I’m a luxury kind of guy so it’s not that unusual for me to visit some beautiful even amazing hotels and resorts. A special few though were different; they took the idea of service and luxury to a new level. Last week fellow blogger Keith of Velvet Escape detailed his experiences when he was surprised by hotels and it made me reflect on my own travels. What follows aren’t just nice hotels, but hotels and resorts that truly surprised me in one way or another.
1. Four Seasons Lodge at Koele – A quick glance at any list of the top hotels in the world will see the Four Seasons name boldly emblazoned and with good reason. Their hotels are each an experience in their own right and none more so than the two hotels on the small island of Lanai. Lanai is the smallest of the Hawaiian islands and is home to only three hotels, two of which are Four Seasons properties. These two hotels are almost always listed as the best in the world, so what surprised me about my visit? I wasn’t surprised by the beachside Four Seasons Manele Bay; Manele is a classic tropical oasis with all the trimmings. It truly is a wonderful experience but I knew that it would be a wonderful experience before I even left home. No, what surprised me is that my favorite hotel on the island is actually the Four Seasons Lodge at Koele. Situated in the island’s highlands, Koele may only be a few miles away from Manele but it feels like it’s on a different continent. Mist shrouded pine trees greet visitors as they drive up to the stately and decidedly stately hotel. Fashioned to look like an old Hawaiian style resort, when I first saw the toile in the bedrooms I was worried. Sure, I like luxury but I detest stuffiness. A lot. After a few days though I realized that Koele is anything but stuffy; instead it’s one of the most relaxing places on the planet. I love a nice tropical beach, but there is something so uniquely calming about walking around the manicured gardens of Koele or going for a hike on the nearby Koloiki Ridge Trail. When I think back on my Lanai adventures the first twinge of longing isn’t for the gorgeous beaches, it’s for the mountain retreat that I grew to love. That is what surprised me most about my stay at Koele.
2. La Residence Phou Vao – When we traveled to Laos last year we weren’t sure what to expect in Luang Prabang. This sleepy town in the north is well known as being a hot spot for budget travelers, but that’s not how my partner and I travel. It didn’t take a lot of research though to find the only luxury option in town and even though it’s managed by the well-known Orient Express brand, I didn’t have high expectations. My expectations were that of the surrounding city, which is a decidedly humble place. After arriving at La Residence though I began to understand why it came so highly recommended. You won’t find gold chandeliers or personal butlers at this hotel, which is fine with me. Instead what you will find is quiet seclusion. Well appointed teak suites await new guests, with windows and doors that are easily opened to allow in much needed breezes. The property itself is so festooned with trees and plants that I felt like I was in a private oasis. The best part of the stay for me was the infinity pool, overlooking the nearby town. My every need was cared to and I felt totally and completely relaxed. When we wanted to go into town, the hotel shuttle provided for easy transport. In every way our stay was easy and comfortable which for me was the most surprising aspect of the visit.
3. The Stanley and Livingstone at Victoria Falls – When I first thought about Zimbabwe, I wasn’t too excited to be honest. The country’s recent politics didn’t just make me hesitant, it made me fearful. But it was also an opportunity I couldn’t pass up and I knew that the resort would be nice. Made up of 16 suites in a series of bungalows, the resort was in fact wonderful. Luxurious in every way and exceedingly comfortable. That’s not what surprised me though; it was the unique access to interact with wildlife that truly shocked me. Driving up to the hotel I was a little intimidated to see it surrounded by barbed wire and an electric fence. I soon learned though the reason was because the resort isn’t just near a wildlife reserve, it’s in the middle of one. The Stanley and Livingstone enjoys a unique vantage point in the 6000-acre Victoria Falls Private Game Reserve. The hotel itself is mostly protected from wandering wildlife (the baboons have figured out how to beat the defenses) and guests enjoy prime private viewing opportunities from their suite’s patios. In the middle of the resort is a watering hole attracting a variety of animals throughout the day from elephants to monkeys and even giraffes. It was stunning. Even better are the private game viewing opportunities only the hotel can offer. One evening we left on a sunset game drive only to find ourselves face to face with three black rhinos. To find these beautiful and endangered animals is exceedingly rare and is a moment in time I will always remember. This unique opportunity to live amongst the wild animals is truly what shocked me about this wonderful hotel.
4. Travaasa Hana – I’m not the kind of person who follows or even likes holistic, new-agey stuff. In fact I routinely mock and ridicule it, which is why I was not at all excited to spend a few nights at the Travaasa Hana on Maui. Self-described as a healthy, holistic retreat they boast, BOAST, the fact that the on-site bungalows don’t have TVs or even WiFi! I was shocked and scared and I didn’t know what I’d do with myself. My worries melted away as soon as I stepped foot in my beautiful suite. The bungalows are designed in a tropical motif and the high ceilings, open doors and slowly turning fans all contribute to an easy, peaceful feeling. I opened a beer, sat on the patio, closed my eyes and listened to the waves crash against the nearby beach. I opened my eyes to find a beautiful sunset and I felt at home. I was happy, truly happy for the first time in a long time. I spent the rest of the night reading and not doing a whole lot. During the day I took classes at the resort, went on hikes and explored the nearby community. It was a digital and physical detox and something that I desperately needed. My ability to not just enjoy a healthy resort but to revel in it is what surprised me about the wonderful Travaasa Hana.
5. Ritz-Carlton Tokyo – Ok, when you hear the words Ritz-Carlton, you know you’re going to have a good experience. One of the top luxury brands in the world, Ritz-Carlton has spent decades carefully refining its brand and services. I walked into the Ritz-Carlton Tokyo expecting the best and I got it. Well located in a convenient part of town, the staff instantly made me feel like a rock star, something Ritz-Carlton excels at. I was most surprised though by the extreme level of service available on the Club level. It was my first time at a Ritz-Carlton and I had no idea their club level was so inclusive. I’ve since ranked it as the best in the business, thanks in large part to the personal attention and frankly the meals available in the club lounge itself. I quickly made it a habit to spend my late afternoons there, checking email, sipping a glass of wine and watching the modern day circus that is Tokyo from the tallest hotel in the city. Believe me, the views are worth the stay alone. It was this unique combination of good corporate genetics and a wonderful property that shocked me the most and made me truly appreciate how much of a difference the smallest of details can make.
6. Evason Ma’In Hot Springs & Six Senses Spa – My trip through Jordan was a whirlwind, taking me from top to bottom in just a week. By the end I was feeling tired and worn down and just needed a break. In an miracle that was almost, and fittingly, Biblical in nature I found myself with an all-too-short night’s stay at the decadent Ma’In Hot Springs hotel. Located within sight of the Dead Sea, the hot springs have been used by locals for centuries to relax and cure aches and pains. One of the most remarkable features are the hot spring waterfalls that douse bathers in a wonderfully warm spray. The hotel itself is set in the crook of a mountain, adjacent to the springs and not unlike the Travaasa Hana, prides itself on health and well-being. Of course, I was also skeptical. Right away I went down to the spa where I found a private hot waterfall and jumped in the pool. After a few minutes I found a pool-side chair and promptly fell asleep for several hours. Clearly I needed a healthy retreat to recharge and Ma’In answered my prayers. I spent the rest of the evening walking around the property, enjoying a delicious and healthy meal and relaxing in my room with a smile that just wouldn’t fade. I was not only surprised by the almost immediate restorative powers of the hotel, but that it exists at all, hidden away in the ancient mountains surrounding the Dead Sea.
These are just a few of the hotels that have surprised me in one way or another, how have you been surprised at a hotel or resort?