Life in the fast lane isn’t for everyone. While high achievers are busy striving for the top, others happily romp about just doing their own thing.
We hear a lot about the high-flyers of the hotel world – the legendary Grandes Dames, the superlative modern masterpieces. And yet, most hotels in Europe fall into the great middle of average, which is the three-star category. Here airport hotel chains keep company with unsightly carbuncles by the sea. And yet, between the functional and the understated, there are some real treasures to be found: boutique hotels born out of a desire to create something beautiful; simple, rural hideaways following a sustainable lifestyle, cozy places run for generations by the same hospitable family who are perfectly happy to remain in their humble three star category and excel in their field.
The irony of the star rating system is that the very things that keep these small hotels from earning more stars make them special: their intimate size, limited space, listed buildings, form over functionality. A star rating system cannot distinguish between a Canaletto heirloom and a Jack Vettriano print, preferring an elevator to a spiral staircase. Charm, beauty, warmth – the qualities that make us fall in love with a particular hotel are so subjective that such things cannot be measured.
Three stars mean old houses, unpolluted. Faded stately homes and unpolished palazzi, redesigned fincas with a strong sense of place. Three stars are for the big romantics. For people who don’t like golf or the gym who don’t care about room size as much as long shutters opening onto a wrought iron balcony.
If you’re happy to forgo the extravagant extras and dig a little deeper, you’ll find the kind of characterful hideaways that will make you feel right at home, with a warm welcome, lots of charm and wonderful home-cooked breakfasts – delights that all come through Smug thought of what you saved by staying there.
Here are 40 small and special hotels that make three-star stays an art form.
Ca’n Gaia, Majorca
The quintessential Mallorcan hideaway: a dreamy ocher stone agriturismo set in native gardens a few miles from the sandy coves of the southeast coast. Inside is cool and bright; 12 rooms and suites, some with green shutters, some with a private terrace. In the morning, breakfast comes from the vegetable garden and is served on the sun-drenched terrace under the pine trees.
The details: Doubles from £85 (00 34 97116 2021; cangaia.com).