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Hotel Villa d’Este – Cernobbio, Lombardy, Italy

Luxury on the Shores of Lake Como

Originally a cardinal’s private pleasure palace, now operating as a grand hotel from which all others take their inspiration, the Villa d’Este is unrivaled for its regal decor as well as its majestic position on the verdant banks of Lake Como.

Crystal-dripping chandeliers and exquisite silk dra­peries and uphol­steries made in the nearby town of Como are soothing and inviting, grand but never over­powering. Lakeside rooms have the added luxury of seductive views of the glacier-sculpted lake and its profu­sion of elegant villas.

Marble-statued terraces and gardens drenched in flowers cascade down to the water and can only be viewed by boat—that is, if you ever choose to leave the hotel grounds. There are 10 acres of gardens, shady waterside terraces for sipping cool Bellinis, and the exceptional Veranda Restaurant, whose glass walls bring the lake to your dinner table.

A freshwater outdoor pool offers views of the mountains from its spot at the edge of Lake Como. It is suspended on a floating redwood deck, gently rocked by the waves created by the lake’s lazy buzz of activity.

Portofino – Liguria, Italy

Postcard of the Italian Riviera

Portofino wins the beauty contest in Liguria, the crescent-shaped region known as the Italian Riviera. The town’s perfect little harbor has been designated a historical landmark, and Portofino is said to be the most photographed village in the world.

The facades of the fishermen’s dwellings are painted in the rich colors for which Liguria is known—faded mustard, ocher, pink, and rust. A fishing village no longer, Portofino is now graced by swank villas nestled in the wooded hills above; the small boats bobbing in the marina (alongside glamorous 150-foot yachts) are no longer used for fishing but as pleasure craft.

This exceedingly pretty village lies at the end of an unspoiled peninsula that is a carefully guarded government preserve, criss­crossed by marked footpaths affording beautiful views of the coastline.

Exhilaration of another kind is as easily found at the harborside restaurants, despite their tourist-trap location. Follow the heady perfume of pesto- flavored trenette pasta and grilled scampi to a disarmingly simple Ligurian meal.

Cunningly situated on a hillside above town is one of the world’s most famous getaways, the Hotel Splendido. If the roster of world-famous VIP guests doesn’t make you feel lightheaded (the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were the first to sign the visitors’ book in 1952), the views from this Benedictine-monastery-turned-villa-turned-five-star-hotel will.

The 4-acre garden of luxuriant semitropical vegetation is so entrancing that even the five-minute stroll down to Portofino’s perfect stage-set harbor (and its recently opened sister hotel, the Splendido Mare) may not lure guests away.

The simple joy of an aperitivo on the Splendido’s terrace overlooking the romantic bay and its tree-covered peninsula makes any evening a grand event. Groucho Marx summed it up nicely: “Wonderful place, wonderful people.”

The Hotel Hassler – Rome, Lazio, Italy

A Roman Holiday atop the Spanish Steps

Never have hotel guests been so undeterred by 136 steps—consider them the grand entrance to one of Rome’s great hotels. The fabled Hotel Hassler glories in its one-of-a-kind location above the capital’s famous Spanish Steps.

Being a coddled guest of the Hassler let Audrey Hepburn feel like a princess both on and off the set when filming Roman Holiday, and what was good enough for Audrey (and just about every other celebrity and crowned head on the planet) is good enough for most.

Dozens of the rooms and suites are blessed with terraces and romantic and dazzling panoramas of the Eternal City. Established in 1885 in a palazzo that was once the home of Napoleon’s sister, the Hassler is one of the rare luxury hotels in Europe today that is privately owned and operated.

Impervious to contemporary whims, the old-world hotel is impeccably run by fifth-generation hotelier Roberto Wirth, who believes in real keys, superlative service, messages delivered on silver trays—simple amenities quickly growing extinct in the homogenization of the world’s five-star prop­erties.

If you must go elsewhere to hang your hat, at least stop in for an aperitif at the Hassler Bar (which moves to the Palm Court in warm weather) or try the popular Sunday brunch in the hotel’s Rooftop Restaurant. The food, while good, takes a backseat to the view of Rome’s seven hills.

Hotel La Mamounia – Marrakech, Morocco

A Historic Oasis of Luxury

When Truman Capote advised, “Before you go to Marrakech, make sure you say goodbye to all your friends and draw your savings from the bank,” he must have been booked at La Mamounia. It is one of Morocco’s (and North Africa’s) most special hotels, the jewel in the crown of her many exotic hostelries.

Built in the 1920s on the revered site of a sultan’s palace within the ancient walls of the old city, it is a curious mix of Art Deco and traditional Moroccan. The original gardens, laid out in the 16th century, are still maintained—32 aromatic acres of orange, lemon, and banana trees, palms, mimosas, roses, jasmine, and ancient garden walls covered with bougainvillea.

If you really have drawn your savings from the bank, you might stay in Winston Churchill’s favorite suite, facing the city and its mosques. Dedicated to the great statesman, it is decorated with some of Churchill’s oil paintings of these very gardens. But if you want to feel like the pasha whose palace once stood here, request the Moroccan Suite for the full effect of the exotic local atmosphere.

What­ever room you choose, dine at Le Marocain, the hotel’s traditional restaurant and one of the best in the city, perhaps the country. The open-air terrace lets in the sound of the foun­tains and birds, while the scent from the garden mingles with the spices on your plate.

Aswan and the Old Cataract Hotel – Upper Egypt, Egypt

Where Egypt Ends: The Exotic Promise of Africa and An Edwardian Hollywood Set

Toward the south of Egypt, near the Sudanese border, the Nile becomes increasingly dramatic; the desert closes in and palm-studded islands and elephantine granite boulders lend a natural beauty and sense of occasion to Egypt’s (and once the Roman Empires) southernmost town.

Since time immemorial, Aswan’s position at the crossroads of important caravan routes gave its markets a flourishing trade in gold, slaves, and ivory. The souk still brims with spices, perfumes, and produce; it’s Egypt’s most evocative and colorful market­place after Cairo’s.

Aswan has long been a favored winter des­tination for foreigners, a restful yet exciting town, where idleness and sightseeing mingle effortlessly. Sail into antiquity aboard a tradi­tional felucca in the late afternoon, or arrange a five-day float downstream to Luxor.

Or book into Aswan’s Old Cataract Hotel, on a pictur­esque bend in the Nile. Agatha Christie was so captivated by this timeless scenario that she staged and wrote much of Death on the Nile here. When the movie adaptation was filmed, the Old Cataract Hotel was given a plum part. Everything about it suggests a marriage of Edwardian and Oriental elegance, a magical ambience that lured Aga Khan III to honey­moon here and return regularly. He even chose to be buried in Aswan, and his simple mau­soleum, one of the town’s most-visited sites, can be seen from some of the guest rooms.

While any of the refurbished rooms in the orig­inal wing will do, the individualistic suites have added drama and history. Agatha Christie’s favorite suite has a small balcony from which she could watch the sunset in pri­vacy and retreat to a small writing room at will to pen her Nile romances. And speaking of Nile romances, the Suite of a Thousand and One Nights (now known as the Winston Churchill Suite) will make you want to stay at least that long, or maybe longer.

The Best of Sorrento – Campania, Italy

A Grand Hotel and Unsurpassed Restaurant

The hazy outline of Mount Vesuvius dominates the view from the terraces of the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria. With mosaic floors, marble stair­cases, dwarf palm trees, hand-painted cherubs, and elaborate Art Nouveau frescoes decorating the hotel’s lofty interiors, guests feel as bathed in luxury here as the ancient Romans who once played in ancient Sorrentum. (Remains of the villa of Caesar Augustus are believed to have been found beneath the hotel.)

The Belle Epoque spirit of bygone luxury lives on in this grandest of Sorrento’s 19th-century hotels. Five acres of lemon-scented gardens and white-gloved service create a refuge from the clamor of the day-trippers who descend from cruise ships and buses on their way to Pompeii.

Its old- world, aging drama recalls the British travelers for whom the hotel was built atop the dramatic 150-foot cliff when Sorrento was still a small, genteel resort favored for its mild winters.

If Luciano Pavarotti never failed to put heart and soul into his signature rendition of “Return to Sorrento,” it’s because he often stayed here. Book the Caruso Suite for that same inspira­tion; opera’s greatest tenor, Enrico Caruso, vacationed here in 1921, just before his death.

In a food-enthralled country where cau­tious critics sing high praises only with great reluctance, Don Alfonso 1890 has long gar­nered recognition as possibly the finest restaurant in southern Italy. Its location aug­ments the experience, gorgeously poised between earth and the sparkling gulfs of Naples and Salerno.

The loyal clientele think nothing of driving in from Naples or Bari just for lunch. Alfonso Iaccarino and his wife, Livia, who have known each other since child­hood, are fanatic in their commitment to quality local ingredients and herbs.

Much of the seasonal menu is selected and produced at their nearby 10-acre farm overlooking Capri, and their olive oil has been ranked as some of the best in the world. But the cuisine at Don Alfonso is far from simple country cooking: Mediterranean at heart, it surprises with unusual and delicious, vaguely Asian influences, served in a cool and elegant atmosphere.

The restaurant’s noted wine cellar—a three-tiered cavern carved into the volcanic rock in Roman times—contains more than 30,000 bottles.

Las Ventanas al Paraiso – Los Cabos, Baja, Mexico

Windows to Paradise

Located at the tip of the 1,000-mile long Baja Peninsula, near where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez, Las Ventanas al Paraiso evokes an ends-of-the-earth solitude, cushioned between sea and desert sands, with the rough-hewn mountains beyond.

Once geographically isolated, Los Cabos—a 25-mile corridor that joins the two desert towns of Cabo San Lucas and San Jose6 del Cabo—has undergone rapid devel­opment in the past decade, with Cabo San Lucas in particular becoming known for wild, cerveza-drenched spring breaks (check out the town’s Cabo Wabo, where every night is tequila night) and hippie-happy social dropouts.

Las Ventanas, opened in 1997 on 12 acres along the much calmer corridor, has brought the ultimate note of refinement to this scene, from the breezy luxury suites (the largest in Mexico) to the seaside drop-edged pool, the championship 18-hole Robert Trent Jones Jr. golf course, and an indoor-outdoor spa that offers everything from a torchlit couples’ massage and cactus-cleansing wraps to—no kidding—a stress-reducing rubdown for your poodle.

The smiling and eager staff second-guesses every whim, and guests who venture off the property can take advantage of the area’s ruggedly beautiful scenery and world-class diving and big game fishing. Sunsets are completely intoxicating, even if you didn’t attend the afternoon’s tequila tasting.

Venice – Simplon-Orient-Express – Venice, Veneto, Italy

The Train of Kings, the King of Trains

The first Orient-Express pulled out of Paris for Istanbul in 1883 for the 1,700-mile trip across Europe. Suspended in 1977, it is now on a roll again as the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) and still the journey of a lifetime.

The legendary original rail cars of inlaid marquetry and polished brass have had their original 19th-century splendor impeccably restored and once again offer the most advanced and luxurious rail travel available, albeit minus the spies, silent film stars, and royalty of yesteryear.

Much of the 1920s glamour and mystique of Agatha Christie still lingers, the dining and white- gloved service as faultless as one could hope from the world’s most famous train ride, a kind of grand hotel on wheels.

The train now offers a network of routes across the continent (connecting Rome, Prague, and Istanbul, for example) but the traditional thirty-two-hour Venice to London trip is still the most commonly booked.

And though there are a number of stops and ever-changing scenery along the way, the Orient-Express is about the train itself. As rail travel becomes increasingly about high-velocity records and service that is perfunctory at best, here is the chance to travel back in time to the Golden Age of Rail.

Manoir Inter Scaldes – Kruiningen, Netherlands

The Very Embodiment of Country-Inn Gezellig

Inter Scaldes is its own destination. People find their way from all parts to the dramatic thatched-roof farmhouse cum inn-restaurant and English-style garden created by a local husband-and-wife team.

They come for the oysters and mussels, some of Europe’s tastiest, and for conversation-stopping preparations of lobster and langoustine. The showcase lamb is raised down the road, grazing on seaside pastures beyond the dikes.

Travelers to Amsterdam who leave the Netherlands without experiencing a foray into the Low Country for a glimpse of the polder farms reclaimed from wetlands, and countless lakes, connected islands, and estuaries and for a taste of culinary offerings from the North Sea are missing out on a veritable Dutch treat.

Villa San Michele and Villa La Massa – Florence, Tuscany, Italy

A Medici Lifestyle

If you’re looking for the comforts of a luxurious home, head for the spectac­ular Villa San Michele, in the cool hills of Fiesole above Florence. Its stunning ocher-colored facade is believed to be the design of Michelangelo.

Things are decidedly sumptuous inside. A 1602 fresco of the Last Supper graces the former refectory, now a lounge, but in warm weather everyone—guest or visitor—gravitates to the open-air loggia, whose sunset and twilight views of Brunelleschis Duomo and the surrounding terra-cotta rooftops make it one of the loveliest venues anywhere in Europe.

Luxuriant and fra­grant, terraced gardens engulf the villa and the converted Limonaia, a winter garden where citrus trees were kept by the monks in the cold weather. Today it’s home to the villa’s two most exclusive suites.

The notoriously hot and humid summers of Florence and the Amo Valley are virtually a world away from the grassy terrace, where the region’s most beautifully situated pool offers Piero della Francesca views.

Until recently, the San Michele was Florence’s villa-hotel supreme, but competi­tion has arrived on the other side of town at the Villa La Massa, a sumptuously renovated 16th-century property of Como’s Villa d’Este Hotel.

Located on the banks of the Amo, fif­teen minutes from the center of Florence, it offers a glimpse of Tuscan life as the Florentine aristocracy must have enjoyed it.