Throughout the spring of my travel career I spent more time in sleeping bags than in beds. But then with seasoning I discovered the joys and comforts of a great hotel, and since have been checking-in and indulging for more nights on the road than at home.
So, naturally, I think it fair to share some of my discoveries over the past months, and those I think worth exploring during the chilly weeks of winter, when the color of the world is really in the imagination, or in a warm-walled escape to another bliss.
Of course this list is hardly comprehensive, and it is highly personal, but it is a catalogue of those I found special and extreme in comfort, service and that impalpable quality called romance. There is no order here, simply a log of those divine addresses that bring sun to the face of winter.
1) Lough Erne Resort, Enniskillen, Northern Ireland
I love a surprise, and what a revelation to find a hotel of this caliber and style in the quiet countryside of Northern Ireland.
Sometimes when a landscape broods music heard faintly on the edge of sound, others beyond notice, and seek their own muse in that place.
And so such it seemed when the leaders of the free world chose the Lough Erne Resort for the 2013 G8 Summit. Such a gathering in Northern Ireland would have been inconceivable during The Troubles, but now the place has the draw of peace and bonny fairways, as well as identical lodges so none of the leaders could be jealous over the size or amenities of their peers.
I make my way to the castle-like resort, set on its own 600-acre peninsula, and a sign that instructs, "Ssshh....Bats Sleeping."
After checking into the Old-World style room, I pass through the Thai Spa (if anything, Northern Ireland relishes appositions) and stop in the Blaney Bar. I sidle up to the rail across from a flickering beech log fire and order up one of the 101 Irish whiskies on the shelf, "on the rocks." But the barkeep refuses. "You can't order whiskey with ice here," he scolds. "Remember the Titanic," and he slides over a straight-up glass, leaving me to drown in my error.
2) Kempinski Residences & Suites, Doha, Qatar
When it's snowing outside, and the car won't start, it may be time to head to Qatar, the little sun-kissed country that is the wealthiest in the world on a per capita basis, a polestar shimmering on the northern Arabian Peninsula. Its capital, Doha, is an oasis of luxury hotels, and I surveyed many (see the video below for the finalists), but the Kempinski stands out for its understated elegance and serenity in a city on hyper drive. I settled into one of their two-bedroom suites, with a killer view of the city, and enjoyed the pool, the Guerlain Alfardan spa and the juicy signature Camel Burger, served in all three restaurants. The service is impeccable (need suntan lotion at 3 am? It's knocking at your door in seconds).
3) Adriana Hvar Spa Hotel, Hvar, Croatia
This is one of the most romantic hotels I've had the pleasure to enjoy. Perched on the promenade and facing the old city center, it is Hvarʼs most stylish boutique purlieu, boasting the most spectacular panoramic views of the town, the yacht harbor, and the Paklinski Islands. It is walking distance to delicious Adriatic swimming spots, to the lavender kiosks, super-rich ice cream stalls, and all manner of enchanting eateries. The service is unexpectedly delightful....arriving by ferry from Split, a greeter grabs my luggage and whisks it to the hotel ahead of me. At The Top lounge bar I sink into a deep, luxurious sofa in the open-air, and sip a fine Dalmatian white blend, gazing down on the ancient city and the bay. Dinner at Adriana's marina-front Butchery&Wine restaurant allows my sympathy for grilled meat, in this case a juicy Argentina rib eye.
4) Trapp Family Lodge, Stowe, Vermont
Vermont in winter is a salve to the soul, and there are so many retreats that are transcendent for the urban escapee (see below video for my pick of the top five). A must-experience, though, is the Trapp Family Lodge, as much for its legacy as its comfort and singular access to the best cross-country skiing in the Northeast.
One of the most successful movie musicals of all time was "The Sound of Music," and like millions I rubbed tears away as the von Trapps, in the final scene, escaped the Nazis by crossing the Alps out of Austria in 1938. But what happened next?
Well, who wouldn't be stressed after leaving a beloved homeland as fugitives on the run? But the sequel has a happy ending. The family landed in Vermont, and started the 96-room Austrian-style Trapp Family Lodge on a 2500-acre wooded spread. Today Sam von Trapp runs the lodge with his father Johannas, youngest child born to Maria and Captain Gehrig von Trapp. I catch up with Sam, who suggests we go out for a cross country ski run just outside the lodge. "My father started the first commercial cross-country ski resort in the United States back in 1968. Now we have some 100 miles of Nordic trails, and snow making for longer seasons."
This place is the perfect cure for Vermont Deficit Disorder.
5) Spring Creek Ranch, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
With windows the size of Wales, overlooking the white flames of the Tetons and vistas that showcase seemingly boundless wilderness, the Spring Creek Ranch is top of the line in the top-of-the-hill ski destination. I spent a week here past winter spoiling in an array of snow activities, and yielding to rustic elegance.
I have a cocktail with Steve Price, the general manager, at the Granary, the bar where the peaks outside the glass are skywriting. "I don't think anyone in America didn't want to grow up to be a cowboy or cowgirl," Steve posits with a smile wide as a hammock. "And here you can become that dream, while still steeped in the finer things in life. "Rustic elegance here means you can kick up your boots like a cowboy, revel in the romance of the American West, wrap in the authenticity, but still enjoy the finest wines, food and comfort to be found anywhere."
If you live in Los Angeles, as I do, there is no greater winter getaway than a stay in Palm Springs, about two hours east by car. A surfeit of great hotels and resorts dot the desert scapes, but over the years I've settled on two that continually delight. They both have an amazing array of pools, great spas, fairways to heaven, and splendid adventures. At the Hyatt I partake in the spirited spa session called Scotch & Stretch, which pairs stretching and breathing with samplings of Scotch whiskies and finishes with an imported cigar.
At the Westin the good folks arrange for a couple of agreeable activities, a ride up the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, world's largest rotating tramcar that floats up to the 8,516-foot Mountain Station at the threshold of the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument; and a Red Jeep Tour deep into the heart of the San Andreas Fault. Darrell, the best guide in Palm Springs, says "don't take it for granite," as he explains the geology and the seam created by the collision of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. He steers us through red canyons to a pristine natural palm oasis, and then to a replica of a Cahuilla Indian village in the vein of the Fault. "We all have our faults," he deadpans.
7) Royal Isabela, Puerto Rico
Royal Isabela is a sprawling resort and golf course at the edge of a 300'-high bluff overseeing the crashing Atlantic, sometimes called "the Pebble Beach of the Caribbean."
Here I meet Charlito Pasarell, co-founder, who bounds over to meet by the clay courts. Charlito was the No. 1 ranked men's singles tennis player in the United States in 1967, and was last year inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. He gives a grand tour on a golf cart, rolling by native grasses, sod-faced bunkers, and wind-twisted trees. He says every aspect of Royal Isabela's design has evolved out of the land itself, and he has gone to great lengths to protect the existing contours, natural features and native flora and fauna along the way. Conventional rules of golf architecture did not apply. Even the 20 freestanding luxury casitas, terraced into a hillside, blend in.
I dine that night with Charlito at The Restaurant at La Casa, on a patio that wafts with the fragrance of the nearby higuerillo trees. Over fine wine and something called "airline" chicken, Charlito seasons the plate with tales of his great grandfather, Dr. Manuel Zeno Gandía, who published the first novel by a Puerto Rican author in 1894, and was an early champion for Puerto Rico independence. So, Charlito's blood mixes literature, politics, sports and recreation, a concoction that seems to be a drink well-served in this island elegance on the fine edge of Puerto Rico.
8) Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort, Cancun, Mexico
I was seeking a super family retreat for winter, and found the premier resort in Mexico's premiere playground, the Moon Palace on Cancun's tranquil south shore. It is the standard for all-inclusive luxury resorts in Mexico, with grounds and geometries worthy of a Mayan prince. As the flagship resort of the Palace Resorts family in Cancun, the Moon Palace features a list of services and amenities that would make any sibling a little envious: 123 acres of tropical greenery, nearly 2,000 feet of silky white beach, 2,457 rooms and suites with double Jacuzzi, 15 buffet and a la carte restaurants, a wide variety of bars including swim up bars, two oversized free style pools, one indoor pool, plus 4 additional pools, six tennis courts, two basketball courts, two fitness centers, miniature golf, the Connection Zone kids club, the Wired teen lounge, Noir night club, and a daily activities program with theme nights.
The only tension here is the decision on whether to play golf or take a spa.
9) Sextantio Albergo Diffuso Le Grotte della Civita, Matera, Italy
This is just too cool for school, a hotel with caves for rooms. Some of the dwellings were carved into the volcanic hillsides in Paleolithic times. Others were church grottos, graved in the Middle Ages. The rooms are monastic and reserved, lit mostly by candles. The walls are bare, and not a single unnecessary object clutters the rooms. The bed is ridiculously comfortable, there is a sleek tub, a jug of water. Your own private cavern asks that you drink in the surreal quality of the surroundings, without distractions. The silence is soothing. Outside, beyond a sharp canyon, is the hillside where Mel Gibson filmed scenes from The Passion of the Christ. Everything about this place is celestial.
10) Seal River Lodge, Manitoba, Canada
If you've ever dreamed of walking with polar bears, or swimming with belugas, this is the lodge in which to base.
I pull a handle made from caribou antler on the big wooden door, and step into a warm lounge brightened by a windows overlooking Hudson Bay. There is a moose head on the wall, a rack of caribou antlers, skulls of wolf and polar bear on the floor, and a snowy owl, who no longer gives a hoot, hanging by a wire from the ceiling.
This is not only a high-end safari-like lodge in the middle of one of the harshest environments on earth, it is also the greenest retreat in the Canadian Arctic. It is completely off the grid. Solar panels provide the power; the water is heated by bottled-gas. A grey water recycling system is employed. Even the menus feature humanely harvested local fish, game, wild berries and salad greens from the highest latitude vegetable garden in Canada, just outside the door.
When not stepping the tundra within yards of feral ice bears, or being towed behind a boat into a pod of white whales, I'm treated to a pageant of gourmet dinners. We sip fine Canadian wine (not an oxymoron any more), and dine on dancing chicken, mushroom turnovers, Mandarin orange salad, and mozzarella mashed potatoes.
This is perhaps the most exciting and delicious little lodge in the world.
11) Epupa Falls Lodge, Namibia, Africa
This is one of the most breathtaking lodges I've ever experienced. In the north of Namibia, on the Angolan border, spills a waterfall every bit as impressive as Iguaçu or Victoria, only it is more compact and raw. There are no fences or barriers, just rainbows for support. It is nestled amidst a promise of Makalani palms and Baobabs, the stilt-supported chalets dangling over the liquid thunder of the main horseshoe falls.
It is also in the thick of the land of the Himba, one of the last semi-nomadic tribes in Africa. The men have shaped hairdos, caked with mud, butter and ash giving the appearance of red helmets. Women wear a small nautilus-type shell on a leather cord around the neck, and conically tapering metal-studded bracelets extending from wrist to elbow, and lots of ankle jewelry of beads on leather thongs. The hair is done in corn-row braids coated thickly with ochre powder and animal grease. Their front teeth are filed. Their skin is russet-colored, and glows. They are bare-breasted, with leather aprons.
But one of the reasons this hotel is so astonishingly good is the owner, Colonel Koos Verwey. He grew up on a farm in the Kalahari, and spent 16 years with the South African Special Forces, an elite military set-up heavily involved in the border war prior to Namibia's independence, and he is now a fount of local information, a guide as good as they get, and flows with more hospitality than the great falls at his deck.
How did I come to rate these places? Well, I have to confess... to the secret life of a hotel inspector: