Image: The Pacific Suite at Post Ranch Inn
Kodiak Greenwood
The Pacific Suite at Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur, Calif. In addition to the cliffside perch, amenities include three pools, wood-burning fireplaces, yoga classes, and guided nature walks.
updated 9/26/2008 12:37:07 PM ET 2008-09-26T16:37:07

Stay in enough business-oriented joints or W wannabes, and it's easy to forget that the hotel experience can be transcendent. When you're tired, off-kilter in a new city, or just need to get your head right, a great hotel will help you rediscover your balance. A great hotel will help you feel human again, special, and sublimely taken care of. And any traveler worth her salt has a list in her back pocket: dream hotels that should not be missed in this lifetime. Here's ours. Some belong here for their classic designs, Jeeves-worthy service, and sense of history and glamour; others can't be beaten for their stellar location. All will probably merit discussion, arguments, and booking far, far ahead.

For a complete slideshow of Hotels to Stay in Before You Die, click here.

1. Hotel Cipriani, Venice

Venice virgins can be forgiven for thinking that the city's best hotel should be close to San Marco or on the Grand Canal. Not so. Insiders know that you want to look over to the main island while avoiding the hordes of tourists, who can be more plentiful than the pigeons. There's nothing quite like waking up in the Hotel Cipriani, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year. That location, for starters. It's on Giudecca Island facing San Marco, amid a sea of quiet streets, sprawling gardens, and that giant saltwater pool (hotel lore says it was planned in feet but the designer built it in meters, thus tripling its size). The full glory of Venice is suddenly yours—you can actually imagine being here when the city was a world power of its own.

Be aware that rooms vary in size and have a certain faded look, so ask for dimensions and try to snag a lagoon view. (Management tends to favor repeat guests, but persevere.) Avoid the new annex altogether, which has small rooms and a less glamorous feel. Even better—though it costs a mint—choose a room in the Vendramin, a restored waterfront palazzo that comes with a fleet of private butlers. It's no wonder Clooney often makes the Cipriani his bachelor pad when in town for the film festival.

Hotel Cipriani
Tel: 39 041 240 8028
Doubles from $1,260; lagoon-view doubles from $1,580

2. Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur, California

Malibu and San Diego are lovely to look at, but Big Sur's Post Ranch Inn long ago won our vote for the most spectacular position in all of California. This prime place is on the cliffs of Big Sur (and we mean on the cliffs), looking down at the crashing waters of the Pacific—birds would be lucky to have such views from their nests. For most visitors to Big Sur, the only choice is to stop at the lookout points along Highway 1 and dream about sticking around. Guests at the Post Ranch get to linger, especially with the exquisite new rooms that were unveiled in spring 2008, with private cantilevered terraces, customized sound systems, and outdoor hot tubs. In addition to the cliffside perch, amenities include three perfectly landscaped pools, wood-burning fireplaces, yoga classes, and guided nature walks. And there's no need to feel guilty about your footprint in these truly great outdoors: The resort is green, with a drought-resistant landscaping plan, living-sod roofs covered with wildflowers and grass, and biodegradable cleaning products. For the best view in the place, book one of the five "Ocean Houses," wrapped with floor-to-ceiling windows, that sit about a hundred feet from the dramatically beautiful rock coast. If you were going to stay in only one hotel in all of California to, you know, "find yourself," we'd recommend you find yourself here.

Post Ranch Inn
Tel: 800 527 2200 (toll-free)
Tel: 831 667 2200
Doubles from $550

3. Singita, Sabi Sand Reserve, South Africa

Most of us dream of the ultimate, romantic safari. But Africa's a fair trek away, and a safari is rarely cheap. So for this once-in-a-lifetime venture, forgo four-by-four traffic jams and mosquito-infested tents for a private tracker and the kind of sumptuous accommodations that would have made Hemingway envious. That's what you'll find at Singita, in South Africa's Sabi Sand Reserve. Its 30 rooms have plunge pools and outdoor showers to cool you off after a day in the African sun; individual guides make sure you'll see the Big Five while taking care of your creature comforts (think hot-water bottles on cool morning drives and surprise barbecues in the bush); and the faultless service includes private butlers and spa personnel. Gourmands can expect customized menus and a fabulous wine collection with Stellenbosch reds served at cellar temperatures. Of course, the animals are the main draw. Part of what makes Singita so compelling is the diversity of species scampering about—leopards, lions, elephants, hippos, giraffes—some of which you might spy from your own room. And while there's a price to pay for such luxury, most people only do it once, so we won't quibble.

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Singita Private Game Reserve
Tel: 27 21 683 3424
$1,120 per person per night, including meals, alcohol, and daily safari excursions

4. Hôtel Plaza Athénée, Paris

It seems as if good hotels were invented just for the sake of Paris. The French capital lays claim to some of the most glamorous palace hotels in the world—the George V, the Ritz, and the Crillon, among others—with an easy élan that few other cities can emulate. But often these old-world properties can veer toward the fusty, which is why the Plaza Athénée finds its way onto this must-stay list.

Renovations a few years back reinvented the stalwart as the freshest property in the city, while still preserving its terrific sense of place and style. Trust us: You never forget that you are in Paris. We love the hip glass bar designed by Patrick Jouin, the unofficial office for fashion week insiders; the over-the-top Alain Ducasse outpost, with its gorgeous "exploded" crystal chandeliers; and the secret garden of La Cour Jardin, which is perfect for a quiet drink or tea on sunny spring days. Add in the great location on the Avenue Montaigne, close to some of the city's best shopping and the Champs Elysées, and the large rooms divided into classic and Deco decor (all come with sumptuous marble bathrooms). If possible, book a suite with a view of the Eiffel Tower—these include 868 (which also has a view from the bathroom), 878, and 888. Even the most jaded travelers are made a little giddy by that backdrop when they open the drapes in the morning.

Hôtel Plaza Athénée
Tel: 33 1 53 67 66 65
Doubles from $940

5. Explora En Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Image: Hotel Salto Chico, exterior
Courtesy of Explora
The Hotel Salto Chico sits in the shadow of Chile's jagged, snowcapped Torres del Paines mountains in Torres del Paine National Park. Not a single other structure mars the view, and you feel as if you have the wilderness all to yourself.
We have a soft spot for great hotels plunked down in a spectacular, isolated natural region—especially when it manages not to sully the natural beauty of the place. While the United States has its standouts (Wyoming's Amangani springs to mind), the best example of this is the Explora resort in the wilds of Patagonia. It's certainly not easy to get to (a four-hour flight from Santiago and then a five-and-a-half-hour journey by auto), but, hey, the end-of-the-world ambience is precisely the point. The property sits in the shadow of the jagged, snowcapped Torres del Paines mountains. Not a single other structure mars the view, and you feel as if you have the wilderness all to yourself. The emphasis here, not surprisingly, is on the great outdoors, with daily glacier hikes, horseback rides, and, for the brave-hearted, swims in the ice-cold lake (sybarites will prefer the heated indoor pool and outdoor hot tubs). Rooms themselves are large and contain furniture made by local artisans; all rooms have mountain views. Trust us, though: You won't be spending much time in them.

Explora en Patagonia
Tel: 866 750 6699 (toll-free)
Tel: 562 206 6060
$1,240 per person per night, including meals, alcohol, and excursions

6. Chateau Marmont, Hollywood, California

In Los Angeles, a town whose raison d'être is the manufacture of hipness, the idiosyncratic Chateau Marmont remains the epitome of cool. From its hillside perch in Hollywood, it oozes the same understated glamour that has drawn generation after generation of hopeful ingénues to this town. Throughout its venerable history—built in 1927, it was modeled on the Château d'Amboise in the Loire Valley—it has served as a home away from home, crash pad, liaison spot, and even final scene for a legion of Hollywood legends. Vivian Leigh nursed a Laurence Olivier–broken heart here; Jim Belushi had a fatal drug overdose in a garden bungalow; and Lindsay Lohan rode out her DWI furor on the grounds.

Nonetheless, even more mortal guests are made to feel at home—which is why you should visit, too (okay, that and the star sightings). In fact, it's a distinct lack of flashiness that most distinguishes the Marmont from its L.A. competitors. Rooms come with stove tops and refrigerators that seem plucked out of the 1950s, and the slightly rickety plumbing system might not appeal to the flat-screen-in-the-bathroom set. Splurge on Room 64, the two-bedroom penthouse with a grand piano and huge terrace overlooking the city, or one of the Bauhaus-style bungalows with their own gardens. For those star sightings, try the terrace restaurant, which is reserved for hotel guests and visiting stars, the Ping-Pong table (where Kirsten Dunst has been seen wielding a racket), and the small elevator that can bypass the lobby from the underground garage.

Chateau Marmont
Tel: 323 656 1010
Doubles from $370

7. Park Hyatt, Tokyo

Although it's part of a global chain and served as a backdrop for a major Hollywood film ("Lost in Translation" was shot here), the Park Hyatt Tokyo is a remarkable exhibit of superior service in Asia. From the moment you are whisked away from the chaos of supermodern Tokyo up to the 41st-floor lobby, you enter a carefully pampered private bubble that you may never want to leave. The service here is so exemplary that hotel school students should be sent on field trips to see how it's done right: Bellmen and bartenders remember your name even if you are not a visiting celebrity (and there are many) and execute every request immediately and effortlessly. We love the large rooms that look out onto Mount Fuji and the pulsing city skyline (it's like watching a video game with the sound turned off), as well as the glassed-in 45th-floor swimming pool. At the very top, you can relive Bill Murray's languorous scenes at the New York Bar (pictured), where disconsolate moguls and jet-lagged visiting actors sip Johnny Walker Blue while waiting for their offices to wake up stateside.

Park Hyatt Tokyo
Tel: 81 3 5322 1234
Doubles from $632

8. Le Sirenuse, Positano, Italy

In a time when some of Italy's most famous hotels are being gobbled up by international conglomerates and slick management companies, the small and family-owned Le Sirenuse holds its head high on the Amalfi Coast as a bastion of glamour, luxury, and independent personality. After all, you want Italy, not the corporate approximation of it. Most nights, owners Franco Sersale and son Antonio can be found chatting with guests at the bar or in the restaurant. The family touch is everywhere, from the antiques in the living rooms to the carefully restored private boat, ideal for jaunts to Capri.

Those touches keep this legendary place feeling like the getaway of a well-connected Italian friend instead of a mere hotel. And then there is the location: The 18th-century palazzo sits above the colorful town of Positano, a charming tangle of pastel buildings and church domes leading to the shimmer of the sea below. Two caveats: You must must must get a room with a view of the Mediterranean (the higher the floor, the better) or it's just not worth the money, and don't book a trip in vastly overcrowded August. Consider instead April and May, when the weather is sunny but cool and the tourist troupes haven't arrived for the summer circus. Now that's Italy.

Le Sirenuse
Tel: 39 089 875 066
Doubles from $508; sea-view doubles from $915

9. Four Seasons, New York City

Of all the must-do cities in the world, New York is especially blessed with superb and stylish hotels in phenomenal locations, including the Mandarin Oriental on Columbus Circle, the Mercer in Soho, and the Carlyle on the Upper East Side. But in this city of giants, the Four Seasons tops them all for its ability to channel the sense of vigor and privilege that pervades Manhattan. The West 57th Street address is sublime: You're surrounded by the corridors of world power, as well as the designer emporiums that line Madison and Fifth avenues. The concierge is legendary for fielding last-minute requests (just try getting into Per Se at the last minute on your own), and a huge and efficient database keeps repeat guests' fancies on file. And with the arrival of L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon a couple of years ago (if you haven't tried his mashed potatoes, you haven't lived), the property draws foodies who usually keep south of 14th Street.

At 600 square feet, even standard rooms are larger than most New York apartments, and they come with views over the skyline that create the sense of an aerie above the city. To get the full effect, ask for a Parkview Tower room with an unobstructed vista of Central Park. Or book the newly unveiled penthouse, a 4,300-square-foot palace that cost $50 million to complete and has fulfilled I.M. Pei's original design for the building. With 23-foot-high windows and a 360-degree view of the city, plus the use of a personal trainer, butler, and Rolls-Royce, it's taken the iconic New York experience and considerably upped the ante. And at $30,000 a night, it's one of the most expensive pads in the world.

Four Seasons New York
Tel: 800 819 5053 (toll-free)
Tel: 212 758 5700
Doubles from $995

10. Banyan Tree Maldives Madivaru, the Maldives

Each of us should one day fulfill the fantasy of the desert island (preferably without Tattoo yelling about planes). Consider the Banyan Tree Maldives Madivaru your own tropical idyll in the Indian Ocean. With only six units and up to 18 guests at a time, the four-acre private island of Madivaru becomes your personal playground. Luxury camping is a big travel trend right now, and this Banyan Tree proves that tents don't necessarily equal roughing it—you get queen-size beds, plunge pools, deep-soak bath tubs, outdoor showers, and teak decks. Each villa comes with a personal butler, and you can have massages and facials in your own room. But the highlight of the place is the natural beauty of the coral atoll, with white sand beaches and turquoise, crystal-clear water that's home to turtles, dolphins, and parrot fish. Sunset cruises, deep-sea fishing, scuba diving, and snorkeling safaris are among the ways to discover the marine neighborhood. And while the resort has a restaurant, to really get the (five-star) Robinson Crusoe experience, take your meals on your private veranda or on a deserted beach nearby. It will make you wish you could stay an island castaway forever.

Banyan Tree Maldives Madivaru
Tel: 960 666 0760
Villas from $3,900, including meals and excursions

11. Oberoi Udaivilas, Udaipur, India

So your friends say they're not sure about going to India? If they could only get a load of you now, overlooking the gorgeous Lake Pichola from your perch in a magnificent palace fit for a maharaja. In fact, some of the world's best hotels are packed into the country, especially around the northern desert region of Rajasthan. Our pick: Oberoi Udaivilas. Built in 2002, it feels like it's been on the lake for centuries, especially with its series of turrets and fountains that could be plucked out of the Mewar period. The design is equal parts sublime and decadent, with gold-leaf domes, exquisite chandeliers, and gorgeous Indian textiles. The grounds are enormous—30 acres—and include an animal sanctuary with peacocks that parade through the gardens. Ask for a Premier Lake View room with a private patio overlooking the water and steps that lead right into a semiprivate pool (five suites come with completely private ones). Not to be missed: a sunset boat trip around the lake followed by a private dinner on a floating dock—it'll make you the star in your own Bollywood flick.

Oberoi Udaivilas
Tel: 91 294 243 3300
Doubles from $745

12. Claridge's, London

Boom! London is back, the new global capital of, well, capital—bristling with energy, confidence, and cash. The problem with big cities like London is it's easy to feel that energy is passing you by. Without connections, you just might find yourself crammed into a tiny hotel room and eating pub grub. No worries whatsoever when you place yourself in the hands of the staff at Claridge's. No hotel better exemplifies this new injection of British cool. At the center of Mayfair, a storied residential neighborhood recently reinvented with a spate of fashionable boutiques and restaurants, the Art Deco gem maintains old-school traditions like afternoon tea, uniformed elevator attendants, and discreet service. But it also injects an exhilarating dose of modern style: a Champagne bar so hip that Kate Moss hosted her 30th there, 21 new suites designed by the Queen's nephew David Linley, and Gordon Ramsay's flagship (and still best) restaurant. Other draws: one of the best dry martinis in the city at the Fumoir bar, and Thomas Keatley, the concierge, who has been taking care of high-maintenance requests for 30 years. London is rocking, and you will be, too.

Tel: 44 207 629 8860
Tel: 866 599 6991 (toll-free)
Doubles from $1,080


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