To give you a taste of what an experience is like at a Forbes Travel Guide 2016 Star Awards-winning property, we checked in with our team of incognito inspectors. Our inspectors visit hotels, restaurants and spas all over the globe to seek out the most outstanding places to help you plan your next trip.
View the full list of official 2016 Forbes Travel Guide Star Ratings here.
FAVORITE HOTEL EXPERIENCE
Getting immersed in nature at Ladera Resort Saint Lucia: The rooms at Four-Star Ladera are an incredible experience unto themselves — each comes with a private pool (some heated) and only has three walls, with what would be the fourth wall open to nature. You get stunning views of St. Lucia’s famed Pitons, and it’s magical to wake up to the sun rising over the ocean.
Surf lessons and catamaran cruises at Halekulani: Four-Star Halekulani arranges one-on-one lessons at Waikiki Beach with Oahu’s Ty Gurney Surf School, an Oahu company that specializes in luxury private surf instruction. We had so much fun that we signed up for several lessons. The 90-minute sunset catamaran cruise with Maita’i Catamaran was the perfect way to wind down the day. It left from Waikiki Beach and cruised around the bay, showing off views of Diamond Head.
Off-roading at Gateway Canyons Resort: One of the best adventures I had this past year was off-roading on a UTV, or utility task vehicle, at this unique Four-Star Colorado hotel. Some of the dips and turns on the route can get a bit bumpy, but the astonishing mountaintop views of Colorado (and parts of Utah) are well worth the neck jarring.
Hiding out in The Point: This all-inclusive Five-Star Adirondacks hotel is a peaceful escape. We went snowshoeing, which was invigorating, and tubed down a hill. The Point makes you feel as though you’re a friend invited to stay for the weekend, with gracious hosts thoughtfully working to ensure every desire is satisfied — whether it’s the midnight, from-scratch pizzas and truffle popcorn delivered to the room per request, or a gourmet picnic lunch prepared for you in advance at the cabin at the end of the property’s private hiking trail.
Afternoon tea at Blantyre: It’s the setting. Five-Star Blantyre serves tea in the Music Room, a beautiful antique parlor with a piano and a roaring fireplace. All housemade pastries and open-faced sandwiches made for a pampering afternoon. The staff was attentive but gave us plenty of space to sit and leisurely chat. It exemplified the Berkshires hotel’s slow style of living — it’s all about unplugging and unwinding.
FAVORITE SPA TREATMENT
Manos Santas Massage at Spa Botánico: The Puerto Rico spa at Five-Star Dorado Beach, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve infuses oils with botanical blends for a relaxing massage. But what made it stand out were the attention to detail (the therapist placed a bowl with two daisies and a leaf under the massage cradle) and personalization (I choose from three oils for my massage and given a corresponding bracelet). Plus, the staff was nurturing and the old pineapple plantation grounds were gorgeous.
Hawaiian lomi lomi at Spa Montage Kapalua Bay: The massage took place in the Four-Star Maui spa’s open-air hut with a view of the ocean, so you could hear the waves. As tranquil Hawaiian music played in the background, the therapist applied hot pohaku stones to the rhythm of the ocean. It was one of the most relaxing massages that I’ve ever had.
Customized Facial Ritual at Spa Valmont pour Le Meurice: I really liked the line of products used. Valmont is a luxury brand from Switzerland and is really top quality. My facialist made my skin look glowing and renewed. I was even convinced to swap out my regular facial moisturizer and switch to Valmont following the facial at the Four-Star Le Meurice, A Dorchester Collection spa in Paris.
Watsu (water massage) at The Spa at Rancho Valencia: At Five-Star Rancho Valencia Resort & Spa outside of San Diego, I was escorted to the Four-Star spa’s courtyard, where a private saltwater treatment pool was heated to body temperature to mimic being back in the womb. As the massage therapist cradles you and pulls your body through the water, you’ll feel powerful stretching and a sense of weightlessness. The treatment was therapeutic for my body but also instilled a sense of tranquility.
HydraFacial at The Spa at Beverly Wilshire: The facial at the Four-Star spa at Beverly Wilshire, Beverly Hills (A Four Seasons Hotel) utilizes a hydrating wand that simultaneously uses pressure to infuse water and serums into the skin, while a vacuum mechanism sucks out toxins and dead tissue. The result is a deeply cleansing and hydrating treatment that not only leaves a visibly improved complexion but also makes the skin feel soft. At the conclusion, the aesthetician provides the option to see the “waste tank” where the toxins and dead skin were extracted to, which is a remarkable and somewhat satisfying note to end on.
FAVORITE BAR SNACKS
The Ranch at Rock Creek: This Five-Star Southwestern Montana ranch rotates its bar snacks, and we’ve savored bites like delectable curry chicken wings and biscuits, and housemade potato chips with creamy salmon dip.
JK Place Roma: A large assortment of snacks came with my glass of wine at this Five-Star Rome hotel. First, I received corn chips, pesto crackers, spiced hazelnuts, spiced almonds and a selection of finger sandwiches. Then later, the bartender came by with a small plate of fried zucchini fries and tuna tataki.
45 Park Lane: At the Five-Star London hotel, I had an olive tapenade with a toasted baguette, rosemary popcorn and goat cheese arancini.
Acqualina Resort & Spa: There was filet mignon jerky, a hard cheese and apple chips at this Five-Star hotel in South Florida.
Mandarin Oriental, Milan: This Five-Star Milan hotel knows how to do bar snacks. I indulged in flour-based crackers, large green olives, smoked salmon, a meat croquette and gorgonzola cheese with coffee powder.
Salamander Resort & Spa: The Four-Star Middleburg, Virginia hotel’s Gold Cup Wine Bar has great bites, like curried roasted chickpeas, fire-roasted nuts with dried fruit and pickled green tomatoes.
FAVORITE RESTAURANT EXPERIENCE
Storytelling and sweets at Kai Restaurant: An evening at the Five-Star Arizona restaurant in Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa is transformative. Chef de cuisine Ryan Swanson incorporates the essence of the Pima and Maricopa tribes and locally farmed ingredients from the Gila River Indian Community to create unforgettable masterpieces. Each dish is presented in dramatic fashion with stories and rituals, both mystical and inspiring. The experience doesn’t end at dinner. A handwritten note from my server was placed under my guest room door along with a silver logoed box with two chocolates.
Commemorative calligraphy menu at Golden Flower at Wynn Macau: Every guest receives this beautiful keepsake at the Five-Star Macau restaurant with advance request. The calligrapher writes a note on one side and lists your individually ordered items on the other. I have it displayed on my dresser in my bedroom.
Gooseberry jam at The Dining Room at Castle Hill Inn: Upon leaving the Four-Star Newport, Rhode Island, restaurant in Castle Hill Inn, we received a linen bag with a note from chef Lou Rossi that thanked us for visiting. Inside was jar of the restaurant’s gooseberry preserves, made with locally sourced berries. A nice touch: Rossi offered recommendations for using the jam.
The bread and mignardises carts at Joël Robuchon: The sheer size and variety of these carts was enough to make my jaw drop as they made their way through the Five-Star Las Vegas restaurant. Among the dozen bread varieties were rolls made of pretzel, saffron, milk, Comté cheese and bacon; they were paired with a French salted butter that was shaved from a wheel. The mignardises cart offered more than two dozen sweets, including praline pops, raspberry marshmallow “lady bugs,” chocolate bonbons and mini crème brûlée and éclairs.
UNIQUE TURNDOWN AMENITIES
Ocean House: I immediately used the Moroccan oil and bath salts that I received at the Five-Star hotel in Coastal Rhode Island.
Boston Harbor Hotel: The Five-Star Boston hotel’s fragrant pillow mist and Asprey eye cream and lip balm were welcome changes from the usual turndown chocolates.
The Lodge at Sea Island Golf Club: Our butler delivered delicious warm cookies and chilled milk before bedtime at the Five-Star Sea Island, Georgia, hotel.
Skylofts at MGM Grand: One of my favorite turndown amenities was a leather luggage tag from this Five-Star Las Vegas hotel.
BEST TRAVEL SECRET
Don’t mind delaying your flight plans? If a flight is overbooked, Delta Airlines now hands out American Express and other gift cards as an incentive to take a later plane.
TSA Pre-check and Global Entry are essential for traveling. They will help you breeze by the seemingly endless lines.
When traveling internationally, always print out hotel address in local language. It helps when you jump in a cab or need help with directions.
Greater mobile accessibility: Hotels like The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, The Betsy — South Beach in Miami and Nobu Hotel in Las Vegas are developing their own mobile apps, through which you can request housekeeping services, contact the valet to have your car brought around and so on. Park Hyatt New York has in-room iPads for the same types of requests, which plays into the millennial trend of preferring to do things through an app or online rather than via phone.
Fine dining for millennials: Fine dining these days is no longer about having white tablecloths and a fussy, precise cuisine based on tradition. Young people are willing to spend $250 to go to a restaurant to experience the theater of dining, much in the way that you would spend that much money to go to the actual theater. A great example of this is Philadelphia’s Five-Star Volvér Restaurant, where the staff was young and the food was playful and creative, but still razor focused and absolutely delicious.
More mignardises: While amuse-bouches and mignardises are staples for fine dining, they are popping up more in casual restaurants and room service. At Tableau at Wynn Tower Suites in Las Vegas, a little doughnut bite precedes breakfast; The St. Regis Bal Harbour Resort adds a smoothie shot with room service breakfast; at J.K. Place Roma in Rome, staff dropped off petit fours when collecting room service dishes; and at The Ritz-Carlton, Dallas, a plate of chocolates arrived with my room service lunch.
Butler service: St. Regis pioneered butler service, but more and more places are offering it. You’ll find butlers at places as varied as The Mulia — Nusa Dua, Bali; Mandarin Oriental Pudong, Shanghai; and Trump National Doral Miami.
Built-out wet areas in spas: Spas are reinventing wet areas. MGM Macau has a lovely spa with impressive pedicure thrones for foot baths and a nice pool area. Rome Cavalieri’s Cavalieri Grand Spa Club put a cold plunge pool inside a marble steam room, and Sandy Lane Hotel’s spa offered pools with waterfalls and grottos and a cold room.
Concierge texting services: Skylofts at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas was one of the first hotels to pioneer this incredibly convenient service. After a long night on the town, just text the concierge and your driver magically appears. What could be easier?