Kesgrave Hall hotel Suffolk: a friendly, lively, fun, quirky hotel stay

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There was far more to Kesgrave Hall than I’d expected. Having just come from its sister hotel, Maison Talbooth, a luxurious, refined, relaxed country house with outdoor pool and 12 beautifully designed rooms, I wasn’t sure whether the 23-room Grade II-listed Kesgrave Hall would be on similar lines or be something far grander.

Kesgrave Hall hotel Suffolk
The Grade II-listed Kesgrave Hall is a hotel and restaurant on the outskirts of Ipswich

It turned out to be neither: instead it was a mixture of several styles which blended together to make a very different hotel experience. It was a wonderfully relaxed place to stay, with the bustling lounge, bar and restaurant built along ‘shabby-chic’ lines in the manner of The Pig hotel chain, all bare floorboards, Chesterfield sofas, Union Jack cushions and playing card picture frames and a focus on local ale and artisan gin.

Kesgrave Hall hotel Suffolk
The downstairs bar leads to the dining room beyond

The restaurant was packed (no small achievement on a wet Wednesday lunchtime in January) and was a real hotspot of activity, with diners including young entrepreneurial types planning their latest business ventures, couples on a romantic breaks, work colleagues, family groups and old friends having a long-awaited catch-up. Continue reading Kesgrave Hall hotel Suffolk: a friendly, lively, fun, quirky hotel stay

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Maison Talbooth: an almost perfect stay at a lovely Essex country house hotel

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The key to a memorable hotel stay is a great welcome and such was my arrival at the excellent Maison Talbooth hotel on the Essex/Suffolk border was that within ten minutes I felt utterly at home.

Maison Talbooth luxury hotel Essex
Maison Talbooth is a charming (and very smart) 12-bedroom hotel near the village of Dedham in Essex

The signs were good from the start, with a smooth check-in done in seconds in the entrance hall on an iPod, rather than having to stand at a reception desk filling out endless forms. Even better, once I was shown to my room I was invited to explore the rest of the 12-bedroom hotel as all the as yet occupied rooms had their doors left open, meaning you could have a good old nose around.

Maison Talbooth luxury hotel Essex
The rooms were all immaculate and individually-designed but shared a common look of serious luxury. This is the Shelley room which is a corner room overlooking the grounds towards the pool

In hotels as individually-designed as Maison Talbooth, it’s great to be able to see what else is on offer for future trips (or even to change if you prefer another room which is free) and so I spent a happy half hour wandering between Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Betjeman and other poets who had given their names to each bedroom. Framed poetry from the bedroom poet was hanging on the bedroom wall, so being in Wordsworth, we got On Westminster Bridge and Daffodils, while our neighbours got Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Maison Talbooth luxury hotel Essex
The Betjeman room is on the top floor and has two lounges with the bed taking pride of place between them

Each room, while different, had a luxurious feel, with thick carpets, immaculate furnishings and the soothing tones of Classic FM coming from every bedside digital radio. The rooms ranged from standard (Kipling) up through superior and deluxe and ended up with the Principal Suites of Shakespeare and Keats, both of which have their own private terrace. Continue reading Maison Talbooth: an almost perfect stay at a lovely Essex country house hotel

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A spookily moving 48 hours in Derry Northern Ireland

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If it’s ghouls, ghosts and goblins you’re after, then you have to visit to Derry in Northern Ireland at the end of October for its epic Halloween festival. Derry was voted ‘Best Halloween destination in the world’ by American newspaper USA Today and the entire town goes Halloween-crazy for an entire week leading up to the big day itself.

But there are plenty of great reasons to visit Derry anytime in the other 364 days of the year and you can fit a lot into just 48 hours in Derry: its beautiful location for one: perched on the banks of the River Foyle and just a stone’s throw from the Atlantic ocean and some stunning beaches. Derry is closer to Glasgow than Liverpool and visitors flying in from the British mainland will – weather permitting – get spectacular views of the Scottish coast including the Mull of Kintyre.

ALadyofLeisure.com 48 hours in Derry
The curving Peace Bridge which connects the two sides of Derry across the River Foyle
ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
Derry is the only fully walled city in the whole of the island of Ireland and the walls are an integral part of the town centre

Then there is the sense of history, both ancient and more recent, which has shaped the character of the city. Derry is the only completely walled city in the island of Ireland and its 17th century walls – nine furlongs round, just over a mile – are a delight to walk, run or cycle around.Its more recent and turbulent history as a city torn apart by sectarian violence in the long and costly war between unionists and loyalists now forms a part of Derry’s more moving sites: the curving Peace Bridge crossing the river and symbolising hope for a once divided city, and the murals painted on the walls of the terraced houses in  Bogside, just outside the city walls and the site of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972.

ALadyofLeisure.com and 48 hours in Derry
Murals on the side of houses in Derry’s Bogside, site of much conflict over the years but now a great symbol of the peace process

While the name Derry echoes down through history, the name itself is still a source of contention: is it Derry, Londonderry or its Celtic name of Doire? The choice of name is a political one, with Irish nationalists traditionally using Derry and unionists Londonderry, the name Derry was changed to in 1613 after investors from London financed the building of the walled city. The choice of Derry/Londonderry/Doire have led some to call it Stroke City and some – not all – signs to Londonderry have been graffitied over to leave just the last five letters. To add to the confusion, the airport is called City of Derry airport, the railway station is called Londonderry and the city is still officially called Londonderry while the city council is not. However as Councillor John Boyle, the current Mayor told me, ‘I don’t care what people call it, as long as they come and visit.’ Continue reading A spookily moving 48 hours in Derry Northern Ireland

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A festive round-up of the best luxury country house hotels for Christmas

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Luxury hotels could be made for Christmas.  Think of the best luxury country house hotels for Christmas and instantly you can picture the festive scene: comfy sofas, roaring fires, beautiful decorations and acres of grounds for the Boxing Day walk (or a top spa for some baserious pampering). Many luxury hotels offer two- or three-night breaks which wraps up the whole of Christmas in a festive offering, often starting with welcome drinks, carol-singing and dinner on Christmas Eve, followed by a Champagne cocktail and Christmas Day breakfast, the all-important Christmas Dinner with all the trimmings, and then a Boxing Day buffet. Sprinkled among all this festivity will be  Christmas films, time for presents and the Queen’s Speech (Christmas at a luxury hotel is nothing if not traditional).

Added to this might be a luxury spa, activities such as falconry, wine-tasting, treasure hunts, black tie dances, cocktail classes, Christmas games and quizzes (Father Christmas could even make an appearance) and probably the best thing of all: absolutely no washing up. You will be looked after, pampered, indulged and thoroughly cosseted and while all this comes at a price, well, it’s only once a year after all. However each hotel chooses to celebrate Christmas, you can be sure of three things: it will be memorable, it won’t be cheap, and there’ll be a massive Christmas tree. Feeling festive yet?

Below is a round-up of some of Britain’s top hotels and their Christmas packages. If any take your fancy then be quick as many are selling out (I’ve included some at the end who have already sold out but which are too good not to include – time to start planning for Christmas 2019!). Good tidings to all!

Cliveden House, Berkshire

best luxury country house hotels for Christmas
Cliveden House

The hotel: A 350-year old country house set in 376 acres of magnificent formal gardens and woodland, Cliveden is one of Britain’s grandest country houses and fittingly promises an ‘iconic’ Christmas house party. The hotel where Meghan Markle spent the night before marrying Prince Harry is a Grade 1-listed stately home complete with antique furniture and a thoroughly modern spa and guests can expect a Christmas celebration worthy of Downton Abbey.
The Christmas package: Christmas Eve starts with mulled wine and mince pies and a champagne reception with carol singers followed by a three-course gourmet dinner with wines, while there’s a three-course Christmas lunch with wines on the big day itself. On Boxing Day there’s a brunch buffet followed by a ‘butler’s tour’ of the stunning building, then dinner with wines and dancing.
Cost: Prices start from £3,585 per room based on two sharing.
Read what it’s like to stay at Cliveden here

Bovey Castle, Dartmoor National Park

best luxury country house hotels for Christmas
Bovey Castle

The hotel: A stunning but welcoming grand historic hotel in the heart of Dartmoor
The Christmas package:
Arrive on Christmas Eve for lunch and a host of festive activities including cider and sloe gin making, plus afternoon tea with carol singing.  The evening includes welcome drinks, a candlelit dinner and the opportunity to attend Midnight Mass at the local church. On Christmas Day take part in Bovey Castle’s scavenger hunt, then enjoy the beautiful scenery with a guided walk followed by a drinks reception and Christmas Day lunch.  A buffet will be served in the Great Western that evening, then a nightcap while a storyteller weaves tales in front of the fire. After brunch on Boxing Day, sign up for the golf tournament or a guided walk, enjoy ferret racing or nearest the pin golf competition, with hot chocolate and mulled wine. The day finishes with a five-course black tie dinner and entertainment in the Great Western Restaurant.
Costs: From £2,730 per person for a three-night stay based on two sharing
Read what it’s like to stay at Bovey Castle here

Ockenden Manor, West Sussex

best luxury country houses hotels for Christmas
Ockenden Manor

The hotel: In the pretty village of Cuckfield, 28-room Ockenden Manor combines the history of an Elizabethan manor house with a first-class modern spa
The Christmas package: Start off with an indulgent afternoon tea, a Sussex sparkling wine reception with carols around the tree then dinner in the elegant restaurant on shared party tables, Midnight mass followed by mulled wine and home-made mince pies. For Christmas Day there’s a continental breakfast, sparkling wine reception with canapés followed by a six course lunch, tea and Christmas cake, light buffet supper with harpist accompaniment in the evening. Boxing Day: Full English breakfast with Sussex sparkling wine, full afternoon tea with Christmas Cake and cocktails  before a gourmet dinner – plus full use of its award-winning spa and swimming pools
Costs: From £1,025 per person based on two sharing
Read my review of Ockenden Manor here Continue reading A festive round-up of the best luxury country house hotels for Christmas

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Trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – an amazing experience which I didn’t want to end

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Never before had the famous quote: ‘It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey,’ felt so true. For the last four days, I had been hiking through stunning Peruvian mountains to reach my destination, the famous UNESCO World Heritage site of Machu Picchu. But now, sitting on the ground under a make-shift bus shelter in the dark at 3am waiting to be allowed onto the final stage of the trek, I really didn’t want the journey to end. It had been such an amazing, challenging and memorable experience just to get to this point, that reaching my goal was going to be surprisingly bitter sweet.

trekking the inca trail to machu picchu
The World Heritage site of Machu Picchu was my destination – but did I really want to get there after all?

When I was initially contemplating this trip, I had thought of little else than seeing Machu Picchu, the 15th century Inca site high in the Andes which had remained lost in the Peruvian forests until just 100 years ago, and hadn’t really paid a great deal of attention to how I was going to get there. This meant that I was in a for a bit of a shock when I was sitting in a classroom in the bustling Peruvian town of Cusco, our meeting point at the start of the journey.

Trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Cusco’s huge main square, the impressive Plaza de Armas, which contains Cusco Cathedral and and the church Iglesia de la Compania de Jesus

I was travelling in a group of 11 other people with adventure tour operator G Adventures and our enthusiastic guide Elias was talking us through each day. Rather than taking first a train and then a bus to Machu Picchu like most tourists do, we were lucky enough – as only 500 people are allowed on it each day – to be hiking the Inca Trail, 25 miles (for us) of ancient footpath through the Andes and along the Amazonian basin which leads to Machu Picchu.


I travelled with G Adventures on the  seven day Inca Trail trip which
starts from £899 per person excluding flights. The seven day
Lares Trek adventure – the Lares Trek is shorter and higher than the Inca Trail and isn’t restricted by permits – 
also starts from
£899 per person excluding flights.


I had only the vaguest idea of what trekking the Inca Trail would involve (you could say that I’d skimped on the research, but I do like to arrive on these trips with as few preconceptions as possible), and I’d rather blithely assumed it would be a gentle walk through the Peruvian countryside. A slide showing the second day’s walking popped up on the screen – a diagonal line going from the bottom left to the top right in a sheer climb. ‘Total elevation 1,115 metres,’ it said, adding, more alarmingly: ‘Highest point: Dead Woman’s Pass.’ This did not sound good.

‘We’re going to climb that high in just one day?’ gasped one of my fellow travellers. ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,’ said Elias reassuringly. ‘When you’ve finished walking, then you can have lunch.’ Continue reading Trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – an amazing experience which I didn’t want to end

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News, reviews and opinions on everything to do with leisure, from hotels and holidays to food and fitness, by national newspaper journalist and author Sarah Bridge

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