I stayed at 62 different hotels in 2013, ranging from $50 to $1,200 per night. My friends think I’m spoiled because I get to stay in the most luxurious hotels on the expense of my magazines and newspapers. But I end up paying for a lot myself too, and not all of them are luxury properties. Some are anything but. In fact, the hotels I love the most are not always the most lavish. I love value. My parents were “deeply middle class,” as an ex of mine used to say. They had money, but they couldn’t enjoy something if it was overpriced. When I worked on staff at a certain travel magazine, we lived by the tagline ‘Smart Luxury Value,’ a phrase conjured up by the editors of the magazine and website. We scoured the web for value and dispatched our writers and staffers to find the world’s best travel deals. We despised “aspirational travel” or #travelporn that other travel magazines relied on.
Unfortunately, the magazine folded, but my colleagues live on in travel publishing. What most of us learned from that experience was that even the wealthiest travelers seeks out deals. Travel deals might clutter our mailboxes today, but back in 2005 they were still in their nascent age. Few publications were weighing in on what was “worth it” and infinitely more useful, what wasn’t. Today it seems like the concept of value is once again slipping away from travel media. So I wanted to weigh in personally on which hotels I loved this year. The ones that were worth it, to me personally.
So what makes a $1,200/night hotel “worth it?” The design, architecture, location, privacy, clientele, service, or the name brand? Or perhaps a combination of a few of those elements? Of course, it’s a highly individual call. For me, a combo of attentive service, a stylish, kid-free crowd and understated design makes a stay especially worth it. I also value creative and innovative methods, and tend to dislike unnecessary amenities like stuffed animals, catch phrase concepts like “barefoot luxury,” turn down services that I don’t want/need, and overly fawning service. I also value hotels that go the extra mile to be truly eco-friendly, not just the ones who tell you to hang your towel if you don’t want it washed. If you’re going to be an environmentally-friendly hotel, great, then stand by your principles and make some serious changes. There’s no punishment for hotels who make no claims to be eco and don’t—though all hotels could make small environmental improvements that go a long way. (More on this later.)
That all said, there are a few really expensive hotels on my list, and well, they’re wonderful! I wish everyone could afford to experience them, because a few have enhanced my understanding of a destination and made my trip better.
Finally, I should mention that being married to a Swiss architect can be a bit of a luxury hotel buzz kill. I’m not that easy to wow with hotels. But my Swiss architect husband Ralph is even harder to impress. In fact, he’s a total design bitch! But I love that I have his opinion on architectural corners, the use and cost of materials, landscaping solutions, and other engineering and structural elements I might not notice as a plebian travel writer. His understanding of architectural terms and concepts has taught me how to recognize cheap labor, quality and innovative design, and helped make me a better travel writer. More important, his knowledge has helped me appreciate value even more. Thanks Ralph!
Without further ado, here’s the list of my nine favorite hotels of 2013.
1. Amanzo’e, Greece
Rooms from $1,060
Amanzo’e was such a favorite, I included it in my Favorite Destinations of 2013. Here’s the write-up:
Sometimes hotels are the destination. This was a hard lesson for me. I believed that one should always get off the property to explore the culture. Now, in my 40s, I disagree. Hotels can be fine destinations in and of themselves. One need not try every type of local cuisine, visit every museum, and chat with locals in order to experience a destination. There’s something to be said about relaxing on property and communing with yourself and your partner and maybe even the surrounding birds and plants. No property moved me more in 2013 than Amanzo’e, which was by turns time travel and luxurious Greek cocoon.
Neoclassical architecture doesn’t get me very excited. I recall all those dreadfully boring monuments in Washington, D.C. But Amanzo’e, designed by the great Ed Tuttle (Aman’s sort of Ghost Architect who eschews all publicity) is nestled (yes, I said nestled) atop a hill near Porto Heli on the Peloponnese coast. It’s a modernist temple of Mediterranean tranquility, three hours drive from Athens. The serene resort is surrounded by vineyards, olive groves, pine forests and ancient sites like the Temple of Hera and Avgo’s St. Dimitrios Monastery. It’s become a favorite of architects, among them my Swiss architect husband Ralph who particularly loved the plunge pools and library. But it’s also a favorite of design-minded travelers who come to shut out the exterior world, like we did during our incomparable 3-night October stay. I’ve stayed at seven Amans. I adore the brand. But Amanzoe (alongside Amangiri) are my favorites. I also had a fine-tuned watsu massage (underwater) with Steve Karle that was among the best treatments I’ve ever had.
Aman’s service is unobtrusive. There are no cloying hotel soundtracks, cheesy welcome amenities like stuffed animals, iPads, or flower arrangements in sustainable wood vases whittled by handicapped local villagers. Amanzo’e is clean and clutter-free.There are no claims to save the world. It also makes no promise to be anything but a hotel. It’s not aiming to be an eco-resort, a Design Hotel, or offer “barefoot luxury” an over-marketed buzzword I’m dubious of. Amans are what you want them to be. They are intricately sculpted shells, and invite the guest to appreciate their simplicity, integrity and grace. They require an education, but they give one too.
The luxury hotel sector is a cluttered market. They are desperate to please guests with bells and whistles, but thankfully Amans remain about discovery and the creative teams behind them opted for the blue ocean instead of the red ocean. Aman founder and CEO Adrian Zecha gets a big A+ from me for sticking to his game.
Rooms from $790
I’ve stayed here twice. When it first opened in 2010 then again this past spring. It’s utterly urban and luxurious. Beds feature ivory leather headboards, while oversized beveled mirrors conceal the TVs, a white monochromatic 1,500 square meter Clarins spa opened in 2012 and includes a 23-meter long pool, the longest in any Paris hotel and guests are smartly swaddled. But that’s not why I love the hotel, and the brand. I love it because it’s made a genuine commitment to art.
When it opened, Le Royal Monceau Raffles Paris—designed by Philippe Starck—developed an extensive art and culture program, including a bookstore dedicated to contemporary art (La Librairie des Arts), a private cinema (Katara Cinema), a contemporary art gallery, a private collection of over 300 works of art and a contemporary Arts Concierge who knows where the best galleries and street art in her city can be found. She also scores guests tickets to hard to access blockbuster shows, like Ron Mueck at Fondation Cartier, and the Chanel No. 5 Exhibit at Palais de Tokyo. If that weren’t enough the hotel’s art gallery space—has exhibited works from Basquiat, Dennis Hopper and Michael Somoroff and Kate MccGwire.
The hotel’s two restaurants, La Cuisine and Italian Il Carpaccio each racked up a Michelin star after opening, but breakfast remains a standout, with Pierre Hermé’s bread basket stuffed with viennoiseries—yeast-leavened treats like flaky glazed raspberry-Ispahan rosewater croissants, sugary crunchy and moist Alsatian kugelhopf soaked in orange blossom syrup and studded with raisins, candied kouign-amann aux, and smooth and fragrant brioches and poundcakes. It’s one of the best hotel breakfasts I’ve ever had. (Note: Shangri La hotels also have seriously excellent breakfast spreads.)
Rooms from $258
I stayed here in winter 2013 during my Schengen crisis, which forced me to leave the Schengen Zone multiple times so as not to overstay. (I now have a Swiss Visa, thank you very much.) It’s hard to find a hotel that is so playfully branded and creative about its operations. But the fresh and lively South Place is just that, while remaining serious about service and attention to details.
Opening in September of 2012, this is the first hotel project by power couple/restaurateurs D&D London who nestled this new 80-room Design Hotel on the extremities of Shoreditch, making it a go-to for well-heeled creatives and their bespectacled cohorts. Conran and Partners peppered the bright rooms with macro houndstooth loungers, leather-topped writing desks, and minibars stocked with Sipsmith dry gin, gelatin-free gummy bears, and bottles of refreshing elderflower presse. There’s also glass-sided tubs—a sexy take on the ubiquitous clawfoot.
Rooms from $220
People think five-star Swiss hotels are out of their budget, but properties here can be surprisingly affordable, especially off-season in September, an excellent month to visit, and exactly when I visited Design Hotel member Nira Alpina. The ski-in-ski out property was rebranded in 2011 by the gracious and chatty Setai Miami alum MS Puri whom I met during the visit. The property remains just 3-miles from glitzy St. Mortiz, but a hushed world apart. Each of its 70 spacious rooms features muted spruce paneling, organic cotton pillows from Swiss textilers Schwob, and balcony views of turquoise Lake Silvaplana and the light pink Alpenglühen (alpine glow) for which the Romanch-speaking Engadine Valley is famed.
But the food at Nira is a major highlight, and among the best hotel food in Switzerland, (and I’ve stayed at most of Switzerland’s five star palaces!) The casual bakery café is stocked with affordable soups, sandwiches, icing-topped cupcakes and Swiss breads like whole-wheat gipfeli (croissants) and zopf (challah), while the breakfast includes an array of Swiss preserves, nutspreads and honeys including quince, raspberry, and several juices. Dinners are knock-outs including Engadine game meat specialties with special attention paid to vegetable dishes and sides. I try hard not mention celebrity chefs in hotels, because they are seldom in the kitchen, but the young handsome chef here, Marek Wildenhain was, even during breakfast. He’s not a celebrity, yet. And I suspect his is name in food that will go far. I look forward to hearing more about him and watching the Nira brand expand.
6. Hotel de Nell, Paris
Rooms from $331
Sometimes location makes all the difference. While many luxury hotels in Paris are adjacent to the sirens and tourist traffic of the Champs-Élysées, this Design Hotel newcomer is nestled on the especially quiet Rue du Conservatoire in the 9th arrondissement. Everything about the hotel was understated, a trait French hotels usually fail to get right. Medium sized rooms feature triple-glazed windows, ultra-heavy 175-pound doors, wood floors topped in thick carpets, dense velvet blinds, and wood ceilings with micro-small holes to absorb noise. Prestige Rooms come with deep Japanese tubs made of marble and Oregon myrtle are a great way to enjoy the silence. The service was also especially friendly during a stay in spring 2013 and the hotel was unusually responsive to email communication. The staff recommended handful of excellent local restaurants that were not in guidebooks, and their picks were consistently spot on.
Rooms from $670
This is another hotel brand I consistently fall for. Park Hyatt Tokyo is one of my all time favorite hotels. The Park Hyatts in Shanghai and Zürich are favs too, with special attention paid to service. After my stay here in October 2013, the understated 117-room Park Hyatt Milan is a new favorite. The minute you walk inside the lobby and La Cupola, the lobby lounge bar, crowned by a 30-foot glass cupola, you feel like the executive of a highly functional company. Rooms are designed by Ed Tuttle whose work offers a graceful symmetry and can also be found at Amans in Bali, Thailand, Greece and Java. Travertine work desks, black marble edging in the bathrooms, and Murano glass fixtures and views of the Duomo give the rooms an air of Milano privilege. And privilege in Milano is an art form, and not something to scoff at.
8. Villa Magna, Madrid
Rooms from $389
I stayed here for my 41st birthday this past December and was not prepared to love it as much as I did. Turns out it used to be a Park Hyatt, but was deflagged after the completion of a major renovation in 2009. The PH attention to detail shows, but Villa Magna continues on sans brand-name as a wonderful urban hotel that’s both vintage and modern. There are Bauhaus architectural elements and Chinese screens, Louis XVI style armchairs and Empire style couch sofas, a glimmering marble lobby and a chic and sexy clientele that includes the Spanish royal family. The nine-story, 150-room granite building was born in 1972, seven months before me, and sits in Salamanca, a bit of a schlep from the tapas restaurants and bars, but definitely walkable, even after a raucous night of birthday boozing.
I sleep in a lot of super comfortable hotel beds, but VM’s fluffy soft white cotton sheet and down topped beds were especially dreamy and had me sleeping in past noon, after said birthday boozing, without a single interruption. The marble-lined bathrooms were roomy and masculine, while robes and slippers were sized for two men, not a man and a woman. This says to me that housekeeping staff really customize rooms for guests. The staff were especially intuitive and gracious, always asking if I needed restaurant recommendations or directions. The breakfast service, which often disappoints me at European hotels mired by slow breakfast service, was excellent. My coffee was waiting for me immediately after grabbing some Iberico ham at the buffet. I’m really impressed with Villa’s Magna’s attention to detail and hope to return again soon.
9. Blythswood Square Hotel, Glasgow
Rooms from $200
There’s an organic Scottish hospitality at this property that opened in 2009. There’s also a great combination of playfulness and classic Scotch design. You know you’re in Scotland when you stay here. But what impressed me most during my January 2013 stay at this plush, hilltop Harris tweed-filled nest of tranquility was that all the hotel’s services hit especially high marks: rooms retain a masculine feel with plaids, and understated neutrals, grays, and browns accented with a pop of purple or turquoise; in the cellar, a massive and excellent spa facility features Hebridean seaweed baths, a few heated pools, and a tranquil relaxation lounge; the Salon Bar is intimate and sexy and an ideal place for a nightcap of affordable Malbec or just a pint; breakfast buffet was lavish and local, with items like Ayrshire back bacon, haggis, Mull cheddar and smoked haddock; and service was warm and especially friendly, without being cloying. The staff sent me to some really affordable local bars and restaurants when I asked where to go. Glasgow is a city that’s kept luxury at a safe distance, but the Blysthwood Square adds an authenticity to it that really enhances your stay in Scotland.