Lilianfels, Blue Mountains, Australia
Lilianfels, Blue Mountains, Australia

11 Great Hotels and Resorts You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

We asked three of our favorite travel writers to describe the finest little-known hotels and resorts they’ve discovered. Some are off the beaten path or new or do not advertise. Others are just plain obscure. All are certified great by our panel of globetrotters. Happy traveling.

Blue Mountains, Australia

Few visitors to Australia venture to the Blue Mountains, one of the most beautiful areas of the world. Only 31 miles from Sydney, the region is known as the Grand Canyon of Oz.

Perched on the edge of a cliff here is Lilianfels, a restored 1889 country mansion. Now a five-star hotel, the resort is set amidst two acres of manicured gardens. The facility, which overlooks the mountains, offers an ideal escape for nature lovers, romantics and gourmets.

You can enjoy afternoon tea or cocktails in front of a roaring fire in the cozy main lounge and dinner at the newly refurbished, award-winning Darleys Restaurant, which boasts Old World charm, an impressive wine list and inventive, seasonal Australian cuisine. Stained-glass windows, ornate fireplaces, crystal chandeliers and garden and valley views contribute to the memorable atmosphere.

The 85 spectacularly appointed guest rooms and suites feature marble bathrooms with deep tubs, windows that open to the fresh Blue Mountains air and plush floral organza and silk-covered furnishings. Dogs sleep in their own doggy beds ($89 per pet per night).

The tranquil spa, surrounded by forests of fragrant ­eucalyptus, offers macadamia-oil treatments. Other pleasures include bushwalking, bike riding, exploring the canyons, playing tennis, swimming in the heated outdoor pool and browsing through quaint shops in the nearby village of Leura.–Margie Goldsmith

Ananda in the Himalayas
Uttarakhand, India

Maybe because it doesn’t advertise or because it’s set in a 100-acre virgin forest in the foothills of the Himalayas (just a 45-minute flight from Delhi), most people have never heard of this luxury spa resort, which focuses on wellness and balance.

“Ananda” means happiness and guests find it in the 78 rooms, suites and villas, all with private balconies overlooking the sacred Ganges River, Rishikesh Valley or the Himalayas. The Viceregal Suite has an outdoor hot tub and the largest hotel terrace in India. Don a kurta (a white cotton tunic and top) and try early-morning yoga, relax at the pool, take a fitness class or indulge at the 24,000-square-foot spa.

Whitewater raft the Ganges, trek to a sacred Hindu temple, visit the wild elephants of Rajaji National Park or try an elephant photo safari. You can also kayak, fish or take a lesson from a golf pro on a six-hole par-three course with turf imported from the U.S. Dine like the Maharaja at any of Ananda’s six restaurants.

A short drive away is Rishikesh, where the Beatles trained in Transcendental Meditation. A chauffeur will escort you there to see a sunset aarti (religious ceremony) above the Ganges. Returning to Ananda in your limo, you’ll feel as though you’ve had a mystical experience. –Margie Goldsmith

Samara Private Game Reserve
Karoo, South Africa

South Africa is a game-lover’s paradise, though so many vehicles are often jockeying for position that it’s impossible to see the wildlife. Not so at Samara, which is nestled between an amphitheater of mountains in the malaria-free Eastern Cape’s Great Karoo, a 35-minute charter flight or three-hour drive from Port Elizabeth. Here you can get up close and personal with a few of the nine cheetahs that roam this 70,000-acre reserve. Several are collared with GPS transmitters, which gives you and your guides a chance to walk so close you can hear them breathing.

An animal lover who hoped to rejuvenate the land and create a self-sustaining ecosystem of game founded Samara Private Game Reserve 15 years ago. Besides the cheetahs, Samara has reintroduced herds of springbok, black wildebeest, zebra, oryx, eland, hartebeests, zebra, rhino and giraffes. Lions will be reintroduced in a separate area and, over time, elephants.

Thick bush surrounds most game lodges in Africa, but Samara’s 18 opulent and spacious suites provide pristine views for hundreds of miles. You can dine on fresh, locally sourced produce served with an excellent selection of South African wines. Samara also offers a traditional boma dinner, a candlelit feast beneath the Milky Way and Southern Cross with the chef grilling savory beef, chicken and fish. The accommodations charge covers two game drives, cocktails nightly, all meals and afternoon tea. –Margie Goldsmith

Devi Ratn
Jaipur, India

Visitors hoping to escape the hustle and bustle of Jaipur choose the new, all-suite Devi Ratn Resort, just 10 miles away in the Aravali hills. “Ratn” translates as “pure gemstones” and the lustrous gem-craft of Jaipur is omnipresent at the resort, reflected in the materials and details of the public spaces and accommodations. Romantic domes and arches rise everywhere, and delicate latticework creates intricate sun-splashed patterns on the ground.

A golf cart delivers you to one of 63 spacious suites, each with unique terrazzo flooring and traditional bay windows that offer perfect views of the Aravali hills. Many of the accommodations open onto traditional private gardens. Three villas are set in an enclosed courtyard with private pool and Jacuzzi, and each of these villas includes a deluxe second-floor suite that can be accessed separately.

You might start the day by taking a two-minute walk down the resort driveway to stroll in the surrounding open fields. Later, after shopping and sightseeing in bustling Jaipur, you can relax poolside, watch the sunset or have a treatment at the Devi Spa by L’Occitane. End the day at the Vajra Restaurant, which serves delicious Indian and international cuisine and boasts panoramic views of the Aravali hills. You can also choose to dine in intimate spaces by candlelight beneath the stars as Indian musicians play softly in the background. –Margie Goldsmith

Château de la Barre
Loire Valley, France

A two-hour detour from Paris lands you in the Loire Valley, the site chosen by French kings and nobles for their châteaux. Most visitors tour the grand estates in day trips due to the scarcity of overnight lodging. However, you can sleep in a chateau instead of simply touring them.

Legendary Château de la Barre–which has been home to the Comte and Comtesse de Vanssay’s family since 1404–offers accommodations and fine dining. Each of five bedrooms in the manor house contains 18th century antiques, surrounded by bright and bold designer fabrics and wallpaper. En suite bathrooms are sleek and modern. Surprisingly, pets are allowed.

Hosts Guy and Marnie de Vanssay (Marnie is American) offer helpful, often intriguing suggestions for outings: a Renaissance lunch in Leonardo da Vinci’s home (June through September), driving a dream car around the famous nearby Le Mans racetrack, hot-air-balloon rides that depart directly from the château mornings and evenings. Other possibilities include bicycling, golfing at numerous courses, tennis and horseback riding.

Twice a week, the owners host a Grand Siècle Dinner in the 17th century dining room with family silver and crystal. On other nights, the evening meal is served in the billiard room. Daily afternoon tea is poured in the Salon Rose. Ask about gourmet picnics and wine tastings.

The château is near the tiny village of Conflans-sur-Anille in the Pays de la Loire region. The nearest airport is Tours, a one-hour drive. –Debi Lander

Little Palm Resort and Spa
Little Torch Key, Fla.

If you’re dreaming of Gauguin’s tropical paradise but lack time to visit Tahiti, Florida’s Little Palm Island Resort and Spa will fulfill your needs. Fly to Key West or Marathon Key and the resort staff will escort you via a 1930s-style wooden launch over to Little Torch Key. The five-acre private island is a rarely advertised secret and can be reached only by boat or seaplane.

Switch your shoes for flip-flops and relax in one of the 28 thatched-hut guest accommodations, each surrounded by lush greenery. They include secluded outdoor showers and full indoor baths, some with redwood tubs.

No children, no pets. Guests are asked to use their cell phones only in their bungalows, although the library maintains Internet and phone access.

The “Floribbean” three-meal plan offers the freshest of the fresh as the chef changes the menu selections daily. Sunsets are a big deal in the Keys, and Little Palm is home to an upscale Margaritaville-style cocktail hour. The resort caters to those celebrating special occasions and will artfully arrange candlelight dinners on a private beach.

Prior to 1988, the island thrived as a tiny fishing camp that President Harry Truman and other dignitaries visited. Today, Little Palm serves as a sanctuary where you can simply relax and do nothing. Snooze in one of the rope hammocks at the edge of the tranquil Gulf or on one of the chaise lounges scattered over the property. Feeling more active? Try kayaking, windsurfing or swimming in the freshwater pool.

Off-island options include diving Looe Key National Marine Sanctuary, the only living coral reef in North America; deep-sea fishing; and pole fishing from the docks. –Debi Lander

Fearrington House Inn and Restaurant
Pittsboro, N.C.

Chapel Hill, N.C., which has been called the “Southern part of heaven,” is well known for its mountaintop golf courses, tree-lined streets, acclaimed university and Tarheel’s basketball. Perhaps less well known but just as noteworthy is the nearby Fearrington House Inn and Restaurant.

Located in the village of Fearrington–10 minutes from Chapel Hill and 30 minutes from Raleigh-Durham International Airport–the English-inspired 32-room lodge boasts impressive credentials. Both the restaurant and inn have earned the coveted AAA Five-Diamond rating. Moreover, Forbes Travel Guide recently ranked Fearrington No. 1 on its list of the top 10 luxury hotels in the U.S. for weddings, while Conde Nast Traveler named it the No. 2 best small hotel in the South and Departures called it a “World’s Best Foodie Destination.”

One visit should be sufficient to explain all the accolades. The charming antiques-furnished property offers a splendid country atmosphere, exquisite gardens, a spa, world-class dining and proximity to 12 golf courses and one of the South’s best-known independent bookstores.

Consult the Fearrington House calendar for wine dinners and cooking lessons taught by executive chef Colin Bedford. Come hungry to fully appreciate his seasonal tasting menu, which is served in the restored mansion house. A noted wine sommelier will assist you with a choice from the 800-bottle list. Overnight guests are treated to handmade truffles at turndown and full gourmet breakfasts. Afternoons at Fearrington always feature a proper tea. –Debi Lander

Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo
Florence, Italy

Why not stay above Donatello’s workshop when visiting the art treasures of Florence? Discover lodging so close to the Duomo, Brunelleschi’s famous cathedral dome, that special permission is necessary to drive into the restricted historic district. Palazzo Niccolini al Duomo is a 16th century palace that has been renovated into an exquisite small hotel known mainly through word-of-mouth testimonials.

Leaving the courtyard, take a tiny lift to the second-floor reception area to enter what looks like an elegant patrician home. Then slip into the warm, luxurious drawing room, which bursts with brilliant fresco, carved wooden ceilings, tromp l’oeil paintings and comfortably arranged sofas. Book a private wine tasting of Tuscan reds in the lobby.

Palazzo Niccolini has just two large suites, one junior suite and five double bedrooms. The oversized, airy rooms feature king-size canopied beds among antique and reproduction furniture, oriental rugs and original art. The ceilings are so high, you’d have to erect scaffolding to repaint them.

Florence is a walking city and this hotel sits within easy distance of all the famous museums, churches, palazzos and shops. Spend your days strolling the Ponte Vecchio, gazing at Michelangelo’s David and Italian art, then return to rest your feet.

The Dome Suite on the top floor presents an extraordinary view of the Duomo, likely the best in the entire city. Overnight stays include a bountiful continental breakfast and aperitifs. –Debi Lander

Viceroy Riviera Maya
Near Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Riviera Maya developed some of the world’s most lavish all-inclusive resorts–gorgeous facilities that cater to upscale conventioneers. But move beyond those huge properties and bustling streets of Playa del Carmen to the small village of Playa Xcalacoco. Here, 40 miles south of Cancun International Airport, the Viceroy Riviera Maya showcases 41 palapa-roofed villas with heated private plunge pools and outdoor rain showers. Guests are enveloped within an eco-sensitive jungle-like property and enjoy beachfront or ocean views.

Maya-inspired ceremonies welcome you to the residential compound. The staff is known for prompt service and extras such as presenting iced face towels at the pool. Dine at the first-rate La Marea or the Coral Grill by the beach. Request Mayordomo (butler) service for breakfast or whenever you desire it.

The Viceroy includes seven miles of white sand beach, cabanas and daybeds by the water. The site is perfect for honeymooners, who should request a jungle villa for ultimate privacy or private romantic dining.

On-site activities include ceviche and tequila tasting, mixology and cooking classes and yoga. Those wanting to detox can experience the Temazcal steam cave treatment or other Maya-inspired spa ritual. Nearby you’ll find cenote and reef diving and snorkeling, golf, sailing and windsurfing. Plan to visit the Yucatan’s archeological ruins at Tulum, Coba, where you can still climb the ancient 140-foot pyramid, and World Heritage Chichen Itza. –Debi Lander

Tanque Verde Guest Ranch
Tucson, Ariz.

This 640-acre resort–operating as a dude ranch since 1868 and owned by the in-residence Cote family since 1957–is set in stunning desert landscape. To the east are the Rincon Mountains, to the north are the majestic Catalina Mountains and to the south is the vast Saguaro National Park. Accommodations include casita and hacienda suites with kitchens, patios and fireplaces. Depending on the season, rates vary from $495 to $1,195 (double), which covers all meals and activities like horseback riding, swimming, tennis and guided nature hikes.

In recent years, most dude ranches have toned down the Wild West elan and made riding secondary to things like spas and golf. Not Tanque Verde, where the horses are the centerpiece and rodeo-themed lessons are available. Advanced riders head out for long, fast-paced lopes and gallops along desert trails lined with saguaro cacti and other Sonoran Desert sights. Less-adventuresome riders can saddle up for walk-rides on well-maintained trails, including some that go high into the mountains. The ranch has horses suited for beginners and experts plus well-supervised children’s rides and activities.

Breakfasts and lunches are sumptuous buffets while dinner is a sit-down meal with a daily menu. At least once a week, guests enjoy a nighttime cookout around campfires at the ranch’s cottonwood grove, where a cowboy crooner entertains.

The clientele, mostly couples and families, often includes foreign guests who come for a taste of the Old West. The ranch also accommodates groups and conferences. The drive from the airport (shuttle service available) takes 40 minutes. –Joe Sharkey

Lumeria Maui
Makawao, Maui

Lumeria’s developer, Xorin Balbes, describes the resort as an “educational retreat center” for travelers seeking a tranquil respite on Maui’s north shore, just outside Paia. The property has 24 well-appointed rooms and suites on six acres of tropical gardens with ocean vistas. Yoga classes, meditation sessions and other “wellness” programs are available, as are hiking, biking and water sports. The organic-cuisine menu features produce from Lumeria’s own gardens.

Balbes bought and lovingly transformed the secluded Maui property–which was built in 1909 as a convalescent center for sugar plantation workers–and opened it as a hotel last year. He said Lumeria caters to visitors “coming just to unplug and reground themselves” in a setting where traditional Maui culture, rather than the brassy beach culture, prevails.

“We have no televisions or telephones in the rooms, which enhances the restoration of creative energy,” said Balbes, an architectural conservator who is best known for restorations of venerable Los Angeles properties such as the 1926 home of Lloyd Wright Sowden, son of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Of course, there are limits to the solitude. “OK, we do have Wi-Fi,” Balbes admitted. “You have to stay somewhat connected if you’re going back to a job.” –Joe Sharkey