Tanya Spaulding wasn’t just impressed by the attentive service at the Inn at Little Washington—she was almost in awe of it.
"Every time we left our room, even for a short time, they came and refreshed the amenities and straightened up,” says the head of Minneapolis, Minnesota design firm Shea, Inc. “We joked that there were sensors and a commando team, ready for action the minute we left. That omniscient hospitality is a feature rarely—if ever—found in the larger hotels.”
That intimacy is what makes travelers like Spaulding seek out boutique properties like the 38-year-old Virginia wine-country inn, which ranked near the top in Travel + Leisure’s annual reader poll. In the World’s Best Awards survey, readers ranked hotels of all sizes around the globe, based on their food, service, and locations. We zeroed in on the highest-ranked boutique hotels: properties that are independently owned, rather than being part of a chain, and have fewer than 100 rooms.
The top 20 reveal a lot about what makes a hotel truly “boutique”: a prime address that still feels removed from the tourist grid, an air of sophistication, a unique personality, and generous service. Many winning hotels offer free breakfast, and one lets guests raid its snack pantry at night. Several top-rated boutique properties have loaner bicycles—and one a Mercedes—that you can borrow for a spin.
For some guests, a great boutique hotel also exudes a vivid sense of place—like the local artwork (and even the local minibar sodas) frequent flyer Dena Roché found at the Saxon Hotel, outside Johannesburg. “The artwork was stunning—modern African chic, with carvings and zebra-pattern throw rugs,” says the travel agent and editor of healthy-travel site The Travel Diet. “The result was a space that reflected its locale—but with a very approachable but upscale vibe.”