Each year, we enjoy looking back on certain hotel amenities that we especially enjoyed over the course of the previous 12 months. Sometimes, a single element — a spa, a beach, a particular service — can elevate a hotel from excellent to unforgettable. In 2021, we felt more than usually grateful to be able to experience such pleasures.
Playa Xpu-Ha, Mexico
Extending along the coast from the south of Cancún down to Tulum, the Riviera Maya offers palm-studded beaches and warm weather year-round. Our preferred property in the region, the newly recommended Hotel Esencia was built right on Playa Xpu-Ha, a dazzling white-sand beach dotted with palms and backed by canopied jungles. The calm, turquoise waters are shallow and ideal for swimming. The ocean floor has few rocks, though water shoes are available. Some hotels along the coast are plagued by invasive seaweed that washes up on the sand from April to August during sargassum season, but Esencia makes great efforts to keep its private stretch of beach clear. Aside from an idyllic location to swim or to laze beneath a thatched cabana, Playa Xpu-Ha is also a haven where giant sea turtles bury their clutches in the sand. In August, guests can witness a baby sea turtle release.
Lisciano Niccone, Italy
Of the potential winners of this award, one pool in Umbria stood out. Castello di Reschio’s precise oval of water is almost flush with the lawn, rising an inch or two above it — just enough to give it a sculptural quality. Its black-blue color makes it difficult to see the bottom, turning it into a giant mirror reflecting the castle and surrounding umbrella pines. Some loungers face a distant green ridge, but no chair has a poor view. We faced the castle, separated from neighboring guests by a hedge (well-spaced seating groups ensure that the pool generally feels uncrowded). Our loungers’ plush cushions and thick pillows made them unusually comfortable. And not least important, the staff of Bar il Torrino, housed in an old watchtower, provided attentive service. I enjoyed a light lunch of a zucchini panini and a glass of crisp rosé, followed by refreshing lemon-mint gelato. The prospect of relaxing beside this pool is enough alone to make me want to book a return trip to Italy.
Rancho Santa Fe, California
The comfort of our 1,000-square-foot Olive Grove casita at Rancho Valencia was magnified by our spacious deluxe bath. Bottles of fragrant orange-and-tangerine Natura Bissē products were nearly full size; the deep soaking tub — complete with bath salts — at the center of the room was inviting; and the large glass shower doubled as a steam room. Beyond the lavish extras was the seductive beauty of the space. The chandelier’s wrought-iron design, mirroring the swirls of the hand-painted tiles, cast dreamlike shadows around the room. But it was also functional: The closet offered ample hanging space and enough capacity for two pieces of luggage to open comfortably. Next to the double sinks, there was a makeup mirror, seating area and small television. The swaddling oversize Frette robe made us feel at home, as if in our own personal spa.
Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya
The first thing that people tell you about Angama Mara is that it has “the best view in Africa.” Compliments about the quality of the accommodations, the food, the staff and the profusion of the local wildlife invariably come later. Prior to my arrival, this was an assessment that I treated with a degree of skepticism, as, in my experience, Africa has no shortage of unforgettable views. But it turns out they’re not wrong. The name “Angama Mara” is a Maasai phrase that is generally translated as “suspended in midair,” and the lodge is perched at the edge of a dramatic escarpment 1,000 feet above the plains of the Maasai Mara. From the main terrace and the balconies of all 30 suites, the panorama is stupendous. Vast green savannas, adorned with dark stripes of forest, extend to the northern edge of the Serengeti, 30 miles away. On arrival, my suitcase remained unopened for an hour or more, and I just sat on a rocking chair gazing in rapture at the emerald landscape. Far below, it was possible to make out groups of elephant and giraffe that appeared to be little more than children’s toys scattered across an expanse of verdant lawn. That evening, I set my alarm for 4 a.m., in order to wake before dawn to watch the sun rise over Africa. The experience was transformative. If I were told that, alas, tomorrow would be my last day on earth, this is how I would choose for it to begin.
Lanai City, Hawaii
Duty demands that I test the services of numerous spas over the course of a year, and despite the difficulties hotels have recently faced, their spa arms race continues unabated. But if I could pick just one of them to revisit, it would be that of Sensei Lanai. My highly therapeutic Lomi ‘A’e massage, conducted according to principles of ancient Hawaiian medicine, took place in an exquisite private spa hale, a sort of Japanese-inspired temple to relaxation. The shoji screen-lined treatment space was appointed with comfortable chairs, a deep wooden soaking tub and two massage tables. A separate room contained a spacious double steam shower and a sauna. And out back was a private garden with an onsen pool and the largest rainfall shower I’ve ever seen. It must have been three feet across. What a wrench it was to leave this luxurious pleasure pavilion.
Castelnuovo dell’Abate, Italy
The stylish hilltop Castello di Velona purports to have “the warmest thermal waters of the Val d’Orcia,” and its magnificent two-level outdoor pool, with splendid views over unspoiled Montalcino countryside, takes full advantage of them. But we didn’t need to go to the main pool for a therapeutic soak. We could enjoy the castle’s thermal spring waters in our UNESCO View Terrace Junior Suite. In the bath, a travertine-lined tub just big enough for two had been sunk into the floor. In addition to the expected hot and cold taps, it had a third that produced water straight from the thermal spring. It was certainly warm enough for a comfortable soak, and though the water was doubtless already mineral-rich, we tossed in some fragrant bath salts for good measure. I’ve enjoyed countless luxurious hotel-room baths over the years, but I can’t recall ever having the option to have thermal spring water delivered directly to my tub.