Lime Wood Hotel is set outside affluent Lyndhurst in the middle of the beautiful New Forest. This is a fantastic, natural advantage for this very zeitgeist country house hotel.
We drive past grazing ponies and turn up a long drive, with the house at the top of a rise. So far, so good. Right now, we're pleased with our choice and feeling very important as we drive through the newly planted lime avenue up to the hotel, following the signs saying "house guests". Already these guys are tapping into our national obsession for Downton Abbey. As we pull up in front of the impressive Portland stone Georgian building we are expecting a liveried porter to come running out of the front door to welcome us and continue the country house pretence. Unfortunately, there was a lack of keen footmen that brought us back down to earth; we were forced to carry our own bags and return to 2012.
First stop: lunch in the bar, moving through a boot room full of multi coloured boots, adults and children, and a big posh map of how Hampshire was in the olden days. You could also borrow tweed and dodgy ties, if the moment took you. The bar and scullery (great touch!) menu was a pantheon of past glories which made us feel that life was better in the old days. Sepia tinted photographs of dishes such as devils on horseback (fantastic), wild mushroom vol au vent (when did you last have vol au vent - but a classic is a classic) and whitebait (I had this at the coast in the '70's) were dishes that made me think that the owners have a camera trained on the poor modern saddies who arrive in an attempt to recapture a past glory. The bar was full of Porsche and Aston drivers and pretty girls. We're talking Fulham, taking comfort in the country. They were very happy, this is the 2012 place to pop out for lunch from West London
After two glasses of wine and the excellent small dishes we returned to reception to see if our room was ready. Unfortunately not. We were still before the 3.00 curfew, however we had two spa treatments booked at 2.45. The receptionist seemed unaware of this and therefore we opened our suitcases in the front hall and pulled out our swimmers, along with other items that I'm not sure the other guests appreciated seeing.
Spa reception was in the spa shop, so I was expected to tell the world how much I drink and quite how bad my bunions are. This wasn't the most relaxing start to my experience but the spa was a knock out. The infinity pool had every possible kind of hydrotherapy experience. Looking into the forest while swimming and taking a sauna was just inspired; the modern world of absolute comfort and the old world of the rough forest cheek by cheek. We loved the outdoor hot pool with the wonderful view over the lawns and gardens.
We eventually made it to our room, and the romance of the past was still there. A laid open fire in your bedroom, an old fashioned telephone and a "do not disturb sign" made of a milk crate. The journey to our luxurious room passed a water garden, full of fish. However for this hotel there is nothing as common or modern as Koi Carp, this place has massive trout swimming in its ornamental ponds. One more subliminal reference to "Olde England". The entrance from the hotel grounds to the New Forest is known as the "Forest Gate", this subconcious Tolkien reference really demonstrates the intelligence of the entire operation, "come here and remember how great life was" is the underlying chant that permeates every activity in this property.
Dinner was superlative, foraged herbs, wild mallard and New Forest venison almost made you feel that there was some scrofulous local poking around in hedgerows just for you. This chef really knows what to do with these great ingedients, his lightness of touch with some very delicate ingredients was a sign that the Michelin inspectors will not be far away from this restaurant. The prices also demonstrate that the inspector will not be far away - an average of £30 for a main course is big, even for posh, Southern hotels. The staff here were the best in the entire hotel, truly knowledgeable and charming.
Our room had been turned down, but unfortunately no goodies were left for us to make us feel special. No choccies, no spa gift, no water, no nothing, I don't really like chocolates as a turn down gift, but with an hotel this creative (and expensive) I felt a little short changed. Our fire had not been made up either, so instead of a welcoming glow we had a grate full of ashes. All in all, a missed opportunity to make us feel wanted and pampered. Is the hospitality a deep vein to this hotel, or just skin deep?
Breakfast followed a very comfortable night's sleep, eaten in the scullery, with Radio Two playing as background music. Once again, these guys have worked out their target market and are subconciously playing to it. You will pay extra for breakfast, £6.50 for three half slices of eggy bread seemed less extravagant than £18.00 for the full monty.
Our bill was a heartstopping £836. There is service charge added to every piece of food and beverage consumed (this is really cheeky), breakfast was extra and you had to have coffee delivered (and charged) to your room as there were no tea and coffee facilities in your room. This is on top of a room rate of £445 per night. You have to be impressed, these boys really know how to charge.
Overall, the building, the spa, the grounds, the location and the food were fantastic, but you paid very handsomely for it. There was an element of style over substance. I was left with the feeling that the pharmaceutical king who invested and Robin Hutson (who returns to his New Forest roots) are genius at creating and developing the physical and emotional side of an hotel, but the creation of a true hospitality culture is slightly more difficult. Is the daily grind less interesting than development?
I do not wish to denigrate a VERY clever modern country house hotel, that is obviously very popular (how can all of these Londonistas be wrong?). Go here if you are stressed and want to relive life as it was in the good old days - but in absolute comfort - enjoy a fantastic spa, some superlative cooking (michelin Star on its way) and have a time travelling spell cast on you to take you back to the days of open fires, proper shaped telephones and butler service. Just travel with a little cynicism and a powerful credit card.