Nibbling the Good Life at Chewton Glen

Lisa Marlowe is a freelance writer in Malibu

The weather forecast arrived on our room service tray, discreetly tucked like a love note between a basket of warm pain au chocolat and the pale gray Wedgwood teapot:

"Scattered showers, some turning heavy and thundery with a fresh and gusty north-westerly wind."

The outlook for wandering on foot didn't look good. But happily cocooned in our snug room at Chewton Glen, Britain's top country house hotel, did we care? Daydreaming, I sank back in the feather pillows of an enormous chintz-covered bed, listening as the wind outside the latticed windows made the tall trees creak like a ship's rigging. With no real regret, my husband, Brian Anderson, picked up the phone and canceled his morning round of golf at the hotel's nine-hole course, then settled into a green gingham armchair to lazily peruse the morning newspaper.

Decisions, decisions: I could book one of 30 treatments at the hotel's Roman-inspired spa, or do a few languid laps in the indoor pool under the blue skies of a trompe l'oeil ceiling. I could find my way to the saffron lounge downstairs and curl up before a crackling fire with a dozen back issues of Country Life until teatime, or pull on a pair of Wellington boots helpfully lined up in the entry hall for guests and brave the elements, following the path leading from the property to the sea.

This trail, called "Chewton Bunny," was once a secret track for smugglers; today it's a romantic 20-minute walk to cliffs overlooking the English Channel. On a clear day, the views--across to the mainland town of Christchurch or all the way across the Solent (a narrow channel) to the Isle of Wight--can take your breath away. But hold firmly to your caps: The almost-constant winds on these bluffs blow with such fury, they wrest notes from nearby church bells.

"Heavy and thundery." Hmmm. Perhaps it was best not to make any sudden moves. As I burrowed deeper into the pillows, my half-closed eyes moved slowly over the bedroom: berry-colored walls, antique wardrobe, plump-cushioned toile de Jouy- -rint love seat, French doors that led to a leafy balcony overlooking the croquet lawn. In the cream-colored sitting room beyond, a decanter of sherry sat on a 19th century sideboard; another door opened on a slick marble bathroom with thick, heated towels as big as area rugs. Everywhere I looked, there were fresh flowers, good paintings, thoughtfully chosen books and fanciful knickknacks.

The English tend to do this sort of hotel very well, but none perhaps as admirably as Martin Skan. In his 35 years as proprietor, he and his Swiss-born wife, Brigitte, have seen his gem of an inn grow from eight rooms to 62 and garner just about every important travel award, including "best country-house hotel in the world" in 2000 by the readers of Gourmet magazine.

Consider the setting. Ninety miles southwest of London in New Milton, on the Hampshire coast, you pass through a pair of gates and cross a tiny bridge to 120 acres of arborvitae and rolling lawn. The private drive winds in a graceful curve to a 1732 mansion, converted to the Palladian style, awaiting at the end, its open entrance door radiating the warmth of an old friend's embrace.

The hotel is on the southern edge of the 900,000-acre New Forest, fabled hunting ground of Norman kings. The much-loved storybook "Children of the New Forest" was written here in the 1840s by former sea captain Frederick Marryat, whose brother owned the house. Chewton Glen's guest rooms are all named after the author, the ships he sailed and the characters in his idyllic tales.

There's ivy climbing over gabled garret windows and wisteria-draped chimneys; petunia-trimmed terraces; a cozy, nook-filled bar; a grand piano in the drawing room. Occupying the glass conservatory is a formal restaurant swathed in clouds of white fabric billowing from the ceiling.

Each guest room (no two are alike) is an interior designer's dream of luxury fabrics, with stripes, florals and chinoiserie on almost every surface. Brigitte (who personally "does" each) says she's used more than 300 different fabrics throughout the house. At times the effect is almost too perfect, too planned, a Ralph Lauren ad shot by Merchant-Ivory. But there's no denying Chewton Glen's high comfort level. Even at maximum capacity, as it was during our late-May stay last year, it's quiet. Not in a stiff, formal way--more the sort of peace one would expect in a child's nursery at nap time.

The three wings added over the years can make it a challenge to find your way to your room. One evening, clad only in a robe, hair slick with aromatherapy oil, I got lost coming back from a spa massage. Like Alice in that Other Land, I rambled up half-story, paisley-patterned staircases, down narrow pink-striped corridors and, at one point, straight into a lavender-scented linen cupboard. I finally made my way to the main staircase and reception hall, descending, in dishabille (to the rather surprised looks of handsomely dressed dinner guests), to beg for guidance. With a Cheshire Cat grin, the desk clerk said, "Don't worry, madam; this happens all the time."

As reluctant as you may be to leave such cushy confines, you'll find Chewton Glen makes an excellent base for touring the regions of Hampshire, Dorset and Wiltshire. (Early this year, some restrictions on countryside wandering were imposed in response to the foot-and-mouth disease crisis, but access is back to normal for walkers, cyclists and horse riders.)

If it's your first visit to this area, start with the New Forest (practically on the hotel doorstep), a 145-square-mile primeval park studded with postcard villages and free-roaming ponies. Be prepared to fall instantly under its storybook spell, particularly in spring, when the fragile new foals appear. But since my husband and I were already well versed in these woods from two previous trips (the villages of Beaulieu and Buckler's Hard being our favorites), I had my sights set on fresh turf.

Stonehenge, Winchester Cathedral, Jane Austen's Hampshire home and Thomas Hardy's Dorset cottage are all within a half-hour's drive of the hotel. A few minutes beyond are two of my favorites: stately Kingston Lacy, one of the National Trust's most prized houses, and Broadlands, the fabulous Southampton home of the late Lord Mountbatten, last viceroy of India and great-uncle of Prince Charles.

On drizzly Day 2 of our three-night stay, we ventured about five miles from the hotel to the port of Lymington and a cruise to the Isle of Wight. Fortified with a bag of Liquorice Allsorts, we embarked on the 30-minute car-ferry ride across the then-roiling Solent to Yarmouth.

Islands can have a strange mystique, an image of a place apart where life might be more exotic than the mainland's. The first known arrivals on Wight, in 1900 BC, were the Beaker people, followed by the colonizing Romans. Wight's heyday as a seaside resort was in Queen Victoria's time, and it is cherished today by Brits with a taste for the nostalgia of musty tearooms and seen-better-days B&Bs.;

More auspiciously, Wight was the site 150 years ago of the first running of the America's Cup yacht race. Known then as the 100 Guineas Cup, it was won by a U.S. ship called the America.

I consulted a pocket-size guidebook as Brian navigated through the dripping mist. The "famous coloured sands of Alum Bay"--brilliant copper and gold--were wan in the darkening day. But we could still marvel at the emerald clarity of the sea.

Wight is a mere 23 miles wide and 13 deep, ringed by a coast highway. We spent four hours exploring, and, maybe because of the weather, that seemed sufficient.

I was captivated by the tiny town of Godshill, an Anglophile's fantasy of thatched, rose-covered cottages that smacked of "Snow White." During a break in the rain, we got out and walked around the impressive ruins of Carisbrooke Castle, circa 1470, set on high land near the isle's center. As the day wore on, we passed through time-warped towns like markers across a Monopoly board: Ryde, a red-brick jumble of snaking streets; once-grand seaside Ventnor; and shabby Shanklin, its slanting streets channeling the now-steady rain downhill in silver rivulets.

By the time we caught the ferry back to the mainland, Brian claimed to be dizzy with hunger. At dinner in Chewton Glen's restaurant, when the bread basket was proffered, I thought he would buckle under the pressure of choosing just one piece among the crusty onion, Roquefort, Brazil nut and poppy seed rolls nestled among crisp crostini , fragrant with rosemary. A light-as-air puff pastry amuse bouche of tomato and caramelized onion was followed by an Emmenthal cheese souffle for Brian ("unreal," he sighed) and a velvety tomato and sweet pepper cream soup for me.

Besides the regular menu, there's an impressive range of vegetarian and "wellness" choices. But for the main course, Brian jumped at the local lobster, baked in its shell with a rich bearnaise glaze and "crushed" potatoes. I chose the chef's signature dish: sea bass braised with shiitake mushrooms, ginger and coriander. With a finale of baked Alaska for Brian and black currant sorbet for me, this exemplary meal left no doubt why chef Pierre Chevillard and Chewton Glen have kept their Michelin star.

Our last morning at Chewton Glen dawned "thundery," setting the mood for a visit to Clouds Hill, the isolated cottage of T.E. Lawrence--Lawrence of Arabia--which the National Trust has opened to the public.

Obscure to many visitors, it's rarely mentioned in local guidebooks, but I was more than intrigued. David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" was the first film my parents took me to see; by adulthood, I'd read everything I could get my hands on about the restless, tormented man who was the real Lawrence. This austere final abode of the desert enigma proved to be a touching contrast to the clotted-cream comforts of Chewton Glen.

Lawrence's cottage, four miles from the coastal village of Wareham (a 15-minute drive from Chewton Glen), is an almost spartan structure of white brick and tile, completely windowless on the first floor. Over the plain, robin's-egg-blue front door, the stone lintel bears an inscription in Greek, "Why worry?" which Lawrence took from Herodotus.

The erstwhile hero settled into the property in 1925 and purchased it four years later (for the equivalent then of $600, which he financed by selling a dagger acquired in Mecca). Here he wrote "Seven Pilllars of Wisdom" and wrestled his personal demons.

Everything in the beamed-ceiling home has been kept much as Lawrence left it. The Music Room would have been restful, with its gramophone and worn leather settee, were it not for the prominently placed typewriter. The Book Room has his odd, stainless-steel "book rest" on the armchair, and the shelves are stuffed with artifacts from his desert days and the jars of marmalade and jam that he practically subsisted on.

After a career of grandiose and often dangerous high points, Lawrence died accidentally, on a road near Clouds Hill, after crashing his motorcycle in an effort to avoid a boy on a bike. A beautiful marble effigy of him dressed in Arab headdress and robe, carved by his friend Eric Kennington, stands in Wareham's old Anglo-Saxon Church of St. Martin. The mortal remains lie in a modest grave in nearby Moreton Cemetery.

On our return to Chewton Glen, we encountered a handful of guests lolling about on cushioned sofas in the drawing room, the turning pages of their books and the gentle tinkling of silver spoons in teacups the only sounds to be heard.

It's easy to be drugged by such moments. But Chewton Glen's innate tranquillity can produce a heightened sensitivity; perceptions seem finer, more penetrating, like seeing the familiar anew. Precisely as we opened the door to our room, the sun finally made an appearance, filling the space with a golden glow. A single shaft of light fell across the carpet, casting a rime of radiance around a crystal bowl filled with dusky grapes.

Brian phoned room service for scones and cream, and I kicked off my shoes and stepped out on the balcony. Below, on the terrace with bubbling fountain, an elderly guest dozed in a lawn chair, blissfully snoring. I, too, closed my eyes, and heard the soft snarling of honeybees in a hedge, and the wind in the trees, and then, oh! the most beautiful sound of all, coming from our room:

"Madam, tea is served."

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Guidebook: A Look at Luxe Chewton Glen

* Getting there: From LAX to London, there's nonstop service on British Airways, American, United, Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand. Restricted round-trip summer fares start at $955.

* Where to stay: Chewton Glen Hotel, Health & Country Club, New Milton, Hampshire BH25 6QS; telephone (800) 344-5087 or 011-44-1425-275-341, fax 011-44-1425-272-310, Internet http://www.chewtonglen.com. Summer rates start at about $570 per night for a double room with breakfast and dinner; room only is $360 weekdays or $398 weekends, including tax. Winter rates are lower.

The Nurse's Cottage, Sway, Lymington, Hampshire SO41 6BA; tel./fax 011-44-1590-683-402. Worth a visit even if you don't stay--a quaint storybook cottage with room for five guests. Its accolades include "best breakfast in Britain" from the country's automobile association. Rates: about $138 double, $80 single, with breakfast.

* Where to eat: Dinner in the Restaurant at Chewton Glen (see above) runs about $70 per person, not including wine.

* Seeing more: Clouds Hill (T.E. Lawrence's cottage), Wareham, Dorset BH20 7NQ; tel. 011-44-1929-405-616, http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk.

Isle of Wight (ferry service, hotels), http://www.wightinfo.com.

* For more information: British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 701, New York, NY 10176; tel. (800) 462-2748. The Tourist Authority has two Internet sites: http://www.visitbritain.com and, for Americans, http://www.btausa.com.

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