Best Hotels in the World: Spring 2017

Photo cred: Walker Bangs

“Fly and flop; heads in beds.” Those the early memes of Expedia. When the OTA (online travel agency) first launched in 1996, we considered hotel beds commodities, interchangeable experiences, mattress widgets sold in electronic bits and bytes, but without the burden and costs of storage or shipping (good luck, Amazon). We bought hotel room futures like pork bellies, and sold them like feed. It wasn’t until some years later, when I took up traveling for a living, that I found myself on a camel-back sofa in a hotel lobby with highly polished Regency tables and gleaming brass lamps, taut silk upholstery with tasseled fringes, and a blazing fire that blushed my brandy snifter, that I took a breath and soaked in the irenic nature of a great hotel. To this day, I ease down The Road for most of the year on business, and seek out the special pillows on which to lay the weary head.

So, naturally, I think it fair to share some of my uncoverings over the past months, and those I think worth exploring during the flower and feast of Spring, when the color of the world is more than the imagination, and it’s time to travel and 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 coziness, service, originality and that intangible quality that might be called magic.

1) Hotel Adlon Kempinski, Berlin, Germany

It was the glamorous hotel where Liam Neeson capers in the movie Unknown. It is from one of its windows Michael Jackson dangled his then-infant son “Blanket” in 2002. Chaplin, Einstein, Her Majesty the Queen of England, Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt all tucked in here. Mussolini stopped by for a hot bath after finding that the water in the palace where he had been lodged ran only cold. Russian anarchists planted a bomb here in 1913 in an attempt to kill the visiting Czar.

Built in 1907 by wine merchant Lorenz Adlon, it was supported by Kaiser Wilhelm II, who insisted that no one set foot in the finished building before him. In the midst of WWII, it crafted a luxurious bomb shelter, and a huge brick wall around the lobby to protect the guests from flying debris.

Few hostelries have been witness to such profound and sometimes twisted history as the Adlon, overlooking the east side of the Brandenburg Gate on Pariser Platz Square. And today, newly re-furbished, it again strides history. Spielberg and Hanks stayed here while filming Bridge of Spies. President Obama checked in for a week not long before my visit.

I’m a fan of Philip Kerr’s novels, especially “If The Dead Rise Not,” with gumshoe Bernie Gunther a hotel detective at the Adlon. So, it is with a sense of story I step into the magnificent world of the grand cream-colored marble lobby, with its air of Wilhelmine decadence, its elephant fountain, gold-leaf embellished coffered ceilings and stained-glass cupola. Beautiful fresh flowers bloom everywhere to the soft sounds of the piano. Before heading upstairs, I take a seat in one of the bergère armchairs, order a Vesper Martini, and look around for royals, heads of state, movie stars and spies. That could be Sally Bowles heading to the beletage floor. “Well, I’m off to the Adlon,” she says in the movie Cabaret.

My room has its own doorbell, always a good sign. Inside, the space is plush and classic, with limestone floors, mahogany furnishings, silk bedspreads and the notable absence of anything overly flamboyant. The black granite bathroom has a heated floor, a steam shower, and a deep soaking tub. Of course, not everything is deco. There is a large flat-screen, Apple TV, a Nespresso machine, an iPad where I can access the internet or check my account, and controls for the lights, and to open and close the drapes.

On the table is a plate with grapes, strawberries, clementines and the fattest blueberries in the world. But the pièce de résistance is a chocolate replica of the Brandenburger Tor, the real thing looming just outside the window, with the sun setting behind. It was just on the other side that Ronald Reagan, in 1987, issued his famous words: “Mr. Gorbachov – tear down this wall!”

Look at the size of those blueberries! Photo cred: Laura Hubber

The Adlon boasts a Michelin 2 star, Lorenz, but my son and I opt for Sra Bua (Thai for lotus pond), an Asian fusion experience with a faultless balance of sweetness, acidity and spiciness, which pairs nicely, believe it or not, with a German Riesling.

And the breakfast buffet at the Adlon is justly infamous, a decadent spread of tropical fruits, Bavarian sausages, caviar, blinis, a mini doughnut tree and an unlimited supply of champagne.

The hotel is in the heart of Berlin, the vogue destination in Europe, so there are so many reasons to get out and explore; but then again, there are so many reasons to stay in.

Photo cred: Laura Hubber

For years, the Hollywood elite have escaped to this inland resort tucked away in the Topa Topa mountains, about 90 minutes north of the city. I’ve heard people whisper, almost with religious reverence, that it is a place to retreat and recharge, but when I heard about a phenomenon called “The Pink Moment,” I had to go.

Built as a private country club in 1923, it retains a sense of the unpublished, a place for those in the know, and it offers up the refined in a setting rustic and Zen-like.

Driving into the 220-acre oak-studded property, I curve around emerald-green fairways, and then become wide-eyed with the brilliant white stucco and bright orange tiles of the Spanish Colonial style buildings, set against blue skies and the green mountains.

I register, and am whisked by golf cart to my hacienda, casually elegant with a four-poster bed, adobe fireplace and gourmet chocolates. I spend the morning lapping the cabana-lined Indigo Pool, and riding the French-inspired LINUS bikes along the paved paths where lavender and verbena perfume the air. After a salad and a Pomegranate Spritz at the Oak Grill, I check out the 31,000 square-foot spa, set in a four-story white stucco and red-tile-roofed building with tiled courtyards and a 50-foot-high bell tower. The Chumash Indians ascribed healing powers to this valley, and it seems they were right. You can check out, but why would you ever leave?

Just before sunset, I take a place on the manicured lawn in front of a 200-year-old oak tree adorned with 28 exquisite, hand-crafted wrought iron and mica glass lanterns, created by Paul Ferrante. And as the sun dips behind me, the place goes quiet. Even the birds stop chirping. Suddenly, the wide bands of piedra blanca (white rock) across the valley fire up with an exquisite rosy hue. It is a fleeting magical moment, celebrated with a bottle of eponymous “Pink Moment” champagne. It makes sense now that Frank Capra shot scenes here as a stand in for Shangri-La in the 1937 movie Lost Horizon.

Photo cred: Laura Hubber

It is now dark, and the oak tree is brilliantly festooned, the hanging hexagons, pendants and spheres emitting light like a fantasy, as though each has been hand-ignited…I have to walk to its trunk to understand how Paul Ferrante created such an illusion. I won’t reveal. You must go and see for yourself.

I complete the evening at the signature restaurant, Olivella and Vine, a valley-to-table experience featuring locally-sourced California cuisine with Italian influences, and it is here that I finally achieve harmonic convergence.

On the quiet waterfront of the southwestern tip of Manhattan rises a 39-story glass, steel and brick tower that offers, if on the right side of history, insanely stunning views of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. This is New York’s only waterfront hotel (open the window; hear the seagulls), with a mod Art Deco aesthetic, a nod to the cruise liners that once called at the adjoining harbor. Paneling is dark wood, and the furniture neutral-toned, better to showcase the art collection of over 100 New York-based artists.

My lemon-yellow room comes equipped with a telescope, as well as a chocolate rendition of Lady Liberty, which doesn’t last long. Bulgari toiletries are in the large marble bathroom, bigger than many Manhattan studio apartments, and the king featherbed comes with 400-thread-count Frette linens, feather duvets and goose-down pillows. And the Bose radio next to the heavenly cot is preset to classical music, which somehow seems orchestrated to the movements of passing ferries and ships out the window.

The club lounge offers an endless supply of drinks and yummy foods, including a deadly candy buffet, but because of the bountiful hors d’oeuvres selection, I find myself taking several business meetings here, as it is a better venue than most restaurants to discuss, and close, the deal.

Several years ago I stayed here while speaking at an internet conference in the adjacent convention center, and was so impressed I vowed to return. This year gave me the chance, and if anything, my memories understated the delights of this property.

I have to start with the views, which are billion dollar sweeps across Coal Harbour, a working port busy with tugboats, barges, pleasure craft, float planes, and buzzing helicopters. I check into my corner room late afternoon, and stand motionless for a long minute hypnotized with what is through the floor-to-ceiling windows, an expanse of water shimmering in the winter sun like hammered gold, and saw-toothed mountains beyond crowned with a tiara of snow.

But beyond the view, so many things make this stay exceptional. The room is coolly considered in white and shades of grey with black accents and geometric patterned carpets. The bed is piled high with over-sized pillows and a soft duvet. There is an overstuffed chair and ottoman and lamp for reading. A welcome basket offers a jar of honey that could not be more local…it is extracted from beehives on the roof of the hotel. The bedside chocolates are rooftop-grown rosemary in honey brittle, and lavender in honey toffee, both handcrafted by Chocolate Arts just down the street.

The grey marble-tiled bathroom features a rain shower, and a television embedded in the mirror, and is stocked with Le Labo Rose 31 shampoos, conditioners and unguents with my name emblazoned on the little bottles, personalization taken to the agreeable extreme.

Photo cred: Laura Hubber

Vancouver is among the most beautiful cities in the world, and to soak in a different view, I spend an afternoon in the rooftop outdoor heated pool, which offers up eagle eyes of the city and its glass-fronted high-rises. Wait, there goes a real bald eagle. How cool is that?

Photo cred: Laura Hubber

I came to Switzerland to visit my friend Suzi Levine, who was serving as the U.S. Ambassador under Obama, and she asked if I might give a talk to a group of young entrepreneurs in Zurich. Of course, and I booked an old favorite to ready for the presentation.

Staying here is like traveling back in time. The hotel was constructed in art nouveau style in 1909, with marble floors, soaring ceilings with glittering crystal chandeliers, antiques from the home of the former owner, and an impressive art collection throughout the hotel, including original lithographs from Jean Tinguely and Paul Leber. The property today is listed as a protected monument.

I think they still use the original room keys, attached to a heavy brass chain. Inside, my space is light-filled, and features, through a set of French doors, a charming balcony overlooking Lake Zurich, and the distant snow-capped Alps, all of which are larger than life when viewed through the in-room binoculars. There is an original gold-framed Degas lithograph on the wall, and of course, because this is Switzerland, a Nespresso machine on the credenza, along with water, fruit and delicious Gebäck.

The wingback chairs and mirrored armoire are antique, but the internet is high-speed, so I have everything I need to cook up my presentation, which somehow earns a standing ovation.

6) Quin Hotel, West 57th Street , NY, NY

Photo cred: Laura Hubber

Poets and musicians stayed at the Chelsea; songwriters worked in the Brill Building; now the visual artists have discovered the Quin.

My room on the Quin’s capstone level – the 17th floorhas the biggest private terrace I’ve ever seen in Manhattan. I could play squash up here, while gazing down 57th Street from the Freedom Tower to, dare I say, Trump Tower. It’s winter, and it’s snowing, so after a few heady minutes standing on the terrace and catching flakes with my tongue, I spend most of my time inside, looking at the Christmas card view through the oversized wall-to-wall windows. I’m told in the summer,; the terrace is the place to get a Swedish massage.

Photo cred: Laura Hubber

The room has soaring 15-foot lofted ceilings, a king-size Duxiana bed (where you sleep like the dead), and a marble bathroom with heated floors, a custom wet room with an extra-wide flat panel rain shower, plus a multi-jet body spray system with adjustable sidebars. It’s the most comprehensive shower I’ve ever stormed.

But it’s the Arts Program that has really distinguished the Quin. Original art is everywhere, including works by the likes of Amanda Marie, John Jacobsmeyer, Pure Evil, Michael De Feo, and Jessica Augier. There is a special exhibition and work space for its artist-in-residence program, 10-days in an inspiring room, which is turning out some bleeding-edge work. In the lobby is a 15-foot video art wall, to be enjoyed with a complimentary flute of champagne, and there are regular interactive, intimate artist salons, to which guests are invited.

The Quin likes to say it is quintessential New York, and it may be, but it is certainly at the intersection of art and commerce. There’s a button on the phone that connects to a Bergdorf Goodman personal shopper. That is the art of the deal.

Most of my travel is business-related, so I rarely stay at an all-inclusive, but the chance to spend time with my elder son over a long weekend without the hassles of continued commerce, was appealing. Many friends recommended the Grand Palladium, and they were right to do so.

The first thing to call out is the friendliness of the staff. They must earn master degrees in pleasantness…without exception, everyone we spoke to or passed telegraphed hospitality and good will. Maybe it’s just that they enjoy the property, the setting and the job. It is a bit like working in paradise.

Like many large resorts along the Mexican Pacific coast, there are several great pools, four excellent a la carte restaurants, and a boatload of tequilas and mezcals. But a few things distinguish the Grand Palladium. One is the rescue zoo, which rehabilitates wildlife (monkeys, crocodiles, deer) that has lost a parent to poaching, or suffered as an illegal pet. I am a fan of these programs, as they not only help the animals, but they acquaint children with creatures not often seen, and perhaps help make a lasting connection.

And speaking of connections, the hotel is in a prime whale-watching stretch. We take a boat out into the Bay of Banderas and see dozens of humpbacks, breaching, spouting, and generally gamboling about as though on vacation.

The surfing off the private beach here is legendary, as is paddle boarding, and for those not yet fluent in the waves, there is a salt water pond within a retaining wall, where I spend some quality time dabbling about.

Another distinguishing asset is the moonlight massage, to which both my son and I indulge, on tables set up far from the pools, so the only sound is that of the gently lapping waves, and practiced hands on our backsides.

Photo cred: Walker Bangs

We finish each evening at the Hemingway bar, which not only serves up Papa’s favorite drinks, mojitos and daiquiris, but also has a chocolate night in which half the room is dripping with every chocolate fantasy Willie Wonka ever had.

Photo cred: Laura Hubber

Staying at some small hotels is like staying at the home of a dear friend. As part of a neo-Baroque castle, built in 1898, this house is all rich tradition, atmosphere and style. When I was shooting a PBS special on Switzerland, I first stayed here, and made note to return, as it was so satisfyingly cozy, situated ideally for covering the best of Zurich. It’s a five-minute walk to the Stadelhofen train station, from which you can travel to almost every site in Switzerland. From its fifth-floor rooftop terrace you can see much of the city that has often been cited as the best in the world.

I’m greeted like an old acquaintance, handed a glass of champagne, some welcome chocolates, and a package of Waltz 7 Aroma Tab Energizing Mint…it’s not what it sounds. You place the tab on the shower floor and it fizzles up a spa-like fragrance that makes the body tingle. A novelty for me, and a nice one at that.

This is a small luxury hotel, so it is a pleasant surprise to find the room larger than reason, with furnishings comfortable and rich, like a cashmere sweater. Inside is an electronically adjustable bed, with a pillow menu (seven choices), and pillow spray (lavender or eucalyptus). The room also offers the all-important Nespresso machine, a fresh fruit basket, and a burning rechaud candle in the bathroom. There are charming touches everywhere, such as the orchid on the wash cloth. Motorized shades block light and sound so after walking around the old city I return and fall into a deep and beautiful sleep.

But it’s the lounge that really makes me fall in love for the simple reason the barkeep offers up the tastiest popcorn I’ve ever munched, and his servings are bottomless. This is one stop where it is wise to ignore the Swiss timepiece and just linger.

Photo cred: Laura Hubber

When I worked at Expedia, based in Bellevue, Washington, I often stole away to Whistler to ski, but discovered the joy of breaking up the journey with an overnight in downtown Vancouver. After sleeping around, I found that the premier boutique is the family-owned Wedgewood Hotel & Spa, brilliantly located right across from Robson Square and the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The experience begins beneath the large, navy blue awnings, with the door pulled open by a bowler-hatted, nattily-dressed and super-friendly valet. I pour into an elegant English manor-style lounge with posh wingback chairs, a blazing old-fashioned fireplace, and Venetian light fixtures. The receptionist warmly shakes my hand as though I’m a visiting diplomat.

My room is oddly quiet, given the location, and features antique appointments, a fireplace, original art, thick damask drapery and a private, furnished walk-out balcony with west-facing city views. There is not just a welcoming chocolate, but a whole box of chocolates, and freshly baked cookies at turn-down. There is real cream in the fridge for the brew from the Nespresso machine. The spacious bathroom boasts Frette Egyptian cotton towels and bathrobes, Gilchrest & Soames toiletries, marble accents and a deep-soaking tub. And talk of extreme service… every time I leave the room a staffer comes in and folds the toilet paper ends into triangles.

Photo cred: Laura Hubber

After a dinner meeting, a few blocks away, I stop into the cozy Bacchus Restaurant, collapse into a velvet, over-sized chair in front of the roaring fireplace, and order a gin martini to match the live piano jazz. If I could live in Vancouver, I would live here.

There used to be caged songbirds in the lobby of this grand dame hotel, opened in 1926, and now, after an ambitious $180 million renovation, as a tribute to that refrain, there are eight brass warbler silhouettes on the hotel’s central revolving door. What a wingedly wonderful way to start a stay.

The lobby is a massive marble rotunda, updated with American Colonial and Federalist décor, inspired by nearby Park Avenue residences. Above looms a flat laylight ceiling with translucent panels; below, a diamond-patterned marble floor. And all around are tall white columns, fresh-cut flowers and iconic New York artwork, such as the 19th-century Hudson River School landscapes.

Then there is The Gin Parlour, a clubby bar that pays tribute to the city’s Dutch and English roots, serving 88 different kinds of premium gin. I opt for my old favorite, Bombay Sapphire, before heading up the grand Carrara marble staircase taking the slow route to my room.

There is an eagle medallion doorplate at my room, like what might be found at a tony Park Avenue apartment. Inside I find a plush king with Anichini bedding, and a separate living area, with a decorative fireplace, pull-out sofa, desk and hardwood flooring and some sharp-end-of-cutting-edge entertainment technologies, such as a Press Reader featuring 2,000 international magazines and newspapers. A time machine that runs both directions, from the jazz age to future tech, the InterContinental New York Barclay croons with timeless hospitality.

For years when on deadline for a book or feature, I would check into a hotel, away from all the home distractions, and dive into productive work. I now live in Los Angeles, and have sampled most of the great hotels with this dynamic, but one has emerged as a favorite: The newest boy in town, The Shore, right on iconic Ocean Avenue.

It’s a sleek property, with upcycled orange egg chairs in the high-vaulted, glass-enclosed lobby; a solar-heated courtyard pool; and a killer view of the blue Pacific and the Santa Monica Pier with its saber light-show Ferris wheel.

And the room is designed for maximum light, including an all-glass shower that bisects the bedroom and bathroom (a touch of a button brings a privacy shade down over the side of the shower). The room itself is a blend of orange, white, teak-colored wood and turquoise, which somehow for me lends itself to concentration and creativity.

I also feel guilt free when staying here…it is a LEED Gold certified building (LEED with luxury); the thermostat is self-adjusting, and the AC goes off if the balcony door is opened; it sources locally (the soap is from Lather, a nearby apothecary; the night chocolate is from the Torn Ranch Artisan Truffle Collection), and you can buy the in-room stuffed starfish with 75% of the price going to Heal the Bay. And, once checked in, you can walk everywhere, to the beach, the pier, to shops, theaters, a score of restaurants, and the street entertainment along the Third Street Promenade.

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