2014 Grand Awards: North America & Central America


Rancho Valencia

Rancho Santa Fe, California

The coast of Southern California offers a combination of scenic splendor and agreeable climate found in only a handful of places around the globe. It doesn’t take much to lure me back to this Riviera-like landscape, and the reopening of one of my favorite resorts provided a welcome excuse for a visit. In early 2012, Rancho Valencia closed for a $30 million overhaul. Prior to the renovation, reports that it felt dated had been trickling in, and I was eager to see whether the 10 months of work, undertaken by the resort’s new owners, had been time and money well-spent.

Our suite had a secluded location at the far end of a paved footpath. Its Spanish-style interior came with wrought-iron chandeliers hanging from a vaulted ceiling, a sunken living room and a gas fireplace. Blue-and-white Moorish-inspired tiles enlivened the bath, equipped with a steam shower and soaking tub. Our terrace, with a Jacuzzi, invited lazy afternoons.

The food was delicious, though the beautiful farm-to-table Veladora restaurant really showed its mettle at dinner. I especially enjoyed the briny “Breath of the Sea” appetizer, a jewel-like composition of sea urchin, prawns, oysters, clams, cucumber and seaweed in a cool dashi broth. Next door, the lively Pony Room bar draws a chic local crowd.

We also took advantage of the upgraded 2.5-acre spa, comprising a fitness center, yoga pavilion and 10 treatment rooms arrayed around hushed garden courtyards. Fireplaces seemed to be everywhere, even in my treatment room, which also had a soaking tub on its patio. It felt remarkably indulgent to bask in a warm, myrrh-infused bath with cool, soft drizzle speckling my face. I left feeling thoroughly renewed and at peace.  


El Encanto

Santa Barbara, California 

After a seven-year restoration by Orient-Express, Santa Barbara’s oldest hotel reopened last March. For decades, its famous terrace provided a glamorous stage for movie stars and presidents alike. Located above Santa Barbara in the residential Riviera neighborhood, El Encanto first opened in 1917. Its glory days lasted from the 1920s until the 1950s, after which decline slowly set in.

Spread across seven acres overlooking the Pacific, the 92-room property now comprises Bungalow Suites, smaller Bungalows and new, modern Luxury Suites. The original tile-roofed bungalows were raised so that new foundations could be constructed and modern comforts, such as radiant-heat tile flooring, installed. Thoroughly traditional on the outside, our bungalow came with an attractive sunroom sitting area and a bedroom with a gas fireplace. The splendid bath was almost as large as the bedroom. Strolling through the grounds before dinner, we easily saw why El Encanto has inspired such loyalty and affection.

In the restaurant, Executive Chef Patrice Martineau, formerly of Daniel in New York, serves “California Coastal” cuisine. His menu has a farm-to-table ethos: Fruits and vegetables come from an on-site garden, and cheeses are crafted with milk from Ellie, the resort’s own cow. In a nod to tradition, Martineau still serves the hotel’s famed floating island dessert, the “Enchanted ‘Oeuf à la Neige,’ ” which dates to the 1920s. New amenities include an infinity pool, plus a magnificent spa that employs seasonal organic products.

Orient-Express has done a fine job, and the meticulous restoration of this famous sanctuary will delight its many admirers.  


Farmhouse Inn

Sonoma County, California 

One of the most enjoyable wine drives in the United States follows West Dry Creek Road in northern Sonoma. Staying at the Farmhouse Inn puts you in the perfect location to explore this route, as well as the many wonderful wineries in the Russian River Valley. Located in Forestville, 10 miles south of Healdsburg and 23 miles west of Kenwood, the inn evolved from an 1873 farmhouse. Butter-yellow clapboard siding, shuttered windows and a front veranda make it look country simple at first glance, but it is also wonderfully sophisticated.

The property’s Heritage Rooms are found in the Main House and nearby farmworkers’ cottages. I was most interested in the new Barn Rooms, however. These more spacious accommodations extend onto outdoor decks and have been designed to blur the boundaries between indoors and outdoors. Our room was awash with light from a wall of windows, and came with elegant Shaker-like furniture and a stone fireplace. The marble bath provided radiant heating, a whirlpool tub and a large walk-in shower.

The Michelin-starred restaurant is a local favorite. Chef Steven Litke meticulously sources his produce and changes the menu constantly. The man responsible for the wine cellar, Geoff Kruth, is one of just 200 people in the world to hold the title Master Sommelier. His extensive list came with an impressive number of half-bottles. ?The Farmhouse Inn offers a small but attractive spa in the Carriage House, with a private patio cabana overlooking the pool and gardens. The hotel’s terrific concierge staff will help you craft itineraries to regional wineries and point you to nearby restaurants (though I found it impossible to tear myself away from the inn’s own exceptional dining room).



Washington, D.C.

The 49-room Capella Washington, D.C., Georgetown stands in a restored red-brick warehouse that blends smoothly with similar structures along the C&O Canal (a project in which George Washington himself was an investor). From the moment we stepped out of our cab, staff swirled about us, opening doors, dispatching luggage and ushering us into the elegant Capella Living Room for registration. A Personal Assistant checked us in. There are no clerks or concierges at the Capella. Instead, the PAs help in any way they can. The system works very well, and we found “If we can, we will” to be the staff’s prevailing attitude.

Our PA escorted us to a Deluxe Room. The décor was comfortable contemporary, and I found its mix of dark woods, cream walls and judiciously placed art to be extremely pleasing. In the black marble bath, we found the same attention to detail. The lighting was perfect; we never had far to reach for towels; convenient hooks beside the sculptural freestanding limestone tub provided spots for hanging robes; and a generous supply of Acqua di Parma toiletries was much appreciated. 

It is noticeable that in-house guests are accorded priority. Both the Capella Living Room and the rooftop bar are reserved for residents, as is the indoor/outdoor infinity-edge pool. Hotel guests and local residents mingle in The Rye Bar. Polished mahogany, subdued lighting and leather seats make this a congenial spot year-round, but in clement weather, the canal-side patio is most in demand. The adjacent Grill Room also offers canal views through a wall of glass. Overall, the Capella proved a comfortable and civilized hotel, with attentive, friendly and accommodating staff.  


Fisher Island

Miami, Florida

The Fisher Island ferry takes eight minutes to make the crossing from Miami Beach and to offload its passengers in a verdant 216-acre enclave of almost surreal calm. In 1925, William K. Vanderbilt II traded a 250-foot yacht for seven acres, then the property of real estate magnate Carl Fisher. On the southern shore, he constructed a stone mansion, plus three cottages to accommodate his numerous guests. Today, Fisher Island is primarily an affluent residential community; Vanderbilt’s estate, however, now forms a 41-room boutique hotel, which includes the 1920s cottages, plus Mediterranean-style villas with private courtyards and Jacuzzis, and so-called “guest house suites.”

Fisher Island Club is coming to the end of a $60 million renovation program. This was immediately apparent in our traditionally furnished second-floor suite, which was in pristine condition. Having unpacked, we wandered down to the marina to appraise the super-yachts. Nearby, the Beach Club comprises a number of airy pavilions overlooking a stretch of fine white sand. Its attractive casual restaurant offers a lengthy menu of American and Mediterranean classics, with an alternative provided by an adjacent sushi bar. That evening, we dined at Porto Cervo, an Italian restaurant that offered excellent if predictable food and friendly service. Other amenities on Fisher Island include a 20,000-square-foot spa; a nine-hole Pete Dye golf course and a superb tennis center. 

Fisher Island could provide an idyllic location for a multi-generational family holiday. Certainly, I cannot think of another resort within sight of a major city and 30 minutes’ drive from an international airport that provides such a serene place to unwind. 


Kingsbrae Arms

New Brunswick, Canada

The charming little town of St. Andrews lies just across the St. Croix River from Maine and is laid out on a gently sloping hillside that descends to the river. At the crest of the hill stands Kingsbrae Arms, set in a dignified 1887 shingled house. Long a personal favorite, it succeeds in creating the atmosphere of a refined private home, with wainscoted walls, a graceful staircase and rigorously selected art.

An engaging young man—the staff all strike that ideal balance between the professional and the personal?—?took our bags upstairs to a suite that was an oasis of civility. With a fireplace, couch and Oriental carpeting, the living room proved a soothing place to relax. Even more appealing was the splendid bedroom, with a four-poster bed at the head of which was displayed a radiant Japanese wedding kimono. The pleasing bath came with sea-green floor tiles and a deep tub, and a large balcony afforded views of the pool and the meticulously tended back garden.

Every evening, we met our fellow guests in the attractive library lounge—over perfect icy martinis—to compare notes about the day’s activities. The subsequent dinners were invariably superb. Under the care of chef Guillaume Delaune, we feasted on dishes such as roasted sea scallops and Brunswick porcinis, lobster served in a ginger and coriander consommé, and grilled quail Rossini, stuffed with porcini and spinach and served with herb risotto and Port sauce. 

There is much to do in the St. Andrews area, including whale-watching in season (May through October). And I never tire of the day trip to the summer home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Campobello Island. Kingsbrae Arms is a place of elegance, charm and genuine hospitality.  



Pacific Coast, Nicaragua

Although Nicaragua has most of the ingredients required for success, its tourism has been slower to develop than expected. So I was intrigued to hear about a new $250 million Pacific coast retreat. Located two hours’ drive south of Managua, Mukul is the brainchild of Don Carlos Pellas, a fifth-generation Nicaraguan. A Stanford University graduate, he presides over an empire that includes transportation and health care, as well as sugar cane and rum.

Apparently, mukul is the Mayan word for “secret.” On arrival, I was driven down a winding road backed by the shining ocean. From time to time, I espied the verdant fairways of the Guacalito de la Isla golf course, laid out by noted architect David McLay Kidd. The 12 Beach Villas come with terraces, palapa roofs, private pools and outdoor showers. Their interiors feature glass walls, nine-foot ceilings, teak furniture and squash court-size baths. Twenty-three so-called “Bohios” have been constructed and appointed in a similar style on a steep hillside overlooking the golden sands. 

The resort offers a seemingly never-ending list of activities. Whale-watching, sailing and deep-sea fishing are available, and “Adventure Rangers” lead excursions on 12 miles of hiking trails through dry rain forest. Guests may dine in a variety of venues, including La Mesa, an atmospheric indoor restaurant serving Mesoamerican cuisine, whose walls are decorated with photographs illustrating the 135-year history of the Pellas family. The Spa Mukul offers six self-contained private casitas. And the resort has a rum room that features offerings from Pellas’ Flor de Caña brand. 

Mukul has raised the bar in Nicaragua to an entirely new level.  


Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens

La Fortuna, Costa Rica

The dramatic Arenal Volcano lies three hours north of Costa Rica’s capital, San José. Finding tranquility and unspoiled nature in this popular area requires some effort. There is no shortage of high-end resorts, but few are truly recommendable. My favorite was the plush Nayara Hotel, Spa & Gardens.

There is no need to worry about roughing it in this luxurious retreat. The 50 guest villas are separated from one another by tropical gardens, and each offers air-conditioning, cable television and room service. The octagonal Nayara Suites are the largest accommodations, with hardwood floors, dark Balinese-style furnishings and soaring cane ceilings. The immense limestone-clad bath occupies a full half of the room, with indoor and outdoor showers, dual vanities and multicolor glass windows. Outside, an expansive terrace sweeps halfway around the suite. I loved to start my morning there watching hummingbirds dart by, the outline of the volcano just visible through the jungle. 

Maintenance at the hotel was flawless, but our meals were inconsistent. The main restaurant’s shrimp brochettes were rubbery. Other dishes were excellent, however, including superb fish tacos, and tilapia in a white wine, butter and avocado sauce. I also enjoyed expertly mixed cocktails at the swim-up bar in the free-form pool (where a few additional lounge chairs were needed to accommodate all of the guests at the busiest times). But I had no quibbles with the small spa, where I indulged in a restorative volcanic mud massage. The treatment was supposed to last 45 minutes, but my therapist worked on me for an hour in a breezy, open-air room, soothing muscles tired from the day’s hiking. 

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