The New Forest never was my kind of weekend destination. Families in caravans, walkers in sturdy boots braving the rain. So not me.
But when I heard that my all-time female hero, Angela Hartnett, the chef of so many much-loved London restaurants, had braved it there, I had to check it out. She has introduced Hartnett & Holder at the only five-star hotel in the New Forest: Limewood.
I looked at the hotel's site and it looked great, but felt so uber-cool, I was almost put off. How wrong one can be? If they’ll have me back, I will happily ensconce myself there any time, to hibernate in the winter or walk in the summer.
I have rarely been to a five-star hotel in this country that manages to combine great style with such easy comfort, and efficiency in service with genuine friendliness. It’s the sort of place where they advise you with a Very Serious Tone to take a pair of wellies from their boot room for a walk. And I can confirm they were right: both of my feet briefly visited a beautiful stream hidden in golden autumn leaves while staring at the ponies and pigs idling by.
I love hotels that make you feel good without cajoling you into admiring their super-stylish decor. Where things work properly, without bludgeoning you into a deep study of their exquisite, extra-nifty technology. Where the freestanding, luxurious bath is the right size for an average body, not measured out for two-metre supermodel. (Who wants to float around in a tub?) Here you just relax, Champagne glass in hand, whilst gazing at the lush wood around you.
There is an all-day restaurant now, with a pleasing atmosphere, quiet background music, respectfully friendly service, and no dictates in clothing. What a clever approach! The clientele seemed to respond by being smart, not by ‘posing’, so refreshing after the London fashion parades. With an Italian/English approach, the food is designed to complement all of this: lots of fresh produce, superb quality ingredients cooked in the non-flashy, utterly tasty and aesthetically pleasing Hartnett style. We ate the lightest gnocchi this side of Italy, served in a very generous wild game sauce; Hake so fresh it melts in your mouth; the thinnest slivers of crispy, lightly deep-fried courgettes; and the fluffy arancini and the smoked aubergine puree we Hartnett fans know so well.
After our meal, we took a short stroll through the water gardens and around the grounds, where we were met by a whimsical sculpture of a giant wild hare.
We breathed in the crisp winter air, before returning to our two-story suite in the Pavilions. We found roaring fires in our cool, but cosy, living room, and also in our bedroom. What more could a Townie want? This gorgeous place is only 90 minutes away, and as it embedded in the Forest itself, you really don’t need a car, just take a direct train from Waterloo.
My next visit will be all about the spa. A 16-metre indoor pool and outside plunge pool, a huge whirlpool, a well-designed gym, wonderful treatment rooms, and a great juice bar. I can’t wait to return!