I can still see that Oregon lighthouse clearly. The cabin by the lightning field in New Mexico too. And the mystical Mexican hideaway.
Since I started writing about travel for the Los Angeles Times near the end of the last century, I've slept in close to 500 hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, not counting rental houses and cruise-ship cabins, campsites and airport seating areas. Most of these places have faded and merged in memory, but some stay with you.
For instance, the Hotel Latvija in Riga, Latvia. In the early 1990s, I checked in and found a maid sitting on my bed-to-be, smoking a cigarette and watching TV. ("Very good film. Ten minutes," she said, waving me aside.) And there was the $10-a-night tourist inn in Tabas, Iran, that greeted me with lizards, mice and knee-weakening bathroom sensory effects.
But let's save the whining for another story. I'm here to talk happy hotels — places that made me feel as if I were in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.
They tend to be pricey, because the world usually works that way. But this isn't just about money or luxury. These are places that stick with you, often because of amazing, far-flung locations, and often thanks to profound hospitality or institutional character, such as the multi-generational feel of Eatons' Ranch in Wyoming.
After I made the list, I realized it had no big-city hotels, even though I've stayed in a bunch. Hmm.
I found a few of these hotels in 2009, but this list reflects 18 years of traveling (including a few revisits). Each lodging has surely changed since I checked out, some substantially. (Most regrettably, my favorite under-$100 lodging, the Hotel de la Pelissaria in Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, France, closed late in 2009, so I had to strike it from the list.) But great places tend to endure. Along with my photos from original visits, I've included updates here, including what these places now cost. (Brace yourself.)
Here, alphabetically, are my top 14.
Bugaboo Lodge, Alberta, Canada
The scene: A mountain lodge dominated by heli-skiers in winter, heli-hikers in summer, about 200 miles west of Calgary and 30 miles from the nearest paved road. Built in the 1960s, this lodge faces the snowy molars of the Purcell mountain range, and its copters connect visitors to extraordinary hikes. As in the old days, there are no TVs or phones in rooms, but now there is Wi-Fi. (In renovations by Canadian Mountain Holidays since my summer 1997 visit, it's gained 11 rooms and a rooftop hot tub.)
The details: 16 single rooms and 19 doubles. In summer, about $2,325 per adult covers three nights, all meals and helicopter flights. In winter, rates per adult for four nights begin at about $4,460. . http://www.canadianmountainholidays.com/heli-hiking/lodges/bugaboos
Canopy Tower, Panama
The scene: Nirvana for birders and jungle junkies in the forest at Soberania National Park. It's a former radar tower, round and 50 feet above ground, with an observation deck up top, pie-slice-shaped rooms below, and striking views of the forest canopy all around. My visit: 2000.
The details: 12 rooms, $105 to $245 a night per person, including meals. The five single rooms share a bathroom. http://www.canopytower.com
Eatons' Ranch, Wolf, Wyo.
The scene: A classic dude and cattle ranch that has stood since 1904 by Wolf Creek in the Bighorn mountains. Nearest town is Sheridan, 18 miles east. If you're here, your aim is to ride, ride, ride. A fifth-generation family business with a family focus and at least a few fourth-generation customers. The 2010 season: May 29-Sept. 30. My stay: 1994.
The details: 51 cabins, of widely varying descriptions. Rates $185 to $235 a day per adult, which covers use of a horse and family-style meals in the dining room. Rates for children 3 to 17: $135 to $155. http://www.eatonsranch.com
Explora Patagonia, Chile
The scene: A contemporary lodge, plopped onto a lakeside, mountain-view plot in Patagonia's Torres del Paine National Park. Staggering scenery, splendid isolation, gargantuan bill. Guided adventures on foot, boat, bike, car and horseback are included in the tariff. Opened in 1993 (I visited in 1995), this was first in a chain of remote South American luxury lodgings that now includes Easter Island and the Atacama Desert. (None of the Explora properties was affected by the Feb. 27 Chilean earthquake.)
The details: 50 rooms. For a four-night stay, rates are $2,660 to $3,920 a person (double room) and include all meals, bar tabs, activities and airport transport. http://www.explora.com
Heceta Head Lighthouse Bed & Breakfast, Ore.
The scene: It's an old lighthouse-keeper's residence, next door to the lighthouse itself, which still sends its rotating beam into the oft-foggy night. Between Florence and Yachats on the Oregon coast, about 45 minutes' drive south of Newport. My stay: 2009.
The details: Six rooms, $133 to $315 a night, http://www.hecetalighthouse.com
Hotel Bora-Bora, French Polynesia
The scene: Deep-blue sea, dark-green foliage, jagged island peaks and rooms on stilts above the water. (Other rooms stand on solid ground.) A cabin cruiser delivers you from the airport (which is on a motu, or small island) to the hotel's dock. Between bouts of snorkeling amid clouds of colorful tropical fish, you wander among thatched roofs and strategically placed tropical flowers. In a few hours, you can ride a bike all 19 miles around the island. My stay: 1997.
The details: Run by the global luxury chain Aman Resorts, the resort closed in 2008 for extensive renovations. The management aims for a reopening in time for its 50th anniversary in 2011.
Hotel Hana-Maui, Hawaii
The scene: At the far side of Maui, at the end of an epic island road, a 66-acre tropical retreat. Since 1946, the hotel has changed names, changed owners (a few times) and sprouted all sorts of amenities, including the Honua spa. My stay: 1994.
The details: 69 junior suites and cottages, $495 to $1,675 a night. http://www.hotelhanamaui.com
Lake Country House, Wales
The scene: A distinguished estate in the Welsh countryside, about 15 miles north of Brecon Beacons National Park in tiny Llangammarch Wells. Built in the 19th century as a hunting and fishing lodge, the hotel includes parkland, a nine-hole golf course, croquet, fly-fishing and an indoor pool on the 50-acre property. My stay: 1996.
The details: 18 rooms, about $195 to $385 a night, winter specials from $155. http://www.lakecountryhouse.co.uk/
The Lightning Field, N.M.
The scene: Artist Walter de Maria conceived this lodging/artwork in 1977. On a high desert plain near Quemado, N.M., 400 steel lightning rods stand next to a plain log cabin. When the sun is low or a storm rolls in, amazing things happen. The Dia Art Foundation owns and keeps the place semi-secret; if you score a reservation, somebody will drive you and a covered-dish dinner in from the nearest town. You must promise not to take pictures of the cabin or rods. My stay: 2001.
The details: Three bedrooms, no more than six guests at a time; $150 to $250 a person per night, or $100 for students and children. Open May through October (lightning storm season). http://www.diacenter.org/sites/main/lightningfield
Londolozi, Mpumalanga province, South Africa
The scene: Near Kruger National Park, one of the continent's premier safari lodges. Opened as a hunting camp in the 1920s and converted to game-viewing in the '70s, Londolozi is best known for its leopards, but I also saw elephant, lion, rhino, buffalo, cheetah, giraffe and zebra, all within 24 hours. My stay: 2000.
The details: 29 chalets and suites, $650 to $1,010 a night, with discounts for longer stays. Rates include meals and two game drives daily. http://www.londolozi.com
Mauna Kea Hotel, Hawaii
The scene: On one of the best beaches in all of the Hawaiian Islands, Laurance Rockefeller and friends built this Big Island resort in the 1960s and decorated it with hundreds of pieces of Asian art. It's been redone, but that strange brew of Asian calm and swinging '60s flavor remains. My last stay: 2009.
The details: 258 rooms, $450 a night and up, with frequent discounts for multiple-night stays. http://www.princeresortshawaii.com/mauna-kea-beach-hotel/
Posada del Tepozteco, Tepoztlán, Morelos, Mexico
The scene: Hilltop retreat in Tepoztlán, near Cuernavaca, with pool and patio looking down on a mountain town that has been called the Sedona of Mexico. My stay: 2007.
The details: 20 rooms, $104 (weeknights) to $280 a night. http://www.posadadeltepozteco.com
Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur, California
The scene: a 100-acre enclave of ocean-view luxury and bold design, with lots of wood, glass and slate, some units clinging to cliffs, others towering among trees. Widely admired restaurant. A wood-burning stove in every room and a commitment to sustainability that long predates the current trend. Children are unwelcome. At opening in 1992 (when I stayed), there were 30 units. Later, one was converted to spa services. In early 2008, 10 more units were added.
The details: 39 units $550 to $2,185 a night (and even more for the Tierra Mar house, which sleeps up to eight). http://www.postranchinn.com
Las Ventanas al Paraíso, Baja California, Mexico
The scene: Massive rooms (the smallest is 960 square feet), sleek pools, spa, luxe desert details, painstaking service, all near the water's edge in San José del Cabo. Spa, sushi bar. Managed by the luxury specialists Rosewood. My visit: 1998, shortly after the resort opened.
The details: 71 suites, most priced from $625-$1,550 daily, more for larger suites. http://www.lasventanas.com
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