With a great deal of confusion around what the term ’boutique’ actually means, a boutique hotel can be best defined by what it is not. General consensus in the hotel industry dictates that a boutique hotel never has more than 100 rooms, it is rarely part of a chain (at least not a big one), a stay doesn’t feel corporate or impersonal, the architecture and aesthetics aren’t bland or forgettable and the location isn’t in a retail park or in an international airport. In other words, boutique hotels, or at least the good ones, are normally small, intimate and often homely properties, that are more often than not owner-run and which feature a design-led approach to interiors (and exteriors) on beautiful, or at least interesting, settings. Re-occurring traits include a unique approach to each room, in contrast to the cookie-cutter design of many branded hotel rooms, a strong focus on food, often with a local influence, public areas that invite relaxation and, unlike a B&B, although not always, tends to err on the side of cool and trendy. There is also often an emphasis on culture and lifestyle; cosy living-rooms will be bursting with beautiful coffee-table books on art, architecture and design, contemporary art might be hanging on the wall and you’ll often find board-games, novels and free wifi to make the most of your leisure time. However, with many large global hotel brands now using the term to describe their ‘smaller’ properties, the real litmus test as to whether a hotel is truly boutique often comes down to how you feel when you walk through the door, which, in my belief, comes from having been created by people that really care, something that cannot be boiled down and mass-produced.
The term ’boutique hotel’ gained prominence in the UK and America in the 1980s with the opening of properties such as Blakes in London and The Bedford in San Fransisco. The shift to ’boutique’ hotels was individual’s strong reaction to everything the 1980s was about; big and brash corporatism with shoulder pads and extra gloss. Boutique hotels were a return to the unique; where the ‘suits’ weren’t welcome and were where the eccentric bohemians, or cultured tourists looking for that ‘authentic’, and often slightly grittier, experience, were drawn to. In the 21st century boutique hotels are thriving like never before; today companies such as Mr & Mrs Smith and Design Hotels have made names for themselves by being the authority of whether a hotel is boutique or not and brands like Alila Hotels, Soho House Group and Firmdale Hotels are creating some of the best boutique properties out there.
With England as arguably the birthplace of the boutique hotel, it seemed fitting to celebrate some of the best boutique hotels in England today, and there are plenty of them! In no particular order, my selection below is a collection of what I feel to those that stand out from the crowd and are definitely worth a visit.
1. Lime Wood, Lyndhurst
Since its opening, Lime Wood has maintained its position as Queen Bee of the boutique hotel world. Luxurious yet homely, wonderfully rural yet less than two hours from London, Lime Wood is the perfect weekend retreat. The hotel, a converted Regency manor house with laid back yet luxurious interiors, is a boutique retreat that takes attention to details seriously. Hunter wellies in all sizes can be found in the boot room, the drawing room is fit to bursting with luscious coffee table books and interiors are so covetable that even the source of the embroidered bed throws is top-secret (don’t ask, they won’t tell!). Herb House, the sublime spa, is worth a visit in itself; a perfect blend of country-chic and clean minimalism make Lime Wood’s unlike any other spa in the country. If you consider yourself a foodie you’ll be pleased to discover that prized chef Angela Hartnett has just moved in at the hotel’s Hartnett Holder & Co restaurant. Working with head-chef Luke Holder, food is locally sourced and inspired by the recipes of Angela’s Italian nonna. While in the area make time to visit Lime Wood’s sister hotel, The Pig, for lunch – you won’t be disappointed.
2. Blakes, London
The original boutique hotel, Blakes is an institution in the boutique hotel world. Created by Anouska Hempel, famously a Bond-girl turned interior designer par excellence, Blakes, a series of converted Victorian townhouses, can be found tucked down a discreet side street in a leafy part of South Kensington. Favoured by the beautiful people, Gywneth Paltrow and Mr & Mrs Smith founders James & Tamara Lohan are fans, and it isn’t hard to see why. A series of exquisite yet bohemian rooms and suites have all been lovingly and painstakingly put together by Hempel herself (who remains actively involved in the hotel and interiors). The lobby is an eccentric mishmash of vintage Louis Vuitton trunks, chirping love-birds in an ornate cage, citrus scented candles and even white linen parasols. Blakes is really the epitome of what a boutique hotel should be; all artwork in all rooms is unique (and there is lots of it), baths are stand-alone and super sexy and the quality of everything, from linen and towels, to armchairs and floors boards, is of the best quality without being ‘look-at-me’. Blakes really gets into its own with its signature suites; the Corfu Suite is honeymoon perfection, the Library Suite has a secret wardrobe hidden in a bookshelf and the Cardinal Suite is red and racy. Downstairs is just exciting as above; you’ll find an outdoor terrace (including a heated ‘birdcage’ for winter nights), the restaurant, which skilfully blends Eastern and Western cuisine, the ‘Opium Den’ – all lacquer screens, orange cushions and scented candles – and underground bar adorned with bird-feather fans and exotic paraphernalia from afar.
3. Number Sixteen, London
Number Sixteen is the epitome of a noughties boutique hotel. Perfectly located, designed with superstar style and with a fantastic sense of humour, this fine property is proof that the best things often come in the smallest packages. Number Sixteen is part of the Firmdale collection of hotels, created by husband and wife duo, Kit and Tim Kemp. Incredibly successful, the couple now own a growing collection of some of the best boutique hotels in the world, found in both London and New York. Tim is company chairman while Kit takes care of interiors and is now world-famous for her utterly unique and playful style. So successful is the brand that, like ‘Aman Junkies’, there is an increasing tribe of jet-setters who refuse to stay anywhere but a Firmdale property when in town. Number Sixteen can be found on the white-stuccoed Sumner Place, a stones throw from South Kensington tube station with its many street cafés, bars and restaurants. With a leafy back garden, an exquisite drawing room (pictured below) and friendly service, a stay at Number Sixteen feels like you’ve crashed for the night at the house of a really good friend (who just happens to have bagged a townhouse in one of the smartest parts of town).
4. Belgraves, London
A short ten-minute stroll from Sloane Square, past the upmarket boutiques of Sloane Street, will lead you to Belgraves. The London outpost of trendy American hotel group, Thompson Hotels, Belgraves feels like a slice of New York transplanted into one of London’s chicest neighbourhoods. Due to the creative brilliance of interiors guru, Tara Bernerd, the transition from Sloane exterior to SoHo interior is entirely seamless. A successful blend of Seventies glamour, postmodern New York and contemporary British art, Belgraves is boutique at its sexiest; rooms are the perfect setting to the perfect dirty weekend; cow hide rugs sit before open fires, baths look out over leafy Chesham Place below and in each minibar you’ll find a pack of goodies from London erotic emporium, Coco de Mer. However, public spaces are where Belgraves really pushes the boutique boat out. The lobby, after walking past jean-clad doormen, is light and airy, all low-slung sofas and modern art, the snug is perfect when you need some me-time but don’t fancy your room and The Bar will take you from vintage Afternoon Tea to after-work cocktails. The real piece de resistance however is the hidden rooftop terrace. With a completely retractable roof, this intimate cushioned, cocktail-serving bolthole is one of the capital’s best-kept secrets.
5. The Old Parsonage, Oxford
Situated between St John’s, Keble and Somerville colleges, The Old Parsonage is tucked away in a quiet and leafy part of Oxford. An absolutely charming historic property, The Old Parsonage dates from the 17th century and blends in seamlessly with the Oxford’s historic architecture. Now a wonderfully converted boutique hotel with 30 rooms, the Old Parsonage is owned by Jeremy Mogford, owner of for Oxford Hotels & Restaurants which includes the Old Bank Hotel & Quad Brasserie and Gee’s, all which have a strong focus on contemporary art. This small, homely boutique hotel excels in both summer and winter; in the warmer months a shady walled terrace is perfect for al fresco dining and in winter the hearty open fire and Russian red walls keep you feeling suitably snug. The city’s many sites are within walking distance and the staff go out of their way to make your stay extra special; on summer days they will happily pack up a picnic for you to enjoy by the river, or lend you bicycles to explore Oxford’s scenic cobbled streets. Like the Old Parsonage’s sister properties there is a strong focus on food; expect freshly-baked scones and clotted cream for tea and best of British classics cooked by Head Chef Tom Mansfield.
6. The Wheatsheaf Inn, The Cotswolds
Small and unassuming, the Wheatsheaf Inn, a restaurant with rooms, is the ultimate ‘shabby chic’ boutique bolthole. Nestled on the main street of the tiny Cotswold’s village of Northleach, the Wheatsheaf manages to be all things to all people; a much frequented watering hole for locals and a reasonably priced but absolutely idyllic B&B for that weekend away in the country you always dream of but rarely manage to make reality. As a boutique hotel, its cool credentials are solid gold; guests at Kate Moss’s lavish Cotswold nuptials stayed at The Wheatsheaf (see her other favourite hotels here). Staff welcome everyone with open arms and buckets-full of charm, whether you turn up with three boisterous kids or are a time-starved couple looking for privacy. Rooms are boutique heaven, especially those in the ‘Excellent’ category, and make you want to lock the door and never leave; linen is the finest Egyptian cotton, TVs are Bang & Olufsen and bath products are (organic) Bramley. Woollen bed throws, cosy armchairs and quirky art on the walls all conjure up countryside-chic in the most homely of ways. As well as exploring the local countryside, make sure to take time to enjoy the grub on-site as it’s excellent. Have lunch or dinner in the atmospheric gastro-pub with its roaring open fires, mismatched chairs and British pub classics on the menu.
7. Babington House, Somerset
One of the first big-name boutique hotels in the UK, Babington House is now synonymous with the long list of beautiful people who adore it. Constantly name-dropped in interviews as that country retreat, or chosen as the location for a celebrity wedding that is a cut above the standard OK-spread variety (Millie Mackintosh married her rapper beau Professor Green at Babington in September 2013). Created by Nick Jones, owner of the successful Soho House Group, which includes member’s club Shoreditch House, Soho House, Dean Street Townhouse, Cecconi’s Mayfair, the Electric Diner and now Pizza East and many more in its growing portfolio. Set over 18 acres in the Somerset countryside, Babington House describes itself as ‘designed for those who enjoy the countryside but who aren’t willing to compromise on urban luxuries’. Interiors are Soho House meets Country chic; rooms are all filled with light, walls are turquoise, floors are stripped wood and bathrooms are all of the stand-alone bath variety. On site you’ll find an indoor and heated outdoor pool as well as a cinema, tennis courts, cricket pitch, lake, snooker room, and, if its uninterrupted bliss you’re after, a creche. Another, or for some, the main reason to visit, is the sumptuous Cow Shed Spa, favoured by yummy-mummies and those who appreciate organic products. Now a well-known brand in its own right, you’ll find outposts all over London, Berlin, Miami and New York.
8. The Zetter Townhouse, London
Aptly named, The Zetter Townhouse is a small and ever-so-sweet townhouse located in Clerkenwell, an area frequented by corporate city-wannabes in the week and oh-so-cool ravers/foodies/trend-setters on weekends. Just minutes from its bigger sister hotel, The Zetter, the Zetter Townhouse is the real boutique property of the two. Entering the hotel is a little like stepping back in time into your eccentric grandmother’s living room in the 1970s, but in a good way. Persian carpets, bright red papered walls, upholstered armchairs, bookshelves crammed to bursting and lamps of all shapes and sizes come together in a perfect bohemian mishmash. Rooms are slightly more ordered but just as poetic; four-poster beds come with Union Jack drapes and bunting, wonderful antiques and the odd blue walls. Just a few steps from your room across to The Zetter you’ll find the famous Bistro Bruno Loubet, a restaurant whose reviews keep on getting better as time goes by, something of a rarity in a city where restaurants sometimes have nano-length shelf lives. Come for dinner and make sure to have pre-dinner drinks at the bar; word has it that this is the where the cool kids cluster on a Sunday night.
9. Vine House Hotel, Norfolk
A beautiful boutique property, Vine House scores even more points for its unbeatable location in one of the UK’s prettiest (and most popular) villages. Burhnam Market is a picture-postcard perfect Georgian village about fifteen minutes drive from the coast in Norfolk. With a quaint village green and a host of locally run boutiques and organic-fare food shops, Burhnam Market is to Norfolk what Salcombe is to Cornwall. In the summer there’ll be Jack Wills-wearing teenagers and their ice-cream eating, sandcastle building younger siblings galore. Located at the heart of the action, on the village green, is Vine House. Seven pretty rooms are a mix of French Empire and British boutique styles; gilded gold mirrors, four poster beds and chandeliers sit side by side with duck egg blue walls and funky patterned wallpaper. Due to its human scale and homely interiors, a stay at Vine House feels very much like home, but only much better. Although there is no restaurant as such at Vine Houses, the property’s sister hotel, The Hoste, is nearly next door and features a spa, bar and restaurant.
10. Hipping Hall, Lake District
With just nine rooms spread over both the main building and an outer cottage, Hipping Hall is a lovingly restored 15th century hamlet shrouded in wisteria and surrounded by three acres of lovely country gardens; in other words, an idyllic rural boutique hotel. Located just outside the village of Kirkby Lonsdale, Hipping Hall is strategically placed for guests who want to explore either the Lake District or the Yorkshire Dales National Parks, meaning that outdoor exploring should definitely feature on your agenda. Rooms are simple and very comfortable; bathrooms are fitted in local stone and have underfloor heating, beds are hand-made with Vi-Spring mattresses and garden views are a welcome sight to city-dweller’s eyes. The real reason people swarm to Hipping Hall is the winning combination of fantastic food and consistently good service; staff are warm, attentive and genuine in the way they can only be in a boutique hotel. Fine-dining takes places at Hipping Hall’s 15th century banqueting hall with its high lofty ceilings, wood-panelled floors and roaring open wood fires. Choose from a three or seven course tasting menu – neither will disappoint!