See Britain in style - Take a short break
By Annabelle Thorpe
Chilled champagne, a bubbling Jacuzzi, a four-poster bed draped in the finest white linen. Or perhaps a sumptuous banquet in a medieval castle, cruising along country lanes in a vintage Rolls-Royce, or gliding across the English Channel on a gleaming yacht. A luxury break can mean many different things in Britain - holed up in a gorgeous hotel room, shopping on Bond Street, or enjoying some retro-glamour on an Agatha Christie-style train journey - anything as long as its wildly indulgent and just that little bit naughty.
Indulgence is big in the UK right now; a clutch of stylish new hotels has opened in 2003 that redefines country-house chic. Whatley Manor in the Cotswolds, Cowley Manor in Gloucestershire and The Grove in Hertfordshire have joined Seaham Hall and Babington House in a new wave of hotel design; fuss and frippery are long gone, replaced with muted colours, clean lines and relaxed attitudes - breakfast at 4pm and dinner at midnight - if you wish - and indulgent treatments at top-notch spas in-between. Spa-lovers are well served in every corner of the UK; from thalasso treatments at St David's Hotel in Cardiff to oriental massages at OneSpa in Edinburgh.
In London, hotels increasingly offer bespoke packages for top-end travellers - the Mandarin Oriental in Hyde Park can organise helicopter tours over the city, private boat tours along the Thames, or a shopping day at Harvey Nichols (situated just across the road) with a personal shopper. Combine a night at The Royal Opera House (opt for the Grand Tier box, seats 4, at £170pp) with supper at Gordon Ramsay at Claridges, where the approx cost of £150 for two ensures you are hanging out with London's hippest crowd. A limousine is the only way to cruise London by night (book through Valliant Chauffeur Drive) but by day, take a private tour in a Black Taxi, with an authentic 'cabby' as your guide, from £75 for two hours.
If the city streets seem too hectic to be truly luxurious, opt for somewhere a little more intimate. Foodies should head to Padstow in Cornwall, where high-profile chef Rick Stein has added to the Seafood Restaurant he opened 28 years ago, with a café, brasserie and deli - or to Ludlow in Shropshire, which has the most Michelin-starred restaurants outside London; try the Merchant House or Overton Grange. For a weekend of culinary indulgence, check into Le Manoir au Quat' Saisons in Oxfordshire, home to Raymond Blanc and one of the most sumptuous seven-course suppers in the country - a snip at £95pp.
If you want to explore in style, then simply hop on the train. Not just any train; take in the peaks and lochs of Scotland on the Royal Scotsman - all polished mahogany, shining silverware and views to die for. Or discover English towns such as Bath or Brighton on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express British Pullman, which offers day and evening excursions from £250pp, in carriages which date back to the 1920's, with original brasswork, mosaic floors and the dryest of dry martinis. For the ultimate ride, the Northern Belle can be hired exclusively, and you decide the train's itinerary, with champagne all the way.
Summer Breaks in the UK
So when is the best time to come for an indulgent few days? If you're in the market for serious glamour, the months from April to August - traditionally known as the 'season' are the glitziest in the social calendar. Kicking off with the Grand National at Aintree, and taking in the Chelsea Flower Show, Wimbledon, Royal Ascot, Henley Regatta and the 'Proms' concerts, some serious dressing up is required, so head to Burberry or Stella McCartney's new flagship store, both on New Bond Street, Harvey Nicks in Leeds, or the brand new Bullring centre in Birmingham for a touch of quintessential British style. All of the events offer top-notch hospitality; opt for a box at Royal Ascot (from £500pp), or book tickets to the Courtyard Enclosure at Henley (£45pp) and a picnic hamper to go with it.
The summer months are also the best time for exploring the seas around Britain, from the Irish Sea in the north to the English Channel in the south. Hebridean Island Cruises offer the chance to visit some of the most far-flung islands, on small boats that offer gorgeous cabins - all tartan fabrics and marble bathrooms, with plenty of local whisky on hand if the wind gets up. If you fancy just a day cruise, the Masterbuilders Hotel in Lymington offers a day sailing on its private yacht, the Master George, over to the Isle of Wight for lunch at its sister hotel, the George in Yarmouth (approx £1,000 for eight hours sailing).
Cooler months are perfect for exploring Britain's castles and country houses; forget walking boots and windcheaters and dress up for jazz luncheons or wine tasting evenings at Castle Ashby in Northamptonshire, or even a traditional English houseparty weekend, with the chance to try clay-pigeon shooting, falconry and carriage ride (from £295pp). Leeds Castle, in Kent, hosts open-air concerts and firework spectaculars, but you can also hire out a private room for 12 people or more, for a right royal feast. For the ultimate in privacy, hire your own country hideaway - Rural Retreats have a huge selection of chocolate-box cottages throughout the country, including Rectory Cottage in Wiltshire, which boasts an Aga, open fire, beautiful bedrooms with fluffy towels and white linen, gorgeous views and an idyllic courtyard garden (from £251 for a two-night break).
But whatever you do, and wherever you stay, there is one indulgent tradition that shouldn't be missed. Whether it's hand-cut sandwiches, fresh pastries and a glass of champagne at the Lanesborough or Landmark hotels in London, a luxury Fortnums hamper opened on a lazy afternoon, or toasted teacakes at Bettys Team Rooms in Harrogate, Yorkshire, open since 1919, make sure that at sometime, somewhere, you remember to stop for tea.
Whatley Manor : 0044 1666 822888, http://www.whatleymanor.co.uk/
Cowley Manor : 0044 1242 870900, http://www.cowleymanor.co.uk/
The Grove: 0044 1923 807807, http://www.thegrove.co.uk/
St Davids' Hotel: 029 2045 4045
Covent Garden Opera: 00 44 7304 4000, http://www.royaloperahouse.org/
Black Taxi Tours: 00 44 207 935 9563, http://www.blacktaxitours.co.uk/
Rick Stein's restaurants and rooms: http://www.rickstein.com/
Le Manoir au Quat Saisons: 0044 1844 278881, http://www.manoir.co.uk/
Orient Express Trains: http://www.orient-express.com/
The Master Builder's House Hotel: 0044 1590 616253
Leeds Castle : 0044 1622 765400, http://www.leedscastle.co.uk/
Castle Ashby: 0044 1604 696696
Bettys Tea Rooms: http://www.bettysandtaylors.co.uk/
Rural Retreats: 0044 1386 701177, http://www.ruralretreats.co.uk/
Stylish Short Breaks in the UK
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