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Expert details favorite hotels: Top 5 of 2023 and why they were worth the price

By Nikki Ekstein, Bloomberg News
Published: January 13, 2024, 5:26am

If we thought 2023 would be a year of normal travel after a prolonged period of disruption and uncertainty, boy, were we wrong. Still, amid all of this year’s natural disasters, social unrest and geopolitical conflicts, hotels reclaimed their ability to serve as beacons of pure comfort: They largely overcame the labor and supply chain crises and returned to full-service operations.

They again became capable of making us feel pampered and truly cared for during challenging times. And in fact, with 2023 also seeing the first-ever editions of the World’s 50 Best hotels list and a similar ranking by La Liste — each recognizing the industry’s global hospitality standard bearers — discussions about hotels were often celebratory.

We certainly paid a pretty penny for that service, as nightly rates continued to soar to previously unthinkable heights.

As for my own travels, this year threw plenty of wrenches my way. I learned to travel with two kids after having a second baby. It wasn’t easy and certainly wasn’t restful, but it was doable — and in many cases, quite fun. I also learned to leave them both at home for my work — not easy, either, but it was somewhat more restful and highly productive.

I packed my bags for Marrakesh the night before a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck Morocco. And notably, I carried the enormous emotional weight of traveling internationally amid a terrifying global spike in antisemitism. Even for someone privileged enough to jet around professionally, it was a lot to handle. Checking into some of the world’s best hotels brought enormous comfort.

Here are the top five places I stayed in 2023 — and the details that made them worth the (sometimes eye-popping) price tags. I think it’s no surprise that my top two were the ones I got to share with both of my kids: Family always makes a place that much sweeter.

5. Ashford Castle, Country Mayo, Ireland

Great hotels must transmit a clear sense of place. This 350-acre, 13th century Irish castle, owned for generations by the Guinness family, has not only a sense of place but a sense of time. Arriving at its front entrance means passing an ancient-looking stone gate with the castle’s crest on it, being greeted by kind doormen who could double as royal guards and passing through a grand mudroom of sorts where Barbour boots and jackets can be hung up after horseback riding, falconry, fishing or shooting excursions. The food is refined and modern and it beautifully celebrates the local bounty — I was there in the spring, so that meant lots of smoked salmon and mushrooms, my favorites. A small provisions store in a quaint cottage on the grounds stocks homemade jams and chutneys that make excellent souvenirs. Never mind the pure fantasy of my room: a duplex suite seemingly wrapped in green velvet, with views over the gardens and sparkling Lough Corrib. Rooms from €740 ($805)

4. Le Bristol, Paris

Especially in Paris, it’s common for five-star hotels to smack you in the face with luxury, often with grand entrances and lavish common rooms that lead to quieter (and much smaller) private spaces. Le Bristol certainly makes a very fine first impression, but it’s the rare place where points of distinction reveal themselves slowly. Its enormous garden courtyard, three-Michelin-starred restaurant and yacht-like pool all need to be discovered; they’re tucked off corridors that aren’t visible from reception or from the stately, wrought iron elevator. You have to be invited to see its basement “atelier,” though many guests are asked if they’d like to see the pristine and expansive workshops where staff members produce single-grain breads and pasta and all manner of chocolate treats. And you have to stick around in the evening to see a small, library-like room transform into the super-cool Le Bristol After Dark bar, a bustling party spot where people watching is dizzying in the best way possible. All this results in a hotel that wows from the first impression and then one-ups itself at every turn. As for those private spaces? The rooms here are practically apartments, a far cry from the tight quarters at many competing properties. Rooms from €1,881 ($2,064)

3. Claridge’s, London

I wrote extensively about how this classic (but completely renovated) spot in London blew me away. The more it recedes in my memory, the more I pine to bring elements of my stay back into my life. There were the just-feminine-enough furnishings in my suite, designed by Bryan O’Sullivan Studio: a cream-colored, curved couch, pink wingback chairs and the stunningly detailed oak paneling in my closet that made it feel like a treat to get dressed each morning. (Maybe I’ll settle for one of O’Sullivan’s pint-sized, flower-shaped drink tables.) Then there was the grab-and-go bakery, which served croissants that the best spots in Paris would proudly feature; too few five-star hotels will give up expensive table service for that kind of satisfying convenience. (Any chance you can open an outpost near my office?) And then there was technology that actually worked — namely, a towel-warming rack that really did warm my towels and a thermostat that responded right away. (Someone please tell every other luxury hotel where to obtain those, too.) Honestly, it was hard to find anything to nitpick about, and I’m opinionated by trade. Rooms from £930 ($1,174)

2. Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World

Visiting Disney is either your dream trip or your nightmare; there’s very little gray area in between. But no matter where you sit on that axis, the Four Seasons Resort Orlando takes a chaotic vacation and makes it properly pampering. Its location within Walt Disney World means that you can catch the fireworks shows from both Epcot and the Magic Kingdom while lounging on your terrace (ideally, with a glass of wine from the in-room Vinebox dispensers) — that’s a huge boon for parents of little kids who melt by 8 p.m. Its sprawling pool complex offers a reason to come home early each day from the parks — namely, to recover from all those lines and rides by taking a dip in the lazy river, where servers will even deliver frozen chocolate or fruit paletas riverside. And the onsite ice cream shop is a godsend, stocked with all the squeeze pouches and kid snacks a young family could desire. Truly, the hotel has thought through everything — making a very complicated adventure into a very rewarding joy. Rooms from $1,299.

1. Montage Palmetto Bluff, Bluffton, S.C.

When most people think about visiting South Carolina, their minds go to Charleston or Hilton Head Island. That overlooks the moss-swaddled, 20,000-acre community of Bluffton that sits along the May River, smack between Hilton Head and Savannah. This is where Montage Palmetto Bluff has a cluster of homes, cottages and suites with white clapboard walls, towering fireplaces and screened patios. To navigate Bluffton, guests are given bikes (outfitted, as needed, with kid trailers or baby seats). My family of four used ours to pick up lattes sweetened with “bourbon milk candy” and take them to piers where we could watch dolphins pop in and out of the waterways. We pedaled to triplex treehouse playgrounds tucked among live oak trees and to refined dinners at River House, where servers dazzled my kids with table-side spectacles. After dessert, we’d crowd around a fire pit for communal s’mores, a nightly tradition that’s been upscaled and perfected, or catch the breeze in massive tree swings. Nowhere else have my kids’ interests aligned so much with my own. We all felt free, as children should — and as adults rarely do. Rooms from $340.