More than a hotel: World's most extraordinary hotels

There are an estimated 700,000 hotels and resorts around the globe with 15.5 million rooms. So, among those hundreds of thousands of properties – and with Airbnb already notching up 81,000 properties – what exactly does it take these days to truly elevate a hotel beyond a place to sleep the night?

Is it the designer fitout, the extensive pillow menu, the mini bar stocked with your beverage of choice? Perhaps it's the pot of tea or handwritten note left by the turn-down fairies, or the extraordinary architecture or history stretching back to a time of kings and conquerors.

Knowing you're sleeping where presidents, royalty or Hollywood starlets have laid their head is thrilling, but hotels can't be complacent if they hope to entice today's savvy experiential-led travellers, especially in the age of Airbnb.

Attention to detail and the ability to anticipate guests' needs before they're even aware of them can take a hotel stay to another level, says Jeremy Nordkamp, general manager of The Calile Hotel, Brisbane, Australia's current hotel darling.

Baillie Lodges director Hayley Baillie believes it's about creating a sense of place unique to the hotel's location – architecture, local staff, regionally sourced food and drink, cultural relevance and experiences – that allow guests to better understand the destination they're visiting.

Here is Traveller's list, among that total of 700,000, of truly exceptional overseas hotels (along with the standout stays of some of Australia's top hoteliers) that we consider are destinations in their own right, unto themselves guaranteeing so much more than just a place to lay your sunhat. Be warned though: you can check in to these extraordinary places but you almost certainly will never want to leave.

CLIVEDEN HOUSE, ENGLAND

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more than a hotel cover story by Sheriden Rhodes
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HOTEL Cliveden House, England lady astor

Cliveden House, England. Photo: Supplied

THE LOWDOWN When Meghan Markle stayed at the five-star Cliveden House before her wedding, it wasn't the first time England's famous estate made headlines. The epitome of English glamour, the luxurious hotel was also a key player in the 1960s Profumo affair.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X-FACTOR With a long and sometimes scandalous history hosting everyone from presidents (Roosevelt), to captains of industry (Henry Ford), the 47-room Italianate mansion is perhaps England's most storied hotel. Abutting the River Thames, guests stay in suites literally made for royalty. The fairytale Spring Cottage was once frequented by Queen Victoria, who travelled by boat from nearby Windsor Castle. The grand Nancy Astor suite, meanwhile, is named after the first woman elected to British Parliament – yet another of Cliveden's famous guests.

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DON'T MISS Pull on a pair of wellies and explore the 121 hectares of manicured National Trust gardens and float down the river in antique boats with a picnic prepared by Cliveden's head chef.

ESSENTIALS From £365 ($684) a night, low season. See clivedenhouse.co.uk

TREE HOTEL, SWEDEN

BY6C7W The Treehotel in Harads, Sweden, The mirrorcube, architect, Martin Videgard, Bolle Tham ,Tham & Videgard arkitektur pine tree
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The Treehotel in Harads, Sweden, The mirrorcube. Photo: Alamy

THE LOWDOWN The ethereal Tree Hotel offers seven individually designed rooms high in the treetops with Lule River Valley and forest vistas, including the ingenious mirror cube with exterior that reflects the forest.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X-FACTOR Wake to birdsong and the smell of the forest from your cleverly designed Swedish treehouse and eat hearty home-cooked meals. It's every child's fantasy come to life.

DON'T MISS See the Northern Lights by dog-sled ride or snowshoe through the Lule River Valley in winter.

ESSENTIALS From SEK4500 ($677) a night. See treehotel.se

SALT OF PALMAR, MAURITIUS

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Salt of Palmar in Mauritius

Salt of Palmar in Mauritius Photo: SAR Production

THE LOWDOWN Sporting a tribal pop art design inspired by the colours of Mauritius, this homegrown Riad-style property is far from your typical beachfront resort.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X-FACTOR A launch pad for authentic truly local experiences, the 59-room hotel has a zero waste and organic philosophy, from the organic coffee robes and 100 per cent organic linen, through to its organic farm and refillable alkaline water bottles. Communal tables in the bakery, restaurant and beach bar, through to Mauritius' first roof-top bar invite connection. Where possible, everything from the music, food and toiletries is locally sourced. Beyond, bespoke guidebooks, local SIM cards, bicycles and cool convertibles encourage exploration.

DON'T MISS A Mauritian dinner washed down with homemade flavoured rum in the home of a local.

ESSENTIALS From $US200 a double room a night bed and breakfast. See saltresorts.com

THE PENINSULA, HONG KONG

THE LOWDOWN Hong Kong's beloved grand dame, affectionately known as the "Pen", features 300 rooms, a fleet of Rolls-Royces and six restaurants including the Philippe Starck-designed Felix on the 28th floor.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X-FACTOR A pillbox-hatted doorman in white gloves ushers guests inside this iconic 1928 hotel, Hong Kong's oldest, with its soaring palm-filled lobby, candlelit spa styled like an ancient Roman bath and luxe high-tech rooms with Victoria Harbour vistas. Its service is legendary.

DON'T MISS The hotel's famous afternoon tea in the neo-classical style lobby. If the budget extends, book an airport transfer in a Rolls-Royce Phantom.

ESSENTIALS From $HKD4080 a night. See hongkong.peninsula.com

WIDDER HOTEL, ZURICH

THE LOWDOWN Built from eight medieval houses originally owned by feudal Switzerland's guild of butchers – the oldest dating back to 1066 – the 42-room Widder is a masterpiece of innovative hotel restoration by Zurich architect Tilla Theus.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X-FACTOR Andy Warhol paintings, original Bauhaus and Biedermeier furnishings and pieces by Frank Lloyd Wright, Mario Bellini, Charles and Ray Eames lend the impression of staying in a museum exhibit. Some rooms offer priceless 16th century frescoes, others rare riverstone floors and sections of the original city wall dating from the 12th century. Attention to detail from the unflappable Swiss is paramount.

DON'T MISS The famous Widder Bar with its selection of 250 varieties of single malt whisky and live jazz. Ask staff to show you the penthouse suite with views over the old town from the rooftop terrace.

ESSENTIALS From CHF570 ($800) a night. See widderhotel.com

HOTEL MOLITOR BY MGALLERY, PARIS

THE LOWDOWN Retro spa resort meets urban art gallery, this was once the summer haunt for fashionable Parisians and the birthplace of the bikini. It melds two art deco pools, a street artist's playground and luxury hotel.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X-FACTOR A favourite of Accor's chief executive, Sebastien Bazin, the Molitor, located in the 16th arrondissement, takes guests back to the heady 1920s when US Olympic swimmer and future Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller was lifeguard at its two pools. The first bikini was also modelled here in 1946. Restored to its full art deco glory and reminiscent of a cruise ship, with portholes and poolside booths, its 124 minimalist rooms feature lithographs referencing the time when the once derelict hotel's walls were plastered with street art.

DON'T MISS A swim in the Olympic-size summer pool (heated year-round) or time travel through Parisian subculture with a dip in the winter pool decorated by 70 street artists.

ESSENTIALS From $406 a night. See mltr.fr

ANANTARA ANGKOR, SIEM REAP

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Anantara Angkor, Siem Reap swimming pool

The pool at Anantara Angkor, Siem Reap. Photos: Supplied

THE LOWDOWN With its traditional Khmer villa design, this boutique hotel offers a stylish, tranquil oasis surrounding a central pool. There's a fabulous on-site restaurant and small but excellent spa.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X-FACTOR Modest in size, this 39-suite (including two new presidential suites) hotel punches above its weight with attentive staff that intuitively sense your every need, and bespoke experiences a notch above the usual. On offer are (complimentary) private tuk tuk transfers, yoga overlooking the rice fields and sundowners in the frangipani-flanked courtyard.

DON'T MISS A personalised tour of Angkor's UNESCO World Heritage-listed temples with the resort's resident temple guru. You can also watch Phare Circus' performers bring the stories of Angkor to life at a private dinner show.

ESSENTIALS From $194 for a deluxe room a night. See anantara.com

ROME CAVALIERI, A WALDORF ASTORIA RESORT

THE LOWDOWN Steeped in history with magnificent vistas of Rome and the Vatican City this sumptuous hideout allows you to sleep in aristocratic suites, bathe like a Roman emperor and dine in Rome's only three-Michelin star restaurant.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X-FACTOR Boasting a private art collection dating from the 17th to the 21st centuries including an original Tiepolo, a stay in one of 370 spacious rooms and suites (with 15 options on the pillow menu) is akin to sleeping in an art museum. The hotel has a writing desk that belonged to Napoleon, the city's largest pool and a luxurious spa inspired by ancient Rome.

DON'T MISS Dinner at La Pergola. Chef Heinz Beck's famous fagottelli carbonara is so incredible, Michelle Obama asked for the recipe.

ESSENTIALS From $700 a night. See romecavalieri.com

THE LITTLE NELL, ASPEN

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The Little Nell, Aspen
Aspen's only five-star, five-diamond property

The Little Nell, Aspen Aspen's only five-star, five-diamond property. Photos: Supplied

THE LOWDOWN Aspen's only five-star, five-diamond property – and only slope-side hotel – the Nell's plum location in a town packed with superior real estate is unrivalled.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X-FACTOR It's arguably the world's best ski hotel, but whether you're a billionaire (Aspen has 50-plus billionaires) or regular joe, every guest receives five-star treatment. Offering a ski concierge that carries your skis, buys your lift tickets and even warms your boots, guests can kit up and glide the few metres to the Silver Queen Gondola. After skiing groomed powder slopes, unbundle your cumbersome gear and head for the apres action at Ajax Tavern. In summer, hikes and picnics on the mountaintop await. The impressive concierge team will drive you around town and even drop you at trail heads.

DON'T MISS Each Friday in winter lucky guests can ski untracked powder runs on the backside of Aspen Mountain followed by a late lunch at the charming Powder Tours cabin paired with wines from around the world.

ESSENTIALS From $875 a night. See thelittlenell.com

THE DRISKILL, AUSTIN, TEXAS

THE LOWDOWN This landmark hotel at the heart of Sixth Street has an elegant Romanesque exterior, 189 restored rooms and suites, authentic Texan flavour and a resident ghost.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X-FACTOR Austin's most historical hotel was once owned by wealthy cattle baron Jesse Lincoln whose portrait hangs in the opulent lobby. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and John F. Kennedy waited here for election results and Johnson also proposed to his wife at the Driskill. You won't find oil tycoons chewing the fat in the Driskill Bar, with its cowhide bar stools, these days but you will find fabulous live music. Luxe rooms pay homage to the hotel's place in Texan history: headboards feature Texas stars and the letter "D", reminiscent of a cattle branding iron.

DON'T MISS It's said that Jesse Lincoln still haunts the hotel having never got over losing the deeds to the property after the family lost their fortune. Ask staff to tell you the story.

ESSENTIALS From $US239 a night. See driskillhotel.com

THE HALEKULANI, HONOLULU

THE LOWDOWN One of Hawaii's first and finest hotels, the Halekulani, Hawaiian for "house befitting heaven", exudes grace and style on the famed Waikiki strip.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X-FACTOR Stroll the Halekulani's verdant gardens at sunset, mai tai in hand, as former Miss Hawaii winners perform the hula under a magnificent century-old kiawe tree. If that doesn't signal you've arrived on Oahu's shores, perhaps the views to Diamond Head from its 453 rooms and suites will.

DON'T MISS Halekulani's guests receive free entry to the Contemporary Museum, Honolulu Academy of Arts, the Bishop Museum (showcasing the Pacific's natural and cultural history) and Iolani Palace, official residence of Hawaii's last reigning monarchs.

ESSENTIALS From $US520 a night. See halekulani.com

ANANDA HOTEL BOUTIQUE BY COSMOS, COLOMBIA

THE LOWDOWN Formerly a 16th century family home, Ananda is built around two courtyards at the heart of the ancient walled city of Cartagena.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X-FACTOR The Ananda's 24 suites open either to an inner courtyard, which houses an alfresco dining area under an almond tree and central pool, or have streetside balconies. The entrance is through a thick unmarked wooden door. Step from the serene hotel and lose yourself on Cartagena's tangle of cobblestone streets. Afterwards, catch the sunset from the rooftop terrace with plunge pool, pisco sour in hand.

DON'T MISS Ask staff to book lunch at La Cevicheria (visited by the late Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations) and see the magnificent 11-kilometre wall that once protected the city from pirates and plunderers.

ESSENTIALS From $US210 per night. See anandahotelboutique.com

KAHANDA KANDA, SRI LANKA

THE LOWDOWN Set on a working tea plantation, 15 kilometres from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Galle Fort, this blissful hilltop retreat offers timeless elegance on a working tea plantation.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X-FACTOR Former home of interior designer George Cooper, this charming small hotel now offers 10 rooms (three with plunge pools) filled with porcelain, Sri Lankan artwork and south-east Asian artefacts. A pool overlooks Koggala Lake, while there's a small tea-fringed spa and yoga pavilion. Everything from the food and design through to excursions references the hotel's surrounds.

DON'T MISS A boat ride on Koggala Lake visiting a temple, spice garden, cinnamon farm and bird sanctuary before returning to the hotel by tuk tuk.

ESSENTIALS From $US250 a night. See kahandakanda.com

SO AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND

THE LOWDOWN At the heart of the once-insalubrious Britomart you'll find SO/Auckland, housed in the former Reserve Bank building. Designer Benny Castles from New Zealand brand World incorporates a volcanic theme throughout the decidedly unconventional 130-room hotel which packs true Auckland flavour.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X FACTOR Bold in design and attitude, this hotel still houses the vaults once used to store the city's gold bullion, while the design is Castle's take on Auckland's volcanic topography. You can have a manuka honey facial, eat at the in-house restaurant headed by a Michelin chef, while the buzzing HI-SO rooftop bar facing two dormant volcanos and Rangitoto Island serves up tongue-in-cheek JAFA (just another f---ing Aucklander) cocktails.

DON'T MISS Book a personalised fragrance masterclass with SO/Auckland's signature designer and retailer World. It's a perfume and history lesson in one.

ESSENTIALS From $NZ469 a night. See sofitel.accorhotels.com

THE MAJESTIC, MALACCA

THE LOWDOWN This charming 1920s Straits Settlement mansion was once the private home of Chinese tycoon Leong Long Man. Following his death in 1931, it become a hotel known for its grandiose parties for Malaya-era wealthy elite, movie stars and foreign dignitaries.

MORE THAN A HOTEL X FACTOR The gracious service and heritage architecture of this 54-room YTL hotel with views over the Malacca River offers a glimpse into Malaysia's past.

DON'T MISS Take a complimentary tour with the hotel's resident historian through the ancient trading port. The route follows the mangrove-lined river, past the site of a former spice market and down narrow streets in the old town.

ESSENTIALS From $208 a night. See majesticmalacca.com

FIVE SUPERIOR ACCOMMODATION STYLES YOU MUST TRY

THE RUSTIC NORTH AMERICAN INN

The Willows Inn, two hours from Seattle, embodies the best of North America's charming inns complete with Noma alumni chef, 15 cosy rooms and exemplary Pacific north-west hospitality. willows-inn.com

THE LUXURY KIWI LODGE

The legendary Huka Lodge, on the banks of the fast flowing Waikato River, pioneered the luxury lodge concept which New Zealand does so well. Everyone, including the Queen, has stayed in Huka's 25 luxe suites and cottages where days revolve around excellent food, impeccable service and bespoke activities. hukalodge.co.nz

THE RAMPED-UP GLAMPING STAY

Perched between dense rainforest, verdant rice fields and the sacred Wos River, the Bill Bensley-designed Capella Ubud offers 22 lavish tented retreats with private saltwater pools, espresso machines, tea stations, vast wooden terraces and a private collection of antiques and artwork. capellahotels.com

THE CLASSIC JAPANESE RYOKAN

Nishimuraya Honkan, in the charming onsen town of Kinosaki, is one of Japan's most beautiful ryokans owned by the same family for seven generations. More than 150 years old, it offers 34 Japanese-style rooms, sculpted gardens and its own hot spring. nishimuraya.ne.jp

THE DUDE RANCH

South-west hospitality, cowboys, sleigh rides and haute mountain cuisine are on offer at the Home Ranch in the Elk River Valley. Choose from rustic cabins or cosy lodge rooms and tackle outdoor pursuits such as snowshoeing, cross country skiing and horseback riding. homeranch.com

TRAVEL INDUSTRY EXPERTS' PICKS

MY STANDOUT STAY

Girish Jhunjhnuwala, Ovolo Hotel group owner and founder

I love the Freehand Los Angeles, part of the Sydell Group. It has a social community-driven ethos coupled with innovative design, unique bars and restaurants in a city that lacks truly unique hotels. It caters to the modern free-spirited traveller with a variety of accommodation options – proving hotels don't have to be cookie-cutter. freehandhotels.com

MY STANDOUT STAY

Rowina Thomas, Lyall Hotel and Spa, Melbourne

Total immersion is how I'd describe Nihi Sumba, a luxury resort located on the Indonesian island of Sumba. Owner Chris Burch's commitment to empowering locals through education, agriculture and economic development provides opportunities for guests to engage with villagers and explore Sumba's natural wonders through horseback beach rides, surfing and wellness safaris. nihi.com

MY STANDOUT STAY

Hayley Baillie, Baillie Lodges director

Fiji's Kokomo Island Resort offers authentic, barefoot luxury, the essence of which is the warmth and generous spirit of the Fijian staff. Kokomo is not just a "flop and drop" experience. It offers guests a window into this unique part of the world. For my family – we have four sons – surfing the nearby reef break and fishing with the locals ticked all the boxes, while the waterfall walk and village visit gave us a chance to connect with indigenous Fijian culture. kokomoislandfiji.com

MY STANDOUT STAY

Jeremy Nordkamp, general manager, The Calile, Brisbane for TFE Hotels Collection

In the Philippines I stayed on a floating bamboo house in Coron Island, Palawan. With no bright lights, noise or crowds, you are fully immersed in the beauty of nature, millimetres from turquoise-coloured waters so clear you can see the bottom. There aren't too many places where you can slip into warm water from your hotel door for a morning swim and go to sleep with the lap of water literally against the floor. paolynhouseboats.com

MY STANDOUT STAY

Jerry Schwartz, Schwartz Family Company director, Australia's largest privately owned hotel group

The Sofitel Macau at Ponte 16 captures Macau's rich legacy as a famous colonial fishing port. It's far more historic and atmospheric than Macau's casino strip. I stay with my family in the Mansions of the Sofitel, which as the name implies, are suitably opulent and extravagant with stunning harbour views. The hotel itself has a great day spa and excellent restaurants. You can walk out the front door and soak up Macau's past. See sofitelmacau.com

FIVE ADVANCED AUSTRALIAN STAYS

MACQ 01, HOBART

Billed as the world's first storytelling hotel, Macq 01's rooms are dedicated to characters in Tasmania's history that played a part in shaping the Apple Isle's culture. The hotel is brimming with design features and authentic artefacts that tell Tasmania's story, including a new private collection of prehistoric fossils at Evolve Spirits Bar. See macq01.com.au

OVOLO INCHCOLM, BRISBANE

This 50-room hotel with a neo-Georgian-inspired facade is housed in former medical rooms from the 1920s. Its elegant rooms have a contemporary art deco inflection and are reached by an original crank handle lift. Complimentary drinks and canapes are served daily to guests in Salon de Co and a high tea, complete with DJ, is also on offer. See ovolohotels.com.au

LONGITUDE 131, NT

The Red Centre's most luxurious eco wilderness camp concealed among red dust and spinifex with views of Uluru offers 15 luxury tents (plus a two-bedroom premier suite), including new Ernabella artists-in-residence program. See longitude131.com.au

ARAJILLA, LORD HOWE ISLAND

The boutique Asian-inspired Arajilla on pristine Lord Howe Island contains 12 suites and an ayurvedic spa within a lush forest of kentia palms and ancient banyan trees. Steps from Old Settlement Beach, there is terrific food, attentive staff and all-inclusive tariff. See arajilla.com.au

COMO TREASURY, PERTH

This elegant urban hotel by designer Kerry Hill offers 48 handsome rooms and suites housed in original government office rooms. Meticulous restoration revealed a grand Victorian era facade while inside is imbued with Como's trademark contemporary style. See comohotels.com

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