The neighborhood of Chamberi, in Madrid, is where you go for things you can’t get anywhere else, which is precisely why Urso, the hotel I stayed at during a recent trip, is located there. The cava and cacao con leche in my room, the potato chips, the sardinas en escabeche at the restaurant—practically everything came from nearby shops.

It was a modus operandi I could have seen myself becoming loyal to. But even though Urso is part of a small hotel group, that group’s brand does not appear on the cocktail napkins or complimentary shampoo; there is no rewards program. The group, which had fastidiously designed and maintained every aspect of the hotel, from the wallpaper to the breakfast menu, wanted no attention at all.

Urso occupies the former headquarters of Spain’s national paper monopoly.

Over the last decade, the luxury-travel market has boomed. New hotels have proliferated, while venerable icons such as the Hôtel de Crillon (now a member of the Rosewood Collection) and the Ritz Madrid (now a Mandarin Oriental) have been scooped up and reborn as corporate assets. Nowhere is this truer than in Madrid, where, in addition to Mandarin Oriental, Rosewood, Edition, and Four Seasons have all added outposts, almost doubling the city’s supply of five-star rooms.

Marugal, the group behind Urso, has a philosophy that might be described as “anti-chain”: whatever a multi-national brand would do, it does the opposite. And its strategy is catching on.

Most of the properties Marugal owns or operates are in Spain, where the company is based. It operates a converted palace in the heart of Málaga’s old town and a midcentury-style beach club on Formentera, as well as an ultra-modern mini-hotel attached to one of the most renowned restaurants in Basque Country.

Vermelho, a 13-room inn in Melides, Portugal.

In the trendy beach town of Melides, Portugal, the company recently opened Vermelho, a 13-room inn. In France, it manages an inn overlooking a castle inside a walled forest, and in Switzerland it outcompeted the big chains to take over Geneva’s legendary Beau-Rivage, one of Europe’s last true grande dames.

No one staying in any of these properties would be aware of their connection, although a certain stylistic lineage can be detected. Some bear the hand of the design firm Esteva i Esteva. The hotels tend to be staffed locally rather than with the itinerant multi-national workforce common to chains, and each is indelibly connected to its surroundings.

Vermelho, in Portugal.

Urso occupies the former headquarters of Papelera Española, Spain’s national paper monopoly. Constructed during the last years of the Spanish Empire, the ornate, cream-colored building retains a touch of imperial swagger, recalling the days when Spain was the richest country on earth.

No one staying in any of these properties would be aware of their connection, although a certain stylistic lineage can be detected.

The hotel has a quiet confidence. The lobby is stylish but not overdone. The public spaces are lively and convivial, without the aid of a D.J. If you want to disappear into a dark corner, you can. But you can also discuss a business deal without shouting. The staff is attentive but not falsely familiar. Children are welcome and occasionally seen, but this is a hotel for adults.

Princess Diana sunbathes topless at the Byblos hotel in Málaga, Spain, 1994. The hotel has since been reborn as La Zambra.

As is Marugal’s La Zambra, located in the heart of the Costa del Sol—although the atmosphere could not be more different. Formerly the Byblos hotel, in the 1980s and 1990s it was a hideout for Julio Iglesias and the Rolling Stones. Guests were known to arrive in laundry trucks to avoid the press, although one photographer did succeed in scoring a picture of Princess Diana sunning topless on a balcony in 1994. When it closed, a little more than a decade later, it seemed like an artifact of a forgettable moment.

Marugal, however, saw an opportunity. The banquettes in the underground nightclub have been reupholstered, and the disco ball is spinning again. Named after a barefoot style of flamenco, La Zambra is now a wellness retreat combining the asceticism of a Teutonic spa with the friskiness of a members-only club. Improbably, it works.

La Zambra is named after a barefoot style of flamenco.

Next, I went to Cap Rocat, in Majorca, the best-known and most exclusive of Marugal’s 15 properties. There, I met the company’s charismatic 53-year-old founder, Pablo Carrington.

La Zambra is now a wellness retreat combining the asceticism of a Teutonic spa with the friskiness of a members-only club.

Opened in 2010, the architecturally singular Cap Rocat is a 24-room hotel in a former Spanish Navy fort overlooking the Bay of Palma. As Carrington explained to me on a tour by golf cart (the property is large, part of a 75-acre nature preserve), the fort was a “negative space,” by which he meant that it was literally carved out of the ground. “If you want to create a window here, you would be drilling for a week,” he says, tapping on a wall.

The interiors at La Zambra nod to the louche glamour of the Byblos.

That rock, like so much of the Majorca coastline, was marés, the golden sandstone that gives the island its regal glow. Guests stay in former officers’ quarters built into the cliffs, with views of manta rays and dolphins playing in the surf. It is regularly featured in lists of the world’s most beautiful hotels.

Carrington grew up on Majorca. In the 1960s, his father met his mother on the island while sailing from Newport Beach by yacht. Majorca had yet to become one of Europe’s most fashionable destinations; Cap Rocat was still an active military base, and Carrington’s father nearly had his boat sunk in these waters after ignoring warnings not to trespass on drills using live ammunition. “He never learned Spanish,” Carrington says.

In his 20s, Carrington worked as a consultant in Paris. After a few years, he says, he looked at his bosses and said to himself, “I don’t want to be you.” So he quit, and he hired an executive coach, who told Carrington to make his career in hotels. At a party last year celebrating Marugal’s 20th anniversary, Carrington dedicated his speech to the coach: “If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be here.”

Cap Rocat is located in a former Spanish Navy fort overlooking the Bay of Palma.

Marugal’s first property was a villa in San Sebastián that had been in Carrington’s family since the 1800s. It had been sold to their lawyer, who hired Carrington to turn it into a hotel. Carrington redesigned it himself, transforming the manor into Villa Soro, one of Spain’s first boutique hotels. Afterward, he was approached by a member of his family, who wanted to convert a palace in Pamplona into a hotel. “One thing led to the other,” Carrington says.

The epiphany behind Marugal’s philosophy came on a 2004 consulting trip to Mauritius. “On my pillow for the turndown they put a Valrhona [chocolate],” Carrington recalls. “And I was like, That’s what they give me with my coffee at a café in Paris. Put something from here there. Or put nothing. But don’t put this.”

Guests at Cap Rocat, a 24-room hotel in Majorca, stay in former officers’ quarters built into the cliffs.

“Chains made sense in 1990,” Carrington says. But he believes “the whole philosophy of hotels has to change. We have to get involved in preserving the destination.”

Below us, a handful of sunbathers ordered their last drinks from a skinny teenage waiter tiptoeing up and down stairs carved into the sandstone. A pack of younger boys slithered up a crag for one last dive, egging each other on in Arabic, as a naked French couple awoke from a nap and lit each other’s cigarettes. It was golden hour among the cliffs, with not a brand in sight.

Ben Ryder Howe is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and New York magazine and is the author of My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store