The Dolomites, Italy
Accessible only via private cable car, Vigilius Mountain Resort is a magical floating world of light-filled wood-and-glass buildings atop a 5,000-foot peak. The resort comprises 35 rooms and six suites. With an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, and doors that opened directly to a grassy, tree-lined knoll, our expansive suite was the ultimate in indoor-outdoor living. Pale larch wood was the dominant material for floors and walls, while deep-red accents added warmth and comfort. Well-chosen furnishings provided elegance and Tyrolean character. The exceptionally stylish bath was done in the same lovely larch wood, and came with a separate tiled shower.
The great luxury of staying at 5,000 feet is, of course, world-class hiking right from the front door. After an energetic trek through the mountain pines, the transition to the resort’s tranquil spring-water infinity pool was extremely welcome. The excellent spa has an extensive menu of treatments with an emphasis on natural oils infused with mountain herbs. There are many secluded spots to hide away with a book or a glass of wine. The lounge has an open fireplace and an adjoining outdoor terrace, while the intimate library area is better suited to individual reading. There are two very good restaurants. The more rustic Parlour Ida serves food typical of the Alto Adige/Südtirol: gnocchi-like dumplings with fresh slaw; chicken broth with barley and vegetables; homemade cakes and strudel; and an assortment of local wines. Upstairs, Restaurant 1500 offers light contemporary cuisine against a backdrop of soaring mountain views. Lingering over dinner and gazing out at the panorama, we felt privileged to spend time in such an astonishing place.
Lake Como, Italy
The 1910-vintage Grand Hotel Tremezzo is built on a steep lakeside plot, so on our arrival, we took an elevator up three floors to reception. Service at the front desk was charming and efficient, and we were promptly escorted to the new, fifth-floor all-suite “hotel within a hotel.”
Unlike the opulent period décor elsewhere, these Rooftop Suites display a refined contemporary design. Our suite comprised a sitting room with sofa and armchair, and a white marble-topped table. A library wall unit in walnut veneer housed a Loewe sound system, plus a selection of sumptuous art books. The bath was well-designed, faced in cocoa-colored travertine and fitted with a whirlpool tub and a stall shower. The best feature of our suite, however, was a huge private terrace with a Jacuzzi, which afforded a spectacular view over the lake.
The hotel’s grand and vibrantly colored public areas include a billiards room, a huge lounge and an excellent bar with a cocktail list that offered notable grappas. The main La Terrazza Restaurant offers sublime views of the lake and the town of Bellagio directly opposite. It is overseen by 83-year-old Gualtiero Marchesi, widely considered to be the founder of modern Italian cuisine. An impressive spa offers treatments by ESPA and has a spectacular 50-foot indoor infinity pool. Adjustable water jets enable swimmers to forge against a current. And there are also five kinds of Jacuzzi, including one on the lakefront specifically for hydromassage. Golf is available at the well-regarded Menaggio & Cadenabbia Golf Club just three miles away. Water skiing, sailing and windsurfing can readily be arranged.
Completed in 1916 as a refuge for artists and intellectuals, Schloss Elmau, a 135-room resort and spa, stands in a particularly scenic tract of pine-forested countryside at the foot of the snow-streaked Wetterstein Mountains. Most of the guest rooms are contemporary in style. Our Junior Suite had red-and-gold upholstery on the sofa, armchair and headboard; and a limestone and sandstone bath with a soaking tub and separate shower. Rooms in the main building with mountainview balconies are the most desirable.
The 32,000-square-foot spa is one of Schloss Elmau’s main draws. In addition to a family area with a rooftop pool, indoor pool and fitness center, an adults-only section contains an outdoor saltwater pool facing the mountains, a steam room, a sauna, a spacious relaxation lounge and an immense hammam, reportedly the largest in Europe west of Istanbul.
The property’s gourmet restaurant, Luce d’Oro, offered an exceptional tasting menu, with fascinating wine pairings. A 1994 Grüner Veltliner Spätlese came to vivid life with an exquisite dish of crayfish, and an unusual Sauvignon Blanc from Baden-Württemberg cut right through the savory richness of the “Surprise Egg” course, a slow-cooked egg hidden amid asparagus, pork cheeks and morels. In Fidelio, the resort’s dramatic Italian restaurant, I particularly enjoyed the pappardelle with rabbit ragout and mustard.
The property makes a convenient base for visiting a host of major sights, including King Ludwig II’s Schloss Neuschwanstein, the Zugspitze (Germany’s highest mountain) and the frescoed houses of Oberammergau.
Loire Valley, France
Situated outside the pretty little town of Onzain, the 36-room Domaine des Hauts de Loire occupies a creeper-covered lodge and outbuildings surrounded by a 180-acre park. At check-in, I overheard a couple from Chicago tell the receptionist that this would be their 10th visit to the property. Their affection for this civilized and casually elegant hotel turned out to be quite understandable.
Though larger rooms are to be found in the annex, we had opted for one in the main house. This provided a textbook illustration of French country style, with exposed beams, an ivy-patterned carpet, and walls covered with toile de Jouy fabric. Having settled in, we joined the other guests for aperitifs on a terrace running almost the length of the main hotel building.
Chef Rémy Giraud’s Michelin two-star restaurant is one of the principal reasons to choose this hotel. Our delicious contemporary French meal featured salmon rolled in sesame seeds with beet mousse, chicken stuffed with foie gras in a lemon verbena sauce, and a superb cheese trolley of Loire Valley chèvres. The chef’s specialties include Aquitaine caviar (cultivated in the Gironde estuary near Bordeaux) served with a tartare of langoustines, and a côte de veau pan-fried with chanterelles and accompanied by a pea coulis. My only slight disappointment was the wine list, which offered a surprisingly limited selection of regional wines.
Having slept with the windows open, we awoke to birdsong. Continental breakfast on the terrace was followed by an hour lounging beside the large heated pool. We then packed our bags and departed with genuine regret.
Located in the Oud Zuid (Old South), the Conservatorium is adjacent to Amsterdam’s Museumplein (museum square) and close to one of the city’s chicest shopping streets, P.C. Hooftstraat, as well as to the lovely Vondelpark, with its fountains and open-air theater. This magnificently restored 19th-century stone-and-brick neo-Gothic structure was built as a bank, but served most recently as the municipal conservatory.
The striking atrium lobby with its glass walls and ceiling made a great first impression, and the front desk staff couldn’t have been more welcoming or helpful. Our Junior Suite was attractive and well-thought-out. Situated under the eaves, it came with oak parquet floors, exposed beams, a soft throw rug and a long, linen-covered couch that was ideal for lounging. This delightful room was the work of Piero Lissoni, a talented architect and designer who works for many of the great names of Italian home furnishings. The bedroom was a separate area with an exceptionally comfortable bed and ample closet space, while the travertine-lined bath came with a Corian soaking tub, a separate stall shower and L’Occitane toiletries.
The hotel offers two restaurants, the Conservatorium Brasserie for casual dining in a spectacular glass-enclosed interior courtyard, and Tunes, for more gastronomically ambitious cuisine. Both are under the direction of Dutch chef Schilo van Coevorden. Other amenities include a fumoir for cigar aficionados, and a spa with a lap pool, sauna and steam room. Throughout our stay, the service was excellent. Overall, the Conservatorium is a fine new hotel and a significant addition to the city’s inventory.
Although a glamorous ski resort, Gstaad still has the character of an unspoiled Alpine village. After a five-minute drive from the station, we pulled up at the new 25-room, 31-suite Alpina Gstaad. This had a traditional whitewashed façade with weathered pine balconies, a slate roof and a cozy lobby appointed with recycled timber and Swiss antiques. Upstairs, our Grand Luxe Suite was expansive yet homey, with paneled walls, a coffered pine ceiling and a stone chimney surrounding a gas log fire. Wingback chairs stood before the fire; well-stocked bookshelves lent themselves to happy browsing; and a dining area provided a pine farm table with seating for six. The bedroom came with a Bang & Olufsen entertainment system, and an adjoining dressing room provided ample built-in closet space; while a large, well-lit bath offered a separate soaking tub and shower.
The Alpina Lounge & Bar overlooks the hotel’s heated outdoor swimming pool, and the surrounding mountains are visible through a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. Beyond the bar, we discovered the hotel’s three dining venues: a branch of New York’s Megu for Japanese cuisine; Restaurant Sommet, a Continental dining room; and the Swiss Stübli, with an Alpine menu featuring cheese specialties such as fondue and raclette. Down a level, the spectacular Six Senses Spa comes with a pool, hammam, sauna and chromotherapy suite.
For the next few days, we found it difficult to leave the hotel because we felt so comfortable and cosseted. The front-desk staff displayed easy good manners, while a smiling chambermaid routinely greeted me by name. The Alpina is an outstanding resort and a notable addition to one of Europe’s most discerning destinations.