Not everyone can splurge on UK£300 or more for a night’s rest at a five-star historic hotel, but anyone willing to ante up 15 quid can immerse themselves in Great Britain’s rich heritage. While gadding about Great Britain by train, I experienced each of these properties, sipping tea, savoring a spa treatment, teeing off, dining well, and touring gardens. You can, too. (And do keep in mind that specials, off-season rates, and online deals often bring room prices down to within splurging range; I’ve found rates of less than $250/night double, with breakfast.)
The Arch, London: On the exterior, these seven Georgian townhouses facing Great Cumberland Place appear quite ordinary and stiff upper lip British. But inside this five-star boutique hotel, just a couple of blocks from Hyde Park and Oxbridge Street and across from Madonna’s London pad, designers let loose with contemporary vigor, vibrant colors and patterns, and original works by emerging British artists.
After a boutique binge in Marylebone or along Oxford Street (where you might get lucky and see Princess Kate), celebrate your finds over afternoon tea or a martini in the casual yet chic Library, where you can thumb through art books; enjoy cocktails in the tony Le Salon de Champagne, with its champagne ceiling mural, modern armchairs, and secluded leather banquettes; or order a casual dinner in HUNter, where the menu features updated traditional British cuisine along with stone-baked oven pizzas. Be sure to wander the public rooms to check out all the art — and see who might be lounging about.
Isle of Eriska, Scotland: Everyone knows when someone arrives on the Isle of Eriska, a private island north of Oban in the Western Highlands. The clackety-clang-bang of wheels over the bridge can be heard throughout the 300-acre island. Non-guests may have lunch in the casual Veranda Restaurant, with its dreamy views; enjoy a spa treatment; or play a round on the recently refurbished nine-hole golf course, on which nearly every hole has a water view. Of note: A special golf academy, Sept. 7-9, will include indoor and outdoor group lessons with a PGA professional, lunches, and mini competitions.
Reserve a table for dinner in the hotel’s main dining room, named Hotel Restaurant of the Year in the 2011 Scottish Restaurant Awards. A four-course gourmet meal with tea or coffee is $73, and that includes the farmhouse cheese trolley, with about 40 cheeses sourced from Britain and beyond. Afterward, retire to the lounge for the nightly entertainment: A family of badgers arrives at the conservatory door for their 10 p.m. milk and bread. Keep your eyes open, and you may spy a few of the grand dames of British TV and movie fame.
Bodysgallen Hall, Llandudno, Wales: The stone pine tree in front of Bodysgallen Hall, one of three historic hotels owned by The National Trust, is approximately 600 years old. The oldest section of Bodysgallen was built in the late 13th century as a guard tower for Conwy castle. Over the centuries, it’s expanded to a 220-acre estate with wooded parklands and an exquisite 20-acre formal garden, dating from 1678.
Although the gardens are normally reserved for guests, you can book morning coffee or afternoon tea and be rewarded with a double treat: Experiencing Bodysgallen both inside and out. Sit in the entrance hall or upstairs drawing room, both with elaborate fireplaces, magnificent oak paneling, and stone mullioned windows. Request a copy of the historical brochure from the front desk and browse through the history while sipping and nibbling. Afterwards, mosey through the other public rooms before exploring the gardens and parklands. Highlights include a rare 17th-century herb-filled boxed hedge parterre, rockery with a water cascade, walled rose garden, several follies, and 17th-century Terrace Walk with views to Conwy Castle and Snowdonia.
Chester Grosvenor, Chester, England (lead photo for this post): Top-hatted doormen welcome guests to this five-star hotel, owned by the Duke of Westminster’s family. The Chester Grosvenor is within the walls of Chester, a city with a history dating back to its origins as a Roman fort in the first century. Its black-and-white timbered facade fits in well with the numerous Tudor buildings, some original, others Victorian-era restorations. Inside, it’s contemporary in décor, accented with a half-ton, 28,000-crystal Georgian chandelier and original artwork selected from the Duke’s collection.
Well worth the splurge is dinner in the Michelin-starred Simon Radley at the Chester Grosvenor, but if that’s out of range, afternoon tea at the Arkle Bar And Lounge or upstairs in the gallery, or a meal at the casual Las Brasserie (perhaps go only for the cheese cart). While the Traditional Afternoon Tea is a decadent offering of scones, finger sandwiches, and sweets, the Gentleman’s Afternoon Tea is a far heartier affair, with crusty sandwiches, addictive chips (fries), Cheshire cheese, and a brownie and a fruitcake. And it’s not limited to men.
And do pop into Rococo Chocolates, the only non-London shop for one of England’s finest chocolatiers, for a taste of heaven. Speaking of heaven, another way to enjoy this hotel is at the spa (be sure to check the specials).
Great Fosters, Egham, England: In some ways, I’ve saved the best for last. Not only is this property dripping with history, but also there is no fee for visiting the gardens. Of course, it’s appreciated if people order a cup of coffee or have tea or a meal, but anyone is welcome. The royal connections for the mid 16th-century main house (converted to Elizabethan design in the early 20th century) are deep — witness the original royal crest of Queen Elizabeth I inscribed above the main porch and dated 1598.
Great Fosters served as a hunting lodge for King Henry VIII, so there’s some irony in taking tea in the Anne Boleyn Room, where the magnificent 16th-century ceiling includes Boleyn’s personal crests. Tea is but one option for entry into the main house; lunch in the Cocktail Bar or on the Terrace overlooking the gardens, or lunch or dinner in the three-rosette Oak Room are other possibilities.
While the interior is reason enough to visit, the gardens are the real calling card. A moat, likely of 6th-century Saxon origin, now forms a border for the gardens, including yew hedges and a knot garden created in the 1920s in the Arts and Crafts style. Cross the wisteria-dressed Japanese bridge over the moat, and arrive in the circular sunken rose garden, a masterpiece that when in full bloom is an especially sensual treat. Keep wandering to find hedges with secret rooms. If bee master David Arano is around, he’s usually thrilled to answer questions about his passion (if you stay here, you can suit up and join him as he tends the hives).