Every year, I try to step back and take stock of the things I’ve seen on the road. I’ve managed to keep up a pretty aggressive pace of travel this year, checking in on lots of different products, kicking the tires on new airlines, and breaking free of a lot of my alliance shackles, as I documented in my recent column “Dawn of the Untethered Traveler.” What follows is a list of places, products, and people who are raising the standard with hospitality in the face of a difficult year. As more people return to the road, consider these products to reward with your personal dollars and business expenses. They are the best of the bunch.
Best International First: Air France
Admittedly I haven’t flown on some of my favorite products, namely JAL’s First Class in the past few years. But I did recently fly the Air France La Premiere product. And everything lived up to its cult reputation, even in the face of COVID. The cabin is beautifully designed and feels more akin to a nautical vessel than an airplane. There are just four seats on their 777 product, and they don’t allow easy upgrades or the mileage brigade to book it easily. The result is a true luxury product that is exceptionally private and lives up to the best of French cuisine and hospitality. I found the onboard staff to be cordial, and the car transfer to the lounge was premium, elevated, and seamless. The product clearly stands out from the head of the pack for a traveler who wants privacy, hyper-personalized service, and discretion. On the more opulent side, I did think Emirates First remains astoundingly good but felt the smaller cabin of Air France nudged it out in terms of the hyper premium product this year.
Best Business: Qatar Airways
I’ve highlighted them before, and I feel like a broken record. But it’s hard to dislike Qatar’s Q-suites product, and I feel like their approach: a small, private cabin will portend the future of business class as a lot of carriers eliminate or downsize their First offerings. Qatar has precise service and they actually don’t cut corners: there are beautiful place settings, flight attendants who are exceptionally well trained on everything from serving to the nuances of the food and beverage offerings, and run a tight ship.
Best American Transcon Product: JetBlue’s New Mint Studio
If you frequent the transcon, you know how quickly the products age and get scuffed up. Jet Blue’s offering from LAX to JFK is a standout. The Mint studio seats are at the very front of the plane, and by virtue of layout, have a ton of space as well as a storage area. You feel like you’re actually on a very long-haul flight. In addition to the seating, the in-flight entertainment, catering, and amenities feel fresh, modern, and well considered. This is another example of a product worth breaking free from your loyalty shackles to try.
Best Under-The-Radar Airport
While its neighbors in Qatar and The UAE soak up a lot of the accolades with their national carriers, Oman Air has been quietly building something special. Their onboard service is quite warm, and the Muscat international airport is very, very good. Their first and business class check-in area rivals the privacy at Qatar’s Hamad, and there’s a nice airport hotel inside (where I am finishing up this column), and everything runs smoothly. One to watch.
Best Room: Nayara Tented Camp
I’m a fan of Luxury Frontiers, the design, and development company, and their work at the Costa Rican resort Nayara wins my room of the year. They channel some of the best African-style tenting, which makes you feel much closer to the environment, and nestled it atop the dense Costa Rican jungle on stilts. There’s a private pool (fed by natural hot springs) and the entire framing of the experience is hyper attuned to what you are there for: the nature and the hiss of the jungle. The 29 air-conditioned tents are sized at around 1500 square feet and blend seamlessly with the surroundings. There are also both indoor and outdoor showers, as a plus.
Most Charming Boutique: Ingleside Inn
Palm Springs has no shortage of interesting hotels, but I thought the staff and the timelessness of Ingleside Inn truly stands out. It is a collection of 30 rooms and suites in whitewashed terracotta-roofed buildings. The pool is intimate, and the staff are longstanding Palm Springs residents and take pride in their work. Bonus points for the restaurant on the premises: the classic Melvyn’s which is a time capsule of another era of decorum and hedonism, replete with a fully restored 1895 carved oak and mahogany bar.
Best Health Concept: Four Seasons Partnership With Next Health in Wailea, Maui
I feel like a lot of spa and wellness concepts are repeating the same themes. Not so here. Four Seasons launched their first partnership with the LA-based health provider Next Health to offer IV treatments to help with jet lag, as well as a way for guests to come get baselines and biomarkers studied to improve their health. They also offer anti-aging NAD delivered via IV and other things like the amino acid glutathione. While some might be a little averse to needles, these treatments shake off the travel cobwebs,, rehydrate and boost immunity. It is at the forefront of health and wellness, and I’d watch for initiatives like this to expand over time as more high-end travelers obsess over anti-aging.
Best Reopening: Singita Sabora Tented Camp
Singita recently did a complete renovation of their Tanzania tented camp, Sabora. The result was an astoundingly good facelift that shows a hyper-modern and future face of Africa. While I loved the classic safari-style furniture in the old camp, the new design by Cécile & Boyd shows a progressive and modern approach to African furniture, design, and serves as an incredible statement of intent. I also enjoyed the service innovations from the brand, including a “guest deli” which allows guests staying in the tented camps the ability to assemble gourmet picnic baskets to enjoy around the property. But the highlight is sitting in a hyper-modern tent on the floor of the Serengeti, where you hear the sounds of the bush, and the odd roar if you’re lucky.
A few openings stood out to me this year. I loved the pitch-perfect overhaul of the Fairmont Century Plaza, which is serving as their flagship in the US. Liz Lambert’s St Vincent hotel in New Orleans set the design bar and managed to open to fantastic community reception despite a pandemic. They also built a great business by shunning OTAs and focusing on the right connections and word-of-mouth. I’m also intrigued by Aman founder Adrian Zecha’s new brand, Azumi, with its first property in Setoda, Japan. Zecha has always had a sixth sense for locations, and this one is incredible.
Best Art Integration
The bar for luxury hospitality continues to get higher. This is why I was pleasantly surprised by how inspired the Patina Maldives partnership with James Turrell was. The brand commissioned an original Turrell work on the property and told me, “the presence of an artist like Turrell … is part of our mission to immerse and educate our guests with regards to thoughtful, thought-provoking works, rather than just providing a superficial narrative.” Mr. Turrell told me it was the place itself that held the appeal: “The unique thing about creating a Skyspace in the Maldives is that if there were ever a Skyspace at sea, the Maldives is perfectly that in the Indian ocean, he said. “I look at water as spirit, and light as that spirit which unites the vision with the eyes closed (vision in the dream state) with the light that is in the physical world. This is something that is uniquely done here in the Maldives and why I entitled the piece Amarta. Amarta is the immortal elixir, which I feel to be light.” Superb and tasteful. This is the new standard for art integrations in hospitality.
Brand to Watch: Pendry
I’ve been watching Pendry closely as it has rolled out new properties in L.A. and in New York. The brand sits in the boutique realm but operates with a level of luxury that most boutiques can’t reach. It is clear they are taking decades of learnings from parent brand Montage, and applying an urban, art-centric sensibility that feels natural and inspired. Too many new or spin-off brands feel like they were developed in a lab. Pendry has a soul to it, and they’ve done an exceptional job hiring staff and building a customer base. The New York property had the best lighting of any new property I saw this year, and I actually liked the Hudson Yards location and the variety of interesting F&B within a two minute walk.
A few folks in hospitality stood out to me this year: Irina Jancenko, of Air France La Premiere, who was one of the most polished and incredible flight attendants on any flight I’ve taken. Elsewhere, Neville Rodrigues, Director of Pool and Beach Operations at Mandarin Oriental Dubai takes an absurd amount of pride in his work, taking the time to know guest names, their preferences, all with an infectious warmth and polish. Julien Surget of Aman, who runs a pitch-perfect property with some of the most demanding guests in the world: Amangiri. I also loved my conversation with Olivia Richli from the UK’s Heckfield Place in one of our Skift Luxury conversations. She has a timeless and elegant viewpoint on luxury that I found impressive and hyper-relevant. Thomas Carreras of Four Seasons, Luis Cobo of Park Hyatt, and Ashraf Amaani of Mandarin continue to impress with their dedication to making things better and more interesting. Bravo.