It was in pursuit of Girl with a Pearl Earring that I found myself in The Hague. The Vermeer painting hangs in the Mauritshuis, a little-visited museum that serves Dutch old masters in pleasantly digestible portions, with no queues, no bulletproof glass, and no tour groups gathered around handheld flags. The town is a peculiar mix, its pleasant canalside streets removed from the horrors played out in The Hague's International Court of Justice. But if you're neither an attorney nor a felon visiting on business, The Hague presents itself as a picturesque provincial town, without the seediness of nearby Amsterdam. It is here, fittingly, that I chanced upon the most perfectly discreet, utterly luxurious place to stay: Haagsche Suites, a small townhouse retreat with just three rooms, recommended by a knowing Dutch friend. The cabbie struggled to find the address—it was difficult to describe this hybrid that is neither hotel nor private house, and the Haagsche is marked by only the most unassuming signage.
What makes this place so special stems from the growing frustrations of a frequent traveler. I've become more than a little jaded by repetition, bored even by the most nouvelle boutique hotels. I crave a sense of the personal, the indigenous, the home away from home. As clichéd as that sounds, my passion is shared by an increasing number of Americans who spend significant time away from the family bosom. Don't misunderstand: We all appreciate 24-hour room service, our bags carried, and a massage on call. But as the Florentine hotelier Leonardo Ferragamo explains, the hotel guest is purchasing not a pair of shoes but "the memory of an experience." It's a phrase that captures perfectly our complex, demanding, and overindulged expectations.
My memory of the Haagsche (pronounced HAHG-shuh) is precious. My host, Guido van den Elshout, a former international tax lawyer, took my coat as I entered an inimitably Dutch drawing room—dark, with shuttered windows, convex mirrors, and old parquet floors reminiscent of a Vermeer canvas. There was no check-in, no forms to fill out, no credit cards to swipe. I was offered a glass of good wine to sip in front of the fireplace. I met his wife, Irene, who brought in a tray of toasted canapés. Guido recommended a local restaurant for dinner (to which he escorted me later that evening). He showed me where to find the Mauritshuis museum on a local map; Irene offered to drive me there the next morning. My suite, located on the third floor of this impeccably restored 1890 house—formerly home to an 89-year-old widow and her 26 cats—included a large bedroom, bathroom, sitting room, and kitchen. The private terrace overlooked a garden designed by Dutchman Dick Beijer that was modern, with square, slate-edged pools flanked by espaliered fruit trees. Snow dressed the topiary. The suite, with a fireplace of its own, was done in a palette of chocolate and cream, with layered textures of velvet, crocodile, Belgian linen, felt, marble, leather, tweed, and mahogany. Silver candelabra stood next to crystal decanters of whiskey and Grand Marnier; leather-bound books and 19th-century busts filled tall antique cabinets; the kitchen was stocked with wines ("a free maxi-bar," says Guido, "we don't charge for extras"). In the bathroom was a Hoesch "Zero" tub with silver holders for two champagne flutes (and a bottle sitting on ice). The whole place, designed by Dutch designers Martin de Boer and Gerda Rietveld, is the perfect cross between my two favorite hotels, London's Berkeley and New York's Carlyle—but cozier.
"I wanted to create a home, but something more dramatic than a home. It's a difficult balance, but it's what makes the difference," says Guido, who has spent much of his professional life staying in some of the world's best hotels. As a result, he is fanatical about details. "My wife was once charged for mints at Blakes in London. Nothing annoys me more. So we provide the small things, like dental floss. And guests respect that. They treat this like a private house. For instance, if they don't drink the wine, they don't then stuff it in their bag." Irene interrupts: "The personal aspect is what matters most. Yet with the boom in five-star hotels, it's the thing that disappears first."
Indeed, I'm not used to a hotel owner's serving breakfast, never mind scrambling the eggs himself. And what a feast this was, eaten in the kitchen-conservatory at a grand antique table with bowls of fresh blue hyacinths scenting the room, watched over by Guido's forefathers who stare down from gilded frames. No, there's no spa, but I'm here for Vermeer. No, dinner isn't served, but if I want a sandwich, Guido can oblige. Besides, on city trips it's rare that I dine in the same place where I stay. And I'd rather have Guido for a concierge than all the Swiss-trained pros at the grandest joint in town.
As unique as the Haagsche Suites is, the concept behind it is, thankfully, becoming less so. This new generation of what I see as sophisticated B&Bs offers a much-needed alternative to the ubiquitous luxury-hotel formula. "It's about having a deeper experience of a destination, of living in it and grasping its spirit. In these places, the walls talk—which they just don't in hotels," says Claudia Borges da Fonseca, a veteran of the high-end travel business in Europe. "It's also an inevitable trend, for it is human nature to look for the hidden thing. People are trying to find a different route to quality, which creates a more discerning, exploratory kind of travel. Call it travel's haute couture."
That's a particularly apt metaphor, especially for Carla Sozzani's 3Rooms, which she opened above her extraordinary fashion boutique in Milan last year. The space in the three suites is generous. And as one would expect, the interiors are fantastic (though service can be erratic), mixing Jacobsen and Eames with vintage, midcentury-modern lighting. Sozzani calls her concept "the turtle principle: You live with your home. It's always with you and it follows where you go." In fact, most of the furniture comes from Sozzani's private collection and that of her designer, the American Kris Ruhs. The effect is entirely personal and idiosyncratic—yet it's a blueprint that has proved inspirational. This year, designer Azzedine Alaïa will open 3Rooms Paris in the fourth arrondissement.
The majority of these new, small, owner-run establishments are tucked into townhouses, palazzi, and châteaux throughout Europe and beyond. (England, despite being the birthplace of B&Bs, has yet to catch up with the trend: Miller's Residence in Notting Hill is fabulously eccentric, but tatty at the edges; No5 Maddox Street, open since 1999, feels like a has-been; and Hazlitt's in Soho is quaint, but pinched for space.)
The trend has reached even to Australia: mooghotel in Sydney, opened by nightclub impresarios Simon and Susanah Page, hides a cool, ultramodern aesthetic behind a black Victorian facade on a pretty stretch of Bourke Street in Surry Hills. Above the popular bar and restaurant is a suite split between two floors, with two bathrooms, a freestanding tub on the mezzanine, a plunge pool in the courtyard, lots of white linens, and colorful Italian furniture. Here, too, the personalities of its owners show up in every detail: The place is seriously wired, with TVs, DVDs, CDs, and video games all controlled by one remote. There's even a music-recording studio (should you feel inspired), and Simon's own CD-mixes play just about everywhere, including underwater in the pool. It's all very cool—the nightly video projection of '60s-style graphics around the pool is the least of it—but service doesn't lose out to style. A butler and a chauffeured Jaguar are available 24 hours a day.
As far-flung as the new B&B has become, Europe is still its epicenter. Touring the Low Countries, I stopped in Antwerp at the ten-room De Witte Lelie, which occupies three 16th-century, step-gabled houses around an interior courtyard. It was recommended to me by a discerning contemporary art collector. Fashion designer Paul Smith stays here, as does the prince of Denmark. Inside, the walls are white and the chairs are slipcovered in plain cotton—a clean canvas for the strong brush-strokes of the antique tables and chests, the original oak rafters, and the checkerboard marble floors. The homemade breakfast, which was cooked in the kitchen where I sat, was better than I've had at the London Ritz. There's no doorman in a pillbox hat (you ring the bell to enter) nor any lobby that might kill the illusion that you are at the house of a very tasteful friend.
In Haarlem, 15 minutes from Amsterdam, I made a comparable discovery. On the fringe of the city, where narrow cobbled lanes lead like spokes of a wheel from the central church, lies Park Tower Suite. This one-suite B&B combines Dutch colonial antiques with rococo gilding, a paw-footed bath, and a giant shower. Again I was seduced by the fireplace, the price (here, as at all these B&Bs, you get the equivalent of a hotel's best suite at a fraction of the cost), and the autonomy granted by a set of keys to my own private fiefdom where I don't have to worry about who is making breakfast.
Of course, autonomy may not be for every traveler. The B&B is an adventurous experience, without the practiced routine of big-hotel service (a B&B is not ideal for a business trip). You have to trust your relationship with the owner-host and be open to varieties in character. The mutual respect between the serving and the served is sadly removed from conventional hotels. Yet, as I learned traveling farther afield, it is often the most enriching aspect of one's stay.
This is particularly true at the Residenza Napoleone III in Rome, a three-room suite in the 16th-century Palazzo Ruspoli, just off the Via Condotti and fronting the elegant new Fendi store. Everything about the palazzo reeks of grandeur and style. Though there is a fax machine and Internet hookup, one comes here to immerse not in modernity but in times gone by. The furnishings and architecture are of museum quality—you are, after all, staying in the same apartment where Napoleon III is said to have stayed as a young man. But the experience is really about intimacy, thanks to the hostess, the Principessa Letizia Ruspoli. A woman of exquisite taste and generosity, Ruspoli lives one floor above (several of the noble Ruspoli families live throughout the Palazzo) and sees to everything, everything, her guests may need. Should you want a guide this morning? What about a tree decorated for your Christmas stay "just to make things a touch more homey?" she asks. No problem. Ring the buzzer at bedside and a butler—or more likely Letizia herself—will appear and wave her magic wand.
I discovered the same intimate connection in Marrakech, with Ursula Haldimann, a former Swiss chocolatier who owns Riad Enija. She led me down the souk's narrow alleyways to her favorite artisans.
In Antigua, Guatemala, the former colonial capital, the handsome adventurer John Heaton owns one of the most perfect examples of the highly personal, sophisticated B&Bs. Quinta Maconda is a four-bedroom house brimming with elegantly Bohemian furnishings; its colonnaded balconies are twined with roses and wrapped around a fountain-filled courtyard. But the aesthetics are not all. "When you book into Quinta Maconda, you're not booking into a hotel. You're booking into an address book," Heaton says. His friends gave me rides in helicopters to remote highland villages. I met the curator of the Museo Popol Vuh in Guatemala City, where I was led into storerooms stacked with row upon row of fabulous Mayan treasures, some too delicate to be publicly displayed. I met photographers, painters, and local carpet makers; talked about politics, anthropology, ecology, corruption, and Hollywood (there were more than a few salacious stories of famous friends who pass through town).
Heaton, like so many B&B owners, can provide this sort of hospitality—"the memory of an experience," in Ferragamo's words—because, simply put, he isn't in it just for the bottom line. His new class of owner-hosts aren't landlords so much as cultural philanthropists. Take Frédéric Coustols, a French financier who has sunk $22 million into an extraordinary B&B in Lisbon called Palácio Belmonte. It has ten of the most exquisite suites in Europe perched atop a hill in the city's old town. The unmarked palace in the center of town has towers dating as far back as 123 b.c., Roman foundations, carved Visigoth pillars, seventh-century Moorish brick ceilings, contemporary black-veined marble bathrooms, and some 38,000 18th-century Portuguese tiles. On my visit, I wanted to ask how the costs of so lavish a restoration stack up against the room rates, but that seemed vulgar. Besides, Coustols answered my questions, albeit indirectly, with an explanation of his own: "I have traveled the world for fifteen years," he said. "Belmonte represents every luxury I didn't find. Principally peace. And beauty."
Haagsche Suites Rate, $500. At 155 Laan Van Meerdervoort, The Hague; 31-70-364-78-79; www.haagschesuites.nl.
3Rooms Rate, $350. At 10 Corso Como, Milan; 39-02-62-61-63; www.3rooms-10corsocomo.com.
mooghotel Rate, $690. At 413 Bourke Street, Surry Hills, Australia; 61-2-8353-8200; www.mooghotel.com.
De Witte Lelie Rates, $285-$500. At 16-18 Keizerstraat, Antwerp; 32-3-226-19-66; www.dewittelelie.be.
Park Tower Suite Rate, $635. At 13 Florapark, Haarlem; 31-23-53-47-773; www.parktowersuite.com.
Residenza Napoleone III Rate, $1,430. At 56 Largo Goldoni, Rome; 39-347-733-7098; www.prestigiousrome.com.
Riad Enija Rates, $275-$415. At 9 Derb Mesfioui, Marrakech; 212-44-44-09-26; www.riadenija.com.
Quinta Maconda Rates, $225-$250. At 5a Avenida Norte 11, Antigua, Guatemala; 502-832-7371; www.quintamaconda.com.
Palácio Belmonte Rates, $535-$1,430. At 14 Páteo Dom Fradique, Lisbon; 351-21-881-66-00; www.palaciobelmonte.com.
Sophy Roberts, Departures' European contributing editor, wrote about Antarctica in the March/April issue.