Review by Fiona Duncan, published 16th November 2008.
Mine, like many, is a close-knit community, one in which I know my proper place. And let me tell you, when The Colonel suggests I review his favourite local hotel and restaurant, I do it.
It's strange, I know: a Georgian country house hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant all of two miles from my New Forest home, yet I'd never visited. The Colonel thinks I'm mad, and certainly a useless Hotel Guru. Mind you, he's plainly biased: he has them eating out of his hand in the dining room, Le Poussin, of Whitley Ridge. "You know him," beams the waiter. "Why, he was here at lunchtime. He's wild about our passion fruit soufflé. It wasn't on the menu, but we still produced it for him specially, as a surprise."
What will I find? I've had other reports, less enthusiastic. As we arrive, traditionally uniformed waiters are scurrying about the long, parquet-floored hall, and we are immediately whisked upstairs to our room, where we are "checked in".
Ours is a "Feature Room", one of the best, but still remarkably small. It's a mixed bag: a 6ft bed of the highest quality, dud pictures, over-fussy curtains, a lovely view, frowsy Edwardian repro furniture and a tiny bathroom. Other rooms (there are 18) that I'm shown next morning are more appealing, though most are smaller still. They remind me of city rooms and owe little to the rustic charms of the 1,000 year-old unchanged landscape in which they are embedded.
Many hotels feel quite different by day than by night, but none more so than this. On our evening visit, both sitting room and dining room strike us as smart but bland and, like the bedrooms, exude little atmosphere.
Yet when we descend for our excellent, suavely produced breakfast next morning the public rooms appear cool, calm, sophisticated and elegant; so much so that I almost gasp in surprise. From three sides of the spacious sitting room, with its marvellous antler-encrusted mirror, there are wide views of the garden and the forest, resplendent in its autumn colours, beyond. One dining room has another fine forest view; another looks on to a pretty courtyard terrace with unusual outdoor fireplace for those warm nights that seem a long way off now but, of course, will one day come again.
More surprises are in store. For some reason, today's consumer wants more from a place like Whitley Ridge than simply good food, a comfortable bedroom and a lovely location. Here we have not the ubiquitous spa, but its organic counterpart, the feature kitchen garden, in this case smartly walled, along with a man-made carp lake and wooden shelter for tea and drinks. They are beautifully executed but somehow only add to the whiff of artificiality that hangs around Whitley Ridge. I'd concentrate on the atmosphere myself. Mind you, The Colonel is right about one thing: the soufflés are spot on.
Beaulieu Road, Brockenhurst (01590 622856; www.whitleyridge.com). Doubles from £170 to £210 per night, including dinner and breakfast.