Review by Fiona Duncan, published 3rd February 2001.
ANYONE can book the honeymoon suite of a swanky hotel, order Champagne and room service, lock themselves in with their loved one and feel romantic. But open the door, take the lift to the lobby, and the real world butts in. A truly romantic hotel is one in which all the components, the setting, the surroundings, the building, the rooms, the food, the service, combine to soothe and seduce.
The potential is often there, but it's depressing how many idyllic Tudor inns seem perfect until you reach the tatty and thin-walled bedrooms. Even if the other ingredients are in place, the atmosphere in many hotels can wither passion long before the coffee and petits fours come around.
The hotels that succeed aren't always the famous ones or those in obvious places. They are also just as likely to be modestly priced as luxurious. Romance comes in many different guises, as the establishments described here reveal.
Lavenham Priory, Suffolk
Lavenham Priory oozes romance. Though it's a private home (owned by Tim and Gilly Pitt) with only four guest bedrooms, it is as cosseting and professionally run as any hotel. Guests have the run of the mellow timber-framed house, which began life as a 13th-century Benedictine priory and became a wool merchant's home in Elizabethan times.
Inside, it recreates an Elizabethan feel without even a hint of the ersatz. Particuarly lovely are the Great Hall, with its vast inglenook fireplace and Jacobean staircase, the merchants' dining room, and the cosy sitting room stocked with books and videos. As for your bedroom, you might never leave. Lolling on the gorgeous four-poster in the Painted Chamber, for example, you can make out Elizabethan wall paintings among the beams. Or there's the Great Chamber, with its daintily canopied Polonaise bed and charming slipper bath.
Drinks are always available, but Gilly only occasionally cooks dinner, mainly because the restaurants in Lavenham, the Angel and the Great House in particular, are so good. Breakfast, though, is a feast, and includes freshly squeezed fruit juices and Gilly's compote of pineapple and papaya.
Water Street, Lavenham, Suffolk CO10 9RW (01787 247404; fax 01787 248472; www.btinternet.com/? lavpriory Doubles: £98 per night including breakfast.
Altnaharrie Inn, Wester Ross
The approach to this remote eight-room inn on Loch Broom in northwest Scotland is certainly romantic: you leave your car in Ullapool and take the inn's private launch across the loch. With no mains electricity, the generator is switched off at bedtime and guests make do with torchlight.
Altnaharrie combines natural simplicity with warmth and comfort. The centuries-old white-painted stone house, only a pebble's skim from the loch, is attractively decorated with woven wall-hangings, Middle Eastern rugs and a sprinkling of antiques.
It's a place for those who love the great outdoors.Wild walks during the day make the cooking of Gunn Eriksen - which has earned her two Michelin stars - seem all the more sublime. If you want to eat alone, a table for two can usually be arranged by the fire in one of the sitting rooms.
Ullapool, Wester Ross, IV26 2SS (01854 633230). Dinner, bed and breakfast from £165 per person per night.
Romney Bay House, Kent
This dignified 1920s house, built by Clough Williams Ellis, is beautifully situated between the sea and Romney Marsh. A smell of wood smoke and fresh flowers greets you as you enter the interiors by Jennifer Gorlich, which are reminiscent of a small hotel in Provence. Jennifer herself is usually in the kitchen, whipping up her cream teas (available from breakfast onwards) and delectable four-course dinners.
There's a cosy bar; a warm, firelit sitting room with sofas that invite you to curl up; a pretty conservatory for late breakfasts; and an upstairs "lookout" room with the feel of a beach hut, with old-fashioned telescope for scanning the horizon. At night, the rooms are candlelit, making dinner a truly romantic affair. Afterwards you can walk by moonlight along the beach.
Coast Road, Littlestone, New Romney, Kent TN28 8QY (01797 364747; fax 01797 367156). Doubles from £75 per night with breakfast.
Hotel du Vin & Bistro, Hants
Solitude is not on offer at this Winchester hotel; instead there's an alluring buzz in the air at this stylish, affordable Georgian town house. It has panache, with the tone set by the mainly French-staffed bistro, a spot with the intimate, slightly chaotic yet professional air of the genuine article. Start with a glass of Champagne in the voluptuous mirrored and muralled bar, then choose a bottle from the innovative and kindly priced wine list to go with the bistro's inventive food.
The bedrooms and bathrooms are every bit as appealing, with crisp Egyptian cotton bedlinen, CD players, capacious baths and huge showers. For maximum quiet, ask for a Garden Room, or splash out on the sensuous Durney Vineyards suite with a four-poster draped in maroon velvet, a black slate double shower and murals that reproduce celebrated painted nudes.
14 Southgate Street, Winchester SO23 9EF (01962 841414; 01962 842458). Doubles from £89 per night excluding breakfast.
Gidleigh Park, Devon
The prices here are heart-stoppingly high, but this quintessential country-house hotel, created 25 years ago by Americans Paul and Kay Henderson, has a low-key, British brand of romantic appeal. It's all about ticking clocks, curled-up Siamese cats, and an all-enveloping, understated luxury. Take your walking boots - the hotel is on the edge of Dartmoor, lost in gardens and river-threaded woodlands - and work up an appetite for the lavish, highly praised cooking of Michael Caines, and Paul Henderson's legendary wine cellar. For complete seclusion, reserve the little Thatched Cottage that stands in the grounds.
Chagford, Devon TQ13 8HH (01647 432367; 01647 432574). Doubles from £370 per night with dinner and breakfast.
The fantasy begins the moment you step into Blakes from an ordinary South Kensington street. The shady lobby is a cocoon of burnished bamboo, slatted shutters, old travelling trunks and love birds cooing in a cage.
The bedrooms and suites - all 50 - are stunningly original, and they remain as unusual, exotic and gorgeously romantic today as they did when Anouska Hempel designed them 15 years ago. Each one is different, some darkly dramatic, others cool and pale, with fabulously draped and canopied beds, hand-painted floors, inlaid furniture, books, paintings, porcelain, and more cushions than it's possible to imagine. Practical items are secreted away behind doors and under folds of fabric, so you must explore your private world to find the treats it contains.
The intimate black and red dining room, with a bouquet of fresh flowers on every table, is the perfect place for a romantic dinner.
33 Roland Gardens, London SW7 3PF (020 7370 6701; 020 7373 0442). Doubles from £258 without breakfast.
Bath Priory, Somerset
This hotel deserves to be better known. Unlike many of its breed - the manicured country-house hotel with health spa - it has a feeling of intimacy. The hotel lies on the edge of the city - but within walking distance of the centre - and is shielded from the suburbs of Bath by a large park-like garden. Inside, the "superior" bedrooms are seriously comfortable and very pretty (the yellow "Jasmine", "Carnation" with a four-poster in palest green silk, Orchid with an oriental theme, and yellow Jasmine).
Chef Robert Clayton has gained a Michelin star for his cooking, and dinner is served in a candlelit room hung with oil paintings. Sink side by side into the deliciously squashy red velvet banquette, and don't miss the lobster or wild mushroom risottos.
Weston Road, Bath BA1 2XT (01225 331922; fax 01225 448276). Doubles from £280 including dinner and breakfast for two.
The Swan, Suffolk
This 300-year-old coaching inn is dignified, a touch faded and full of charm - as is Southwold, the seaside town on whose market square it stands. There is a flagstone hall, a drawing room with comfy sofas and an open fire, a formal dining room, an old-style lift and creaky floorboards. The best bedrooms, 18 and 19, are the ones that overlook the square.
On the way here, stop off at the Butley Oysterage in Orford for a plate of oysters or home-smoked salmon and a bottle of chilled white wine, eaten at Formica-topped tables. Once in Southwold, abandon your car, borrow a pair of bicycles from the hotel, and spend your time cycling across the marshes to Walberswick and Dunwich and retiring to pretty pubs for lunch. The Swan is owned by local brewers, Adnams, who also own The Crown, almost next door. If you want to avoid the rather stilted atmosphere of the Swan's dining room stay at The Swan and eat at The Crown.
Market Place, Southwold, Suffolk IP18 6EG (01502 722186; fax 01502 724800). Doubles from £99 including breakfast.
The Yorke Arms, North Yorks
This venerable pub stands on the little village green at Ramsgill, a Yorkshire Dales hamlet, with a rushing beck to the side and Gouthwaite Reservoir - a birdwatcher's paradise - a stroll away. A former shooting lodge, it was recently taken over by chef Frances Atkins and her husband, Bill, who are determined to retain its integrity as a traditional country inn, eschewing "frills" and putting the emphasis on good food and a warm welcome.
Bedrooms are unsophisticated and snug (the best are Gouthwaite and Longside). At night, the beamed and mirrored dining room takes on a decidedly romantic hue, graced by candles and elegant, long-stemmed table decorations. You can choose between a daily changing menu of Frances's creation, or staples such as Yorkshire Hot Pot, Halibut Cheesy Mash and sirloin steak.
Ramsgill-in-Nidderdale, near Pateley Bridge, Harrogate, North Yorkshire HG3 5RL (01423 755243; fax 01423 755330). Doubles from £70 per person including dinner and breakfast.
Moyglare Manor, Co Kildare
Ireland Moyglare Manor, 18 miles from Dublin, is so opulent as to seem fabulously decadent. Never mind dinner, you can have lunch by candlelight in the gorgeous deep pink, chandeliered dining room, with draped curtains as thick as blankets, blazing fires and potted palms. A sweet aroma of roses drifts in from the garden.
Inside, it's all Naughty Nineties, with Regency stripes, alabaster vases, ornate antiques, square chairs, round chairs, stuffed and buttoned chairs, all artfully put together by owner Nora Devlin. Never will you have seen so many kinds of decorated lampshade: pleated, tasselled, fringed; or so many fabulous flower arrangements.
Moyglare Manor, Moyglare, Maynooth, Co. Kildare, Ireland (00353 1 6286351; fax 00353 1 6285405). Doubles from about £120 (Ir£150) including breakfast.