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Country House in England: Give Me the Simple Life

Gorgeous scenery, Old World grace and an ancient forest await you on a visit to the countryside south of London. The region’s shining star is an 18th-century resort near Hampshire…a country house by the sea called Chewton Glen. It was enchanting enough to inspire Alice in Wonderland, and its charms and service make it a wonder-filled escape for every visitor.

To nurture your inner Anglophile, you really must see the English countryside. Chewton Glen is a prime example, offering warm, attentive service coupled with Old World style. One of the first grand estates to become a hotel back in the 1970s, the house is located on the edge of the ancient New Forest, one and one-half hours from London via chauffeured car. Today, it’s considered one of England’s poshest resorts, with the classic feeling of an Agatha Christie mystery novel – chintz couches, roaring fires and all. The grounds encompass 130 acres of exquisitely landscaped parks, gardens and woodland, all just a short walk from the sea.

Completed in 1732, the estate came into prominence in the mid-19th century when the novel The Children of the New Forest was written at the estate. This literary link has contributed to the house’s fabled allure. Captain Frederick Marryat, the book’s author, must have found the area inspiring…and intriguing. Since the locale was within easy reach of the sea, smugglers brought their contraband up through the grounds and into the forest beyond it. Marryat's brother, George, owned the property from 1837 until 1855, when it was sold to the Elphinstone family. Add to this the fact that Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland nearby, and you have the makings of literary lore. When I asked the property’s managing director, Andrew Stembridge if he thought the hotel has other-worldly spirits lurking about, he replied, “The hotel is not haunted to the best of my knowledge, but the memory of Captain Marryat still remains in all the themed rooms.”

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Voted “Best Small Hotel Under 100 Rooms” by the 2004 Gallivanter’s Guide Grand Awards of Excellence, each of Chewton’s 58 bedrooms and suites has been restored to the splendor of the late 19th century. Many of the suites and rooms are named after characters in The Children of the New Forest. Mine, The Beacon Suite, named for the cleric character in the novel, is exactly what you’d expect in a country estate resort. A Wedgwood blue and navy color scheme, the essential architectural sketches and bird species prints, and a balcony overlooking the croquet lawn.

Want to do more than take in the breathtaking English scenery? Head for the resort’s luxurious spa. Chewton Glen sets a new benchmark in hotel spa facilities thanks to an $8 million refurbishment of the spa that was completed in early 2005. A team of qualified therapists and fitness instructors provides a selection of over 50 treatments. The centerpiece is a 50-foot-long, ozone-treated indoor pool. There’s also a hydrotherapy pool, considered to be the crowning glory of the new spa. Three new treatment rooms and a relaxation room have been added, with separate saunas and steam rooms in the ladies and gentlemen’s changing areas. After a swim, you’ll want to take at least one of the treatments at the spa. Mine, a grape-seed extract scrub, sea-kelp body wrap and extensive sports massage was the perfect cure for common jet lag. Afterwards, I stretched out in the relaxation room, a serene hideaway complete with terrycloth chaise lounges and private headsets.

After the treatment, you’re sure to be hungry. A casual daytime option is the Pool Bar, with a buffet lunch and breakfast served most of the day. At night, get ready for a spectacular meal. The English so often receive a bad rap for their cuisine, but these days most fine dining meals are as good as a four-star offering anywhere in the world. And Chewton certainly provides world-class meals. But before dinner, cocktails anyone? Any of the common area rooms with their chintz couches, casual wing chairs and tasseled grace will do, because everywhere you look, there is someone impeccably qualified to serve you. “Everything is prepared in our Michelin-starred kitchen, where executive chef, Luke Matthews and his 30-strong kitchen brigade oversee the operation to ensure that the same high standards of cooking excellence applies to everything that we served to our guests, from a gourmet dining experience to an in-room club sandwich,” shares the hotel’s Andrew Stembridge.

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Whether served in the formal dining room, terraced solarium dining, or al fresco areas, the Marryat restaurant offers a variety of dishes from a selection of menus. The style of its cuisine is eclectic, with an extensive use of fresh, local produce, such as wild mushrooms, vegetables and game from the New Forest, as well as seafood from Christchurch and Lymington. Want the perfect wine to accompany the perfect meal? Choose a bottle from over 500 wines in the extensive cellar. Recently voted one of the 25 best restaurants in the United Kingdom by famed restaurant guide, Egon Ronay, it’s worthy to note that the Marryat has held its Michelin-starred status for 21 years.

Should you wish to indulge your sporty side, I recommend a quick game of croquet before supper. The grounds also boast a nine-hole, par-three golf course, a practice range, a putting green and two indoor and two outdoor tennis courts. An outdoor pool overlooks the manor, surrounded by clinging vines of bougainvillea.

Because Chewton is so enchanting, you may not want to leave the grounds. You must, however, and make the short drive to the New Forest. The forest is indeed something out of a fairytale. Over 2,000 horses run wild, adding a mythical element. A quick walk down a path and you’ll find the ocean. Another fun excursion is the seaside villages. Near them is The Broadlands, a country home about an hour away, is owned by the very charming Lord and Lady Romsey, and is open for private tours a few weeks out of the year during the summer. The home is tastefully appointed by the family, who have had it for centuries and have amassed a substantial collection of nearly priceless 18th-century English paintings. This, as you may know, was where Prince Charles and Lady Diana spent their honeymoon. The manors in this area are grand, noble and are each full of their own rich history.

So, get thee to a simple country life at Chewton. Simple, but elegant, and certainly never dull. Introduce yourself to the other guests, and you are sure to make lifelong friendships, like I have. In a location so inspiring, you might even end up between the pages of the next great English novel.