I stayed at 67 properties in 2016 (including two apartment rentals, one ship, and one klotok boat). Of those, seven were superb stays, eleven were excellent, and another 15 were noteworthy. To be clear, all of these properties are places I would rebook in a heartbeat. For this list, I did not factor in budget, style, geographic variety, or newness to create a well-rounded geographic distribution like most travel publications do. These are just my straight-up favorite stays of 2016, each offering a memorable night with exemplary service, incredible views, access to sites, and/or quality cuisine. As always, there were numerous luxury properties that did not make this list.
The top category ***Sublime are stays that were transformative, memorable, and superb but also helped emphasize the region or neighborhood which added to my travel experience. They are not necessarily 5-star palaces and luxury lodges, but instead a diverse mix of properties ranging from $75/night to $900/night. These stays are rare, and the joy I experience during them is part of what makes them so good. (Or is it vice versa?). They are destination-worthy places, and worth traveling long distances for. Each of these seven properties are unique and cannot be replicated anywhere else.
The **Excellent category are stays that were outstanding and memorable and would merit repeat visits. These stays also elicited joy and unexpected pleasure in unexpected places and emphasize unique ambiance and an outstanding staff. These are all places I would recommend to other travelers, and worth going out of the way for.
The *Noteworthy category is by no means a loser. It also reflects my top stays of 2016 but includes properties that lacked a consistency with quality or service or were subject to other minor flaws that detracted from the overall experience. I don’t mean that they didn’t have the right bath amenities or conference rooms, because I don’t care about that stuff. But as with the food category, all it takes is one off key note to transform the sublime to the so-so. Nevertheless, these hotels should be on the radar of travelers, I recommend with some reservations.
These are not listed in any particular order. Below the list is the entire index of 67 properties I stayed at in 2016, arranged in chronological order of when I stayed at them.
7 Superb Stays of 2016
from $900 night
Amanjiwo has been on my wish list for years and a three-night stay here in March 2016 with my husband did not disappoint. Designed by Ed Tuttle, the property mirrors the symmetry of Borobudur that it gazes upon. For those who don’t know, Borobudur is a Javanese temple that’s the most significant Buddhist site in the world. Our first morning we set out to explore it at dawn, and witness its quiet, ghostly mists rising from the surrounding coconut trees and rice paddies before other tourists arrive. Aman properties are especially good at providing guests access to places like this, and always one of the highlights of any Aman stay. But unbelievable as it sounds, the crescent-shaped Amanjiwo is just as impressive as Borobudur. Its modern, understated symmetry could only be the work of architect Tuttle, who designed the property’s spherical monolith to echo the celestial architecture of Borobudur itself, which it gazes at like a sister temple across the Kedu Plains. One of the things I love most about the Amans is that there are seldom any signs on the properties. The spaces are built intuitively (and sometimes counter intuitively) so that guests can discover their way through them, which is part of the art of staying at an Aman. This is a major contributing factor to what separates them from other big luxury brands and the reason I’ll always remain an Aman junkie. In the belly of the property is a labyrinth of high limestone walls dripping with violet trumpet vine. It lead us to our airy villa, where we lounged in the private pool listening to the chorus of birds in the bamboo forest along the lush Progo River. I could be anywhere in the tropics, but the afternoon call to prayer calibrates our location, and I drift into oblivion under my shade-giving sala by the pool before getting ready for a quiet dinner by candlelight in the stone rotunda’s open-air dining room.
from $90 night
Like many travelers, I’ve been to Barcelona a few times, but on my most recent visit in April 2016, it felt like the city was entering an especially exciting period. The economic collapse of 2008 saw many of Barcelona’s young people leave to take jobs overseas, but many are returning for the city’s indisputable quality of life (sunny weather, excellent food, amazing art and architecture), and they’re bringing new international ideas with them. “They always come back,” Says Ines Miró-Sans, founder of the new hotel Casa Bonay which opened in March 2016, and is housed in an old neoclassical casa on the edge of the city’s L’Eixample neighborhood, not far from the bohemian neighborhood of Gràcia. Ines lived in Palm Springs and NYC working at the Ace Hotel and several other hospitality brands before coming back to Barc to imbue her gorgeous new property with a warm mix of international touches like Shanghai-inspired wallpaper, a cold press juice bar inspired by Angelino juice culture, and Moroccan rugs and yakswool throws from Central Asia. For hospitality and hotel junkies, Ines is definitely a person to watch and I look forward to seeing what she does next.
Sometimes what makes a stay so outstanding is it unexpectedness. My husband and I made a booking at the rustic B+B I Cappanni located on the “Via di Dante” atop a woodsy mountain pass in the Apennines for his birthday in June. To be honest, we only stayed there so that we could experience a notable truffle restaurant in town. But the B&B and its humble breakfast proved infinitely better than the truffle restaurant. The rustic stone cottage sat on a ridge filled with birdsong overlooking a peaceful, pristine Italian valley pregnant with summer. Flowers were in full boom—wild orchids, lilies, carnations, wild rose and juniper. It was the kind of floral Italian bounty one dreams of. Wood strawberries and were in season too, so a walk in the woods behind the properties garden turned into an afternoon of foraging. If that weren’t enough, the display of nighttime fireflies along the B+B’s roadside was a bioluminescent spectacle unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. A knock on our door in the morning revealed the olive-skinned owner standing there gesturing that breakfast was ready. He invited us into the rustico’s main kitchen, where it’s served. There, on a red and white checker clothed table, was an epic breakfast spread: homemade almond apple cake, blackberry and fig jam, fresh cherries, a truffle-flecked fromage di fosso (a local cave-aged cheese often made by individual families) plates of smoked ham and salumi, and a big platter stacked with tomato bruchetta. He also offered us piping hot coffee prepared from a mokka pot. Every dish was prepared by our Italian host, who barely spoke English, and had painstakingly renovated the rustico himself. Anyone looking for an affordable nature break in the mountains would be hard pressed to find a better spot than this.
After a long day of travel and reporting on a BBC archeology story on Danish Bog Bodies
in September, I arrived at my hotel in Aarhus at about 7:30pm, and ordered the room service dinner. Sitting in a spacious oceanfront room and having your dinner delivered is one of the finer luxuries of being a 40-something and not feeling like you have to pillage every town you visit. Perched on a quiet beach on a stretch of sandy Jutland Coast with rooms overlooking the tranquil Kattegat Sea, the mid-century Marselis Hotel’s airy sunlit rooms and spacious terraces were perfect for catching a few afternoon rays but also surrounded by thickly forested hiking trails, within walking distance of the excellent museums like the breathtaking new Moesgaard Museum
that juts from the ground like a piece of archeological evidence and is home to one of the best exhibits on Iron Age Europe. The staff were kind, but not doting, the furnishings were old but not shabby, and the the hotel had a timelessness and a positive energy about it.
The whitewashed and meticulously restored Seaside Boarding House is a ocean cliff-perched charmer with spacious breezy rooms with big soft beds and clawfoot tubs, both in earshot of crashing waves and crying gulls. Its twee restaurant serves up modern comfort classics like double baked cheese soufflé and fish soup rouille, while the bar, vintage wallpapered library, and sunny front porch are great spots to nurse a Dark N’ Stormy. We spent three gloriously sunny Indian summer days here in September and were taken especially good care of by its excellent proprietresses, who gave us tips on which pubs to visit and which to avoid and generally pay special attention to making sure everything was just right, from the avocado toast to the placement of the engraved silver marmalade pots. Food and designed minded visitors looking for the perfect seashore getaway will feel right at ease here.
from $130/night including meals
One night was not enough. My husband and I spent a single night at this under-the-radar ryokan in November and fell hard for the place. The family-owned property is hidden down a long woodsy road on the outskirts of Shima and pressed up against the water with views that don’t disappoint. For onsen lovers, it’s hard to beat. The “hinoki” (cypress) onsen overlook the harbor and have a handmade feel to them, as does everything on this property. There is a small garden with a hand hewn ping pong table and a lounge fireplace with a gorgeous carved mantle and drift wood pieces that capture the spirit of Ise Peninsula’s simple but slightly rugged landscape. The food was excellent too—nabe in paper bowl with chicken and shrimp, fresh oysters, lotus root, dry sake, fragrant and rich chowanmushi, sashimi, scallops, and crispy light tempura. The owner, who used to work for Mikimoto Pearls, took us for a cruise on his boat with his shibu inu named Madeline, where we watched a orange and pink sunset fill up the sky over Shima National Park, with islands running off in the distance to where larger mountains overlapped one another like an ancient Chinese painting.
from $650/night including meals
Good hotel food is a rarity. So are two excellent meals back to back. Both of those feats were accomplished with aplomb during our one night November stay at this superb ryokan in Kinosaki, a small onsen town on Honshu’s Southwest coast. Nishimuraya is one of the best ryokan I’ve ever stayed at, in the same league as Hiiragiya in Kyoto, which I stayed at last year and which made multiple Best of 2015 lists. Here, there are two different properties, an old ryokan and a modern hotel and both are excellent. But the Honkan property was slightly better because of its spacious tatami mat rooms, Japanese garden views, and service like no other. Our server Yumiko spoke perfect English, was hard working, charming and three dimensional all at once. And the food was a knock out. The crab kaiseki dinner at Nishimuraya Honkan Ryokan came with tofu sunroot, wasabi oroshi, smoked duck, charcoal crab, and warm sake with a crab leg in it. Breakfast at both properties also outstanding, especially the tamago onsen, an egg soft boiled in the onsen thermal water. Ralph ordered the western breakfast at the Honkan and it came with its own electric toaster oven! Such are the extremes that the staff will go to ensure you’re meal is extraordinary, which it most definitely was.
11 Excellent Stays
Underrated Tokyo hotel in a quiet residential Tokyo neighborhood with excellent Japanese restaurant, superb western restaurant (California Café), and a hidden 16th century garden. Ask for one of the refurbed rooms with a garden view.
Beautiful grand old waterfront hotel with nothing between your balcony and Lake Como. We loved the balcony and its tranquil view so much, we ordered pizza in and ate it there.
8 days from $1,899
I’m not a cruise person, but Viking’s striking new ships are a cut above standard cruise liners. Eames chairs, Frank Gehry cross-check furniture, a mosaic-lined infinity pool and a full-service spa with a snow grotto, bubbly thermal bath, and cavernous steam room are a few of the perks. Other bonuses include 24/7 free room service and an excellent library stocked with explorer titles and rare out of print books. Gloriously, no kids under 18 are allowed and free wifi throughout the ship. Free wine and beer, too. But rooms are a highlight, too, with high quality bedding, large comfortable beds and sliding doors that open to private balconies.
Views of gushing Staubach Waterfall, one of 72 in the Lauterbrunnen valley, from our wrap around balcony made this stat worth double what we paid. The service downstairs was especially friendly and informative. People often think Switzerland is too expensive, and while food costs can run high, there are dozens of great small hotels like this run by folks who will stop at nothing to make sure you are taken good care of. The scenic valley is also the inspiration for J.R. Tolkien’s Rivendell, the elvish wonderland in The Lord of The Rings,’ and is every bit as inspiring. A 3-4 hour hike from Mürren was an excellent way to enjoy the area’s various vantages.
from $150/night including meals and excursions
My two night January stay at this 2,000-acre eco-lodge was an eye opening journey to the world of Cloud forests colobri (hummingbirds). The lodge’s tree-house-like perch on a misty ridge is probably the best place to see hummingbirds in all of Ecuador, mostly at its dozen-plus feeders. The property is also renown for its excellent ten kilometer network of trails, on which I saw squawky mountain-toucans, snake-sized earth worms, and learned about epiphytes and the differences between bromeliads and orchids. I planted myself on the bench outside the library and photographed the hummer rush hour one late afternoon—the busiest time at the feeders—and saw no less than 40 different species of birds, including colorful, big name non-hummingbirds like the masked trogon, toucan barbet, lemon-rumped tanager, and cinnamon flycatcher. Hummingbirds are the most popular and I saw the buzzing bee-like purple throated woodstar, the booted racket-tail with its forked blue tail and white furry legs, and the glorious violet-tailed sylph, with its incredibly long turquoise tail that elegantly rolls through the air during feeder visits. This is Ecuador’s most committed eco-lodge. It’s complex of rooms have super comfortable beds, spacious heated rooms, and flush toilets.
I spent three nights at this gorgeous property in October and felt so at home during the entire stay. The landmark building is planted at the end of Budapest’s Chain Bridge with views of the copper-hued Buda Castle and the Danube. The former Art Nouveau palace features wrought-iron gates and peacock stained glass windows and is full of palatial grandeur. The 1906 gem was designed by Art Nouveau architect Zsigmond Quittner. Its 179 rooms offer a contemporary style, many with river views, while a 12-metre lap pool, a Clarins spa and a gym occupy the top floor while the ground-floor café, restaurant and bar have a cosmopolitan buzz all their own. But it’s always the service that’s a standout at Four Seasons. The staff are warm and three dimensional and treat guests like humans.
Located on a ridge overlooking Lugano, a city in Switzerland’s Italian speaking canton about 20 minutes from Lake Como. The hotel opened in September 2015 but I stayed in February 2016. It’s situated on a hill overlooking Lake Lugano and the surrounding Alps. The “stack of white cubes” is uber modern and on par with an Aman design, but with an Italian flair. 18 spacious rooms, including two suites, are designed in the style of a yacht, with teak furnishings chosen by architect Alessandro Gallon and each with a spacious balcony overlooking the lake. Rooms are filled with great touches like custom made 100% cashmere bathrobes and throws, Ortigia bath products, a complimentary minibar stocked with Eataly snacks and high end tea, coffee, whisky and gin, and a choice of satin, linen or cotton bedding, 24-hour room service, and deep soaking tubs. The hotel regularly arranges private jet shopping excursions to Paris and Milano, helicopter tours, boat excursions on Lake Lugano and Lake Como but shorter excursions were more in my budget, like the fleet of complimentary electric cars and e-bikes.
This is probably the cheapest 5-start hotel I’ve ever stayed in, which to be frank, is the reason it’s on my list. The building is the tallest in Semarang, a businessy port city on Java’s north coast. The lobby is grand and the extensive breakfast buffet featuring a variety of cuisines is a knockout. I stayed here for one night en route to Borneo in March, and unfortunately, I was sick on arrival so didn’t get a chance to enjoy the hotel as much as I should have. But when you’re sick in a foreign land, an occupational hazard of my job, it’s comforting to have a place like this to bunk down and sweat it out for the night.
This property also made my Excellent Meals list. Amankila on Bali’s lesser visited eastern coast is a perfect antidote to bustling Ubud. Another Ed Tuttle masterpiece, the resort is built into a former coconut plantation on an unfathomably steep mountain slope. Here, Tuttle pays homage to Eastern Bali’s Karangasem Palaces with a three-tier pool, inspired by terraced rice paddies, that spills down the mountain. At the base is a private beach overlooking the Lombok Strait and lorded over by lanky, elegant coconut palms. Pampering reaches new heights here as the beach staff nurture me with pińa coladas, soft shell crab tacos and fish burgers in between sets of body boarding and kayaking. After a hearty dose of salt water and sun, I’m whisked by electric cart back up the mountain to my villa, where I cool off in my private infinity pool.
rooms from $345
This Nishimuruya, the hotel annex property, is no shrinking violet to its sister Nishimiruya Honkan. The hotel has an excellent English speaking staff and several onsen baths in which to soak, including themed private baths for couples that overlook the evergreen forests of Mount Kuruhi, spacious in room onsen and hinoki ofuro soaking tubs, and an onsen for hotel guests. The food was also outstanding.
rooms from $190
This splashy old hotel, refurbed in 2016, is perched atop a woodsy hill on Shima’s roughhewn Rias Coast, hosted the G7 Ise-Shima Summit in spring 2016, and is full of stories that may never go beyond its walls. At first glance, it may look like a faceless megaresort, but its walls are lovingly decorated with generations of Japanese artists, its restaurants churn out consistently excellent cuisine, both western and Japanese, and its views of Ago Bay and its woodsy surroundings are breathtaking.
13 Noteworthy Stays
1. Alpenroyal, Val Gardena, Sud Tirol, Italy
2. Amandari, Bali, Indonesia
3. Alila Ulu Watu, Bali, Indonesia
4. Rondon Ridge, Mt. Hagen, Papua New Guinea
5. Margot House, Barcelona, Spain
6. Amerigo 1936, Savigno, Italy
7. Hotel Gammel Skovriddergaard, Silkeborg, Denmark
8. Hotel Ameron, Hamburg, Germany
9. Boringdon Hall, Devon, England
10. Pax Montana, Flüeli-Ranft, Switzerland
11. Seminar and Wellness Hotel, Stoos, Switzerland
12. Amanemu, Shima, Japan
13. Risveglio, Tokyo, Japan
The Full List
1. Inca Real, Cuenca, Ecuador
2. Bellavista Lodge, Mindo, Ecuador
3. Sisakuna Lodge, Mindo, Ecuador
4. Alpenroyal Sud Tirol, Italy
5. Baglioni, Milano, Italy
6. Nira Alpina, Engadine, Switzerland
7. Suvretta House, St Moritz, Switzerland
8. Hotel&SPA Internazionale, Bellizona, Switzerland
9. The View, Lugano, Switzerland
10. Chalet Stella Alpina, Bedretto, Ticino, Switzerland
11. Amanjiwo, Java, Indonesia
12. Gumaya Tower Hotel, Semarang, Java, Indonesia
13. Deluxe Klotok Riverboat I , Tanjung Putting, Boreno, Indonesia
14. Alila Ulu Watu, Bali, Indonesia
15. Amanwana, Moyo Island, Indonesia
16. Amandari, Bali, Indonesia
17. Amankila, Bali, Indonesia
18. Rondon Ridge, Mt. Hagen, Papua New Guinea
19. Ambua Lodge, Tari, PNG
20. Kawawari Lodge, Sepik River, PNG
21. Hotel du Musee Gare, Mulhouse, France
22. Casa Bonay, Barcelona, Spain
23. Margot House, Barcelona, Spain
24. Viking Sea, Paris to Bergen
25. Radisson Blu, Bergen, Norway
26. Gjáargarður, Gjógv, Faroe Islands
27. Hotel Forayar, Faroe Islands
28. Torshavn Hotel, Faroe Islands
29. Hotel Staubbach, Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland
30. Albergo Ristaurante, Sensole Lago di Iseo, Monteisolo
31. Hotel Torino, Parma, Italy
32. Amerigo 1936, Savigno, Italy
33. B&B I Cappanni di Raggio, Italy
34. Albergo Degli Affreshi, Montefalco, Umbria, Italy
35. NH Collection, Rome, Italy
36. Seminar and Wellness Hotel, Stoos, Switzerland
37. Bertazzi B&B, Ticino, Switzerland
38. Dobra Vila, Soca Valley, Slovenia
39. Nebesa, Soca Valley, Slovenia
40. Seminar and Wellness, Stoos (again)
41. Golzernsee Gasthaus, Golzern, Canton Uri, Switzerland
42. Hotel Bellavista, Mennagio, Como, Italy
43. Hotel Callier, Gruyere, Switzerland
44. Marselis Hotel, Aarhus, Denmark
45. Hotel Gammel Skovriddergaard, Silkeborg, Denmark
46. Cabinn, Aarhus, Denmark
47. Benen-Diken-Hof, Keitum, Sylt, Germany
48. Hotel Ameron, Hamburg, Germany
49. London Kensington House, London, England
50. Boringdon Hall, Devon, England
51. Seaside Boarding House, Dorset, England
52. Pax Montana, Flueli, Switzerland
53. Aria Budapest, Budapest, Hungary
54. Four Seasons, Budapest, Hungary
55. Viking Sea, Venice to Athens
56. Hotel Corona D’oro, Bologna, Italy
57. Palace Maria Luigi, Parma, Italy
58. Sheraton Miyako, Tokyo, Japan
59. Karuizawa Prince Hotel, Karuizawa, Japan
60. Shima Kanko, Shima, Japan
61. Amanoshima, Toba, Japan
62. Amanemu, Shima, Japan
63. Hiogiso, Shima, Japan
64. Nishimuruya Shogetsutei, Kinosaki, Japan
65. Nishimuruya Honkan, Kinosaki
66. Risveglio, Tokyo, Japan
67. Hotel Menini, Milan, Italy