Most people would feel bitter after having a disastrous vacation, but for Lulu Townsend, creator of the ultraselective hotel collection Chic Retreats, the worst travel experiences can be the most inspiring. The 34-year-old Londoner remembers almost fondly the catastrophes that motivated her to launch her business. "When I was young, my parents often walked out of hotels. I remember one place in France: The loo was as tiny as a cupboard and there were hornets in our bedrooms. So we left. I thought it was funny—a real adventure." Today, she admits, "I am a nightmare guest. I notice all the details. It really annoys me that I can't go into a hotel and just relax. My husband finds it extremely annoying too."
An especially frustrating hotel experience at a big hotel on Barbados in 2002 finally led to the concept for Chic Retreats. "Our room was in between the housekeeping stations. The staff chatted so loudly that there was no way to have a midday snooze. We couldn't take a bath because the plug didn't work, and the food was awful." The travel agent who had arranged the trip charged a high fee to change hotels, but moving to the eight-room Lone Star—which impressed Townsend with its design and service—turned out to be well worth the additional $400. While talking to the manager, who suggested she book directly next time, Townsend had the idea to create a Web site for travelers seeking small, beautifully designed and impeccably run hotels, places that people often hear about only through word-of-mouth.
Lulu had an ideal for the kind of properties Chic Retreats would represent: her parents' own country house hotel, Palazzo Terranova, in an 18th-century villa in Italy's Umbria region, furnished with antique sofas and four-poster beds. The whole family has been involved in running the Palazzo since it opened in 1999. Lulu's mother, Sarah, a skilled hostess, oversees everything: booking guests, arranging weddings, giving out tips on local cashmere outlets and trattorias. And Lulu's sister Honor, who trained at London's Leiths School of Food and Wine, runs the kitchen, serving deliciously rustic dishes like grilled quail with a pine-nut-and-prune stuffing.
After Townsend returned to London from Barbados, she compiled her list of Chic Retreats candidates. She or one of her scouts—travel-savvy friends and plugged-in magazine editors—thoroughly inspected the hotels before she settled on the 17 that made the cut. When chicretreats.com launched in late 2002, its founding members were, of course, Palazzo Terranova and the Lone Star. Today the Web site includes 150 properties. About 60 more proprietors approach Townsend each month asking to become members; out of those 60, she might choose only three or four. She doesn't charge travelers a fee for the services (though buying a Chic Retreats membership card for $26 entitles them to discounts and perks at the hotels). Most of her profit comes from an annual fee that the hotels pay.
While no two Chic Retreats properties are alike, they all provide what Townsend calls "happy surprises." At Jardins Secrets in Nîmes, France, Townsend says, "on my first night I found a lovely, rich slab of homemade chocolate cake waiting for me in my room." At Jnane Tamsna estate in Marrakesh's posh Palmeraie district, owner and renowned interior designer Meryanne Loum-Martin pulls together insidery culinary tours and exclusive yoga retreats.
"Soon I will probably start a few new categories on the Web site, like 'Gourmet Chic' and 'Family Chic,' to point out the retreats that have a top-notch chef or those that are child-friendly," Townsend says. She is also welcoming more properties this winter. She'll begin listing Villa Bordoni in the Chianti countryside, owned by Florence restaurateurs David and Catherine Gardner; L'Abbaye-Château de Camon, in a 10th-century mansion in France's Languedoc region; and the Fountainhead in Andalusia, Spain, which has four suites with private plunge pools.
Townsend says she plans to keep the number of Chic Retreats hotels below 250: "My motto is 'Small is beautiful,' " a philosophy that applies to the size of the hotels she chooses. "At bigger hotels, room 211 is usually exactly the same as room 213," says Townsend. "What are the chances that they'll remember your name?" At Chic Retreats hotels, many of which have just a handful of rooms, even "nightmare guests" like Townsend can relax and feel at home. And so can their long-suffering husbands.
Gisela Williams is F&W's Europe reporter. A tireless traveler, she is based in Düsseldorf, Germany.