Over the past decade, the advent of online travel wholesalers and hotel-comparison websites has radically changed the way we research and book travel. Stopping in to pick the brains of our trusted travel agent is becoming a thing of the past, but perhaps it shouldn’t. Many of us ask, “Why bother?” when it seems we can find the best deals ourselves on the internet without too much effort and from the comfort of our homes. A glut of so-called hotel-comparison sites offers a huge range of product choice and generally competitive rates: but if you’re looking for something truly remarkable and are of the belief that these sites cover the full spectrum of what’s available, you’ll find yourself mistaken. All is not as comprehensive as it may seem!
Despite what the online marketplace might have you think, it’s by no means a case of “if it’s out there, you’ll find it on Expedia, Wotif or Booking.com… and at the best price”, regardless of what any “lowest price guarantees” might lead you to believe. Better rates can often be sourced from your chosen hotel directly, via their own website or getting personal with the in-house phone reservations team. Booking in this way can also have the added benefit of avoiding up-front pre-payment requirements. Often, the most extraordinary and exclusive of properties simply don’t appear on hotel-comparison websites: we’ll explain why a little further on.
To help you on your way to uncovering some of the planet’s most unique and inspiring hotel experiences, we’ve compiled a list of our favourite luxury destinations that you won’t find on most comparison websites. Each of the properties we’ve selected represent the best of the best, consistently maintaining that wonderful sense of privacy, exclusivity and allure: qualities all too often lost when a property signs up for the kind of mass distribution that hotel-comparison sites attract. We think it’s disappointing for those who shell out for a luxury holiday only to find their promise of paradise crammed with kids and families also lured by what seemed like a great online deal, or less appealing still, tour groups, wedding parties or convention-goers.
Before we spill the beans on what’s hot, let’s take a brief look at how these sites work and why some of the most luxurious and unique properties are not sold through these channels. The world of hotel inventory management, marketing and pricing is a complex one and it’s often kept under wraps from the uninitiated. We’ll touch on some of the lesser-known facts about the hotel trade below.
Hotels have two key sources of revenue generation: room sales and food and beverage. They need to have people in their rooms and spending in their bars and banquet halls to make money. Empty beds mean smaller profits. They fill their rooms using a variety of distribution channels. Historically, travel agents, making bookings through multi-national subscriber networks known as GDS’s (global distribution systems) were the primary source of promoting and selling hotels and resorts. The GDS links in directly with each property’s live inventory and rate categories in real time. Travel agents also function as the public face of travel wholesalers, who “bulk-buy” inventory chunks of thousands of properties at significantly discounted rates. Based on complex contract negotiations, wholesalers pre-purchase a dynamic allotment of rooms that are re-sold at whatever nightly room rate they decide.
In the last decade, the growth of the internet spawned a plethora of user-friendly online booking systems, each with alluring photographs and compelling user reviews. Hotel operators seized the opportunity to cut out the travel agency middleman (and his commission) and lower their rates: many offering lowest rate guarantees for those who book directly through the hotel’s own website, but also, seizing the opportunity for a new kind of mass distribution in online-booking engines and comparison sites: a new breed of internet-based wholesalers.
Much of how each site functions, the deals they’ve negotiated and with whom isn’t public knowledge, but what is clear, is that properties seeking this kind of mass marketing often subscribe to these sites by paying fees for the advertising and services provided, or by offering lower than ever net rates to online wholesalers, thus undercutting traditional channels. If the gamble works, the hotel sells a bunch of rooms and profits go up. If it doesn’t, they lose out on the fees they’ve had to pay and discounts on room rates they’ve had to offer, or they’ve indiscriminately filled their rooms in a way that detracts from the ambience and atmosphere they sought to provide. These key factors explain why many hotels do not favour this particular way of generating business.
Travel agents generally receive a small commission for every room they book, whether through the GDS or a wholesaler. Without sales commissions, it’s increasingly difficult for travel agencies and retail wholesalers to stay afloat. The rise of the internet-wholesaler has caused a decline in the number of retail agencies. A sense of loyalty to these agencies who’ve been integral to the success of their businesses in the past, and a desire to maintain as much control over pricing and their target guest market as possible, are other reasons certain hotels won’t be found on these sites.
The special properties that follow are examples of this kind of exclusive hotel. At the time of publication, our researchers were unable to find a single one of these beautiful properties available to book on any of the top online wholesalers or comparison websites. In order to preserve their standards of excellence, most of these extraordinary retreats will only deal with preferred travel agencies or their valued guests (you), directly.
The core focus of the hotels listed in our special selection appears to be a priority to provide the highest customer service standards for their guests – which is another of the reasons they might prefer to work independently rather than with third-party booking groups. A spokesperson from The Peninsula House in the Dominican Republic said that many of these bulk sites tend to provide no contact information for booked guests.
“We prefer to have direct contact with guests because it allows us to have a better understanding of the guests’ wants for their vacation. It also allows us to control many of the variables (car rentals, hotel transfers, excursions etc.) that can affect a guest’s stay. This is especially important in the Caribbean where customer service/timeliness is variable – as well as using service providers whom we trust.”
In Norway, the owners of Juvet said they felt they “didn’t belong” on those marketplaces where people were merely searching for a place to sleep. “We want to be in contact by mail and by phone with our guests. It is important for us that the clients really have decided to come and stay at the Juvet and that is what they want – and the mail contact gives us and them a feeling that we know each other before arrival. Visiting the Juvet was the reason many of our guests came to Norway.”
If you’re looking for something really special, by all means check out the mainstream booking sites and hotel-comparison sites, which often have incredible deals; but don’t stop there. If you do, you just might miss that little piece of wonderful you’ve been fantasising about. Instead, why not dream a little grander, dig a little deeper, stick to our magazine, stock up on travel guides and think before you leave your trusty travel agent out in the cold?
The 115 pristine islands of the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean are considered among the best kept-secrets in the world with the archipelago home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The privately-owned North Island is a luxurious sanctuary where rehabilitating endangered species and conservation are top priorities. Being close to nature is a focus in each of the 11 exclusive, 450 square metre villas designed to feel like a home-away-from-home and to encourage guest interaction with the stunning seascape and environment. Some of the special indulgences North Island offers include local produce and fresh seafood on the beach, in the restaurant or at the sunset bar; a dedicated wine cellar and in-villa spa treatments. It’s also where
Nightly rates start from €2,765 (A$3,945) for villas 1-10; and €4,365 (A$6,228) for Villa North Island (villa 11). Children welcome and are priced separately (under 3 stay free). Tariff includes all meals, most alcoholic drinks and all activities. north-island.com
Set on the remote Sumba island in Eastern Indonesia, the Nihiwatu luxury eco lodge is on 560 acres of natural land with a 2.5km stretch of beach and some of the world’s best left-hand surf breaks. The lodge is dedicated to the unspoiled beauty of the region with an ancient tribal culture. As well as enjoying the luxurious facilities at the lodge, guests can visit stone age sites and traditional villages; go horse riding along the beach; enjoy the thrill of open air land-rover safaris; or take part in world-class surfing, scuba diving and fishing under the direction of Mark Healey, creator and head of operations who is a globally recognised professional big wave surfer and dedicated conservationist. To reconnect and rebalance, guests can have treatments at the Jungle Spa on the beach or do yoga by natural waterfalls. Nihiwatu has accommodation suitable for both families and couples seeking seclusion. There are 21 air-conditioned villas with private terraces and large verandahs designed using natural, indigenous materials. The premier villa of the resort, the Ratu Mendaka opens in April 2015 offering the ultimate in luxe holidaying with private beach access and your own 19m swimming pool.
Peninsula House, Dominican Republic
Set overlooking the Samana Peninsula on the north east coast of the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean, this plantation-style grand residence conjures the elegance of a bygone era. A truly luxurious find in the midst of the tropics, Peninsula House offers sparkling silver tea service, cocktails and white-tablecloth dining overlooking the ocean. Guests can lose themselves along the ocean front, in the swimming pool, in the library, sitting parlours, the Spanish style interior patio or the billiard room with bar. A range of aquatic activities await the adventurous traveller keen to explore the pristine waterways in the region. Six junior suites overlook the Atlantic Ocean, each with a private terrace. No children under the age of 18 are allowed.
Winter (Dec-Apr) 2015 rates are US$650 per room, per day; Summer (May-Dec) US$550 per room, per day; High Holiday season rates US$800 per room, per day.
In far north Queensland near the tip of Cape York, 600 kilometres north of Cairns, the remote and tranquil Haggerstone Island is a sanctuary for travellers wanting to connect with the elements. Just six huts can be found on this secluded island, which has been run by Anna and Roy Turner for over 20 years. The hand-crafted buildings are nestled amongst the island’s jungle and are also positioned to take full advantage of the crystal-clear lagoons, reefs and open ocean of the Northern Great Barrier Reef. The island is family-friendly and a perfect location for those wanting to escape the daily grind and get back to basics while still enjoying modern comforts. Guests can feast on papaya, banana and mango straight from their trees; or freshly-harvested oysters and coral trout seasoned with their own kaffir lime or curry from the property. Helicopter rides to take in the spectacular scenery, snorkelling, bird watching, fishing and sand-boarding are all on offer. Haggerstone Island is also available for exclusive hire for a group of 10 guests. All stays are minimum seven nights.
Exclusive island hire is A$720 per person per night (10 guests required). Otherwise, rates are $830 per person per night (with a minimum seven nights stay). Rates are inclusive of excursions, meals, activities and equipment hire. Alcoholic drinks are additional. haggerstoneisland.com.au
Cheval Blanc Randheli, Maldives
Designed by French architect Jean-Michel Gathy, Cheval Blanc Randheli is a 40-minute trip north of Malé by seaplane, across the crystal-clear waters of the Maldives. Cheval Blanc is the luxury hospitality brand developed by LVMH Hotel Management. With luxurious appointments and surrounded by lush vegetation, this family-friendly hideaway in one of the world’s most sought-after destinations is a truly special find. Each of the 45 villas are designed with regard to a balance between contemporary style and tradition, guests are looked after by a “Majordome” who attends to every need, while the property “Alchemists” suggest and tailor customised outdoor experiences. The personalised service ensures that almost any desire can be accommodated. Children are catered for at Le Carrousel with a range of cultural, playful and sports activities including children’s yoga and treasure hunts; and teenagers also have their own dedicated space at Le Paddock with table tennis, billiards and a multimedia station. Adults can enjoy big game fishing, dolphin encounters or waterskiing on the Noonu Atoll — or a range of treatments created by Guerlain in six spa treatment villas overlooking the lagoon. Quality dining can be enjoyed at the Le 1947 restaurant, inspired by local and regional flavours.
Garden Rooms start from €590 per room per night (about A$834) based on two sharing – including breakfast and excluding local taxes. randheli.chevalblanc.com/en
The Juvet Landscape Hotel is the first landscape hotel in Europe, situated in the farmyard of Burtigarden farm at Alstad in Valldal, in rural Norway. Modern architecture by Jensen & Skodvin has fused with the natural landscape to create nine individual rooms with a feeling of true connection to the beautiful surrounds, resembling cubes on stilts with glass-to-ceiling windows. A spa built into the ground by the river offers relaxation for guests after skiing or walking, with steam rooms, outdoor hot tubs and a quiet room. Guests also have the choice to stay in the old farmhouses on the property – with all of the rooms having Wifi access. Shared dinners with other guests can be enjoyed at the long table located in the Old Barn, and with the hotel part of the Taste of National Tourist Routes project, you can be guaranteed of fresh, quality meals prepared from locally-sourced produce.
Prices are the same year-round. A double room with breakfast costs NOK1,450 per person (about A$251). juvet.com
Hippo Point, Kenya
Hippo Point is Kenya is positioned as an “adventure for mind, body and spirit” — a not-for-profit wildlife sanctuary dedicated to preserving the wildlife and habitat of this internationally recognised wetland on Kenya’s Lake Naivasha. The lodge is accessed from the nearest capital Nairobi – either a two-hour car trip or a 25 minute private flight away. Nestled amidst the beautiful African topography, yet combining all the luxuries of sophisticated holidaying, Hippo Point is centred around a slow-safari and health and wellness experience. Guests are encouraged to let go of their busy lifestyles amongst the 500 species of birds and 1100 roaming animals. They can sleep safely to the sounds of hyena and hippo calling, comfortable in Russian linen sheets, in rooms between Hippo Point Manor and the conical-shaped Dodo’s tower. Other resort activities include sunrise yoga, swimming or jogging with Zebra!
Open all year, prices for the eight luxurious double rooms start at €470 (about A$662) per night. hippopointkenya.com
Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, Mihir Garh is a magnificent, nine-suite luxurious resort with all the trimmings of luxury in the vast wilderness of the Thar. Personally-appointed staff ensure the highest standards of hospitality. Private Jacuzzis and plunge pools, village safaris, royal picnics and equestrian activities offer the opulence of a bygone time in this secluded and regal residence. Located in the vibrant state of Rajasthan, 55 kilometres south west of Jodhpur City, the fort of Mihir Garh is dedicated to a warrior god. Sunset and sunrise rides and full day rides with overnight stays in a luxury mobile camp can also form part of your itinerary.
Nightly suite rates range from 17,000 RPS for 2 people (about A$2,078) and up to 33,600 RPS (about A$5,926) for 4 people. mihirgarh.com
Treehotel (featuring the Mirrorcube), Sweden
Treehotel in Harads, Sweden, near the Lule river, is located amongst a small village of about 600 people. To stay at the architecturally striking treehouse hotel, guests check in to founder Britta and Kent’s Pensionat, with the hotel a short five to ten minute stroll through the woods. Featuring eight to ten rooms, including the impressive “Mirrorcube” room, the interiors are Scandinavian in style, environmentally friendly with an eco focus – no two rooms are the same. The idea here is to soak in the tranquillity of nature including the forest and river and rejuvenate amongst the pristine surrounds. The Mirrorcube, designed by Tham & Videgård architects, is four by four metres in dimension and is arguably the most sought-after room on the property. It is camouflaged by mirrored walls that reflect their surroundings, atop an aluminium frame with the tree trunk and walls covered with reflective glass clad with infrared film to prevent unsuspecting birds smashing into the cube. From within, six windows provide a stunning panorama while a 12-metre bridge provides access to the treeroom. Britta’s Pensionat is open to all hotel guests for breakfast, lunch and dinner, while a restaurant, bar, sauna and relaxation area complete the experience.
Nights in the Mirrorcube at Treehouse start at 4,700SEK (about A$725) for two guests, including breakfast. treehotel.se
Fogo Island Inn, Canada
Built with a homely feel in the heart of the Newfoundland community, the Fogo Island Inn fuses the best of this area’s architecture, design, craft, food and art. The public spaces of Fogo Island Inn—the library, art gallery, restaurant, lounge, lobby and cinema— were designed to be meaningful places of encounter. Open year-round, there’s an abundance of natural life and wilderness to explore and the opportunity to slow down and escape the daily grind. Ancient walking tracks, jagged cliffs and special hiking trails can be explored in both the hot summers and snowy winters. The restaurant menu focuses on local produce with bountiful fish and crustaceans and seasonal berries and mushrooms. All of the 29 suites feature unbroken floor-to-ceiling views of the North Atlantic Ocean, with every textile and piece of furniture handcrafted by locals – from the quilts to the chairs and wallpaper patterns.
Nightly full board rate (including breakfast, lunch and supper and non-alcoholic beverages) starts at $1,275 (about A$1,250) to $2875 (about A$2,818) depending on the suite. fogoislandinn.ca
Le Mélézin, France
This intimate Alpine retreat in the French Alps carries the hallmark of luxury and attention to detail for which Aman Resorts are renowned. Located just a short stroll from one of Europe’s most fashionable ski resorts, Courchevel 1850, guests can access some of Europe’s best ski slopes right from their front door. The resort combines skiing ambiance with the traditions of a classic French chateaux. Originally opened as a Le Savoy in 1956, Le Mélézin is located right on the Bellecôte piste which allows ski in and ski out access to the resort. With a classic manor house style, the resort features parquetry flooring and wide sweeping windows to take in the snow vistas and pine forests. Fine French cuisine, cosy fireplace relaxing, luxury spa treatments including a Thai/Shiatsu room and hammam steam room plus a gym and pool ensures all moods are catered for. Active guests will appreciate the outdoor activities, aside from the exceptional skiing options with snowshoeing, body boarding, ice-skating, paragliding and parasailing all available.
The winter ski season runs mid December to mid April. During this time, suites range from a Chambre Junior at €950 (around A$1,349) per night; while the grand Suite Le Mélézin costs €4,500 (around A$6,393) per night. amanresorts.com/lemelezin