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The Setai, Miami: After a $200 million renovation, the former Dempsey Vanderbilt Hotel in South Beach inspires uniformly rave reviews from the hospitality design profession.
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updated 3/22/2007 2:13:48 PM ET 2007-03-22T18:13:48

To compile a list of sexy hotels, Forbes Traveler consulted the people who know best — hotel designers.

We queried the principals of several leading hospitality design firms, including BraytonHughes (Four Seasons in Costa Rica, Jackson Hole, and Whistler), Wilson Associates (Little Dix Bay Villas, Las Ventanas al Paraiso), and William Allison Tong & Goo (Hotel Bora Bora, Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur, the Lodge at Rancho Mirage). The only catch was that they couldn’t nominate their own hotels.

What defines “sexy” to a hotel designer? Chris Keller, Design Director of Gettys (Conrad Miami, Hotel Plaza Athenee), sums it up thusly: “First, the property has to withstand the concept of ‘trendy.’ Timelessness translates into integrity, which is extremely sexy. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the hotel has to focus attention on the guest. Nothing is sexier than a true, defined and integral sense of self.”

In other words, the simple act of being in an aesthetically pleasing environment tends to enhance your self-image. Just flipping through a newspaper in the lobby of the Setai, for example, or strolling the historic gardens of the Hotel Bel-Air makes you feel part of a mysterious, thrilling world. You belong in this exotic world and this world belongs to you — you feel sexy.

All of our award-winning experts were enthusiastic and effusive, and notably gracious towards their ostensible competition — there were a lot of exclamation marks involved. Some even paid each other direct compliments: Richard Brayton Of BraytonHughes nominated the Inn of Anasazi, which was designed by another one of our panelists, Wilson Associates. And their selections were as eclectic as their backgrounds.

Some chose urban boutiques like the Chambers in New Yorkor the Viceroy Hotelin Santa Monica, while others favored more lofty escapes like the Hotel Hana Maui or the Post Ranch Inn. The Hotel Rouge in D.C.won marks for shaking up a relatively staid hotel town, while the Bel-Air got the nod for its recent $20 million renovation. And few probably benefited from novelty and buzz, like the redesigned Gramercy Park Hotel in New York and the new St. Regis in San Francisco.

Though if we had to pick a front-runner, it would be The Setaiin Miami, which was independently nominated by several of our experts. After a $200 million renovation, the former Dempsey Vanderbilt Hotel in South Beach inspires uniformly rave reviews from the hospitality design profession.

The Setai, Miami
The number one pick of several of our panelists, the Setai is pure architectural serotonin. Adrian Zecha’s instant classic is a jaw-dropping confluence of Art Deco flourishes and sleek Asian designs.

Here are the first five hotels on our list. For the rest of the list, as well as photographs and commentary from our panel of hotel design experts, click to the slideshow.

© St. Regis
“The light and airy guestrooms at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco give one the feeling of floating among the clouds, suspended in an unearthly sky-bound hideaway.” —Cheryl Rowley, Cheryl Rowley Design

St. Regis, San Francisco
The new St. Regis in San Francisco is beloved as much for its sleek cream interiors as its futuristic room technologies. The city’s most luxurious hotel also wins marks for its setting — right across the street from the SF MOMA and the city’s buzzing SoMa district.

Gramercy Park Hotel, New York
After a year of renovations, this landmark hotel re-opened last fall, completely transformed and universally praised. Co-designer Julian Schnabel contributed to the hotel’s “gothic eclectic” ambience, which pays homage to the hotel’s lustrous history (Humphrey Bogart and Babe Ruth were prominent patrons), while remaining steadfastly new and strange (note the saw shark lamp).

Chambers Hotel, Minneapolis
The sister hotel to New York’s Chambers has an impossibly hip loft space vibe. The hotel serves as a giant live-in gallery of the Burnet family, who own of the most respected private art collections in the world. It’s easy to imagine rock stars passed out amidst the Damien Hirst installations.

Hotel Hana Maui, Hawaii
Tucked away on Maui’s lush East Coast, at the end of legendary Hana Highway, this classic resort attracts legions of regulars for its beauty, privacy and notable lack of pretension. And as for sexy? Marlon Brando sojourned here after filming “Last Tango In Paris.”

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