Heaven in Earth
Hidden inside caves, clinging to rocks or shaped from clay, these seven hotels offer civilized pleasures
The urge to connect with the soil can go further than digging up potatoes and mowing the lawn. At the seven hotels on these pages, you can really get close to the earth, right down to sleeping inside it. Some of these destinations are literally subterranean; others are nestled in the landscape. Walls are made of the rawest materials: granite or chalk or (as at Michel Bras in France) glass that looks out onto a glorious view of open fields. Yet this very primitiveness is paradoxically comforting. And whether the hotel is in the Australian outback or on an Aegean island, each extraordinary place also offers pleasures of the most civilized kind, including remarkable hospitality and, of course, wonderful food.
The setting Carved into the volcanic cliffs of Negril's westernmost tip, this two-year-old boutique hotel for the hip belongs to Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. Grottoes and rock walkways perch over the sea; you climb down a coral staircase to snorkel along the tropical reef.
The rooms The Caves' 10 wood-framed, thatch-roofed cottages are hidden among palms and jungle. Walls painted Caribbean colors, hand-carved furniture, ceiling fans and mosquito-netted beds replay the island fantasy.
What to do Take in Aveda Spa treatments like open-air massages in a stone gazebo. Videos, CDs, a pool, a Jacuzzi and a sauna are available.
Where to eat Act like a reclusive rock star and eat on a private aerie hewn from a cliff, or join the party in the gazebo dining room.
What to eat Joy Miller is a great home-style chef. Her oxtail and curried-mutton stews, kingfish escovitch, jerk chicken, Jamaican breads and Yankee brownies are unpretentious and satisfying.
Details Lighthouse Rd., West End, Negril, Jamaica; 876-957-0270 or call Island Outpost Hotels at 800-688-7678; $375 per night for a two-person cottage to $825 per night for a four-person cottage.
Coober Pedy, South Australia
The setting Coober Pedy is an opal-mining town where the locals are literally troglodytes. The scene is cool: temperatures inside the caves can be 20 degrees lower than outside.
The rooms Desert Cave offers 19 stony yet comfortable bedrooms (or are they really bed caves?), each one equipped with television, phone and minibar. Claustrophobics should avoid them at all costs.
What to do After a tour of the subterranean church, accompany the desert mailman to some of the earth's most remote townships and cattle stations, then fossick for your own opal. As they say around here, "Head down, bum up!"
Where to eat Despite the name, Umberto's is not Italian--and it's aboveground. The more casual Crystal Café is an underground spot for lunch.
What to eat Chef John Mundell serves a typically Aussie hybrid cuisine: chargrilled kangaroo with plum sauce, tempura-fried dory with sun-dried tomato chutney, barramundi stuffed with fish mousse and topped with a pesto cream.
Details Hutchison St., Coober Pedy, South Australia; 011-61-8-8672-5688; $99 per night for two.
The setting This untouristy part of southwestern France is all vast pastures with cows, gabled huts called burons, granite and basalt outcrops, a beech forest and a rainbow rug of wildflowers.
The rooms A herdsman's path weaves through a valley to the hotel. The 13 white-on-white suites are built into a hill, with immense windows that open to an endless sky.
What to do The bathrooms are the kind you want to live in, with multiple shower heads, giant tubs and beauty products made by a neighbor who is one of the world's top perfumers, or "noses."
Where to eat By night, the glass-and-slate dining room is part cathedral to food, part planetarium.
What to eat Michel Bras, one of the most famous chefs in France, fuses haute cuisine with wild foods: chickweed, meadowsweet, Alpine fennel. His gargouillou (a salad of 30 infant vegetables and herbs) is exquisite.
Details Route de l'Aubrac, Laguiole, France; 011-33-5-65-51-18-20 or call Relais & Châteaux at 800-735-2478; $150 to $290 per night for two.
Matobo Hills, Zimbabwe
The setting The Matobo Hills of Zimbabwe are full of leopards, black eagles and white rhinos, which you can view from the back of a truck or on foot. Camp Amalinda is a natural formation that was used as a shelter centuries ago by the San Bushmen tribe; it has recently been refashioned by the young, stylish owners into a spelunker's dream.
The rooms Granite walls hold 10 guest rooms, some with African cane furniture, cushy sofas and mosquito-netted beds piled with pillows.
What to do From African villages to wild game to Bushman cave paintings, there is much to explore in the Matobo Hills. Amalinda has a new gym with a sauna and a full-time masseuse who gives rubdowns alongside a natural rock pool.
Where to eat The bar is in a granite cave, and meals are served on a vast teak table in the open air.
What to eat The English-trained chef Raymond Bhana prepares African-British menus, from traditional British roast beef with Yorkshire pudding to crocodile curry with pappadams to ostrich Wellington with spiced rice.
Details Matobo Hills, Zimbabwe; 011-263-9-43954; $220 per night per person.
LES HAUTES ROCHES
The setting On the banks of the Loire, between Tours and Vouvray, this 17th-century villa sits atop white chalk caves hewn over 10 centuries by the indigenous Tourangeaux.
The rooms The 10 stone-walled guest rooms resemble castle chambers, with four-poster beds and chalk bathrooms that would make nice wine cellars.
What to do Sample the offerings of the Loire wine trail.
Where to eat The grand dining room is decorated with oil paintings. Take your breakfastat a white wrought-iron table on the river terrace.
What to eat Chef Didier Edon's cuisine is classical French all the way, from roasted oysters to young wild rabbit cooked with foie gras and herbs. A tartwith caramelized apples and almond milk qualifies as light relief.
Details 86 Quai de la Loire, Rochecorbon, France; 011-33-2-47-52-88-88 or call Relais & Châteaux at 800-735-2478; $167 to $230 per night for two.
INN OF THE ANASAZI
Santa Fe, New Mexico
The setting If Santa Fe has a downtown, this famously luxurious adobe inn is at its epicenter.
The rooms Curvaceous and comfortable, the 59 rooms have tall four-poster beds and beehive-like kiva fireplaces beneath traditional wooden beamed ceilings. The place has a conscience: water conservation systems are up and running.
What to do The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum is a must-see.
Where to eat The restaurant is cavernesque; the wine cellar, which has a private dining table that seats 12, is even more so.
What to eat This is cowboy-and-Indian fusion food: try chef Flynt Payne's buffalo carpaccio with juniper-fig salsa or chipotle-barbecued elk chop with huckleberry-lime coulis.
Details 113 Washington Ave., Santa Fe, New Mexico; 505-988-3030 or 800-688-8100; $245 to $399 per night for two.
The setting Ancient Santorini is famed for its black sand beaches and extinct volcano. In addition to the usual Greek sugar-cube architecture, cave houses cling to and burrow through rocks.
The rooms A stay at the Astra Apartments is a great way to cool off inside whitewashed stone.
What to do Hang out at the exquisite pool with a view.
Where to eat The apartments don't have their own restaurant, so head to Domata near Monolithos Beach. The owner is chef Chrysanthos Karamolegos, who caused major excitement last summer when he left Athens to return to Santorini, his parents' homeland.
What to eat Karamolegos keeps the best of Greek cuisine--its freshness and simplicity--and manages to make it fascinating. He pairs the island's fantastic cherry tomatoes and goat cheese with capers and barley croutons and serves swordfish with a sauce of sea urchins.
Details Astra Apartments: Imerovigli, Santorini, Greece; 011-30-286-23641; $119 to $185 per night for two. Domata: Monolithos Beach, Santorini, Greece.