Once you have taken in the astonishing grandeur of this Italianate stone house near Cheltenham, you may think yourself convinced that whatever is within cannot match it. To call the look 'designer' doesn’t do justice to Cowley Manor’s funky, flamboyant aesthetic; the effect of cowhide window seats and comical papier-mâché ‘hunting trophies’ is certainly a world away from the usual country-house hotels.
Double rooms from £221.26, including tax at 20 per cent.
Rates don't usually include the Continental breakfast (it's about £14.50 a person).
On sunny, English afternoons, keep the waddling ducks company and have tea on the terrace overlooking the lake. If even this sounds like too much effort for a lazy holiday, seek out one of the hammocks in the grounds for a spot of well-deserved shut-eye.
At the hotel
55 acres of land, billiards room, spa (the C-Side) with four treatment rooms, gym, sauna.
Our favourite rooms
The stable-block rooms, especially the split-level ones; these are especially handy if you have children, and need a bit more space. If you're travelling à deux, try to book the Best room (actual name) – it has a private terrace (with lake views, 'natch), enormous bath and four-poster bed.
There are two pools: a 17m, slate-lined indoor pool and an elegant outdoor pool with a bar, waiter service and rows of sleek sun loungers. Both are heated year round.
The gorgeous C-Side spa uses all natural, organic products, including unguents by eco-friendly Pink's Boutique and EmerginC, which plants a tree for every product, and even the water is from a nearby Cowley spring. Treatments are designed by award-winning therapist Michelle Roques-O'Neil, and are exclusive to Cowley – so you won't find their facials or massages anywhere else. We're particularly partial to a 'Cloud 9' massage, which combines aromatherapy and reflexology in a heavenly, 90-minute treatment. Pregnancy treatments have been created exclusively for C-Side by Pink's Boutique. If you're feeling spritely, try one of the fitness classes: there's 'rebel yoga' (much more fun than the usual, hushed version), 'bootcamp' sessions and aqua aerobics.
Bring your running kit, if you fancy scenic cross-country jogs. In June and July, a Panama hat and a few linen shirts wouldn't go amiss; year round, pack your waterproofs: the English weather is notoriously unpredictable.
CD and DVD library. Wellington boots are provided. Two-night minimum stay at weekends. Some rooms are suitable for guests with mobility issues; please ask the Smith24 Team when booking.
The hotel is very accommodating of furry Smiths: you and your pooch can stay in one of the two pet-friendly rooms for an extra £25 a night, and man's best friend will even get dog treats, a bowl and a bed free of charge. See more pet-friendly hotels in Cotswolds.
All ages are welcome. Extra beds (£60 a night) are for under-16s only; the charge includes Continental breakfast and a two-course dinner from the kids' menu. The hotel is very accommodating of mums-to-be, who get a pregnancy pillow and gift on arrival.
Cowley is the perfect spot for little Smiths: there's plenty for them to do here, and the staff are extra-welcoming of young ones.
Babies, tots and teens.
Cots can be added to rooms free; there's a £60 supplement for a rollaway bed (per child, per night, including Continental breakfast and a two-course dinner from the children's menu each night). We particularly love the split level rooms with bunk beds.
There are 55 acres of grounds to explore. In July, Cheltenham’s Music and Fringe Festival features music concerts, street entertainment, comedy and fireworks; and there's the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford (01285 713300; www.airtattoo.com).
There are indoor and outdoor pools, and children's swimming times keep all the guests happy. Kids are welcome for splash-abouts at both pools from 8am–11am and 3.30pm–5pm.
Kids can dine any time in the bar, lounge or restaurant, and there's a special menu to cater to younger tastes (from £7.50).
Babysitting is available by arrangement; the hotel can recommend some contacts.
There's a DVD library to choose films from. Ask for hot-water bottles to warm beds with.
More uptown than dressed down: think smart jeans, heels and tailored shirts.
The grand, oak-panelled dining room is formal but candlelit and welcoming. The chef, David Kelman, whips up punchy, flavoursome food that focuses on the very best of seasonal, local ingredients. We're fond of the breakfast, particularly the huevos rancheros: as good as any you'd find in Mexico.
Food: 9.30pm at weekends and 9pm during the week. Breakfast is available as room service only from 7.30am until 10.30am; 11am at weekends. Afternoon tea is served Monday to Saturday, 2.30pm–4.30pm.
Soups, salads and sandwiches are available 24 hours.
London Heathrow is the closest major airport – it's around an hour and 40 minutes from the hotel, following the M4 west to Swindon, Cirencester and eventually Cheltenham.
The nearest train station is Cheltenham Spa, around 15 minutes from the hotel. Direct trains go here from London Paddington and London Euston in two and a half hours or less. Kemble Station is about 25 minutes away, and is served by slightly faster London trains – about an hour and 15 minutes from Paddington.
The nearest big town is Cheltenham – the drive from here should take around 10 minutes, following the A40 towards Oxford before turning right onto the A435 to Cirencester. Driving time from Oxford is just under an hour, using the A436 towards Gloucester before picking up the A435 to Cirencester.
Worth getting out of bed for
Book a spot of hot-air ballooning – you can even hover over Cowley's grounds, if you're so inclined. Those itching to test out their credit limit should hit the boutique shops in Cheltenham’s Montpellier, while those after a flutter should know that Cheltenham races are a 30-minute drive away. Sportif Smiths might want to try clay-pigeon shooting at Ian Coley Shooting School, or gee up with Cotswolds Riding. Of course, in this comely stretch of countryside, there's nothing to match wandering o'er hill and dale, so pull your wellies on and strike out across the fields.
We're big fans of Le Champignon Sauvage on Suffolk Road in Cheltenham, which has fully earned its acclaim with a menu of world-class English and French cuisine. For something more relaxed, The Daffodil on Suffolk Parade serves modern, Mediterranean-esque dishes in Art Deco-inspired surroundings.
Head to Montpellier Wine Bar at Bayshill Lodge in Regency Cheltenham for a lively atmosphere and great cocktails, or TheStump in Foss Cross for delicious, gastropub food.The Fossebridge Inn near Northleach is ideal for Sunday lunch, but make sure you book ahead, as it's nearly always packed.TheBellat Sapperton near Cirencester is good for lunch and has a great variety of ales. The Green Dragon in Cowley has a classic country pub vibe, with crackling fires, low-slung beams and flagstone floors.
As Smith Junior and babysitter disappear from view in the rear-view mirror, this Mrs Smith surreptitiously wipes away a tear and asserts that Cowley Manor in the Cotswolds is ‘going to have to be very special indeed’ to make up for being separated from the little darling for 48 hours. This is the last chance to get away before Smith Junior Number 2 arrives, and the first break from the rat race for what feels like an eternity.
We’re definitely in need of some ‘Cowley magic’. The subtle, minimalist signage that indicates your arrival at Cowley gives no real hint of what awaits. Then a rolling lawn… a towering stand of oaks… a glimpse of lake. And a picture begins to emerge of the pleasures to come. There’s a palpable sense of jangled City nerves starting to melt away. This is reinforced by a genuinely friendly welcome at reception that, combined with the contemporary furniture and background music, make it feel like you’ve arrived at a country house owned by the coolest people you know.
Things are starting to look good. Then Cowley ups the ante and we go from merely ‘good’ to ‘exceptional’. To explain: the hotel’s bedroom categories are referred to as ‘Good’, ‘Better’, ‘Great’ or ‘Exceptional’ – and we’re exceptionally happy to find that we’ve been handed the keys to the latter.
Floor-to-ceiling windows give views out over the sun terrace, yet another lake and glorious grounds beyond. A modern four-poster bed the size of the Smith family lounge, a private balcony large enough for a game of five-a-side football and a bathroom bigger and better-equipped than many a grand spa.
It’s when we clap eyes on the hotel’s C-Side Spa that things really start to look up. Despite the nautical-but-nice pun in its name, it’s all clean lines, slate-tiled pools and soothing treatment rooms. Not a kiss-me-quick sign in sight. (Though when I discover that specialist pregnancy massages are one of the treatments on offer, this Mrs Smith almost plants a smacker on her masseuse.)
Green & Spring is the hotel’s own brand of products (available also from the onsite Village Shop as well as other, less villagey boutiques, like Selfridges), the cares of modern life are rubbed, soothed and kneaded away over the course of a restful and rejuvenating hour, soundtracked by a playlist of your choice; Phillip Glass was perhaps, in hindsight, a little too angular a choice for what was otherwise such a deeply smooth experience.
Smoothness of another kind was provided in freshly squeezed fruit juice, and, taken in conjunction with a rare opportunity to catch up on all of the papers, made for a state of utter relaxation. You know you’ve hit the relaxation reset button when the major decisions of the day became choices between indoor or outdoor pool; room service or restaurant. A happy dilemma.
After a punishing schedule of massages and the giddy excitement of not having to look after Mini Smith for a day, room service it was. According to a quick straw poll among friends who know about these things, the – totally unscientific – litmus test of any hotel room service is based on the relationship between two vital factors: that is, the quality of the House Club Sandwich multiplied by the ice-creaminess of the vanilla milkshake. And the results showed Cowley Manor excelling on both scores.
Waking the next morning to bright, autumnal sunshine, we were fortified by the extensive breakfast on offer in the very impressive, but relaxed, dining room, and ready to face the delightful challenge of exploring the hotel grounds.
Surprisingly extensive, they gardens and woodland stretches to nearly 60 acres and include lakes, swans, hidden walkways with amusing signage (‘A path of exceptional virtue’), and any number of quiet resting places with benches or loungers to take in the views. Added to this, scattered about, are a number of pieces of modern art – not so many that they overwhelm, but enough to keep reminding you that, just as you think you’ve got a handle on Cowley, it’ll surprise you with a nice little twist on what a modern, country-house hotel should be.
After this, a game of pool on the unusual blue-baized table, followed by drinks in the buzzing bar (clearly popular with locals looking to take advantage of a great wine list and knowledgeable mixologists) was the perfect warm-up for dinner.
Served in the wood-pannelled surrounds of the dining room, the ambiance was a little more grown-up than at breakfast, but still warm and welcoming. The food was a comforting blend of staple classics and slightly more unusual options, and all of it was delivered and discussed with the unfailing courtesy we encountered from every member of staff during our stay.
As we settled down for a last night on the extraordinarily comfortable bed, we wondered when we could next come back, and if we could wangle another night away from Smith Jr.