Well aware that in recent years, the Ngorongoro Crater Lodge figured on some of the most sought-after “best” magazine lists, I approached it with high expectations. But no anticipation could have measured up to the magnificent setting and no-indulgence-barred luxury of this unique property.
Lake Manyara Tree Lodge was the ideal finale to a lengthy safari trip that had taken me to the farthest reaches of Tanzania. By now, I felt travel-weary and a bit jaded. After all, other than the welcome opportunity to relax in the secluded luxury of the Tree Lodge, what could this tiny park offer that I hadn’t already enjoyed several times over in some of the most famous safari destinations in the country? I couldn’t have been more mistaken. The lodge, the only one within the boundaries of the park, was a gem.
Located in the far northern reaches of the Serengeti National Park, Grumeti Serengeti Tented Camp delivered everything I had imagined a safari in this legendary park to be, and more. Foremost of course was the open grassy plain known to the Masai as Siringitu (“the place where the land goes on forever”) with its omnipresent herds of zebras and white-bearded wildebeests; and lions nonchalantly awaiting dinnertime under the meager shade of an occasional thorn acacia. But a few minutes’ drive from the edge of the endless plain, this intimate luxury camp revealed a more verdant face of the Serengeti. It was nestled into a strip of lush riverine forest on the bank of a permanent oxbow pan of the Grumeti River. Here the rare pied colobus monkeys darted through the treetops, and large pods of hippos noisily claimed the river under the malevolent glare of huge crocodiles.
Lienz is a lovely little medieval town in the farthest reaches of southern Austria. Tucked away in a picturesque valley between the Grossglockner (one of the highest peaks in the Alps) and the Dolomites, it is prime four-season vacationing country for mountain sports aficionados. But for me, despite the 13 th century castle, the ancient churches with their well-preserved frescos and the pristine alpine landscapes, the city’s main claim to fame was in the remarkable Grandhotel Lienz. This newly constructed luxury retreat and its unique spa came as close to perfection as any boutique property I have ever come across, and more than justified the few hours’ journey from Vienna.
Stepping through the pillared entrance of the Grand Hotel Wien was a journey back to the glittering days of Austria’s 19 th century imperial splendor. Designed by Karl Tietz, one of the most celebrated architects of his time, it was, when it opened its doors in 1870, the first luxury hotel in the city. With the new Imperial Opera House (now the Vienna State Opera) opened the previous year just one block away, and the nearby Musikverein concert hall (now home to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) also inaugurated in 1870, it quickly became a hit with the aristocracy. It retained its status as a place to be seen until the Second World War. Although its fortunes waned during the second half of the 20 th century, it re-opened in 1994 after four years and 100 million euros of renovations to quickly become once again a pinnacle of Viennese social life, and to welcome amongst its guests many international celebrities, political figures and business leaders.
Perched on a rocky knoll in the heart of the Mikumi National Park in southeastern Tanzania, Stanley’s Kopje was a vivid reminder of what compels me to endure endless flights in crowded airplanes and chaotic airport layovers to return time and again to the African bush. It had only been a few hours since the Cessna light plane had delivered me to the tiny airstrip at the edge of the park, but it could have been light-years earlier. I was lounging on the broad thatch-shaded veranda of my tent, taking in the sweeping view of the Mkata Floodplain below as it slowly melted into the dusk. At the far edge of the plain, the sunset sky was ablaze against the distant outline of the Udzungwa Mountains. Now and then, a powerful roar rippled up the hill, and with it recollections of our exciting lion sighting earlier in the afternoon.
Stretched along a bluff overlooking the Rufiji River at the especially scenic eastern tip of the famed Selous Game Reserve in southeast Tanzania, the Rufiji River Camp delivered an outstanding variety of game viewing opportunities. First identified as a protected area over a century ago, Selous expanded over time to become the largest faunal reserve in Africa. In 1982, it was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for its wildlife concentration and diversity and its undisturbed environment. The profusion of wildlife was obvious even as I made my way from the airstrip, turning the relatively short distance to the camp into an extended game drive.
Strung along the rocky bank of the river that gave it its name, Ruaha River Lodge was one of only a handful of permanent accommodations within the rugged immensity of the Ruaha National Park, in the highlands of central Tanzania. The 3,980 square mile (10,300 square kilometer) park is the second largest in the country after the Serengeti. It is reputed for its craggy scenery as well as the abundance and variety of the species that can be found there. Yet visitors are relatively few so that the park retains a great wilderness atmosphere.
Katavi Wilderness Camp delivered the ultimate safari experience, a pristine African environment unchanged for millennia, teeming with game and mine alone. The camp was an intimate enclave of comfort and gracious hospitality deep within the Katavi National Park, in the far western reaches of Tanzania. It took determination to reach Katavi, its main link to the 21st century being a twice-weekly light airplane connection with the Ruaha National Park. Road travel, for the daring souls who might consider it, was assessed in days. Which explains why despite its reputation for pristine wilderness and exceptional game viewing the 1,7270 square mile (4,471 square kilometer) park, the third largest in the country, only receives a few hundred visitors per year. The privilege of being one of them was obvious to me by the time I reached the camp.
This historic hotel originally opened in 1915 and had just remodeled and reopened in December 2010 shortly before we stayed there. We found the location of this hotel, in Davenport just a few blocks from the riverfront, to be excellent for access to the Quad Cities.
Named for the Comte de Crillon who bought it in 1788 the Hotel de Crillon property remained in the family until 1907. We had an opportunity to revisit the property recently and remembered the many reasons we liked it the first time we stayed in the former palace now one of the better known addresses in the European capital.
This small hotel, named to honor Louis II de la Tremoille and the Tremoille Family dating to the time of the crusades, had many pluses and made fans out of us for a second time (we had stayed there several years earlier). In addition to the accommodations and pretty interior, what we liked most was its wonderful location in a quiet street in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of the city, and within walking distance from the famed Champs Elysees.
After hours of flying and connections at two airports I was tired when I landed in Bangkok, Thailand. The 11 p.m. arrival and 11 hour time difference made things worse. Instead of spending time in Bangkok I had opted to stay in the coastal town of Hua Hin, a two and a half hour drive from the airport, to ease my way through the jet lag in a quiet resort town instead of a city of millions. As I exited the customs area and thought of spending more time en route to my final destination I wondered if it had been the right decision.
By 3 a.m. I was comfortably settled in a handsome two-level beachfront suite at the Rest Detail Hotel Hua Hin, one of the property’s premier suites. A shower and some sleep did wonders to improve my jet lag and the next morning I approached the restaurant with a ravenous appetite. Although the staff spoke limited English and I spoke no Thai I perceived a warm welcome. With their help and some exploring on my part I easily discovered the property and its facilities as well as the surrounding beachfront. I spent a few hours walking around the town, visiting a silk co-op store, the shopping mall, and a Thai night market.
Built on a steep amphitheater-shaped hillside at the northeastern tip of the island of Koh Samui, Thailand, The Tongsai Bay was a secluded resort that successfully balanced the natural beauty of its environment with modern comfort and luxury standards. The suites blended so seamlessly they all but disappeared into the exuberant tropical garden rippling toward the sea. My own Villa was a vast contemporary space thoughtfully designed and appointed to ensure optimum enjoyment of my natural surroundings. Its large, partially roofed deck featured a king-size four-poster bed swathed in pristine mosquito netting for afternoon siestas or a night’s sleep under the stars. I found a welcome basket of frangipani and orchid blooms on the ledge of my oversized bathtub in the center of the deck and I promised myself a moonlight blossom-scented bath later that evening. A few steps up from the deck, the rear of the Villa featured all the air-conditioned appointments of a more conventional luxury suite. Both deck and suite had a spectacular view of The Tongsai Bay’s lovely private beach, a gently curved cove protected at each end by rock promontories, and the open waters of the Gulf of Thailand beyond.
Named after the 200-year-old tamarind tree that dominates the property, Tamarind Village was a haven of rustic tranquility in the heart of the lively historic center of Chiang Mai. Designed by award-winning architect Ong-Ard Satrabhandhu, it translated distinctive northern Thai architectural elements into an inviting contemporary version of a traditional village. A pathway shaded with arching bamboo led to the front entrance of the verdant walled compound with its public areas and private guest quarters laid-out around a series of serene internal courtyards filled with flowering trees.
Santhiya Resort and Spa was an exceptional property that placed in a contemporary context the mystique of the exotic kingdom of Siam. Its secluded location at the northern tip of the remote island of Koh Phangan in the Gulf of Thailand, coupled with its ethos of conservation of its cultural heritage as well as the natural environment made for an experience that was a highlight of my recent visit to Thailand.
Set among the craggy limestone cliffs of the Phranang Peninsula at the edge of the Krabi Marine National Park in Thailand, Rayavadee could barely be discerned from its luxuriant environment of tropical gardens and coconut groves when I approached it from the water. And that’s precisely what its founders had in mind when they developed this luxury, family friendly property on what is considered one of the most spectacular coastlines of the Andaman Sea. Taking their inspiration from the traditional villages of southern Thailand, they created a contemporary resort of circular two-story guest pavilions scattered throughout a verdant haven bordered by gorgeous white sand beaches. A network of winding brick-paved footpaths crisscrossed the property. It was a pleasant 15-minute walk along gardens filled with flowering shrubs and the occasional lily pond to reach its farthest confines. It frequently took me longer, as I kept getting distracted by the antics of macaque monkeys high in the palm trees, or the play of light in the stunning cliffs that surrounded the resort. On the rare occasions when I was not in a walking mood or a random tropical squall threatened, one of the ubiquitous bakis (electric golf buggies) could be summoned at a moment’s notice.
Unique location high within the fortifications of one of the most picturesque hilltop villages of the Luberon Valley in France; luxurious accommodations in the understated traditional Provencal style; warm and intimate ambiance; La Bastide de Gordes had it all. Perched on a rocky ledge at the very rim of a steep valley, the property was a minute’s walk away from the heart of the village, a fortress originally built a millennium ago. It was expanded over the next few hundred years before extensive reconstruction in the 16 th century added some Renaissance elements and gave it the appearance it has retained to this day.
Built on a former coconut palm plantation Twinpalms Phuket, an adult oriented luxury hotel near the beach, had much to offer international travelers seeking an island getaway. What I first noticed was the lush foliage and attractive pool. As I walked around the verdant grounds, passing by the main pool area on the way to my suite I admired the flowering trees and inhaled the pleasant scent of fragrant flowers.
This child friendly and stylish hotel in the heart of the city was built in a contemporary style with Cambodian art and decorative accents throughout. The hotel was conveniently situated on a busy street and within a five-minute walk of the central market.
Named Hansar to emulate the meaning of the word, happiness and joy, in the ancient Sanskrit language this newly opened family friendly beachfront property on Bophut Bay on the northern coast of Koh Samui, Thailand had many pluses. Among them were the 74-room hotel’s beach facing restaurant and upstairs lounge, a spa, an air conditioned fitness center, an attractive saltwater swimming pool and a computer room/library with two computers for guest use.
The dusitD2 was a stunning study in contrasts, a harmonious balance between the latest international standards for a luxury hotel and the timeless grace of Thai hospitality; a beacon of tranquility and contemporary refinement in the heart of bustling downtown Chiang Mai. Located on an unassuming side street in the midst of the city’s vibrant Night Bazaar, the clean white stucco and glass facade barely hinted to the chic urban sanctuary within. But the lobby quickly set the tone. Its serene minimalist expanse of gleaming bleached floors was punctuated with ultra-modern designer furniture and bursts of warm, persimmon-colored accents to achieve an understated yet dramatic effect.
An hour long flight from Bangkok delivered me to Phuket where an Andara Resort and Villas representative met me at the airport. After a quick greeting he handed me a scented flower lei, a scented moist towel and a bottle of water and we set out on a short drive to the west side of the island. We arrived directly from the Phuket airport to Villa 9 where Botan, a resort representative, was waiting to coordinate my check-in. She quickly explained the basics of the Villa 9 and the resort property, went over the paperwork, and introduced me to Tan, the housekeeper. As a guest at the family friendly Andara resort, meaning star of Andaman in Thai, I was welcome to use the resort facilities. Due to the inclement weather and thanks to the comfort of my villa I spent most of my time in Villa 9.
We arrived at the Relais Santa Croce from the Florence train station in the pouring rain. As soon as the taxi stopped at the hotel entrance, a helpful doorman took charge of our luggage and directed us up one flight of wide stairs (there was also an elevator) to reception. Once we dispensed with the check-in formalities someone showed us around the family friendly hotel and escorted us to our Junior Suite where we quickly shed our rain gear. Although we did not see much of the sun during our three night stay in the Renaissance city we enjoyed our visit, in great part, thanks to the quiet and comfort of our accommodations.
On a recent visit to Venice we stayed at a venerable grandfather of a hotel described in promotional materials as the oldest hotel in town. In 1118, it provided shelter to the Knights Templar and by 1574 it was known as Locanda della Luna.This family friendly hotel, one of 10 in the highest category of luxury in the famed city, was half a block from the Grand Canal and a minute walk from Saint Mark’s Square, an excellent location convenient to many of the major sightseeing points of interest. We especially liked the location because it rained intermittently during most our stay in the city. Being so close to the famed square made it easy to get there and to the nearby attractions even in the rain. An added advantage was that the hotel had a private landing next to the entrance that allowed gondola and water taxi pick up and drop-off. The landing was particularly convenient when we took a water taxi to the airport at 5 in the morning the day of our departure.
In the early part of the last century the Palm Beach Inn, a winter resort for America’s elite originally built by oil magnate Henry Morrison Flagler in 1896, was destroyed by fire, twice. Eventually it was renamed and rebuilt a third time. The Breakers, as it is known today, opened its doors December 29, 1926 and remains to this day one of the best known resort properties in the Sunshine State.
Our first impression of the Romeo Hotel was in an unexpected venue. As we exited our high speed train from Rome we met Antonio Deperte, the newly appointed general manager of the hotel who had volunteered to pick us up at the train and personally introduce us to the much maligned Italian city. His warm greeting, in American English, and the short drive from the station to the hotel in a vintage Jaguar together set the tone for our lovely two-night stay at the art filled property.
Named in honor of Queen Margherita of Savoy and part of the Baglioni chain in Italy, the Regina Hotel Baglioni was our home for four nights during a recent visit to the Eternal City. The hotel was one of the Baglioni City Hotels located near the city center of Italian cities that tout their elegance and “luxury with an Italian touch.”
The departure point to Ischia was so close to our Naples hotel that we walked there with our luggage. We arrived on the northwestern corner of the island of Ischia on a cool and sunny spring day following an hour long ride in an air conditioned and comfortable hydrofoil boat that departed from the port in Naples. As soon as we descended from the boat in Ischia we saw a representative from our hotel holding a sign with our names. With his help we wheeled our luggage to his air conditioned van for the five-minute drive to our home of the next three nights, L’Albergo della Regina Isabella.
We arrived at The Jalousie Plantation, a four star family friendly property nestled amid 100 acres of pristine rainforest in the valley between Saint Lucia’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed twin volcanic peaks commonly known as the Pitons, after driving from the northern tip of the island in search of the hotel’s gourmet fare, in the afternoon. After parking our rental car near reception, we boarded one of the property’s shuttle vans which dropped us off at the round point of our cluster of eight villas. From there we walked a short distance slightly down hill to suite 503.
We arrived in Saint Lucia in the early afternoon excited to be back in the Caribbean and looking forward to a week of rest and relaxation under the tropical sun. As we exited immigration and customs at the airport a young Saint Lucian stood inconspicuously with our names on a sign. Following cursory introductions he led us across the small parking lot to his vehicle. Ninety minutes of cautious driving in his air conditioned minivan, organized by the hotel at our request, found us at Cotton Bay Village, a family friendly secluded and gated 9.6 acre property on the northern end of the island. The beachfront resort, named for the cotton plants that grow within, was built around a mangrove forest.
I arrived in Bruges on a day when a furious late-winter storm was making headline news across Western Europe. The one-minute walk from the train station to the cabstand was sufficient to seal the fate of my umbrella. A short ride later I was delivered damp and chilled at the Romantik Pand Hotel. My spirits soared as I stepped into the foyer. The gracious home-like atmosphere and welcome had the warmth of a summer’s afternoon.
My visit to Xaranna began with a quintessential Delta experience, an exhilarating boat ride through a watery labyrinth of papyrus-bordered channels and floating islands of water lily pads. Secluded in the pristine wilderness of a 62,000 acre (25,000 hectare) wildlife concession in the southern Okavango, Xaranna can only be reached by boat most of the year. Birds soared as we went by and tiny painted frogs clung to their reeds; bulbous eyes emerged at water level, attached to a large bull hippo unflinchingly claiming right of way. We detoured. Across the lagoon, pale pavilions materialized among the trees. We landed to the warmest of welcomes from the management and staff.
We arrived at Botsebotse in the Zebula Game and Country Reserve following several weeks of travel to relax a bit and decompress. We were delighted to discover the property was for adults only (except when a single family booked exclusively). On our first morning there, eager to stretch our legs a bit after days of bush drives we set off on a stroll before breakfast that turned out to be quite a treat. Although our entire stay at the property was a pleasure that early morning walk is what I remember most fondly from our two-night visit.
When traveling to remote locations it is a rare experience for me to reach a place where everything is unerringly right. Xudum Okavango Delta Lodge was such a place. Built deep within a 62,000 acre (25,000 hectare) wildlife concession, Xudum appeared like a remote Eden when I first approached it from the water. The peaks of its impeccably thatched roofs peered among the treetops of a lush riverine forest at the edge of a lagoon carpeted with water lilies in full bloom. The tri-leveled main lodge was designed to showcase the endless vistas of reed and papyrus beds of the southern Delta, made all the more striking by the witty blend of sophisticated luxury and whimsy of the stylish contemporary décor. Sectional sofas mingled with local craft and, introducing the property’s recycling theme, tire swings and sculptural end tables that turned out to be made of soda cans. I immediately coveted the Xudum kitchen with its battery of professional cooktops and ovens, its tall wine refrigerator and the latest in kitchen appliances. It even had a gleaming Italian espresso machine and a long granite serving bar with a sweeping view of the Delta!
We reached the Tuli Safari Lodge Reserve, missing the border closing at Pont Drift by a hair (our transfer service was two hours late picking us up), after a five hour drive from Johannesburg, South Africa. A representative of the lodge (later we discovered he was to be our constant companion and fearless guide for the next five nights) met us at the border and escorted us through. Within minutes we were seated in an open Land Rover crossing the dry river bed of the Limpopo River, one of the most important rivers in Southern Africa, beginning our five night Tuli Adventure Trail. During our stay we spent time at Nokalodi Tented Camp, Tuli Safari Hide and Tuli Safari Lodge all of which were property of the Tuli Safari Lodge.
This small lodge, well situated within walking distance of Rosebank Mall in an upscale residential area of Johannesburg, stood out for its spacious and well appointed suites and offered many advantages for the independent traveler. In spite of being in a very big city inside the adult oriented lodge (guests with children 12 and older were welcome) there were few noises beyond the usual staff cleaning and other daytime sounds of a small guest house.
What I remember best about The Marine is the afternoon time I enjoyed sipping wine in my water facing suite while watching southern right wales swim by; as well as the hour I spent early the next morning sitting on my travel partner’s terrace watching playful mating whales. Since the whales were swimming close to shore I was able to get a good view of their fins with my binoculars. Although the view of the bay and the whales from the town’s nearby waterside nature trail was outstanding the view from the height of my first floor suite with an extra large window was even better.
Stretched along a verdant bank of the Thamalakane River on the outskirts of Maun, the gateway city to the Okavango Delta, Thamalakane River Lodge was quite literally a breath of fresh air after my extended stay in the parched wilderness of the Kalahari. Built in a grove of tall riverine trees filled with abundant bird life, the lodge was resolutely turned toward the river. All guest chalets and common areas had terraces that took full advantage of the cooling breezes and serene 180 degree view of the riverbanks lined with fluttering reeds visited by an ever changing array of water fowl and birds. Dusk was spectacular, with the sun setting the river ablaze as it slowly dipped behind trees.
This was my first experience in the Okavango Delta. I couldn’t have wished for a better introduction to this unique landscape of papyrus-lined channels and water lily-filled lagoons weaving through shady glades and rich savannah grasslands than Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp. Set under a lush canopy of massive ebony trees in a remote 19,800 acre (8,000 hectare) concession, Nxabega (“place of the giraffe” in Basarwa, the language of the river bushmen) was an oasis of elegance and comfort in the heart of the Delta. From the instant the Cessna touched down, it was obvious that a fascinating adventure had begun. Exceptional rains had recently flooded the camp’s own airstrip; we had landed on a nearby, higher ground landing strip, my guide informed me in the course of his warm welcome. We would now drive a few miles to Nxabega; and by the way, a leopard guarding his freshly killed impala had been sighted earlier this morning near our route; would I care to make a short detour to look for it?
One of of the features we liked the most about Marataba, meaning place near the mountains in Tsonga, was the splendid view of the Waterberg Mountains. We enjoyed this view from the comfort of our tented room, the common areas and the game drives. Located in a private concession within the Marakele National Park, Marataba was a luxury and gourmet oriented game viewing property managed jointly by South African Parks and Hunter Hotels.
The drive to Kichaka (Swahili for bush) of several hours from Plettenberg Bay, at the end of our Garden Route trip, was mostly easy highway driving and we were greeted warmly on arrival. Several staff members (Keith, the property manager, Charnel, our host that evening, and Francois, our field ranger and the head ranger at Kichaka) welcomed us as soon as we parked the car within the reserve just a few hundred meters from the N2 Highway.
A short drive from Johannesburg led us to shady parking in front of Jembisa Lodge where Ané Van Schalkwyk and Steven and Jane Leonard, the executive staff of the property, greeted us warmly late one afternoon. From the parking area we crossed a courtyard to reach the entrance to the north facing house. After a day in the city and a flat tire on the way we were eager to get back to the bush. While Ané showed us around the house and gardens, we discussed our activities preferences with Steven, our guide; then they left to prepare for our evening outing and we sat down to a well anticipated late lunch.
The single propeller plane had been droning for almost one hour over some of the flattest, emptiest land I had ever seen. Swirls of gleaming salt pans and dusty sand banks stretched to infinity, baked by a merciless sun. The pilot nodded to the right. “Jack’s Camp,” he informed me, dipping the wing to give me a better look. Beneath me a palm and acacia-studded oasis was emerging from the stark Kalahari wilderness. Large green safari tents were scattered among high savannah grass, hinting of creature comforts. Could this be a mirage?
We arrived at Isandlwana, named for nearby Mount Isandlwana, after a morning drive through the green and rocky hills of KwaZulu Natal, an area of South Africa known for its natural beauty and battle scars. The first thing that struck me on arrival at the lodge was the discreet way it was constructed on the side of a hill. Not surprisingly one of our favorite features at this small lodge was the view of the neighboring Zulu village and surrounding countryside from the common areas and our rooms.
A cluster of immaculate South African stone and thatch rondavels nestled in lush indigenous gardens, Idwala Guest House was an enclave of bucolic luxury in the middle of Johannesburg. Located on a quiet residential street of the elegant suburb of Darrenwood, an easy 30-minute drive from O.R. Tambo International Airport, Idwala (Zulu for rock) was an ideal retreat for a day of relaxation after my nightlong flight from Europe and before continuing on my journey further into Southern Africa.
Haina Kalahari Lodge gave me an immediate sense of home, a delightful but puzzling first impression from a place tucked in a remote conservancy at the northern edge of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (a 20,386 square mile, 52,800 square kilometer, semi-arid immensity roughly the size of Switzerland; and the second largest game reserve in the world after Tanzania’s Selous). The reason became obvious once I found out that this oasis of laid-back luxury in the heart of some of the harshest wilderness in Southern Africa was originally intended, and functioned for a decade, as a private multi-family holiday retreat before it began to welcome guests in 2007.
Our stay at the mysteriously named Ghost Mountain Inn was sorrowfully affected by the weather. It rained more or less constantly during our entire two-night stay. That didn’t seem to dampen the staff’s spirits much. Thanks to their cheerful and can-do attitude we went forward with sightseeing plans and had a pleasant stay.
While we were at Amakhosi it rained every day, on every drive. One day we returned so soaked, in spite of the rain ponchos and blankets provided in the safari vehicle, my boots took three days to dry out. And, yet the game viewing rewards were such that all the guests, children included, went out drive after drive in the cold and rain.
This small family friendly hotel within a quiet residential Stellenbosch neighborhood had much to offer. In the early morning we heard the sounds of birds, making us feel briefly as if we were waking up at home. As the day progressed we heard suburban sounds and neighborhood dogs barking. It was quiet otherwise.