When it comes to high-end hotels, what really sets one apart from another? Luxury travelers expect all five-star stays to offer an amazing room and amenities, so what might make a Fairmont stand out over a Four Seasons, or a Baccarat better than a Belmond? We’ve stayed at hundreds of exclusive properties worldwide, and we believe it’s service and unique details that turn a luxury hotel into an Iconic stay. Here are a few favorites that do it right.
THE RANCH AT ROCK CREEK
The Ranch at Rock Creek, a Relais & Chateaux property nestled into one of the most pristine valleys in Montana, is the first guest ranch in the world to earn a Forbes Five-Star award. The Ranch takes glamping to a new level, with 29 individual accommodations from one-bedroom suites to five-bedroom homes. The ranch offers a host of winter activities including the Indulgent Frontiersman, where I learned survival skills while on a snowmobile tour, to a new Après Ski & Spa package where you can combine downhill skiing and snowboarding with blissful treatments in the Granite Spa. My memorable moments included an early morning candlelit yoga class that started by moonlight and included sun salutations as sunrise began, and a Saturday night ranch dinner that ended with a spin around the dancefloor with a dashing cowboy from the ranch.
Good times are brewing at Hotel Emma in San Antonio. Located on the famous River Walk and housed in a 19th century brewhouse that maintained many of its original fixtures and even equipment from the brewing days, the 146-room boutique property stands out with great loft-like design, modern and historic aesthetics, and local touches. It’s the attention to detail that elevates Hotel Emma. A culinary concierge is on-hand to organize private chef dinners in your suite, or advise guests of hidden pop-up dinners around town. In the suites and rooms, locally tailored Dos Carolinas Guayabera robes let you lounge in style while indulging on a selection of goods sourced from Texas purveyors like Ms. Chocolatier and Frontier Tortilla Chips, in the charming “Ice Box.” As a writer, the 3,700-volume library from the collection of a local historian provides the perfect alcove in which to while away a rainy afternoon.
RITZ-CARLTON DOVE MOUNTAIN
With the debut of a floor-to-ceiling renovation of all its guest rooms, The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain near Tucson was one of just eight hotels in the world to earn a five-star rating from Forbes for both the resort and its spa. One of my favorite memories from a past stay was roasting s’mores, so I love that the 14 Fireside Mountain rooms added in the renovation come with a s’mores kit as the turndown amenity.
In addition to completely remodeled rooms, all of the main meeting spaces were redone, and the Aventura and Turquesa pools both got a refresh. I’d heard a rumor that employees at any Ritz-Carlton are empowered to solve a guest problem or create a special experience for guests. During my stay, I had many conversations with the server I always seemed to get. Imagine my surprise and delight to return to my room and have a basket of spa goodies sent to me by her. It’s touches like that which become vivid memories.
Travelers often pick a destination for its unique history, so when a hotel also has a storied past it can make for a deeper connection to the place. Such is the case with the newly opened Drisco Hotel in the up-and-coming American Colony area of Tel Aviv. The 42-room Leading Hotel of the World pays homage to its unique past when a self-proclaimed prophet from Maine moved 40 American families to Palestine in 1866, and two disciples, John and George Drisco, tried to build the hotel. They ran out of funds and the hotel was eventually completed by a German Templar.
Mark Twain and Thomas Cook were frequent guests. Today, the hotel’s design reflects its mixed cultural past. The friendliness of the hotel’s staff is a standout, as is the art featuring local Israeli artists. The hotel does daily tours; cocktail in hand, you’ll learn about its history, the neighborhood and the art. For guests who want to dive deeper into the art culture, the hotel offers visits to independent ateliers and VIP tickets for the Bat Sheva Ballet and The Gesher Theater next door.
BACCARAT NEW YORK
Baccarat crystal is the epitome of luxury. That iconic luxury is authentically captured in the Baccarat Hotel in New York City. Timeless heritage and elegance gracefully combine with modern amenities and flair to create an atmosphere akin to staying in a fine French chateau in the world’s most dynamic city. Most of the furniture and accessories were custom designed and, naturally, Baccarat crystal is woven into many features. The Grand Salon is designed with champagne-colored silk drapery with vibrant red roses arranged into an elegant ball perched on the bar. There are even Glass Attendants, employees whose entire job is caring for the crystal. My favorite use, though, is Bedside Bubbles: simply press the CHAMPAGNE button on the phone and your favorite bubbly is delivered to the room with Baccarat flutes. To look as pretty as the hotel itself, suite guests can receive a complimentary blowout in the room from the hair artists at the Paul Labrecque Salon.
If you’ve ever dreamed of being a princess (or prince) Ballyfin Demesne in County Laois, Ireland is your fantasy come to life. This lavish former country mansion is set on 614 acres and features a scant 20 rooms. After eight years of restoration, the house is as over-the-top as Versailles and feels like going back in time, albeit with all the modern conveniences of 2018. My room, the Westmeath, made me feel like I had stepped into the role of a Disney Princess with its 19th-Century carved wooden bed, which has the most ornate circle canopy I’ve ever seen. The bed is so impressive it literally sits in the center of the room. The fantasy continued as our group opted for the costume experience. With a selection of more than 40 outfits from the Lyric Opera in Chicago, it’s dress-up time for adults as we morphed into 19th-Century ladies and gents for a fun-filled dinner.
When wellness is on the menu, check into one of the 49 casitas at Rancho Valencia, Southern California’s only Relais & Chateaux property. The 45-acre property near Del Mar will make you think you’ve landed in the Mediterranean with its olive trees, gardens and design. The healthy California lifestyle sets this property apart. There are more than 95 complimentary fitness classes a week, and a fitness butler will meet you after each one with a pressed green juice or protein shake as a reward for completing a workout. With 18 tennis courts on property, including two new ClayTech courts, this former college tennis player is in heaven. It’s no surprise to me that it is Tennis Magazine’s perennial top tennis resort in the country. A new partnership, the first in America, with Pinarello Bikes (The Ferrari of cycling), allows guests to explore the area on the best two wheels money can buy.
Zurich may be the financial capital of Europe, but for visitors who want an Old World European experience in this modern mecca, the Widder Hotel is a hidden gem. Located in Old Town, the five-star hotel was created by combining several 700-year-old former guild houses in an incredible adaptive reuse project. While the hotel includes a large collection of modern art from artists like Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, it’s the old architecture and history that make the Widder shine. Walking into my junior suite, I felt like I was staying in an art museum as I saw the impressive Renaissance mural that spans one full wall. The wood panel walls and an ornate beamed ceiling are stunning, as are modern luxe comforts like the Bang & Olfsen TV and stereo . The Widder surprises guests with the Widder Garage, one of the hottest nightclubs in the city, and this winter with its pop-up restaurant, Chez Vrony, a room converted into a traditional ski chalet serving raclette and Ruinart Champagne. Cheers to that!