Master Builder's

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 19th July 2009.

This is by far the trickiest hotel review I have had to write. It has also brought home to me the importance of hotels, not just to people wanting a pleasant place to stay, but to the communities they serve.

Certainly this is one, and I should know: the community that regards it so possessively has been mine for many years.

As communities go, it's a one-off: a privately owned 7,000-acre tract of New Forest that includes the villages of Beaulieu and Buckler's Hard, and the bed of the Beaulieu River, all preserved with care and dedication by its owners Lord Montagu and his son Ralph.

Buckler's Hard is the 18th-century hamlet where, between two rows of shipwrights' cottages, several of Nelson's warships, including Agamemnon, were built. At one end stands the residence of Henry Adams, the man who ran the shipyard in Nelson's day. For as long as I can remember, it has done service as the Master Builder's – hotel, restaurant and yachtsman's pub.

Leased from the Montagu estate by successive hoteliers, it changed hands last year, closing for refurbishment. When it reopened, sporting a surprising Indian Raj theme at odds with its history, a fresh management approach and the inspired addition of a garden barbecue for the day-trippers and visiting yachtsmen, it caused a stir.

Everyone (and this is not a neighbourhood noted for shrinking violets) corners me and tells me their opinion: you should say this; you must mention that; they'll be having a bouncy castle in there next. Its previous incumbents were friends; its current incumbents are friends. My ability to form a judgement drifted down the river with the tide.

What to do? Set sail in my little dinghy, tie up at Buckler's Hard marina and book in for the night, that's what, cleverly coinciding with the stay of friends who had never been here before, in order to gauge their impartial opinion.

Over dinner in the attractive, airy pale green dining room, I note their comments. Dislikes: the brown painted doors and one or two other "colour mistakes"; the unexpectedly dull sitting room; having to listen to someone in their bath and laboured travelling-salesman jokes drifting up from the public bar thanks to the thinness of the walls and floors. Likes: the excellent beds and good bathrooms; the kindly room rates; the food on their plates; the buzz; the friendly service; the amazing location. A big thumb's up, then. What a relief, because here, at last, is my own opinion: it's early days, glitches need to be ironed out and management needs to hit its stride, but my gut feeling is that the confident new owners are on course for a thumping success.

Wake on a sunny morning in a quirkily luxurious bedroom and watch the river slowly coming to life. I defy you to say you know a more captivating view, anywhere. But then, I'm biased.

Buckler's Hard, Beaulieu Estate (01590 616253; www.themasterbuilders.co.uk) Doubles from £85 (standard), £135 (deluxe) per night, including breakfast. Ground floor rooms for guests with disabilities.

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The Hotel Guru verdict

Rooms
4 out of 5

Quirky and fun; try to avoid annexe until refurbished

Service
4 out of 5

Friendly and willing; shaping into a good team

Character
5 out of 5

Much improved; 'raj' theme just succeeds; setting is magic

Food and drink
4 out of 5

Excellent; locals would prefer menu to change more often; room for barbecue improvement

Value for money
5 out of 5

Affordable, quirky luxury? yes. midweek's a bargain.

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