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Hotels worth your tax refund

By John Rambow
Wentworth by the Sea is a sprawling resort with 360-degree views that take in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Wentworth by the Sea is a sprawling resort with 360-degree views that take in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Every room at Mirror Lake Inn has balcony views of Adirondack mountain peaks
  • The Mills House's 215 rooms are decorated with gold wallpaper
  • More than 200 exotic birds and mammals inhabit Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge
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(Budget Travel) -- After a year's hard work, indulge yourself with a night at one of these 10 fabulous hotels, where you'll feel like you're in a whole new tax bracket.

Mirror, Mirror on the lake

Every room at the Mirror Lake Inn Resort & Spa in Lake Placid, New York, has balcony views of Adirondack mountain peaks, and the resort's private lakefront is outfitted with kayaks, rowboats, and beach toys. Organized activities include fly-fishing and animal tracking, and boaters can purchase a fully loaded picnic basket for a day out on the water.

At night, locals mingle with guests at the Cottage, the pub-style bar serving drinks on a deck looking on Mirror Lake. The signature cocktail, a Mapletini, is concocted from locally sapped maple syrup and vodka from local distiller P3 Placid.

Should the spirits move you to swim, Mirror Lake can reach temperatures of over 80 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, and both the indoor and outdoor pools are comfortable year-round.

Upgrade worthy: Go for the Marcy rooms, which have the best views on the third and fourth floors. They're named after the highest peak in the Adirondacks (from $215). An on-site spa delivers treatments worth a try, too.

Budget Travel: See the hotels

Artful lodgers

Lots of hotel lobbies like to keep a modern painting or two on hand to look "edgy." At the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky, almost 9,000 square feet is dedicated to 21st-century sculptures, photographs and video pieces, all maintained by a full-time curator.

The 90 loft-style rooms are likewise decorated with locally made artwork, plus 42-inch HDTVs, beds with Egyptian cotton sheets, and iPods with ready-to-rock playlists (and docking stations).

At the hotel's on-site restaurant, Proof on Main, choose from 50 of Kentucky's best bourbons. The cocktails have some ingredients from the owner's nearby Woodland Farm and the food is classic Southern fare tricked up with Tuscan influences, like the sautéed gulf shrimp served with a collard risotto and topped with redeye gravy.

Upgrade worthy: Opt for a Luxury Double City View (from $269) to nab a room with a view, facing either Main Street (and the skyline) or 7th Street (with glimpses of the Ohio River) instead of views of the indoor atrium.

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Brahmin born

What wows 'em at Boston's Liberty Hotel, formerly the Charles Street Jail, is the lobby, ringed by catwalks and capped by a 90-foot-high wooden cupola. The cells once housed famous inmates, like Malcom X and the 1920s anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, and part of the jail's original design has been incorporated into the hotel's lobby and restaurant.

A one-time drunk tank used for sobering up the criminally inebriated has been refashioned as the Alibi bar for quite the opposite purpose: It now dispenses fuelly cocktails like the Green Mile, a spicy Hendrick's gin martini with a pickle spear garnish. In summer you can take your drinks out onto an outside patio and then head back to one of the 298 spacious rooms, which come with floor-to-ceiling views of either downtown Boston or the Charles River.

Upgrade worthy: For a room with two walls of windows with skyline views, splash out on a corner room (from $395). There are multiple categories, including Luxury Corner King and Luxury Corner Double-each almost 40 percent larger than the standard room.

Location, location, location

The Rockhouse Hotel, in Negril, Jamaica, sits atop limestone cliffs overlooking the coral reefs of Pristine Cove and the surreally blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. Winding passageways shaped from hand-cut stone bring guests to a 60-foot-long infinity pool located near Jamaica's westernmost point. When there's no cloud cover (and there usually isn't), sunsets are spectacular.

The hotel's two restaurants serve modern interpretations of classic Jamaican cooking at tables on a balcony hanging over the cove. In the new on-site spa, try the Ultimate Coffee Scrub, which blends pinches of orange, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and brown sugar with beans from Jamaica's own Blue Mountain Coffee for an invigorating rubdown ($70 for 45 minutes).

Upgrade worthy: For the utmost in seclusion, spring for the thatched-roof villas near the edge of the cove, which have wraparound decks, private enclosed outdoor showers, and rock staircases leading to the water below (from $295, after April 15).

California dreamin'

Situated on a bluff on the Pacific, the gray-clapboard Blue Lantern Inn looks down on the moored yachts of Dana Point, an Orange County town halfway between San Diego and Los Angeles. The 29 unfussy rooms, many with ocean-facing views, have just enough nautical energy to fit with the local vibe, thanks to lighthouse wall prints, large whirlpool tubs and gas fireplaces to fend off chills at night.

The use of the inn's bicycles is included in the nightly rate; guests can spin past the harborfront's seafood restaurants, Jet Ski rental shops (from $95 an hour), and the 70-foot-tall ship "R/V Sea Explorer," owned by researchers at the Ocean Institute and occasionally open to the public.

Upgrade worthy: For a sunny patio large enough for lounging, splurge on a Pacific Edge room (from $220).

Standard of perfection

No hotel owner grasps glamour better than André Balazs -- the creator of a boutique-hotel empire whose dated Uma Thurman and several other winsome beauties.

His Miami Beach, Florida, property, The Standard Spa, is tucked away on Belle Isle a good mile from buzzing South Beach. It has uninterrupted views of Biscayne Bay from its gargantuan 12,000-square-foot spa. Guests can try DIY treatments like salt-and-oil scrubs in one of the four soaking tubs or opt for pricier treatments distilled from the property's 21-page spa services brochure.

The Standard Spa's bay-side deck has a freshwater infinity pool (and a 12-foot-tall waterfall, too), making it an ideal spot to sip drinks at dusk. Inside the hotel, the vibe is less showy: Blondwood-slatted couches and macramé rugs subtly enhance mid-century modern mosaic floors and white-marble walls.

Upgrade worthy: Pick a so-called Wet room -- they have a private terrace, a claw-foot tub, and a lot more space than standard rooms (from $319).

Animal attraction

Why trek overseas for a chance to glimpse an antelope or a giraffe when you can visit Orlando and be guaranteed to see the beasts on the grounds of your hotel.

More than 200 exotic birds and mammals inhabit the 43 acres of shrub-filled savanna atDisney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, near Lake Buena Vista.

In the lobby, an authentic, cottage-like structure houses a ceremonial mask from the Igbo people of Nigeria. In the rooms, ceiling fans spin above beds covered in African designs and colors. Yet, while the faux-safari experience shows off Disney's famous attention to realistic detail, guest comfort is still paramount.

Mosquito-net curtains are merely for show, and at night, the grounds are lit with a soft artificial moonlight to make the birds and beasts -- like ostriches and zebras -- easier to spot.

Upgrade worthy: Spring for a room whose balcony looks out over the savanna if you're interested in seeing more of the wildlife (from $310). Other rooms have views of the 11,000-square-foot pool and its 67-foot-long waterslide.

Turret syndrome

A sight that has prompted millions of sighs, postcards, and snapshots, Quebec City's Fairmont Le Château Frontenac towers over a narrow bend in the St. Lawrence River, on a hill above the 17th-century churches, cottages, and fortifications of Old Quebec.

Although the château and its 18-story central towers bristle with arches, turrets, and copper-covered roofs, it only looks as if it were made for nobility: The Canadian Pacific Railway Company built it in 1893 to promote tourism.

The 618 rooms vary in size from cramped 175-square-foot studios to 670-square-foot suites, facing toward Old Quebec architecture, the St. Lawrence River, or the hotel's inner courtyard. At the upscale on-site restaurant, Le Champlain, which specializes in French and Continental cuisine and has a tasting menu that features local game, large windows provide dramatic river vistas.

Upgrade worthy: The Signature Rooms have a decorative fireplace and views of either the river or the fortress city of Old Quebec (from $296)

Southern exposure

A gracious 1853 pale-pink plantation manor, The Mills House, has managed to keep its neoclassical good looks through several refurbishments and expansions. Located downtown at the south end of Charleston, South Carolina's, palm-lined Museum Mile, it's situated blocks from the city's most historic buildings.

The 215 rooms are decorated in gold wallpaper, canopied beds and period furnishings. It's worth it to pay extra for a breakfast or brunch in the hotel's Barbadoes Room. A culinary lineup of Southern classics like shrimp and grits and Low Country black-bean soup are downed in front of a private garden worthy of an aristocrat.

Upgrade worthy: City View rooms, which are only marginally more expensive than those looking out on the pool, take in pretty sights like the spire of St. Philip's Church, built in 1838 (from $207).

Live like a president

A link to the Victorian days, when going to the shore for the summer was an annual ritual, Wentworth by the Sea is a sprawling resort with 360-degree views that take in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and, when it's clear, the White Mountains.

The hotel earned a spot in the history books when Teddy Roosevelt negotiated the end to the Russo-Japanese War here. (There's a lounge bar named after him.)

Today, breakfast is served in an impressive domed dining room facing the Atlantic, while one of the indoor pools is across from an elaborate garden. Rooms have damask curtains and bathrooms with heated marble floors.

Upgrade worthy: For ocean-side splendor, it would be hard to beat the two-level, 1,000-square-foot Marina Suites, which have a kitchen, a working fireplace, and access to an outdoor pool just for guests of the suites (from $299).

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