[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]he journey’s the thing, wrote Homer in his epic poem The Odyssey – and there’s no denying that getting there is often half the fun. But then again, finding a decent mattress to sleep on after a long day on the road was a tough proposition back in the 8th century B.C. The hospitality industry has shaped up quite a bit since then. These days, travellers in search of somewhere to lay their weary heads have no shortage of interesting places to check out – and check into. Weekend presents five hotels that caught our eye in 2018. We’re pretty sure Homer would have approved.
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01 Ett Hem, Stockholm, Sweden
Ett Hem is Swedish for A Home, and it’s an entirely appropriate name for a converted early-20th-century building that was once home to a government official whose wife had impeccable taste and an appreciation for local arts and crafts. The 12-room hotel occupies a corner lot in a residential neighbourhood and has been reinvented by British-Danish designer Ilse Crawford to resemble an elegant contemporary home, with vintage flourishes and attention to detail. This is a boutique hotel with style to burn. Each room is unique (mine had a floor-to-ceiling ceramic fireplace, a bathtub in the bedroom and a bathroom with heated floor), with an emphasis on eclectic interiors and casual comfort. Guests are welcome to mingle, work on their laptops in a quiet corner of the drawing room or retreat to the library with some reading material. There’s a garden area beyond the main entrance and in the rear is a glasshouse, or conservatory, where guests can gather for breakfast or afternoon tea. This brand of Nordic chic doesn’t come cheap (rooms start at S$600) but in the six years since its opening, Ett Hem has established a reputation as one of the best hotels in town.
2 Skoldungagatan, 114 27, +46 820 0590
02 Setouchi Aonagi, Matsuyama, Japan
Nature lovers and architecture junkies will have plenty to admire at Setouchi Aonagi, a seven-room retreat in the forested hills above the city of Matsuyama on Shikoku Island, with impossibly picturesque views of the Seto Inland Sea. For starters, the hotel bears the unmistakable stamp of the country’s pre-eminent architect Tadao Ando, who first designed it 20 years ago as a guest house/private museum for the developers of a golf course adjoining the property, before converting it to a hotel in 2016. Ando is better known as the designer of Benesse House, the world-famous hotel/art museum complex on Naoshima Island, in the sea east of Matsuyama. Getting a booking there is difficult enough but for those who want a little taste of what to expect in Naoshima, a stay at Aonagi is a good alternative. The rooms, in two concrete-and-glass buildings that rise from the landscape like futuristic watchtowers, offer minimalist comforts and shimmering sea views. There is contemporary art on the ground floor, a heated indoor pool and outdoors – a signature design feature – an infinity pool that extends to the horizon.
794-1 Yanaidani-cho, Matsuyama, +81 98 977 9500
03 Bella Vista Spa and Marina, Onomichi, Japan
The Shimanami Kaido is an expressway with a difference, and not just because it’s a 60-km road-and-bridge network that connects the town of Onomichi on Japan’s main island of Honshu with Imabari on Shikoku (the fourth largest island), crossing the Inland Sea and spanning six smaller islands along the way. Cars and other vehicles ply the route regularly but the expressway was built specifically to accommodate cyclists, with a separate path for bikes and pedestrians along its entire length. Just up the coastline from Onomichi, near a shipyard and halfway up a hillside overlooking the Shimanami Islands, the Bella Vista Spa and Marina provides panoramic views and a resort-like alternative to the small local hotels and Japanese-style inns in town. From a distance the hotel may look innocuous enough but on offer is a luxe resort experience, a world-class spa and large, well-appointed rooms. On a bluff overlooking the sea, the hotel’s Ribbon Chapel is one of the most distinctive wedding venues in the country, comprising two intertwined staircases rising up around a glass-enclosed space. Visits to a nearby temple complex, seaplane flights and boat rides to Onomichi are among the sightseeing options – if you don’t fancy going on a long bicycle ride.
1376 Urasakicho, Onomichi, +81 84 987 1122
04 Casa San Agustin, Cartagena, Colombia
“The best thing about Cartagena is that life is not complicated,” says Eduardo Fuentes, a laid-back guide to this port city beside the Caribbean Sea. The old town, a fortified walled city founded by Spanish colonialists in the 16th century, is a well-preserved, much-visited World Heritage site – one that still manages to retain much of its charm. Its cobblestone streets and colourful colonial architecture are within easy reach from Casa San Agustin, a former colonial home-turned urban retreat in the centre of the old town. The hotel, designed around a 300-year-old aqueduct and decorated in native Colombian style with contemporary touches and cool interiors, offers a peaceful respite from the tropical heat. But when the urge to explore the city strikes (and it surely will), an array of shops, bars and restaurants is mere steps away. Further afield there are fishing villages and islands in the sun. Being a Cartagenero – if only for a few days – is difficult to resist.
Centro Historico, 34-36 Calle de la Universidad, Cartagena de Indias +57 5 681 0000
05 Qasr Al Sarab, Abu Dhabi
An ocean of sand awaits visitors to Qasr Al Sarab (or “the Mirage Palace”), a hotel in the remote Empty Quarter section of Abu Dhabi’s Liwa Desert – otherwise known as the largest uninterrupted sand desert in the world. The resort was built from scratch for a princely sum (a reported US$5 billion) with architecture inspired by desert fortresses. Apart from the stifling summer heat the only difficulty guests are likely to encounter is having to choose between a sedate camel trek and going dune bashing in a four-wheel-drive. There are other diversions to keep you amused and occupied: Qasr Al Sarab’s multiple claims to fame include a location credit for an episode of Star Wars (The Force Awakens, 2015) but don’t look too hard for evidence – it’s hard to tell one sand dune from the next. A stay here will provide an opportunity to enjoy rustic Arabian charm and a sense of luxury living in the desert.
1 Qasr Al Sarab Road, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates +971 2 886 2088
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This article was originally published in The Business Times.