We have to kiss a lot of frogs in order to find our princes. So, it's a question we get asked all the time: "What exactly makes somewhere a Smith hotel?"
We were conceived in the early Noughties, after James Lohan and his now-wife, Tamara Heber-Percy, discovered first hand how hard it was for style-savvy urbanites to work out where best to squeeze the most out of their precious off-duty time. Sexy hotels that tick all the form and function boxes are still surprisingly thin on the ground if you want the whole shebang: slick design, home-from-home comfort, snappy service and first-class eating and drinking.
Soho House came up with a great blueprint 10 years ago with its shabby-chic Somerset stay, Babington House. Here you could dress up or dress down in low-key luxe, and dip into the Cowshed spa or screening room with your lover or a bunch of pals. However, for a long while, hip hideaways such as this undersupplied the demand.
In these information-saturated days, when boutique-hotel-by-number looks are as ubiquitous as McDonald's (and even those dreaded burger joints have had a zhuzh-up), it may be hard to recall such an era. Fast-forward a decade, and hotel lovers seeking somewhere stylish with substance are again challenged when searching, but for the opposite reasons. Type "boutique hotel" into Google and a blizzard of fraudulent offerings makes the real deal as hard to find as that proverbial needle. Then "boutique" became a euphemism for expensive, but now if a property has high enough standards of service, decor and individuality, it can still qualify for the Smith's now-global collection without having a huge price tag.
"Boutique" should mean small, cool and hopefully laced with luxury, right? Tell that to the grotty guesthouses that think an Ikea-take-on-a-Starck chair upgrades their establishment to boutique B&B, or to the faceless multinational chains that hope some cool tunes in a cocktail bar justify a ride on the bandwagon. For added bamboozlement, throw "design" and "lifestyle" into the hotel-label mix.
How do we choose properties for our collection? We seek out stylish hotels and luxury holiday houses that have a "certain special something". We visit them in person and review them anonymously at our own expense. It's only once a hotel has been invited into the collection that they pay a fee for being featured. And even at that stage we sometimes reject hotels – someone reviewed a hotel for us for our France guide recently and had concerns. We did a further check and agreed with their comments; despite the fact we'd already sent a photographer and were up against a deadline, we dropped the hotel. Properties can't "buy" their way into Smith.
So, I guess what sets a Smith hotel apart is its je ne sais quoi. Here are the factors we consider.
SIZE: Less is more
One of the first questions we ask is whether the hotel is small enough. To qualify as a Mr & Mrs Smith stay, a property should really be under 50 rooms, or at least feel this size thanks to cosy corners and an intimate ambience. The problem these days is that somewhere that looks pretty on its website can, in reality, be a corporate behemoth; long, soulless corridors and identikit rooms are never a good look. Small and perfectly formed are La Suite in Rio (seven rooms), Casa Tua in Miami (five), Pretty Beach House in Australia (three pavilions), or the Drawing Room in Wales (three).
Lots of chains have introduced their own boutique brands, but are these interesting enough for the ever-growing army of discerning weekend-awayers? Sometimes. Which is why Mr & Mrs Smith exists to navigate people to those that offer a more personal experience. Bigger, boutiquey examples include the St Regis in San Francisco, Santa Monica's The Viceroy, and the Gramercy Park Hotel in New York.
STYLE: Cool but comfortable
Jaded by fusty B&Bs and homogenous chain hotels, we crave quirky, we want quality and we know what's stylish. A whiff of mass-produced furniture or corporate flourishes and we're outta there. You could say that at Smith we like a contemporary feel, but by this I don't mean entirely modern furnishings or architecture – a property can have traditional traits but be utterly à la mode. Cutting-edge fabrics, chic floral arrangements, and cunning 21st-century lighting, all contribute to creating an on-trend environment even if the backdrop is centuries old.
An inspired mishmash of antique and new is a winner, and right now, aesthetically, it's all about craftsmanship and individuality. This is the approach to decor on which many of the hotels we recommend pride themselves. Rough Luxe is the new shabby chic as a genre and the name of a hotel in what was historically one of the seediest parts of London, King's Cross. Stripped-down decor, deliberately deconstructed paint finishes, original artwork, exposed walls – the perfect antidote to glossy overdone chains. Similarly, the Ace Hotel in Manhattan celebrates original features with peeling-paint cornices juxtaposed with sparkling chandeliers in its white-hot new restaurant, the Breslin.
SLAVES TO DETAIL: Considerate touches, considered presentation
This sorts the wheat from the chaff. I don't mean the edge of the loo roll folded (I never understand why chambermaids do that) but the feeling that a hotel has thought through the whole guest experience, from presentation to usability. Whether it's being able to reach the minibar from the bath or free head massages at Six Senses in Koh Samui – it's the above-and-beyonds that really give us that warm-fuzzy feeling.
You don't want gimmicks for the sake of it, but treats such as aromatherapy sprays labelled "sleep well" at Firmdale Hotels such as the Haymarket and Soho Hotel in London, and Crosby Street Hotel in New York. Unique touches, such as hot-water bottles at bedtime at Pool House in Scotland are heart warming.
SERVICE: Slick but not showy
Our holy-grail formula is perfectly proportioned style and nothing's-too-much-trouble service – not flashy or overly attentive staff, nor bland and impersonal treatment from a uniformed charisma-nought. In the early days of boutique, when form was the focus, often function suffered. Today, at the budget end, guests might not be coddled, but there might be enough provided for guests to look after themselves well, such as self-serve breakfast at cheap-chic NY Hotel Grace on Times Square.
At the luxury end, private butlers and concierges discreetly look after every whim, at properties such as the Baglioni in London, Cayo Espanto in Belize or JK Place in Florence. Jade Mountain in St Lucia has major-domos who are hard wired to second-guess your every need, rather than just serve your requests – blimey. How did you know I wanted a G&T, you mind-reading freak?
SEXINESS: Accommodation that is aphrodisiacal
All too often, places that look perfectly nice on their website turn out to be business-traveller oriented. Who wants to be away with their lover and be greeted by a board telling them the Men & their Microchips convention is in the main ballroom? We're not saying you need rose-petal hearts on the bed (although there are great modern twists on this – Puro leaves a lovely camel bone Balearic bracelet on the pillow; at Babington you get a Horny Cow or Sleepy Cow aromatherapy potion), but you should feel you could spend a whole weekend at a Smith hotel without leaving, or ,even better, make a weeknight feel like a Saturday.
Somewhere special feels like a home from home – better than your pad, in fact, as that's often the point of stealing away. Just try to prise yourself from the caldera-side private pool of Astra in Santorini, say, or the foliage-framed garden of Jardins Secrets in Nîmes.
THAT SOMETHING SPECIAL: The crucial wow factor
At Smith, not only do we adore genuine boutique hotels, but we also embrace relaxed hideaways that have an all-important X factor. Whether it's the view, the restaurant, a charismatic hands-on owner, it's an element that sets it apart from the crowd. Think: the outdoor hot tub at The Cambrian in heavy snow, or the wine cellar at Rodwell House in Cape Town. Also in South Africa, Singita Lodges take it to the next level and invite you to help yourself to their price-tag-less cellar any time, with the one rule that you can take anything as long as you finish the one before – so you could be drinking a prized vintage or lowly table wine. Innovative minibar offerings are another chance for the creative to flex their muscles: check out local designer Tina Thor's jewellery and Loraine Abeles's make-up kit at Cooper Street Hotel in New York.
SETTING: A lovable locale is also key
Having great things to see and do and fab pubs or restaurants on your lap are another clincher in an unforgettable experience. As are inspiring surroundings: sipping rosé on the rooftop ramparts of desert kasbah, Dar Ahlam; to watch the sun set behind the Atlas Mountains is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Ditto for eating salted, fried, fresh rosemary, admiring vineyard valley views from its sister property in the Douro Valley, Romaneira. Reaching Vigilius Mountain Resort in South Tyrol by cable car is a pretty hard act to beat. And simple pleasures such as cream tea at the Endsleigh, overlooking the River Tamar, make doing very little fairly soul stirring.
To book a hotel through Mr & Mrs Smith, call 0845 034 0700 or visit mrandmrssmith.com. For its collection of holiday houses, go to smithandfriends.com. Latest developments include a new office in Melbourne, Australia, and this month's publication of Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection: Australia/ New Zealand is available from Spy Publishing at £19.95. In 2010, look out for two new guides focusing on France and Asia, and a new office in the US.