Review by Fiona Duncan, published 11th July 2009.
"Keep heart," reads a sign along the seemingly endless, twisting lane to Gidleigh Park, "you are still en route." "Fear not," it might have continued, giving further reassurance to nervous urbanites wondering how a deluxe hotel could be quite so remote, "there will be wet rooms and Wi-Fi at the end of this road." "But prepare ye," it could have carried on, if in truthful mode, "for an eye-popping bill."
For nearly 30 years Gidleigh Park, an imposing Tudor-style house embraced in an oasis of gardens, river and woods on Dartmoor's edge, was the quintessential country house hotel, all ticking clocks and curled-up cats. Then along came Andrew Brownsword, who bought Gidleigh and made a partner of its measured, gifted and motivated two-Michelin star chef, Michael Caines, with whom he also launched the growing Abode chain of city hotels.
They cleverly extended and massively upgraded the building but they didn't, thank heavens, build a spa or gym. Instead, they added several "spa suites" with features such as hot tub or steam room, perfect for the in-room treatments now offered.
We'd prefer a walk. After a light lunch served too slowly, we set out on the hotel's recommended two-hour circular route, finding Kestor Rock and the South Devon Hunt streaming across the empty moor, red coats blazing in the sun, riding hats courteously doffed, hooves splashing across the rocky river.
The new-look Gidleigh offers undoubted luxury (a mix of contemporary and traditional), superb food and a wonderful location, well worth the long drive. The prices, as I say, are serious, which is fine, as long as everything is perfect. Our spa suite is amazing but we never get to use the sauna because someone has failed to turn on the master switch. We have trouble with the fire too. Our friends, in a dogs-allowed "master" room at £450 per night, get a fruit bowl containing four apples plus one miniature bottle each of shampoo, conditioner and body lotion, and two mini soaps between them; their morning paper is forgotten. But when they need a can of petrol, having made it to the hotel "on fumes", it is courteously and promptly fetched.
In a setting such as this, amid one of our country's wildest places, one wants to feel enveloped, tucked up, cosseted. Some of the immaculately turned out staff do just that, but others seem somehow detached. Our dishes are announced by a girl for whom the word "glacial" must have been invented.
The food, on the other hand, is sensational and worth every penny. Caines is surely the most admirable of all today's top chefs and his Classic Tasting Menu shows his authority and his mastery of ingredients to superb effect.
The new Gidleigh is a great asset, and works both as a spoiling retreat and a glamorous venue for a celebration. But you'll be looking for perfection and hopefully, on your visit, you will find it.
Chagford (01647 432367; www.gidleigh.com) Doubles from £310 per night, including breakfast. Access possible for guests with disabilities.