Review by Fiona Duncan, published 29th January 2007.
Unique, traditional, cutting edge, refreshing, imaginative – Britain has it all and more," so proclaims the VisitBritain website. But if Britain has it all, why do 12 million Britons take holidays abroad more than twice a year?
We know why, of course: to many of us, "abroad" – especially at this time of year – offers guaranteed sunshine and good hotels. Who wants to spend a wet weekend in the Lakes, at a hotel with bad food and even worse service, when you can have a few days of sunshine in the Canaries?
However, would inclement weather matter quite so much if you were staying somewhere wonderful, with fabulous walks, romantic four-poster beds, tea and scones in front of a roaring fire, and a Michelin-star restaurant? Or, as the days grow longer, how about a few days in a hotel set in a 10-acre wildflower meadow in what Prince Charles has called the perfect English village?
To get the most out of a UK break, it's a question of finding a great hotel, then matching it to the season. Those listed here have been chosen not just for their comfort and quality, but because they offer something special – be it their proximity to a festival, a bird reserve or great shopping, or simply their setting in natural surroundings that reach their peak of beauty at certain times of the year. SPRING
Nonsuch House, Devon (01803 752829; www.nonsuch-house.co.uk; double b & b from £80). Just five years old, the annual Dartmouth Music Festival brings a carnival atmosphere and a huge variety of music to its streets, and there's nowhere better to stay than at this top-quality, warmly decorated guesthouse set high above the ferry at Kingswear, with charming bedrooms, award-winning breakfasts and stunning views to the sea from the terrace.
Ardanaiseig, Argyll (01866 833333; www.ardanaiseig.com; double b & b from £90). May, when the weather is becoming warmer and the woods are carpeted in bluebells but the dreaded midges have yet to attack, is a perfect month to escape to this remote and wildly seductive corner of Scotland. On the edge of a loch, against a backdrop of craggy Highland peaks, Ardanaiseig is one of the most romantic hotels in Scotland. Try fishing, take a seaplane ride, or just sit and gaze at the view.
Lucknam Park, Wiltshire (01225 742777; www.lucknampark.co.uk; double b & b from £255). Set in 500 acres of beautiful parkland, with a spa and large indoor pool, Lucknam Park, six miles from Bath, is the consummate country house hotel, highly sophisticated, very gracious but always relaxed. For keen riders, the hotel's renowned Equestrian Centre includes a new cross-country course, and May 3-6 is the perfect horsey weekend with Badminton Horse Trials 20 minutes away.
Winterbourne Country House, Isle of Wight (01983 852535; www.winterbournehouse.co.uk; double b & b from £100). Looking for a soulmate? Then head for the Isle of Wight's May Walking Festival and in particular its Romantic Walking Weekend on May 5 and 6, featuring its hugely popular speed-dating walk, "Love Me, Love My Dog" especially for pooch owners. Book in at this sophisticated, beautifully situated, utterly peaceful (dog-friendly) b & b, which Dickens described as the "prettiest place I ever saw in my life", and surely love will blossom.
The Star Castle, Isles of Scilly (01720 422317; www.star-castle.co.uk; dinner, b & b £112 per person). Warmed by the Gulf Stream, the Scillies enjoy a more temperate climate than mainland Britain. As spring arrives early, plan a visit for late April or May, when the narcissi, pinks, alstremaria and gladioli are in bloom, and stay in this splendid 16th-century castle. Built in the form of an eight-pointed star, it has huge granite walls, theatrical rooms and a terrific location on St Mary's headland.
The Bell at Skenfrith, Monmouthshire (01600 750235; www.skenfrith.co.uk; double b & b from £100). By an old stone bridge in an unchanged village, the Bell, where contemporary and cosy happily coincide in a flagstone, candlelit dining room and eight adorable bedrooms, is a delightful place at any time, but garden enthusiasts should note their midweek spring offer of two nights' dinner, bed and breakfast combined with absorbing themed lectures and a tour of the historic gardens at nearby Llanover Garden School (from £260 per person).
Barnsley House, Gloucestershire (01285 740000; www.barnsleyhouse.com; double b & b from £270). The beauty of its famous garden, created by previous owner Rosemary Verey, combined with the opening of a new Holistic Country Spa (next month) makes cool Barnsley House the perfect weekend getaway for jaded metropolitans who are happiest in familiar surroundings when seeking rural tranquillity. Sleek modern minimalism meets listed manor house in the gentle Cotswolds; go in spring for the garden at its height, particularly the laburnum arch.
Pen-y-Gwryd, Gwynedd (01286 870211; www.pyg.co.uk; double b & b £76 without bath, £95 with bath). A national treasure, in the same family since 1947, this delightfully eccentric climbing inn has changed mercifully little over the years and offers simple pleasures in abundance. After a day spent walking in Snowdonia, come home to a sauna in the garden followed by a dip in the natural pool, then a hearty dinner announced by a gong and a night in one of the plain, spotless bedrooms, with no frills except fluffy towels, monogrammed linen and a decent bar of Imperial Leather soap.
Roxburghe Hotel and Golf Course, Roxburghshire (01573 450331; www.roxburghe.net; double b & b from £178; golf packages available). You can try your hand at clay pigeon shooting, falconry, archery, fishing or croquet at this luxurious country house hotel, but golf is its real raison d'être. The Championship Roxburghe course was designed by Ryder Cup star Dave Thomas, and conditions are optimum in late spring. This is when the trees are coming into leaf and the rolling Scottish borders look their best.
Trevalsa Court, Cornwall (01726 842468; www.trevalsa-hotel.co.uk; double b & b from £108). Spring is the best time to visit Cornwall's exotic gardens, and Mevagissey is ideally placed for exploring the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project, as well as the lovely Roseland peninsula. Though there's a beach at the bottom of the cliff, Trevalsa Court is less a seaside hotel than a stylish, refreshingly different bolthole, run with flair by its German owners.
Combe House, Devon (01404 540400; www.thishotel.com; double dinner, b & b from £235; two-night weekends from £259). Nothing quite prepares you for the first sight of Combe House, with a wildly romantic Caroline interior. Set in its own park in picture-perfect Gittisham ("the ideal English village" according to Prince Charles), this is one place where a special break really does live up to its promise, particularly early summer, when the 10-acre wildflower meadow in front is a carpet of colour. Bedrooms (including a divine cottage for two) are luxurious, and the food in the muralled dining room highly praised.
Kilcamb Lodge, Argyll (01967 402257; www.kilcamblodge.co.uk; double b & b from £150). A short ferry crossing takes you to the Ardnamurchan peninsula, a peaceful land of water, woods, seals and otters, and this beautifully restored country house. Its setting on the shores of Loch Sunart and private beach make it a good choice for summer, when (from June) you can take whale-watching trips from Laga Bay to the sound of Mull and island of Coll, finishing with tea on Muck (Ardna-murchan Charters 01972 500208).
Gliffaes, Powys (01874 730371; www.gliffaeshotel.com; double b & b from £88). Would-be fly fishermen should queue up for the three-day residential course for beginners from June 22-24 at this smart yet relaxed, traditional yet stylish, family-run hotel. You learn about tackle, flies and river craft, and practise casting on the lawn before being let loose on the beautiful Usk to try your luck with the salmon and wild brown trout (Fly Fishing for Beginners course, £260 per person).
The Star Inn, North Yorkshire (01439 770397; www.thestaratharome.co.uk; double b & b from £110). June sees 4,000 roses in bloom in the magnificent rose garden at Castle Howard, 20 minutes' drive from this 14th-century thatched pub and restaurant with rooms. It has old beams, dark nooks and a Michelin star for owner-chef Andrew Pern's inspired cooking. He also prepares light lunches and snacks for his restaurant in the walled garden at nearby Scampston Hall, the perfect spot for another summer excursion (where he stages cookery demonstrations from July to October).
Titchwell Manor, Norfolk (01485 210221; www.titchwellmanor.com; b & b from £55 per person; two-night midweek breaks from £150 dinner, b & b per person). Overlooking the salt marshes, this stylish modern hotel in a Victorian house is only a short walk from Brancaster's glorious golden sands. If you're a bird-watcher, June's the month to catch avocets with their chicks in the Titchwell reserve, and the RSPB organises guided walks (Saturday-Thursday). Return to a mouth-watering seafood dinner.
Osborne House, Conwy (01492 860330; www.osbornehouse.co.uk; b & b from £150). There's virtually no mobile signal in the charmingly old-fashioned resort of Llandudno, but that's part of its appeal. Between the unspoilt beaches and backdrop of mountains, life goes at a gentle pace. Summer here means strolling along the Promenade with an ice-cream cornet, pausing to watch Punch and Judy. In a plum position on the Prom, Osborne House, its spacious suites handsomely furnished with antiques, pictures and porcelain, fits its surroundings perfectly.
The Inn at Whitewell, Lancashire (01200 448222; www.innatwhitewell.com; double b & b from £106). High on the banks of the Hodder, with spectacular Forest of Bowland views, this supremely comfortable inn makes an idyllic summer retreat for anyone who enjoys the great outdoors. There's fishing on seven miles of water, and walks from the doorstep, from a valley ramble to energetic fell walking. You can also explore on horseback, by bike or in a classic car (from around £200 a day) with picnic hamper provided.
Isle of Eriska, Argyll (01631 720371; www.eriska-hotel.co.uk; double b & b from £290). Where better to find seclusion in high summer than a baronial mansion on its own 300-acre island? When the days are long – it's only dark from midnight till 4am – you can take advantage of the six-hole golf course, clay-pigeon shooting, mountain-bike trails, croquet and tennis. For the less active, there's varied wildlife to watch, or time your visit to coincide with the Taynault Highland Games in the second half of July.
Driftwood, Cornwall (01872 580644; www.driftwoodhotel.co.uk; double b & b from £190). In summer, Driftwood feels more Côte d'Azur than Cornwall, with Mediterranean views and a perfect crescent of beach at the end of the garden. July brings the promise of dozens of harmless basking sharks in the bay and there are diverting little regattas around the Roseland pensinsula. Inside, the hotel has the feel of a stylish New England house (three-night breaks from £180).
The Falkland Arms, Oxfordshire (01608 683653; www.falklandarms.org.uk; double b & b from £80). On hazy summer days, relax with an ale in the garden of this traditional 16th-century inn overlooking the green in the charming village of Great Tew. On the edge of the Cotswolds, this is the quintessential English pub, from its uneven flagstone floors to its low-slung oak beams decked with tankards. The telephone's in the bar, so if it's closed or particularly busy, you might not get an answer. But persevere: it's worth it.
Bromley Court, Ludlow (01584 876996; www.ludlowhotels.com; double b & b from £95). With its crop of gourmet restaurants, ruined castle, Grade II-listed centre and beautiful Shropshire countryside all around, Ludlow makes the perfect town for a short break, not least in November, when its popular Medieval Fayre takes to the streets (November 24-25). Bromley Court is an ideal base: a top-notch b & b that leaves you free to dine out, returning to charming, impeccable suites, and Mrs Ross's first-rate breakfast in the morning.
Roman Camp Country House, Perthshire (01877 330003; www.romancamphotel.co.uk; double b & b from £135). The varied country of the Trossachs offers incomparable walking and cycling for everyone, not just the frighteningly fit. At the heart of the area, this former shooting lodge stands in 20 fabulous acres on the banks of the Teith, where autumnal days, glowing with the colour of turning leaves are often crisp and fine. Jazz fans might want to note the late September festival, Jazzing Up the Trossachs.
Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, Oxfordshire (01844 278881; www.manoir.com; double b & b from £400). Raymond Blanc is passionate about wild mushrooms… which great chef isn't? But he brings a particularly infectious enthusiasm to his culinary passions, even creating a unique "mushroom valley" for the cultivation of a dozen varieties. Autumn sees his annual mushroom hunt, when guests learn all about the subject, from identifying and picking to cooking, under the guidance of Raymond and mycologist Dr Derek Shafer, and indulge in a four-course lunch (£155 per person). It would be folly not somehow to manage dinner as well, and to stay the night at the Manoir, still very much in its prime.
Bedruthan Steps, Cornwall (01637 860860; www.bedruthan.com; double dinner, b & b from £160). Fancy helping the environment on your break? Green-conscious, family-friendly Bedruthan Steps offers pampering for frazzled parents, including Maharlika spa treatments, excellent food in its adult-only restaurant and wonderful sunsets, with Ofsted-inspected nurseries and children's clubs. And now you can join hotel staff "beachcombing with a conscience". They've "adopted" Mawgan Porth, the wonderful beach overlooked by the hotel, and trawl it every three months, including September.
Capital Hotel, London (020 7589 5171; www.capitalhotel.co.uk; double b & b from £205). The intimate, privately owned Capital is just steps from Harrods, with all the lavishness and service of a much larger five-star establishment. What better than a day's shopping in Knightsbridge, followed by a cocktail masterclass, then dinner in the hotel's two-Michelin star restaurant? The Cocktail Masterclass (£105 per person) takes place on October 7 under the tutelage of bar manager Cesar da Silva, with canapés created by chef Eric Chavot.
Charles Bathurst Inn, North Yorkshire (01748 884567; www.cbinn.co.uk; double b & b from £92.50). Find the village of Reeth, then head out across the moor and into a far-flung valley where just a handful of houses, a church, a pub and the CB Inn make up Arkengarthdale, little visited yet in the heart of beautiful Dales walking country. Enjoy a hearty breakfast, a packed lunch while out walking, an excellent locally sourced dinner, and a comfortable bed, all in stylish, yet warm and convivial surroundings.
Hambleton Hall, Rutland (01572 756991; www.hambletonhall.com; double b & b from £195; weekday autumn breaks from £135 dinner, b & b per person). Here's a break, in the grand hotel tradition, from which only your waistline will suffer. The location is unrivalled: the Victorian former shooting lodge stands on a wooded hillock surveying Rutland Water, particularly glorious in autumn. Walk or cycle round the lake, then indulge in Aaron Patterson's superb seasonal dishes, including local game, or perhaps one of the hotel's wine evenings or mushroom hunts. Calm luxury assured.
Chester Grosvenor, Chester (01244 324024; www.chestergrosvenor.co.uk; double b & b from £190). For an early Christmas shopping spree and a break in a different town, consider Chester with its compact historic centre, Roman walls, amphitheatre and Cathedral, and its shopping "rows" where you can buy just about everything. With a renowned spa for post-retail therapy, the Chester Grosvenor, owned by the Duke of Westminster, is the obvious place to stay: ask about special shopping and spa packages.
Hotel du Vin, Bristol (0117 925 5577; www.hotelduvin.com; double b & b from £148). Bristol is another city that's well worth getting to know. Take a guided walk (choose from City Highlights, Haunted and Hidden, or a Pirate Walk) and perhaps have your visit coincide with one of the Hotel du Vin's hugely popular Sunday jazz nights in the atmospheric Sugar Bar (when a b & b in a double with dinner costs from £199). Book for September and you'll catch the Bristol Poetry Festival too.
Wesley House, Gloucestershire (01242 602366; www.wesleyhouse.co.uk; double dinner, b & b from £190). October 5-14 sees the prestigious Cheltenham Literature Festival, with record attendances predicted for 2007. Book now for somewhere to stay: perhaps nearby in historic Winchcomb, seven miles away. The Methodist preacher John Wesley, a wordsmith himself, twice stayed at Wesley House, an enticing 15th-century timbered restaurant with rooms. Bathrooms are tiny and bedrooms small but sweet, while modern English food is served in an airy dining room, with a wine and tapas bar adjoining.
The Rose and Crown, Norfolk (01485 541382; www.roseandcrownsnettisham.co.uk; double b & b £85; two-night midweek break dinner, b & b £110 per person). Twice a day in midwinter, thousands of pink-footed geese fly in formation over the RSPB Snettisham beach reserve. The spectacle of startled waders rising up in great clouds is almost as magical. Return from bird-watching to a reviving breakfast or evening pint, and warm up by the fire at this wonderful old pub with fresh contemporary rooms, a first-rate kitchen and loyal following.
42 The Calls, Leeds (0113 244 0099; www.42thecalls.co.uk; double b & b from £158). Blow away the winter blues with a weekend of retail therapy in Leeds. Base yourself in this hotel in a converted corn mill, five minutes from Harvey Nichols and the mosaic-and-glass shopping arcades, to take advantage of its "Ab Fab" Getaway offer, which includes a Friday or Saturday night, bottle of Champagne, Harvey Nicks gift pack and £50 of vouchers (£199 for two).
Lavenham Priory, Suffolk (01787 247404; www.lavenhampriory.co.uk; double b & b from £95; ring for midweek specials). Looking for an impossibly romantic hotel for a winter weekend à deux? Look no further than historic Lavenham Priory where you can snuggle up with a glass of wine in the warmth of the Great Hall's inglenook fire, and sleep in a four-poster in a gorgeous, beamed bedroom. Dinner isn't served here, but walking into pretty, medieval Lavenham to dine is all part of the charm.
The Goring, London (020 7396 9000; www.goringhotel.co.uk; double b & b from £300). After the buzz of Christmas, January can often feel flat. A spell in town to hit the sales and see a couple of shows could be just what's needed. A family-owned, unmistakably English hotel, with country house style and traditional British cooking, the Goring is a home-from-home for country dwellers. In winter, fires crackle in the hearths, and – if shopping hasn't done the trick – you can take turns around the lovely gardens to work up the appetite for a slap-up afternoon tea.
Dukes Hotel, Bath (01225 787960; www.dukesbath.co.uk; double b & b from £155, from £125 in Jan/Feb). By winter the tourists have thinned out, but there's still plenty going on in Bath: festivals, concerts, theatre and, in early December, an open-air Christmas market. This elegant Georgian hotel offers excellent-value two-night shopping breaks, including an à la carte dinner in its award-winning Cavendish Restaurant on one night and a complimentary bottle of Champagne (double from £310).
Seaham Hall, County Durham (0191 516 1400; www.seaham-hall.com; double b & b from £225). If you've over-indulged at Christmas, the Serenity Spa at this smart, comfortable hotel is the place to detox. There are more than 55 treatments to choose from, and as a hotel guest, you have free access to sauna, steam room, hot tubs, hammam, pool and gym. Complete the therapy with bracing seaside walks (two-night midweek breaks including treatments available in January and February).
Gilpin Lodge, Cumbria (015394 88818; www.gilpinlodge.co.uk; double dinner, b & b from £120 per person). Beatrix Potter fans should visit the beautiful countryside that inspired her tales and was the setting for the new film about her life. This family-run hotel's deep-pile comfort and Michelin-starred kitchen make it the perfect base for visiting the writer's various homes and taking her favourite walks, followed by a private viewing of Miss Potter.
Bark House, Devon (01398 351236; www.barkhouse.co.uk; double b & b from £89; three nights' b & b plus one dinner from £148.50 per person until March). With mild weather, often clear blue skies and few people, winter is the best time for exploring Exmoor, returning to cosy Bark House for homemade cakes and scones by the fire, dinner by candlelight, and a night tucked up in one of five cottagey bedrooms. In the morning you can enjoy one of the best breakfasts ever.
Prestonfield, Edinburgh (0131 225 7800; www.prestonfield.com; double b & b from £225). Edinburgh is the place to be at New Year, so if you've a fluid ounce of Scottish blood, book into this romantic, opulent hotel for Hogmanay, when a piper welcomes guests to a black-tie ball and gourmet dinner in the Georgian circular stables. And there's no shortage of fireside sofas and cosy corners to retreat to (Hogmanay Ball tickets around £85).
West Stoke House, West Sussex (01243 575226; www.weststokehouse.co.uk; double b & b from £150; 2-night winter breaks double dinner, b & b from £456). Between the South Downs and the coast, this whitewashed Georgian house makes a fine base from which to explore the Witterings, a pristine stretch of dramatic coastline known as Chichester's mini-Hamptons. After walking you can return to West Stoke's understated elegance and laid-back atmosphere, plus a superb dinner courtesy of former Lanesborough chef Darren Brown.