, it was rugged, and I loved every minute of it. But I know that, when the other memories have faded, the one that will still be imprinted in my mind is the sheer joy of sitting on the inside looking out.
Doubles from NZ$1088 a person a night for a minimum of four nights, including meals and activities; Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. See explora.com
EMIRATES PALACE, DUBAI
In a country of ludicrous buildings and wild excess, few places out-do the opulence of Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace. Sitting like a giant peach turtle just off the Emirati capital's Corniche, it's allegedly the most expensive hotel ever built, with costs rumoured to have run over US$3 billion a figure that means it will probably never be profitable.
But what does that matter when you've got an actual palace sitting in the middle of the city? I have no fondness for gold, but the sheer volume of the stuff in the lobby is overwhelming – so much is gilded that the expensive marble floors take on the same hue. The main atrium is surely the most spectacular on the planet, beyond palatial, like something in a cavernous museum. I don't want to like it, but every time I walk in I can't help but look up, grudgingly amazed as though I'm seeing it for the first time.
Doubles start from NZ$694, breakfast not included; West Corniche Road, Dubai. See kempinski.com/en/
THE OBEROI GRAND, KOLKATA, INDIA
No one can prepare you for the bedlam that consumes Calcutta, but at least there is Mr Amitava Sarkar, a man of enormous experience, excellent moustache and considerable girth, who is head concierge of the storied Oberoi Grand in Kolkata. Kolkata comes and goes, full of colour and chaos. Mr Sarkar's advice proves infallible.
For example, my passport, being the smallest book I have with me, is placed in my suite, neatly on top of a tapering pile (Kindle, magazine, brochure) like an angel on a Christmas tree. When it comes time to leave the hotel, I awake later than he'd advised and have to rush my check-out. Kolkata's traffic is horrendous. I insist on taking a regular cab and off we putter, into the hazy morning.
It's only when I try to enter the airport half an hour later that I realise my passport is still sitting atop that neat pile in my room. Panicked, I scramble to call the hotel. I am perturbed in the extreme, but on the other end Mr Sarkar sounds absolutely calm. By now the numbers are well against me: the roads are busy, the closure of check-in is fast approaching and any control I had over my fate was lost with my forgetfulness. I've yet to determine how Mr Sarkar got my belongings back to me in less time than it took me to get to the airport – but I do know I'm grateful.
Doubles start from NZ$207; 15, Jawaharlal Nehru Road, Kolkata. See oberoihotels.com/hotels-in-kolkata
BEAUFORT BAR, THE SAVOY, LONDON
Just with the mere act of walking through the door of the Beaufort, I am transformed. More handsome, wittier, more polished. Around the walls, couches are set into recessed arches done in gold leaf with lacquer-black pillars between each arch. A Murano glass chandelier cascades overhead. The effect is stunning, an upbeat take on art deco.
The Beaufort is actually The Savoy's second bar. Pride of place goes to the legendry American Bar, which pulls in the crowds, leaving the Beaufort to its own quieter devices. There's a pianist riffing on the keys, joined later by a jazz vocalist. Open the cocktail book and surprise!
A 3D Ernest Hemingway jumps out at me. The cocktail menu is a pop-up book, with cut-outs that leap to life as you open the page. There's a sultry Marlene Dietrich spruiking the delights of a Blue Angel – gin, martini, Cointreau, Champagne and lemon cordial. Character Cocktails genuflect to the greats who have stayed at the Savoy. "Coco" is a Grey Goose Vodka with rose and jasmine, Lillet Blanc, Chateauneuf-du-Pape reduction and 2006 vintage Moet et Chandon 2006, a wink at Chanel's addiction to red and black, wine and caviar respectively.
Cocktails start at $30, but turn to the Vintage and Rare page and you're into serious wallet damage. There's the $155 Hanky Panky, a Savoy original, made from 1960s gin and Fernet Branca. Yet even that pales beside the Hemingway Daiquiri – 1950s Bacardi, 1950s Luxardo Maraschino, fresh lime and fresh grapefruit, $475 and pass the smelling salts please.
Louis Roederer vintages ballast the Champagne list and there's a substantial collection of still wines, whiskys, cognacs and vodkas. I'm happy to settle for a single malt Laphroaig from the Isle of Islay, $20. You don't have to be a guest of The Savoy, but from time to time the Beaufort will close its doors to non guests. It does your standing no harm if you can say, "Charge it to my room," and excuse me, but did I say that a little too loudly?
Rooms from NZ$820 a night. The Savoy, Strand, London. See fairmont.com
DOSTOEVSKY SUITE, GRAND HOTEL EUROPE, ST PETERSBURG, RUSSIA
A good room should provide a comfortable bed, a gushing shower and quiet darkness. But occasionally hotel rooms set themselves apart. Enter the Dostoevsky Suite, a celebration of the culture of the city in which it's set, and so rich in atmosphere it almost broods. The Grand Hotel Europe is a taste of St Petersburg in its imperial heyday. Tchaikovsky honeymooned here, Rasputin dined, Turgenev was a frequent patron, Nicholas II hosted diplomatic ballroom receptions. Dostoevsky was a regular guest.
The hotel, which opened in 1875, has 10 historic suites. The pink-and-lilac Faberge Suite is prettiest, but the Dostoevsky Suite is best. It occupies a corner location. Dostoevsky favoured corner rooms, from which he liked to observe the street life below. Peer out the windows and stickybeak on people scurrying past a statue of Pushkin and across a lovely square.
The high-ceilinged suite has a hallway, a sitting room and large bedroom. The walls are papered in 19th-century style. And yes, there are antiques, silks and Italian marble. There's butler service, too. But it's the literary details that count. The room has a green leather-topped desk and inkstand. A Russian set of Dostoevsky novels hunkers on the bookshelf alongside The Idiot and The Brothers Kazamarov in English.
Framed and illustrated pages from the great author's novels hang on the walls. An oil painting shows Dostoevsky in old age, sitting with his hands clasped around his knees, beard lank and stringy. Above the bed is a painting of a swooning lady in a yellow dress, lying on a grassy lakeshore, bosom heaving, while two men in blue fight a duel in the background. Fall asleep and dream of adventures fit for an epic novel: you can't ask much more of a hotel room.
Doubles from NZ$385; Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa, St Petersburg. See belmond.com/grandhoteleurope
BURJ AL-ARAB, DUBAI
It's not often I feel the urge to invite people over for a bath. I've stayed in hotel rooms so studded with sofas, I've called friends over to come for a look and a lounge. Staying at the Burj al-Arab, however, was the first time I opened my bathroom door and thought, "Who can I invite over for a soak?"
It wasn't the mosaics and the marble and the gold leaf dripping from every surface that impressed me; it was the tub itself, perfectly round and large enough to fit a football team. The most remarkable thing, however, was the toiletries. The Burj al-Arab isn't the only five-star hotel to stock Hermes toiletries. It is, to my knowledge, the only property to dish out full-size bottles: a complete set of men's and women's. Now that's luxury.
Doubles from NZ$1976 a room a night. Burj al-Arab, Jumeirah Beach Road, Dubai. See jumeirah.com
Such is the history at Raffles that it could stroll off into its dotage as a monument to itself and no one would complain. There's that story about the tiger under the billiard table, and the poetic endorsement from Somerset Maugham.
Old Raffles feels to me like a portal through to the best of the British Empire. In keeping with the deeply colonial feel of the place, the service is expertly regimented, absolutely formal and full of the kind of pomp and ceremony that, once in a while at least, is great fun to enjoy. It's uncanny to see the waiters raise the cloches in perfect, psychic synchronicity; and I can't help but smile as the immaculately turned out doormen greet me by name.
Doubles from NZ$532; 1 Beach Road, Singapore. See raffles.com/singapore/
CAMERON HOUSE, SCOTLAND
By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes, where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond, you'll find Cameron House, a grand 18th-century baronial mansion. Long since converted into an upmarket hotel (complete with a Michelin-starred restaurant – a rarity in Scotland) it's set in 100 acres of woodland inside the Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park. Only 25 minutes from Glasgow airport, it marks a kind of unofficial entry into the nation's wild, sparsely populated north.
Indeed, when I played The Carrick, its excellent 18-hole golf course (there's also a nine-holer known as The Wee Demon) markers let me know when I cross from the lowlands to the Highlands. The real star, though, is the loch itself, perhaps the most scenic anywhere in Britain. Its chilly waters are just a short stroll from the main house and the views from the shore, up the mighty loch towards Inchmurrin, the biggest fresh water island in Britain, are unforgettable.
Doubles from NZ$370; Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, Alexandria, Scotland. See qhotels.co.uk
DINNER BY HESTON BLUMENTHAL, MANDARIN ORIENTAL HYDE PARK, LONDON
Why in all hell would you fly across the world in order to end up eating in a hotel restaurant? Because when England's mad scientist chef Heston Blumenthal of the three-Michelin-star Fat Duck restaurant in Bray moved into London's historic Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park in 2011, the game changed. The perception of hotel restaurants as last-resort-before-room-service shifted to embrace an exciting chef-driven form of destination dining.
The menu at Dinner by Heston, conceived with head chef Ashley Palmer-Watts, is inspired by the history of British cookery. Every dish carries the date on which it was conceived, hence roast marrowbone is tagged circa 1720, a frumenty of grilled octopus, smoked sea broth and pickled dulse is dated circa1390, and baked Sussex Pond pudding circa 1670).
The reason Dinner by Heston is such a good fit for the "perfect" hotel isn't that it has two Michelin stars, nor that it sits at No. 5 on the World's 50 Best Restaurant list. It's because it's classy, unpretentious and fun. And because the food is fabulous.
The space is as grand and as comfortable as the luxe hotel in which it is housed. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows place you firmly in the heart of London, with deliciously rural views of Hyde Park.
My favourite dish is the devilishly clever Meat Fruit (circa 1500) that looks like a single, perfect mandarin, complete with leaves, but is actually a cleverly moulded rich chicken liver parfait coated with a tangy, fragrant mandarin gel. Book-end your meal with the Tipsy Cake (circa 1810) of yeasty pillowy, pull-apart buns doused with syrupy, rum-soaked, baby pineapple hot from the Victoriana vertical spit, and you'll want to book a room overnight in order to come back the next day. Clever, that.
Rooms from NZ$983; Dinner By Heston Blumenthal, The Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park, 66 Knightsbridge, London. See mandarinoriental.com
GREENWICH HOTEL, NEW YORK
The moment the private elevator doors open on to the two-level penthouse atop New York's Greenwich Hotel, you have to rethink your concept of what a hotel penthouse might be. There's not a gold tap, crystal chandelier or Louis XV chair in sight.
And yet, in many ways, this 6800-square-foot space overlooking urban Tribeca and the Hudson River is the ultimate luxury, especially if your aesthetic favours the minimal and the handcrafted, and beautiful, raw, natural objects such as time-worn timbers and stone.
Architect Tatsuro Miki and designer Axel Vervoordt, closely working with hotel partners Ira Drucker and Robert de Niro, have created a highly original, ravishing space that pays homage to the surrounding 19th-century industrial neighbourhood, with its converted warehouses and factories. Part artist's atelier, part cosy eyrie, a little bit Flintstones, the penthouse is one of New York's most beautiful homes, rather than just a hotel suite, and many guests opt to check in for an extended stay. (The hotel is discreet about whom, but it's popular with one Australian billionaire.)
The penthouse has three bedrooms, full chef's kitchen, three interior fireplaces with stone hearths (plus one outdoors) and an oversized living area and dining room, opening on to a two-level 4000-square-foot multi-level terrace with outdoor living and entertaining areas, spa pool, winding paths and meditation areas, all shaded by lush wisteria-wrapped pergolas.
Throughout, reclaimed materials, many sourced locally, have been cleverly used, such as the old Union Square Market plywood tables which line the ceiling in one bedroom, and the 17th-century farm trough used as a sink in a striking bathroom. The philosophy is based on wabi, the Japanese aesthetic concept of simplicity and authenticity, of the harmony between old and new, and the elegance of natural materials.
The luxury is found in the soaring proportions of the rooms, the collection of beautiful rustic antiques and custom-made fixtures and fittings, the crunchy Belgian linens used on the beds and drapery, the softly hand-plastered walls washed with moody colours from ochre to rose, and the oversized furniture, including a twelve-person dining table and enormous linen-covered sofas.
It's sublime. But if you're looking for bling, check in elsewhere.
Rates from NZ$19,780 a night. Reservations only by phone: 212 9418 900; 377 Greenwich Street, New York, NY 10013; See thegreenwichhotel.com
AMANKORA GANGTEY, BHUTAN
If you love the great outdoors, Bhutan takes some beating: soaring Himalayan peaks, rhododendron forests, picturesque mountain villages, colourful Buddhist stupas. If you prefer to stay inside and be pampered, you have also come to the right place. The spa at Amankora Gangtey, one of a series of five-star lodges operated by Aman Resorts, isn't too large; then again, the lodge has just eight guest rooms, so it doesn't need to be. What it does have is some of the most superbly relaxing treatments around.
Their hot stone massage is the best I have ever had – they start by placing a large flat stone on your stomach, which melts away the stress. The stand-out experience, however, is a traditional Bhutanese hot stone bath. Walk up the hill to the simple shepherd's hut, where a large wooden tub has been heated with stones straight from the fire. Lie back, breathe in the scent of fragrant herbs, and soak up the panoramic view from the tub.
Rates from NZ$1226 a room a night, including meals and activities; Phobjika Valley, Bhutan. See amanresorts.com.
BEVERLY HILLS HOTEL, LOS ANGELES
How to define the world's coolest pool? Each to their own, of course. At the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas the pool features hard-core weekend partying among the toned and tanned. And if size matters, then the pool at San Alfonso del Mar Resort in Chile, a kilometre long and covering 20 acres, is officially the world's largest.
Beyond style and drop-dead good looks, I reckon top swimming pools have that extra something – like the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles. Sure, it's just an old-fashioned rectangle surrounded by lounge chairs, embedded in landscape gardens and screened by pink walls. But it has pedigree. Johnny Weissmuller was spotted poolside for the Tarzan role in 1932. Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn graced its waters.
Faye Dunaway posed poolside the morning after winning her 1976 Oscar. The pool has featured in movies from The Way We Were to American Gigolo. Celebrities and producers can still be spotted doing business poolside.
The pool was refreshed recently under the great American interior designer Adam Tihany, but retains its classic look, palm-shaded and scented with lemon trees. You have to be a guest to sunbathe on its pink loungers or rent one of the famous poolside cabanas, which will sting you a film-star rate of $US300 a day, Wi-Fi and bowl of fruit included. Still, attendants offer chilled towels, spray you with Evian mist and polish your sunglasses. You can also enjoy refreshments such as mojito pops and lemonade coolers. Slip on your sunnies and let you eyes wander. You never know who will splash past.
Rooms from NZ$678; 9641 Sunset Boulevard, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles. See beverlyhillshotel.com