Zack O'Malley Greenburg
It's difficult to believe that a $1,000-a-night hotel designed by fashion designer Giorgio Armani in the world's tallest building could ever be considered understated. Yet in Dubai, where bars with multicolor fluorescent ceilings are considered classy, the Armani Hotel Dubai manages to fill that niche.
Opened in April 2010, the hotel is the first in a series of Armani-branded resorts and residences. It occupies the first eight stories of the 2,717-foot tall Burj Khalifa and includes 160 guest rooms and suites. For those seeking the full Dubai experience, suites on floors 38-39 offer breathtaking views of the buildings bursting forth from the desert floor; nightly rates can run as high as $2,500.
Gallery: Armani Hotel Dubai
Sipping a cup of hot chocolate beneath a heat lamp on the deck of the cozy mountainside Avalanche Café, it's easy to forget that you're in the middle of the desert in Dubai. That is, until you see a pack of bearded men gleefully whizzing down the slope, white tunics billowing like sails behind them.
Any excursion to Ski Dubai, which purports to be the world's largest indoor ski area, is filled with this sort of incongruity. Though the air outside routinely tops 110 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, the temperature inside the 22,500 square meter facility remains just below freezing all year round. The structure that encloses the ski slope is as tall as a 25-story building; its flagship trail, the first indoor black diamond ever built, is longer than three football fields. There are four other runs of varying difficulty, as well as a chairlift, a freestyle snowboarding zone, and of course, the aforementioned café.
Gallery: Ski Dubai
The ancient house that rests above Cattier champagne's cellars in Chigny-Les-Roses, France, is set back about forty feet from Rue Dom Perignon. Finding a street number is difficult – the only obvious identifying mark is the sign on the front fence that says "Chien Méchant." Not to worry: On a recent visit, a guide gave assurances in a heavy French accent that "the dog is dead."
The Cattier family, which now produces over one million bottles of champagne per year, purchased the house in the 1960s. Today, its windows are shuttered and it is only used to receive guests on rare occasions. The real prize is buried far below the chalky soil – a vast network of naturally air-conditioned cellars where Cattier's finest vintages gain their character. In a garage next to the house, a narrow spiral staircase wends its way some 30 meters into the ground. There, the temperature quickly drops from the balmy 25C temperature outside down to a chilly 8C, the still air packed with 90% humidity.
The cellars are about 150 years old, relics of the early days of champagne making. During World War II, they served as part of a vast underground network of shelters throughout the greater Reims area; every few feet, a patch of bricks still bears the burns of candles used to illuminate the long corridors when electricity went out during air raids. These days, the cellars shimmer with the golden bottles of Cattier's flagship champagne, Armand de Brignac.
The city of Reims, France, has long been known as the center of the country's storied Champagne region. These days, a noisy construction project snarls traffic and plays havoc with downtown hotels and restaurants meaning there's never been a better time for visiting oenophiles to stay at L'Assiette Champegnoise, a quaint hotel on the outskirts.
Reims is home to all five of last month's Luxist Award nominees in the best sparkling wine/champagne category Krug , Dom Perignon, Pommery, Louis Roederer and Veuve Clicquot. L'Assiette Champegnoise is mere minutes by car from the headquarters of these houses and others.
Built on an old Norman estate, L'Assiette consistently ranks among the best hotels in the area. Cruise through the main gate and the first thing you will see are the twin chimneys rising from the main building, a turreted chateau brimming with old world charm. Behind it lie the hotels 55 rooms and four acres of greenery. The back yard, shaded by century-old trees and strewn with overstuffed chair-pillows, makes for an ideal place to relax with a good book and a flute of champagne from the intimate bar in the lobby.
Visitors needn't venture into Reims for dinner, as the best restaurant in the area is on-site: a two-star Michelin restaurant helmed by chef Arnaud Lallement. In good weather, the aperitif is served outside on the deck; in any case, the intimate dining room and its large windows bring diners closer to nature. For those who would prefer an even more local experience, the restaurant offers room service as well.
Old-fashioned appeal doesn't mean an aversion to modern amenities: each room at L'Assiette offers a television, a telephone, and wireless internet. For such an elegant and conveniently located hotel, the prices are reasonable, starting at 165 Euros per night. The champagne, however, is not included.
Halfway through the foie gras portion of a four course meal at Sierra Mar in Big Sur, a long-haired patron in jeans and a plaid shirt blunders into an oversized whale painting. A swarm of waiters quickly coalesces around him, attempting to prevent the listing canvas from falling over completely. Eventually they give up and lower the unhappy leviathan to the floor, leaning it against the wall until a more convenient time.
This is an interaction that might only be possible at Sierra Mar, the jewel of Big Sur's Post Ranch Inn, where casual is the norm despite rooms that run more per night than comparable apartments cost per month in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Gallery: Post Ranch Inn
Though the modern resort was founded in 1984, the land's history dates back to 1850 – when homesteader and grizzly bear hunter William Brainard Post took out a claim on 160 acres of land in Big Sur. That same land now plays host to the exclusive 39-room resort that carries the family's name.
These days, visitors are greeted with glasses of Champagne and whisked up the hill by a fleet of black Lexus hybrid SUVs. An array of rooms await, some nestled in the trees, some built into the side of the oceanside cliffs. All are outfitted with fireplaces, breathtaking views and, of course, free wireless internet. Perhaps best of all, the rooms are just a few minutes' walk from the restaurant.
Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright student Mickey Muennig, Sierra Mar is perched 1,200 feet above the crashing tides of the Pacific. The views are almost as dramatic as the taste sensations caused by the delicious menu. On a stormy night this spring, dinner begins with an amuse bouche of cured salmon, crème fraiche and Tsar Nicoulai caviar. Forget your mouth – your whole body will be amused and amazed at rich array of flavors unleashed by the single bite.
Appetizers include the Butter Poached Maine Lobster, served in a lemongrass-coconut broth with green papaya salad, and the Sesame Crusted Ahi Tuna, smothered in wasabi butter and shallot soy. In both dishes, the interplay between creamy sauce and fresh seafood makes for a refreshingly light and flavorful starter. But the highlight has to be the heavier Foie Gras Tasting and its three interpretations of goose liver: seared alongside pickled quince; torched in a tiny crème brûlée dish; and sautéed atop miniature pancakes.
The second course options are equally engaging, especially the Bourride – a single, spongy Maine diver scallop engulfed in a red pepper picada and garlic crumbs. If you're looking for a leafy respite from a fishy dinner, try the Artaulfo Mango Salad and treat your taste buds to a trio of roasted macadamia nuts, mint leaves and fresh water chestnuts.
Of the main course options – Alaskan Halibut, Roast Organic Air Chilled Chicken Breast, Risotto and Roast Prime Rib Eye Steak – the latter is certainly the heartiest. Paired with braised short rib hash and topped with a poached egg, the rib eye is a bouquet of textures and smoky flavors. Fortunately, the portion is sensibly sized to ensure you won't leave feeling anchored by your entrée.
For a true Big Sur dessert, look no further than the S'Mores. Though not quite the messy delicacy found at nearby beatnik campfires for the past half-century, this neat stack of warm chocolate cake and flamed marshmallow ice cream should please any palate.
As your meal at the Sierra Mar draws to a close, the floor-to-ceiling glass windows will be filled with the vast darkness of the Pacific below. The dim lights will seem dimmer, and after a few glasses of wine, you might find yourself imagining the ghost of Kerouac flittering through the restaurant. That's all well and good – just try not to bump into any whale paintings on your way out.
Walk through the door at Ma(i)sonry and you won't find the usual faux-Italian or French décor that typifies tasting rooms in Yountville, Calif. Instead, you'll discover a space haunted by gold-plated skulls, abstract sculpture and giant chrome contraptions that look like the ancestors of the modern spotlight.
A steam-punk aesthetic pervades the century-old stone house, converted in 2007 to a tasting room that doubles as an exhibition space. Various mammalian vertebrae and reclaimed metal sculptures hang from exposed beams and dot the wooden shelves, an ambiance that could be the brainchild of Georgia O'Keefe and Damien Hirst, had they lived together on a 19th Century farm.
Gallery: Ma(i)sonry Napa Valley
For a careful observer, twenty minutes at Nepenthe is enough to learn all one needs to know about Big Sur. Sit down for a sunset cocktail and listen as the lawyer on your left explains why he's allowed to grow marijuana in California. Ask the rolling-stone bartender where he's headed next, and don't expect him to know. Don't forget to notice the blue-blazered investment banker across the bar from you. He's probably stopping off for a drink before dinner at the spectacular Sierra Mar, down the road.
Nepenthe is living proof of the dichotomy at the heart of Big Sur, a secret betrayed in print by the same beatniks who discovered it. The cliffside bar and restaurant has a clientele that includes occupants of $50-per-night tent cabins in the woods and guests from $1,500-a-night luxury resorts along the ocean. They all walk up the same steps, past an old-fashioned telephone booth, under a string of jalapeno-shaped lights, to Nepenthe.
Gallery: Big Sur's Nepenthe
Founded more than 60 years ago, Nepenthe has long been associated with both glamour and grime. Designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, Nepenthe was originally purchased by Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth on a whim. As legend has it, the pair – whose relationship was stormy as a Big Sur winter – spent one night in the area and never returned, eventually selling the property to the family that currently owns Nepenthe.
Today, patrons still enjoy panoramic views of the Pacific from copious indoor and outdoor seating. Unlike some of Big Sur's fancier locales don't bother making a reservation unless there are more than four people in your party. Highlights on the menu include the signature Ambrosia Burger and Lolly's Roast Chicken.
For the best experience, arrive before night falls and watch the sun slip into the Pacific. Enjoy a drink from Nepenthe's considerable wine list, or let the bartender cook up a delicious cocktail. And make sure to chat up at least one stranger before heading out – there are few better places to meet fascinating folks.
From any direction, the drive to Big Sur is at once stunning and stressful, awe-inspiring and nauseating. Hairpin turns seem to punctuate every panorama, and as Highway 1 dips toward the Pacific and soars skyward, your stomach bounces along with it.
But when you leave the winding road for another, steeper, shorter street that runs up the side of Big Sur's highest hill to the Ventana Inn & Spa, a sense of calm sweeps over you. Perhaps it's the pungent scent of cedar that pervades the resort, or maybe it's the glass of wine you're given at check-in. Either way, the relaxation begins as soon as you arrive on the property.
And there's a lot to see. Though Ventana's 60 rooms and suites mostly resemble humble cabins on the outside, their interiors contain a mix of rustic and modern luxuries sure to please any vacationer. Each room comes with a view of valley, mountain, ocean, or all of the above. A private balcony or patio is also standard, as are real wood-burning fireplaces, heated stone floors, Egyptian cotton sheets, terry cloth robes, and of course, a flat-screen television. Many suites also boast private hot tubs.
As with most resorts, the first thing you'll notice at Bardessono in Yountville, Calif., is the lobby. But this one's a bit different from the usual. Swaths of plants grow on strings running from the floor to the ceiling, nourished by nothing but the air. A sepia sculpture made from recycled newspaper hangs on a parallel wall. Those might be unusual touches at a normal hotel, but in the Napa Valley's premier eco-lodge, it's par for the course.
Gallery: More from the Bardessono
Bardessono's dining room keeps with the resort's "deep green" mission statement. The delicious, heavily organic menu draws from local farms and fisheries; most of the wines hail from nearby vineyards as well. Like the guest rooms, which are free of the rugs, bedspreads and curtains deemed unnecessary by the green police, the dining room is somewhat spare. The only flourishes are a wispy, LED-lit chandelier and a magnificent long wood table made from a reclaimed tree trunk. A few paintings – or eco-friendly art installments – would be a welcome addition.
As a Napa Valley connoisseur might say, Bardessono is a little young. Barely a year old, there are still trees that need to grow taller and walls that perhaps need more adornment. But the amenities and design elements are there – like a fine wine, Bardessono will only get better with age. In the meantime, guests can enjoy a fine spa and resort on a clean environmental conscience.