Luxury Digs

From Italy to Santa Fe, the Best Hotels of 2014

From Amsterdam to Australia and from Santa Fe to Switzerland, check out some of the most luxurious—and relaxing—hotels on the planet.

Each year, the team at Andrew Harper has the pleasure of recalling their travels over the past 12 months and singling out a number of particularly memorable hotels for the annual Grand Awards. From the Hideaway of the Year winner in Venice to three distinguished properties in South Africa, these are the hotels and resorts you can’t miss in 2014.


Choose your favorite hotel from those visited in the past year, and you could win a luxury stay in Italy.

Amanresorts

The 2014 Hideaway of the Year: Aman Canal Grande, Venice, Italy

Located close to the Rialto Bridge, in the central San Polo district, the 16th-century Palazzo Papadopoli now houses the 24-room Aman Canal Grande. The building has not been reconfigured as a hotel and still possesses its original layout. There is no reception desk; the concierge is recognizable only by the crossed keys on his lapel; and guests never have to sign for anything. Even at the end of our stay, we remained incredulous that we could wander around a magnificent palazzo as though it were our own.

Rancho Valencia

Grand Award: Rancho Valencia, Rancho Santa Fe, California

Our suite at Rancho Valencia had a secluded location at the far end of a paved footpath. Its Spanish-style interior came with wrought-iron chandeliers hanging from a vaulted ceiling, a sunken living room and a gas fireplace. Blue-and-white Moorish-inspired tiles enlivened the bath, equipped with a steam shower and soaking tub. Our terrace, with a Jacuzzi, invited lazy afternoons. The food was delicious, though the beautiful farm-to-table Veladora restaurant really showed its mettle at dinner. I especially enjoyed the briny “Breath of the Sea” appetizer, a jewel-like composition of sea urchin, prawns, oysters, clams, cucumber, and seaweed in a cool dashi broth. Next door, the lively Pony Room bar draws a chic local crowd.

El Encanto

Grand Award: El Encanto, Santa Barbara, California

Spread across seven acres overlooking the Pacific, the 92-room property now comprises bungalow suites, smaller bungalows and new, modern luxury suites. The original tile-roofed bungalows were raised so that new foundations could be constructed and modern comforts, such as radiant-heat tile flooring, installed. Thoroughly traditional on the outside, our bungalow came with an attractive sunroom sitting area and a bedroom with a gas fireplace. The splendid bath was almost as large as the bedroom. Strolling through the grounds before dinner, we easily saw why El Encanto has inspired such loyalty and affection.

Farmhouse Inn

Grand Award: Farmhouse Inn, Sonoma County, California

One of the most enjoyable wine drives in the United States follows West Dry Creek Road in northern Sonoma. Staying at the Farmhouse Inn puts you in the perfect location to explore this route, as well as the many wonderful wineries in the Russian River Valley. Located in Forestville, 10 miles south of Healdsburg and 23 miles west of Kenwood, the inn evolved from an 1873 farmhouse. Butter-yellow clapboard siding, shuttered windows, and a front veranda make it look country simple at first glance, but it is also wonderfully sophisticated.

Capella

Grand Award: Capella, Washington, D.C.

The 49-room Capella Washington, D.C., Georgetown stands in a restored red-brick warehouse that blends smoothly with similar structures along the C&O Canal (a project in which George Washington himself was an investor). From the moment we stepped out of our cab, staff swirled about us, opening doors, dispatching luggage, and ushering us into the elegant Capella Living Room for registration. A personal assistant checked us in. There are no clerks or concierges at the Capella. Instead, the PAs help in any way they can. The system works very well, and we found “If we can, we will” to be the staff’s prevailing attitude.

Fisher Island

Grand Award: Fisher Island, Miami, Florida

Today, Fisher Island is primarily an affluent residential community. A former Vanderbilt estate, however, now forms a 41-room boutique hotel, which includes the ’20s cottages, plus Mediterranean-style villas with private courtyards and Jacuzzis, and so-called “guest house suites.” Fisher Island Club is coming to the end of a $60-million renovation program. This was immediately apparent in our traditionally furnished second-floor suite, which was in pristine condition.

Kingsbrae Arms

Grand Award: Kingsbrae Arms, New Brunswick, Canada

The charming little town of St. Andrews lies just across the St. Croix River from Maine and is laid out on a gently sloping hillside that descends to the river. At the crest of the hill stands Kingsbrae Arms, set in a dignified 1887 shingled house. Long a personal favorite, it succeeds in creating the atmosphere of a refined private home, with wainscoted walls, a graceful staircase and rigorously selected art.

Mukul

Grand Award: Mukul, Pacific Coast, Nicaragua

Located two hours’ drive south of Managua, Mukul is the brainchild of Don Carlos Pellas, a fifth-generation Nicaraguan. A Stanford University graduate, he presides over an empire that includes transportation and health care, as well as sugar cane and rum. Apparently, mukul is the Mayan word for “secret.” On arrival, I was driven down a winding road backed by the shining ocean. From time to time, I espied the verdant fairways of the Guacalito de la Isla golf course, laid out by noted architect David McLay Kidd. The 12 beach villas come with terraces, palapa roofs, private pools, and outdoor showers. Their interiors feature glass walls, nine-foot ceilings, teak furniture and squash court-size baths.

Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens

Grand Award: Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

There is no need to worry about roughing it in this luxurious retreat. The 50 guest villas are separated from one another by tropical gardens, and each offers air-conditioning, cable television, and room service. The octagonal Nayara Suites are the largest accommodations, with hardwood floors, dark Balinese-style furnishings and soaring cane ceilings. The immense limestone-clad bath occupies a full half of the room, with indoor and outdoor showers, dual vanities and multicolor glass windows. Outside, an expansive terrace sweeps halfway around the suite. I loved to start my morning there watching hummingbirds dart by, the outline of the volcano just visible through the jungle.


Conservatorium

Grand Award: Conservatorium, Amsterdam, Netherlands

This magnificently restored 19th-century stone-and-brick neo-Gothic structure was built as a bank, but served most recently as the municipal conservatory. The striking atrium lobby with its glass walls and ceiling made a great first impression, and the front desk staff couldn’t have been more welcoming or helpful. Our junior suite was attractive and well thought out. Situated under the eaves, it came with oak parquet floors, exposed beams, a soft throw rug and a long, linen-covered couch that was ideal for lounging. This delightful room was the work of Piero Lissoni, a talented architect and designer who works for many of the great names of Italian home furnishings. The bedroom was a separate area with an exceptionally comfortable bed and ample closet space, while the travertine-lined bath came with a Corian soaking tub, a separate stall shower and L’Occitane toiletries.

The Alpina

Grand Award: The Alpina, Gstaad, Switzerland

Although a glamorous ski resort, Gstaad still has the character of an unspoiled Alpine village. After a five-minute drive from the station, we pulled up at the new 25-room, 31-suite Alpina Gstaad. This had a traditional whitewashed façade with weathered pine balconies, a slate roof, and a cozy lobby appointed with recycled timber and Swiss antiques. Upstairs, our grand luxe suite was expansive yet homey, with paneled walls, a coffered pine ceiling and a stone chimney surrounding a gas log fire. Wingback chairs stood before the fire; well-stocked bookshelves lent themselves to happy browsing; and a dining area provided a pine farm table with seating for six. The bedroom came with a Bang & Olufsen entertainment system, and an adjoining dressing room provided ample built-in closet space. A large, well-lit bath offered a separate soaking tub and shower. The Alpina Lounge & Bar overlooks the hotel’s heated outdoor swimming pool, and the surrounding mountains are visible through a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows.

Vigilius Mountain Resort

Grand Award: Vigilius Mountain Resort, The Dolomites, Italy

Accessible only via private cable car, Vigilius Mountain Resort is a magical floating world of light-filled wood-and-glass buildings atop a 5,000-foot peak. The resort comprises 35 rooms and six suites. With an entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, and doors that opened directly to a grassy, tree-lined knoll, our expansive suite was the ultimate in indoor-outdoor living. Pale larch wood was the dominant material for floors and walls, while deep-red accents added warmth and comfort. Well-chosen furnishings provided elegance and Tyrolean character. The exceptionally stylish bath was done in the same lovely larch wood, and came with a separate tiled shower.

Grand Hotel Tremezzo

Grand Award: Grand Hotel Tremezzo, Lake Como, Italy

The 1910-vintage Grand Hotel Tremezzo is built on a steep lakeside plot, so on our arrival, we took an elevator up three floors to reception. Service at the front desk was charming and efficient, and we were promptly escorted to the new, fifth-floor all-suite “hotel within a hotel.” Unlike the opulent period décor elsewhere, these rooftop suites display a refined contemporary design. Our suite comprised a sitting room with sofa and armchair, and a white marble-topped table. A library wall unit in walnut veneer housed a Loewe sound system, plus a selection of sumptuous art books. The bath was well designed, faced in cocoa-colored travertine, and fitted with a whirlpool tub and a stall shower. The best feature of our suite, however, was a huge private terrace with a Jacuzzi, which afforded a spectacular view over the lake. Enter to win a four-night stay at Grand Hotel Tremezzo in Italy in Andrew Harper's Grand Awards Sweepstakes.

Schloss Elmau

Grand Award: Schloss Elmau, Bavaria, Germany

Completed in 1916 as a refuge for artists and intellectuals, Schloss Elmau, a 135-room resort and spa, stands in a particularly scenic tract of pine-forested countryside at the foot of the snow-streaked Wetterstein Mountains. Most of the guest rooms are contemporary in style. Our junior suite had red-and-gold upholstery on the sofa, armchair and headboard; and a limestone and sandstone bath with a soaking tub and separate shower. Rooms in the main building with mountain-view balconies are the most desirable.

Domaine des Hauts de Loire © Apicius

Grand Award: Domaine des Hauts de Loire, Loire Valley, France

Situated outside the pretty little town of Onzain, the 36-room Domaine des Hauts de Loire occupies a creeper-covered lodge and outbuildings surrounded by a 180-acre park. At check-in, I overheard a couple from Chicago tell the receptionist that this would be their tenth visit to the property. Their affection for this civilized and casually elegant hotel turned out to be quite understandable. Though larger rooms are to be found in the annex, we had opted for one in the main house. This provided a textbook illustration of French country style, with exposed beams, an ivy-patterned carpet, and walls covered with toile de Jouy fabric. Having settled in, we joined the other guests for aperitifs on a terrace running almost the length of the main hotel building.

Grootbos Private Nature Reserve

Grand Award: Grootbos Private Nature Reserve, Garden Route, South Africa

In South Africa, the phrase “private nature reserve” usually implies big game. At Grootbos, however, the botanical world is the object of quest and curiosity. The southwestern part of South Africa encompasses the so-called “Cape Floral Region,” with 9,250 plant species, 70 percent of which are endemic to the region. Located on a hillside 23 miles southeast of Hermanus, Grootbos comprises two lodges with 27 accommodations, as well as a six-bedroom villa with its own pool and staff. The more traditional garden lodge is dedicated to families, while the contemporary forest lodge 
is reserved for adults.

Oceana Beach & Wildlife Reserve

Grand Award: Oceana Beach & Wildlife Reserve, Near Port Alfred, South Africa

Located 100 miles east of Port Elizabeth, Oceana Beach & Wildlife Reserve overlooks the Indian Ocean and a magnificent stretch of golden sand. This unusual property is the realization of a dream held by Texas owner Rip Miller. At reception, I was immediately impressed by the attractive blend of stonework, stucco, wooden decking, and undulating gray thatch, as well as by the way the various structures merged harmoniously with the landscape.

Babylonstoren

Grand Award: Babylonstoren, The Winelands, South Africa

The chief wine-producing area of the Cape, centered on the towns of Paarl, Stellenbosch, and Franschhoek, lies less than an hour by car east of Cape Town. These are among the most beautiful winelands in the world, backed by jagged mountains and, from November to March, reliably bathed in sunshine. Babylonstoren opened in 2011 and is set midway between Stellenbosch and Paarl. Guests stay in 14 Cape Dutch cottages arrayed along an allée of pepper trees that runs through an eight-acre garden containing more than 300 varieties of fruits and vegetables. Our cottage, once the farm’s laundry, had white walls, creamy fabrics, a honey-hued wood floor, a wood-burning fireplace, and a dramatic raftered ceiling.

Saffire Freycinet

Grand Award: Saffire Freycinet, Tasmania, Australia

Aerial photographs often show the 20-room Saffire Freycinet resort as a dramatic silver stingray nestled in eucalyptus forest. At ground level, however, it is more low-key, with a style reminiscent of Northern California. The main lodge is a three-story building with floor-to-ceiling windows that afford magnificent and ever-changing views of The Hazards mountains across the bay. Having been escorted from reception via a covered boardwalk, we were immediately impressed by the comfort and beauty of our remarkably well-equipped and handsome suite. With an appealingly spare décor that recalled Scandinavian country hotels and Japanese ryokans, the split-level space came with eucalyptus floors, a cantilevered timber ceiling, and a spacious bath lined in gray stone.