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There are luxury resorts (Four Seasons, Aman, and their ilk), and then there are the ultra-luxury ones. What’s the difference? The ultras are even more exclusive, pride themselves on highly individualized service, and are seldom larger than 20 to 40 rooms. They’re usually situated on acres of pristine land in remote locations. And more often than not, they’re all-inclusive: meals, open bar, activities and other perks are free. And, of course, they’re even more expensive than mere luxury resorts.
But if I’ve learned one thing in my almost 30 years of covering travel, you can either spend ten nights at $150 each in a totally generic and forgettable hotel or one night at an ultra and you’ll be telling your friends and grandkids about it for as long as you have breath. Below, arguably the five best among this rare breed.
The Point, New York
Worshipped – usually from afar, at these prices – by both hotel aficionados and industry experts, this improbably luxurious wilderness camp (where Rockefellers once frolicked) in the Adirondack Mountains ranks as one of the world's most essential small luxury hotels. Sitting on 75 private acres on Upper Saranac Lake, it is what most hotels would like to be, if only they could afford it.
Guests drive through the front gate and into a world that revolves entirely around them. Snap your fingers, and you're having a picnic on a private island. Feel like company? Ask the affable general manager to take you on an afternoon hike, or simply bring a glass of Champagne into the kitchen and chat with chef (or maybe help make dinner, if you're feeling the need to make yourself useful.) Dinner with everyone else in the dining room, or delivered to your quarters, course by course? No problem. There's no such thing at no here. Rates are for two people and include all meals, snacks and 24-hour open bar privileges, activities and use of facilities and equipment. Simply put: The Point rules.
Rates: From $1,450 per night
Nearest major airport: Albany, NY (ALB)
Jumby Bay, Antigua
Is your plan to own your very own little sand pile some day? Get a preview of coming attractions by checking into this now-classic resort on a private island – visited by Christopher Columbus back in 1493 – just a ten-minute boat ride off the coast of Antigua. Lush flora and curious fauna (wild sheep have grazed here for centuries) plus sublime beaches shared only with a handful of island homeowners set the stage for magic.
The 40-unit, Rosewood Hotels-managed resort, opened in the early 1980s and recently retuned at a cost of $30 million, is the sort of place that could prod even the most disinterested party to the think about throwing it all away and moving to the Caribbean, maybe forever. From unlimited open bar privileges to complimentary sunset cruises and guided snorkel outings, you'll have a hard time taking advantage of all the freebies included in your rate, unless you stay awhile. At $995 and up per night, you'd better make sure your refund check doesn’t bounce
Rates: From $995 per night
Nearest major airport: Bird International (ANU)
The Ranch at Rock Creek, Montana
Ride a horse. Learn to fly fish. Hone your archery skills, grab a mountain bike and go, take a guided hike through pristine wilderness, play paintball, shoot clay pigeons. Go ahead – it's all included. And all this is just a fraction of what's on offer at Rock Creek, a high-end dude ranch in a remote setting within an easy drive of two epic national parks – Yellowstone and Glacier.
Not that you'll be wasting any time doing anything as pedestrian as day-tripping; the ranch has a way of making guests forget all about the outside world. It starts with the guest quarters, which range from cozy lodge rooms to plush wilderness cabins and homes; all are hard to tear yourself away from. The Granite Lodge, at the center of ranch life, makes a pretty great case for getting out and being social, with a proper saloon (open bar, of course), complete with bowling alley.
Rates: From $1,900 for two people
Nearest major airport: Missoula International (MSO)
Twin Farms, Vermont
The Green Mountain State has no shortage of perfect places, but the tiny town of Barnard – tucked away where the tourists who traffic through quaint Woodstock down the road can't find it – manages to top a good many of them. But you don't come to Barnard for Barnard, itself just a quintessentially New England bump in the road; you come for what lies beyond the village, out on a quiet forest road, behind an unmarked gate that only opens to expected guests.
What guests of Twin Farms find is a complete resort, albeit one with just twenty rooms, suites and cottages, every one a winner. Ski, swim, hike, bike, soak in a traditional Japanese bathhouse without leaving the property; everything's included, from cocktails any time to three outstanding meals a day accompanied by your favorite wines to s'mores by the bonfire, barbecues, airport transfers, laundry service, phone calls to your friends in Japan. Everything, including the always-present but somehow never obtrusive service. Just kick back, relax and feel like a rock star. Of course, it helps if you have rock star money to pay your tab –$1,600-ish and up per night including tax – because, you know, there will eventually be the not-so-small matter of the bill.
Rates: From $1,600 per night
Nearest major airport: Burlington International (BTV)
You'd expect Connecticut's most exclusive small resort – tucked away on a pristine 113-acre plot in one of the state's toniest corners – to be as stuffy as all get-out, right? You'd be completely wrong. From the most luxurious (and quirky) tree house you'll probably ever sleep in to a hangar-style cottage where a Sikorsky helicopter functions as the sitting room (themes in the guest quarters pay homage to Connecticut culture and history), Winvian is all whimsy.
More than just about any hotel on the list, this one (barely two hours from New York City) invites being completely still – in the middle of a field, in your tub so deep you can see China through the drain, on a spa table, next to the fireplace in the beautiful game room with a glass of something civilized – wherever's right for you. Guests can opt for partially- or fully-inclusive packages – rates start at $650, and specials are offered on occasion. However you do it, you're going to have a good time. The only thing wrong, really, is that eventually they kick you out. That part is just the worst.
Rates: From $650 per night
Nearest major airport: Hartford International (BDL)
George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.