Spotting wild ponies and singing loudly to the Glee soundtrack in glorious evening sunshine isn’t a bad way to pass the time in the mother of all traffic jams. But then this is a Friday evening, and we are heading to Lyndhurst. Yet it is with peckers up that we turn off the Beaulieu Road to Lime Wood. In the style of the best country house hotel arrivals, we approach a suitably patrician Georgian house in golden stone along a sweeping drive flanked by well-tended lawns. Perfection. All we need is a dashingly handsome young man in a slightly self-conscious tweed cap to take our bags. Ah yes, there he is. Next, cheery front-of-housers joke with the children, ignoring chocolatey faces and bare feet. Lime Wood, you do welcomes very well indeed.
The new owners spent five years and untold millions creating a destination that offers the last word in out-of-town indulgence. The kind of place to spend your bonus admiring a beautiful view, pretending to be country types without leaving your freestanding bath. Lime Wood’s setting is stunning, and the building was handsome even before extensive remodeling, which has resulted in a fabulous central atrium with a retractable roof.
Imaginative annexes have been added to the 29-bedroom property, and an enormous spa, more Champneys than Chiva Som, is set to be booked solid by locals. The gardens are not yet mature, but are spectacular, and showcase excellent sculptures. Inside, David Collins’ decor has won awards, and is what I’d describe as Hotel Costes meets Daylesford: lots of silk upholstery in cool subdued colours and rustic touches applied with exquisite taste in Farrow & Ball. There’s even a basement billiard room with cigars and a massive screen for Sky Sports. The place simply reeks of cash.
And here are we with our mismatched luggage, too-cool 10-year-old tomboy and hot-pant-wearing four year old, alongside my exuberant entrepreneur Mr Smith. ‘This isn’t a business venture, this is a trophy asset,’ he decrees in less-than-subtle tones as we’re shown to our quarters. Is it a little house? A maisonette? Or a duplex? I’m not sure of terminology to suit such rarified surroundings, but there’s a rather lovely sitting room with a massive sofabed for the girls, French windows opening onto our own terrace, and the forest beyond. Upstairs, an opulent master suite displays an orgy of cushions on the bed and just as exrtravagant an array of fluffy towels in the bathroom.
After my second glass of complimentary wine, I declare our little corner of Lime Wood ‘New England show home’ in look. White painted slatted walls, exposed eaves, sisal matting, everything gleaming, no detail overlooked. (Actually, they forgot a corkscrew, but the nice tweed-capped chap soon puts that right.) There’s even fresh fruit and reference books to identify the local trees and tips on how to forage for mushrooms. Yes, there are two massive plasma TVs, but the kids are champing at the bit to choose from a rainbow of borrowable Hunter wellies and bikes. As there are not yet child seats or stabilisers, Mr Smith rediscovers the lost art of the ‘backie’ and we’re off.
Enid Blyton would be proud as we pedal away in the early evening sun, our cheery faces glowing as we explore cycle paths galore. A corner of England where sturdy ponies with fluffy hooves roam freely is undeniably special, especially when you can cycle energetically and safely down country lanes. And thankfully, as after 20 minutes our muscles start to burn, when it even promises world-class cocktails within reach.
Mealtimes are when hotels show their mettle, never more so than when they sell themselves as luxury hotels that actively welcome children. This isn’t a nursery tea and babysitters kind of place (though they are available) – no, this is a grown-up environment that is genuinely friendly towards kids. It’s a tricky path to navigate, and I heartily applaud any establishment that succeeds. There are two restaurants – the Scullery, for fantastic breakfasts, lunches and relaxed suppers, and also a full-on posh-crockery formal dining – and unusually, kids are welcome at both.
Dithering over cocktails in the atrium, we munch on olives as big as the gobstoppers we buy the next day in Lyndhurst’s Ye Olde Sweet Shoppe. From the all-adult, well-dressed clientele in the smart dining room, we consider stage exit left to the Scullery. Yet, feeling it our duty to you dear Mr & Mrs Smith reader to sample that tasting menu, we stay committed. Yes, we’re going Michelin-starred all for you. At this point we meet Lime Wood’s star, Cedric, the charming Belgian maître d’. Proffering not just top-drawer amuses bouches, he also suggests that our family might like the best table in the hotel… Seats at the chef’s table in the kitchen – a rare privilege, of course – and the best of the menus accompanied by the theatre of watching the chefs at work. It is a masterstroke of diplomacy and bonhomie.
In the sepia tint of this uncharacteristically clement spring weather, we turn back the clock to 1950, and go crab fishing on Mudeford Quay. Next thing we’re riding horses through the kind of ancient forest that Robin and his merry men would have happily capered about in. How comforting that should the heavens open, we could head back to Lime Wood, settle back against the scatter cushions, book a massage, and order tip-top room service. There’s no question that Lime Wood is a hotel prepared to go to any length to ensure its guests, whatever age, get what they want. It’s not what you’d call understated, and neither – having counted the Porsches and Ferraris in the car park – are its guests. But Lime Wood delivers on its promise of luxury, with genuine friendliness, and a damn-fine melon martinis. Welcome, ladies and gents, to the Nouveau Forêt.