Each year, we have the pleasure of recalling our travels over the past 12 months and singling out a number of particularly memorable hotels and experiences. These properties and events made our well-traveled editors’ list of the best of the best from the previous year.
Like many baths in luxury hotels, the one in our corner suite at Sparkling Hill Resort in British Columbia was both large and lavish. The centerpiece was a freestanding soaking tub, where overhead, a starscape of Swarovski crystals lit up at the touch of a switch. Near the vanity, a door opened onto a private cedar-paneled sauna/steam room. But what elevated the room to truly spectacular was its floor-to-ceiling glass wall that framed an unobstructed view of shimmering Okanagan Lake 1,250 feet below.
The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe provides an atmosphere convivial for young and old alike. For $100 per child, the “Indoor Campout Package” ensures that your guest room will include a cozy, linen-lined children’s tent, complete with a teddy bear and s’mores kit. Judging from the reaction of my niece, this is money well spent. Besides being located 50 yards away from Northstar’s Kid’s Ski + Board School, the hotel also offers a supervised program for children, with seasonal activities such as snowshoe hikes and scavenger hunts.
Las Isletas, an archipelago of 365 islands scattered into Lake Nicaragua by the explosion of Mombacho Volcano, is an environment of extraordinary beauty. And excursions from Jicaro Island Ecolodge allow guests to experience this natural grandeur to the full. One day, we headed to shore by motorboat, passing tiny islands crowded with birds. At the dock, we launched our kayaks and began threading our way through pristine wetlands, spotting egret, osprey, heron and anhinga (American darter). A warm channel led to natural hot springs, where we indulged in a therapeutic soak. Leaving our kayaks behind, we hiked through the dry tropical forest at the base of Mombacho, a dramatic landscape studded with giant black boulders. Our guide pointed out edible wild fruits and other plants, and even discovered a small bat sleeping in the crack of a rock. (Those with more time can explore the cloud forests of Mombacho Volcano, the enigmatic petroglyphs of Zapatera and the Isla de la Muerte, as well as the charming market town of Masaya.) Later, I took out a kayak on my own and explored the lake. Some islands in the archipelago seem barely large enough for the thatch-roofed homes occupying them. All the while, I returned the cheerful waves of local residents, Nicaragua’s Venetians, as they headed home from work or school in their own small boats. It was with some reluctance that I turned in my paddle later that afternoon.
When the guides at Tierra Patagonia presented options for outdoor adventures, the Condoreras climb instantly caught my fancy. The long but reasonable hike up a sloping ridge promised dramatic views of the surrounding peaks, as well as the likelihood of spotting giant condors, who favor the area’s jagged cliffs for nesting sites. Tramping ever higher, we found the views of the massive granite towers in distant Torres del Paine National Park awe-inspiring. Then, close to the summit, as if someone had shouted, “Cue the condors,” four of the majestic birds soared directly overhead. It was a thrilling highlight in an unforgettable day.
Neyen has long supplied grapes to winemakers throughout Chile’s Colchagua Valley and beyond. Walking through the vineyards, I had the privilege of seeing gnarled vines that were over 120 years old and still bearing fruit. Ten years ago, the owners decided to make wine themselves. Today, Neyen produces just one wine: a blend of Carmenère and Cabernet Sauvignon. After the field tour, we retired to a beautiful old adobe building. There, we sampled the 2005. Rich in red berry flavors and balanced by just the right acidity, it proved a wine of wonderful finesse and structure.
Garzón, a tiny town 20 miles north of José Ignacio in Uruguay, is undergoing a renaissance. Outsiders are busy restoring the old brick houses that surround its tidy main square. Among them is renowned Argentine chef Francis Mallmann, proprietor of El Garzón, an enchanting five-room inn with a superb restaurant. Although not a luxury destination, this distinctive hotel is very comfortable. On our arrival, Guido, a friendly Argentinean, settled us into a small but pretty room with a beamed ceiling, a wood-plank floor and faded chintz curtains. Having freshened up, we descended for lunch. This proved to be a superb meal of prawns wrapped in bacon on a bed of tomatoes with red onions in a lemon vinaigrette, and a lamb T-bone with oven-blasted potatoes seasoned with tapenade. The Argentinean wines—a dry Chardonnay-Viognier and a Petit Verdot—were first-rate. Dinner comprised grilled beets with goat cheese and garlic chips, followed by an excellent steak cooked over a eucalyptus wood fire. It is a testament to the quality of the food that, although we weren’t at all hungry, we thoroughly enjoyed every last morsel.
Botswana’s Selinda Reserve enjoys a unique location, being virtually equidistant from the Okavango Delta, Linyanti Swamp and Savuti Marsh, three legendary wildlife areas connected by two waterways, the Savuti Channel and the Selinda Spillway. Selinda is part of an immense and pristine wilderness area that offers, arguably, the greatest wildlife-viewing on earth. Of course, wildlife sightings are never guaranteed, but on our recent trip we were in luck. The animal that still gives me the greatest thrill is the leopard, partly because it is so beautiful, and partly because it is extremely shy and elusive. With the exception of a few places (such as Sabi Sand Reserve in northeast South Africa) where they have become habituated to safari vehicles, leopard are generally spotted in the roving beam of a spotlight at night. Having left Zarafa Camp just after sunrise, however, we were lucky enough to find a mother and a handsome full-grown cub strolling at the edge of the Selinda Spillway in broad daylight. For some reason, they were completely unfazed by our presence, and we were able to follow them, sometimes to within 30 feet, for nearly half-an-hour. It was the finest leopard sighting that I have enjoyed over dozens of African safaris spanning more than three decades.
Located 135 miles northwest of Johannesburg, Madikwe Game Reserve is close to South Africa’s border with Botswana. Back in 1991, the government decided that the most appropriate use for this 185,000-acre tract of arid bushveld would be wildlife conservation. The existing cattle farms had not prospered, and their owners were happy to accept financial compensation. Twenty years later, Madikwe is South Africa’s fifth-largest game reserve, enclosed by a 95-mile perimeter fence and home to 66 mammal species, including lion, leopard, cheetah, elephant and wild dog. Operation Phoenix, which concluded in 1997, was the largest wildlife translocation exercise the world has yet seen. One evening, as the heat began to drain out of the sun, we set off on a game drive from Mateya Safari Lodge. In places beside the red dirt road, it was still possible to see the ghostly outlines of former farm buildings. Soon, however, all signs of human habitation had disappeared, and we were entirely enclosed by the sights and sounds of the wild. Turning a corner, we were abruptly confronted by a pack of wild dog, its 20 or so members socializing, grooming and lying semi-concealed in the dry grass, awaiting twilight and the beginning of the nightly hunt. Today, there are fewer than 5,000 wild dog in the whole of Africa. But thanks to determined conservation efforts at Madikwe and places like it, maybe the species still has an outside chance to survive.
Returning to Amantaka after a hot afternoon of sightseeing in the lovely Laotian city of Luang Prabang, it was a relief to slip into the cool, serene, votive candle-lit spa for the signature treatment. Four contrasting massage oils were followed by a blissful body wrap, during which I was slathered with lemongrass and white clay and swathed in white cotton. It was perhaps the most enjoyable spa treatment I’ve ever had.
Located in Galle, Sri Lanka, Amangalla occupies a 1684 building, which once housed the colonial New Oriental Hotel; after a complete refurbishment, it opened as an Amanresort in 2005. Today, the Zaal (Great Hall) remains accessible to the public, and the restaurant and adjoining veranda are integral to the social life of the town. Beyond the reception, however, is an idyllic walled garden reserved for hotel guests. Its centerpiece is an exquisite 70-foot jade-green swimming pool, beside which pristine white loungers are partially shaded by swaying palm fronds. It is an ineffably peaceful spot in which to read and to dream.
The 50 villas at Vietnam’s Six Senses Con Dao overlook Bai Dat Doc, a broad, gently curving mile-long strand of dazzling sand lapped by the tranquil aquamarine waters of the South China Sea. The beach is backdropped by darkly forested mountains within the 50,000-acre Con Dao National Park.
Simon O’Hara, Coopershill, County Sligo, Ireland — Although Coopershill is not at the pinnacle of luxury, it embodies the spirit of Irish hospitality at its best. presiding over the Georgian house that his family has owned since 1774, Simon O’Hara could not be more gracious and helpful. during our recent trip, he was to be found at breakfast each morning, helping to serve the wonderful dishes of eggs and Irish meats, and always ready with insightful tips and touring suggestions (for which he would later provide annotated maps). in the evening, he hosted the cocktail hour with consummate charm and then transferred to the dining room, where, in turn, he engaged each table in fluent and solicitous conversation.
Davenport Lounge, New Orleans — This lounge was a high- light of our recent stay in New Orleans. Jeremy Davenport and his talented band performed jazz standards for well-dressed couples savoring the romance of the moment (as well as the smoothest Sazeracs in the city). Davenport Lounge is the antithesis of Bourbon Street: elegant, relaxed and civilized. And considering its location in The Ritz-Carlton, the cocktails are quite reasonably priced.
Ballyfin, Ireland — To stay in the magnificently restored Regency manor house Ballyfin is to experience a self-contained world of beauty. The magic extends to the superb restaurant. There, chef Fred Cordonnier creates exceptional dishes such as plump West Cork diver scallops with eel, peas and wild garlic; and succulent beef filet enriched with oxtail, morels and veal sweetbreads. The attentive food and beverage director, the aptly named Frederic Poivre, expertly guides you through the wine list, which begins with a selection from Bordeaux châteaux founded by the so-called “Wild Geese,” Irishmen who fled to France in the 17th century. All in all, Ballyfin provides a dining experience that few hotels can match.