Old-school vs new class: country breaks for all tastes


Old-school vs new class: country breaks for all tastes

Is your ideal rural break classic or contemporary? We've picked boutique hotels in Europe and beyond that tick both boxes…

Kate Weir

BY Kate Weir20 November 2018

We love a cottage in the Cotswolds, Loire Valley château or cave house in Santorini. But, we’re not sticklers for tradition. A new crop of hotels are shaking up the countryside scene in beloved European holiday destinations and beyond. So, for a taste of old and new, we’ve paired up classic hotels and contemporary hideaways…


OLD-SCHOOL Manoir de Plaisance, Charente-Maritime
This four-suite chambre d’hôte invites guests for a classic French countryside experience; acres of greenery, excellent local produce, and novelistic back stories aplenty from the greenery-clad homestead’s history. Rooms have been updated enough to ensure modern guests are comfortable, yet they’ve retained their charms from the days when they were inhabited by the Delmas family: a storied dynasty of writers and the odd eccentric who’d fish in the estate’s two lakes using grenades…

The stay shuts for winter on 16 December, but stay before then and you’ll find peace and quiet throughout the hotel and grounds (all set for tennis matches, hiking and fishing – without grenades), and the Marais Poitevin Nature Park, also known as ‘Green Venice’ for its network of canals. Port town La Rochelle (a popular spot for French holidaymakers) and Île de Ré are quiet enough to comfortably explore, and you may even see a glint of very late summer sun…

NEW CLASS Le Barn Hotel, Bonnelles
With not a spire or whiff of French Renaissance frilliness, Le Barn hotel in Bonnelles (an hour’s drive from Paris and Versailles) looks like, well, a barn. But a terribly chic one, with its russet roof and wood panelling, and rooms with cool era-mashing decor. It has grounds as lavish as any château stay, set by Rambouillet Forest and bordering the Chevreuse Valley, but here they’re comprised of paddocks, open-air Nordic baths, a volleyball court and permaculture gardens.

It’s open all-year round, for a facile city-to-country hop. Barbecues and picnics may be a bit optimistic, but cocktail and cookery classes, and horse-whispering sessions – if you’ve always fancied yourself as a rugged Robert Redford type – add a touch of learning to leisure. If it’s chilly outside, head to the Ayurvedic spa, housed in a disused flour mill, for pampering, or tuck into warming seasonal fare (chicken cassoulet, roast leg of lamb, wood-fired pizzas) in Le Serre restaurant.


OLD-SCHOOL The Pig, Hampshire
This immensely popular boutique hotel is an archetypal country stay: a period-piece house where hearths crackle, furniture isn’t matchy-matchy, and bedrooms and cabins are imbued with more rustic swagger than a romance poet. This little piggy is folded into the New Forest’s woodland, and its fertile setting ensures fine foraged and homegrown food in a well-regarded restaurant (its porcine snacks – crackling, chipolatas and the like – are very moreish).

Come autumn and winter, the hotel becomes the cosiest of shelters to hibernate in. And, the resident forager and gardener offer insight into the natural surroundings, with hedgerow-plundering sessions for fruits, nuts and berries, and trips to the coast to gather seaweed and shellfish. On return, stash your wellies and soothe worked muscles in the shepherd’s hut treatment rooms, then ask the barkeep to whip up a round of hot toddies, the perfect by-the-fire tipple.

NEW CLASS Heckfield Place, Hampshire
This genteel Georgian country home was already a rather grand residence before the Chan family fixed it up. Set across 400 acres, it ticks off Hampshire’s scenic staples: gardens, woodland, lakes… and throws in a biodynamic farm. Designer Ilse Crawford’s protégé Ben Thompson has crafted minimal-farmhouse interiors using natural timbers, lime plaster, Irish linens, and mats handwoven using rushes from the River Ouse, juxtaposed with pieces from the owners’ art collection, hung on Farrow & Ball-ed walls.

This time of year is ripe for wrapped-up walks in heather-strewn meadows and woods with fiery foliage, or scrumping in the heaving plum and apple orchards (maybe ask permission first…). Or, run a hot bath in the bedroom’s restful rolltops, tear into meats grilled over an open fire in intimate eatery Hearth, see what’s cooking this season in Skye Gyngell-helmed Marle restaurant, or nab one of the velvety seats in the subterranean cinema.


OLD-SCHOOL Borgo Canonica, Puglia
An authentically traditional stay, Borgo Canonica is set between Ostuni and Cisternino, surrounded by macchia (marshland) and ancient olive trees. It’s a 19th-century village of 42 lovingly restored trulli: the traditional, conical farm buildings unique to Puglia. It’s so authentic that its last living resident was consulted during the restoration process. Of course, life here now is a bit more luxurious than it was for the monks who formerly lived here – they didn’t have Smart TVs, iPod docks and a sizeable pool to cool off in.

This is the spot for R’n’R and getting a little loved-up in; but, late-season guests can watch the Valle D’Itria shake off its summer coat. Harvest season brings a haul of just-right produce into the kitchen, to accompany handmade orrecchiette and fresh slabs of burrata on your plate. More delicious time-wasters include cookery classes and wine tastings, and beyond the hotel, Ostuni – the White City – gives good view, whatever the weather.

NEW CLASS La Fiermontina, Lecce
Artistic retreat La Fiermontina, in Lecce, evokes modern romance in more ways than one… Its white-stone buildings are pure back-in-the-day Puglia, but within, the style is sleek and minimal with pieces by design greats: Le Corbusier, Charlotte Perriand, Tobia Scarpa… Its art collection is contemporary too, the legacy of owner Fouad Filali’s grandmother Antonia Fiermonte, who was close with the Parisian Surrealists. Very close, in fact – many of the sculptures and portraits were painted by her two husbands, René Letourneur and Jacques Zwobada (a love triangle that proved quite the scandal).

Alongside learning about the property’s amorous and tragic tales, and touring the impressive art collection, you can wander through the grounds’ centuries-old olive trees, venture into Lecce’s Baroque centro storico, taste the wines of Salento and learn how to make typical dishes of Puglia’s season-led cucina povera with local cooks (or let the hotel chef do the work for you). Autumnal beach bathing is for the hardy, but coastal hikes pass through picturesque villages, but couples may wish to hole up indoors and let a love story of their own unfold…


OLD-SCHOOL The Vasilicos, Santorini
Suites in the Vasilicos hotel’s tumble of white buildings have a clean-cut look, but, the cave dwellings and wood beams are classic Santorini. The stay’s attitude is steeped in tradition: throughout are artisanal touches crafted by the owners, including custom beach bags, homemade soap, and hand-thrown ceramics. If you’re not already utterly charmed, caldera views, a chef who enquires after your choice of dinner each day and bottles from the hotel owner’s brother’s vineyard will win you over.

In autumn, before Santorini truly shutters up for the winter (very few hotels stay open past the first week of November), you pretty much have the island to yourself – ideal for honeymooners – and temperatures hover around a balmy 25 degrees. The sea stays bath tub warm too, so swimming and watersports are still possible, and if you’re not sold on braving it, Santorini’s wineries are largely still open for business. Most restaurants will close, though, so the hotel’s accommodating chef will come in handy.

NEW CLASS Cressa Corona Boutique Hotel, Crete
Cretans don’t shy away from colour like the purists on Santorini; case in point, vivid boutique stay Cressa Corona, where walls are the colour of morning sunshine, beds are draped with graphic throws and stand-out design pieces (an Eames-style rocking chair, tree-trunk side tables, a stone-hewn sink) keep things contemporary. Its quintet of suites are held within a historic Venetian-Ottoman manse, which has an original Turkish hammam (it’s out of action, so if you want some spa time, book a suite with a hot tub), and it’s conversion has made it impressively eco-friendly.

The cooler temperatures in autumn and winter bring out Crete’s greener side. Grapes are harvested to make new batches of wine and raki (a potent anise-flavoured spirit), and fresh-from-the-tree batches of olives are hauled in. Temperatures keep clement even as late as December, ideal for strolling round the Venetian Harbour and Rethymno’s old town, close to the hotel. You may need to roll the dice on sunbathing, but the sandy beach just by the hotel will be tourist free and open for romantic strolls.


OLD-SCHOOL Troutbeck, Hudson Valley
You’re in fine company at Troutbeck, a revamped 18th-century stay amid bucolic beauty, just two hours from New York. Former guests include Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway; but you don’t have to be a top-of-the-pedestal politico or literary heavyweight to feel at home here; all guests are welcomed as old friends, and the hotel amps up the cosiness with fire-warmed terraces, a library with chesterfields to curl up on and intimate booths in its dining room.

Visit in autumn to peep at a leafy inferno of reds and oranges, as the landscape’s summer greenery turns. While you’re out and about, hike the Harlem Valley Rail Trail, go twitching at the Sharon Audobon Center and, come winter, try Mohawk Mountain’s ski runs. Back at the hotel, the pool may be closed, but you can play tennis or snooker, enjoy lingering meals of New American cuisine, raid the snacks in the pantry and sip your way through the seasonal cocktail list.

NEW CLASS Hotel Tivoli, Broadway
Here’s a winning formula for a hip country escape: two stalwarts of New York’s art scene + a century-old building in Upstate New York. Hotel Tivoli is a neon-flecked retreat conceived and styled by abstract painters Brice and Helen Marsden. Its 11 rooms are furnished with acid-bright statement pieces, vintage rugs and the artists’ own work. The Corner restaurant and bar also bring urban sophistication north, with a Mediterranean menu, well-curated wine list and cocktails courtesy of NYC’s Employees Only.

Come fall, Hudson Valley has pumpkin patches to plunder, arts festivals and exhibitions in Woodstock, and eerie Halloween happenings. In November, the hotel lays out a locally sourced Thanksgiving spread of pumpkin soup, heritage turkey with all the trimmings and a second round of pumpkin for dessert. At the weekend, spark up lively debates about art over cocktails on the hotel’s patio from 4pm. Or, head out to Montgomery Place Orchards for warm apple cider and doughnuts with a detour to spy riotously hued foliage.