Grand Awards 2018
Andrew Harper's Favorites from the Past Year of Travel
So as not to waste time and money, we do extensive research before every trip to determine whether new properties are likely to be suitable for review. Sometimes, places fail to live up to unrealistic expectations, as was the case this year with the Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. On other occasions, despite all the assiduous preparation, the experience can be truly dire. The Nines in Portland, Oregon, and the Banner Elk Winery & Villa in North Carolina provided two of this year’s most egregious low points.
Things started off on the wrong foot. Our room wasn’t ready until 40 minutes after check-in time, and when we finally did go, unaccompanied, to our accommodation on the club floor, it turned out to be extremely unappealing. Power cords and outlets had thick layers of dust, as did the crystals dangling from the sconces in the bath. There, in addition to a moldy shower curtain, we discovered residues from the previous guest on the mirror. Nor did the club lounge impress, with its picked-over buffet and water cooler repaired with duct tape. At breakfast, we ended up seated next to a man who proceeded to tell us that he was a homeless, bipolar alcoholic who had no intention of paying for his meal or the bloody mary he was drinking. The Nines will surely feature in my memoirs, but it will not appear in the Harper Collection anytime soon.
Château des Vigiers
Centered on a 16th-century castle fronted by immaculate fairways, a handful of enigmatic ruins and an octagonal dovecote, this golf resort seemed impressive at first. But it was a warning sign when the front desk staffer patronizingly inquired if we understood the meaning of “turndown service.” Our Prestige Room had fine golf-course views, but its green-dotted beige carpet was in dire need of replacement. Matters did not improve at the resort’s Marie Galland Beauty Spa, which faces a small and uninviting swimming pool. While my wife had a perfunctory, asymmetric scrub and a desultory massage that was nothing more than an exercise in moisturization, I wandered through the rest of the facilities, discovering an ancient locker room with badly stained carpeting. I have seen few spas that were more poorly laid out or maintained. Dinner in the brasserie was also disappointing, with colorless food presentations. The Château des Vigiers has few redeeming qualities other than its golf course.
Palácio do Governador
The center of Lisbon’s new Palácio do Governador is the former palace of the governor of the Belém Tower, which was built atop Roman ruins. With that pedigree, the hotel should have character to spare. Alas, in a truly astonishing display of incompetent design, the property proved cold and charmless. Just off reception, the over-restored former chapel lacks both atmosphere and purpose. The nearby lounge contains a too-large television, as does the bar. SPA Felicitás has a Roman wall exposed above its large lap pool but feels sterile nevertheless. Our Júnior Suite seemed underfurnished and bland. And the staff were polite but not warm. The only bright spot was the restaurant, Anfora, which served elevated Portuguese cuisine.
Banner Elk Winery & Villa
Banner Elk, North Carolina
The self-described “jewel of the High Country,” Banner Elk Winery & Villa was a disappointment from the moment we arrived. The front door was locked, and after we’d knocked and waited for several minutes, a disheveled, barefoot man appeared at the door. We had to ask for a tour of the common areas, and he shuffled us around with very little enthusiasm. Suddenly, the manager appeared and informed us that the first man did not work at the property. Bewildered, we headed to our room, the Alicante Barrel Grande Suite. At first the spacious accommodation looked promising, but not all was as it seemed. The fireplace was not working, the curtains had moth holes and there was a dead cockroach in the middle of the closet. When we mentioned these concerns to the manager, she shrugged. We left the next morning.
St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort
Saadiyat Island, United Arab Emirates
Saadiyat Island has been much in the news of late, thanks to the opening of the Musée du Louvre Abu Dhabi. Earlier in 2017, I stayed at the nearby St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort. On arrival, the architecture struck me as soulless, with huge open spaces and vast tracts of marble. After a lengthy and disorganized check-in, the receptionist suggested I take lunch at the Southeast Asian restaurant Sontaya, but when I got there, it was closed. I expressed my surprise, given the fact that I had been sent there not five minutes earlier by a hotel staff member, at which the restaurant manager became abruptly defensive and rude. At lunch the following day, I complained about the state of the table at the beachfront restaurant, which was filthy, and got a response that could best be described as surly. Virtually the first question I had been asked on arrival was what time I would be leaving. I said I thought around 11 a.m. but that I wasn’t sure. To my amazement, my electronic room card stopped working precisely at 11 on the morning of my departure, even though the hotel’s official checkout time is noon. Overall, the property is an extremely poor advertisement for such a high-profile international brand.
Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort
Abu Dhabi, UAE
The Qasr Al Sarab Desert Resort is situated amid huge red sand dunes, close to Abu Dhabi’s border with Saudi Arabia, and is surrounded by a spectacular but supremely inhospitable landscape that served as a film set for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Built by the Abu Dhabi government for a staggering $5 billion, most of the resort’s 205 accommodations are housed within a sprawling complex designed to resemble an ancient fortified desert town, with castellated ocher-colored buildings linked by a maze of stairs and walkways. However, despite its opulence, the resort lacks atmosphere and is strangely impersonal. Throughout our stay, the staff seemed oddly disengaged. The property offers a variety of dining venues but nothing resembling a sophisticated gastronomic experience; all our meals were unremarkable. A high proportion of the guests seemed to be expatriates, many of whom were enjoying a vacation after weeks spent laboring in Abu Dhabi’s oil fields. Qasr Al Sarab has the potential to be astonishing, but the reality fell far short of expectations.
I had hoped that the nine-room Palais Esplanade would prove to be a hideaway in contrast with my larger hotel recommendations in Hamburg. Alas, it turned out not to function as an independent hotel at all. The Palais Esplanade is tethered to the Baseler Hof, a much larger property two buildings down the street. When we arrived there — it is not possible to check in at the Palais — no bellman met our taxi, and I carried our bags inside myself. The lobby smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke; half of it was occupied by tired leather seating groups and half by an uninviting bar. In the men’s room off the lobby, I found blood on the cloth towel hanging by the door. In our suite, the scratchy sheets had far too low a thread count, there was no air-conditioning (opening a window allowed in street noise) and the bath was tiled in ugly brown and olive green tiles. My search for a Hamburg hideaway continues.
Panama City, Panama
Having read several positive reviews about Las Clementinas, we were greatly looking forward to our stay. Unfortunately, the experience failed completely to live up to the billing. The receptionist in the small, dark lobby was disorganized and had not booked any of the excursions he had confirmed prior to our arrival. We were informed that the restaurant was closed. There was no elevator to our room, and the steep stone steps looked as though they hadn’t been mopped since the hotel’s debut in 2010. Our suite felt clinical, and a water heater in the bath reverberated like a generator. Views of colonial townhouses from New Orleans-style balconies, as advertised on the hotel’s website, turned out to be vistas of a derelict building and an unsightly backstreet. The receptionist did not seem especially surprised when we decided to depart the same day.