By Costas Christ
Originally appeared in Virtuoso Life's June 2011 issue
As noted above, this article originally ran in Virtuoso Life in June of 2011. As such, some deals and offers mentioned below may not be current. You can navigate to each hotel using the arrows at the bottom of the text; click on the link to the hotel to see their current offers, or contact your Virtuoso advisor with booking questions. If you don't currently have a Virtuoso advisor, click here to connect.
For years, many hotel designers seemed more bent on conquering the local character than enhancing it. That’s now changing. In addition to nice rooms and excellent service, travelers want a hotel to reflect the local culture, in order to better experience and learn about its people, food, history, and traditions. Here’s a “guest test”: Upon first entering a hotel, pretend for a moment that you have no idea where you are. By looking around the lobby – its art, ambience, design – can you guess what country you’re in? Or even what continent? If the answer is no, then you’ve landed in the generic world of “hotel anywhere” – and it’s time to bolt for the door.
Three core principles define sustainable tourism: environmentally friendly practices, support for the well-being of local people, and the preservation of cultural and natural heritage. But in the quest to go green, the cultural side often gets overlooked. These hotels stand out as icons of sustainable tourism’s lesser-known pillar: preserving cultural heritage. Whether echoing the past or paying tribute to the present, they each capture an authentic sense of place. And in today’s increasingly homogenized world, that may be the single greatest travel luxury of all.
A restored nineteenth-century casbah nestled in a lush oasis at the edge of the southern Moroccan desert, Dar Ahlam was originally constructed from mud and straw according to ancient North African methods.
Culture Cue: Dar Ahlam’s large handcarved wooden doors and intricate meandering corridors, connecting nine suites and three villas – each with a fireplace for cool winter nights – reflect age-old design. This attention to historical detail has also resulted in a renewed sense of cultural pride among neighboring villages, leading to the restoration of other abandoned casbahs. The nearly all-local staff share their traditional way of life with guests, including how to harvest olives from trees in the hotel’s gardens, just as people here have done for centuries.
Learning how to make Moroccan flatbread by hand over an open fire and then joining villagers in pressing fresh olive oil to drizzle over it, washing it all down with surprisingly good local wine.
Aman at Summer Palace
To escape the heat of summer, in 1750 the Qing emperor Qianlong created the Garden of Clear Ripples beside a large lake, nine miles from the Forbidden City. Destroyed during the Second Opium War, it was rebuilt by the empress dowager Cixi and renamed the Summer Palace.
The old Pekingese saying, “See the Summer Palace and you will have seen all that China has to offer in art and architecture,” still holds true. And at Aman at Summer Palace, guests don’t just see the imperial retreat, they stay there: Some of the hotel’s pavilions originally hosted visitors awaiting an audience with the empress herself. All 51 rooms and suites reflect Ming Dynasty-era design – part of Aman’s commitment to a continuation of China’s ancient cultural aesthetic.
Walking in the early-morning light to the Garden of Harmonious Interests, where traditional musicians sing love songs and gray-haired elders paint water calligraphy on the ground.
Fairmont The Norfolk
Before The Norfolk, there wasn’t a country called Kenya or a city named Nairobi – just a railway dubbed “The Lunatic Express,” because the British who were building it, aiming for the source of the Nile, weren’t sure where they were going. At a supply stop beside a creek known to the Masai as enairobe, The Norfolk opened its doors in 1904 and gave birth to a city.
A who’s who of adventurers and royalty fills the guest registry, from Baroness Karen Blixen, who penned Out of Africa, to Teddy Roosevelt, who set off from The Norfolk on his legendary African safari. Every corner of the hotel connects with Kenya’s history: When angry Africans gathered in front of The Norfolk to demand the release of their political leader, Harry Thuku, Kenya moved toward independence. Today, its 167 elegant rooms welcome a new generation of Kenyans and explorers.
Sitting at the watering hole where it all started – Norfolk’s Lord Delamere Terrace – swapping tales with other travelers and meeting city-savvy Kenyans over a cold Tusker, the country’s oldest and most famous beer.
The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach
It’s called MiMo (short for “Miami Modern”) – a futuristic, flamboyant, 1950s resort architecture style that embraced a sense of fun, with bright colors, cheese-hole masonry, and daring angles.
Smack in the heart of the Art Deco District on famed Lincoln Road, where ten blocks of thriving nightlife start right outside its door, The South Beach Ritz-Carlton could have been just another Miami skyscraper maximizing ocean-view rooms. Instead, the company opted to celebrate South Beach’s MiMo heritage with a complete restoration of the original 1953 Morris Lapidus-designed resort. A $10 million art moderne collection of paintings complements the 375 bright, airy guest rooms, making this a popular spot for art-loving travelers.
Watching the toned and tanned parade past the hotel’s DiLido Beach Club while sampling 27-year-old rising chef Josh Becker’s creative “sun cuisine.” Rates vary and include upgrade at time of booking if available, breakfast daily, and a $100 spa credit.
Four Seasons Hotel, Prague
For more than a thousand years, Prague has been a European center of art and culture, anchored by the spectacular ninth-century Prague Castle.
When Four Seasons searched for a hotel location in Prague, the famed Vltava River, right in the historic city’s epicenter, proved picture perfect. The outcome? A 161-room hotel that restored and connected three heritage buildings paralleling Prague’s own rich history, offering guests the choice of a 1568 baroque villa, the 1827 neoclassical wing, or the 1883 neo-Renaissance section.
An evening stroll to see the city’s fifteenth-century Astronomical Clock; it’s the only clock in the world to track Babylonian, old Bohemian, stellar, and central European time.