Our top 18 unforgettable hotels for the ultimate bucket list
overseas travel IS back in business – time to dust off the bucket list!
This post was originally written in October 2020 and has been updated.
After a couple of challenging years, many of us are heading off once again on our voyages of discovery. Sometimes it’s also good to revisit those places we particularly loved.
in order to decide which unforgettable hotels to include in this list of my favourites, the qualifying question was: would I go back there in a heartbeat? The answer for all these is ‘definitely!’
When I look at what makes these hotels special, I can’t help but notice that ‘location’ is a major factor for every single one. Half of them are overlooking, or very close to, water.
The list is in reverse order – I’ve saved the very best until last! But the hotels are all wonderful in their own different ways.
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18. The Langham, Melbourne*
What makes it special: location, magnificent public rooms.
This elegant, luxurious hotel is situated on the south bank of the river Yarra, in the heart of Melbourne. It’s a modern building decorated in traditional style, with lots of marble, stunning chandeliers and massive floral displays.
The spa and fitness area has a gorgeous indoor pool with an external lounge area overlooking the river.
17. Sofitel Legend The Grand, Amsterdam*
What makes it special: wonderful heritage building that once served as Amsterdam’s city hall, situated alongside a pretty canal.
This lovely hotel offers 5-star luxury, presented in an understated stylish way rather than ostentatious. My dad and I treated ourselves to a long weekend there (see my separate post about this) and we loved it, especially the underfloor heating in the bathrooms!
We also enjoyed the courtyard terrace cafe and the delicious food in the restaurant. There are even more dining options since Sofitel took over, so I’d love to go back. The Grand would definitely be near the top of my list for travel in 2022!
16. The Queen Mary, Long Beach, California
What makes it special: totally unique experience staying on board an historic ocean liner.
Once the ultimate in glamorous transatlantic travel, the Queen Mary offers all the amenities expected by today’s travellers. But you can still enjoy the original 1930s art deco styling, wood panelling and artworks. Your bedroom window is a port-hole! Just like the original passengers, you can shop in the boutiques and attend functions on board.
I particularly enjoyed visiting the museum exhibits telling the history of the ship and some of its glamorous travellers, such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and Elizabeth Taylor.
UPDATE DEC 2022: The Queen Mary’s hotel and events facilities have closed to enable a multi-million dollar renovation to take place. Free tours of certain historical areas are still on offer, however.
15. Watergate Bay, Newquay, Cornwall
What makes it special: beachside location and gorgeous ‘beach house’ styling.
Watergate Bay has all the elements of our dream beach house. We absolutely loved the styling and colour schemes, which perfectly reflected the seaside location and holiday sp irit. The atmosphere was laid-back and relaxed, but the quality of everything was top-notch.
Newquay is a renowned surfing destination, and you can watch the surfers from various observation points in the hotel including the swim club lounge (see above) and the pool.
14. Harbour Rocks, Sydney*
What makes it special: friendly boutique hotel in a wonderful heritage building, located at the heart of the historic Rocks area.
Converted from former commercial premises, the hotel’s rooms are unusually spacious and retain an industrial feel with their bare brick walls. This is the oldest part of Sydney and I love the old buildings, laneways with specialist shops and cafes – and, of course, Circular Quay and the harbour are only steps away.
I was ill when I stayed at the Harbour Rocks on my way from London to New Zealand, and needed to see a doctor. I couldn’t have been better looked after by the wonderful staff. Luckily I recovered enough to enjoy the lovely garden terrace bar overlooking one of the atmospheric lanes, and the superb food in the restaurant.
13. Hotel des Grandes Ecoles, Paris*
What makes it special: it’s a delightful country house haven behind an anonymous wooden door in the heart of the Latin Quarter.
So anonymous is the door that it took us a while to identify the hotel’s entrance, among the shops in a busy commercial street! Once through the door, we entered a different world. Through a charming courtyard garden with shady trees, the hotel resembled a traditional French country villa.
The rooms are tiny but beautifully furnished in traditional style, sympathetic to the building’s 18th century architecture. Breakfast is simple, consisting of croissants, hard boiled eggs, preserves and coffee.
The Left Bank location is perfect for just wandering around the atmospheric streets with their shops and cafes, or you can easily walk to the botanic gardens and the Ile de la cité. If the weather’s bad, the nearby metro station will take you everywhere else.
12. Waldorf-Astoria, New York
What makes it special: iconic, glamorous hotel in the heart of Manhattan.
The Waldorf-Astoria must be one of the best known hotels in the city, and staying there was a real thrill. Just walking into the breathtaking lobby gave me a real sense of occasion. This is a place of opulence and grandeur.
Its Park Avenue location is also close to many of the top New York sights, notably Grand Central Station and St Patrick’s Cathedral which are only a short walk away.
I won’t say too much about the decor because the hotel is currently closed while undergoing a massive renovation, due to be completed in 2023 or 2024. I’d definitely love to go back and see the result, which I’m sure will be magnificent.
11. Lilianfels Blue Mountains, Katoomba, Australia*
What makes it special: beautiful historic homestead set in lush countryside at Echo Point.
If Watergate Bay is my dream beach house, Lilianfels would be my perfect country home. It was originally built in 1889 as the summer residence of Sir Frederick Darley, former Lieutenant Governor of New South Wales.
The house is elegantly furnished in traditional style and the public rooms have a welcoming, homely feel. When I stayed, the rain poured down on the first day, but there was a cosy fire going in the lounge and plenty of books to read in the library. When the sun came out next day, I enjoyed a swim in the outdoor pool and a relaxing massage in the spa.
Apart from the house itself, what really makes Lilianfels is the beautiful countryside around it, full of wild flowers in spring. The famous ‘seven sisters’ of the Blue Mountains, overlooking the stunning Jamison Valley, are a short walk away.
10. The Intercontinental, Chicago*
What makes it special: Roaring Twenties glamour on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile.
Rather like the Waldorf-Astoria, this hotel amazes, shows off and impresses. We’re talking marble floors, sweeping staircases, gilded columns and frescoed ceilings.
There’s also a fantastic view of Chicago – a very under-rated city in my opinion – from the 32nd floor lounge.
9. Sana Silver Coast, Caldas da Rainha, Portugal*
What makes it special: fantastic service, lovely traditional building opposite the park.
This is one of the nicest, friendliest hotels we’ve ever stayed in. The staff went out of their way to make sure we had a fantastic time. We enjoyed everything about it – the public rooms, the food and the terrace bar.
Caldas itself is a delightful spa town which feels authentically Portuguese. We found prices to be incredibly reasonable, since the town is off the main Silver Coast tourist track – and we could easily reach other local towns by bus. We rather fell in love with the place, and the hotel – so much so that we really missed them when we checked into our next, rather more expensive and far less friendly, hotel in Porto.
If you’re looking for a well-priced destination, Caldas da Rainha would make a great choice. For more information see my dedicated post (link above).
8. The Icon, Hong Kong*
What makes it special: stunning modern hotel with amazing views and first-class everything!
I’ve stayed in many corporate city hotels in my time, but this one was completely outstanding in every way. We were made to feel special from the moment we arrived. Any hotel wanting to train their staff in customer service should send them here! And the ‘wall garden’ on the ground floor is just amazing.
The panoramic views of Victoria Harbour are magnificent, and perfect for watching the evening light shows. Breakfast in the ‘Above and Beyond’ lounge was memorable for the fresh berry fruits and cooked-to-order menu of delicious dishes. We also enjoyed dinner in the Market restaurant.
There’s a lovely outdoor pool and we really appreciated being able to use the ‘Timeless Lounge’ in between checking out and departing for our late night flight.
7. Adrift in Golden Bay, near Takaka, New Zealand*
What makes it special: luxury villa accommodation on a glorious wild private beach in beautiful Golden Bay.
The name says it all. You’re set adrift from the busy world, left alone to feel carefree and very comfortable. This is the ultimate get-away-from-it-all romantic retreat. On appearance the villas look like simple beach baches, but this is deceptive. Everything about them is high quality. Someone with a real flair for design has laid out the resort and decorated the villas beautifully.
Our own villa looked out onto Golden Bay, and had a stream running alongside it. The beach was 30 metres away, reached across the lawn – and what a beautiful beach it was, usually deserted.
Each day the owners would bring a breakfast hamper of fresh produce – some of which was from local suppliers and the rest from their own vegetable garden and orchard. This is a truly idyllic place that I could happily return to, year after year.
6. Boston Harbor Hotel, Boston*
What makes it special: located right on Rowes Wharf in the heart of the city. You can even sail there from the airport!
This is a lovely elegant hotel in a fabulous location, in my favourite American city. What a feeling to pull up at the wharf and be met from the ferry by a helpful porter, and shown into the impressive lobby!
The hotel has perfect views of the harbour on one side, and the city on the other side. All the historic sites are within walking distance, as are the shops. (See my post on Boston for more information).
The public rooms and bars make the most of the waterfront location, and some of the pricier bedrooms and suites have balconies overlooking the harbour. Decor is mostly modern but there are traditional maritime influences too. Service throughout the hotel is superb.
5. The Fullerton, Singapore*
What makes it special: fabulous industrial architecture, waterfront location with amazing views.
The Fullerton used to be a grand post office building, and this history is cherished and proudly displayed throughout the hotel. It dates from those times when communications industries were highly prestigious and were given headquarters to match. Huge columns, high ceilings and vast halls now feature in the reception, lobby and lounge bars of the hotel. The effect is stunning.
The rooms are sumptuously furnished. Ours had a balcony overlooking the harbour, which was perfect for watching the evening light show and the goings-on of the city outside. Other rooms overlook the Singapore River, and others, the inner city.
As in Hong Kong, we had a time delay between our check-out and flight departure, but the hotel were happy to give us a pass to use the lovely infinity pool and lounge bar area for the afternoon.
4. The Avenida Palace, Lisbon*
What makes it special: This place truly feels like a palace. Breathtaking public rooms.
This is one of the most beautiful hotels we have ever stayed in. The exterior is quite modest, and gives little clue of the amazing opulence inside. The lounge, bars, staircase and function rooms are truly spectacular.
Breakfast was a sumptuous buffet that could fill us for almost a whole day. The staff were friendly and professional.
The location, just off Rossio Square, was perfect for seeing the major sights of Lisbon. We booked a modest standard room but even this turned out to be special, with a view of the castle. It was lovely to see at night, all floodlit.
3. Glenapp Castle, Ballantrae, Scotland*
What makes it special: the unique experience of staying in a beautiful castle, along with the views of the Irish Sea and Ailsa Craig.
There is nothing quite like being a guest in a Scottish castle. It’s a true gourmet experience, especially at Glenapp where the food is top quality – just like everything else.
We booked a traditional Scottish Hogmanay stay, complete with gala dinner and activities including falconry and curling. You can read more about the package itself in my separate post on Hogmanay in a Scottish castle.
Our suite had a separate study and a gorgeous view over the extensive gardens towards the sea and Ailsa Craig. The lounges, library and dining rooms downstairs were all furnished in true Scottish baronial style. This was enough to make our stay truly special, but there was also the friendly hosting by the owners, who made it their business to make sure everyone had the best time. And we did.
2. Rumours of Romance, Rarotonga, Cook Islands*
What makes it special: it’s paradise on earth.
We have never stayed anywhere quite like this. It’s the sort of place you dream about – your ultimate paradise island retreat. Our villa had its own luscious garden with pool, spa and tropical plants – including almost-ripe bananas on the tree. A little stream ran from the garden, through the villa and out again – with little indoor bridges to cross over it!
At the rear of the villa was the white sand beach. Right there, at the door. And what a beach! The breaking waves on the coral reef were mesmerizing.
Every day, a basket would arrive with all our fresh provisions for breakfast, which we cooked ourselves in the well-stocked kitchen. It wasn’t long before we were living on island time, in our own paradise. Totally unforgettable.
See my post about Rarotonga for more on this beautiful island.
1. The St Pancras Renaissance, London*
What makes it special: EVERYTHING!
This truly spectacular building is my favourite in all London, if not the world! Designed by my hero architect George Gilbert Scott and originally built as the Midland Hotel, it’s situated next to St Pancras Station, the terminus for trains from the midlands and Europe. It was built to showcase the industrial might of the region it represented.
This industrial heritage is one of many factors that give the hotel its unique appeal today. Heavy riveted beams, like those in the station, hold up the ceilings of the ground floor public rooms. The railway connection can be seen everywhere – the bar is in the former booking office, which still bears the name.
Our room was in the older part of the building, looking down onto the Eurostar platforms. For train buffs like us, this was very exciting!
Probably the most famous feature of the hotel is the breathtaking grand staircase, which featured in the video of the Spice Girls’ hit ‘Wannabe’. It also featured in my wedding. Walking down that staircase in my wedding dress was one of the most magical moments of my life.
Our ceremony was held in the Ladies’ Smoking Room, which was the first public place in Europe where women were allowed to smoke! The room’s ornately decorated ceiling, granite pillars, arches and outdoor terrace made a suitably grand setting for our wedding.
For us, there is nowhere like the St Pancras Renaissance. It’s very special. I can feel my heart lift every time I go there, even if I’m just passing by! Definitely my top choice of all unforgettable hotels.
If you’re not staying at the hotel, it’s still worth a visit – if only to have afternoon tea in the lovely lobby lounge, or to enjoy a drink on a Friday night in the recently-refurbished Booking Office bar. Once the commuter rush is over, the bar takes on a more intimate atmosphere, often with live music.
Inevitably there were a couple of hotels that just missed out on being included on my list. So here’s a quick shout-out to the Heritage Avenida Liberdade, Lisbon*. I’m giving them my best breakfast in the world award. It’s like a king’s banquet – I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
Also the Dakota Glasgow*, wo get my best bathrooms in the world award. They’re not marble or flashy – they’re stylish, functional, logical and a real pleasure to use. If, like me, you loathe rain showers, you can adjust to an angled shower instead. They’re fabulous and I want a Dakota bathroom in all my dream homes! The Dakota Grill is superb too, by the way, so this hotel was a very near miss.
I hope this has given you some ideas for your travel in 2023. I’d love to hear readers’ own bucket list nominations! Please feel free to comment below.
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This was such a lovely list to read and dream about for when we are finally able to travel again. It made me remember other equally amazing hotels we’ve been lucky enough to stay in – very different, but memorable for different reasons (oh yes, and a wonderful birthday afternoon team in that amazing St Pancras hotel tearoom!).
I’d add the following recommendations: The Midland Hotel, Morecambe Bay – a stunning art deco jewel of a place, all the rooms have sea views and the attention to detail during its renovation is incredible. Go when it is sunny, and the whole building glistens.
Hotel Presidente – San Jose, Costa Rica – visually dramatic – the whole hotel facade was a giant mural when we visited, and the rooms (both public and private) are full of quirky details.
Julia, as in my former workmate Julia? Hey, how are you! Thanks for finding my blog, reading and commenting :). Love the sound of these 2 hotels so will definitely investigate further. Costa Rica is a place I’d love to visit. And I love Art Deco.
These hotels look incredble, I miss traveling 😔
Thanks for sharing
Wow wow wow! we have added 8 of these to our bucket list. And definitely will go to your top 3. But love that you recommended one in Golden Bay. it sounds delightful. Thanks for sharing your faves with us.
Wow you’ve stayed in some incredible hotels, many of which are on my bucket list to stay in. Top of my list is the THE ST PANCRAS RENAISSANCE as my uncle worked on the renovation. I love the architecture and I can’t believe how lucky you are to have walked down that staircase in your wedding dress. I think I need to have another wedding just to do that 🙂
Oh Wendy how amazing! I actually visited during the renovations as I was working in government at the time, in a building by the same architect (George Gilbert Scott) so we got special dispensation to go there for historical reasons! So many incredible craftspeople worked on it. One thing I remember is being told about the ghosts in there, which one or two of the workers encountered on occasions. Hope your uncle didn’t meet any of them! Yes it was a real thrill to walk down that staircase 🙂
These hotels look incredible. We also love to be near water to see from our hotel window or for long walks.
I agree. There’s something so relaxing and uplifting about being close to water 🙂 Thanks for reading.
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