World's Best Boutique Hotels 2015
"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.”
No. 20 Le Sirenuse; Positano, Italy
Le Sirenuse is another winner that used to be a family home—and that family still runs the place. The former villa overlooking the Amalfi Coast has 58 rooms with vaulted ceilings, handmade tiles on the floor, and the family’s own line of Eau d’Italie bath products. Even the beds are unique: most of them are a little smaller than a king, but bigger than a queen. Daily activities include guided workouts (say, up the 1,700 steps to the village of Nocelle), olive-oil tastings, or jaunts along the coastline in the hotel’s wooden boat.
No. 19 Camden Harbour Inn; Camden, Maine
This boutique hotel overlooking the harbor in Camden has, no surprise, a maritime theme: the 20 rooms are each named after famous ports used by the Dutch East India Company. But instead of fishing nets and ship’s wheels, the highly-rated décor favors sleek contemporary aesthetics, created by a Dutch designer. Readers were also won over by value-added amenities like complimentary breakfast and an ongoing spread of free coffee, tea, and snacks. To minimize hassles, you’re within walking distance of the city’s harbor, shops, and a small public beach.
No. 18 French Quarter Inn; Charleston
Sitting next door to the City Market, with views of the steeple at St. Philip’s Church, this Historic District inn channels much of what people love about Charleston. Indeed, the hotel offers a Southern take on boutique hotel amenities: ladyfingers and bubbly at check-in, and a bottomless supply of sweet iced tea. Guests get free breakfast; milk, cookies or port at bedtime; and a menu of seven different pillows, including buckwheat and Swedish massage. Readers gave the hotel its highest marks, though, for its overall reasonable price.
No. 17 The Milestone Hotel; London
Even with its red-brick Victorian profile and its posh address—across from Kensington Palace—readers gave this 56-room hotel a high score for value. That may be a result of its good rankings for both service and family-friendliness—like the 24-hour butler and kid perks like mini bathrobes, bedtime stories and “chocolate mice” at turndown. For grownups, the hotel got kudos for its bar scene; the headliner bar is Stables, built in the former carriage house, which is decked out with green leather armchairs and signature cocktails like the Feline Touch (with aged rum, Dubonnet, egg whites, and bitters).
No. 16 Inn Above Tide; Sausalito
Romance is the name of the game at this 31-room hotel standing on pilings over the San Francisco Bay. It offers dramatic views, decks in every room and over-sized soaking tubs. The inn also has the classic boutique-hotel perks of free breakfast, loaner bicycles, and cool toiletries (Bulgari), as well as in-room binoculars so you can watch for sea birds or zoom in on the San Francisco skyline. You can easily walk to the Sausalito Ferry, pedal over to the Marin Headlands, or get hooked up with tasting tours of local chocolate-makers and wineries.
No. 15 The Goring; London
Readers are not the only ones who have given this Belgravia hotel high praise: Kate Middleton stayed here the night before her wedding, and Queen Elizabeth recently gave the 69-room property a royal warrant, which is a blue-blooded seal of approval. Speaking of royal treatment, if you stay in a suite you’ll be assigned a tailcoat-clad footman who can do anything from tie your bowtie to iron your newspapers. The Goring also made the top 20 for its elegantly traditional cuisine, which has earned it both a Michelin star and, for its afternoon repast, The British Tea Guild Council’s Top London Afternoon Tea Award.
No. 14 Hotel Lungarno; Florence
Readers were impressed with the enviable perch of this 64-rom hotel—right on the Arno River and overlooking Ponte Vecchio, a dreamy spot that also helped it earn laurels for romance. The hotel also prides itself on the view inside: its crisp white rooms act as a canvas of sorts for the hotel’s 400 works of original art, including some by Picasso and Cocteau. Readers expressed more appreciation, though, for the food—like the wild-boar ravioli and Brunello-marinated pigeon with foie gras at Michelin-starred Borgo San Jacopo.
No. 13 Egerton House Hotel; London
This 28-room Knightsbridge hotel that embodies the idea of a quaint, Victorian-era townhouse, outfitted with rich fabrics, antiques, tea trays, and hot water bottles. Its Victoria & Albert suite also has a Nespresso espresso machine and a private terrace. But, you would be missing out on one of the hotel’s greatest attributes if you just fixed yourself a drink in your room: readers rave about Antonio, the man who helms The Bar, and who is known for his expertise, affable demeanor, and sturdy martinis. His politesse is likely one reason the hotel was the highest-rated in the world for service.
No. 12 Wentworth Mansion; Charleston
This 21-room mansion in the Charleston’s historic district has one hallmark feature of many boutique hotels: it’s an easy stroll from the lobby to city sights like antique shops and galleries. Its rooms feature original gas fireplaces, triple-sheeted European linens, and some beds; there are so many in-house comforts you might never leave the premises. Readers felt suitably spoiled with the complimentary breakfast, afternoon hors d’oeuvres, sherry in the lobby, and house-made chocolates at turndown.
No. 11 Inn at Little Washington; Washington, VA
You might come to this 24-room hotel, an hour from Charlottesville, for the English-country-home bliss, or the Virginia wine-country scenery. But really, most people come here to eat, thanks to the inn’s founder, James Beard Award-winner Patrick O’Connell. You can be a gourmand groupie and do kitchen tours at the inn, venture out to explore wineries and farmers markets, or use one of the complimentary bicycles to preemptively burn calories. Service is top-notch, with three housekeeping visits for your room each day.
No. 10 The Little Nell; Aspen, CO
As the only hotel on Aspen Mountain with ski-in-ski-out access, this Colorado legend is a favorite for its location. The décor may be a bit contrarian—spare and sleek rather than traditional chalet-style—but readers found the service to be superb, from the Ski Concierges who will tend to your gear to the free use of “snow bikes” during winter. Readers also praise its après-ski scene, thanks to the duo of Ajax Tavern and Element 47—at the latter, you can wash down a duck-based “DLT” with a Powder Hound cocktail (vodka with averna liqueur and a sugar-cayenne rim).
No. 9 Saxon Hotel; Johannesburg
This 53-room hotel outside the South African city has a 10-acre garden, a koi pond, and a fascinating backstory: it is where Nelson Mandela recharged and wrote his autobiography after his release from prison. The rooms channel contemporary African arts with light wood, horn, and tribal patterns. Its 500 restaurant has a gastronomic bent, while Qunu highlights native cuisine; both feature a strong emphasis on local wines, as well as produce from the hotel’s rooftop garden.
No. 8 Primland Meadows of; Dan, VA
Even though this Blue Ridge Mountain hotel only has 26 rooms, it sits on 12,000 acres, which includes a ridge-top golf course and an observatory for stargazing. Readers raved about its unique rooms: some are actual tree houses, and the rest are sleek but woodsy, riffing on the area’s historic homes with exposed wooden beams and stone fireplaces. The LEED-registered hotel offers a creative menu for recreation, too: you can go geocaching or off-roading in an RTV, or do some guided tree-climbing.
No. 7 Ocean House; Watch Hill, RI
This regal, buttery-yellow hotel manages to feel both timely and timeless. It's a treasured old property (it opened in 1868), but was meticulously restored in 2004: the 65 rooms are decorated with antiques and original detailing but also have in-room iPads and LCD TVs in the bathroom. With its bluff-top perch, looking out over the Atlantic or Little Narragansett Bay, the hotel ranked well both for location and for its relative value, with a no-tipping policy and Mercedes loaner cars.
No. 6 Chanler at Cliff Walk; Newport RI
Like many other winning boutique hotels, this 20-room property on Newport’s Cliff Walk started out as a home—the summer digs for a Gilded-Age-era congressman. Today, each room in the small hotel has a distinct décor personality, like English Tudor, gothic, or French provincial. Besides its high score for rooms, it also ranked well for refined service; the property offers a welcome glass of sparkling wine and an on-site butler who can pack a picnic lunch or draw an aromatherapy bath. Readers were intent to eat here as much as possible: its Spiced Pear Restaurant—with its butter-poached lobster and the rest of its New England Tasting Menu—earned the hotel a near-perfect score in the dining category.
No. 5 Wickaninnish Inn; Tofino, B.C.
While this secluded hotel on Vancouver Island didn't rank so highly with lovebirds, it still offers a brooding form of romance: one of the most popular times to come visit is winter storm-watching season, when you can stand outside and watch waves crash into the rocky coastline, or witness the rumblings from the warm-and-dry confines of the Lookout Library. No matter the weather, the 75-room inn embraces the boutique-hotel ideal of mellow luxury and personal service. There are staff-led rainforest hikes on Sundays, and gear like raincoats, rain pants, and binoculars supplied in every room. The Wickaninnish features another classic boutique-hotel perk: it welcome pets, offering use of doggie beds, chuck-it ball-launchers, and plenty of treats.
No. 4 41; London
It’s no wonder that this hotel, which neighbors Buckingham Palace’s Royal Mews, is rated so highly for service: its staffer-to-guest ratio is a stunning 2 to 1, so there’s little risk of feeling neglected. Besides the butlers, 24-hour room service, and complimentary champagne trolley, readers rave about the spread of snacks and the open pantry—featuring tea, canapés and tubs of ice cream—that are at your disposal almost around the clock.
No. 3 Farmhouse Inn; Forestville, CA
This Russian River Valley hotel wooed readers with more than great wine. Granted, the hotel has it own winery, which pairs nicely with the Michelin-starred, locally-sourced restaurant; you can also enjoy a glass by the hotel’s s’mores pit, stocked with house-made marshmallows and Valrhona chocolate. Even the bath products are thoughtful: you can help yourself to the Sonoma Bath Bar, featuring a rotating selection of bath salts, scrubs, and bars of handmade olive oil soap; or stretch out at the high-scoring spa, whose treatments use cider apples and honey harvested on-site.
No. 1 (tie) Triple Creek Inn; Darby, MT
The other winner is a creative hybrid: part inn, part dude ranch and part foodie magnet, enhanced by its huge glass-and-mahogany wine cellar. The grown-ups-only resort in the Bitterroot Valley is comprised of 23 plush log cabins, most with wood-burning fireplaces, steam showers, and contemporary Western art. It also won hearts (and a high ranking for value) with its all-inclusive activities menu, which includes cattle drives, fly-fishing, and sapphire-panning during the warmer months, or snowshoeing and horse-pulled skijoring in the winter. Then there’s the upscale cowboy cuisine, featuring crayfish bisque, grilled Texas quail with bourbon sauce, and espresso mousse.
No. 1 (tie) Ashford Castle Co.; Mayo, Ireland
If a great boutique hotel often feels like an elegant home, it’s no surprise that one of the hotels that tied for No. 1 is an actual castle. Once the home of the Guinness family (yes, those Guinnesses), this 13th-century manor charmed readers with its luxuriously old-school rooms (four-poster beds, original fireplaces), unconventional amenities (an on-site cinema), and simple pleasures, like parsnip crisps and cheese toasties set out during happy hour. The hotel also earned raves for its setting: 350 acres in Western Ireland where you can go clay shooting, golf, check out the resident falcons, or just go on a run, with a stop at a “jogging station” that’s stocked with water, apples, and trail maps.