Review by Fiona Duncan, published 3rd October 2010.
It's not just a hotel and restaurant – it's another country. A slice of rural England that's become the multifaceted, munificent realm of one impassioned, driven Frenchman who never stops. Despite an injured leg, Raymond Blanc, crutches whirling, takes me on a tour of his magnum opus at breakneck speed. His enthusiasm and drive, and also his sense that he is merely the custodian of his creation and must pass it on in peak condition, are all in evidence as the self-confessed detail freak whisks around his ever-burgeoning estate.
"Look here: apricots, a triumph… and here, 27 varieties of French pear… and here, my wonderful friend Lloyd Le Blanc's sculpture of artichokes… ah, that bush must go, wrong shape, and this doorbell, and those chairs… and here is where a tidal wave of French lavender will sweep into my new English orchard with 25,000 trees: it is my entente cordiale… the Manoir is about food, about nature, about fun, about art, about masculinity, about the female form."
Help. Exhausting, yes, passionate, certainly. But whether the Manoir is your bag or not, it works. It was booked solid throughout the summer, and the Frenchman from Besançon, with the backing of Orient-Express Hotels, has pulled off quite a coup.
It's been 25 years since he first took on Great Milton's manor house, but only now, with two Michelin stars still intact, does he cautiously say that he has something to be proud of, now that Japanese gardens, ponds, Asian gardens, herb gardens, vegetable gardens, lavender walks, a mushroom valley, croquet lawn, cookery school and 32 bedrooms have been created.
If the Manoir is a dictatorship, it is a benign one. "I am an autocrat, but also a democrat," Blanc says. "My team is everything." And they evidently adore him, especially for his commitment to them, to their training and to the future. "He cares for us and for the Manoir, and we love him for it," says head chef Gary Jones.
Best of all, Blanc's enjoyment of our multicultural society, his interest in the Orient and Africa as well as Europe, and his refusal to follow fashion but to create instead an "eclectic classic", has resulted in a luxury hotel that feels truly egalitarian. "Fifty per cent of cars in the car park are small," he says with pride, "everyone aspires to one moment of luxury: here is the place to have it."
If you'd thought of Le Manoir as mainly a destination restaurant, think again. Blanc admits that the loss of a Michelin star would be catastrophic, so he must embellish the rest of the offering to keep the culinary part from becoming too vulnerable, creating not just the gardens but a series of lavish, gently themed bedrooms. Whether his inspiration was a mountain in Asia, the story of a femme fatale in Paris, or a painting by Jack Vettriano, his designer Emily Todhunter has created a room around it.
Le Manoir is more than a restaurant. It's the Principality of Quat'Saisons and everyone is welcome.
- Church Road, Great Milton (01844 278881; www.manoir.com) Doubles from £460 per night, including breakfast. Access possible for guests with disabilities
What to do in the area: Fiona's choice
Two long-term guests of the hotel, Janine and David Robinson, have produced “Robinsons’ Rambles”, available to other guests, which describe their favourite walks in the area, with marked-up maps and suggestions for places to stop for refreshment. The AA (www.theaa.com) also suggests 11 walks in the area; simply type in the hotel’s postcode. Or drive into Oxford and wander around the college gardens.
Try The Perch (01865 728891; www.the-perch.co.uk), a 17th-century thatched pub in Binsey, on the outskirts of north Oxford, which formed part of the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
The Perch offers an excellent French restaurant that uses local produce (“some produce may have even travelled less distance than you to get here”). Or you could stick with Raymond Blanc, above, and have lunch at his Brasserie Blanc (01865 510999; www.brasserieblanc.com) in Oxford.
Where to visit
There’s Blenheim Palace (www.blenheimpalace.com), in Woodstock, but I prefer the Rothschilds’ Waddesdon Manor (www.waddesdon.org.uk), about 30 minutes’ drive away, near Aylesbury. Owned by the Rothschild family for four generations, Waddesdon is both grand and extraordinary.