George Bernard Shaw once said “the great advantage of a life is that it is a refuge from home”. Has there ever been a moment in time when this has held more resonance than now, in view of the claustrophobic homestretch of two lockdowns? Or indeed, a group of people for whom it’s held more resonance than us parents, months into entertaining and even – horror – home-educating our children?
Rarely have I felt more profoundly and pathetically grateful than the moment – just days after the last lockdown’s end – when my children and I walked into lobby of a grand Scottish hotel for this paper. It was not just the luxury, or even the knowledge that, for the next 24 hours, someone else would do the cooking, the folding and the wiping up (though both these factors undeniably helped). It was the sight of the mountains.
While we’re in the business of quoting, here’s one from André Balazs (not a giant of literature, but certainly one within the hotel trade): “All good hotels tend to lead people to do things they wouldn’t necessarily do at home.” My organised-fun antenna bristles slightly at this. I have a pathological fear of hotels where I might be induced to join a conga line or win a branded T-shirt. Still, Balazs’s definition perfectly encompasses the places I want to visit with my children once we are freed from Covid-compliance. I want to make up for the months spent gazing at the same four walls. To take them to places where they’ll see, try and eat new things. Not only to entertain them, but to expand their confidence and experience.
All that can easily be done without leaving Britain. I know this, because I’ve spent a inordinate amount of time dreaming up a hypothetical, 12-month travel schedule for 2021.
Some of the places on my list are there because they rank among my very favourites, from all the family-friendly hotels we have visited while I have been the columnist for the Hotel Hit Squad. Some are there because they sound fantastic, and lockdown has so far prevented me from visiting them. Others are brand-new and tantalising. All offer a total break from life as we’ve known it. A new perspective, be it dramatic or gentle, and a lot of fun for all ages.
The Fife Arms, Braemar, Scotland
This is going to be the year I stop procrastinating and start doing. So let’s kick off with a hotel I have been meaning to book into for years, after wandering, by chance, into its bar and falling in love. Outside are the craggy Cairngorm Mountains, famous for the Royal Highland Games. Inside: high luxe and high drama, with interior design from international art dealers Hauser & Wirth. Wit and playfulness abound, making it ideal for families despite its sophistication. In January, the kids can also give skiing a shot at Glenshee, Scotland’s largest ski resort. In fact, even getting to The Fife Arms is an adventure if you book a room aboard the Caledonian sleeper train from Euston to Aberdeen.
Family rooms start from £735 per night, B&B; thefifearms.com
Penally Abbey, Tenby, Wales
A fire broke out in Pembrokeshire’s loveliest bolt-hole last summer. It reopened briefly and I can’t wait to go back and be transported to the world of a classic children’s book. The Strawberry Hill gothic house is set above the sea, amid tumbling gardens. It’s run by a wonderful family, furnished with French antiques and decked out with REN toiletries. There is always a cake on the bar and, in your room, a hand-illustrated guide to “things to do with kids”. Book rooms One and Two, which occupy the whole top floor and turn into a rambling suite, and head there out of season, when the surrounding castle-encrusted beaches are emptied of grockles but full of drama. From Tenby, take a sea fishing trip (where adventures are measured on a sliding scale from mackerel to shark).
A family of four can stay from £215 per night, B&B; penally-abbey.com
The Harper, Langham, Norfolk
Originally due to open during the first lockdown, The Harper is now set to launch this spring and promises fuss and flounce-free luxury, right on north Norfolk’s loveliest stretch of coast. Early glimpses look very encouraging indeed: dog and family-friendly; a sleek pool and a short but sophisticated menu of treatments; a dark bar and a bright living room. Slow down and catch crabs at Wells-next-the-Sea. Or head to Blakeney, five minutes down the road, where you can take a seal-spotting boat trip or learn to sail or paddle-board with family-run company Norfolketc.
The Family combo (an interconnecting duo for families of four) costs from £390; theharper.co.uk
Leopard Creek, Port Lympne Hotel, Hythe, Kent
Port Lympne is already an enigma: a hotel so eccentric it could only be in Britain, yet also a 600-acre conservation reserve where rhinos, giraffes, lions, zebras and more create an atmosphere that’s more Kenya than Kent. Our stay in the hotel’s Lion Lodge, where floor-to-ceiling windows face directly on to the big cats’ territory, remains one of the most extraordinary weekends our family has spent together. They slink right up the glass to inspect you, their yawns fogging its surface just inches from your own face.
In April, Leopard Creek opens too, offering a similarly up-close-and-personal view of the charity’s Amur leopards and white rhinos. There will be huts and cabins but I’m rooting for the luxury, four-person wigwam, clad half in wood, half in glass. In the morning, take an AAA safari to go behind the scenes with giraffes and more. All profits are fed back into animal conservation charity work, so this is a virtuous sort of voyeurism.
A night in a wigwam for four starts at £699; aspinallfoundation.org/port-lympne
Living-room Treehouses, Machynlleth, Wales
As God is my witness, I will find a way into this enchanting place this year. Trouble is, it is consistently booked up for months ahead. Lots of hotels claim to have treehouse accommodation, which turns out to be a rather suburban, sensible interpretation of the childhood dream. This, however, is the real deal. Set in some of Wales’s wildest countryside, it’s an Ewok village of wooden cabins, perched high up in the branches, reached by spiralling staircases and connected by rope bridges. Each has an en suite, a wood burner that also heats the spring water in your shower, a kitchen and cosy beds. No electricity, but lanterns and, in May, the floor of the valley in which they’re set will be covered in bluebells. Heaven.
Three-night stays in a Family Treehouse cost £399 year-round; living-room.co
Another Place, The Lake, Cumbria
Another Place is rightly named. It feels a world apart. Sometimes, in the harder moments of lockdown, I’ve closed my eyes and teleported myself there for a few seconds. Perched right on Ullswater (the second-largest lake in England) the hotel’s very real luxury is almost beside the point – everything is designed to lure you away and outdoors. Yes there’s an infinity pool stretching right out into the deep blue of the lake. But there’s also a “Sheep Shed” full of wetsuits and buoyancy aids in every size, borrowable for free, so you can hurl yourself from a wooden jetty into the lake itself. There is a constant rota of paddle-board lessons, kayaking and wild swimming with Colin Hill, one of Britain’s best. Plus, this spring they are opening three double shepherds’ huts, a treehouse and six garden suites in their grounds, all with fantastic views of the lake and the fells beyond. So, every excuse to revisit.
Family suites start from £310 per night B&B; another.place
Seabreeze Cottage, Tresco Island
I’ve wanted to go to Tresco for as long as I can remember. Who doesn’t like the sound of a tiny, car-free and family-owned island, 28 miles off the coast of Cornwall with a subtropical climate and white sandy beaches? 2021 might just be the year I finally do it. A new helicopter service is flying direct to the island from Penzance, and a new self-catering cottage, Seabreaze, has recently opened too. The latter has five en suite bedrooms and sits right on Ravens Porth beach, where the kids can pick up some windsurfing skills at the activity centre while I do absolutely nothing but hang out at The Sea Garden spa and everyone pigs out at the Ruin Beach Café. If it’s good enough for the Cambridges…
A week in Seabreeze, for up to 10, starts at £2,575; tresco.co.uk
Fforest, Ceredigion, Wales
Fforest is Britain’s best glamping site, even though it’s far too cool and original to be associated with such a twee term. Just outside Cardigan, on a 200-acre farm that borders a wild nature reserve and the river Teifi, there are domes with solid wood floors and wood burners, king-size beds with thick duvets and Welsh blankets. Canvas-topped cabins and other shabby-chic dwellings are tucked into the trees. There’s a wood-fired sauna, a tepee that screens children’s films, a tiny stone pub serving beers and gins created with local producers, and – new for 2021 – an outdoor restaurant set under a canopy of trees, with fire pits to keep guests warm and both a children’s and adult’s menu composed from local produce.
It is one of our family’s very favourite places and will likely become yours too if you bag a ticket to Gather, its summer festival, which is also Wales’s smallest. Across six nights, the site hosts family-friendly adventures and workshops focused on nature, music, culture, creativity, growing and simple pleasures. I’ve never needed it more.
A family of four can book a fforest farm dome from £260 for a two-night break; coldatnight.co.uk
Mascotte, Charlestown, Cornwall
Mascotte sailed on to the scene last summer but Covid has so far curtailed visits. Come 2021, I’m totally getting on board with it. Sorry, enough of the cheap puns. Mascotte, you see, is a stunning 60ft wooden sailing boat, moored in Charlestown Harbour (the film location for Poldark, and a Cornish fishing village so perfect it’s a Unesco world heritage site). Up to 11 people can book it for exclusive use and while it boasts of high thread count cotton sheets, a galley kitchen stocked with treats on arrival and a member of the harbour team available throughout your stay, it is still every bit the proper boat – with bunks in one of the four cabins, brass fixtures and a saloon that’s all polished hardwood panelling and maps. You can stay firmly moored in the harbour, take her out for a daylong dolphin-spotting cruise or even book a three-day sailing holiday aboard her. All in all, it’s a very Jack Sparrow base for a Cornish adventure.
A family of four can stay the night aboard Mascotte for £180; charlestownharbour.co.uk
The Ickworth, Suffolk
The Ickworth was the very first hotel I reviewed for this paper and it remains one of my favourites for families. The finest hotel in the Luxury Family Hotel chain, it ticks all the boxes. It is housed in a gloriously grand building (a Georgian Italianate palace, former home to the Marquess of Bristol, complete with Capability Brown gardens). Yet it’s not remotely snooty. If it’s worn in places, that’s because parents have actually been able to relax and let their children bounce on the sofa.
It has a pool stocked with toys, a tennis court complete with junior rackets, bikes in all sizes… It is especially good for babies and toddlers but has something for all ages. Plus, it’s set in a National Trust property so there’s a faintly shameful frisson of excitement when non-resident visitors leave. Very Night at the Museum.
Rooms for a family of four start from £209 B&B; ickworthhotel.co.uk
Tudor Farmhouse Hotel, Gloucestershire
The Tudor Farmhouse has somehow remained on my to-do list for years. I was hoping to visit at the end of 2020, but… well. The 20-room boutique hotel, housed in a clutch of picturesque former farm buildings in the Forest of Dean is renowned for its food, and offers a wide range of outdoor activities. In the winter months, these include stargazing safaris in which guests are guided through the constellations, as well as the science and stories behind them. The hotel has also just launched nocturnal animal safaris, outdoor feasting around the fire and treetop hammocks in which to swing and stare at the stars. It sounds heavenly.
A family of four can stay from £189 a night B&B; tudorfarmhousehotel.co.uk
They call it The Glorious Playground for a reason. Want to try falconry? You’re on. Fly fishing, ferret racing (no, really), tennis coaching, horse riding, polo, swimming, shooting… Oh, and golf (it hosted the Ryder Cup, after all). Children can even take a replica Land Rover Defender for an off-road adventure. It really is a magical place, and I say that as someone allergic to golf. Scottish warmth meets high luxury, witty art deco detailing and a luxuriant use of colour (the lavender walls of one bar are clothed in cashmere. Cashmere).
Predictably, they take Christmas pretty seriously. Reindeer take up residence on the Orangery Lawn, while at the ice rink installed on another you can pick up mulled wine with your skates. The Big Man himself even puts on an appearance, delivering gifts. Too much? No fear. If we can be certain of anything it’s that after the past year of restrictions, more will definitely be more in 2021.
Family rates at Gleneagles start from £435 per night B&B; gleneagles.com