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This Illinois Hotel is in the Top 1% of Hotels in the World — and It’s Not in Chicago

The Deer Path Inn, in suburban Lake Forest, also ranked as No. 2 on Travel + Leisure’s favorite Midwest resorts for 2023

From the outside, it looks like a magical English cottage house tucked away on a quiet neighborhood street. 

Green and amber-colored leaves softly surround the Tudor windows and walls, and shrubs, hedges and seasonal flowers sprinkled with string lights line the property. 

Inside, you step into a different world: wellies (available for guests to borrow) line the stone floors from the lobby to the lounge. Fireplaces crackle, and landscape portraits hang on wooden wainscoting. Newspapers gently rest on leather chairs, tassels hang on brass door knobs, and a small statue of an old bulldog wearing a cap and monocle greets guests. 

And don’t be late for afternoon tea — the first seating begins at 2 p.m. 

No, this isn’t a bed and breakfast in the English countryside. It’s not a fancy five-star Chicago hotel, either. It’s the Deer Path Inn — an estate-like getaway in the quaint, northern suburbs of picturesque Lake Forest. 

Down the street, a number of local businesses line the historic market square, which was built in the style of an English village. And though some of the town’s anchors — like Marshall Field & Company — have not stood the test of time, the Deer Path Inn has. 

A guest reads a newspaper in the Hearth Room at the Deer Path Inn in Lake Forest, Illinois.

The Deer Path was originally built as a family home in the 1850s, around the same time that the town of Lake Forest itself was founded. Following a move, the hotel was officially established in 1929, with architecture inspired by a manor house and castle in Chiddingstone, Kent

In 2015, it saw a complete rehabilitation: Underneath, it’s all new, Deer Path manager James Barnett said. But what guests see is familiar, historic and comfortable — just the way Inn likes it. 

“This is a traditional way of doing things in a modernized environment,” Barnett said, of the way the Inn operates. “But it still feels familiar to everybody. It’s helping it live on.”

That familiar feeling Barnett described is all part of the art of Innkeeping. At the Inn, life slows down: it’s a place where dinner reservations are only taken over the phone, which leads to better communication with guests, Barnett said. Details and personal connections matter – all the way down to the rubber ducks that are carefully hand-placed on a guest’s bathtub tray before they arrive. 

“There’s a thoughtfulness, and more attention,” Barnett added. “That comes back to the idea of an Inn – a warm, welcoming refuge. A smaller place, with personal service. That’s what people crave when they come here. It’s a step away from the everyday.”

A tub in a suite at the Deer Path Inn. Photo courtesy Deer Path Inn

Those people don’t just include visitors from out of town, Barnett said. They include lots of locals, too – whether it’s to watch football and eat dinner in the White Hart Pub, or to grab morning coffee in the Hearth Room. Afternoon tea – developed in partnership with a Master of Tea from across the pond — in the English Room is driven by locals, Barnett said, as is the weekend crowd at The Bar downstairs, where head bartender and Chief Spirits Officer Jorge Centeno gives them an honest pour. 

“Half the community is down there, requesting a place to sit,” Barnett said, adding that The Bar fills up quick. “Guaranteed you’re going to know someone there.” 

Many locals stay overnight, too — even if they live nearby. 

Why locals love it 

In addition to being rated No. 2 on Travel + Leisure’s list of 10 Favorite Midwestern Resorts for 2023, and being ranked in TripAdvisor’s top one percent of hotels in the world, nearly half of the Inn’s reservations typically come from Illinois zip codes, Barnett said.

“The Deer Path to me is like an oasis in your backyard,” said Stephie Blum, who lives about 20 minutes away from the hotel, in Northbrook. Blum, who had recently celebrated a friend’s birthday at The Deer Path’s lively afternoon tea, had stayed at the hotel twice in the past three years. 

Jorge Centeno, Chief Spirits Officer at The Bar at the Deer Path Inn

“You don’t have to go far to feel like you’re on vacation,” Blum said. “It always makes me feel like I’m away, even when I’m not. They know your name, they greet you when you come in. They had something waiting in the room for me. They upgraded me to a suite, which was really nice.”

It’s that personalized touch that gives the Inn an “old world flair,” Blum said. “This is like a hotel from another era. The service was impeccable.” 

Part of what allows those personalized connections, Barnett, said, is the smaller size of the hotel, with just 57 rooms. 

“I think the size allows you to slow down a little bit and think about guests from start to finish,” Barnett added. 

But it starts even before you walk in the door. When making a reservation, prepare to spend extra time on the phone, Guest Services Manager Shelby Trkla said. 

“We want to make it feel like it is a home away from home, so we try to learn about guests, and put special items in their room that make them feel like they’re still at their own home,” Trkla said. 

The ‘Locals Only’ Lake Forest scavenger hunt

Those special items typically come in the form of small gifts from local businesses from down the street. 

For example, guests staying during the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah have found in their rooms a basket of local honey and apples from Amidei Mercatino, a cozy, open-air market tucked away in a downtown Lake Forest alley. Families staying with kids are likely to find bedtime books or other treasures from the independent Lake Forest Book Store, to help make their stay that much more memorable. 

A Saturday night at The Bar at The Deer Path Inn

“It’s amazing what they do,” said book store owner Eleanor Thorn, of the level of detail the Inn pays to their guests. 

One visit from the Inn staff particularly stands out, Thorn said, when the manager came in to purchase items for out-of-town guests going into the city for a baseball game. “They came in and were buying gifts for a family with kids who were going to a Cubs game,” Thorn said. “We had a little gift bag with games and playing cards with the Cubs logo. They knew exactly what they were looking for. It’s thematic and individualized for customers.”

The extra attention is what sets The Deer Path apart and makes people want to come back, Thorn said, adding that she herself often goes to the Inn for dinner. 

Both the Lake Forest Book Store and the Mercatino participate in the Inn’s local “Scavenger Hunt,” an activity that’s part of the hotel’s “Locals Only” package that sends Deer Path guests out into the community to discover — or rediscover — Lake Forest. 

As part of the treasure hunt, guests pop-in to specific local shops to find that the hotel has left personalized, curated items waiting for them behind the counters.

“When we select the items for the scavenger hunt, we try to find things that represent the store, the town, and would be something our guest would enjoy and remember the experience by,” Barnett said. “We gather as much information as we can from the guests on their likes and interests and try to select specific things that we think will be memorable.” 

A suite at the Deer Path Inn. Photo courtesy Deer Path Inn

For locals, it also allows them to get reintroduced to the area with a new lens, and mix in new memories with the old.

“We’ll hear guests say, ‘I haven’t done that for years,'” Barnett said, of the scavenger hunt. “It’s recreating your youth or nostalgia, and it’s actually for real,” Barnett said. “It’s a real step back.”

That feeling of nostalgia is so strong that area grandparents wanting to take their grandchildren to the Deer Path Inn inspired management to create a package just for them, the hotel said. 

“We have so many inquiries for that,” Trkla said, of the Deer Path’s ‘Gramping’ Getaway, which includes ice skating at nearby West Park, in-room milkshakes and children’s stories thoughtfully chosen by the book store. “They want to grab the little ones, bring them here and show them a nice time away from their home. We get to create those memories that then last a lifetime.”

Trkla herself grew up going to the Deer Path Inn when visiting her grandparents in Lake Forest, she said.

What keeps people coming back 

For Blum, the draw of the Deer Path Inn is both the hotel and the community.

“The town is just charming,” she said. “You can have dinner there, but then go shopping and go into these restaurants, and I feel like I’m in another city. I keep going back because I genuinely like it. There’s not many hotels like that left.”

Guests do keep coming back, Barnett said, as many who come in for dinner, for breakfast, or to stay at the hotel have been doing so for decades. 

“The trust that people have has helped,” Barnett said, adding that the Inn intentionally makes decisions with its guests and the community in mind. “Always having a great pour. Being generous. I think those things carry weight nowadays.”

For some regular guests, it’s the value proposition — like the service or the portions, Barnett said. 

“For others, it’s being a loyal customer for 20 years,” he added. “There should be some benefit to that, right?”

The east side of the Deer Path Inn at golden hour

Source : 5 Chicago