New Forest ponies, Photo: Paul Allen
A two hour drive from London brought us to the New Forest, an area which I have always associated with tiny ponies, perhaps with some justification as there have been 3,000 wild ponies roaming this national forest for the past 2,000 years. They still roam free, along with deer and cattle and all are looked after by local landowners, or commoners as they're called, under an ancient system put in place in 1079 by William the Conqueror.
Kitchen Garden, Treehouses, Chewton Glen, Photos: Paul Allen
Our first stop was Chewton Glen, sister hotel to Cliveden House, both part of the Relais & Chateaux group, so we had high expectations. Chewton Glen, is located on the edge of the New Forest and really close to the sea - in fact a path from the hotel through the woods comes out at the coastline. The hotel rightly prides itself on its 14 different types of rooms, including the luxurious, palatial two-floor suite we stayed in, with its own private garden and balcony. I loved the fact that our suite was named "Alice Beverley" after a character from Captain Frederick Marryat's popular 19th-century novel The Children of the New Forest. As Marryat often stayed at Chewton when the manor house was owned by his brother George, many of the other rooms are also named after book characters. And down a gravel road, near the main hotel, are 12 extremely funky treehouse suites, nestled among the trees, each with their own hot tubs on outdoor balconies.
Vetiver restaurant, Chewton Glen, Photo: Paul Allen
The Treehouses are ideal for honeymooners or anyone who wants privacy. However, all guests are welcome at Vetiver, the superb restaurant in the main house which uses vegetables and herbs from its own kitchen garden, along with locally sourced meat and fish. We had the tasting menu with wine matched to each of the 6 courses. Each course was a treat, from the delicately crisp skate cheek tempura, to the duck pate and the roast diver scallops. The main course was quantock duck breast, spiced with cardamom and cooked to rare perfection. Before moving on to dessert, we couldn't resist the cheese trolley with cheeses from the southern counties, many of which we'd never heard of, let alone tasted.
Outdoor pool and hydrotherapy pool at Chewton Glen, Photos: Paul Allen
In the morning we managed to get in another session at the spa, taking full advantage of the indoor and outdoor pools, and finishing with a blissful soak in the outdoor whirlpool.
Highcliffe Castle and beach, coastline near Chewton Glen, Photos: Paul Allen
As tempting as it was to stay put in the fabulous spa, we'd done our research and knew there was plenty to see. Visit Britain's guide on the New Forest recommends the quaint town of Beaulieu with its 13-century abbey and we also visited Highcliffe Castle to check out the gardens and beach nearby. An unexpected bonus was an exhibition about Harry Gordon Selfridge, on all summer. The American retailer extraordinaire lived at Highcliffe from 1916-22, initially to get his family out of the way so he could enjoy the company of his current mistress, in London. And the Highcliffe grounds are gorgeous, there is a lovely outdoor cafe for tea and best of all are the views of the Isle of Wight from the steep wooden steps to the beach. The forest comes right down to the sand and I liked the peace and remoteness of it. For those who prefer beaches with cafes and services, nearby Avon beach provides all that.
Lime Wood hotel, Photos: Paul Allen
From the beaches of the New Forest, we headed back into the middle to stay at Lime Wood hotel near Lyndhurst. While Chewton Glen embodies traditional British luxury, Lime Wood has a continental cool vibe with chic furniture and interior design from the David Collins studio and Martin Brudnizki who is responsible for the sleek looks of J. Sheekey, Hix and Dean Street Townhouse. We really loved the interior courtyard bar with its funky furniture and retractable roof and could have happily spent hours there sipping on cocktails.
Courtyard bar at Lime Wood, Photo: Paul Allen
The Italian-influenced menu at Lime Wood's restaurant, Harnett Holder & Co, is the result of a collaboration of one of the few female Michelin-starred chefs, Angela Hartnett and Luke Holder, formerly chef at the Oxo Tower and the Orrery in London. Linguini with lobster and chill was my favourite dish and we were seriously impressed by the smoked salmon and parma-style ham from their on-site smoke house.
Rolltop tub in our suite and Spa at Lime Wood, Photos: Paul Allen
Like Chewton Glen, Lime Wood has a great range of accommodation options and we stayed in a semi-detached spacious Pavilion across from the fish pond in front of the main house. Our plush suite was arranged over two floors and featured a four poster bed and a freestanding bathtub with a fabulous view over the private garden and woods beyond. Other nice touches included the classic R'n'B playing on the iPod as we walked in and a faux old fashioned dial telephone. The spa at Lime Wood is as stylish as the rest of the hotel and is open to non-hotel visitors with day packages starting from £85. A roof terrace for sunbathing overlooks the herb garden and our favourite bit, the outdoor hot pool.
The Pig dining room and "Piggy Bites", Photos: Paul Allen
Before dinner at Lime Wood, we popped into Lime Wood's super popular sister establishment The Pig for a cocktail or two. The Pig describes itself as a 'restaurant with rooms' and the focus is on the food, which is grown or produced on site or nearby for their '25 mile menu'. While we didn't want to ruin our appetites for dinner, we couldn't resist a selection of 'piggy bites' along with a cocktail or two. The dining room at the Pig is so popular that it's pretty much booked up right through the autumn and that's no surprise if the food and cocktails we sampled are anything to go by. Our next trip might well have to be to one of the other successful Pig ventures in Southampton, Studland Bay or Bath.