From mansion houses to warehouses, urban havens to rustic retreats, Harriet O'Brien checks out the most select, stylish and desirable places to stay across the country
DESIGNER DECOR AND ALL THAT?
Over the last couple of decades, the phrase "boutique hotel" has been so bandied about that defining what it actually means is more than a mite tricky. Certainly, sleek furnishing is one element. Size also matters: we're talking small and exclusive here. But, to start at the beginning, the " boutique" style was, essentially, created in the States 22 years ago. In 1984, the entrepreneur Ian Schrager and his late business partner Steve Rubell opened their first hotel in New York. With its funky play of modern looks and classic comfort, Morgans on Madison Avenue quickly caused a stir. It was quirky and very individual, unlike the big brand-name hotels that were dominant at the time. The term "boutique hotel" was coined by Rubell, who described their new venture as being like a boutique, as opposed to a department store. The key features were one-off, contemporary looks and a sense of independence.
Of course, small luxurious hotels (whether town houses or country retreats) have existed in Europe for a very long time. However, the boutique-hotel concept was rapidly welcomed this side of the Atlantic because of its refreshingly contemporary edge. Since the late Eighties, such hotels have been popping up across the UK. And, indeed, brands of boutique hotels have developed, not least the Stein hotels, the Malmaison group, and its sister company Hotel du Vin. The "boutique" term is now applied to a wide variety of outfits: accommodation with wonderfully innovative design; so-called "lifestyle" hotels with an emphasis on cool elegance; neat outfits with great food. They are all relatively small, with fewer than 100 bedrooms; they don't feel like conventional, formal hotels; and all have individually devised rooms. The following are a selection of some of the best in Britain.
WHERE'S THE CHIC BUZZ?
For modern cool, head to the Hope Street Hotel in Liverpool ( www.hopestreethotel.co.uk; doubles from £140 per night, room only), which is said to be the first designer hotel in this increasingly hip city. Its lovely 1860 building, externally styled as a Venetian palace, has been dramatically revamped inside, with lots of exposed brickwork and cleverly crafted wood (room 406 even has a wooden bathtub). All of the 48 bedrooms have oversized beds, underfloor heating and wall-mounted plasma TVs. The much-acclaimed restaurant, The London Carriage Works, is overseen by the rising foodie star Paul Askew. And, to cap it all, the location couldn't be better, in the midst of charming Georgian and Victorian houses, with a cathedral at each end of Hope Street, while the Philharmonic Hall is opposite.
In Belfast, Ten Square, at Donegall Square South ( www.tensquare.co.uk; doubles from £165 per night, including breakfast), is one of the city's most happening and innovative hangouts. Housed in a handsome "heritage" building, it is well placed opposite the City Hall, and has an Asian-inspired interior of cream tones and dark wood. Its 22 rooms are hung with contemporary oil paintings, while the large beds are swathed in Frette linen. This is a place of dreamy opulence and beautiful people.
You'll find more beautiful people at London's Soho Hotel, in the quiet back streets of the West End ( www.sohohotel.com; doubles from £240, room only). Amazingly, this building was once a multi-storey car park. It has been astonishingly transformed, its vibrant decor ranging from lime green to fuchsia and bold stripes. The 85 bedrooms are equipped with flat-screen TVs, the bathrooms are granite. Two comfortable drawing rooms, with log-burning fireplaces and honesty bars, are available for the exclusive use of resident guests.
AND FOR THAT LOFT LOOK?
Warehouse conversions understandably continue to hold their appeal - who wouldn't want high ceilings, airy spaces and big windows? One of the first boutique hotels outside London was 42 The Calls, in Leeds ( www.42thecalls.co.uk; doubles from £135 without breakfast), which opened 15 years ago and was fashioned from an 18th-century corn mill. Set beside the river Aire, on an old cobbled street (called The Calls, hence the hotel's name), it retains lots of atmospheric features, from cast-iron pillars to hefty beams, while many of its 41 bedrooms are hung with striking modern art. It was created by Jonathan Wix, who also masterminded The Scotsman in Edinburgh, and, as part of the Scotsman hotel group, it was bought earlier this year by the billionaire Saudi philanthropist Mohamed Bin Issa Al Jaber. Previously, it had a somewhat mixed reputation, so the hope is that new ownership will be a boost.
Meanwhile, among its eight sleek hotels, the Hotel du Vin chain ( www.hotelduvin.com) offers a converted 18th-century sugar-warehouse in Bristol (doubles from £135 without breakfast). The building was near-derelict when the company acquired it, so refurbishment in 1999 was something of a clean sweep. The result is an elegant interior with bold touches: a high wall of glass and steel beside the reception, exposed stone walls and bare wooden supports in the Sugar Bar. The 40 * * bedrooms are a mix of steel and wood, with comfy furnishings and stunning bathrooms, all mosaic tiling and chrome fittings.
WHERE CAN I GET AWAY FROM IT ALL?
Hidden away, on the edge of Dartmoor near Milton Abbot, the Hotel Endsleigh ( www.hotelendsleigh.com; doubles from £210, including breakfast) opened to much applause in August 2005. The 1812 shooting lodge of the Dukes of Bedford was refurbished as a hotel by the designer Olga Polizzi, sister of Sir Rocco Forte and mother of the current owner-manager, Alex Polizzi. It is furnished in a country-house-goes-boutique style, with panelling and wallpaper in the original Regency spirit, shutters and white blinds, lavish pots of orchids, and ancient and modern sculptured busts. The 16 bedrooms have antique features and wonderful bathrooms, with free-standing tubs and serious power-showers. The rambling house is set in 108-acre grounds by the river Tamar.
Alternatively, head to the Norfolk coast and The Victoria at Holkham ( www.holkham.co.uk/victoria; doubles from £115, including breakfast). Part of the Holkham estate, owned by the Earl of Leicester, it's a pebble's throw from the extensive sands of Holkham Beach. Formerly a tired old pub, the building was given an inspired refurb in 2001, which has resulted in a gloriously relaxing and shabby-chic establishment, with Rajasthani accessories and rustic features. The 10 bedrooms are painted cream, lime, terracotta and more. Downstairs, there's a welcoming open fire, and the laid-back restaurant serves contemporary cuisine based on fresh local ingredients.
HOW ABOUT SHEER ATMOSPHERE?
The building at No 75 Sloane Street, London SW1, was once the home of the actress Lillie Langtry, mistress of Edward VII and friend of Oscar Wilde. As The Cadogan hotel ( www.steinhotels.com; doubles from £314 including breakfast), it is now part of the Stein Group, which has more than a dozen small luxury hotels across Europe, from Mallorca to Amsterdam and Dublin. Beautifully revitalised in 2004, it has 65 bedrooms furnished in bright contemporary or mellower Edwardian styles (including, predictably, the pastel Lillie Langtry suite and the decadent, silk-curtained Oscar Wilde room). Afternoon tea is still served in the drawing room, available also to non-residents at £19.50 per person.
Alternatively, you could stay in style at Oxford's old prison. The building began life as a castle - it was built by William the Conqueror in 1071 - but it was effectively reconstructed by the Victorians, who turned it into a turreted jail. It was decommissioned in the mid-1990s, and last year, opened as a Malmaison hotel. Malmaison Oxford ( www.malmaison-oxford.com; doubles from £140 excluding breakfast) has 94 bedrooms - those in A Wing were created from three original cells (two for the bedroom, one for the bathroom). Colours are bold and the atmosphere is bright and buzzy, particularly at the basement brasserie. There's a quieter mood, though, in the wine-tasting room, formerly a cell for solitary confinement.
In Gloucestershire, another historic building has turned fantastically funky. Set in 55 acres of beautifully kept grounds, Cowley Manor, near Cheltenham ( www.cowleymanor.com; doubles from £230 including breakfast), is a gracious Italianate manor with a wildly contemporary interior: splashes of indigo and hot pink on the walls, papier-mâché animal heads in the bar, and a hallway dominated by a wonderfully mad chandelier. The 30 bedrooms have a Scandinavian-style - cool colours, clean lines. Best of all is the " C-side" spa beyond the stable block, which offers sauna, steam room, two pools and treatments galore.
AH, SYBARITIC SPAS...
On the wild and windswept coast of County Durham, about 20 minutes' drive south of Newcastle, is an aristocratic mansion that was once the family home of Annabella Milbanke, who married Lord Byron here in 1815. Seaham Hall ( www.seaham-hall.com; doubles from £195 including breakfast-in-bed) is now an impeccably luxurious hotel, its 19 sumptuous bedrooms complete with " intelligent" lighting that fades when not in use (apparently, it detects when it isn't needed...). The icing on the cake is the Serenity Spa. This shrine to health and relaxation is in a separate building, linked by underground passageway, and offers thermal baths, sauna, hammam, outdoor hot tubs, and 55 treatments.
Meanwhile, near Frome in Somerset, Babington House ( www.babingtonhouse.co.uk; doubles from £225 without breakfast) is a Georgian country mansion-turned-urban-style hip hotel (it's a sister property of media-hangout Soho House in London). The 28 bedrooms are all taupe and steel in the main house, sunken baths in the Coach House, and family-sized rooms in the Stable Block. There is also a three-bedroom lodge for groups. In the extensive grounds is the sublime Cowshed spa, a fabulous retreat with indoor and outdoor pools, sauna, steam room, and treatments from salt rubs to reflexology given in lakeside cabins or a Mongolian yurt.
Head to Highland Perthshire for a feast in the Trossachs. Four miles down a single-track lane from Balquhidder, you'll reach the Lewis family home of Monachyle Mhor, beside Loch Voil. While their estate remains a working family farm, their old farmstead is now a charming 11-bedroom hotel ( www.monachylemhor.com; doubles from £95 including breakfast) where traditional stone and timber blend with contemporary chic features - shuttered windows, wooden floors, seagrass rugs and more. The surrounding countryside is ruggedly lovely, and is excellent terrain for working up an appetite for the modern Scottish cuisine of the proprietor-chef Tom Lewis. His dishes are created according to local produce (organic farm vegetables, fresh fish from the West Coast, or partridge, for example), and include the likes of house-made ravioli with white-truffle stuffing and wild mushrooms from the lochside, and loin of Monachyle venison with herb-and-nut crusted chicory, braised red cabbage and game jus.
In the Channel Islands, Jersey's first boutique hotel opened last year. It's the Club Hotel and Spa ( www.theclubjersey.com; doubles from £140 including breakfast) in Green Street, St Helier. The hotel developed because of the success of the owner's restaurant, Bohemia, which was awarded a Michelin star in August 2005. The floors above the restaurant have become a sleek, 46-bedroom retreat offering flat-screen TVs, Frette linen, Floringo towels, granite bathrooms with power-showers, and sublimely comfortable beds.
There are two swimming pools: one outdoors on the roof-terrace, one inside as part of the dreamy spa. In keeping with the club style, there's a small library and an honesty bar (though waiters are on hand should you be shy about helping yourself to drinks...), while informal dining is provided in a New York-style café. Meanwhile, downstairs at Bohemia, you can enjoy some of the finest food in the Channel Islands: starters such as beef carpaccio with a horseradish bavarois, and mains including Jersey lobster with crab and fennel ceviche.
HOW ABOUT UNBRIDLED LUXURY?
Butler, personal shopper, sumptuous furnishings: at Durley House, just off Sloane Square in London SW1 ( www.durleyhouse.com; one-bedroom suite from £345 per night without breakfast), you can have it all. But the really clever part is that this very discreet, very luxurious hotel has an appealingly informal atmosphere. That's mostly because of its size and make-up. There are just 11 suites, beautifully presented with marble fireplaces, Regency sofas, oil paintings and fresh flowers. You sleep in generously spacious bedrooms and you can, if you wish, prepare your own meals, but half the pleasure of staying here is in ordering a feast from the in-house chef (there's 24-hour room service, of course) and being served in your living-dining room by your butler.
Meanwhile, in Wiltshire, the Cotswold-stone Whatley Manor ( www.whatleymanor.com; doubles from £280 including breakfast), near Malmesbury, presents a positively dizzying array of self-indulgent facilities. The 15 bedrooms and eight suites are equipped with Bang & Olufsen sound systems, underfloor heating and gorgeous bathrooms - and personal butler-managers. Other features include an amazing spa - the award-winning Aquarias - and beautifully landscaped 12-acre gardens. There are two great restaurants - Le Mazot for cheerful brasserie-style cuisine, and the Dining Room, which oozes opulence and serves seriously good, Michelin-starred food (caramelised langoustine tails with pork and apple jelly, anyone?).
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
The wittily named Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection guidebooks offer fun and informative advice on boutique hotels: the UK and Ireland guide costs £19.95, available from www.mrandmrssmith.com. Alternatively, consult the websites of marketing groups that have carefully selected prime properties. These include Tablet Hotels ( www.tablethotels.com); Design Hotels ( www.designhotels.com); and Luxury Lifestyle Hotels and Resorts ( www.llhotels.com).
CAN I STILL ESCAPE FOR CHRISTMAS?
Surprisingly, you can. The much-loved Hotel Tresanton, at St Mawes in Cornwall ( www.tresanton.com ), has recently had some Christmas cancellations, so if you act quickly, you can book in for a festive break with all the trimmings. A former yachting club, Tresanton became a hotel in the 1950s, and in 1997 was redesigned by its owner, Olga Polizzi, whose creamy, nautical-inspired furnishings provide a chic yet relaxing atmosphere. There are 29 rooms (all with sea views), a cinema, bar, restaurant with Mediterranean flourishes, extensive terrace and a Wendy house for children. The Christmas break includes carols on Christmas Eve, a visit from Santa that night, with stockings left on each door, and another appearance at Christmas lunch. It costs £310 per double room per night, with Christmas lunch £75 per person.
At the time of writing, there was also still availability for a three-day gourmet Christmas break at Raymond Blanc's Manoir aux Quat'Saisons at Great Milton in Oxfordshire ( www.manoir.com). The 32 bedrooms in this 15th-century manor house are grand, and the lovely grounds extensive, but it's the famed two-Michelin-star restaurant that's the principal draw. The festive break includes dinner on 24 December, lunch on Christmas Day and dinner on Boxing Day, and costs from £1,210 per person for the three nights (with breakfast) and three meals.