Mention the words "boutique" and "hotel" in the same sentence and it's a bit like "gastro" and "pub" - you end up with a concept that has not so much gone off the boil as been badly overcooked. Where once the idea of a hotel that's not part of a corporate chain stood for excitement and invention, the phrase is used all too commonly now as an excuse for something lacking in facilities and designed with the finesse of an Ikea sofa. In fact, the boutique label is bandied around so nonchalantly that no one knows what it means any more.
Except in Canada, where Montréal's Hotel Nelligan defines the term on its website as the ability "to provide clients with comfort on an intimate scale and respectfully integrated design elements in a hotel of traditionally less than 100 rooms. A boutique hotel also provides a window to local fashion, history and culture. It becomes an extension of the city in which it is set."
Fortunately, the Nelligan lives up to the description. With 63 rooms set around a large, leafy atrium, it is small enough to feel individual yet large enough to have its own bar, sleek French-style restaurant and gym. It also has friendly, amenable staff. And rather than the type of place that's set in Milan but masquerades as Miami or the Birmingham retreat that thinks it's Balinese, the Nelligan is also deeply rooted in its location.
The property is formed of two connecting 19th-century buildings. The first was used by the Canada Paper Company, and the second has served variously as a wholesale drug merchant, textile manufacturer and a language school. It was taken over by the Antonopoulos family in 2001 and turned into a hotel. As a nice extra touch, the hotel even takes its name from the local poet Emile Nelligan (whose work is subtly inscribed on the hotel's walls).
Hotel Nelligan, 106 St-Paul Street West, Montréal, Québec (00 1 514 788 2040; www.hotelnelligan.com). Bang in the middle of atmospheric Old Montréal, the hotel is surrounded by cool interiors shops, museums, quirky cafés and restaurants and upmarket loft flats.
Time to international airport: about half an hour by taxi, depending on traffic.
Exposed stone and brick walls, cream plaster, rich fabrics, dark wooden furniture and enormous free-standing mirrors give the rooms a distinct, cosy atmosphere. The larger bedrooms have fireplaces and Jacuzzi baths and most feature large windows. Much thought has gone into the bathrooms, which have good, powerful showers, deep baths and plenty of space.
Freebies: Groovy own-brand toiletries, a cheese and wine happy hour in the bar each evening and a complimentary downtown shuttle service each morning.
Keeping in touch: Wi-Fi is available in communal areas; in rooms, there's access to multiline cordless telephones, fax and modem data-ports, high-speed internet, cable TVs and CD players (reception has a selection of CDs).
THE BOTTOM LINE
Doubles from C$154 (£76), including breakfast and evening wine and cheese.
I'm not paying that: Montréal's Youth Hostel, at 1030 Mackay, offers double rooms from C$86 (£42) per night, or dorm beds from C$32 (£16), both without breakfast (00 1 514 843 3317; www.hostellingmontreal.com).