Logging a few months’ worth of nights a year, every year for a decade, in hotels—and tents, and lodges, and riads and dars and ksars and castles and palaces and palapas and villas and treehouses (really) and even a Mongolian ger or two—tends to give you a comprehensive idea of what constitutes a great hospitality experience. I’ve got a full sensory reference catalog in my mind of stays past: design details, color palettes, Proustian roll calls of scents and flavors, snippets of background (and foreground) soundtracks, the voices and faces of concierges and servers and housekeepers who made me feel happy to be where I was.
The things that stand out as excellent don’t necessarily conform to any set criteria of what a hotel should be. Sometimes, quite the opposite—some unexpected factor surprised and pleased me with its distinctive un-hotel-ness. That said, there are a few truths my PRIOR colleagues and I have come to recognize as axiomatic. The first: stars mean very little, in the grand scheme of what makes a place that really gets your attention, and makes you want to come back again.
Second: people matter. Hugely. To hoteliers I’d say, your rooms can be a bit faded, or a bit wonky, with not-great water pressure or slightly scratched furniture or elevators and air conditioning that creak when they’re running. But if the staff hit their marks, go that extra bit in terms of effort or friendly inquiry to presage your guests’ happiness, and do it with smiles and a bit of character—chances are you’ve got a winner on your hands. (Equally, all the Carrara marble and plush Frette towels in the world won’t compensate for the fundamental fail of people not caring enough, or not in the right way.)
And finally: not all hotels need to feel like homes. Never underestimate the salutary power of a stay in a big-city hotel engineered to feel a million light years away from normal life—see: Hong Kong’s Upper House, a Hall of Famer as far as I’m concerned, though by design it is in every way, as the Dutch would say, “very far from my bed.” But that said, not much beats a small, painstakingly curated, lovingly run maison.
In truth, though, it’s tricky and a bit spurious to build a perfect hotel. The ones we love tend, in their individuality, to be the sum of parts found nowhere else, and the magic is mostly to do with that arcane bit of addition. So perhaps better to call this what it is—something between a paean and a wish list, that recognises gestures and moments of brilliance and delight that, to us at PRIOR, are what make a place memorable. Which, really, is what it’s all about.
For urban glamour, I’m going with The Peninsula Hong Kong, where you can choose between an airport pick-up in one of the hotel’s vintage Rolls Royces and a 20-minute helicopter transfer, which lands you on the roof of the 38-story tower, with access to its own penthouse aviators’ club.
For a truly place-specific welcome, it has to be Dar Ahlam, in southern Morocco’s Skoura palmeraie. When guests arrive, they are led into the impeccably-restored fortified palace via the formal entrance—a slow, ritualistic walk along a spiralling lantern-lit corridor, lasting at least a couple of minutes, which is how visitors to the original 18th-century household would have arrived, thereby giving the women time to veil themselves.
Hard to pick just one here. But going with places that hew laudably to original design that reflects the place they’re in: COMO The Treasury, in Perth, created from the ceiling cornices and metal joinery down to the last hexagonal travertine bathroom tile by the late, great architect Kerry Hill, Western Australia’s favorite son. Spare, warm, rigorous of line and sexy of finish—think buttery beige kidskin, hand-planed oak, low-burnish brass—it is for my money the chicest city hotel in Oz.
São Lourenço do Barrocal, Jose Antonio Uva’s labor-of-love conversion of his family’s farming estate in Portugal’s rural Alentejo region. It took 12 years for Uva, working with Pritzker Prize winner Eduardo Souto de Moura, to remake every building exactly as it was. No embellishment, no modernization. He spent three years scouring the area just to source the authentic cotto roof tiles. His wife, designer Ana Anahory, has commissioned local makers to weave and carve almost every piece of furniture and textile you find in the hotel, expressly for Barrocal. It’s a triumph of artisanal revival: spare, honest, beautiful.
L’Hotel, Jasper Conran’s unassailable Marrakech riad, which hits all the right Berber and Barbary notes, filtered through a master decorator’s eye, and then strategically layers in some joyous color hits. The kind of chic that welcomes, rather than intimidates.
For me the hands-down winner is Le Sirenuse in Positano, where you’re given the choice on arrival between fine cotton and handwoven Italian linen that has—and this is key—been washed umpteen times for supreme softness before it’s ever so much as seen a bed (July and August are all about linen, so ask for it; it’s much cooler).
Congee and huevos rancheros on the same menu is all fine and good if that’s your thing—and you’re hosting a multinational morning meeting in Midtown. But give me the wholesome, abundant help-yourself spread at Stockholm’s Ett Hem any day (and any time of the day, frankly). No frippery here: it’s fresh bread, house-made granola and muesli, seasonal fruit (lingonberries in summer, hurrah)—the basics. The joy, and uniqueness, is in the unfettered access to the hotel’s Ilse Crawford-designed kitchen-larder space, which opens onto its own partially covered walled garden. With sheepskins to cover your legs in the fresher months. Authentic Swedish bliss, as per.
Impossible to narrow to a single one, but here’s where we really could Frankenstein together a few for an ultimate fantasy:
For the Friday-evening buzz factor: The Hemingway Bar at the Ritz in Paris, where amid all the double-vented tailoring, haute couture and multiple languages, the center-of-the-universe feeling is complete;
For an intimate tete-a-tete: La Colombe d’Or, Saint-Paul-de-Vence’s forever locus of cool—cosied up on the banquette under the climbing vines and original Braques (a onetime barfly), champagne cocktail in hand;
For old school vibes, industrial-strength G&Ts and live music that gets just a wee bit rowdy: The Bamboo Bar at the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok. Décor that John Huston and David Hicks would both approve of; some of the most impeccable service in Asia, and a roll call of celebs, bejewelled khunying ladies and raucous repeat guests. An institution, a scene, and the only place I ever need to be at 1 am in the Thai metropolis;
For rubbernecking Nirvana: The Terrace Bar at Jeffrey Klein’s peerlessly buzzy Sunset Tower. (Just remember: no pictures. Ever.)
I don’t love everything about Babylonstoren in South Africa’s Western Cape (the rooms are a bit spare/early oughties; the restaurant is a bit precious). But Karen Roos’s planted gardens, set in eight further acres of cultivated fruit orchards and vegetable beds, are a triumph. Any place that privileges a walled camomile garden (you go at dusk; your footfall crushes the flowers and activates the scent; you sit on a bench in the middle of the space and contemplate the resulting olfactory pleasure) has my vote.
Urban honorable mentions: The leafy green rooftop at Ham Yard, in London’s Soho; or La Mamounia’s gracious palm-lined rose beds (at dusk, ideally, glass of local vin gris in hand, listening to the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the Koutoubia).
It’s the ones that invoke the place, with a smile or a stylish twist. Like the multichromatic capulanas and delicate silver jewellery worn by the housekeepers at Mozambique’s remote Ibo Island Lodge—both artisanal products, made locally in the Quirimbas Archipelago, the silver pendants and bangles hammered thin from melted-down coins that date back to Portuguese-colonial times. At the other end of the spectrum are the waitresses at Chiltern Firehouse, whose elegant shifts, designed by Best-of-British talent Emilia Wickstead, perfectly manifest the urbane, we’re-above-it-all coolness factor of the hotel itself.
The Turndown Amenity
I spent two weeks in Indonesia aboard Alila Purnama, a purpose-built phinisi sailing boat—one in the Komodo Archipelago, the other amid the forgotten islets of Raja Ampat. Each night, on the cool cotton sheets of the bed in my berth, I’d find a small work of art, carved from local pine by local children, celebrating the bounty of marine life for which Eastern Indonesia is famous: a manta ray, a reef shark, a dolphin. I still have them. Each one, cupped in my hand, is a memory talisman.
Simple, slim, cotton or linen, comfortable—but flattering. Back in the day the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel set the standard, with a lightweight Japanese yukata that became a cult collectible. These days we’re partial to the gorgeous linen wraparound robes, designed in Johannesburg by Marion Reed, that Wilderness Safaris stocks at Jao Camp in Botswana. Ankle-length, kimono-like, it’s a pop of serious style in the deep bush.
So very many good ones to choose from here—but we’re going to go with the Pellicano Hotels’ cohort of bespoke Maria Candida Gentile scents, which it had formulated for all its foams, shampoos, gels, salts and votive candles. I especially love the cedarwood-rose-cut-grass notes of ‘Enjoy the Weekend’. (And I always do.)
Maria Shollenbarger is the longtime travel editor at the Financial Times’ How To Spend It magazine. She also writes for Travel + Leisure, The Australian’s WISH magazine, and the FTWeekend. She lives in London and Italy.