Review by Fiona Duncan, published 24th May 2009.
Summer Lodge, a hotel I've known for 30 years, is going to the ball, descending the stairs in a rustle of silk, a cloud of perfume and a new perm.
Under its previous ownership, this was a low-key country house hotel with lawn tennis and a pool in the garden. Then, in 2006 after a two-year stint in the beauty parlour it emerged as Summer Lodge Country House Hotel, Restaurant and Spa, with a world-class sommelier, electric buggies for the luggage, and an injection of decorative Botox.
This is Hardy country, and the man himself, as a local architect, enlarged the 18th-century manor for his friend the 6th Earl of Ilchester in 1893. As we sat over breakfast in the conservatory, we glimpsed the author's elemental Dorset landscape beyond hotel grounds that are full of artifice: reclining nudes in the shrubbery, plus fountain, parterre, pond, hanging baskets, sundial and signposts, not to mention a glass-covered indoor pool and beauty treatment rooms. For us, a jarring contrast, but oh, the comfort.
You are enveloped by this place. Complete refurbishment and a great deal of money has resulted in a profusion of patterns: on the carpets, the fabric-draped ceilings, and the padded, fabric-covered walls. There are gilt mirrors, brass fenders, drinks trolleys, globes, paintings of dogs, illustrated books, needlepoint cushions, pleats, swags and fringes galore. A fulsome cream tea is laid out in the afternoon. Hardy-esque, Summer Lodge is not; luxurious, it most certainly is.
If the public rooms were too fussy for our taste, the bedrooms were supremely comfortable and very pretty, with huge, softly-sheeted beds and every conceivable extra. Fleece-covered hot water bottles warmed our beds – a lovely touch –and we slept like logs, which is hardly surprising considering what we had consumed at dinner that night.
For connoisseurs of drink, Summer Lodge is hard to beat. Two years ago the new owner, Beatrice Tollman, poached award-winning sommelier Eric Zwiebel from Cliveden for her pet Dorset project and gave him carte blanche to build his dream cellar. Now stocked with well over 200 whiskeys, armagnacs and cognacs and 1,000 wine bins, Zwiebel's cellar is notable for its energetic eclecticism. On his advice, we drank a wonderful montrachet followed by a subtly sweet riesling from Washington State and a fine Austrian blaufrankisch. The cooking of Steven Titman squared up well to the nectar in our bulbous glasses – my fillet of brill with lobster sauce and ginger risotto was divine.
Whether you fall for Summer Lodge's fancy finery or not, you are sure to feel spoilt and rested when you leave. Though I'd prefer elegant simplicity in the depths of Hardy's Dorset, especially in a house with which he was so closely associated, I defy you not to be won over by the solicitous attention and extremely high standards you'll find among the cushions, ornaments and silver teapots in Summer Lodge. We certainly were.
Evershot, Dorset (01935 482000; www.summerlodgehotel.com) Doubles from £205 per night, including breakfast and tea. Access possible for guests with disabilities