You’ve probably noticed that we have a thing for hotels. So when it came time for us to chip in our picks for where you should travel in the coming year, hotels naturally drove our selection.
When a location gets its first Tablet hotel, it’s a good bet that something important is happening there. By definition, Tablet hotels are extraordinary, and you don’t build an extraordinary hotel without being confident that you’ll have the guests to fill it — guests who appreciate a unique piece of finely crafted hospitality, not just a cookie-cutter chain.
When a Tablet-worthy hotel opens, sometimes it means that its location is in the midst of a cultural boom, and on its way to becoming a popular tourist attraction. Other times, the location is relatively unexplored and the hotel itself is the main draw, bravely putting a new pin on the map (if you build it, they will come). It’s the Tablet version of the chicken and the egg — except in ours we ask “what came first, the hotel or the destination?”
Our picks for where you should travel in 2020 reflect both sides of the dynamic described above. Each entry features an incredible hotel that sends a clear message that a location is blossoming, or that an exciting new launching point for discovery has been created. In either scenario, having a Tablet hotel is evidence that a destination has arrived, and that you should make an appointment to do the same.
The destination: Namib Desert, Namibia
The hotel: Sonop
When it comes to tourism, Namibia is having a moment. And it seems to have everything to do with the Zannier hotel group. In 2018, these purveyors of hotels in the French Alps, Belgium, and Siem Reap opened their first hotel in Namibia on the recommendation of a mutual friend (none other than Angelina Jolie, a guest of their Cambodian venture Phum Baitang ). Connecting with a local conservationist, the hoteliers created Omaanda, a luxury safari lodge on a 22,000 acre animal refuge.
In 2019, Zannier built on that success with Sonop, another set of luxurious tents, also in Namibia, this time in the world’s oldest desert. Inflected with the style of Twenties-vintage British safari, the lodgings here are set over boulders above the desert floor, using to its advantage an ephemerally beautiful landscape dotted by red sand dunes and such eery features as the ancient “skeletons” of trees that dried out but never faded away. Electric bikes run the trails, views from the hot-air balloons are recommended, and you won’t find better stargazing anywhere.
Not a bad couple of options for our first two Tablet Hotels in the country.
The destination: Lake Llanquihue, Chile
The hotel: Hotel AWA
“Otherworldly” is a word we’ve used quite a few times on this site to describe the landscapes of Chilean Patagonia, one of the most visually spectacular places on earth. Fortunately for us, the region has also been blessed with a collection of hotels as impressive for their cutting-edge architecture and design as Patagonia is for its natural gifts. Until recently, most of these memorable hotels have been down south in Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park, but now there’s an extraordinary hotel a thousand miles further north on the shores of Chile’s Lake Llanquihue.
Hotel AWA is five stories of concrete, glass, metal, and wood — a stunning example of Chile’s specific brand of modernism contrasting with the surrounding nature. The bold design is nothing short of a statement, and it more than holds its own against the stunning white-capped peaks of Osorno, the 8700-foot-tall volcano across the lake. But as appealing as the hotel is, you’d be remiss if you didn’t get out and about, as the setting is the real star here — excursions are available for anyone who’d like to explore the nearby national parks and nature reserves on foot, on horseback, or by bike, kayak, raft, or even seaplane.
The destination: Santa Ynez Valley, California
The hotel: Skyview Los Alamos
It’s true that, traditionally, the hotels you find in wine regions tend to be a little safe, a little conservative, a little… traditional. In recent years, though, that trend has started to change. It’s no longer good enough to construct a recognizable homage to Bordeaux or Tuscany and then call it a day. Like most modern travelers, wine country enthusiasts now also demand a hotel that’s as much a product of its environment as the grapes they came to taste, and that’s how you wind up with something as singular as the Skyview Los Alamos.
About twenty years ago, the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County burst onto the scene as a wine region worth keeping an eye on. A couple decades later, it’s experiencing the kind of growth that necessitates a hotel like the Skyview, a Fifties roadside motel that’s been rehabilitated into an attractive and quietly luxurious boutique hotel. The updated motor inn is one of the great success stories of the boutique hotel boom, and this one, with its salvaged décor and farmhouse feel, is warm and organic in a way that meshes perfectly with the surrounding viticulture.
The destination: Quito, Ecuador
The hotel: Hotel Carlota
After relocating their airport to a less disruptive location outside the city center, Quito’s long-awaited, soon-to-open subway system promises to make the city smaller and more manageable for travelers, another reason to visit Ecuador’s capital in 2020 to go with the perennial ones. On that front, those would be the historic, UNESCO-protected Old Town, the staggering mountain peaks framing the city, and the charming plazas that represent some of the most gorgeous in Latin America.
Hotel Carlota, meanwhile, is another reason to make the trip. Located in Old Town, the lauded heart of Quito, this a design hotel was once home to an Ecuadorian president, a landmark frame that mixes classic mansion style with cutting-edge art and design. And that’s all besides the fact that it’s LEED-certified, a model for all future accommodations hoping to join the wave of sustainability changing the travel space for the better.
The destination: Kalkudah Beach, Sri Lanka
The hotel: Karpaha Sands
Sri Lanka’s anything but an undiscovered destination for international travelers, but the east coast hasn’t attracted quite as much attention as the hotspots of Galle and Colombo in the south and west. Granted, the beaches in the east aren’t all pristine empty space. Just 25 minutes north is Passekudah beach, a “mini-Cancún” that makes the reality of Karpaha Sands all the more remarkable.
A luxury resort made of high-end safari tents, this a place that takes advantage of its large swaths of empty space, where privacy and seclusion are defining qualities as much as the arty ambience and high end, canvas-roofed suites. While you might give Galle and Colombo the nod for sites and culture, the nearby Batticaloa has its fair share of forts and temples as well. And when it comes to a purely restorative, calming beach escape — you won’t top Kalkudah.
The destination: Maastricht, Netherlands
The hotel: Hotel Monastère
Maastricht is hardly a secret. The bustling university town in the southeastern Netherlands is steeped in history and culture, and it was even chosen as the signing place for the 1992 treaty that founded the European Union. A few years back it got what could only be described as one of the most unique hotels in the world, Kruisherenhotel. That hotel established a template by marrying hyper-modern design to a fifteenth-century monastery, a breakthrough that was followed up by Hotel Monastère, which does something very similar, albeit with slightly less experimentation — and with a monastery from a century earlier.
The two hotels combine to announce that Maastricht intends to be taken seriously by twenty-first century travelers, and deservedly so. Two thousand years of history can be found throughout the city — along with remaining traces from its early days as a Roman settlement, it also has a maze of underground tunnels and caves that are available to be toured, and more national heritage buildings than any other city in the Netherlands except for Amsterdam. And thanks to all of those students, fun and fashionable drinking and dining options are within easy reach all over town.
The destination: Rockland, Maine
The hotel: 250 Main Hotel
Maine’s central coast has been on our radar for years, but for Tablet the boutique sensibility has so far found more suitors in Camden. The 250 Main Hotel brings Rockland into the fold. This is a town that’s long been known for its local fixtures on the art scene — including the renowned Farnsworth Art Museum, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, and a bustling scene of independent galleries — and the hotel itself is full of art and stylish modern furnishings. Meanwhile, the location on the harbor indicates the more obvious connotations of Maine: namely, the ocean.
Ferries are always on hand to bring you to the islands off the coast for the day, but in Rockland you’re never far from the surf. Project Puffin, a conservation center, is a fascinating spin on that association, dedicated as it is to bringing seabirds back to Maine. On the opposite end of spectrum, there’s the Maine Lobster Festival — perhaps the three most enticing words in New England. But as that tradition boils up to its 73rd year, these days the area’s lauded too for the sensibility represented by Primo, the venerated farm-to-table spot led by James Beard Award-winning chef Melissa Kelly.
And we haven’t even mentioned the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge yet. There’s a lot to do here.
The destination: Serra da Estrela Mountains, Portugal
The hotel: Casa de Sao Lourenco
After a few years that saw Portugal transform into one of the world’s hottest vacation destinations, it would seem that — never mind Lisbon and Porto — not even the most rural countryside remains untouched by tourists. That might be true, but the Serra da Estrela Mountains are one place that have lagged behind the modern scene, lacking a proper luxury boutique until the introduction of Casa de Sao Lourenco.
Not that the Serra da Estrela Mountains, with their sweeping views, natural lakes, rare-for-Portugal skiing, and famous cheese (!) have remained a secret to visitors for all these years. In fact, Casa de Sao Lourenco takes a historic 1949-vintage pousada (a small, government-owned inn) and renovates it, grafting an ultra-modern structure to the classic inn and filling it with modern comforts and Portuguese art.
The destination: Almora, India
The hotel: The Kumaon
We’ve written about this neck of the Himalayan mountains before, an area that’s so stunning it borders on the metaphysical. In fact, the Kumaon is just up the road from what was eventually dubbed “Crank’s Ridge” or “Hippie Hill,” known as it was for attracting poets and thinkers like Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Timothy Leary and Swami Vivekananda. Naturally, it offers excursions to Hippie Hill, but the Kumaon shares in the setting’s mystic history itself. Which is to say, it’s so beautiful it makes reflection a reflex.
If the Sri Lankan architects of the Kumaon — disciples of modernist master Geoffrey Bawa — had merely built around the natural beauty, it would have been enough. As it is, touches like vast floor to ceiling windows, stone walls, and raw concrete beams warmed by bamboo cladding and hardwood floors give the hotel the feel of a self-contained oasis above the real world. The suites themselves are perfect little modernist jewel boxes, the ideal, remote bases for your own transcendent experience.
If you’re going to the Himalayas in 2020, go here.
The destination: Tepoztlán, Mexico
The hotel: Amomoxtli
As the popularity of Mexico City seems to peak year after year, it’s only natural that we begin to branch outside of it — specifically to Tepoztlan, an international destination in its own right just 50 miles from the capital. Sometimes treated as a day trip but undoubtedly brimming with enough energy and activity for a longer stay, the town is known as the birthplace of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, and shares in the associated mysticism, which manifests in visits to the historic temple (to the Aztec god of pulque, an ancient drink made from agave) and practices like temazcal (a sweat-lodge ritual that dates to the pre-Columbian era).
Amomoxtli, accented with architectural touches that play on the town’s history, offers its own take on the mystical culture. Not just confined to temazcal baths, here you’ll have the option of everything from yoga to traditional energy cleanses to mystical and ancestral-inspired ceremonies. These include a “texture ritual” that draws on feathers, obsidian, and bamboo for massage.
In short, it’s the type of wellness program that could only exist in Tepoztlan, a fascinating place that deserves mention with the Tulums and the Balis of the world.
The destination: Oria, Italy
The hotel: Masseria Palombara
There’s no shortage of hotels — and tourists — in Puglia, the region that makes up the heel of Italy’s boot. But there’s also no reason why that should keep you from visiting such a famously beautiful destination, or why it should be disqualified from our list. As much as we love uncovering gems in remote or far-flung locations, it’s also our job to reveal the fresh within the familiar. Even in well-trod tourism magnets like Italy, there are places waiting to be discovered by non-natives — places like Masseria Palombara.
Set in a classic Puglian landscape of limestone and low-slung almond and olive groves, Masseria Palombara feels splendidly sequestered, a few miles to the south of the town of Oria, about midway from Taranto to Brindisi. At first glance little more than a typical stone-walled farmhouse compound, upon further inspection it’s revealed to be a luxe little adults-only resort. You aren’t far from a couple of beaches, but you also wouldn’t be blamed if you never left the property — along with a restaurant that serves traditional Puglian fare made with ingredients from the hotel’s own organic garden, there are cooking classes, olive-oil tastings, a spa, a gym, and a pool, all adding up to a perfectly immersive rustic-luxe experience.
The destination: Vik, Iceland
The hotel: UMI Hotel
Iceland is another destination that’s not exactly overlooked. But the problem, if you can call it that, is that there’s too much to see and to do in the general neighborhood of Reykjavík — and, as a result, the rest of the island is comparatively under-explored. You don’t even have to go much further to see some extraordinary places; Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that shut down European air travel a few years back, is a hundred miles from the capital along the southern coast, and the town of Vík is just beyond that.
And while Icelandic hotels have historically neglected architecture and design, that’s changing. UMI Hotel is a modern marvel whose low-profile silhouette recalls some of our favorite Patagonian hotels. You might think something so stylish can only come from an established boutique hospitality group, but UMI is a family operation — Siggi and Frida, the owners, employed not only their interior-designer daughter Sandra, but their dog Breki as well, in the role of hotel host.
The destination: Armenia, Colombia
The hotel: Bio Habitat Hotel
In past years, the Lonely Planet has claimed that most travelers “pass through Armenia only long enough to change buses.” And it’s true — the so-called “Coffee Triangle” offers much to see and do. There’s the surrounding towns like Salento and Filandia, charming and picturesque, defined by traditional architecture. There’s the natural sites, the pristine forests and rivers. There’s even an UNESCO-declared world heritage site, the palm and wildlife-dotted Cocora Valley.
As it happens, one of the reasons to stay at Bio Habitat is for how well-equipped it is to serve as a base for the rest of the region. But that’s not the only argument for the bus-bound traveler to put down roots in Armenia. In the midst of 160,000 square meters of forest, a stay at the Bio Habitat means you’re surrounded by the elements you came to admire. In addition to a modern style and vast picture windows throughout the lodgings, certain accommodations (here, they’re “habitats”) even provide elevated structures with glass walls, squarely surrounded by greenery on every side, making you feel something like a bird in an aviary.
It’s an immersion in nature that’s matched by few hotels in the world, and more than enough reason to stick around.
The destination: Coupeville, Washington
The hotel: Captain Whidbey
Whidbey Island, at the mouth of the Puget Sound, may be slightly less spectacular than the more distant San Juans — but not by much. And when you’ve accounted for the fact that it’s reachable not just by ferry but by bridge as well, there’s an argument to be made that it’s due for a re-evaluation. Sometimes a new hotel is exactly what it takes.
Captain Whidbey isn’t new, exactly — the original inn dates back to 1907. But its new owners, a couple of young hoteliers with boutique-hotel roots, have given the old timber lodge a subtle-but-effective makeover, and have added four new cabins in partnership with hip Northwest brands like Filson. The result brings the maritime-meets-camp vibe of the original into the 21st century in fine form. Seattleites might prefer that we kept it a secret, but it’s too good not to share.