When travelers recount experiences at their favorite inns, their memories usually come down to one detail: a fresh-from-the-oven blueberry muffin, a hot water bottle tucked between the sheets on a cold night, a well-timed umbrella before the rain.
For Will Carlson, executive director of Select Registry Distinguished Inns of North America, it was a recent midnight snack.
"I was running really late at a conference, and by the time I got to the inn, the kitchen had been closed for two hours," he says. "The innkeeper realized that I hadn't had anything to eat. He opened up the kitchen and put together an outstanding Caesar salad. I didn't even ask. They just brought it to my room."
It's that level of attention that separates small-scale, owner-operated properties from the rest.
"Every innkeeper you talk to is someone who, by nature, wants to provide a pleasing experience that is, in and of itself, special," he explains. "People really care."
The 10 boutique properties on this list will take you across the country in the most personal, spectacular of ways -- and no doubt make for a slew of new memories to share.
c/o The Maidstone, East Hampton, New York
Once a private pre-Civil War residence, this Greek Revival home gained fame as The Maidstone Arms, a go-to inn for New York socialites visiting the Hamptons in the 1920s. In 2008, Swedish hotelier Jenny Ljungberg purchased the property and re-envisioned it as c/o The Maidstone.
Each prettily patterned guest room is individually designed to represent a famous Scandinavian, such as Hans Christian Andersen or Alfred Nobel, and features Hästens beds, a Sony PlayStation 3 and an electric kettle. Dogs get a special "Woof Menu." The spa moves to the garden in the summer, so treatments can be enjoyed without sacrificing sunshine, and Ljungberg's gifted eye for special touches is seen in everything from to-go picnic baskets to rotating art exhibitions. Rooms from $489; 207 Main St.; 631-324-5006; careofhotels.com.
Inn at Langley, Langley, Washington
As you roll off the ferry onto Whidbey Island, you may as well be rolling back in time. Whidbey recalls an era when the Northwest was a wilderness playground and there wasn't a tech nerd in sight. Herons rest in tidal flats here, and blackberries grow in thick brambles. Eagles circle. Oysters abound. It's easy to see why it's a popular weekend retreat for so many Seattle dwellers.
The Inn at Langley offers a superb vantage point for viewing the island. Located in Whidbey's darling main town, each of the inn's 28 guest rooms, suites and cottages offer a panoramic view of the Saratoga Passage. The inn is celebrated for its extraordinary, seasonal six-course supper. Award-winning chef Matt Costello, of Seattle's time-tested Palace Kitchen and Dahlia Lounge, runs the restaurant. Rooms from $285; 400 First St.; 360-221-3033; innatlangley.com.
The Inn at Little Washington, Washington, Virginia
No discussion of charming inns would be complete without a nod to Patrick O'Connell's Virginia gem, just an hour's drive from our nation's capital. In 1978, O'Connell opened a country house in "Little" Washington, Virginia (population then: 158), as a love song to the culinary arts. Antique oil paintings of famous gastronomes bedeck the walls, and the inn's 18 rooms are named for American culinary pioneers.
O'Connell soon established a reputation for impeccable service and witty cuisine. (Try ordering the caviar-crab-and-cucumber Tin of Sin without smiling.) Meanwhile, London set designer Joyce Evans turned heads with her approach to interior design. The inn's classic white exterior feels distinctly New England; step inside and it's suddenly olde, with a surplus of baroque tapestries and English antiques. Three decades after he opened The Inn at Little Washington, O'Connell continues to delight and surprise. In a note to guests, he writes, "For over 30 years, it's felt like we've been hosting one continuous house party." Rooms from $490; Middle and Main Sts.; 540-675-3800; theinnatlittlewashington.com.
Korakia Pensione, Palm Springs, California
It may seem strange to find a Moroccan villa plunked in the middle of the California desert, but the original building of this Palm Springs inn entered the landscape just a few decades after the city was founded. In homage to his years spent painting the deserts of North Africa, freewheeling Scottish artist Gordon Coutts built the villa in 1924 as a home and the de facto playhouse of the local art community. Film star J. Carrol Naish built his Mediterranean villa next door in the 1930s.
These two gorgeous structures, along with an adobe dubbed Orchard House, comprise Korakia Pensione (Greek for "crow"). The stylish retreat near downtown Palm Springs may be a magnet for photo shoots, but it's also a relaxing getaway for those wishing to hike, meditate or stargaze in the desert. At night outdoor fire pits, heated pools and foreign films create a romantic atmosphere for a new generation of artists and wanderers. Rooms from $159; 257 S. Patencio Rd.; 760-864-6411; korakia.com.
Little St. Simons Island, St. Simons Island, Georgia
In 2008, Little St. Simons Island celebrated 100 years of "leaving well enough alone." That is to say, the 10,000-acre island with seven miles of deserted beaches is nearly exactly as it was when Eagle Pencil Company owner Philip Berolzheimer purchased it in 1908. Berolzheimer originally intended to make pencils out of the island's many red cedars, but soon decided it would be better if they stayed put in the atmospheric wilderness retreat.
In 1979, his descendants chose to open the island for other travelers, allowing 32 guests to stay on the island at a time. Due to its intimate size and secluded nature, this property is an easy fit for buyouts (family reunion, anyone?) and begs for repeat visitors. The proprietors planted a USDA-certified organic garden on site in 2006 to stock the inn's kitchen. Trained naturalists lead boating, fishing, hiking and birding excursions. Rooms from $650; 888-733-5774; littlestsimonsisland.com.
Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur, California
At a certain point, most travelers accept that sunsets are nearly impossible to photograph. If you visit the Post Ranch Inn, we dare you not to try. Perched on a cliff top above the crashing waves of Big Sur, the inn offers colorful suntsets that have more layers than a royal wedding cake. The property is perfectly positioned to take in the splendor. Tucked carefully into the cliff side, the inn's 39 guest rooms and two individual houses feature stilts that float the buildings above the ground and walls that curve around old-growth redwoods.
The inn's conscientious architecture is matched by its personalized service. In March 2011, when a collapsed section of Highway 1 created an inconvenient detour for guests approaching from the north, the inn partnered with a helicopter company to shuttle them from the Monterey Peninsula Airport. Rooms from $595; 831-667-2200; postranchinn.com.
The Swag, Waynesville, North Carolina
Situated at 5,000 feet, just outside Asheville, The Swag has the distinction of being the highest inn in Eastern America. The Appalachian vista justifies the trip. Perched on the Cataloochee Divide, The Swag offers panoramic views of four mountain ranges: the Great Smokies, the Plott Balsams, the Richland Balsams and the Black Mountains. It also shares a split-rail fence with Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
This idyllic property is named for the dip between the two mountain crests on which it sits, but it could just as easily be named for its little extras. Meals are included in the room rate. There are rustic touches aplenty -- wood-burning fireplaces, handmade quilts and rocking chairs. The buildings are comprised of hand-hewn logs. Yet, travelers be warned: The Swag is located in a dry county. So while the inn is not permitted to sell alcohol on site, guests are welcome to arrive prepared. Pack accordingly. Rooms from $490; 2300 Swag Rd.; 828-926-0430; theswag.com.
Tutka Bay Lodge, Homer, Alaska
To experience Alaska authentically, you have to get lost in the wilderness. But who wants to risk it in a state known for extreme conditions and an abundance of bears? Proprietors Carl and Kirsten Dixon have been solving this particular dilemma since 1983, when they opened their first backcountry lodge. Now they have three luxury destinations: Winterlake Lodge, along the Iditarod Trail; Redoubt Bay Lodge, in the heart of bear country; and Tutka Bay Lodge, nestled on Kachemak Bay.
This final property, near Homer, Alaska, opened in 2009 with just six cabins. (Some are large enough to sleep families.) The property's 10 acres offer plenty of opportunities for exploring, with old growth forest on land and diverse marine life in the estuary. Spot otters, whales and sea lions. Pluck mussels at low tide for an unforgettable evening meal. Rooms from $975 per person; 907-274-2710; withinthewild.com.
Winvian, Morris, Connecticut
Choose your own adventure at this 113-acre resort, where 15 architects created one suite and 18 cottages, each inspired by a different theme. Curl up by a roaring fire in rustic Beaver Lodge. Stargaze through the aluminum-and-glass skylights of modern Greenhouse. Climb the 35-foot staircase into throwback Treehouse, a childhood fantasy writ large.
Or snag a cocktail from the aircraft-turned-bar in Helicopter. The expansive grounds are primed for lawn games such as bocce and croquet, but adventurers may choose to travel farther afield for golf, hot air balloon rides and horseback riding. Pets welcome. Rooms from $499; 155 Alain White Rd.; 860-567-9600; winvian.com.
Hob Knob, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
At this quintessential Martha's Vineyard inn located in Edgartown, social grace courses through proprietor Maggie White's veins. Her grandparents Edward and Helen Osborne Bruch (or H.O.B) were so known for their friendly demeanor and easy company that the name of their estate, Hob Knob, became a stand-in verb for socializing in general.
Now the phrase is seen in another context -- as the moniker of a 17-room eco-friendly inn. Here, frosty pitchers of lemonade are enjoyed on a wraparound porch, and afternoon tea is served with fresh scones and local preserves. After an organic full farm breakfast, grab a beach cruiser and explore the island's bike paths or arrange for a jaunt on the 27-foot namesake whaler. If you happen to catch a fish, the kitchen will be happy to grill it. Rooms from $545; 128 Main St.; 508-627-9510; hobknob.com.