Indulge with French fancies in the heart of Oxfordshire
Lavender and lemons. Those two things will be my enduring memories of Raymond Blanc's Oxfordshire retreat, Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons.
Perfectly pruned (the lavender that is, not the lemons), I wouldn't be at all surprised if there's a gardener employed solely to keep the little bushes, which line the iconic walkway to this Michelin-starred manor house, looking absolutely immaculate. (And if there is, can you imagine how good he'd smell?)
Not everyone arrives via the lavender-hemmed walkway, as it happens. If you drive through the front, valet-parking entrance, a boys' Mission Impossible-style dream awaits, awash with Rolls-Royces, Ferraris and the like. Proud as we are of our little Mini Cooper Sport (very important to mention the Cooper Sport bit, so my boyfriend tells me), the side entrance certainly seemed more appropriate.
Anyway, back to the lemons. These not only scent the rich bath oil found in cut-crystal decanters aside the marble baths, but also filled huge glass vases in our room. Oh-so-much-more chic than flowers, I rushed out to Sainsbury's once I got home and attempted to recreate the experience at home. You have to buy a practially a whole basket's worth, but they're great for cooking with once they start to get too ripe (and a great excuse for making gin and tonics every night).
Although the original 'restaurant with rooms' when it opened back in the Eighties, Le Manoir has expanded over the subsequent years to be lauded as a hotel in its own right, while losing none of its original charm. (Although to visit here without dining in the Michelin-starred restaurant would still, to a certain extent, be somewhat missing the point.)
Truly a once-in-a-lifetime-visit kind of place (unless you're the owner of the aforementioned Ferrari, in which case this is probably your equivalent of my Pizza Express), there might not be a dress code here, but people get all spruced up for dinner, which I adored; really do play croquet on the lawn (often sipping pink Champagne), and just all seemed far, far happier than in real life.
And the food really is as good as you'd imagine. Perhaps even better than the little lavender bushes.
Details: Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons, Church Road, Great Milton, Oxford OX44 7PD (01844 278881, www.manoir.com)
See Raymond Blanc in The Restaurant on BBC Two this September, when nine couples compete for the opportunity to join him in a new restaurant venture.
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