Canadian Living editors' favourite hotels: Canada, Europe, Asia and beyond

By: Doug O'Neill

Author: Canadian Living


Canadian Living editors' favourite hotels: Canada, Europe, Asia and beyond

By: Doug O'Neill

One blustery winter afternoon found a few colleagues and me gathered around the table brainstorming for the Canadian Living Travel Planner (in our May 2007 issue). At one point we began to regale one another with memories of our most memorable accommodations while on the road. Some were unforgettable because of their luxury, others couldn't be erased from memory due to quirky twists and unexpected "extras."

A Paris hotel…with pigeons
I recalled my first trip to Paris in the spring of 1988. I had found the best deal in town: Hotel Henri IV, 25 Place Dauphine, smack in the centre of Paris (for 80 francs at night, roughly $20, un très bon bargain back then) -- and virtually within bell-ringing distance of the hallowed Notre Dame Cathedral. But did anyone inform me that each balconied room in the City of Lights came equipped with its own flock of invading pigeons? Mais non! I arose from my slumber one morning to the musical ringing of church bells wafting into my room -- along with three unembarrassed pigeons crouched at the foot of my bed. The astonished concierge, upon hearing my complaint, simply gave me that ah-you-pauvre-imbecile look, and replied, "But monsieur, zee pigeons haff lived in Paris long before you! Non?" He had a point.

A B&B in England
And then there was the B&B owner in Lewes (a quaint village in the south of England), who marched into my room around 10:30 one night, deposited a crate of three ferrets at my feet, and promptly announced, "I'm going round to the pub for a bit. Do be a dear and keep an eye on the girls, will you?" My response was quick: "You're leaving me with these, er, um, animals…and in my very own room?" Again with that pitiable look so peculiar to innkeepers the world over, she sighed, "Well, I'd hardly leave them on their own for the night, now, would I?" And with that she was off. As for my midnight reverie with the rodents on the loose, well that's another story.

Good hotel rooms, from Mexico to Florence to university residences
I've spent nights in castles, barns, fine hotels, university residences, monasteries, convents and in waterlogged huts on the side of mountaintops. The variety of accommodation I've enjoyed over 25 years of travel speaks to all manner of traveling -- and to a variety of budgets. Here's a passport to some of my most memorable (yet, in many cases, practical) hotels and lodgings across Canada and around the globe. (Plus, I've also asked my colleagues for best rooms at the inn, so don't forget to scroll down.)

1. Hotel Irma, Zihuatanejo, Mexico
Do you recall the "dream escape" that the wrongly imprisoned Tim Robbins constantly fantasizes about in the popular movie Shawshank Redemption? Picture the closing reunion scene when Morgan Freeman comes upon the free-as-a-bird Robbins painting a boat on an isolated beachfront. Well, that's Zihuatanejo, on La Madera Beach, on the west coast of Mexico, and just above that bayfront is the Hotel Irma. Try it -- you'll feel relaxed, you'll feel free!

Recommended for: couples, families and groups of friends who want a nice alternative to the übertouristy hotels (and excess commercialism) of nearby Ixtapa.


2. Summer accommodation at university residences
It was during a three-day stay at a university residence in Prague in 1993 that an aged janitor took me aside and explained, in broken English, about the momentous day four years earlier when the Soviets pulled out of what was then Czechoslovakia, restoring freedom after decades of repressive rule. "Svoboda," he said. "Volnost!" Freedom.

University residences the world over face empty rooms when students leave at the end of the academic year and so offer up their rooms to travelers. I remember my cousin Peter and I finding cheap digs at McGill University in the summer of 1985; the savings alone enabled us to prolong our vacation in la belle province by a few more days. University and college residences are typically clean, safe and equipped with all kinds of services (laundry, dining halls, some with exercise facilities), but most important -- they're modestly priced. I have booked myself into university residences in Montreal, Vancouver, Quebec City, Halifax, Prague, the Czech Republic and the University of Toronto (long before I moved here). I strongly suggest this as an option for first-time travelers. You'll easily meet other travelers.

Recommended for: students, travelers on a budget. Some universities accommodate couples and families but check first. Note: they tend to fill up on long weekends, so book ahead.

Information on summer accommodation at some Canadian university residences:
Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia
McGill University (Montreal, Quebec)
Université Laval, Quebec City, Quebec
University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario
University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta
University of Victoria, Victoria, B.C.

Tip: Be sure to check the universities and colleges well in advance.

3. Hotel Henri IV, 25 Place Dauphine, Isle de la Cite, Paris, France
I've stayed at the pigeon-friendly Hotel Henri IV three times, the last being 1994. Friends tell me that little has changed. You can still get a single room for below-average rates for Paris, at less than 75 euros. The 17th-century building once housed King Henri IV's printing presses. Expect tiny beds, only a handful of washrooms (out in the hall), a timeworn spiral staircase, a simple French breakfast (strong coffee, baguette and a bit of jam) and lots of character, and not just from the birdlife, either. It's located right on the Isle de la Cité, in the middle of the Seine.

Recommended for: budget travelers (no luxuries here!); not really suitable for families, and certainly not for the ornithophobic.

More info: call 01-43-54-44-53 or visit Discovery's website.

4. Maca Bana Villas, Grenada, West Indies
I'd never had a hot tub (at the edge of a cliff) to myself, much less a private banana tree, but that was all mine when I booked into Rock Fig villa at Maca Bana Resort, a newly refurbished paradise (owners had to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Ivan) set on two acres of rolling hillside at the edge of the ocean, outside the parish of St. George's in Grenada. The air is a heady aroma of sea and spices.

Recommended for: couples and families who want to treat themselves to wonderful accommodation without a lot of fuss. Maca Bana is at the edge of a beautiful beach that is less hectic than some of others on the island and literally a three-minute drive to the airport (but you never hear airplanes!).


Tip: co-owner Rebecca Thompson, an accomplished artist, also leads artistic field trips around Grenada with follow-up sessions in her studio.

5. Spice Islands Beach Resort, Grand Anse Beach, St. George's, Grenada
I was convinced I "had arrived," as they say, when I realized the enclosed courtyard to my suite at the elegant Spice Island Beach Resort afforded not only privacy but an outdoor sauna, and my own private swimming pool. Attention is given to every last detail. My second-favourite moment occurred in the front terrace/bar, where I was served afternoon tea at the edge of the ocean.

Recommended for: Travelers on a bigger budget. This is an exclusive high-end resort, one of the finest (if not the top) resorts in all of Grenada. Privacy and luxury are key. The spa is top-notch and there's also an incredibly well-equipped and supervised child-entertainment centre.


6. Pensionato Pio X (also known as Pope Pius X Guest house), Via dei Serragli 106, Florence, Italy
I remember stumbling in late one night at Pensionata Pio (after an evening out on the town) to be met by the disapproving bust of Pope Pius X at the top of the stairwell. That aside, this is a clean hostel for solo travelers and couples, run by a group of helpful religious women. The hostel's best feature is its arcaded and classically Florentine courtyard. It's only a 15-minute walk from the main train station of Santa Maria Novella. Watch out for speeding mopeds driven by nuns. They seem to be on a holy terror, no pun intended.

Recommended for: solo travelers and couples on a budget who are comfortable with spartan surroundings. Also recommended reading: Monasteries of Italy (If convents and monasteries are to your liking, they provide a peaceful and safe way to see the world.


7. Mar Hall, Mar Hall Estate, Bishopton, Glasgow, Renfrewshire, Scotland
I felt like the lord of the manor waking up in a four-poster canopied bed, in a bedroom that surely measured 1,100 square feet, with glorious views (through a pair of 25-foot windows) of the River Clyde with the Kilpatrick Hills. (I loved curling up in bed, taking my morning coffee and watching sheep and horses gad about in the pastures at the river's edge.) The current mansion house was built in 1828 and recently transformed into one of Scotland's most elegant high-end guest-hotels and resorts; the original Mar Hall, when the Earl of Mar was alive, attracted the likes of Mary, Queen of Scots and Robert the Bruce.

Recommended for: people traveling with loads of cash, perhaps treating yourself to a special night. Spa facilities are included and a golf course is in the works.


8. Tiroran House, Isle of Mull, Scotland
Staying at this secluded, well-appointed country house felt like a scene out of Brigadoon. There we were, strolling down a country lane one evening before dinner, when and suddenly through the trees came the heart-stirring, almost eerie sounds of a lone piper, piping us in to dinner. We heard him, but we saw him not. The property has 17 acres of lush grounds to wander including a secluded rose garden set against a backdrop of rugged grandeur and wilderness landscape. Owners Lawrence and Kate make it homey and hospitable.

Recommended for: couples (it's a very romantic setting) and small groups of friends who want an idyllic retreat after the hustle and bustle of Edinburgh and Glasgow. (Perfect for nature-lovers.)


And the list goes on. I had almost forgotten about the time I arrived at Gimmelwald, the alpine village in Switzerland, and with no room at the inn, was guided through the tiny hotel lobby, out the back door and across the yard into -- a barn! Up in the tidy loft I was assigned a mattress and blanket. Well, from beach resort to barn, that's what traveling is all about.

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Here are favourite hotels and the memories they inspired from my colleagues, the staff of Canadian Living Magazine.

"Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai. A luxurious five-star hotel, combining deluxe hotel rooms, suites and palatial private villas. The village-like setting of this hotel is stunning -- different sections of the property reflect different styles of traditional Thai architecture, and the service is absolutely flawless."
-- Tina Anson Mine

"The Oriental Bangkok. Another lush five-star hotel, with beautiful rooms overlooking the Chao Phrya River in downtown Bangkok. The Oriental's history is as magnificent as its appointments, making you feel like you've stepped back in time."
-- Tina Anson Mine

"Aiyapura Resort and Spa, Koh Chang. Private villas face the ocean or lush hillside gardens on the island of Koh Chang. Walking down the long boardwalk from the boat launch was a beautiful start to my experience, and the cool, calm spa served the most scrumptious, spicy ginger tea after my thoroughly relaxing aromatherapy massage."
-- Tina Anson Mine

Newfoundland and Labrador
"TuckAmore Lodge, near St. Anthony, Newfoundland. Tuckamore Lodge is a little piece of heaven on earth, moored by a serene lake to one side and the ocean on the other. What I loved the best: when you walk inside you immediately feel at home in the rustic surroundings, and owner Barb Genge is the perfect host."
-- Kathryn Dorrell

"Spa at the Monastery and Suites, St. John's, Newfoundland, is a full-service spa and hotel housed in an old monastery. It combines high-style and modern amenities with touches of old world charm. What I loved the best: the fabulous whirlpools in your bedroom."
-- Kathryn Dorrell

"The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver is luxurious yet also warm and inviting. You can even talk to the concierge about talking a dog out for a walk if you feel like some canine companionship strolling about the city. What I loved the best: the decadent breakfast-in-bed service. Once you open your hotel door, the staff insist you tuck yourself back in before they'll serve you."
-- Kathryn Dorrell

Whistler, B.C.
"The Fairmont Chateau Whistler. This exquisite yet cosy hotel is nestled at the foot of Blackcomb Mountain, surrounded by evergreen trees. You could curl up by the fire in the lobby and read a book all day. What I liked best: the hotel is a stone's throw from great skiing and hiking as well as dining and shopping in Whistler Village."
-- Kathryn Dorrell

Jasper, Alta.
"The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge. It's cottaging at its most luxurious. The resort is right on a lake and it boosts a great golf course and outdoor patio. What I liked best: The expansive grounds are quiet and peaceful and you can spot elk everywhere."
-- Kathryn Dorrell

Hong Kong, China
"Lan Kwai Fong Hotel, Hong Kong, China. If location is key, then Lan Kwai Fong is the place for you while visiting Hong Kong. It's close to the popular dining and entertainment districts of So Ho and Lan Kwai Fong with all manner of public transit nearby. The Harbour View suites on the top two floors (32 and 33) offer spectacular views of the Hong Kong Victoria Harbour."
-- Susan Antonacci

"Maplehurst Properties, Panmure Island, Prince Edward Island. This beautiful five-star Georgian-style bed and breakfast overlooks scenic Cardigan Bay. You can stay in the main building or book a cottage to yourself."
-- Susan Antonacci

"The Elmwood Heritage Inn, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Carol and Jay MacDonald have operated the inn since 1986. This beautifully restored example of Victorian architecture was built in 1889 for the well-known Peters family -- and you can even sleep in the servants' formers quarter. It's conveniently situated in the heart of Charlottetown with a variety of rooms to suit all tastes (including the premier's suite)."
-- Susan Antonacci

Lake Louise, Alta.
"Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, Lake Louise, Alberta. The lavish 458-room hotel is a far cry from the small 1890 cabin originally built to welcome visitors, but its staggeringly beautiful surroundings remain the same. Though I love the idea of sleeping in a cabin in the wild, I quickly learned that after a long, exhilarating day of hiking through the Rockies, a hot bath, a bountiful buffet dinner and a soft bed are a delicious luxury."
-- Gilda Swartz

Soufriere, St. Lucia, West Indies
"Stonefield Estate Villas. My tip is, if you're going to St. Lucia, don't stay at a hotel that has you cooped up in boring air-conditioned rooms. At Stonefield, the outdoorsy villas complete with kitchens make you feel like you're in your own breezy St. Lucian house. The view is gorgeous (visit the website if you don't believe me), the staff gentle and good-natured, and the on-premises restaurant is amazing, too."
-- Helen Racanelli

"Bellevue Palace, Bern, Switzerland. I felt like royalty staying at this palatial hotel. (No surprise, Prince Charles has stayed here, as have Alanis Morissette, Nelson Mandela, and other boldfaced names). My junior suite was all soft blues, greys and French antique-inspired furniture. I felt like Marie Antoinette! The staff were great and even though it's a five-star hotel, the vibe was very down-to-earth. Bern is a great city, by the way -- there's lots of cool shopping and a breathtaking view of the mountains (which I could see out of my window)."
-- Helen Racanelli

"Hotel La Margna, St. Moritz, Switzerland. This hotel felt like home. That is, if only my home were a big Swiss chalet with big beds covered with fluffy white duvets, tons of space, pine everywhere, and a roaring common-room fireplace with a cosy bar. But I most relished the delish Swiss breakfasts and gourmet dinners at the restaurant."
-- Helen Racanelli

Doug O'Neill is the executive editor of Canadian Living Magazine.


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Canadian Living editors' favourite hotels: Canada, Europe, Asia and beyond