Boutique hotels: Wausau to Waukesha

No one monitors how the term “boutique hotel” is used, but the definition comes down to this: feeling at home when away. Or, in some respects, feeling more welcome and pampered than when at home.

Expect less of a cookie-cutter approach to décor than the average hotel chain, plus more privacy than the average bed and breakfast.

“We try to create more of a home environment,” says Debbie Rice, general manager at Jefferson Street Inn, Wausau.

Think separate sitting and sleeping areas, with room to work and lounge. Add CD and DVD players, 24-hour room service, free Internet access, bathrobes, down comforters, soft to firm pillow choices, newspaper delivery, a respectable breakfast and late check-out option.

Micro-suede couches, granite countertops, spa-brand toiletries and premium-brand liquors make the difference. So do gas fireplaces, whirlpool tubs for two, equipped kitchenettes and easy access to fine dining.

But before sizing up linen thread counts, and whether the bed is triple-sheeted, consider another innkeeper’s observation.

“A boutique hotel is more than just the look,” says Bill Wellman, general manager at Dahlmann Campus Inn, Madison. “We ask staff to think like concierges. We’re not just checking guests in, tallying their bill and sending them on their way.”

At their best, boutique hotel staff will know where to hear free jazz at noon or dine after 10 p.m. They sense unmet needs, be it drying shoes on rainy days or transporting materials to a meeting.

“We get to know our repeat guests and make note of personal preferences,” says Wellman, who believes boutique service “is even more important in an economy where people are sensitive to what they’re getting for the money they pay.”

Here are examples of where to head for boutique lodging in Wisconsin.

Clarke Hotel, Waukesha – Condemned buildings from the mid 1800s, gutted to the studs, this year were reborn as 20 plush rooms and suites that overlook Waukesha’s gallery-rich downtown, 15 miles west of Milwaukee.

Expect nostalgic décor. Dozens of framed, vintage hotel room keys and nameplates – from New York’s Waldorf Astoria, Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel and beyond – fill lobby walls. Choices at the hotel’s Black Trumpet Restaurant include 1,000-plus wines, or stock your own preferences in one of 50 private wine lockers.

An arts/culture getaway ($399 for two until late November) includes lodging, continental breakfast, a $150 dining certificate and tickets to the national landmark Ten Chimneys, longtime summer home of actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

The Waukesha area also was home to electric guitar inventor Les Paul, who died Aug. 13 and is buried in Prairie Home Cemetery.

262-549-3800, www.theclarkehotel.com

CopperLeaf Boutique Hotel, Appleton – Attractions within a quick walk of the homelike hotel’s 73 units make it a logical downtown base for couples, families and groups of friends.

The History Museum houses an extensive and family-friendly exhibit about magician Harry Houdini. Hundreds of artifacts from Vince Lombardi’s estate surround diners at Lombardi’s Steakhouse, which doubles as a free museum to the legendary football coach.

Girlfriends scour specialty shops and book the hotel’s Girls Night Out, a package that includes lodging, a hot breakfast, one hour of spa services (pick two of three: massage, facial, pedicure), bottle of wine and appetizer tray of shrimp, crab cakes and bruschetta. Cost can be as low as $150 per person, when four share a room.

877-303-0303, 920-749-0303, www.copperleafhotel.com

Dahlmann Campus Inn, Madison – What was built as a private dormitory in the 1980s today exudes elegance and offers a quiet respite from the antics of Big Ten college living. Notice the lobby’s marble, mahogany and original artwork. Lakes Monona and Mendota show up in seventh-floor suite views.

The hotel’s 74 rooms and suites are a block from State Street – the lively, pedestrian-friendly link between the State Capitol and University of Wisconsin. Also near are the galleries, rock music and fine art performances of the UW’s Wisconsin Union.

Savor wild mushroom tarts or mini-pizzas with gruyere at the hotel lounge from 5-7 p.m. Return before bedtime, for mini cheesecakes or éclairs. Continental breakfast includes pastries from a local bakery.

800-589-6285, 608-257-4391, www.thecampusinn.com

Delafield Hotel, Delafield – Golfers migrate to this stately, 38-unit inn, 25 miles west of Milwaukee, because within a half-hour drive is the 18-hole Erin Hills link-style course.

Golf Magazine rated Erin Hills as best new course in 2007. Golfers receive room discounts and can book roundtrip shuttle service for $25. End the day at Andrew’s, the hotel restaurant, with lemongrass grilled shrimp and scallops, or order peach-ginger French toast for breakfast.

The Be Fit Package, $575 for two, includes lodging, healthy snacks, breakfast, $100 toward dinner and fitness programs/assessments and equipment use at adjacent health club. The $169 Sunday overnight special includes lodging, wine and a three-course meal for two.

800-594-8772, 262-646-1600, www.thedelafieldhotel.com

Hotel Metro, Milwaukee – Book an in-room massage after pedaling downtown bike paths on a complimentary hotel bicycle. Or head to the rooftop for a soak in the saltwater hot tub, then meditate in the Zen garden.

Roomy, art deco accommodations with Tibetan influences define this refurbished 1930s limestone building. Some of the 65 suites are pet-friendly.

Coming soon to the hotel’s Zen on 7: monthly Classic Cocktail Mixology lessons and occasional specialty dinners that match food and wine or beer. Zen on 7 also is rented for board meetings, receptions and intimate meals.

Metro Special Sundays, at $179, includes lodging and a $25 Metro Bar & Cafe coupon. Relax and Shop, starting at $349, includes $100 in spa services and $50 toward dining.

877-638-7620, 414-272-1937, www.hotelmetro.com

Inn on Woodlake, Kohler – In the shadow of the community’s grand dame, The American Club resort, is a 121-room hotel whose fixtures and furnishings are comparable in quality and ambiance.

“Low profile” means “costs less,” even though breakfast pastries are prepared by American Club chefs and accommodations showcase the latest in Kohler shower equipment. Guests have access to a nearby health club, and the hotel is attached to an upscale shopping area.

Overnight packages sometimes include Kohler event tickets, golf, spa and/or dining reservations. The Harvest Days Package, good for Friday and Saturday stays in October, starts at $179 per night, but don’t expect that rate during the popular Kohler Food & Wine Experience, Oct. 22-25.

800-344-2838, www.destinationkohler.com

Jefferson Street Inn, Wausau – Seeing a guy use a luggage cart to haul fishing rods, as well as a business suit, provides one clue about who frequents this earth-toned, 100-unit downtown hotel.

A mere two blocks away is the vibrant Wisconsin River, where whitewater rapids and gentler currents co-exist with the fish. Come winter, downhill and cross-country ski trails at Rib Mountain State Park lure travelers.

The hotel and its classy-casual City Grill blend in with the specialty shops of Third Street. Some rooms overlook downtown’s public square, whose park-like center is transformed into a skating rink during winter.

Little extras attempt to put overnight guests at ease, be it the hardcover novels above fireplace mantles or the next-door spa’s silver-service English Tea (with soup, fruit, finger sandwiches and sweets).

One overnight hotel package pampers your pet (from $119, including pet goodies). Another, the Dog House Package, aims to elevate your reputation (from $285, including champagne, chocolates and $50 toward dinner).

866-855-6500, www.jeffersonstreetinn.com