Condé Nast Traveller has just revealed their Gold List 2022, introducing best hotels in the world including Asia, from big-city hitters to under-the-radar hideouts.
Soneva Fushi, Maldives
The things that bring you here are never the ones you remember most after you leave. So not the slide that whooshes from the top floor of your overwater villa straight into the Indian Ocean, or the ice-cream room or the floating breakfast in your private pool. Of course, they’re fantastic – but the elements that draw people back to Soneva year after year, despite the steady stream of Maldives openings, seem significantly less sexy on Instagram.
First, there’s the foliage: there’s as much tropical greenery as there is unending expanse of blue sky and sea. Then there are the little discoveries you make as you cycle to breakfast, such as the rabbits who come out for scraps and sit in the sand at your feet.
Even more unforgettable is Soneva’s commitment to sustainability, which started way before it became a buzzword. Today, 90 per cent of the island’s waste is recycled or reused.
For every celebrity you will spot here (and you will), there are artists, sculptors, chefs and jewellers who are invited to transform discarded cans or kitchen scraps into works of wonder. You will dine at its plant-based restaurant, rooted in its organic garden, and leave with a great understanding of what lies beneath the waves (through its marine conservation programme) and above (with an astronomy session).
It feels like a place to see the bigger picture; the wind, waves and clouds a reminder of how we are all connected to the earth. This is perhaps Soneva’s greatest message: that even in the most indulgent environment it’s possible – no, essential – for there to be a mission.
Umaid Bhawan Palace, Jodhpur, India
The golden sandstone façade seems sharpened by the Jodhpur sun – peeking across groomed gardens to the city’s sky-coloured houses from a plum position on a hill just outside. Umaid Bhawan is part of one of the world’s largest private residences, and still the occasional home of Jodhpur’s former royal family, so few hotels are as vast and unashamedly regal.
Finished in 1943, the palace is a glorious blend of aesthetics: partly inspired by Angkor Wat, its Rajasthani style was injected with notes of Art Deco by Polish artist turned interior designer Stefan Norblin, a famed illustrator in his home country who painted the striking frescoes of Hindu mythology in the throne room. But for all that its huge, pillared central dome can seem intimidating, as can those portraits of former maharajahs, guests always feel at home here.
That’s largely down to the warm staff in bright turbans, who make guests feel entirely deserving of the Champagne breakfasts, raw-milk baths and folk performances in the marble-columned pavilion. It isn’t, in the end, a place in which to be overawed – but to be embraced, and very happily spoiled.
Mandarin Oriental, Hong Kong, China
Guests can have an afternoon tea at the Mandarin Oriental as a treat. The can sit in the Clipper Lounge, on the mezzanine floor overlooking the lobby, smearing rose-petal jam on plump scones delivered by waiters in white tunics – all amid a caravanserai of taipans and politicians, celebrities and royals, tourists and cheong-sam-clad ladies.
The Mandarin (as it’s affectionately known to all who’ve stayed) is an institution. Not the stale and stuffy kind. No, this hotel has always been fun – a celebration of Hong Kong’s unique identity. A place that zips along with the same energy as the horses that gallop around the Happy Valley racecourse – and not even 20 months of border closures have slowed its pace.
There’s a terrific new bar, The Aubrey, an izakaya which pokes gentle fun at the 19th-century European trend for Japonisme with its wonderfully opulent design: dark wood panelling, jewel-toned velvets, walls of gilt-framed paintings and trailing ferns above a puzzle of snugs and banquettes. And while Cantonese restaurant Man Wah has occupied the same spot overlooking the dome of the former Supreme Court since 1968, it’s been theatrically updated with China-blue walls, brass birdcage lamps and calligraphy artwork (the dim sum remains as divine as ever).
For the first time in its history, the hotel now also has a club lounge with cocktail hours and afternoon tea. But it’s not the new attractions that really matter. What counts is that the Mandarin Oriental remains a much-loved symbol of the city’s cosmopolitan history.
Bulgari Hotel, Beijing, China
There aren’t many cities as intense as Beijing, with its ring roads like clogged arteries; where even its imperial core – the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven, the Drum and Bell Towers – hums with frantic life. This city is found as a place to attack and then retreat from, which is why the Bulgari Hotel is such a joy.
Hugging the Liangma river, gently removed from the embassies and expat buzz of Sanlitun, it spills onto a manicured garden by Swedish landscape designer Enzo Enea – a splash of soft green zen in a city of sharp greys. Inside, there are Asian nods, but mostly it has a certain luxuriant smoothness: crisp blacks and golds, with black marble floors, archival photographs and folding copper screens.
Guests can ask for a south-facing room, as high as possible, looking through floor-to-ceiling windows not just to the sun but to the wonky New China skyline across the river. Everything within is smoothly tactile, from leather-panelled walls to sliding wooden screens, fringed Bulgari-branded bedspreads and velveteen sofas.
Regional Abruzzo dishes such as wagyu tagliata and oyster risotto come from the imagination of award-winning chef Niko Romito, and are served under great geometric Murano chandeliers. The spa, with its pool seemingly hewn from black marble, was partly inspired by Rome’s ancient Baths of Caracalla. Beijing may be rushing outside; inside, a very Italian smoothness reigns.
Shinta Mani Wild, Kiriom National Park, Cambodia
There aren’t many hotel designers whose creations have genuinely made guests’ faces hurt from smiling. Shinta Mani Wild is an even deeper immersion into nature than Capella Ubud in Bali, a joyous feat of maximalist storytelling in the jungle – specifically, the lush wilderness of south-western Cambodia.
The most thrilling thing about the place isn’t that you arrive by army four-wheel-drive and then zipwire over the forest canopy, to be met – grinning madly – with a botanical Khmer G&T beside the rushing river. No, it’s the fact that Bensley bought an 865-acre swathe of magical, orchid-rich rainforest between three national parks to protect it from logging, mining and poaching. This meant guests could properly enjoy one of the decadents, whimsically themed tents along the river, and the house-made herbal tonics in the thatched spa, against the happy background hum of the Raging Sister waterfall. They could thrill in the snappily dressed staff ushering guests to take a river safari or eat wonderful foraged food in the main tent.
Among scores of river- and forest-based adventures, the most fulfilling was joining an anti-poaching patrol team, whose sheer love for the minutiae of the jungle belied the AK-47s slung across their shoulders. Shinta Mani Wild is no airy piece of greenwashing. For all its grin-inducing whimsy, this is the real thing.
Six Senses Yao Noi, Phuket, Thailand
It begins with a subtle shift from indigo to violet, starlight fading in the night sky. Silhouettes of dragons appear on the horizon; the jagged limestone karsts of Phang Nga Bay. The Andaman Sea is seemingly lit from beneath in a preternatural shade of cerulean. In a flash of scarlet and flame orange, the day arrives, greeted by the unfurling of lotus flowers and the calls of hornbills, kingfishers and coucals. The sunrises here are just one of the reasons many guests are always angling to return to this tropical island resort off the coast of Phuket.
Others include the breezy villas with their driftwood canopied beds, sunken sea-view bathtubs and decks large enough to cartwheel across; the sunny staff who make guests feel only-child special; and the communal half-moon infinity pool set high in the hills, forming a crescent above the bay.
Then there’s the spa, cleaved into the jungle and offering lemongrass teas, hot herbal massages and wellness rituals which last for hours and leave guests glassy eyed, in a good way.
The food mostly comes from local fishermen, or the hotel’s gardens, mushroom hut and chicken coop – poached Phuket lobster in coconut broth, perhaps, or hot-and-sour grouper curry. To spend time here is a joy – a reminder of the beauty of nature and the possibilities that arrive with each new dawn.
Aman Tokyo, Japan
Japan’s capital is many things – sprawling, neon lit, nocturnal – but one word not often used to describe it is relaxing. More precisely, while floating 34 floors above ground, inhaling and exhaling with a meditation teacher in a white space, distracted only by vivid sunset views.
Aman has, of course, long been a byword for a certain kind of crisp zen wellness. Yet there’s something extra special about discovering it among the skyscrapers of a megalopolis, surrounded by the impeccable geometry of late Australian architect Kerry Hill, who was long inspired by Japanese design and considered this one of his finest works.
Aman destinations have tended to focus on nature and heritage, so transplanting the concept to the big city in 2014 was a bolder move than it seems now. The lobby still turns heads, with its towering ceiling, abstract blooms and kimono-clad musician plucking the strings of a koto. The bedrooms always seem more akin to mindfulness spaces, with their aromatic hinoki-wood, sliding screens and staggered levels.
The food and the service are impeccable – of course they are – but the spa is the real scene-stealer, a place of complete sensory purity that hovers unperturbed over the fizzing city.
The latest treatments cover everything from Shinto purification rituals to iaido sword training. But really, it’s a form of therapy just being here, as Tokyo glimmers and growls below.