Some of the best hotels in the world began life as something different. From former fortresses to converted grain silos, these historic hotels all have captivating backstories and riveting tales to tell.
It wasn’t all that long ago that guardsmen walked the ramparts around Mallorca’s Cap Rocat, a decommissioned military fortress built in the 19th century with stunning views of the Bay of Palma. Thanks to famed local architect, Antonio Obrador, however, the fort has been transformed into one of the most exceptional and characterful hotels in the Mediterranean.
Rather than shy away from its military past, Cap Rocat celebrates it. The entrance alone is arresting enough – a giant stone arch beneath crenelated walls with embrasure windows. Inside, courtyards, streets, secret watchtowers and battlements carved into the rock have been cleverly converted into elegant rooms, all of which have been restored with the care and respect befitting the site’s status as a National Monument.
Many of the guest rooms were once used to house munitions, though you’re hard pressed to imagine that now when met with canopied beds, comfortable sofas, freestanding baths and walk-in rain showers. The most intriguing bedrooms, perhaps, are the Sentinels. Dug out of the cliffside at defensive positions where canons were once hidden, these secluded suites offer private pools and unobstructed views of the shimmering Mediterranean.
Spitsbergen is the largest and only permanently inhabited island in Norway’s remote Svalbard archipelago. Lying just 620 miles from the North Pole, it’s one of the most isolated places on earth. You’d be forgiven, therefore, for not expecting much in the way of a backstory from the few hotels you’ll find here.
But that’s where Isfjord Radio punches well above its weight. Now a wilderness retreat comprising 22 cosy rooms and a gourmet restaurant, this remote outpost began life in the 1930s as a government-backed radio station built to support ships carrying coal along the coast. But when war broke out, it quickly became a pawn in the battle between Germany and the Allies. First bombed by the Luftwaffe in 1940, it was then destroyed by the Norwegians on Svalbard prior to their evacuation to Scotland in 1941, to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. Even then the Germans weren’t sure if it was operational or not, so bombed it from the water in 1943.
The slipway and boathouse survived, however, and construction of a new station began in 1945, built on the original foundations. A new radio was installed, together with a barracks for 21 men, and both radar and satellite followed in due course. The station remained in use until the end of the 20th century, and the décor today is testament to its rich and colourful history. For a true taste of Arctic wilderness, where days spent dogsledding and snowmobiling are capped off with dinners of succulent reindeer and freshly smoked seal, it’s hard to beat a stay at this remote and historic outpost.
It’s hard not to be moved by the mesmerising views of the sunlit Tuscan countryside as you look out from the grounds of Belmond Villa San Michele. Below you, Florence shimmers, with the Duomo emerging from the terracotta rooftops like Venus from her shell. Yet astonishingly, it’s difficult to say what’s visually more appealing, the views at your feet or San Michele itself.
Formerly a 15th century Franciscan monastery, with a facade designed by Michelangelo, many of the original features have been preserved. Think cloisters, wide arches, vaulted ceilings and terracotta floors worn smooth by the shuffling of monks. Dark wooden doors sport massive metal bolts and open into doorways still designed for people of a medieval stature. Faded portraits still hang on the corridor walls, and a fresco of The Last Supper looks down upon the dining room.
But despite the monastic fixtures, Belmond Villa San Michele is anything but austere. Champagne and caviar are served at breakfast, mixologists prepare cocktails at La Loggia Bar, and the canopied beds and large sunken baths are not the least bit suited to celibate behaviour.
Contrary to popular belief, not all historic hotels in India are former palaces or forts of the Raj. The luxurious Brunton Boatyard was built on the site of a once-thriving shipyard, used at the end of the 19th century by one of the most respected shipbuilders in Kochi. And with stunning sea views from each of the hotel’s 22 rooms, it’s not hard to imagine ships coming and going at the height of the spice trade, loaded with peppercorns that were worth their weight in gold.
Today’s interiors reflect a tasteful blend of British, Portuguese and Dutch colonial styles, with high ceilings, hanging fans, antique furnishings, four-poster beds and eclectic wall prints. Even the food reflects the many different influences bestowed on Fort Kochi over the past 600 years. The History restaurant alone provides a menu of 32 regional cuisines, though if celebrity chef Rick Stein is to be believed, the star of the show is the Railway Mutton Curry, invented by the local Anglo-Indian community.
Locals will tell you the Silk Road started on the streets of Korcula, an island off Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. To support their claim, they’ll point to a house in the Old Town, which they’ll say was the birthplace of explorer Marco Polo, one of the first Europeans to travel the famous trade routes. And although evidence to support this is precarious at best (just ask the Venetians), it’s not stopped the island from adopting Signore Polo as one of their own.
That’s certainly the case at Lesic Dimitri Palace, whose five independent suites are themed around Polo’s famous travels in the East. It’s not this, however, that has earned it a spot on our list of historic hotels, but rather the building itself. The palace dates back to the 18th century, when the aristocratic Lesic family – local merchants and rich property owners – combined a series of older houses to create a stunning urban residence that befitted their rising status. Fortunes, however, are prone to come and go, and by the start of the 19th century, the beautifully crafted palace was suffering neglect and was soon left abandoned.
Salvation came in 2000 when the palace was bought by a British family who sought to restore it to its former glory. Huge lengths have been taken to retain and showcase original features, from old beamed ceilings and cobblestone floors to elegantly carved lintels and old stone basins now repaired and put to use. The result is a building that seems woven into the history and fabric of the Old Town, and a hotel that sets the standard for Croatian coastal living.
The Silo Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa
It’s safe to say there’s nothing in Cape Town quite like The Silo. Set right on the V&A Waterfront, the 28-room hotel sits atop the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa – home to the continent’s largest collection of contemporary African art – and has been built into the frame of a colossal former grain silo, once the tallest building in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Turning an industrial behemoth into one of Africa’s most stylish and talked-about hotels is no mean feat, but it’s precisely the kind of mad and ambitious project that London-based architect Thomas Heatherwick is known for. His most notable addition was the insertion of vast glass windows into the geometry of the building, some as large as 5.5 metres, which gently balloon outwards, saturating the hotel in sparkling light and providing jaw-dropping views of the waterfront, Robben Island and Table Mountain.
Heatherwick may take the plaudits for the outside, but the interior design is all down to Liz Biden, half of the husband-and-wife team behind several of South Africa’s most iconic hotels, including Royal Malewane next to Kruger National Park, Birkenhead House in the whale-watching town of Hermanus, and La Residence at Franschhoek in the Winelands. And while there are plenty of nods to the building’s industrial past, the rest is in keeping with Liz’s trademark exuberant style – think vibrant silks and velvets, Egyptian-crystal chandeliers, European and Asian antiques, bold works by local artists and more serious-minded prints, the originals of which can be found hanging in the museum downstairs.
In some historic hotels one can imagine the lives of the building’s former residents. But step into the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, with its mustard-yellow Neo-Classical façade, marble staircases and hand-woven Ottoman tapestries, and it’s hard to believe that you’re staying in a former prison.
Just a century ago this luxury hotel in Istanbul was a late-Ottoman era jail was being used to hold writers, artists and aristocratic dissidents at the pleasure of the sultan. Despite its polished look you can still see examples of the building’s pernicious past. The beautifully landscaped courtyard garden was once an exercise yard for felons. Watchtowers capped by minarets now conceal the lifts. And if you know where to look, you can still find engravings by former inmates on some of the marble pillars.
Set in the heart of the old town, the hotel is perfect for exploring the city’s most famous sites, including Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar and the wonderful Blue Mosque. But if it all gets too much, head instead to the roof terrace of the Four Seasons Sultanahmet. Unlike former residents, you might be free to leave, but sitting here, with the Bosphorus Strait and hills of Asia in the distance, and the domes of Hagia Sophia seemingly close enough to touch, you may just prefer to remain for as long as possible.
While its neighbours have spent the last few decades hurriedly modernising, Myanmar has kept itself largely shut away from the modern world, leaving relics like this old British governor’s mansion more or less untouched in the process. Untouched, that is, until it was rescued in the Nineties by the Belmond group. Thanks to their efforts in restoration and preservation, this 1920s colonial mansion still looks much like it did when it was home to the ruler of Burma’s southern states.
The 49 rooms and suites – capacious and simple with hardwood floors and elegant teak furniture – are all set in the back garden, where swans and preening peacocks sit about on an apple-green lawn, and a fan-shaped pool is edged by terracotta urns filled with willowy tropical plants. The pool is the perfect spot to unwind after a morning visit to Yangon’s most famous cultural attraction, the gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, just over a mile away.
This four-bedroom villa on the tiny Greek island of Thirasia was built from the ruins of a former pumice mine and rises straight from the sea, with waves lapping at its wraparound terraces. The exterior walls, some of which date back to 1850, may speak of miners from centuries past, but its modern interiors are all style and sophistication – whitewashed and minimalist.
In truth though, it’s not the villa’s history – interesting though it is – that has made it so popular with tired and harassed A-listers, but its promise of privacy. A splinter of land detached from Santorini by a volcanic eruption over 3,000 years ago, Thirasia has somehow escaped everyone’s attention. And the few who do visit are certain not to bother you at Perivolas Hideaway, which can only be reached by speedboat or helicopter. You’ll be able to see them though. The sea is framed from nearly every arched window, and the views from the roof terrace back across the caldera towards the lights of Santorini are practically to die for.
Immaculately restored, this centuries-old Byzantine mansion turned boutique hotel is set in citrus-scented hills just a few miles away from ‘Greece’s Gibraltar’, the great rock of Monemvasia in the southern Peloponnese. It takes its name from the old Byzantine water cistern (kinsterna) that still snakes its way through the property today, eventually spilling water into an angular swimming pool.
Inside you’ll notice remnants from the various phases of Kinsterna’s checkered history – round Byzantine arches coexist with bevelled Venetian recesses, while the embrasures, gun holes, large fireplaces and chimneys are all hallmarks of Ottoman design. Rooms are beautifully decorated with antique items such as chests, lamps and textured kilims (rugs), though if you really want to sleep with the weight of history around you, opt for Byzantine Suite 25, the mansion’s former dungeon and once the unwelcome home of a Turkish magistrate.
The above hotels are just a snapshot of the historic properties listed in our portfolio. To plan your stay at one of these beautiful properties and discover more speak to our Travel Specialists on +44 (0) 1242 787 800