The Suffolk village of Orford might be tiny but it packs in pretty much everything you’d expect from a classic English location. It’s got a medieval church – the massive 14th century St Bartholomew’s – a handful of shops (including an honesty box newsagents), a couple of pubs, a restaurant, a cafe and even its very own castle.
It does great food and excellent cocktails, it’s got beautiful bedrooms, friendly staff and even has a brewery and distillery on site (it’s owned by 147-year-old Suffolk brewer Adnams). Added to that, it’s right in the heart of Southwold, one of Britain’s loveliest seaside towns, so there’s a lot going for the Swan hotel in Southwold and I would wholeheartedly recommend a stay at this most charming of places.
In just four hours I ate curry, fish and chips, stilton cheese, salt beef bagels, bread and butter pudding, salted caramel cheesecake and a bacon sandwich. With ketchup. Why? You might well ask. It was because I had decided to be a tourist in London for the day. And my day was all the better for it.
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 serious pampering). A country house Christmas break is a real treat and even though it’s only August, people are already starting to book their Christmas hotel stays.
Many luxury hotels, especially the best British country house hotels, offer two- or three-night festive breaks which wraps up the whole of Christmas in a Christmassy package, 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 hotel 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 the best hotels for Christmas in the UK and what the best hotels are offering for Christmas 2019. [The prices are a guide only as Christmas offers vary, but it will give you an idea based on 2018 Christmas prices]. If any take your fancy then be quick as many of these will sell out fast. Good tidings to all!
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
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
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
‘We just fell in love with the Isle of Wight,’ said owner David Barrett as he showed me around Haven Hall, one of the newest B&Bs on the Isle of Wight. ‘It’s exactly like England was, 40 or 50 years ago.’
Now this could be a positive or a negative depending on your point of view, but there’s no question that the Isle of Wight has a unique charm which has made it a popular place in which to live or visit – especially during the summer months when the beaches really come into their own. I went mid-week at the end of March and while it was pretty cold it was beautifully sunny and showed off the coastal walks and the rolling hills inland to their best.
From the Easter holidays onwards the pace really picks up, but with Easter a few weeks away it felt as if I had the island almost all to myself. This meant that popular places such as gastro-pub The Taverners in Godshill, which consistently features on Best Pubs in Britain lists and consequently is hard to book, was practically empty when I turned up on spec and so was able to enjoy an excellent meal without the crowds.
I also had the run of two charming B&Bs during my stay as both were gearing up for the summer season. Both were in the town of Shanklin, on the east coast, which has pleasant beaches, gardens, a town which has possibly seen better days and an quirky Old Town where the pubs are thatched, the streets winding and which is probably packed with tourists in summertime.
My first night’s stay was at Haven Hall, a grand establishment on the clifftop with spectacular views along the coast. The coastal path is just yards away making it an ideal place for walkers and with seven self-catering apartments as well as six bedrooms in the main building, you can arrive back from a bracing walk without disturbing anyone.
I stayed in the immaculate Seagulls Suite which had great views, including through its porthole window and a large bedroom which led through to a fully kitted-out kitchen. There was a microwave, Nespresso coffee-maker, hob oven and all the utensils you could wish for (as well as restaurant recommendations if you didn’t want to do the work yourself) and the whole place was very quiet and relaxing, a little bolt-hole of calm.
David and his wife Arielle bought Haven Hall some years ago and re-opened last year after a multi-million pound refit, buying the property next door, individually styling each of the rooms and apartments and landscaping the gardens which contain an open-air swimming pool, grass tennis court and a pagoda, licensed for weddings. (The gardens were named Isle of Wight’s Best Commercial Garden by Alan Titchmarsh last year).
As well as a luxury B&B, Haven Hall plays host to all sorts of events including yoga weekends and lunches (as I left the following morning the house was filling up with attendees of a gardening lunch) and has already attracted a celebrity fan base with previous guests including Colin Firth and Abby and Peter Clancy.
To not disrupt the lunch guests David dropped off two vast baskets of breakfast goodies the night before, including bacon, eggs, sausages, cereal, fruit, bread and even chocolate eggs so I made use of the kitchen and emerged replete to explore the coast including the charming and quirky beach at Steephill Cove.
My second night on the Isle of Wight was at Foxhills of Shanklin, just a few minutes’ drive away. Run by Ray and Ann Snook, who formerly ran restaurants in California before returning to the UK, Foxhills is a classically-decorated eight-bedroom B&B with a lounge, breakfast room and even a jacuzzi hot tub on the ground floor, which is very popular with guests returning after a long day’s walking round the island.
The rooms are all light and airy, with all the necessary amenities such as kettles, hairdryers, toiletries and wifi, and even though it’s on a main road there is no hint of traffic noise. I was also pleased to see not just information about the hotel in each room (which are all named after local towns) but there were also useful hand-drawn maps of the local area and local walks with recommendations of places to visit.
There are gardens at the side and rear of the property for al fresco drinks and dining in the summer months, and over breakfast you might even be lucky and catch a glimpse of Cyril, the friendly local red squirrel.
As a chef himself, Ray is justifiably proud of his breakfasts which cater to vegetarians and vegans as well as meat-eaters and fans of a Full English: I had an excellent avocado on toast with a poached egg and liked the little individual carafes of orange juice served to each person. Ray is currently considering opening the restaurant in the evenings to guests and locals but is waiting to gauge interest before taking the plunge: with his cooking and hospitality I think it would be a great idea.
There was just time for a quick visit to excellent The Garlic Farm in the middle of the island before my ferry back to the mainland but I made the most of it by stocking up on my current obsession – Isle of Wight Blue cheese – and taking a leap of faith with garlic beer. Can this be a good thing?
However places like The Garlic Farm and The Taverners certainly show that there is a lot more to the Isle of Wight than just the seaside – and there’s the 50th anniversary of The Isle of Wight Festival this year, a great excuse to return!
Haven Hall, 5 Howard Road, Shanklin, Isle of Wight, PO37 6HD
Tel: 07914 796 494
The Garlic Farm, Mersley Lane, Newchurch, Isle of Wight, PO36 0NR
Tel: 01983 865378
The Taverners, High Street, Godshill, Isle of Wight, PO38 3HZ
01983 840 707
Crab and Lobster, 32 Forelands Field Road, Bembridge, Isle of Wight, PO35 5TR
Tel: 01983 872244
Visitor information at Isle of Wight tourist board www.visitisleofwight.co.uk
Halfway through our meal at The Vineyard hotel and spa, Newbury, I was beginning to wonder if I knew as much about wine as I thought I did. Not only could I not guess what grape variety I was drinking or what country it came from, I couldn’t even work out what colour it was, this particular wine being served in a black glass which made the wine inside completely invisible. Was it rosé…? Or maybe it was red? No, it was definitely rosé.
The answer was white. This was worrying. If my judgement was all over the place now, what on earth would it be like after I’d tried all 14 wines scheduled for the evening? Thankfully by the end of the meal I was so replete and content that my success or otherwise in identifying the wines no longer seemed important – the evening had been so interesting and memorable that my lack of wine knowledge could be safely overlooked.
The Vineyard – which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary – is a hotel serious about its wine. Privately owned by the Michael family, which also owns the highly-regarded Peter Michael Winery in California – it has an award-winning cellar (with a mere 30,000 bottles), offer 100 wines by the glass in its restaurant, hosts wine-tastings and wine courses and even wine-themed treatments at its spa (including its Red Grape pampering body wrap).
However it really stands out for its epic ‘Judgement of Paris’ wine-tasting dinner which aims to replicate the notorious (for wine buffs) event in 1974 when Californian wines went up against French wines in a blind tasting. To the shock of the French, and indeed much of the wine world, the Californian wines won the day, and oenophile Sir Peter Michael has recreated the experience at his hotel. Continue reading 14 wines at dinner and a spa to recover in: a memorable stay at The Vineyard, Newbury
‘Kanpai!’ The cry echoed around the hotel dining room. It was the fifth ‘Kanpai!’ of the evening in our trip to Japan and it wouldn’t be the last. At this rallying cry, the Japanese equivalent of ‘Cheers!’, we all had to stand up and down a shot of sake – the clear but potent Japanese rice wine.
After emptying our glasses (which were quickly refilled) we sat down to enjoy the rest of our 15-course meal, each course a delicately crafted work of art.
We were in the fishing village of Toba, around 200 miles west of Toyko, and staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan where the bed was a rolled mat on the floor.
However the food was anything but basic: the first dish alone was the most intricate I’ve ever seen, laid out to represent a wintry scene: there was a snowy topping to represent a peasant’s hut, a ‘devil-faced carrot’ to ward off evil, pearl oyster shellfish, pine-cone shaped sea cucumber, herring wrapped with kelp, peony-shaped salmon – and that was just the first course.