L'Albereta Hotel, Erbusco

My Top 10 Hotels from the Past Decade

I’ve unexpectedly spent seven of the past ten years involved in the hospitality industry working in the luxury boutique hotel space. While I never envisioned myself here, the industry has been the perfect nexus for me, bringing together my love of travel, plus communications, marketing, and media. It’s also been a great platform for us to give back and be involved in the community. It’s been the most fun and unexpected career path, allowing me to understand the tourism and hospitality industry from both sides: as an active consumer, experience collector and sharer, and as a hotelier. We’ve become increasingly choosy about our hotels as we’ve traveled, not in a snotty way, but in an experiential-focused way. When we’re visiting a new destination we want to make it count. We almost always choose independent boutique properties over large chain hotels and take those trips as opportunities to learn from others who are creating so many wonderful experiences for guests around the globe. A hotel can simply be a place to lay your head, or it can be part of the overall experience in a destination. All of these hotels fall into the second category. Nearly all of the properties on my list are independent, most fall into the four or five-star categories, and all have stood out as being a special part of the memory-making in a destination. Up now, I’m sharing my top 10 hotels from the past decade of travel.

L’Albereta Resort ✧ Franciacorta, Italy

L'Albereta Resort, Top 10 Hotels from the Past Decade

10In the heart of Franciacorta (where Italy produces their equivalent of Champagne) is L’Albereta Resort, a picture-perfect relais in the middle of the vineyards on Lake Iseo in the Italian lake region. Our journey took us there in a rather unexpected way when we ended up road-tripping from Venice to Milan after some flight changes due to Hurricane Irma. Serendipity is real, folks. I still think about this cozy countryside escape, our nights wrapped up in blankets under the twinkling trees, and days jetting around to nearby Italian towns sipping Aperol Spritzes. For wellness-seekers, their 2000 square meter Espace Chenot Health Wellness Spa provides treatments and programs.

?? Read more about our experience at L’Albereta Resort.

The Old Markets ✧ Symi, Greece

HOTEL INSIDER: A Stay at The Old Markets, Symi

9We had three days on the tiny island of Symi just a short ferry ride away from Rhodes in Greece’s Dodecanese island chain. During our 10 days in Greece on a family trip to the Med, we reveled in our time at this petite property overlooking the harbor with its cascade of colored facades reminiscent of the Venetian Empire. A converted agora, the hotel boasts tons of charm, personalized service, a gorgeous location, and lovely rooms each with their own flair. Our morning breakfasts and evening cocktails on the rooftop are still a warm memory.

?? Read more about The Old Markets in Symi, plus how we spent two days in Symi.

The Cloister + Lodge ✧ Sea Island, Georgia

The Cloister, Sea Island

8Arguably my favorite hotel in the United States, the Lodge at Sea Island exudes major Southern charm. More recently I stayed at the Residences at the Cloister on a girls’ getaway to Sea Island but the Lodge still has my heart. Being a California girl, I can’t help but be dazzled by the perfectness and sheer quintessential Southerness of it all. The dark wood and leather couches, the shooting school on site (the second oldest in the US!), and the perfectly coiffed women sipping gimlets as the sun sets on the golf course. For me, it captures a bit of the way that a hotel can transport you to a different space and time, which is often exactly what we’re looking to achieve when we travel.

?? Read more about our experience at Sea Island Resort, plus my experience learning how to shoot at the Shooting School at Sea Island.

Tambo del Inka ✧ Sacred Valley, Peru

Tambo del Inka, Top 10 Hotels from 2019

7In 2013, Scott and I honeymooned through Peru staying almost exclusively at Belmond (then Orient-Express) properties. One was more spectacular than the next, from Cusco’s Hotel Monasterio to the Sanctuary Lodge at Machu Picchu. In looking back at Peru though, it was Tambo del Inka, the one non-Belmond property snuck into the mix, that wowed us during our time in the Sacred Valley. Nestled at the base of Ch’iqun mountain, it’s a rather ethereal escape with stunning touches that felt so luxurious and thoughtful. The resort is part of The Luxury Collection so Marriott/Starwood points collectors will be excited to know that a stay is bookable on points, too.

?? Book a stay at Tambo del Inka here or fast track points earnings through the Marriott Bonvoy American Express card, which helps us with making stays like this possible. {You can earn 75,000 points through that affiliate link, plus I’ll get a few points for a future stay, too.}

Nyungwe Forest Lodge ✧ Nyungwe Forest, Rwanda

Nyungwe Forest Lodge

6Now dubbed Nyungwe House as part of the One&Only collection, our stay at then-Nyungwe Forest Lodge was one of our favorite spots in East Africa. Set amidst a functioning tea plantation near the mountains and Africa’s oldest forest, the lodge has an incredibly privileged location that leaves visitors in awe of nature. The rooms are impeccably beautiful but we found ourselves convening in the main lodge where we chatted endlessly with other travelers over tea-infused cocktails by the fireplace. With so much to do and see (read about our canopy walk in the Nyungwe Forest), our only disappointment was that we didn’t spend more time enjoying the property — it deserves the time to be properly savored!

?? Heading to Rwanda? You can see the full range of our experiences in Rwanda from Kigali to the Nyungwe Forest.

Anantara Golden Triangle Elephant Camp ✧ Chiang Rai, Thailand

HOTEL INSIDER: Anantara Golden Triangle

5Our month in Southeast Asia this year brought with it some world-class hotels from start to finish, nearly all of which seriously wowed us in a major way. In part the destination, in part our amazing suite with a view, and in part the experience of the brand’s ‘journeys’, Anantara’s Golden Triangle Elephant Camp brought together all of the elements to really make this property sparkle. The view from our room (above) kept me glued to our balcony taking in the vast terrain of the jungle along with the elephants as they moved around the property with their mahouts. An all-inclusive property, food was wonderfully done and the safari lodge feel in the common spaces turned up the allure.

?? Read all about our experience at Anantara’s Golden Triangle Elephant Camp, our Three Country Tour, plus our elephant encounters with Anantara.

Mikeno Lodge ✧ Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo

HOTEL INSIDER: A Stay at Mikeno Lodge

4A picture of Mikeno Lodge doesn’t do it justice because it’s the experience of being at Mikeno Lodge that takes your breath away. All of the lodges in the Democratic Republic of Congo are nestled within ranger camps, and there’s an air of magic and adventure entering the gates of the camp to pull into the drive at Mikeno. Each guest has a cottage, and while they’re not as glam and shiny as the accommodations at Nyungwe Forest Lodge and some of the other resorts on this list, the cottages bring loads of character. The area is lush and you’ll watch birds and monkeys in the surrounding trees while you dine. While sitting by the fire and the bar, we listened to stories from expats working in the DRC, who – as you can imagine – had some seriously interesting stories to tell. To me, Mikeno Lodge feels like the art of discovery. It’s off-the-beaten-path, and the Congo, in general, is a place that most travelers haven’t visited which really makes it feel like you’ve had the chance to uncover something special. If you asked Scott and I independently what our favorite trip to date is, we’d probably both say the DRC. While it battles many issues, for me this destination is pure magic as a traveler. It’s eye-opening and ruggedly wild and naturally awe-inspiring. I’m not sure if we’ll ever be able to make it back, but it’s a place that I’m so insanely thankful we had the opportunity to see first hand.

?? Read more about our stay at Mikeno Lodge, our gorilla trekking in the Congo, and our Mt. Nyiragongo hike to the world’s largest lava lake.

Belmond Hotel das Cataratas ✧ Iguassu Falls, Brazil

Belmond Hotel das Cataratas

3At the time that we visited Belmond Hotel das Cataratas, I happily exclaimed that it was officially my favorite hotel to date. Nearly four years have passed since our trip to Brazil and we’ve been on many trips since then but this hotel still brings fond memories for me with its breathtaking location and beautiful touches. The Belmond is the only hotel within the gates of the park which means unique early morning access to seeing the raging falls before the crowds come in. I felt like I hadn’t really seen waterfalls until I had seen Iguassu – it’s truly a wow, and a great add-on for anyone that’s traveling onward to Rio, Buenos Aires or other major cities in the region. Falls aside, there’s the colonial property with its common spaces that are thoughtfully designed. The bar, our go-to pre-dinner hangout each night, brought old world charm that we adored. We spent each evening designing our own caipirinhas — with our choice of cachaca and chatting with fellow guests.

?? Read about our experience at Belmond’s Hotel das Cataratas.

Jaya House ✧ Siem Reap, Cambodia

Jaya House, Cambodia

2The one thing that I can say with certainty is that the places that were absolute highlights for me in the past ten years went far beyond the physical space. Yes, a beautiful destination and a nicely furnished room is wonderful but it’s the experiences and service that I remember most from places that really do it right. Jaya House falls into that category. Set in Siem Reap with the beautiful Angkor complex nearby, there’s no doubt that the property itself is a stunner. It’s the service that wows though, with a whole slew of staff members that graciously greet you personally when you enter. By the end of our time there, we knew many staff members by name, I’d learned the art of lotus folding with a Cambodian woman, and we’d been wowed by the property’s focus on going 100% plastic-free. Their managing director, Christian De Boer, pioneered the Refill Not Landfill program in the region along with community initiatives like the Made in Cambodia market giving job opportunities to local artisans. The passion put into the community is palpable and the care and focus on environmentally friendly initiatives is celebrated in a way that can’t help but inspire the conscious traveler.

Stay tuned for my hotel review of Jaya House — it’s a must in Siem Reap. ??

Birkenhead House ✧ Hermanus, South Africa

HOTEL INSIDER: Birkenhead House, Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa

1The crème de la crème for me, it’s hard to beat this perfect eleven-room property on the South African coast. Guests of ours introduced us to the Birkenhead House prior to our trip to South Africa in 2016 and we’ve since sent countless couples there to celebrate honeymoons and anniversaries. This place is everything. The location, the rooms, the common spaces, the unpretentious but incredible and personalized service, the food and wine… everything is done perfectly and seems absolutely effortless, which is something that always wows me. I had been skeptical of the all-inclusive aspect of it, but it only took a brief arrival and a meal to realize that we’d done it right. With South African wines, great craft cocktails, and Michelin-quality food, you can’t help but be impressed by the dedication of it all. If I could be teleported to one hotel at any given second, it’s probably to this property, where we did next to nothing for a couple of days and fell into the pace of true relaxation.

Is it time to go back yet?

?? Read my review of the Birkenhead House, plus see more on our experiences through South Africa.

Your turn to share some inspiration with me: what are your favorite hotels in the world?

Shannon Kircher, The Wanderlust Effect

More about Shannon Kircher

Shannon Kircher is the founder and editor of The Wanderlust Effect. Founded in 2009, she has continued to document her international escapes as an expat in Europe and the Caribbean. Additionally, Shannon is the founder of Compass & Vine, a luxury boutique travel design firm, and is the Director of Marketing for the Frangipani Beach Resort. Shannon holds an MSc in Social Policy and Development from the London School of Economics and is a current candidate for WSET Level 3 in Wines & Spirits.