The adventure during which I gleaned most of this information was courtesy of VisitBritain. However, as with every trip I take, the choice about what to write, and my opinions themselves — are entirely my own.
My first ever trip abroad, and the reason for my first passport, was a vacation to England with my mother at 12 years old. Perhaps because that was my first trip, or perhaps because it was such a special occasion with my mother — Great Britain remains one of my favorite places to visit and one of the only destinations I have no qualms about returning to over and over and over again.
While I love London and Edinburgh, what I love most about Great Britain is its countryside. Just before I spent this past NYE in Scotland, I visited England’s gorgeous villages in Hampshire, New Forest and the Cotswolds and I want to share some tips for how to make the most of these oh-so-lovely, and so quintessentially-English destinations. With the dollar doing so well against the pound right now, I think 2015 is the best year in decades to make this kind of trip and I’m proud to present these in my role as a curator for The Countryside Collection….
I flew into London and took a train out to my first destination: Hampshire. I’d recommend doing this as well. On a sunny day the scenery is so calming and yet also evocative. And there are far more sunny days in England than it has the reputation for. For example, it rains more often in Miami than it does in London!!
In Hampshire, visit The Home of Bombay at Laverstoke Mill. This newly re-designed site has a long and intriguing history that includes having once been the printer for Great Britain’s currency. It was awarded the highly prestigious BREEAM Award for Industrial Design in 2014 and features stunning architectural elements created by Thomas Heatherwick, alongside the revamped historical buildings. Tours conclude with a free drink in the bar, which is recommended for you based on a unique process whereby you choose via smell what elements you prefer most in your gin in a specially designed open room filled with natural light, that overlooks the River Test. You can also participate in a master bartenders class that I did, and found to be one of the most enjoyable “classes” I’ve ever taken. If only school had been so diverting. More info on their website here. The entire visit left me with a profound appreciation for British Gin which I have always thought to be the best, but which I now KNOW to be the best.
Not far away is also the real “Downton Abbey,” Highclere Castle which you can visit and which often hosts special events and exhibitions as long as filming for the popular television series isn’t ongoing. More info at their site here.
Visiting the New Forest
Proceed to the New Forest again via train, which is another beautiful journey through rolling fields and past idyllic villages. Once you’ve arrived in the New Forest, hire a Twizy to help you get around. It’s an entirely electric vehicle by Renault that couldn’t be easier to operate and drive around, with the bonus being that it’s so environmentally friendly. Their site can tell you everything you need to know.
Treat yourself to a massage at Careys Manor Hotel and Senspa, and be sure to stay for dinner at the Manor Restaurant where the fine dining deserves international acclaim. Their site.
Then, go horseback riding through the forested land and the open fields that make up the New Forest with the stables of Burley Manor. Along the way you will see wild ponies, rabbits, hawks and all manner of wildlife. And no matter the time of year, so much colorful flora and fauna. Plan this by starting at their website.
If you need a pick me up after your horseback riding, just outside the gates of Burley is the charming Old Farmhouse Restaurant and Tea Rooms. I ordered many a crumpet and cup of tea as I warmed myself by one of the indoor fireplaces.
Car enthusiasts like myself will enjoy the National Motor Museum and Beaulieu where there’s also the Palace and Beaulieu Abbey to visit if motoring history isn’t your thing.
Perhaps the most memorable thing you can do in the New Forest though is to visit and/or stay at The Pig Hotel. Ignore the negative connotation that name might conjure up and instead concentrate on the fact you will have a meal to remember forever, and likely the best cocktail your lips have ever tasted in their bar where made-in-house liquors and an incredibly inventive cocktail menu will keep you imbibing till you’re the only one left and it’s time to close. Wait, that was me!! My cocktail of first choice is always a Bloody Mary, and theirs happened to be of the best I’ve had, with just the right amount of spice and horseradish, yet light on the pepper. I cannot say enough good things about The Pig Hotel. The name refers to their love of pork which is sourced, along with anything else they can’t grow or create on site, from within 25 miles.
Visiting The Cotswolds
Hop on a train for the last time in the town of Brockenhurst and proceed to Warwick where you must meet The Open Road Classic Car Hire so you can pick up a classic car for your exploration of The Cotswolds. Prepare to drool when you begin your research on their website.
Once you’re behind the wheel of your gorgeous little classic car, perhaps the 1969 Chrome Bumper MGB Roadster that I had the privilege of driving around, you should proceed to the heart of the Cotswolds by passing through villages like Stratford upon Avon, Moreton-in-Marsh and Stow-on-the-Wold via roads such as the A429. But don’t be afraid to divert onto smaller lanes and even be so bold as to get a bit lost. The best way to see the Cotswolds is by driving yourself around.
However, you can’t discover everything on your own. There’s simply too much. And some of the best things in the Cotswolds are rather hidden in so many ways. That’s why, you should also take a tour with Secret Cottage. Becky and Robin have managed to create something that I actually believe fits the word “unique.” Combining a more traditional drive around tour that is led by Becky, with two in-home activities, they provide unparalleled access to what life in the Cotswolds is truly like and tips that you could just never glean on your own. This is the most hyper local take on a location I have ever experienced, and all in positive ways. Start to plan by visiting their website and do please mention you heard about them from me. I love these two people so very much!!
Now there are more options for where to stay overnight in the Cotswolds than there are sheep in the fields, but if you want the same experience I had, and you really do — then check in to Ellenborough Park. Fully renovated with modern amenities but maintaining an air of grandeur that is exceptionally luxurious, Ellenborough Park was Voted as the UK’s Best Luxury Hotel in the Trip Advisor Traveller’s Choice Awards for 2013. The real draw is in just how fully they see to every need and whim of their guests. One could check in and never leave the property. However, that would be a waste. Instead, take advantage of amenities such as a Boot Room where you can borrow Dubarry boots and Hunter wellies for a proper walk in the English countryside which is an oh-so-local thing to do. The English love their long walks and the countryside around Ellenborough Park is particularly well suited for such a diversion.
Make sure to visit Cleeve Hill at sunset, an easy hike uphill from the hotel, where the views are breathtaking and the scenery so idyllic. (I drove up Cleeve Hill in my MGB and I walked up. Both were wonderful, however, I think the walk up is more rewarding. And driving is a bit challenging as most of the road is only 1 lane.)
Leave ample time to also dine at Ellenborough Park. Whether you’re enjoying a leisurely breakfast or a prolonged dinner, the quality of the food is superior and the service is five stars all the way. Here too, as in so many other places now in Great Britain, the emphasis is on local ingredients. However, at Ellenborough Park, it doesn’t feel as if there’s been any sacrifice of quality to maintain that standard. If better ingredients need to be brought from farther away, then they are. What is foremost for them, is servicing the whims and tastes of their guests and they do so with uncommon grace.
I felt like a princess at Ellenborough Park, and I never wanted to return home to NYC. Instead, I just wanted my partner, Danté, to come join me so we could stay forever: Lord and Lady of some manor home…
Of course every trip has to come to an end eventually (right?! oh, if only not) but before you leave the Cotswolds to head back to London, make sure you eat at Lumiere in Cheltenham. I adored the mix of classic English flavors with less traditional and more exotic elements presented in a way that was pleasing to the eye and to the palate.
You should also visit the villages of Bibury and Bampton. The latter of which is where much of Downtown Abbey is also filmed, in addition to Highclere.