The Best Hotels and Resorts of 2016

As 2016 winds to a close, I’m taking this final week to reflect on the past 12 months in all things travel. Yesterday I looked at aviation and frequent flier topics, the Year In Flight. Today I am revisiting the 10 best hotel experiences I had in 2016. Many of these were new or importantly renovated properties, but some were time-tested classics – what they all had in common was that I stayed and critically experienced their charms firsthand. For avid travelers, two years ago I launched two new resources to make it easier for travelers to find critical info, Great Urban Weekend Getaways and Hotel Test Drives. Hotel Test Drives focuses on new and smaller market properties, while I save the best of the world’s hotels for my Hotels I Love column, which was reorganized into one convenient users’ guide earlier this year.

As a professional travel writer, I have traveled a great deal over the past 20-plus years, and have stayed in over a thousand hotels. Because the publications I write for skew towards luxury, the hotels I stay in reflect this and are pre-qualified to the degree possible. Nonetheless, often so-called “luxury” hotels are cookie cutter and fail to impress. In many cases, developers think endless expanses of marble or designer staff uniforms make up for service deficiencies and poorly conceived room layouts – note to these hoteliers, they do not.

Today my focus is on just the ten best lodging experiences I had this year that impressed me enough so that I would recommend them, regardless of price point. Some were properties I visited for the first time, but this year saw a lot of repeats, often several years since my last. Some I have covered here before in one way or another, and in those cases, I have provided links to past stories for more detail.

Four Seasons Florence, Italy: This is a hotel I returned to in 2016 after several years absence and I (again) found it so amazing that I made it the year’s only addition to my vaunted “Hotels I Love” list, a hyper-critical collection of the world’s most standout lodging properties, and my personal highest honor. That story is just a few months old so you can read it here for far more detail, but suffice to say, Four Seasons turned one of the city’s most amazing palaces and a former papal residence with the largest private park in Florence into a urban resort without parallel, a magnificent stunner with Michelin-starred food, stellar service, amazing art and a wonderful spa that are all of high enough quality to match amazing physical setting. Unlike Rome or Paris or London, with tons of high-end competition, this is simply THE place to stay in Florence if you can afford to stay anywhere.

Trapper’s Cabin, Beaver Creek, CO: Okay, so this one is not really a traditional hotel or resort by any standards, but rather a single home operated as a hotel by Rockresorts, the lodging arm of Vail Resorts, which in turn owns Beaver Creek, the single most luxurious ski resort in the United States. Trapper’s Cabin is unique in skiing, the only on-mountain lodging at Beaver Creek, and while there are plenty of ski-in/ski-out hotels at the base, this one is ski-down, guaranteeing first tracks to guests every single day. When you stay here, you literally have the mountain to yourself once lifts close. Situated slopeside at 9,500 feet, it is a deluxe log cabin that sleeps a single party of up to ten, with pool table, fireplace, decks, great outdoor Jacuzzi tub with stunning views, and much more. It is simply the premier address at Beaver Creek, with sno-cat transfers from the base lodge and a personal “Cabin Keeper” (concierge). Last season I wrote about the “White Glove Package,” arguably the top luxury vacation ski or snowboard experience out there, a four-night package for four that pairs Trapper’s with extras like private ski guides, VIP first tracks access, dinners, private meals, rental delivery to the cabin, free ski gear and much more – including four roundtrip first-class tickets from anywhere in the country. You can read that article for more detailed info on Trapper’s Cabin, which can also be rented a la carte nightly, and is just a wonderful place to stay, perfect for that special event ski trip, like an Anniversary.

Ritz Paris, France: There are grand dames and then there are grand grand dames, and the Ritz is the latter, the inspiration for many, if not most, of the world’s luxury hotels. This was the original flagship of Cesar Ritz, the “King of Hoteliers and Hotelier of Kings,” and spawned the terms Ritzy, putting on the Ritz, and gave birth to the Ritz-Carlton brand. This is the most famous hotel in a city full of famous hotels, and it just reopened after a four-plus year total renovations, and I was lucky enough to visit on a magazine assignment soon afterwards – I had also stayed there shortly before it closed five years ago. $450 million later, the Ritz still looks and feels very much like its cadre of loyal fans (Hemingway, Princess Diana, and Coco Chanel lived here full time) will remember, only better. Rooms were greatly enlarged and there are now only about half as many, half of these suites, and all with fantastically upgraded bathrooms and well concealed technology. The two-story spa and health club was completely rebuilt and houses the world’s only Chanel branded beauty facility, while the former Ritz Club nightclub was transformed into an elegant bar and classic French brasserie. There is a new retail arcade, a new retractable glass atrium that allows patio dining all year round, escapist gardens in the heart of the city, a new salon for afternoon tea, and three new high-tech instruction kitchens expanded the hotel’s famous in-house cooking school. A new executive chef, Nicolas Sale, came with four Michelin stars to take the helm at the Ritz’ Michelin-starred gastronomic eatery, L’Espadon. The Ritz Paris has again rightfully taken its place as one of the world’s greatest great hotels.

Amanera, Dominican Republic: Aman is such a beloved luxury boutique hotel operator that its ultra-loyal following has been dubbed “Aman junkies” in the travel industry. But while Aman has successfully opened posh resorts around the world and even moved into the urban hotels, Amanera was a big first for them – the first Aman golf resort. True to its reputation, the brand did not take the challenge lightly – the redesigned Playa Grande course, exclusive to Aman guests, is nothing less than the finest golf course in the Caribbean, a true stunner. I do not say that lightly, but I have been writing on golf travel and architecture for over 20 years, used to rate resorts for Golf Magazine, and have played the majority of the world’s top courses including the big names of the Caribbean and the Dominican Republic. Playa Grande occupies a clifftop setting similar to that of Pebble Beach, only better, and with no garish homes, and it has ten holes on the Caribbean, far more waterfront exposure than any other course in of North America – including a mind blowing five-hole coastal finish. It gets so little play you don’t need tee times and in two rounds I saw one other player. Playa Grande is stupendous and worth a special trip for the serious golf lover. The rest of the resort is great too – most guests don’t even come to play golf. Lodging is in sumptuous casitas that put most other all-villa luxury resorts to shame, with incredible design, private pools and extensive indoor and outdoor living spaces. The facilities are hugely out of scale to the number of rooms, so that if everyone staying here went to the main pool or the beach or one of the restaurants at the same time, they would still feel empty. The resort has over 2,000-acres for 25 casitas, including a private mountain for hiking and expansive private beach. On top of all this, the service is phenomenal, almost psychic, and super friendly – staffers seem to truly love working here. It is the best I have ever encountered in the Caribbean, and the resort even has a special VIP meet and greet policy – for all arriving guests – that bypasses the airport hassles and immigration line and has you sipping a cool beer while other passengers are waiting for luggage. This is truly a slice of paradise and one of the most important hotel openings of the year.

Sun Valley Lodge, ID: Turning 80 this year, Sun Valley was America’s first destination ski resort – this is the place that literally invented the chairlift and changed skiing forever. Ever since it has attracted an A-list following of movie stars, royalty and other celebrities, from Hemingway and Monroe to Oprah and Bill Gates. Most of them have stayed at the historic Sun Valley Lodge, opened that same winter of 1936, and one of the most iconic hotels in the sport. But for last winter the Lodge underwent a 9-month reimagining, enlarging guest rooms so much that capacity dropped from 148 to 94 rooms. Guest rooms roughly doubled in size, adding gorgeous bathrooms with walk-in showers and soaking tubs, and most now feature fireplaces. Attention to detail in the renovation was incredible: floors are granite, cabinetry African hardwoods, and the five new “Celebrity Suites” are themed after hotel regulars including Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, and Hemingway, who wrote the Sun Also Rises while staying here for months. I had been to the Lodge before and it is absolutely better than ever, but at the same time it retained the look and feel that regulars will expect. It now has modern luxury comforts, a new centerpiece Lobby Lounge, designed as a vibrant focal point of the grand lobby, and a new 20,000 square foot spa with state of the art fitness center, beauty salon, and yoga studio. The famous circular heated outdoor saline pool was completely redesigned with a large new patio deck with hot tub, fire pit, and a new Poolside Café. Loved it!

Wynn/Encore, Las Vegas: I’ve been to Vegas 50+ times and have stayed at just about every other well-known hotel, big and small. But I most recently stayed at Wynn – and also twice in 2015. In all three recent visits I was very impressed. Wynn is more self-contained than most Strip hotels, a top choice for repeat Vegas guests who don’t need to wander. The campus includes the connected Wynn and Encore resorts, each of which also has a more luxurious Tower Suites hotel within a hotel, for a total of four lodging choices, each with its own entrance. In total, it has the most Forbes Stars under one roof of any property on earth, with about 60 in total, including two 5-Star hotels and two 5-Star spas plus ten 4-Stars hotels and restaurants. It is also the only casino resort in the city with its own onsite golf course, a huge advantage for golfers, a fun Tom Fazio design operated in the style of a top private country club. Wynn has an excellent slate of eateries, among the best selection of fine dining in the food obsessed city. As a big fan of the Las Vegas hotel-within-hotel concept, which bypasses the city’s biggest tourism weaknesses, huge lobby lines and poor bell and taxi service, I can emphatically recommend either the Wynn or Encore Tower Suites, both 5-Stars, and nearly identical except for décor.

Boston Harbor Hotel, MA: One of the least well known Forbes 5-star hotels in the country, this luxury fixture of Boston’s waterfront flies below the radar of many travelers but is awesome and has a very loyal repeat clientele. I have been a few times and covered it in my Hotels I l Love column, but this was my first visit since a recent renovation of all guest rooms that was completed in May. Like the Ritz Paris, this is an example of an already world-class hotel that is now better than ever. The rooms, which had heavy drapes and an Old World feel have been lightened and modernized, with great bathrooms and amenities, but what continues to wow is the food and service. Wine centric Meritage is a standout hotel restaurant, a rare example of a destination worthy hotel eatery in this country. This was the first time I visited with my dog, who found homemade cookies awaiting her, and staffers fell over each other to help, greet and offer assistance. It’s the rare kind of hotel where doormen remember each guest and it always feels like coming home. It is also home to the nation’s oldest food and wine festival, starting next month and running through March.

Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat, A Four Seasons Resort, France: What do you get when you take one of Europe’s grandest grade dame resorts, the shining star of the French Riviera, and put it under the management of world-renowned luxury brand Four Seasons? You get the place I went for my 25th wedding anniversary this year. This coastal masterpiece oozes romance and luxury in a laid-back way, with palatial grounds, direct access to a coastal walking path on the Riviera’s most famously posh and private peninsula (neighbors include Paul Allen), and a truly iconic salt water pool where regular have brought their children to learn to swim for decades, including the Kennedys, Paul McCartney and Ralph Lauren. Complete with a Michelin-starred restaurant run by a chef who received France’s highest possible culinary honor, plus an amazing poolside open air eatery overlooking the Mediterranean, this is the kind of place you go for that big dream vacation – the hotel even has its own funicular. It is utterly private in a self-contained paradise, yet very close to the charms of both Nice and Monaco, and now it is offered in a best of all worlds package vacation with two other regional Four Seasons stunners, Florence (see above) and the ultimate retail therapy lodging spot for shopping lovers, the Four Seasons Milan.

Badrutt’s Palace, St. Moritz, Switzerland: Another iconic European grand dame, this is arguably the most famous hotel in skiing, in the very town that invented the winter sport vacation. Badrutt’s is big, posh and formal, in downtown St. Moritz, yet offers easy access to serval resorts and is the kind of place where the hotel picks you up at the nearby trains statin in a Rolls Royce. It oozes dark wood, classic art, live piano and harp music, and champagne flows like water. It sits on the lake that is the city’s centerpiece, with first row seats to summer sailing (it has its own marina and boat fleet) and winter’s most decadent event, the White Turf, an on snow horse racing meet held annually since 1907. In recent years Badrutt’s has quietly but substantially upgraded, and floor by floor, rooms have been completely renovated: almost all now feature contemporary luxury bathrooms with walk-in showers and heated floors, and many boast full outdoor balconies with stellar Alpine views. Every room has unique original art, complimentary mini-bars, and included breakfast is a spectacular spread, a grand Sunday brunch every morning. The big recent addition was a huge underground spa and health center, a three-year project that included state of the art treatment rooms, a yoga studio, and a separate “wet zone” full of saunas, steam rooms, ice room and experiential showers. Two blocks from the hotel is Chesa Veglia, the oldest building in St. Moritz, a 1658 farmhouse owned by Badrutt’s that houses three more hotel restaurants and two bars, a nice and unique historical touch. The Palace has a Michelin-starred main dining room and seasonal winter outpost of chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s eponymous Matsuhisa. For a ski or summer adventure that captures all the dramatic grandeur of the Swiss Alps, you cannot beat Badrutt’s.

Post Hotel, Lake Louise, Alberta: I wish I had discovered the boutique Post as some sort of hidden gem, but I can hardly take credit – the place has been awash in superlatives and awards for years. It was rated Canada’s Number One hotel of any size by Travel + Leisure, besting a slew of famed Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton and Fairmont properties, among many others, while Conde Nast Traveler named it the Best Ski Hotel North America, Best Food in the Americas and Number One Hotel for Service in the Americas. It wins Wine Spectator’s highest honor, the rare Grand Award of Excellence, annually, its owners were named hoteliers of the year for the entire world, and it is a standout member of the coveted Relais & Chateaux group. This would be one of the world’s greatest ski lodgings, located at Canada’s third largest ski resort – except that Lake this spot is far more popular as a summer destination. Lake Louise sits in Canada’s first and oldest National Park, Banff, and is one of the most photographed and iconic natural settings on the planet. I can’t say enough great things about the homey Post, opened by two Swiss brothers who decades later continue to run it very hardens on, and it excels in every way, while enjoying an unbeatable year-round location. It is home to a renowned fine dining eatery that is a destination in its own right, it has a wonderful full service spa with Roman-style saltwater pool, its own skating rink, and 3-minutes from the slopes (via hotel car), it is surrounded by more than 120 miles of Nordic ski trails, plus endless summer hiking. Despite its warm staff and rustic lodge feel, this is a stellar luxury hotel that rivals the very best of Aspen, Vail or Park City, but with a relaxed European vibe.