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.
My guide on the best luxury hotels for the Christmas break – this was written for Christmas 2018 but will certainly be useful if you’re already thinking of 2019! 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.
With every cloud there comes a silver lining and the missing of our flight to Cape Verde meant an unexpected overnight stay in Bristol and my first experience of Hotel du Vin.
I’d long been aware of the hotel chain founded by Gerard Basset and Robin Hutson back in 1994 (they had met while working for the excellent Chewton Glen, one of my first reviews for ALadyofLeisure.com and still a firm favourite). Hutson has since gone on to found the Pig hotel chain (see my review The Pig near Bath: Impossible not to love it here) so frankly I should have got round checking out Hotel du Vin much sooner! However I had my doubts, as the chain was sold, first to Malmaison and then to private equity outfit Frasier Hospitality, so I had thought it might be a touch corporate and soulless now.
Thankfully judging by my experience at Hotel du Vin Bristol at least, that doesn’t seem to be the case. A ten minute taxi ride from the station and we were dropped at its pretty courtyard entrance which declared itself to be the site of Bristol’s last remaining sugar house, a legacy of the city’s years as a trade centre and Britain’s second city, when instead of the current view of the road there would have a river crowded with boats unloading their goods for refinement and distribution.
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This sugar refinery was built in 1728 and operated until 1831, becoming a warehouse and then lying derelict for years until being sympathetically restored, opening as a Hotel du Vin in the now Grade 2-listed building in 1999. The inside of the hotel is like a cosy rabbit-warren due to being made up of several buildings knocked together over the years, and in keeping with the wine theme, each room is called after a different type of wine, with a little glass case containing a bottle outside each door. Continue reading An unscheduled stay at former 18th century sugar house, Hotel du Vin Bristol