Dec. 28, 2018
The Four Seasons Sayan in Bali is an architectural gem—and was one of the hotel highlights of the year.
For the past several years, I have closed out December here at Forbes.com with travel roundups reviewing the year, recapping the very best hotels, best restaurants, and the worst of aviation for business and leisure travelers. It’s that time again, so as 2018 winds to a close, I’m reflecting on the past 12 months in travel. Today I am revisiting the 12 best hotel experiences I had in 2018—one for every month of the year.
Several of these were new or notably renovated properties, but others were time-tested classics—what they all had in common was me. There’s a lot of noise out there covering the hotel space, including poorly run “reader’s polls” lacking verification, and less discerning bloggers and self-proclaimed “influencers” trading glowing coverage for free stays. As a professional and award-winning travel journalist, I have traveled an enormous amount over the past 25 years, and have stayed in over a thousand hotels—my critiques are informed and discerning, with ample basis for comparison. Because the publications I write for skew towards luxury, the hotels I stay in reflect this and are pre-qualified to the degree possible, yet these days, many so-called “luxury” hotels are cookie cutter and still fail to impress. In many cases, developers think endless expanses of marble, eye-catching form over function design elements or fashionable staff uniforms make up for service deficiencies and poorly conceived room layouts—note to such hoteliers, they do not.
Today my focus is on just the twelve best lodging experiences I had this year that impressed me enough so that I would recommend them, regardless of price point. Some were properties I visited for the first time, some were repeats I’ve stayed at before. Some I have covered here before in one way or another, and in those cases, I’ve provided links to past stories for more detail.
Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons is home to a renowned Michelin 2-star restaurant – and the only cooking school at a Michelin 2-star restaurant.
Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, Oxford, England: When I first visited Le Manoir more than a decade ago, I was blown away by how great it was. Too often, when I have had the opportunity to return to superlative properties after such a long absence, I’ve found them diminished and disappointing compared to my memories—not this time. This remains one of Europe’s finest resorts, the fully realized and very much hands-on dream come true of legendary chef and detail-obsessive Raymond Blanc, who opened it on a grand English country estate in 1984 with nine rooms and a Michelin 2-star restaurant.
He still has the 2-stars, but Blanc has added and added and today the resort has 32 spacious and luxurious rooms, every single one of them uniquely themed and decorated, featuring spa-like bathrooms and often fireplaces and private gardens. Turn down brings chocolates from the renowned eatery and complimentary Madeira, while a broad range of in-room spa treatments is available. The restaurant is amazing, there are acres of elaborate organic gardens, orchards, and formal decorative gardens, and more than 150 different fruits, vegetables and herbs are grown onsite for the kitchen – the hotel requires nine full-time gardeners, and Le Manoir also offers gardening courses. It is the only Michelin 2-star in the world with a dedicated cooking school, in its own facility with state-of-the-art hands-on cooking station for guests and an amazing slate of classes, hundreds of offerings annually. I’ve done three of these, and this is the best resort-based destination cooking academy in the world. Le Manoir is part of the Belmond (formerly Orient-Express) group, which was just sold to global luxury lifestyle giant LVMH, and it makes a perfect weekend escape add-on to London, an ultra-luxe stopover from Heathrow or Gatwick, or warrants a trans-Atlantic destination vacation in its own right.
Destination Kohler is a Forbes 5-Star resort with four golf courses, including Whistling Straits ranked in the Top 10.
Destination Kohler/The American Club, Kohler WI: This is one I have been to several times over the past two decades, watching it continue to evolve, and while it has always been great, it just keeps getting better. There is just nothing else in the world like this – the entire company town is a resort run by its namesake founder, international plumbing giant Kohler, and the offerings include the Midwest’s only Forbes 5-Star resort hotel, The American Club, a second more casual hotel, the Inn at Woodlake, more than dozen bars and restaurants from casual to fine dining, extensive outdoor pursuits including fly fishing, shooting, hiking, canoeing, equestrian and more, shops, a world-class mind-boggling spa, a world-class mind-boggling fitness and yoga center, and much more that I don’t even have the room to describe.
If all that is not enough, Kohler is one of the world’s top golf vacation destinations. It has four very highly ranked courses (including Top 10 in US), all by the most awarded designer in history, Pete Dye, and it has hosted multiple Majors, including the PGA Championship at the amazing lakefront Whistling Straits, and the Women’s US Open at Blackwolf Run. Dye is now developing a fifth course for the resort. Both hotels just got massive facelifts, and to showcase the owner’s plumbing expertise, they offer the finest bathrooms you will find in the hospitality industry, with features like touchscreen controls for myriad jets, rain showers, steam showers, whirlpool baths, light therapy, all sorts of different configurations to show a wide range of spa-like options. This place is just over the top, yet relaxed, all two hours from Chicago and one from Milwaukee. Imagine if one of the world’s grand sporting resorts like the Broadmoor or Scotland’s Gleneagles was recreated in a charming Midwestern village, and that’s what you get with Destination Kohler. If you are into home design or considering a renovation, they also offer factory tours of the working Kohler plants, and a state of the art three level Design Center where every product the company makes is on display, along with a dozen demonstration kitchens and bathrooms, and Kohler even offers free expert interior design consultations for guest and visitors. Wow!
The Arrabelle is the top luxury hotel choice at Vail, America’s favorite ski resort.
Arrabelle, Vail, CO: An iconic Bucket-List ski and snowboard destination drawing travelers from around the globe, Vail is the most popular ski resort in the United States, and for good reason. It is one of the largest and most varied mountains, has an incredible amount of culinary, bar, nightlife, spa and entertainment options, and this is all set in an easily navigated and pedestrian friendly base village that is relatively easy to get to (especially with greatly increased full-sized plane airlift into nearby Eagle Vail airport and lots of shuttles from international hub Denver). Once you arrive you don’t need a car at all.
Because of its size and stature, Vail is home to lots of notable luxury hotels, and new for its first full season is the Hotel Talisa, which I wrote about here earlier this month. But ever since the redevelopment of central Lionshead village, the standout in the main base area has been the Arrabelle, with the best location, markedly closer to the slopes (immediately outside the hotel) than its luxury rivals. But it’s not just the great location – the Arrabelle has wonderful rooms with fireplaces, walk-in showers and oversized soaking tubs, plus decadent luxury residences in its rental pool (Lindsay Vonn, the all-time greatest woman ski racer, lived here), excellent service, a great gym, great spa, standout dining and bar, and lots of fun and creative extras, from a nightly kid and “adult” complimentary hot chocolate station to free GoPro video camera loaners. There’s an ice rink white glove ski concierge lounge, just everything you need, making it the top lodging choice at Vail. This was my third visit since the Arrabelle opened in 2007, and it continues to impress.
The new Omni opened this year and quickly became THE place to stay in Louisville.
Omni Louisville, KY: Following in the mold of Nashville and Austin, Louisville is experiencing a boom and a hip, trendy coming of age, moving more and more into the travel spotlight as an ideal weekend getaway for whiskey lovers, horse race lovers, and many other reasons. The new downtown Omni, with a sort of urban resort approach and great central location, is exactly what the suddenly hot city needed. I wrote in detail about the hotel shortly after it opened but here’s the snapshot: it combines luxurious rooms with a pretty amazing slate of facilities all really well focused on giving it local flavor and sense of place (there are even curated local bourbons in the mini-bar). There’s a great bourbon and accessory shop, a cool Southern craft product shop, a hidden below ground speakeasy with a bowling alley, a classic upscale steakhouse, a charming lobby library cum cocktail bar, and a much better than average stylish three meal a day hotel eatery with regional flair.
But the game changer here is the Falls City Market, one of the most impressive hotel features I have seen in years. It’s basically a full-blown urban food hall on par with those now so popular around the country, but a first for Louisville and the only one of its kind and scope I’ve seen within a hotel anywhere. It goes on and on, and includes retail kitchen goods, spices, groceries and gourmet products, as well as numerous food stands and even an indoor “taco truck.” Think Williams-Sonoma crossed with Eataly in the hotel and with Southern flair. There is a sushi bar, craft beer counter, hot sandwich stand, amazing bakery, gourmet cheese stall, BBQ, of course, an artisan coffee shop, and it even boasts a florist and full wine and spirits retail shop. After you’ve lunched here you want to go back day after day, and on my most recent visit to Louisville, I was staying someplace else and I went back just to eat here, then left with two shopping bags full of regional specialties from the grocery section. They’ve managed to make the hotel very appealing to locals who come to eat and drink, which in turn gives it a non-tourist vibrancy that few hotels achieve. Easily the top choice in Louisville—and the best place to stay for the city’s annual fete, the Kentucky Derby.
The Beaumont is a great addition to London’s luxury hotel scene.
Beaumont, London: London has lots of great hotels, and I’ve stayed at many, but I absolutely loved the Beaumont, a fairly recent addition to the city’s lodging scene – it was named Best New Luxury Hotel of 2014 when it opened, and then London Hotel of the Year 2016-17. It somehow manages to combine a full-blown in your face Old World luxury hotel feel, like the Savoy, with a whimsical air of fun, all on a smaller big-hotel-meets boutique scale. You are greeted by uniformed ultra-attendant doormen, there is a classic antique car in the semi-circular driveway, and it has all the grandiose trappings, yet it is discreetly hidden away on a side street with an escapist, oasis atmosphere—and a great location, just a block off busy Oxford Street and smack in the heart of tony Mayfair with easy access to the luxury shopping, antiques, boutiques and famed custom tailors of Regent Street, Jermyn Street and Bond Street, plus world-class art at the Royal Academy of Arts, Wallace Collection and the National Gallery.
But what makes it so different is the fun factor. The Beaumont is the first hotel created by a very successful group of restaurateurs (The Wolseley, Brasserie Zedel, etc.) as a whimsical almost spoof of its neighbors, a playful reimagining of the staid London luxury hotel. They even made up a funny creation story, the fictional premise that Gatsby-esque American rogue Jimmy Beaumont left the States in the midst of jazz, Prohibition and the Roaring Twenties, and built his eponymous dream hotel here. It is a period piece imagined through the eyes of a rich mysterious American, executed in a playful way, a joke rather than a ruse. It has less than 75 rooms, including several suites with extensive outdoor rooftop terraces, a nice luxury in the heart of the city, and the rooms are extremely well appointed with endless little touches demonstrating attention to detail everywhere you look: very high quality suit hangars in grossly oversized closets; complimentary snacks and non-alcoholic drinks from well stocked and curated mini-bars; heated bathroom floors; toiletries from the chemist holding the Queen’s Royal warrant; deep soaking tubs with bath salts and large walk-in showers; much better than normal turn down chocolates; and so on and so on. The Art Deco rooms have period glamour and design accuracy, yet are full of modern necessities like international outlets and USB ports. For a hotel this size there is pretty much everything you could want, including small spa, gym and private guest-only Club Room, serving breakfast and nightcaps in a jazz club atmosphere. The Colony Grill Room is a fun and tasty throwback, “Mr. Beaumont’s” take on the clubbish steak houses popular in both New York and London at the time. Real luxury and friendly personal service without pretense in a perfect location make this a winner on every front.
The new Kerry Shangri-La is a great addition to Hong Kong’s hotel scene.
Kerry Shangri-La, Hong Kong: Hong Kong is another city teeming with great hotels, but it is also one of the world’s more space-constrained destinations, known for tiny apartments and equally cramped—and pricy—hotel rooms. That is what makes the new Kerry such a pleasant departure, and especially well-suited for leisure visitors. Kerry is a relatively new sub-brand of Shangri-La, which already has two iconic old-school luxury hotels here. The Kerry concept is a casual resort-style urban experience in destinations where there is already a more staid Shangri-La, with the same level of high-end service minus the butlers and in a way that makes guests feel comfortable dressing down. Hong Kong is the new flagship for the growing brand and a real winner. The biggest thing is the ample outdoor areas, terraces, gardens even an infinity pool with fully-serviced pool terrace overlooking Victoria Harbor. Again, Hong Kong is tight, so the idea of gardens, outdoor cocktail terraces and pools just doesn’t exist here—despite the city’s fair weather—and every one of the hotel’s several dining and drinking outlets has outdoor tables available, drawing locals, who flock to Red Sugar, the 7th floor craft cocktail bar with a large outdoor patio, for sunset happy hour with dramatic views of the famous skyline and its nightly light show.
The Kerry has much larger than typical guest rooms for the city, with walk-in showers and soaking tubs, a great slate of dining and drinking options, including an impressive Vegas-style upscale three meal day buffet with live cooking stations and an astonishing variety of Asian and western cuisines. But the real highlight is the Singapore hawker-inspired food hall eatery, with numerous stalls representing many kinds of cuisine, a central bar, indoor and outdoor seating (for over 500!), games like pool, foosball and darts, plus live music every weekend. It’s attached to the lobby but with separate entrance at street level, and feels like a standalone food hall, a great concept. The Kerry also has one of the nicest club floor lounges I’ve seen, with afternoon, tea, evening cocktails and canapés, and an especially extravagant breakfast. It sits on the Kowloon waterfront just outside downtown, and the hotel operates a complimentary frequent shuttle to downtown, the Star Ferry, and the airport express train. It also sits right on top of a ferry terminal that is being renovated, and beginning last spring 2019, there will be direct service to Central on Hong Kong Island. The slightly offbeat location is far more of a benefit than a hindrance, and sets the Kerry apart from every other hotel in the city.
All the villas at Four Seasons Sayan are indoor/outdoor compounds with private pools.
Four Seasons Sayan, Bali: Bali likely has the greatest concentration of over the top luxury resorts of any place on earth, and on my most recent visit I stayed at four of the top contenders. My favorite was the Four Seasons Sayan. Like most of the best resorts here it features spacious and fantasy inspired compound-style villas with private plunge pools, outdoor showers and indoor and outdoor living space, and in terms of pure accommodations, it is hard to go wrong at the higher end on Bali. But many resorts surprisingly eschew the Balinese feel in both activities and cuisine, while the Four Seasons embraces it with great breakfasts and special dinners several nights weekly including an extensive high-end Balinese buffet, a cooked in the ground rendition of the island’s favorite dish, Babi Guling, or roast sucking pig, and the newest addition, earlier this year, a dedicated riverfront cooking school with Balinese culinary classes offered daily, a real standout activity.
In addition, the service was the best of any hotel I visited, and the location is ideal, just outside Ubud, Bali’s top tourist destination, and right on the banks of the island’s longest river, allowing for a signature private rafting experience that ends poolside and is noticeably better than the popular versions offered by outfitters from most other hotels—the Obamas did it when they vacationed on Bali and chose Sayan for a weeklong stay. There are complimentary daily activities from yoga to guided neighborhood walks and bike rides, a rotating slate of notable visiting yoga instructors, and a stellar gym with amazing views and direct access to a unique terrace featuring infinity-style hot, cold and whirlpool baths. The spa is also unique and has full men’s and women’s locker rooms with steam and sauna, several treatment rooms, and a satellite location with three riverfront swank indoor and outdoor treatment villas, a sort of hybrid approach that suits every taste. Finally, the architecture and welcome experience are standouts on an island famous for these. Ideally, you can combine a visit here with a stay at sister resort Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay, Bali’s original ultra-luxury resort, for a combination beachfront and mountain/jungle/cultural experience.
After a $25 million renovation, The Lowell was named the #1 Hotel in New York City – and the entire country.
The Lowell, New York City: There are lots of great hotel brands and management companies, but I have found over the years that privately owned properties willing to reinvest, with stable staffs and focused on a long-term quality experience and relationship with their guests, almost always impress where “brands” can come up short, and the Lowell fits squarely into this category (it is a member of Luxury Hotels of the World, a marketing, reservation and quality assurance but not management coalition). To say the Lowell has a loyal following would be an understatement – it’s the kind of place the most discerning travelers and best-informed luxury travel agents have patronized for years, to the point of requesting specific rooms for every visit. That’s because every single one of the 74 accommodations is different, uniquely shaped and furnished, though all are lavish—nearly half have working fireplaces, a rarity in the Big Apple. Three-quarters of its business is returning guests, an extremely impressive feat most hoteliers can only dream of, and in its glowing review, London’s Telegraph noted that “The Lowell was a boutique hotel before the term was even invented,” and called it “A stylish, discreet gem. The Lowell transports visitors to a gentler, more glamorous time, with impeccable, personal service.” I wish I had stayed here earlier just so I could appreciate the updates, since the family owners just completed a major renovation and is by all accounts better than ever, though it has been widely considered one of the city’s best for as long as I can recall.
The three year, $25 million renovation touched many areas, including lobby and common spaces, but most importantly added an entirely new eatery, Majorelle, run by the former GM of famed New York fine dining French institution La Grenouille. It’s a beautiful special occasion type place, not the kind of hotel restaurant you’d pop down to on a whim to watch the game at the bar or eat at multiple times in one visit. The big plus is that Majorelle is a class of restaurant that been disappearing around the city, high-end fancy French, in this case with a heavy Moroccan influence, and it is a far cry from the expensive but laid back new American cuisine most new fancy hotel eateries are going with. Best of all, it fits the Lowell’s aesthetic: meticulous, beautiful, crafted and escapist. The property is also extremely dog-friendly, a big plus, and has a great location just off Central Park. I love this part of town because it is still convenient to everything but far from the mad hustle and bustle of midtown and Time Square, located near New York’s marquee cultural attractions: the famous Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and so on. It’s an oasis of civility in one of the highest energy destinations on earth, and The Lowell is simply elegant in an increasingly less elegant era. For what it is worth (which unfortunately is not very much these days) Travel + Leisure’s World’s Best Awards for 2018 ranked the Lowell as not only the best hotel in New York City, but the best in the entire United States.
The Hutton Hotel, Nashville, TN: A decade ago the Hutton opened and launched what has since been a massive wave of boutique hotel openings in Nashville, currently (and deservedly) one of the country’s hottest leisure destinations. I stayed at Hutton the very first time I visited Music City USA, returned several times in the interim to cover the city’s amazing music, dining and attractions scene, and just went back to the Hutton for the second time—immediately on the heels of top to bottom renovation finished this summer. In the face of all the competition that has arrived since it opened, management thought it was time to firmly reclaim its top spot in the city’s lodging pantheon, and they succeeded. Nashville is a crucial music industry locale, and the revamp added the new Writers Studios at Hutton Hotel, setting it apart from every other hotel anywhere. These two new creative suites are fully outfitted state-of-the-art recording studios including instrument isolation areas and vocal booths, and many artists stay here just because they can use them.
For regular guests, renovations added a vinyl record library in the common area and most importantly, an entirely new theater that is part bar, part live music performance venue. For a city built on music, Nashville has surprisingly few theater-style venues occupying a middle ground between the honky-tonk bars of Broadway and the legendary Ryman Auditorium, “the Carnegie Hall of the South.” Analog at Hutton Hotel fills that void and has immediately become an extremely popular nightspot in the city. The 300-person venue was designed for perfect acoustics and as a hotel craft cocktail bar even when there is no music, featuring an extremely extensive whiskey selection. It’s just great, and has already had award winners on its stage. The Hutton’s restaurant was also completely redesigned and relaunched with more regional flair, now the very attractive WestEnd Kitchen and Bar, with a contemporary take on Southern cuisine and a local spirits focus. All 247 guest rooms facilities were remodeled and are very comfortable and good looking, but the highlight is the three dramatic penthouses, all different but with features like gourmet kitchens, grand pianos, large balconies and all the trappings befitting music royalty—or you. House cars are available to whisk guests around town, the lobby has a lively modern scene, and overall, it’s my top pick in Nashville
Solar de las Animas, Tequila, Mexico: Jose Cuervo is the world’s biggest tequila brand, and the family-owned multi-generational company has invested heavily in boosting tourism and tourism infrastructure in its home base of Tequila, Mexico. Like Napa or Sonoma, most producers are spread out in the surrounding countryside, but Cuervo is smack in the middle of the charming town, making it easy to visit the distillery, with lots of tour and tasting options. To further facilitate this, the company has added a hotel, restaurants and even an Orient-Express style luxury train from Guadalajara. But when I visited Jose Cuervo this year, I knew about the brand, and I knew about the train, but I did not know about their luxury hotel, which was great. Solar de las Animas is a member of Relais & Chateaux, one of the most impressive lodging consortiums and one that focuses on smaller properties with distinctive cuisine. Solar de las Animas fits the bill with just 93 large and well-appointed rooms oozing local flair, a gorgeous pool, a rooftop bar with the town’s best views, a standout fine dining Mexican eatery, La Antigua Casona, a second hacienda-style bar in a shaded leafy courtyard, and optional activities including horseback riding in the agave fields, guided bicycle tours and a pre-Hispanic archeology tour. Even the included breakfasts are expansive and delicious, and the hotel has a perfect location, abutting the town square, home to a fun weekend market, and about a 100-second walk from the distillery.
The Four Seasons Whistler has an awesome pool area that is very popular for apres ski.
Four Seasons Whistler, BC: Whistler/Blackcomb is the largest and most visited ski resort in North America, a must-visit for every serious skier and snowboard—and in summer, a bucket-list destination for mountain biking, as well as an exceptional golf vacation choice. I’ve been several times, summer and winter, and this time I stayed at the luxurious Four Seasons. It has Whistler’s most impressive pool area, with a unique outdoor sauna set in a wooden structure the shape of a giant barrel, a couple of hot tubs, s’mores over a blazing fire, and attentive full bar service that makes it an après hot spot. There is a large and very well-equipped spa, gym and dedicated ski valet with storage and full rental service at the base of the lifts, just a three-minute walk from the hotel. The rooms are large, and even the most basic ones are among the most spacious at the vast resort, all with outdoor balconies and fireplaces. The main restaurant is a fun and tasty modern steakhouse with standout Canadian grass-fed beef and a heavy craft cocktail focus—think smoking drinks served under glass domes. But at the end of the day, what differentiates the hotel (besides its elevated service) is the unique activities, curated to really give a sense of the destination. They offer guests the opportunity to ski with Olympians, enjoy private meals (in the residences) cooked by a resort chef or most interestingly of all, to enjoy a five-course fine dining tasting menu with Champagne—inside an ice cave reached by helicopter.
The Collection Suites at the Conrad Indianapolis all have art themes with original works – this is the Modern Art Suite.
Conrad, Indianapolis, IN: I always enjoy visiting the “Crossroads of America,” and have been many times – this year I went twice, including my second Indy 500, the world’s most attended sporting event. I’ve long said that Indy is a vastly underrated city, and earlier this year I wrote a feature on that very topic, entitled “6 Great Reasons To Visit America’s Most Underrated City Right Now.” One of those reasons is that the city is full of new or nearly new hotels, all of which are bargains compared to just about any other urban destination. On my first visit of 2018 I stayed at perhaps the most luxurious choice in the entire city, the Conrad Collection Suites, a sort of hotel within a hotel on its own floor within the downtown Conrad hotel. Even without the fine art, this would have been one of the nicest hotel suites I’ve seen in this country, swankier than the Presidential Suite in a typical Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton—but the original Picassos were a nice touch. All the Collection Suites are art themed (Pop, Modern, Surrealist, etc.), but even the basic hotel rooms are surprisingly luxe, large and modern with bathrooms featuring separate walk-in showers and tubs.
There is a full-service spa, beauty salon, state of the art gym and indoor pool under a vaulted glass ceiling, flanked by sauna and steam room. The main restaurant is an outpost of the high-end Capital Grille steakhouse group, and the Conrad’s homegrown offering is the cool Tastings Wine Bar, with charcuterie type snacks and one of the nation’s largest selections of wines by the glass—more than 200 choices. Conrad is Hilton’s higher tier sibling luxury brand, and while popular in Asia and elsewhere, there are only half a dozen in the US, and this one is perfectly located in the heart of downtown, walking distance to many of the city’s top attractions and its world-class spectator sports venues. It would be a great urban hotel almost anywhere, but in Indy, it is also ridiculously cheap – the full-blown luxury apartment-style Collection suite I stayed in typically runs around $650 and goes as low as $400, yet was nicer than rooms I’ve seen costing 4-5 as much.