Anthony Lassman, whose exclusive Nota Bene guidebooks offer discerning travelers insights into cities and resorts worldwide, talks with Travel + Leisure about the genesis of his series, the perks that make a great hotel even better, and the secret to catching a destination on the rise.
Where did the idea for Nota Bene come from?
I wanted to give readers first impressions–how it felt to wake up somewhere, what room service was like–everything you could get only from someone who had actually been there. And I wanted an authoritative voice: someone whose opinion I trusted and who had just been to a place I was interested in visiting. So our guides take all those clippings–those things you tear out of magazines and newspapers–as their starting point, and then add to them with a greater emphasis on the “truth.”
How do you discover a new place?Do you follow up on tips from people you know or do you find things through your own travels?
I often wonder how designers are able to home in on a trend, whether it’s in fashion or furniture or whatever. Why is it that dark wood goes out of style and light wood comes in?Or that designers say, it’s no longer black, it’s all colors this season?How do they all come up with similar things at the same time?And I think, the more you’re involved in travel, the more people you speak to, the more you feed off one another, the more likely you are to get an idea of what makes a destination the next big thing.
What have you learned while covering hotels, cities, and destinations?
I’ve learned how difficult a task it is to do what we do. And to get it right, and how much I took for granted that being a really good reviewer is not at all easy. Obviously you need a great eye, an aesthetic approach, an understanding of what really constitutes luxury and service–and I think that comes from a lot of experience. You can’t just walk into a hotel and judge it fairly. I don’t even think you could do it real justice, after just staying there one night. You have to feel it, you have to experience every facet of it, and give it a little time.
What makes a great hotel?
It’s always the people. Even if a hotel has the most luxurious Egyptian cotton sheets, a great staff-to-guest ratio, huge rooms, a famous architect or designer, none of it really matters at the end of the day if the service isn’t there. It’s almost like looking at a beautiful person who has no personality and nothing much to say: you get bored very quickly. Sometimes you can be initially disappointed by the hotel itself–that’s why I say you can’t judge a place too quickly–but because the staff is so embracing and the service you receive is so wonderful, you can overlook a number of the design deficiencies.
What sets a great hotel apart from a good one?
I love a great concierge who understands everything I need. I like to feel that if I’ve lost something, if I need something urgently, if I need something in the night, that I’ve got people there at the concierge desk who really know their job. I think that’s very important. And there’s nothing better than getting into a wonderfully comfortable bed with fantastic linens. There’s nothing nicer than having a really great shower, lovely products, breakfast served the way you want it–for people to get things right. Because our time is short when we travel, we don’t have huge amounts of patience and we just want things to run smoothly.
Do you have a favorite property?Is there a hotel or two that lives up to all your expectations?
The Villa Feltrinelli on Lake Garda in Italy fulfills my bed, linen, and nightly turndown service needs to the absolute ultimate. I think there’s nothing finer than staying in one of their junior suites with views of the lake. And when I’m looking for that all-out glamour, that wonderful, extravagant escape, I go somewhere like the Hotel Du Cap Eden Roc in the south of France. To stay in one of their Eden Roc suites, with a big balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, is just paradise.
Where do you go on vacation?
Parrot Cay in Turks and Caicos is wonderful. One of those villas on the beach is my idea of the perfect chill-out spot at its most luxurious. It’s the way Cape Cod would be if it were in the West Indies. North Island in the Seychelles is a great alternative, and I love the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily, but for those I’d have to hire a boat.
Any trade secrets you’re willing to share?
At the Four Seasons in New York, the concierge desk is so good, I’d stay there even if that were the only thing they did well. Once when I was a guest there, it started pouring rain while I was out. The concierge remembered I didn’t have a car and called my cell phone to say, “Where are you?It’s just started raining heavily. We’re sending a car around.”
What are your upcoming plans for the series?
Miami. During the last 12 months, it has emerged as a much more serious city, with a stronger cultural side to it. It’s no longer just “that stylish place in Florida.” Then we’ll do Mykonos and Santorini, Prague, and London.
Are there places you won’t cover?
We do ten issues a year and get lots of requests from people who want us to cover skiing, city, and resort properties, so it’s very difficult to meet everyone’s needs. We’ve still got quite a lot to catch up on, so we don’t want to cover anything that has been too over-hyped and over-covered on the newsstands and in the magazines or the ones that feature too heavily in the travel brochures. You might say to me, “Why cover the Seychelles and not Mauritius?” It’s not that people don’t want Nota Bene’s opinion on Mauritius. It’s just that Seychelles feels more right for Nota Bene at the moment. Particularly since we love North Island. Our recent issue on Rio and São Paulo was more important to do than Peru, probably because Peru has been much more widely covered. Maybe it has just been much more accessible for a longer period of time to the wider travel market. So we cover areas that haven’t been covered enough and yet have a certain ring to them, a certain glamour factor.
Top Five Hotels
Grand Hotel a Villa Feltrinelli, Lake Garda, Italy
The best room appointments and turndown service in Europe.
Doubles from $865; Two-night minimum stay
38-40 Via Rimembranza; 39-036/579-8000 www.villafeltrinelli.com
Hotel Fasano, São Paolo
The most beautifully conceived city hotel in Brazil, setting a new standard for South America.
Doubles from $320
88 Rua Vittorio Fasano; 55-11/3896-4077; www.fasano.com.br
Four Seasons Hotel, George V, Paris Exactly what a world-class city grande dame should be.
Doubles from $817
31 Ave. George V; 800/819-5053 or 33-1/49-52-70-00; www.fourseasons.com/paris
North Island, Seychelles
The ultimate pared-down luxury tropical resort for those who do not care about overt status symbols.
Villas from $1352 per person
Singita Lebombo, South Africa
Everything a contemporary first-class safari lodge property was meant to be.
Suites from $1251 per person
Kruger National Park
27-21/683-3424; www.singita.com Top Five Restaurants
Gianni Pedrinelli, Sardinia
The freshest of ingredients, a great host, and an informal setting on Italy's Costa Smeralda, one of the world's most exclusive resort areas.
Dinner for two $50
Porto Cervo; 39-07/899-2436
Susur, Toronto Susur Lee's culinary skills make him a world contender.
Dinner for two $120
601 King St. W.; 416/603-2205; www.susur.com
La Alqueria, Sanlucar La Mayor, Spain
Ferran AdriÀ, or rather his protégé Rafael Morales, has been recruited to head up the main restaurant of Hacienda Benazuza, a wonderful hotel in southern Spain. Adri’s other establishment is El Bulli, near Rosas, where there can be a year's wait for a table.
Dinner for two $150
Bathers' Pavilion, Sydney
Leave the city's tourist scene far behind and join fashionable locals at this North Shore beachside restaurant. The former swimmers' changing cabana, built in 1928, is now a comfortable, yet magically sophisticated, setting for renowned chef Serge Dansereau's modern Australian food.
Dinner for two $155
The Esplanade, Balmoral Beach; 61-29/969-5050; batherspavilion.com.au
East @ West, London
The highly innovative chef Christine Manfield arrived from Australia in October 2003 to take over West Street, then an Italian restaurant. It is now modern East Asian–and superb in every respect.
Dinner for two $145
13 West St. (Soho); 44-207/010-8600 Top Five Sights
Tate Modern, London The intimate scale of the galleries, location and views of the Thames, and changing exhibitions make this one of the world's most exciting contemporary art destinations.
Bankside; 44-207/887-8000 www.tate.org.uk
Mt. Stromboli, Lipari Islands, Italy To see this volcano erupting at night from a boat offshore is a magical experience. The islands, off the coasts of Sicily and Calabria, are wonderful.
Rising at dawn to climb to the temple at Borobudur on this spiritual Indonesian island is a must-do for the adventurous traveler.
Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro
Seen from the Tijuca viewing platform below the statue of Christ the Redeemer, this is arguably the world's most stunning urban panorama.
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain
A Frank Gehry masterpiece–one of the great modern buildings of the world.
2 Abandoibarra Et.; 34-94/435-9080 www.guggenheim-bilbao.es