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“Excuse me!” barked the Colonel.

“Excuse me!” barked the Colonel. “You need to move. I’ve been sitting at this table for thirty years!”

It was a comment I found on Trip Advisor, about a Hotel Guru hotel in the Isle of Wight. Originally reviewed by Hotel Guru Fiona Duncan, the Northbank Hotel in Seaview was recommended as a hotel every connoisseur of character hotels should stay in. She describes a place of shared bathrooms, apparently unchanged since the 1950s. Another guest commented despairingly about coming across another guest’s ‘smalls’ drying on a radiator – I can just imagine the frustration of the son of the house, desperate to get his hands on it to he can install en-suite granite wet rooms and double the room rates.

This is just one of the more eccentric discoveries I’ve made as we gear up for the relaunch of the Hotel Guru. We’ve been doing a sort of inventory of all our reviewed hotels, cross referencing with the best of the online and offline hotel guides. What is clear is the huge range of hotels there are with real character across the UK and Europe. Why put up with the bland and the predictable when there is so much more of an experience to be had? What also stands out, though, is what an overused and degraded word ‘boutique’ has become. Every other online guide claims to be the best collection of ‘boutique’ hotels but, really, what does the word mean? It seems every hotel with a lick of Farrow and Ball paint (used as a kind of badge of honour by many on their websites) and some designer furniture claims the right to call themselves boutique – even those as part of a chain or over 100 rooms. So please, let’s ban the word! Or at least redefine it. A true boutique should be a one-off expression of a hotel owner’s unique sense of style, a hotel with a truly individual personality. As we have discovered, very few really warrant the epithet. When I started the UK’s first boutique online hotel guide, Travel Intelligence, in 1999, very few claimed it. Now they are everywhere.

But beyond the predictable ‘boutiques’, we’ve discovered some much more interesting developments in the world of hotels. In the UK, for example, the last five years has seen the rise of the house hotel. Partly as a result of the recession, and partly of the desire of urbanites to seek a better quality of life in the countryside, they are typically the result of a creative couple from London, or Manchester, or Leeds, buying up and restoring dilapidated country manors and turning them into chic homes with rooms to rent. More than just the old b+bs, they boast designer bathrooms, frette linens, organic breakfasts and White company toiletries.

Together with the rise in the country gastropub, with its stylish bedrooms, bistro food, and wellies by the door to borrow for local walks, they are providing a more intimate, characterful, relaxed way to have a weekend break – and at a more reasonable price – that the typical country house hotel. They may lack the facilities – the trouser press, the minibar, the bedside telephone – but who needs that anymore? What we want is personality, warmth, free newspapers and wifi, a super comfortable bed and a great bath to soak in. I’m thinking of hotels like the Gunton Arms in Norfolk, The Rectory Hotel in Wiltshire or The Wheatsheaf Inn in the Cotswolds.

We’ve started the UK and we’re on to Europe. In the coming months and years we’ll be unearthing some really special places.


Written by James Dunford Wood

posted Monday, 1st October 2012
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