Looking round the lounge bar with its deep, squashy sofas, polished tables and air of understated luxury, I decide there are probably two kinds of people who book into Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons – those who can afford to do this on a whim and those who, like us, have saved up for a special treat.
So I’m pleased to see that we’re all getting the same attentive treatment. From the moment a smartly suited gentleman opened our car door in the courtyard, we have been made to feel like much-valued guests. Here in this bubble of quintessential England, deep in the Oxfordshire countryside, the hotel run by a Frenchman is the last word in country house hospitality. As far as the staff here are concerned, every visitor is celebrating a special occasion.
And this time, we really are. Our overnight stay is a very thoughtful present from my lovely husband for my Big Birthday, although he has wisely chosen a present that he can share with me. So he’s dug deep into the piggy bank – very deep – and booked the Hydrangea Suite which is so utterly gorgeous that I immediately decide I want to live in it permanently.
Decorated in pale green and cream, Hydrangea offers a vast bed with more cushions than John Lewis, a relaxing lounge area opening onto a tiny balcony above the lavender path, and a huge bathroom with Jacuzzi bath and separate shower. There’s a top notch sound system with a choice of English and French music, luxury toiletries, sumptuous bath robes and slippers. And because he’s gone for the Dining Experience package, a half bottle of champagne to enjoy before dinner, a Madeira decanter for afters, and fruit for in-betweens.
Whichever room you choose at Le Manoir – and there are cheaper ones – I’d recommend arriving promptly at 3pm to gain maximum enjoyment from the whole sumptuous experience. The gardens could rival any stately home and should be enjoyed whatever the weather. It’s pouring when we visit in late May, but there are huge umbrellas by every doorway and we head out to explore the spacious lawns and the vegetable beds, the glass houses, herb garden and ponds. If you want the full inside story, book onto one of the regular garden tours – details on the website.
We take dinner in the conservatory restaurant where we can watch the light fade over the herbaceous borders. With two Michelin stars to its credit, we’re expecting great things and Le Manoir’s kitchen team don’t disappoint. We opt for the Seasonal menu rather than the seven course Discovery menu, and enjoy exquisite flavours in five perfectly-balanced dishes that include crab cocktail, a spring vegetable risotto and lamb so tender that we hardly need teeth. And when my dessert arrives with a candle and a Happy Birthday sugar label, I’m even given a tiny envelope to keep the label as a memento.
It’s a gesture that pretty much sums up a stay at Le Manoir. Yes, the property is beautiful, the grounds absolutely fabulous, but it’s the little things that lift the hotel out of the ordinary – small muslins bags for you to take home the large bar of soap; a jute bag with bottled water and cakes for your journey home. And when a serious family crisis forced us to cancel our original booking at the last minute, the reception staff could not have been more accommodating – a reaction that made us warm to the place before we had even arrived.
So what’s not to like? To me, nothing except the price. An overnight stay here, with dinner and English breakfast included, will cost you serious money – or will require someone who loves you very much – but we drove away thinking the experience had been so special that we didn’t begrudge a penny. It’s just a shame that it will be a long time before we can afford to do it again!
Belmond Le Maoir aux Quat’Saisons
Great Milton, Oxford