Vacations begin in various ways. For us, there’s usually some discussion months in advance that starts with my asking my husband, Dan, “Where would you like to go?”
His usual answer is London. Sometimes he’ll extend it to England.
“What would you like to do?” I ask.
The reply is inevitably, “Read, relax, sleep.”
“Then why not go somewhere in the English countryside?” I counter. “Quaint villages, colorful gardens, narrow country lanes, hedgerows filled with wild blackberries, grazing ponies, and the occasional ‘Howzat!’ from the village green where the locals play cricket. We could stay in a country-house hotel.”
This year, having heard nothing but raves from English friends about Chewton Glen, England’s most famous country-house hotel and spa, we decided to give it a try. It turned out to be our best holiday in a long time. Located in the hamlet of New Milton, Hampshire, the hotel more than lived up to its very fine reputation, and the surrounding countryside, particularly the New Forest, remains beautiful.
In England the word “new”—as in New Forest—can be misleading. It was 1079 when William the Conqueror declared that the 150-square-mile area should be kept as a place where monarchs could hunt wild deer. “Forest” is also a misnomer. In medieval times, the word meant a legally defined area, not a place filled with trees. There are copses of maple, beech, and conifers, but very few oaks remain—most were felled to be made into ships for Horatio Nelson’s navy at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. More recently, during World War II, trees were chopped down to make way for airfields.
Like all little English girls, I became enamored of ponies by reading The Children of the New Forest, about orphans who must learn to fend for themselves as well as the Forest’s wild ponies during the civil war of the 1640s. Author Captain Frederick Marryat wrote the children’s classic while living in the 1700s house that now is Chewton Glen Hotel.
When hotelier Martin Skan bought Chewton Glen four decades ago, it was hardly a stately home. With his Swiss-born wife, Brigitte, an interior designer of impeccable taste, Skan remodeled, expanded, and turned the deteriorating eight-bedroom boarding house into a winner of a hotel. The evidence is on a mantelpiece opposite the check-in desk. Framed certificates stacked one in front of the other, like family photos, attest to Chewton Glen being the “Best Hotel in the British Isles” and number two on the list of top 100 hotels worldwide in Condé Nast Traveler’s 2005 Readers’ Choice Awards; there’s one star from Michelin for the restaurant, five red turrets for the hotel—a ranking held continuously since 1984—and so on.
Despite those accolades, Chewton Glen feels like someone’s home—albeit a large one—rather than a hotel. There are 35 bedrooms and 23 suites (named for characters and places in The Children of the New Forest), a state-of-the-art spa, and a 210-person staff that thoughtfully anticipates guests’ needs and wants. For example, rubber boots by the front door. In England, green wellies, as they are called, are what one wears to walk across rain-soaked country turf. Lucky for us, there was a drought prior to our stay, so the need was moot. It was comforting, though, to know they were available.
England’s south coast is just 20 minutes’ walk from the hotel. We sauntered through the hotel’s flower-filled garden, admiring the long vistas and statuary, including a “Venus de Milo” look-alike and a dandelion-shape fountain in a pond. Beyond the garden gate, we crossed a country road along which Aston Martin sportscars sped as though they were at Goodwood, the racetrack about 60 miles away. Back on a country path, lined with bushes of juicy wild blackberries, a friendly black-and-white spaniel joined us. Together we found the beach and looked toward France, just 20 miles away. According to a sign on the heath, the route we took back to the hotel had been used in years past by smugglers bringing contraband ashore.
An indoor swimming pool, hydro-therapy pool and spa are most welcoming. Outdoors, apart from walking, hotel guests play golf on the nine-hole course or croquet. One afternoon on the terrace, sipping tea, and downing scones, we noticed two teenage girls and their families sharing a birthday cake. They had flown in from London by helicopter (the hotel can park three on its landing pad) for a day of visiting the New Forest ponies.
Every meal is a treat. Executive chef Luke Matthews, who uses what he claims are the best meats and produce available, describes the food his kitchen produces as “simple—no fads. We are not making sea-bass mousse.” Every morsel we tasted was prepared to perfection. Michelin, which consistently gives the restaurant one star, apparently agrees. Guests who are savvier than we about wine marvel at the cellar. If there were an award for perfection, Chewton Glen would surely win.
Chewton Glen, New Milton, Hampshire BH25 6QS; US toll-free 800-344-5087; US toll-free fax 800-398-4534; www.chewtonglen.com; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until March 31, rates start at approximately $403 (based on exchange of $1.70 to 1 UK pound) per night. For spa service prices, call 011-1425-277674 or e-mail email@example.com.
How to Get There
Driving: Chewton Glen from Heathrow airport is a two-hour drive, traffic permitting, along the M3 and country roads. For those who prefer not to drive on the left, the hotel offers car and chauffeur service.
Rail: From London’s Waterloo station to New Milton takes just under two hours. For details, check www.britrail.net, www.raileurope.com, www.railpass.com, and www.nationalrail.co.uk.
Ship: Several guests who sail in and out of nearby Southampton combine a stay at Chewton Glen with crossing the Atlantic.
New Forest is a unique place. Queen Elizabeth II owns 72 percent; the rest is owned or rented by some 400 private citizens. Three-thousand ponies live within the Forest.
How New Forest is run has changed little in the past 927 years. Law is enforced by Verderers, appointed by the Crown, who convene six times a year. Agisters care for the wild ponies that live in the area and, some would say, rule it because they, not cars, have the right of way. A few times a year, ponies are rounded up and some are sold. Within New Forest, riding stables offer horses to equestrians and pony rides for the young. Details are available from the Lymington Visitor Information Center (011-44-1590-689000; www.thenewforest.co.uk).
Places in New Forest worth visiting are:
New Forest Museum (High St., Lyndhurst; 011-44-23-8028-3444; www.newforestmuseum.org.uk), though small, goes into the geography and history of the area.
Brockenhurst, a village within the New Forest, is a good place to find postcards, a pub lunch, and a swig of the local cider. It also has a railway station.
Buckler’s Hard, a ship-building village since the early 18th century, is on the Beaulieu River less than three miles from the south coast. It is where ships for Nelson’s fleet were built and Sir Francis Chichester, the first person to sail solo around the world, moored his yacht. Landing craft used in the D-Day invasion of Normandy assembled in the Beaulieu River. In the summer, boat rides are popular. So is a pub called Yachtman’s Bar in Master Builder’s House Hotel. The Buckler’s Hard Story and Maritime Museum (011-44-1590-614645; www.bucklershard.co.uk) has maps and memorabilia of local history. “Buckle” was the name of a family that can be traced back to 1698. A “hard” is a place where goods and passengers can be loaded onto and taken off boats.
Fordingbridge is named for its bridge with seven arches, built in medieval times, across the River Avon.
Lymingtown is an old market town with cobblestone streets, charming cottages, and a yacht basin.
Lyndhurst, “capital” of the New Forest, is home to the New Forest Museum and Visitor Centre, Forestry Commission, and 14th-century Verderer’s Hall. (Minutes of the Verderer’s meetings, sometimes amusing, can be found at www.verderers.org.uk/court.htm#minutes.)
Washingtonian arts editor Susan Davidson visits her native England as often as she can.
See Getting to London via MAXjet Airways for more information on vacationing in England