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Richard's Picks: Best Hotels in the World, Fall 2016

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The wisdom of the crowd is a beautiful thing, except when it's not. When it comes to matters of taste, the pack tends to push quality assessments to a lower common denominator. That can be good when the bar is a best-surprise-is-no-surprise epistemology, but if you seek quality of a different metric...say, personality, artistic rendition, personalized service, even singularity, then crowd sourcing may not be the best way to go. Rotten Tomatoes is a great example, as the movie goers rarely give same marks as the professional critics, and I often align with a particular critic and take his word over the crowd. Even TripAdvisor is problematic, at least for me, beyond the suspect reviews, as the average hotel guest has appetites quite different from my own.

My work takes me to a blur of hotels each year, and I have developed a stick for certain qualities, from the magic of a daring vista, to the diacritic bathroom notions, the embroidery of comfort, and the intrigue of options.

Naturally, I think it fair to share some of my discoveries over the past months, and those I think worth exploring during the nip of Autumn, perhaps the best time to travel and escape to another bliss.

Of course, this list is hardly comprehensive, and it is highly personal and non-corporate, but it is a catalogue of those I found special and extreme in coziness, service, and that ineffable quality of heart.

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From the balcony of the Twelve Apostles Hotel and Spa. Photo by Richard Bangs

Who would have thought a little of slice of heaven would be at the bottom of the world? But here it is, halfway between Camps and Hout Bays, beneath the lofty architecture of Table Mountain and the eponymous peaks in arrears, sunning itself in all its southern splendor.

I loved the colonial style Leopard Bar at sunset, and its local oysters and crafted G&Ts, evoking the lost Africa of Hemingway; and the Malay currey at the Azure restaurant was better than anything found in the Straits of Malacca, and of course was paired with crisp Stellenbosch wines, and then finished with a creme brûlée that would be illegal in most parts of the world. The property uniquely nestles a nature conservation area, with trails winding through fynbos, past whorls of butterflies, and up the mountains behind, with smiling hammocks along the way. And, this sumptuous serai, sitting above one of the most beautiful coastal drives in the world, has so many reasons to venture outside, but also reasons to stay in. Exhibit A: It hosts its own cinema, complete with complimentary candy and popcorn, enough to make me want to check in for a month of movies.

I am a sucker for pillow menus, waterfall showers, and comforter-thick towels. And the spa appeals to my spelunking background...with the gravity pool and hot tubs set in an underground grotto with large white stones. A wire flower sculpture by Walter Ottoman, inspired by the flora around the grounds, sits splendidly by one of the two pools; paintings of the mountains and vibrant drawings of local marine life line the corridors. Through the wooden-shutters, off the large balcony in my room, I sipped a sundowner and watched a wildlife movie, only it wasn't film, it was real: whales breaching, pods of dolphins cavorting, and seals just sunbathing in the mixing waters of the South Atlantic.

Like all in the Red Carnation collection, service is personalized, anticipatory, and beyond the ken, beginning when greeted by name when entering, and continuing as though the staff somehow knows what the doctor ordered, and hands over a glass of bubbly and a cool face cloth, and onwards at every artistic turn, right until the rose petal turndown on a bed tucked with Egyptian cotton made by Frette.

The Twelve Apostles is not a Five-Star Property...it is a Twelve-Star!

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I'm not a linksman, but if I were, I would park my links here. Nestled among pine trees and sagebrush, the views overlooking the lush Torrey Pines Golf Course, and beyond to the hammered gold of the Pacific, are simply way over par. The architecture is classic American Craftsman, but without the Greene and Greene space restraints, so the rooms are the size of Scotland, with gas-log fireplaces, tiffany lamps, spa-sized tubs, showers large enough to live in, private terraces, and even room for the giant chocolate-covered strawberries to sprawl among the William Morris soft furnishings. There is something storybook European that steals about...the doorman wears a kilt; a fire roars in the fieldstone hearth; the artwork lining the halls are covers from Austrian Magazines. And there is a tranquility, coziness and a deep spruce scent that imbues every corridor, every corner, every nook.

The Torrey Pines State Reserve is just next door, with trails that wind to the sandstone cliffs, and then down to the raw beaches and surging waters (I used to trek here in my 20s for the nude beaches).

There is a billiards room, croquet court, putting green, and access to tennis courts next door, all of which I employed to great satisfaction and celebration-worthy scores. And there is something transcendental about mixing sea breeze with a Black Pepper Salmon at The Grill, on the outside veranda.

And here's a nice little topper to the experience....no hidden resort fees at checkout.

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So good it makes you want to dance. Photo by Richard Bangs

I would venture Albania is not top of mind when travelers, however experienced, think about luxury accommodations. So, what a surprise to discover the brand-new, architecturally spectacular Plaza Tirana smack in the core of the capital city. Tirana is a city on the rise, and this hotel, tallest in town, is blazing the way.

The rooms are of a modern minimalist design narrative, immaculately clean, extremely comfortable, with sweeping views of the city and the mountains beyond. The tech is bleeding edge throughout, from the multiple lighting settings, to the fully integrated entertainment center, to the speakers in the Spazio bathroom, to the zippy touch-screen elevators. The spa may be the best in the country. I loved the pink Himalayan salt relaxation room, and the hot and cold water circulation baths, in which you pace barefoot down a pebbled floor in hot water, then step into the cold pool to pace back. Then there are the scented mist showers, and the Jacuzzi with a view.

It is all pleasingly disorienting, as the expectation, at best, was less than paradise, but this property belongs in the upper ranks of a Swiss Five-Star. The staff was exceptionally helpful and spoke English crisply....one of the desk managers hand-drew me maps of all the key tourist sites, and called to double-check on hours. And, of course, the galleries, museums, open-air cafes, and the many concrete bunkers from the post WWII Enver Hoxha era are just steps away. The surrounding once grim and grey communist-style buildings are now painted pink, blue, green and orange, to mirthful effect, with the Plaza Tirana the hub that spokes to a more jaunty and delightful future.

But the real wonder is the Panevino Restaurant, just across a breezeway. The chicken salad and homemade Italian pasta here are as fine as any in the boot on the other side of the Adriatic, and far less expensive. I had four meals here, with wine, with my family of three, and the total bill came to an astonishing $81. We went on to meals and accommodations in Montenegro and Croatia, and kept wishing we had stayed at the Plaza Tirana instead.

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Room with a palatial view. Photo by Walker Bangs

With Etihad Airways once again cited as the "Best Airline in the World," its base, Abu Dhabi, has become the concourse of choice for international air travelers, and that includes yours truly. This is especially true when connecting to Africa, where I often venture, and I have continually sought out the best places to overnight and explore while in transit in the moon colony of Abu Dhabi.

I'm happy to report that Jumeirah at Etihad Towers Hotel is a dazzling bolthole, the place to restore and recharge after a day of air travel, and before continuing onwards. It may be most famous as the setting for a Fast & Furious 7 scene in which one of the super cars speeds out of one tower and lands in the middle of a cocktail reception in another. But I didn't know that when I checked in and was greeted with complimentary dates, a chilled lemon and mint juice, and a cold face towel.

From its grand spacious lobby dominated by an oversized modern bauble chandelier, and the room overlooking the Emirates Palace, marina mall, the Corniche and the piercing blue of the Arabian gulf, everything speaks to a triumph of space and high-design. I luxuriated in the free standing bath. The bed, adorned with rose petals, was so comfortable it was like sleeping on a puff of air. And the executive lounge, which takes up the entire 45th floor, is so complete you never want to leave, but especially during its Veuve Clicquot champagne hour.

There are so many exquisite touches, from the bottles of shampoo fashioned in the Etihad towers shape, to the mood lighting, electric curtains and netting, the Nespresso machine, wide-screen TV, and the three swimming pools and private beach, and even to the endless international buffet breakfast at The Rosewater Restaurant. The experience is as close to a magic carpet ride as any Arabian Night ever told.

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Prior to this last trip to Abu Dhabi, I usually stayed at the Eastern Mangroves, and that deserves a shout-out, as it, too, is excessively wondrous and hospitable. The rooms are opulent and expansive, the views across the medley of mangroves delicious, and the spa, Vichy shower room, gym and Turkish hamman are all spoiler alerts.

A sanctuary set on the waterfront, the property is part of an integrated hotel, marina, retail and residential destination, elegantly architected with all the grand arches and flourishes of Arabesque design. And the fresh Thai cuisine at Pachaylen Restaurant is as scrumptious as anything in Southeast Asia. But what really made this special for me, as someone who loves the adventure of any stay, was the kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding amid the mangroves.

When asked favorite destinations, I always include Papua New Guinea, a country as diverse and bewitching as any on earth. But in recent years it has suffered a reputation for violence, and that has kept many potential visitors at bay. However, things have improved, and along with it, the signature hotel in the capital, The Airways, an oasis just a stone's throw from the airport.

It is at once luxurious and whimsical, with a DC-3 Dakota aircraft set into the side of the hotel, and lobby decorations crafted from fuselages. The Vue restaurant, near the infinity pool on the 7th floor, has been renovated and offers brilliant food (and fresh coconut water), with a delectable view of the Owen Stanley Ranges, Bootless Bay and the nearby international runway.

Set in a hillside in a secure, park-like setting, some 200 species of fruit color in the lush botanical gardens, among a staggering array of native orchids. Vaporizers on the ground floor fill the open spaces with a divine aroma, and if that isn't appealing enough, there is always the cigar bar.

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My room came with a butler, the TV remote came wrapped in an Airways-branded leather pochette, and the bathroom offered up Crabtree & Evelyn bath products.

The coffee is brewed from local Papua New Guinea beans, among the best in the world, as Starbucks will attest. I have to give the property a bilum bag of extra points as it has squash courts (squash is my favorite ball sport, which I first played in Port Moresby when in my 20s). And, the lobby gift shop may be the best place in the city to buy native art. Even though I was scheduled to rush to the Highlands to start making a film, I asked for a late check-out just so I could hang about this sanctuary a little longer.

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Speaking of airport hotels, I would be remiss not to mention this little gem, just a few steps from the Johannesburg International Airport. If connecting from the U.S. to almost anywhere in southern Africa, it makes sense to overnight in Jozi, and this is not only convenient and affordable, but safe, quiet, and luxurious, with a free shuttle to boot.

The lobby greeting is like that of a fine resort, with cool welcoming drinks and warm hands outstretched. There is even an option for sherry. The buffet in the Kubatana Restaurant is variegated for the tastes of a score of countries, and the wine is not just South African nectar, but European, and beyond. My room was large and spotless, with crisp white linens and a variety of pillows, with funky art giving the place the personality of an idiosyncratic friend.

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I love a sleek boutique, for its originality, intimacy, and quirkiness. Often overnighting in these specialty digs is more like staying with a relative or friend who collects odd art, or vinyl, or experiences.

The Thompson is the latest entry, and it distinguishes itself with its optimal location, ultra-modern appointments, its locally-themed art, and its over-the-top rooftop bar, The Nest, offering up killer craft cocktails and decadent views overlooking Pike Place Market, the Seattle Great Wheel (lit up at night in Seattle Seahawks colors), and the ferries plying Puget Sound. The boho rooms have wall-mounted fully adjustable televisions, but why watch with these views out the floor-to ceiling-windows? There was even a telescope in my room on the 12th floor, so I could check out the channels among the islands and snow-capped Olympic volcanoes.

And what an ideal location. Eliot Bay is just down the hill. A quick saunter to the right is the Space Needle; an amble to the left is Pioneer Square.

The rainfall shower, linens, towels, bathrobes, toiletries, pillows and mattress are as good as they get, but extra points for the USB chargers and outlets right next the headboard, and the brilliant reading lights.

My elder son lives in the Seattle area, so I head to the city often, and always seek accommodations that feel less a hotel and more a second home, and the Thompson is one such hearth.

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Another new entry in the good vibe boutique space is this 70s rock & roll themed property, which has so many cool ideas, such as free pints of craft beer in the lobby during happy hour (very fun), a $5 credit towards the honor bar for guests who elect not to use housekeeping (very eco), and the Tivoli radio in the room (peachy keen). I stayed on the fifth floor in a Sub Pop room, which features a record player and a selection of classic vinyl LPs, including, of course, Nirvana. Pictures of rock stars populate throughout, even on doors, and a drum set is mounted to the wall like a trophy kill in the funky reception area. Staff uniforms are concert t-shirts, there are free gum balls in the lobby, as well as deep couches and board games. Overall, Max has just the right amount of kitsch.

It has a pillow menu, as many boutiques these days, and a Spotify playlist, but it also offers up something new in my overnight experiences: A spiritual menu. You can borrow a book to match your beliefs, including the Bhagavad Gita, Book of Mormon, The Koran, The Torah, a Buddhist text by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, "What is Scientology," and even the King James Bible.

If in the mood to move, rather than contemplate, the Max is situated smack in the beating breast of the city. The architectural treasure of the Seattle Library is just a skip away, Dimitriou's Jazz Alley just a hop, and it's a small jump to the Science Center and Chihuly Garden and Glass.

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So many years ago, when I founded the travel company Sobek, I used to take prospective clients to the Garden Court in the Palace Hotel because it was simply so stunning, so opulent, so humbling, it deliquesced any resistance to my tenders. I owe the hotel for some game-changing business.

And then there was the finale of the 1997 David Fincher film, The Game, in which Michael Douglas plunges through the curved glass ceiling of the Garden Court to an air bag and his waiting brother, played by Sean Penn. I thrilled to the movie, but mostly for the last scene which shattered glass where I often sat.

Now, this grand, historic hotel, established in 1875 as the West Coast's first luxury property, has undergone a massive re-imagination, and I checked in a few weeks ago to experience the results. The Garden Court remains one of the most impressive interior spaces in America, in the world, an ode to the gilded age of travel. I've never seen so much marble in one building. Walking past the gold-decorated columns and iron-worked staircases, beneath the huge 1909-vintage crystal chandeliers and crown molding, down the majestic hallways, past the wood-lined Pied Piper bar with its Maxfield Parrish on the wall, the Palace awes more now than ever. And wherever you want to go in the city, whatever you want to do, the Les Clef d'Ors concierge service will arrange with alacrity and a smile.

And my room was as exquisite and freshly-scented as any I have experienced. From the chess-board to the posh settees, to the four-poster king, to the Gilchrist and Soames bath products, to the Toto toilets with bidet and seat heaters, this is royal-grade luxury. And yet the renovations peek through: the retrofitted light fixtures with environmentally friendly bulbs; the recycling waste bins in the room; the multiple charging points; and even the dual sinks and cavernous tub.

I spent some time in the pool and Jacuzzi on the 4th floor in its greenhouse-like setting, gazing up through the clear glass at the surrounding skyscrapers, and then took the breakfast buffet in the Garden Court, a near-perfect spread. It is so fantastically decorated inside it felt like I was noshing in a fairy tale, or waiting in a movie for Michael Douglas to drop in.

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Photo by Walker Bangs

When garnering points for personality of a place, sometimes the proprietors propel it up the scale. That's the case with Solitaire Desert Farm, and its lord and lady, Pasquale Scaturro and Carey Peterson, both long-time friends who have committed their charisma, charm and hospitality skills to this little outpost at the pith of one of the largest game reserves in the world.

Built in 1948 as a settlement from which to farm Karakul sheep, it now boasts 15 rooms, lush gardens, an open-air restaurant, bar, two swimming pools, and coordinates to live for.

I stayed there a few weeks ago with my eldest son, and was as swept away by the accommodations, the location, and the dynamism of the overseers as with any in the world. Pasquale, who led the expedition that took the blind climber to the top of Everest, and also made the first full descent of the Nile River, can tell stories until it snows. Just ride a mountain bike to the top of a kopje late in the day, and over sundowners (G&Ts required) as the wildlife parades by, listen to the tall tales, some of which are true.

Then for dinner, enjoy fresh game meat, such as oryx and kudu, as well as Namibian beef (grass-fed and antibiotic free), and fresh fish from the Skeleton Coast, paired with Cape region wines.

And there is so much to do from this basecamp. There is the cheetah sanctuary just down the road, the largest sand dunes in the world at Sossusvlei, game parks in all directions, the inspiration for Radiator Springs at the cactus- and junked-car-lined gas station, and the famous Moose McGregor Desert Bakery in the mystic outpost of Solitaire, which offers up the best apple strudel on earth (arrive early; it sells out).

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The Whitney Peak Hotel, right on Virginia Street, right next to the famous Reno Arch sign, is a living temple to the evolution of consciousness in Nevada. This was once Fitzgeralds Casino-Hotel, and the location is prime, but it is now a luxury boutique non-smoking, non-gambling full service hotel, themed around a giant climbing wall, tallest in the world. In a way it is an urban tribute to the mountains, lakes, and wild steppes that sprawl throughout the state. The hotel is trying to bring Nevada's epic Outside in, and is succeeding in hearts and spades.

A Bonus: The best night's sleep I got these last few months was on the long and super comfortable flat beds on Etihad Airlines (which now has direct service to the world from Los Angeles, where I live). It is like sleeping on a cloud: