The professional travel writers at Hotel Scoop are frequently traveling through the U.S., Canada, and internationally. Many have been at this game for a decade or two, so they’re hard to impress. Once you’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels, the routine places seem more so and the ones that stand out are a welcome delight.
Each year we like to give a shout-out to those in the latter category, the hotels and resorts that were really the best of the best over the past year. There’s seldom any kind of a theme, but this year one emerged. Several of our contributors traveled to Ireland and were smitten by Irish castle hotels. We’ve grouped those together towards the end.
It’s never an easy task to narrow the choices down to just one, but here’s what really stood out for the Hotel Scoop reviewers this year.
Mary Jo Manzanares was “charmed from the outset” at Pantai Inn, located in La Jolla north of San Diego. Just across from the beach, it offers oceanview suites with a kitchenette and living room area, while outside there’s more lounging space and a fire pit. It features “a pleasant blend of luxurious Balinese decor, a rugged beachfront location, and modern amenities.”
Susan McKee enjoyed stepping back in time to a place with no cars at The Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island in Lake Huron. Transportation at this seasonal resort is by horse-drawn carriage and inside there’s a timelessness to the gracious service. Breakfast and dinner are included in the rates and for the latter, you had better dress up like you would have a century ago: a suit for men and nice dress or pants suit for women is the code. “Somewhere in the hotel from noon ’til at least midnight there’s live music. Dancing after dinner to the tunes of the Grand Hotel Orchestra is a traditional favorite as is harp music during afternoon tea.”
The past takes a different form in the pick from Michele Sponagle—a former psychiatric hospital in Buffalo, New York now serving as Hotel Henry. The building began in 1870 as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane, but this was back when institutional buildings were more than just functional: the architect was American legend H.H. Richardson (and the landscape designer of New York City’s Central Park designed the grounds). Michele says, “the rooms are lovely and they spark a desire to cocoon because of their comfort. But that would mean you’d miss out on one of the Hotel Henry’s best features – quiet sitting areas tucked away that make perfect spots for enjoying a glass of wine with a friend, reading a book or just relaxing. If you feel sociable, you can sit at the bar, dine at 100 Acres – the onsite restaurant – or wander through the Buffalo Architecture Center on the lower level.”
Carolyn B. Heller did most of her traveling in her home country of Canada this year. While she loved boutique Ontario lodgings like the lakeside Drake Devonshire and the fun Retro Suites, she gives her top nod to Victoria’s grand Fairmont Empress Hotel, which wrapped up a multi-year renovation this spring. The updated rooms now feel modern without losing their classic feel, and afternoon tea in the revamped lounge seems even more special. Book a Fairmont Gold room for access to a new perk: a terrace overlooking the Inner Harbour, where you can enjoy the outdoors during the day or watch the sun set over the water.
For Dana Rebmann it was a tie between Phulay Bay, one of The Ritz-Carlton’s best-kept secrets, and Mashpi Lodge. Located in the middle of Ecuador’s Chocó-Andean Cloud Forest, in between swimming in waterfalls, guests can pedal over tree tops on Mashpi’s “Sky Bike.” Expect to be constantly on the move, hiking the property’s many trails. In Southern Thailand, Phulay Bay is all about relaxation. With a personal butler on-call 24/7, the toughest decision you’ll have to make is whether to swim in your private infinity pool or hop on a traditional Thai Longboat for a complimentary snorkeling trip to Hong Island.
Buzzy Gordon was most smitten by the Electra Metropolis Hotel in Athens. Located a block from central Syntagma Square, the location is good but the real magic happens on the top floor. “An experience not to be missed at the Electra Metropolis is a meal at the rooftop restaurant, with its incomparable view of the Acropolis, day and night (when it is illuminated).” The chef presents a tasting menu with ingredients sourced around Greece and there’s a bar and outdoor pool with a view as well.
Jamie Rhein’s yearly jaunt to Montana from the Midwest where she lives involved a south then west detour where Casa Del Gavilan in Cimarron, New Mexico edges just ahead of Bella Roma in Albuquerque and Olivia Mansion in Seguin, Texas as THE favorite. Those two are close seconds, but Casa Del Gavilan (pictured above) best captures the flavor of place and time. The backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and blue, blue sky of northern New Mexico is a stunner. Plus, this historic hacienda-style ranch house B&B is steeped in the history and art of the southwest which appeals to aesthetics and sense of place.
For Diana Rowe, to pick her favorite hotel is akin to choosing her favorite place to travel–next to impossible. One of her top choices was in her home area of Denver. One of the newest properties there is a chic boutique independent hotel downtown: Denver, The Maven, But this summer, her husband and another couple embarked on an epic chauffeur-driven CIE road trip adventure across Ireland. For two nights, the romantic Irish lakeside beauty of Harvey’s Point Hotel in Donegal captivated both couples. Located just 2 hours from Belfast, the staff welcomed them so completely that they settled in and felt at home immediately. They loved the elegant, upscale, spacious rooms and the fantastic dining options, whether a relaxed seating at the bar or a more upscale experience at the restaurant. “After dinner, step outside for a view of Lough Eske and be treated to an impressive misty sunset over the lake with the mountains in the background. Just wow.”
Editor Tim Leffel reviewed a wide variety of hotels and resorts in 11 countries this past year, but nothing could compare to the experience of staying in Ireland’s oldest continuously inhabited castle. Kilkea Castle is now a hotel and Tim was the first guest to sleep in his room’s bed as the place opened up in October. It’s got a tower worthy of Rapunzel, thick stone walls, and its own crumbling chapel and graveyard. There’s also a golf course, full restaurant, and bar, however, plus updated rooms that won’t make you feel like you’re in a drafty fortress. Order a dram of Irish whisky and listen to a good story as you sit by the roaring fire.
Luxury lodging expert Nancy D. Brown is torn between Grand Velas Los Cabos, the crown jewel in the Velas family of all-inclusive luxury hotels in Mexico and Ireland’s Castle Leslie. Try the hydrothermal therapy experience at Grand Velas’ Spa Se and dine at Cocina de Autor with its two-star Michelin Chef Sidney Schutte – perfecto! If you prefer a cooler climate, travel to the Emerald Isle for a memorable holiday. Located on 1,000 acres in County Monaghan, Ireland, the family-owned Castle Leslie is an equestrian lover’s dream and served as the wedding venue for Sir Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. Take time for afternoon tea in the castle, looking out to Glaslough Lake.
In case those other two castles weren’t grand enough for you, Katie Hammel picked Ashford Castle Hotel as her top experience of the year. Set on 26,000 acres on the shores of Lough Corrib on the Mayo-Galway border, it was once owned by the founder of Guinness Brewery and there’s a very long list of royalty and celebrities who have walked its halls. It only has 77 rooms and 6 suites, but there’s plenty to do with “several restaurants and bars, a spa, stables, falconry school, cinema, tennis courts, a golf course, and acres of trails to explore.”