Traveling in Style to Great Britain for the Holidays

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The Long Walk: Windsor Great Park

The Long Walk: Windsor Great Park on a Misty Day with Windsor Castle in the Distance— photo courtesy Windsor Castle

Want to spend a jolly holiday living like royalty? we head to Britain to unwrap an itinerary fit for a queen.

Some years ago, while flipping through a magazine during a flight to Great Britain with my Godfather, I glimpsed a purple lacquer Asprey cigarette lighter, which, at the time, seemed to me the very height of indulgent luxury. Therefore, once in London, I headed to the flagship Asprey on New Bond Street and purchased the purple lighter for my then-boyfriend (a magnanimous gesture that might well have secured him as my decades-later husband).

The memory of that purple lighter returned to me powerfully as I followed the valet into the commodious marble bathroom in Blakeney, our suite at Cliveden, where an Asprey-purple soaking tub stood in front of a massive window overlooking the formal Parterre (formal garden) of the fabled country estate.

For more than 350 years, Cliveden has hovered on the cusp of history and imagination: a British great house of royal pedigree enlivened by glamorous guests and political intrigue. Constructed on an expansive chalk cliff plateau overlooking the Thames, the 376-acre estate is located at the heart of the Berkshire countryside less than an hour’s drive from central London. Guests who drive through the gates and down an entrance avenue lined with lime trees pass a 19th-century Carrara marble shell fountain known as the Fountain of Love — which might be one reason why the American duchess Meghan Markle chose Cliveden as her sanctuary for the night before her now-storied nuptials.

Originally built in 1666 for the mistress of the Duke of Buckingham (who later killed the mistress’ husband in a duel), Cliveden suffered two calamitous fires which resulted in its current incarnation as a majestic three-story Italianate mansion designed by the same architect behind the Houses of Parliament and Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey). In the Great Hall, guests are received with as much obeisance as the royals and luminaries who have populated the history of this house. “A Champagne cocktail in the Library, sir? Or would you prefer the Taittinger on ice in your rooms?”

cliveden

Photo courtesy Cliveden.

Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, when Cliveden was the home of Lord and Lady Nancy Astor, the “Cliveden Set” included Chaplin and Churchill, F.D.R. and Gandhi, Rudyard Kipling and George Bernard Shaw, many of whom congregated at Cliveden for weekend house parties. In 1965, the Beatles spent two days filming Help! around the estate. So meander into The Library Bar and make a toast to Cliveden’s illustrious guest list with a Cliveden ’66, a potent libation of Taittinger Brut, Chase vodka and Grand Marnier — dusted with just a sprinkle of 24-karat gold.

Cliveden’s cedar-paneled library also overlooks the Parterre, an elegant six-acre expanse of lawn and interlocking flower beds. A yew-tree lined walk of 172 steps leads to the banks of the Thames and on to Spring Cottage, where Queen Victoria arrived by boat from Windsor Castle to take tea with the Duchess of Sutherland (perhaps another reason why the now-Duchess of Sussex chose the three-bedroom Gothic summerhouse as her pre-wedding refuge).

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Students of British history may recall that the Profumo Affair, the scandal which ultimately brought down Prime Minister Macmillan’s government, commenced with a chance encounter between a cabinet minister and a London call girl at Cliveden’s swimming pool. Today, that infamous swimming pool is the centerpiece of a brand-new spa that incorporates an indoor pool and wellness lounge surrounded by the historic walled lavender and rose garden.

Deeded to the National Trust by the Astors, Cliveden opened as a five-star luxury hotel in 1984, furnished in the manner of Lady Astor, whose portrait by John Singer Sargent hangs in the Great Hall. A member of Relais & Châteaux, Cliveden perpetuates a legacy of British luxury that has been a hallmark of Great Britain since the establishment of Royal Warrants in the 15th century. My aforementioned Godfather was the gentleman who first introduced me to the concept of the Royal Warrant: a coat of arms or heraldic badge on a product that essentially conveys that it’s good enough for royalty. To my Godfather’s mind, this was the requisite seal of approval that rendered an object worthy of one’s consideration. Currently, there are approximately 800 Royal Warrant holders who represent a broad cross-section of the British luxury trade and industry.

An assiduous Anglophile who never tired of quoting Samuel Johnson’s aphorism, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” my Godfather held firm to the idea that proper British cuisine (served at his gentleman’s clubs along Pall Mall) was that post-war British gastronomic gobbledygook of bubble and squeak, kippers and bangers and mash, followed by Eton mess (a dessert mixture of strawberries, meringue, and whipped cream). Were he still with us, it’s likely that he would be enchanted by the Dover sole served by Cliveden chef André Garrett in the palatial splendor of what was once Cliveden’s drawing room and is now the chef’s namesake restaurant. The sole is delicious enough to merit its own Royal Warrant.

Garrett’s deft handling of the classic dish is a reminder that British cuisine has undergone a remarkable renaissance in recent years, perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in the charming village of Bray where acclaimed chef Heston Blumenthal’s two restaurants have earned a total of four Michelin stars. At The Hind’s Head, located in a cozy 15th-century hunting lodge where Princess Diana often dined with her two sons while they were at Eton, Blumenthal imaginatively reinterprets famous and forgotten British standards, which results in his signature triple cooked chips — and a deliciously wobbly “Quaking Pudding” from the Tudor era.

While it’s not possible for most people to join the Queen for cocktails and a cigarette during her private weekends at nearby Windsor Castle, tours are nonetheless available at the largest occupied castle in the world — including St. George’s Chapel, the locale of the two most recent Royal weddings. Equally alluring for its Royal connections, the Cotswolds encompasses nearly 800 square miles and includes Cheltenham, the fabled steeplechase race course and host to The Festival, a four-day equestrian and millinery extravaganza that culminates in the Gold Cup. While Royals sometimes arrive via private road from the adjacent estate Ellenborough Park, those without a title can utilize the race course’s steam railway station to ride the volunteer-operated heritage Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway, which becomes a riotous Champagne train on race days.

Arriving at The Lygon Arms

Arriving at The Lygon Arms — Photo courtesy Lygon Arms

Coddled in the Cotswolds

Given the rolling hills and narrow roads of the five-county expanse of the Cotswolds, one of the best means of enjoying the region is from the comfort of a luxury Mercedes Viano with a private driver and guide from Best Cotswold Tours. Without the anxiety of driving on the wrong side of the road, clients are free to enjoy a picnic hamper and Champagne. Each bespoke tour is personally tailored to a client’s requests, which might include an afternoon amidst the lush flora of Painswick Rococo Garden or a wander through the grounds of Sudeley Castle, the erstwhile home of Henry VIII’s sixth wife, which is now the private residence of the American-born Lady Ashcombe.

Beloved for its honey-colored stone villages set amidst an undulating verdant landscape, the Cotswolds is home to numerous stately homes and historic gardens, including the country house hotel The Lygon Arms. With antecedents to the 14th-century, Lygon Arms has been a High Street landmark in the charming village of Broadway since its days as a coaching inn during the English Civil War when Oliver Cromwell spent the night. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Tudor-style hotel became Hollywood-in-the-Cotswolds, hosting numerous film stars including Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at the height of their headline-making love affair.

Lygon Bar & Grill at The Lygon Arms

Lygon Bar & Grill at The Lygon Arms—Photo courtesy Lygon Arms

Few hotels embody the comfort of the Cotswolds better than the Lygon Arms. With its mullioned windows and numerous stone fireplaces set amidst a warren of cozy lounges, the hotel is an invitation to relaxation — and not merely at the spa boasting a 42-foot indoor pool and retractable roof. In the Great Hall with its 17th-century barrel-vaulted ceiling, Lygon Bar & Grill serves seasonal British produce and a seriously addictive sticky toffee pudding. Equally pleasing is a post-prandial stroll through the three-acre secret garden, particularly with the hotel’s signature absinthe Negroni in hand. Spacious new courtyard suites overlook a massive chestnut tree twinkling with lights. At this point, you’d best surrender to the romance.

London Luxury

Nothing rejuvenates quite like a weekend in the country, making it that much sweeter to return to London and rekindle your love affair with a city where no one has the time to be tired. Perhaps this is connected to the British habit of tea, where one fuels up on sandwiches laden with butter and scones slathered with clotted cream.

Afternoon Tea at 11 Cadogan Gardens includes bourbon vanilla choux and mango soup — after which it might be wise to take a constitutional. Fortunately, the Victorian-era hotel, which is part of Iconic Luxury Hotels, is directly across the street from a vest-pocket park in the heart of Chelsea and a short stroll from Sloane Square. A member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, the 56-key luxury hotel was formed from four red-brick Victorian townhouses, one of which was recently a private members club. In keeping with the formerly bohemian neighborhood (now home to the Saatchi Gallery), the hotel’s sumptuous suites are contemporary and quirky with vibrant modern art, gilt-edged mirrors, and Murano chandeliers.

Palace of Westminster, Big Ben, the Thames, and the London Eye

Palace of Westminster, Big Ben, the Thames, and the London Eye—photo courtesyVisit Britain/Andrew Pickett

For another take on the conjoined British passion for gardens and art, an evening at the restaurant Ametsa with Arzak Instruction becomes an exhibition of the brilliance of Basque gastronomy. Housed at the contemporary boutique hotel COMO The Halkin in the leafy enclave of Belgravia, the Michelin-starred restaurant is a collaboration between Veuve Clicquot’s “Best Female Chef” Elena Arzak and her father Juan Mari. A seven-course tasting menu bursts into bloom on the plate like a Basque garden painting: It’s immediately Instagrammable and equally delicious — particularly a dessert known as “intxaursaltsa cube with mutant sauce,” which mutates from cornflower blue to fuchsia with the addition of a citrus sauce.

A signature suite at COMO The Halkin is a serene oasis of sleek modernity, complete with call button for butler service, should the Champagne bucket need a refill. Furnished in white leather with corrugated-wood paneling and marble spa bathrooms, the top floor aeries feature conservatory-style windows for a bird’s-eye view over the toney neighborhood. Befitting its Belgravia address, the entire 41-room boutique hotel is as serene as an ambassadorial residence, further fueling the fantasy of a London home away from home.

To make your way across the pond to Great Britain, Norwegian Air offers three flights daily from New York to London — and 50 nonstop routes from the States to Europe and the Caribbean. For a luxury flight at a reasonable price, Norwegian Premium includes lounge access as a complement to its Premium in-flight experience on the 787 Dreamliner. Once on the ground in London, Chirton Grange provides private car transfers and luxury service with its fleet of Mercedes Benz E-class vehicles. And since, as we all now know, even an American can end up living like a Royal, why not give that experience to someone you love this holiday season?       

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Last modified: December 12, 2018