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To The Manor Reborn

These historic English manors look like Brideshead from the outside, but inside they've been thoroughly updated, with streamlined modern style and up-to-the-minute food.

The Victoria
123 miles from London
A viscount's charmingly eccentric hotel brings boho chic to north Norfolk.

A hybrid of raj-era colonial, London boho and country-manor-house styles, the Victoria, on Holkham Estate in Holkham, is hardly your traditional North Norfolk lodging. But Viscount Coke's adorably eccentric 11-guest-room hotel, with its grass-green and burnt-orange walls and dark wood furniture custom-made in Rajasthan, India, is just what that flat, windswept county in the far east of England needed.

Norfolk used to be all about bracing walks and bird-watching on vast strands by flinty seaside towns. Nowadays, arty Londoners make the three-hour drive for its antiques shops, galleries and so-called gastro-pubs. They come for the Victoria, too. Guests can hike through miles of forests and empty sand, tour 18th-century Holkham Hall, where the Earl of Leicester (the Viscount's father) lives, then feast at the Victoria on chef Neil Dowson's up-to-the-minute British bistro food: baked smoked haddock on leek mash, game consommé with wild duck. Menus feature Estate-raised game and local beef and produce, plus the famous Norfolk seafood—the gigantic oysters alone are worth the journey from London. In fact, so many are making that trek that the Victoria is expanding, which hopefully won't lessen the cozy, slightly louche charm one iota.

Cotswold House
95 miles from London
The interior of this regency manor has gone from olde to sleekly new.

Nowhere is more cutely English than the Cotswolds—the picturesque honey-stone villages built on wool-trade profits from the 14th century to the 18th—yet visiting can also mean assault by Olde Tea Shoppe and rampaging chintz. So, how refreshing to be in the Cotswold House, in a chic room with burgundy walls, art-glass objets, a fancy flat-screen TV and a grandstand view of the ridiculously pretty town of Chipping Campden. Only recently has new ownership stamped out this hotel's taste crimes. The gracious Regency manor with its locally famous sweep of spiral staircase still harbors muted florals and plaids in the parlors, but bedrooms are now clean and spare, in a sophisticated palette of brown, plum and taupe. That also goes for the new row of cottage rooms in the gardens and the superdeluxe two-bedroom suite in a former 17th-century grammar school. Deluxe here means yes to Frette sheets and your choice of pillows and blankets, no to stuffiness. The relaxed air extends to the two restaurants tended by chef Simon Hulstone; even the formal Anglo-French one is laid-back, with playful dishes like chicken-foie-gras-leek terrine with Earl Grey jelly, while Hicks' Brasserie (truffled macaroni and cheese, steak sandwiches) is positively boisterous.

Cowley Manor
96 miles from London
In Gloucestershire, the spirit of irreverent fun has turned an imposing pile into a playhouse.

How different is Cowley Manor? Hmm. Where to start? The deer head on the wall is smoking a pipe. Kids are sprawled on mod lime-green sofas in the parlor, while, on the terrace, a coterie of fashion designers are sipping caipirinhas. Almost everything—furniture, textiles, landscaping—is cutting-edge, including the spa, a glass-and-concrete building sunk into a lawn behind the stable block. This Georgian Gloucestershire pile may look like Brideshead from its 55-acre grounds, but inside, the spirit of irreverent fun is everywhere. Both the owners and the architects are young hotel neophytes whose passion was to create a permanent, antisnob country-house weekend party where guests actually relax. To this end, in the minimalist dining room, you can forget silver salvers and multiple forks; friendly staff wear T-shirts and cords (custom-designed, mind you) to serve chef Robin Smith's roast beef with Yorkshire pudding or wild-mushroom risotto—or a sandwich and "big bowl of chips" from the bar menu. Spacious bedrooms are thoughtfully fitted out; some are duplexes with a wacky edge, like a bathtub overlooking the bed. High style, low stress, rural bliss—that recipe is so popular that Cowley has been booked solid on weekends since it opened last August.

Published May 2003
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