The English countryside is where royalty goes to quell the noise of their public lives; its where stately homes the size of city blocks stand sentinel amidst rolling hills; and its where you and I can go to feel like queens and kings, even if just for a sliver of time. Here I cover one of Britains grand countryside retreats – the quintessential Cotswold estate, Whatley Manor, and a member of the Relais & Chateaux Group. As I approach this classic country mansion, heavy wooden gates part briefly to allow me entrance, only to shut tightly behind me again. After handing my car keys to the uniformed valet, Im ushered through a series of sumptuously appointed reception areas where enormous collections of ruby-red lilies infuse the air with exotic spice. Inhaling their luscious perfume, taking in the dramatic surroundings, all the coiled tension of my long drive through twisting Cotswold roads quickly drains away. I never want to leave these rooms, I murmur to myself. But I havent yet seen the gardens. The enchanting gardens Like so many Americans, I once imagined that English gardens existed only in Merchant Ivory films and country living magazines. Eventually I discovered that lush, verdant plantings are as ubiquitous in England as patios in Southern California. However, there are gardens . . . and then there are Whatley gardens. My first afternoon at the hotel I brought my laptop to one of the terraces outside the main house, intending to have a coffee and work – but I only made it as far as the frothy cappuccino. Gazing out over the 12 acres of landscaped grounds, I was too mesmerized by the sensual bling of my surroundings to do more than luxuriate in it. There were sprawling emerald lawns, a riot of gem-toned floral clusters, aromatic breezes, a sky intent on drama, sweetly chirping birds, and even a trickling fountain. I finally wrote one line in my journal: I want to keep the essence of this moment in my sense-memory forever. On a more concrete note, Whatleys stunning gardens consist of 26 discrete areas scattered with benches where guests can read, contemplate, or just canoodle. Its striking that there are actually more garden areas than guest rooms (which number 23 in all), even though the palatial manor house dwarfs those of other, similar hotels that maintain triple the number of bedrooms. Artful attention to detail A massive restoration of the hotel began in 2001, continuing until 2003, when Whatley Manor reopened. Every aspect of the arresting design reflects the taste and creativity of one of its owners, Alix Landolt. Not only are public spaces stylish and sensorially alive, Landolt has graced the property with artful vignettes at every turn. Stroll anywhere, stop at random, focus your sight, and youll find a thoughtfully composed tableau; a pitch-perfect interplay of architecture, art, textures, and natural elements. Hardly a window ledge, alcove, or hallway is left unattended, yet the overall impression is one of easy harmony, never fussy or pretentious. The attention given to every square meter at Whatley is a fascinating lesson in purposeful art direction, as well as a joy to behold. Since guests dont camp out in the gardens or drawing rooms, a few words about the bedrooms are clearly in order. Standard rooms are well proportioned and attractively furnished in eclectic style, enhanced by Bang & Olufsen video and audio systems. All offer comfortably large baths, Asprey Purple Water toiletries, thick absorbent towels, and the kind of shockingly silky Egyptian cotton sheets and puffy duvets that make you want to sleep naked, even if you never do at home. While the handful of standard accommodations fall slightly short of the high aesthetic one might expect after viewing the reception areas, they may be just right for those doing business at the hotel. Whatley Manor boasts an impressive conference facility with a private movie theatre that rivals any Hollywood screening room, and all areas have their own wifi routers, providing speedy and consistent internet access. In this regard, the hotel stands head and shoulders above most others in the countryside, where data retrieval can be teeth-grindingly slow and spotty. That said, if your raison d’être is romance or sheer relaxation, youd be well advised to book a deluxe room or one of the majestically appointed suites. The Aquarius Spa La Prairie spa brings a world of pampering to the Manor. In addition to a full complement of classic skin and body treatments, a holistic specialty menu by Ila offers chakra balancing and energy refining techniques. Although I didnt sample the more esoteric options, I happily indulged in some girly upkeep and was impressed by both the quality of service and the warmth and kindness of the staff. Id forgotten how lovely a lying-down pedicure could be, and was reminded that even the simplest beauty rituals can make one feel spoiled. The Aquarius fitness center is filled with top-notch weight training and aerobics equipment, as well as a pool fit for a queen. Much to my delight, the gym was maintained at a cool temperature, designed for the comfort of brisk exercisers, not stand-around staff. Changing rooms and showers sparkled; filtered water and fruit were kept at hand, and staff were happy to open the gyms doors earlier than scheduled at my request. An award-winning dining room The Dining Room, the hotels Michelin two-starred restaurant, is led by chef Martin Burges, who also holds the Relais & Chateaux Grand Chefs Trophy, 2011. On a warm summer night, cocktails and canapés were taken outside on the terrace, and menu choices were made in the open air before each guest was escorted to the restaurant. Deciding between a la carte items and the tempting seven-course tasting selection was difficult, but I was glad I went with the tastings. Each dish was exquisitely prepared and presented, from the first amuse bouche to the crowning handmade chocolates. Yet, if there is one dish I would have again a thousand times over, it is the >foie gras ballotine, dressed with compressed cherries, pistachio puree, and merlot vinegaran almost unearthly blend of flavors that I wont quickly forget. Also memorable was the roasted pork tenderloin, served perfectly pink, with spiced black pudding, liquorice cassonade, and slow braised pigs trotter. In addition to their award-winning formal dining room, the hotel features a more casual brasserie, Le Mazot, open all day. Here, well-enunciated French dishes are given a Swiss accentand so is the room’s decor. Unfortunately, the Swiss inflection doesn’t blend as well with the space as it does with the cuisine, but that’s a small matter, overall. Perhaps it’s worth remembering that even our fondest royalty fantasies are subject to a few real-life imperfections, or that palaces belonging to actual monarchs rarely aspire to the sensual splendor that Whatley Manor strives for, and ultimately achieves.
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