Review by Fiona Duncan, published 6th April 2010.
Whatley Manor is one of those eye-wateringly expensive joints that Londoners choose for a spoiling weekend away (but not too far away). With its own spa, it squares up against the likes of Chewton Glen, Babington, Calcot Manor and the new Lime Wood. It offers a setting and gardens far superior to any of the above, absolute peace, superb cooking –and the strangest interior decoration I have ever come across in an English country house hotel.
The Daily Telegraph's Jasper Gerard wrote that he thought the interior designer should be arrested for breach of taste, and I'm afraid I rather agree, except that I believe the designer was the owner's mother, and that would be unkind. The problem here is that the (hands-off) owner, Christian Landolt, is Swiss, and so, presumably, is his mother, and the whole place has been given a strange, inappropriate, Switzerland-meets-Sheraton look that, for me and my friend Jane, is confusing and slightly depressing.
But let's begin at the beginning. First impressions are hugely important, and the entrance to Whatley Manor, built for entertaining by a millionaire party animal in the Twenties, is splendid, with fortress-like gates swinging open to reveal an immaculate courtyard and a staff member standing to attention. We're given a quick tour of the hotel: two restaurants, acres of reception rooms, splendid gardens, comprising 26 distinct "rooms", expansive spa… all for an astonishingly few bedrooms: just 23.
It's difficult to describe the decoration: all I know is it doesn't do it for me, and it's nothing to do with the surrounding Wiltshire countryside and lovely, crumbly Malmesbury along the road; nor is it, despite the hotel (in its present guise) being only seven years old, remotely hip or cool. Strangest is Le Mazot, the informal bistro/breakfast room, which has a faux stübli look that's more reminiscent of an outlet at a Swiss airport than a mountain inn. Our bedrooms are masculine and feel a bit dreary and dark, Jane's so dark that she has to sit in a cupboard, using its interior light, to write her diary.
But if the décor disappoints, the food most certainly doesn't, and nor does the spa. The chef here, Martin Burge, has two Michelin stars for his food, but there's a merciful absence of pomp and expectation, as in most other similarly exalted establishments. In a dining room that is on its third redecoration (Gerard thought the designer should be charged with war crimes for the last one) and only just passes muster, everything we ate tasted as interesting as it sounded, and young Xavier, scion of a notable Saint-Emilion wine dynasty, was a clever guide to the grape.
Best ingredient of Whatley Manor, apart from the food? The fine spa, with its indoor/outdoor hydrotherapy pool, and its spoiling La Prairie treatments.