Where: Forest Row, near Royal Tunbridge Wells
Vibe: Downton Abbey
Crowd: Ideal for young couples and girls' weekends away
Price: Rooms start from £185.
Ever wonder what it would feel like to roll down the red carpet of one of the royal family’s country estates? Cue Ashdown Park Hotel and Country Club, a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. After a busy few weeks, my partner and I have come for a weekend getaway at the hotel, said to promise all the hallmarks of a romantic escape with its ornate design set in the English countryside, less than two hours south from London.
Having been dropped off by a friend, we approach the enormous hotel through a Downton Abbey-esque archway. Through heavy, wooden doors, the reception area is complete with immaculately suited porters, detailed antique furniture and even more archways. Not a thread seems out of place, and within minutes, our luggage is whisked away by white-gloved hands to room one (a.k.a. the Park Suite).
Opening the door to the Park Suite, a sprawling room appears, bigger than our entire 800-square-foot apartment back home. Fully stocked with fruit, local fudge, endless toiletries, soft bath robes and cozy slippers, the only thing missing is a pair of binoculars for watching TV in bed, which seems miles away on the other side of the room.
Tip: Don’t make the mistake I did of skipping the evening ‘turndown service’, as it comes with a lovely bottle of Ylang-Ylang scented night spray. Also don't make my second mistake, which was dousing the bed in it myself, resulting in coughing fits.
We're on our way to dinner at the hotel's award-winning restaurant, Anderida, when the evening duty manager intercepts us with an all-too-tempting offer. Pre-dinner cocktails are waiting for us at the bar, and if there's one thing I know about my partner and I, it's that we never, ever, pass up a delicious drink. The drinks are much like our experience so far — exquisite and made to order — accompanied by delightfully fluffy appetizers like tomato sticks and blue cheese tarts. If you're heading here any time soon, order the 'Bittersweet Symphony', a medley of grapefruit juice, elderflower liqueur, and champagne, topped with a slice of cucumber. If you want something with a bit more kick, the 'Hot Tonic' combines gin and tonic with a palate-cleansing hot pepper.
Feeling a slight buzz from literally one drink (it doesn't take much when you've been on the road for a while), we finally arrive at Anderida for dinner. The name is Roman in origin and means hunting ground, which is appropriate given the seasonal lamb, beef and duck on the menu. We don't play favourites — between the duck confit, roasted eggplant, sirloin steak and bottle of High Altitude malbec from Terrazas de Los Andes, we're in no condition to continue. Still, we order the 'white chocolate lime delice' and 'blueberry frangipan' for dessert. Complimentary scoops of passion fruit sorbet are served throughout the meal to cleanse the palate; a sensory surprise I look forward to between courses. Looking fit to burst, we roll back to our room to sleep it all off.
Waking up in a soft, fluffy cloud of impossibly-white sheets, we head downstairs for breakfast where we're immediately hit with an amazing smell. There are the usual breakfast staples here, a full continental buffet and an à la carte menu. Forgetting all about my proper English fry up dreams, I indulge in the best Scottish wild smoked salmon I've ever had, washed down by jugs of fresh-squeezed orange juice.
Feeling nearly as stuffed as I did the night prior, I walk it off by touring the property while my partner miraculously manages to go for a run. I start by heading to the chapel to see the original (and incredible) stained glass windows up close. Strolling along the fairway, one of the porters informs me that there's a llama park just across the fields. Yes, an actual llama park. Without stopping to think about my shoes (which you should — see the tip below), I dart off and within about twenty minutes am face-to-face with the fluffy locals.
Tip: Should it be wet or muddy, stop by the front desk to borrow some wellies before making the trek across the fields. Don’t feel like petting super soft llamas? You can also borrow tennis rackets, head out on the running trails, take advantage of the pool, or sign up for a round of golf.
Still surprisingly full from breakfast, we decide to skip lunch and instead treat ourselves to a proper Afternoon Tea. Having learned how much food tends to be served at this hotel, we invite some friends to join us. Good thing, too — there's no way we could finish three tiers of perfect sandwiches, scones with clotted cream, and dessert cakes on our own.
Tip: For those looking for a twist on their Afternoon Tea, the Ashdown offers some delightful variations including a Champagne Tea and a Gin Tea, complete with handcrafted gin and tea cocktails.
Feeling quite pleased with ourselves and caught-up on digesting, we end our second day with one final dinner at Anderida. This time, we pair smoked salmon tartare and roast lamb with Mediterranean G&T's inflused with olives and rosemary. All in all, it proves to be a much lighter dinner, though we still end up waddling back to our giant room. Maybe it's the food, or maybe it's the overwhelming luxury, but we pass out pretty damn quick.
Between our heavenly room, three-course dinners, cocktails and llamas, this really is a romantic weekender fit for a royal. One simply can't wait for one's next visit.
About Small Luxury Hotels of the World: Small Luxury Hotels of the World™ (SLH) matches independently minded guests with independently spirited hotels. The diverse collection of over 520 hotels in more than 80 countries around the world includes everything from cutting edge design hotels and city centre sanctuaries to historic country mansions and remote private islands. Click here to view a listing by country.
Disclaimer: This complimentary stay was provided by Ashdown Park Hotel and Country Club from Small Luxury Hotels.