Review by Fiona Duncan, published 19th October 2008.
It's a long way from London to Laugharne, especially if, like me, you've borrowed your son's ancient convertible. "You'll love driving with the hood down in the sunshine," he said, and I do, until the heavens open and I can't raise it again. Have you ever seen drivers doing double takes on the motorway? I have.
From Piccadilly to Laugharne you'll turn neither right nor left for 225 miles. Rather magical, really. "I believe there's magic here," says owner Matthew Roberts, who had successful careers in the music business and internet publishing before perversely falling for Hurst House, an abandoned, centuries old farmhouse facing the sea. "Merlin was born in these parts. His influence remains." And then, of course, there's Dylan Thomas, who "got off the bus in Laugharne, and never got back on again".
Arriving at Hurst House, on the silent, faraway marshes outside town, I park, seemingly, in the middle of nowhere. There's little sign of a hotel, let alone a luxury one. Then, "just when you think you're going to be mugged", as Roberts puts it, a member of staff appears (the wonders of CCTV), takes my luggage and guides me down a path, past the handsome farmhouse (where there are four rooms, the rest being in converted courtyard buildings) and into the hotel's new extension.
Double take, this time from me. Suddenly I'm in a hip bar/lounge that opens onto an elegant Côte d'Azur-style terrace and a dazzling dining room: long, candlelit, glamorous. It takes time to adjust. I've moved in a nano second from remote marshland farm to louche Soho club.
A great deal of money and effort has been spent on the recent expansion of Hurst House, first opened in 2003, in Roberts' bold attempt to create an "international" hotel – 21st-century style. Thus, the dining room is divided, like a stage set, by a Moorish carved wood door frame, hung by wires and flanked by two portraits, similarly suspended. The view gives on to a huge, currently rather ragged, kitchen garden, its pole position designed to let guests know where their food comes from. Inscribed across a wall of windows: a poem, not by Dylan Thomas but by Roberts. "Well, I write poetry and it's my hotel, so I thought…why not?"
At the next table: a guy from the band Squeeze. Once a month: a concert or literary event featuring the likes of Patti Smith and Will Self. Complimentary for all guests: a three-month membership to Hurst House London, Roberts' private dining club in Covent Garden. Oh, and there's about to be an indoor pool, spa and a cinema. Of course.
But despite all the contemporary "must haves" Hurst House – in essence a humble dairy – has a rough-hewn feel to it, still very much a work in progress. Like Laugharne itself (the last medieval Corporation in Britain) it feels not slick and international but – more interesting – a rare pocket of individuality; idiosyncratic, creative, democratic and different. There is indeed a magical quality to its location, and to the way it surprises. Magically, the sun had even returned, and my hair dried, before I reached it in my roofless car.
East Marsh, Laugharne (01994 427417; www.hurst-house.co.uk) Doubles £285, including breakfast. Suitable for guests with disabilities.