Most travelers have a favorite hideaway. An Italian pensione that never makes its way into the guidebooks, a breezy beach resort that stays just under the radar. You know: a place you hold so dear that you'd faint if it ever appeared in a national magazine. Get out the smelling salts. We bribed our contributors and stylish friends to tell us their true finds. Now, our gift to you: 50 of the world's most fabulous unknown hotels. Just keep them a secret.
Guana Island British Virgin Islands; 914/967-6050, fax 914/967-8048; doubles from $640, including all meals. A Land Rover whisks you up a road past a pond inhabited by flamingos (Guana's also a nature conservancy). Your destination: a hilltop cluster of seven cottages cooled by the breezes. Hide out in a hammock on the powder-sand beach or engage in one of the quirkier island activities: spider fishing, which involves wandering around a field and luring critters out of their holes with blades of spider grass.
Las Ranitas Boca Paila Rd., Tulum, Mexico; 800/538-6802 or 303/674-9615, fax 303/674-8735; doubles from $170. Built on a swath of isolated Caribbean sand, Las Ranitas has 18 tasteful cabanas with big beds, hammocks, and handwoven Oaxacan fabrics. In the dining room, there's French-Mexican food and an endless supply of margaritas. You won't see any high-rises or beach peddlers on the Mayan Riviera, but if you're culturally inclined, the Tulum ruins are only six miles away.
Puri Ganesha Villas Pemuteran, Bali, Indonesia; 62-361/261-610, fax 62-361/261-611; doubles from $250. Former interior designer Diana von Cranach has long kept her low-key Balinese getaway, three hours north of the Kuta hubbub, under wraps. There are just six villas, each with a private pool, sheer-curtain-draped beds, a kitchen (where the staff prepares breakfast to order), and a beachfront terrace. On the horizon: two-week packages featuring meditation, stress-control, and cooking classes using ancient Ayurvedic methods.
Ras Kutani Ras Kutani, Tanzania; 800/595-3628 or 303/546-0516, fax 303/546-0875; doubles from $390, including all meals. With 18 bungalows scattered along a jungle lagoon's white beach, Ras Kutani provides the ultimate post-safari pit stop. The open-air rooms are ingeniously built of local materials and decorated with coconut-shell towel racks, African-print pillows, and handwoven matting over the cool sand floors.
Rae's on Watego's 8 Marine Parade, Watego's Beach, Byron Bay, Australia; 61-2/6685-5366, fax 61-2/6685-5695; doubles from $320. Even though Byron Bay looks like an exercise in planning blight, the surrounding area has a special place in the hearts of Australians: its beaches and subtropical hinterland produce a soul-soothing effect. The place to stay is on Watego's Beach at Rae's, a guesthouse redolent of the Greek islands. Rooms are light and airy (choice pick: the top-floor penthouse). The food is also good, with Thai flavors enhancing the sea fare.
Dunain Park Inverness, Scotland; 44-1463/230-512, fax 44-1463/224-532; doubles from $220. A prime example of Victorian Scottish baronial, this handsome 11-room house run by the Nicoll family is set in six acres of pine trees and gardens just outside Inverness, at the edge of the Highlands. Canopied beds and fires crackling in the grate are not uncommon in these parts—but it is unusual to find such wonderful cooking, with fresh fruits and vegetables from the walled garden.
Hunter's Country House Plettenberg Bay, Western Cape, South Africa; 27/4457-7818, fax 27/4457-7878; doubles from $190. On South Africa's Garden Route lies a group of fairy-tale thatched cottages, hidden in a grove of lemon trees. Decorated in genteel English style, with lots of dark wood, floral-print fabrics, transferware, treenware, and brass, the 100-year-old Hunter's is just like home. That is, if your idea of home comes with impeccable service and the Tsitsikamma Mountains as a backdrop.
Malabar House Residency Fort Cochin, Kerala, India; phone and fax 91-484/221-199; doubles from $70. If you've never spent a night in a colonial villa at the heart of an ancient trade capital, check into the Malabar House, one of India's loveliest addresses. Across the street from the subcontinent's oldest European church, the 12-room hotel was home for centuries to wealthy spice traders. Almost as stunning as the guest rooms—with their carved pillars, terraces, and gardens—is the courtyard plunge pool, surrounded by ancient walls.
Kasbah Asmaa Rte. Mhamid, Amazrou, Zagora, Morocco; 212-4/847-241, fax 212-4/847-527; doubles from $62. The funky little Kasbah Asmaa's lantern-lined pool and flower-filled garden provide respite from the dust and heat of this southern Morocco town. There was such demand for the original 10 rooms that 23 more were added this year. The hotel organizes camel treks into the Sahara, but most guests prefer to lounge in the shade of date palms until dusk, then dine under a tent amid oversize pillows and rose petals.
Korakia Pensione 257 S. Patencio Rd., Palm Springs, Calif.; 760/864-6411, fax 760/864-4147; doubles from $109. Moroccan chic graces a desert oasis thousands of miles from North Africa. Korakia's 20 rooms are the ultimate in spartan luxury—and privacy. Though only four blocks from Palm Springs' main drag, the inn's Moorish architecture, Middle Eastern decoration, and two pools make it feel like a far-flung hideaway. Traditional sweet mint tea accompanies afternoon snacks.
Lake Austin Spa Resort 1705 S. Quinlan Park Rd., Austin, Tex.; 800/847-5637 or 512/372-7360, fax 512/372-7362; three-night packages from $890 per person, including all meals. Don't plan on losing weight at the 40-room Lake Austin, the new standard in spa sinfulness. Guests can bring their own wine into the dining room. Coke and candy machines stand next to the gym. There's even cheese at the salad bar. And how about those barbecued ribs, served on the lakefront deck?Work it off with hikes and sculling on the lake (if you want) or take a trip to the grocery store with the in-house dietitian, who will teach you to shop nutritiously.
Roaring Pavilion Villa & Spa St. Ann's Bay, Jamaica; 800/387-2726 or 416/968-2374, fax 416/968-2204; rates from $3,500, including all meals and treatments. You'll never want to emerge from your personal spa at Roaring Pavilion, a private villa for up to eight guests on James Bond Beach, outside Ocho Rios. A resident therapist is on call for unlimited massages, facials, and body treatments in a garden pavilion. Bliss out as Arthur or Jacqueline slathers you with papaya and avocado concoctions and herbal oils. Then retreat to the main house for a dip in the pool or a snack of lobster À l'armoricaine, whipped up by chef Yvonne.
Therme Vals Vals, Switzerland; 41-81/926-8080, fax 41-81/926-8000; doubles from $108. The real reason for choosing Therme Vals is not the hotel's rather faded sixties interiors, but its magnificent spa. Designed by Peter Zumthor, it's a Modernist structure set against the sublime beauty of the mountain village of Vals. Think cool, gray granite pools and baths. What Gucci would be if it were a spa.
Esbelli Evi Urgup, Cappadocia, Turkey; 800/547-1211 or 90-384/341-3395, fax 90-384/341-8848; doubles from $80. Whitewashed walls are covered with Turkish artifacts, and opulent kilims are draped over Ottoman divans and stone floors in this ancient seven-room house carved into the side of a cliff. If staying in a sixth-century cave sounds primitive, fear not: there are modern bathrooms, designer beds, and heat; jazz is played on the rooftop terrace. Venture farther underground to explore troglodyte cities, where the persecuted Cappadocian Christians survived for decades.
Kirawira Camp Western Serengeti, Tanzania; 800/361-8024 or 303/473-0950, fax 303/546-0875; doubles from $630 per night, including meals and game drives. Reminiscent of a Ralph Lauren ad, Kirawira's 25 tented rooms have mahogany floors, scatter rugs, queen beds, and bathrooms laden with porcelain and gold. In the open-air library you can watch wildlife before retiring to the dining tent, where you eat in style from Limoges tableware.
Matetsi Water Lodge Zimbabwe; phone and fax 27-11/782-3410; doubles from $700, including meals and game drives. This magical lodge consists of two camps, one on the Zambezi River, the other on the grassland. At the Water Lodge, swing open the doors to your suite, with its own plunge pool, and listen to hippos munching on grass nearby. At the Safari Camp, tented chalets have three walls of glass, so you can lie in bed and watch the procession of animals to the water hole. The rooms are private enough that no one—except the animals—can look in.
Mukutan Retreat Laikipia, Kenya; 404/888-0909, fax 404/888-0081; doubles from $1,000, including meals and game drives. Italian author Kuki Gallmann's Mukutan Retreat—on a cliff overlooking the Great Rift Valley—is a taste of untamed Kenya, mixed with drop-dead elegance. The ranch and three guest cottages have stone and carved-wood furnishings and a wild, wild view. Reserve now—Mukutan's sure to be exposed next year, when Kim Basinger portrays Gallmann in the film version of her memoirs, I Dreamed of Africa.
Domain of Killien Carroll Rd., Haliburton, Ontario, Canada; 705/457-1556, fax 705/457-3853; doubles from $186 including breakfast and dinner. Two and a half hours north of Toronto—and unknown even to most of that city's residents—is a retreat on 5,000 acres containing pristine Canadian forest, with lakes and trails ideal for picnics. There are five comfortable rooms in the main lodge, but the seven lakefront bungalows are worth the splurge. In winter, cross-country ski trails glisten under northern lights and echo with the call of wolves.
Inn at Langley 400 First St., Langley, Wash.; phone and fax 360/221-3033; doubles from $199. Cows outnumber people on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle in Puget Sound. Accessible only by ferry, Whidbey's main town hasn't changed since the sixties, when it was a popular hippie vacation zone. Everything runs on island time, including the laid-back Inn at Langley, right on the beach. The 24 guest rooms in the monastic cedar shake-and-shingle building overlook the sea. There isn't much to distract you, other than renting kayaks in town for expeditions through the Saratoga Passage.
Plettenberg Park Robberg Rd., Plettenberg Bay, South Africa; 27-44/533-9067, fax 27-44/533-9092; doubles from $330, including all meals. Plunked on a cliff overlooking the roiling Indian Ocean, Plettenberg Park is the place for a romantic retreat. The white Modernist stucco-and-glass building is furnished with African artifacts and sisal rugs. Linger on the white-sand beach, swim in the rock pool, or just sit on your terrace and marvel at the dramatic, windswept setting, a 495-acre private nature reserve on South Africa's Garden Route.