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Lauren Kate Hughes

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If you consider yourself a transplanted New Yorker, there are some staples that will always be on your to-do list when you visit the city. Of course, the city is known for having new and exciting things popping up all the time. Last year, I had the opportunity to visit twice, and here are a few of the Big Apple’s Best (with a few Brooklyn finds for good measure!). 

Written by: Elena Murzello

Best Brunch Chain: Isla & Co

Isla & Co. is Parched Hospitality Group’s popular Aussie all-day cafe and restaurant with locations in Midtown at Hotel Hendricks and in Williamsburg adjacent to the William Vale.  Executive Chef Matt Foley’s brunch menu, which is served daily until 3pm, includes favorites like Brioche French Toast, Isla Benedict, Smashed Avocado Toast and Mushroom Toast. There are new additions to the menu like Kangaroo Tucker, traditional Australian rubbed kangaroo skewered over herbed tahini, marinated cucumbers and pickled onions.  I highly recommend the Kangaroo Tucker! Brunch pairs perfectly with an Aperol Spritz, Bloody Mary or Espresso Martini. 

Best Famed Irish Pub: The Dead Rabbit 

Best Famed Irish Pub: The Dead Rabbit 

The Dead Rabbit, the world’s most awarded pub can be found at 30 Water Street in a the five-story, 19th-century townhouse.  The pub is named after The Dead Rabbit gang who fought to defend their territory in mid 1800’s lower Manhattan. In 2013, The Dead Rabbit opened and has survived a hurricane, a fire, an expansion and a pandemic. Setting new sites on a US expansion, The Dead Rabbit is opening in Austin and DC in the coming year. 

I visited the pub on a snowy day and took refuge in the Taproom for some of the pub’s favorites. The hearty Lamb Stew and the pub’s famed Irish Coffee made from Teeling Small Batch Irish Whiskey, Calendar Coffee, Demerara, Freshly Whipped Cream, Nutmeg hit the spot.

Best Rooftop Bar: Moxy Chelsea’s Fleur Room

Best Rooftop Bar: Moxy Chelsea’s Fleur Room

A nod to the Flower District, you will find the Moxy Chelsea’s Fleur Room at 35 stories high. The new concept by Tao Group Hospitality and Angelo Bianchi, interiors that reference the Flower Market (a chandelier that resembles oversize water droplets; dazzling floral-patterned seating; and a copper-clad bar).

A list of creative cocktails is accompanied by a simple, elegant menu of elevated bar snacks—warm olives with Marcona almonds, king crab club sandwich, truffle grilled cheese toast. The lounge area comes complete with a DJ booth and a massive vintage disco ball—a one-of-a-kind artifact salvaged from the 1980s L.A. nightclub Vertigo. The glass-enclosed rooftop lounge has expansive 360-degree views that stretch from the Statue of Liberty to the Empire State Building. Like magic (and at the touch of a button), a retractable window wall transforms the lounge into an alfresco sky veranda.

Best Cityscape View: Edge NYC  

Best Cityscape View: Edge NYC  

 Looking for that breathtaking 360-degree view of the iconic NYC skyline? Look no further than the Edge. It’s the largest and highest outdoor sky deck in the Western Hemisphere at 1,131 feet. Situated on the 100th floor of 30 Hudson Yards, (NYC’s newest neighborhood accessible by the Number 7 train) you can lean out over the city on angled glass walls and take some fantastic footage for your next reel (I did!). 

Tickets cost $40 (£33) per adult, $38 (£31) per senior (age 62 and above) and $35 (£29) per child (age 6-12 years), an additional $10 is added to the ticket price for sunset visits. Ticket prices include access to The Glass Floor, Angled Glass Walls, The Skyline Steps, The Eastern Point, and a free digital photo souvenir. Visitors also have the option to purchase a personalized photo book and a glass of champagne upon arrival.

Best New Museum: The Museum of Broadway 

Best New Museum: The Museum of Broadway 

Opened in Fall 2022 in Times Square, is The Museum of Broadway. The museum is founded by entrepreneur and 2-time Tony Award-winning producer, Julie Boardman, and founder of award-winning experiential agency Rubik Marketing, Diane Nicoletti.

Both immersive and interactive, the museum features work of dozens of designers, artists, and theater historians which take on a journey along the timeline of Broadway. The Museum highlights more than 500 individual productions from the 1700s-present. There is a three-floor display of costumes, props, rare photos/videos, interactive sets and plenty of instagrammable moments to share. 

Best New Museum: The Museum of Broadway 

Best Day Spa: Naturopathica 

This day spa has two locations in the city which includes Chelsea and TriBeca, with two other locations in East Hampton and Palm Beach. I visited the Chelsea location for the signature ‘Chill Massage.’ After a red-eye, this  is the perfect way to recover and buy some time if you are waiting to check into your hotel room. Besides the typical Facial and Massage offerings, the spa also offers body treatments and Holistic Healing Therapies as well. You can even become a Naturopathica Spa member to give you exclusive pricing on both treatments and products, and priority access to spa events and experts.

Best Day Spa: Naturopathica 

Best Boutique Hotel: The High Line Hotel

From a 17th century apple orchard to an 18th century cloistered seminary, The High Line Hotel has transformed into Chelsea Square’s architectural masterpiece. The preserved gothic molding and fireplaces are only highlighted by the hand-selected, one-of-a-kind pieces (like vintage typewriters) sourced from antique fairs and vintage markets alike. These fine details can be experienced in the 60 oversized, light-filled rooms. 

This location is the ideal spot to explore Chelsea. Guests are welcome to borrow complimentary Shinola bicycles and a helmet for a ride to Hudson River Park or for use in the local area. Before you leave, say hello to Daisy, the 1957 London double-decker bus that is parked in the front garden. Or grab a coffee to go at Intelligentsia. When you return, switch your coffee for a cocktail at the Lobby Bar.

Best Hotel Chain: The Moxy

Best Hotel Chain: The Moxy

Wherever you stay in the city, the Moxy properties have you covered. Each with their own distinct flair. There are a total of six in the surrounding boroughs, which includes Moxy Times Square, Chelsea, East Village, Downtown and the latest additions – Lower East Side and Williamsburg.  

I had the pleasure of staying at the 303-room Moxy Lower East Side hotel in early Spring and was able to experience the convenience of their central location first hand. In between Soho and the Lower East Side (and in between Subway stops), I was able to traverse the city with minimal hiccups. This was my favorite part of the Moxy LES, besides the complimentary coffee at The Fix, the lobby cafe. What a great way to start the morning!

In addition to The Fix, there are four other drinking and dining establishments created in collaboration with Tao Group Hospitality. Feast at the modern Japanese Izakaya restaurant ‘Sake No Hana’. Listen to some live tunes at the piano lounge, ‘Silver Lining’.  Dance the night away at the subterranean nightclub, ‘Loosie’s’ or take in the breathtaking NY skyline at the indoor/outdoor rooftop bar, ‘The Highlight Room. ‘ 

The Moxy Williamsburg i

The Moxy Williamsburg is a 216-room boutique hotel overlooking the Williamsburg Bridge and the Manhattan skyline. The bright, airy rooms emphasize natural materials and space-saving design solutions, a large backyard garden provides a spot to unwind alfresco, and flexible co-working and meeting studios serve the needs of Brooklyn’s creative class. Food and beverage options include Mesiba, a festive, Tel Aviv–inspired restaurant serving Levantine cuisine; Bar Bedford, a destination cocktail bar and all-day café; Jolene Sound Room, an energetic lounge with a custom sound system; and finally LilliStar, an indoor/outdoor rooftop bar.

Best in Brooklyn (Eats): Gair

Dumbo’s premier destination for elevated, distinctive cocktails, Gair serves locally-sourced, seasonally-inspired dishes in an unmatched environment. Located on Washington Street, guests can snap their iconic Manhattan Bridge photo before heading to Gair for delicious cocktails and appetizing share plates. My drink pick is the Mezcal based cocktail, Under the Influencer and you will want to order the Fried Chicken Sandwich. Conceptualized and owned by architectural designer and Dumbo local Kevin Cimini, Gair was developed to create an elegant yet approachable destination that serves as an oasis for its community, and an authentic New York experience for visitors.

Best in Brooklyn (Shop): Rue Saint Paul

Best in Brooklyn (Shop): Rue Saint Paul

Rue Saint Paul is Brooklyn’s sustainable closet, offering new, rental, and pre-owned sustainable fashion. The first in Brooklyn. Kelly Wang, founder of Rue Saint Paul, is committed to helping reduce the fashion industry’s environmental footprint, promote ethical manufacturing, and drive responsible and circular consumption. Kelly’s hope is that one day sustainable fashion will just be fashion.

Best in Brooklyn (Shop): Rue Saint Paul

Best in Brooklyn (Stay): Penny Williamsburg

In 2022, Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood welcomed Penny. The newest addition to the Sydell portfolio – creators of NoMad, Freehand, and LINE brands – Penny is the portfolio’s younger artist sibling with colorful interiors and a distinctive art collection by local neurodivergent artists. Penny is small in size, at 118 rooms but big at heart.

Best in Brooklyn (Stay): Penny Williamsburg

The namesake is Sydell CEO and Founder, Andrew Zobler’s small chihuahua with a big personality. The rooms at Penny Williamsburg offer homey comfort with hardwood floors, kitchenettes, pour-over coffee systems with complimentary coffee, unlimited free filtered water (my necessity!) The hotel shares a building with beloved NY institution Bard College classrooms and dorms.

We all know the importance of sleep, but putting that into practice can be more of a challenge. No phones before bed, keep the room cool, have a good wind-down routine – I’m well versed in the golden sleep rules. But with it being too easy to fall into poor sleep hygiene and the dreaded 4 am wake-ups coming into play during stressful periods, my sleep routine is far from ideal.

Could a dedicated sleep retreat change things? Sleep retreats are becoming quite the thing, with hotels offering custom-built packages that aim to promote good sleep hygiene for a restful few days and equip those who attend with tools to improve their long-term sleep.

Think of it as pushing the reset button on your sleep patterns. The offering can vary, from packages with sleep-friendly extras like pillow mist and CBD oils to full-on physiological and psychological deep dives.

The most in-depth retreats have sleep experts at the helm. The Good Sleep Retreat at Ockenden Manor, led by one of the UK’s leading sleep psychologists Dr Maja Schaedel, is leading the charge in this respect, with an immersive retreat that aims to get to the heart of why attendees struggle with their sleep, helping them to improve general sleep quality, reduce night-time awakenings and make it easier to fall asleep in the first place, all within the tranquil grounds of Ockenden Manor country house hotel and spa.

Sounds idyllic, right? I went to Ockenden Manor to explore the facilities and sat down with Dr Maja Schaedel to ask my burning questions about sleep. The quest for better shut-eye isn’t simple – this is what I learned.

Never underestimate the power of a good winddown routine

Good sleep actually starts in the morning. Doctors say that getting out into natural daylight within half an hour of rising will not only help regulate our mood and boost productivity but exposure to sunlight throughout the day can also help us fall asleep faster.

In terms of a winddown routine, the key thing is to calm the nervous system down and help our body to feel ‘safe’ – that’s why over-stimulation before bedtime, or dealing with stressful situations or work demands, can really impact our sleep. I’m guilty of a late-night email tidy when things are busy, but knowing the negative impact that can have on my sleep makes me think twice.

As Dr Maya explains, “To sleep our body needs to believe that we are safe. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective and when we were cave people, we would have needed to be absolutely certain of our safety before falling unconscious for a long period of time to ensure sabre-toothed tigers didn’t eat us!

“A wind-down routine can be really helpful in this process as it can allow our sympathetic nervous system to disengage, and this means our body can start to relax and feel sleepy.”

The spa at Ockenden Manor

The spa at Ockenden Manor

During my stay at Ockenden Manor, my wind-down routine included a session in the hotel’s iPod floatation tank. Submerged in highly salted water in complete darkness, a flotation tank allowed me to quickly reach a more meditative state.

As a fair-weather meditator, I find it difficult to switch off my thoughts. But there’s something about the weightlessness in the tank and the soothing warm water that brings me straight into that dream-like snoozy state I get into right before I drift off. It’s that feeling you get on a warm day nodding off on a lounger.

“The floatation tank allows us a rare opportunity to experience a complete lack of stimulation – even touch to a large degree,” Dr Maya explains. “This gives way to us focusing inwardly on how our bodies feel and noticing what our minds do when they do not have the stimulation they usually rely on.

“The high salt content in the water enables us to experience weightlessness in a way that we would otherwise not have access to and this can lead to a sense of peace and calm.”

You need to deal with the root of the issue

It’s all well and good to invest in silk eye masks and pillow spray, or even book a floatation tank session or relaxing massage before bed, but the most powerful way to tackle your sleep is to keep stress levels low, thus reducing the amount of cortisol in the body.

“When we have a high level of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol running through our body, it can make it difficult for us to stay in a deep sleep,” Dr Maya explains.

“This is why proper relaxation and reduction of stress and anxiety is important for sleep. REM sleep is important for emotion regulation and alcohol suppresses REM sleep, so it can be useful to reduce alcohol or move drinking to earlier in the evening.”

We stayed in a luxurious spa suite with easy access to the facilities

Ockenden Manor, located in the picturesque village of Cuckfield and just a 10-minute taxi ride from Haywards Heath station, is an ideal setting for winding down and reconnecting with nature. Living in London, my day-to-day can be a hectic rush of tube rides and crowds, so being in a countryside location always brings a sense of calm.

The spa at Ockenden Manor is a real highlight and allows guests to connect with nature. The pool has swim-through access to the outdoors, with a jacuzzi on the terrace where guests can take in the views. Inside there’s a steam room, sauna, rainforest showers and a warm relaxation area where I made a dint in my latest crime thriller.

If you do wake up, go and do something else

One of my most frustrating sleep issues is waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep. We’ve all been there – when your brain seems to go into overload and the last thing you can think about is nodding off. Luckily, after an evening swim and flotation tank session, followed by a delicious meal in Ockenden’s restaurant, this was not an issue during my stay. However, when the unwelcome early morning wake-up call strikes, I’ve gleaned some tricks from Dr Maya.

She explained, “If your brain has “woken up” then it is a good idea to get up, go into a different room, read a book/look at the stars/get a glass of milk – something relaxing to bring your heightened levels of alertness down, before going back to bed.

“Another trick you can try is to “spot” your brain thinking and then instead of getting carried away with the thoughts, you can try to bring your attention back to the here and now experience of being in bed – such as focusing on the touch of the sheets, your breathe, and continuing to bring your attention back to your body if your brain starts up the thoughts again! Easier said than done but if you practice this it can really help.”

So did a sleep retreat help curb my bad habits? I learned good sleep takes time and it’s about being aware of your habits, bad and good. While getting my own sleep in check is going to take time, a trip to Ockenden was the refresher I needed.

What’s included in the Good Sleep Retreat at Ockenden Manor?

A group introduction to the science of sleep followed

A private in-depth assessment, review and consultation with Dr Schaedel

Breathwork session with Dr Schaedel,

A stimulating group gym class

A relaxing yoga session

Time for relaxation at the spa

An ipod floatation session, optional treatments

Nourishing breakfasts and dinners made with locally sourced ingredients from West Sussex

Package dates

Wednesday 23rd October to Friday 25th October 2024

Wednesday 27th November to Friday 29th November 2024

Need to know

Single occupancy starts from £999 for two nights in a Spa Suite (the ultimate tranquil room for a good night’s sleep overlooking Cuckfield Park)

Double occupancy starts from £1,633 for two nights in a Spa Suite with both guests booked on the retreat (twin or double occupancy)

You can find out more on the Ockenden Manor website.

Looking for a countryside bolthole where you can fully romanticise the colder months? The Bradley Hare has all the homely design flourishes and winter checklist activities you’re looking for. Lauren Kate Hughes took a trip to picturesque Wiltshire to revel in the cosy season.

As far as seasons go, once Christmas festivities are out of the way, winter looks a little bleak compared to the fresh optimism of spring or the sunshine-filled hedonism of summer. But, for me, winter is the time we can embrace some of life’s greatest pleasures; wrapping up in heavy wool throws, reading by roaring fires, making the most of the morning light with brisk winter walks, indulgent bubble baths, the gentle flicker of candlelight and tucking into steaming plates of comfort food; the list goes on.

If you want to fully embrace the winter months with a cosy getaway, you’d be hard-pushed to find a more worthy spot than The Bradley Hare, an impeccably decorated boutique hotel and fancy pub in the village of Maiden Bradley, a few miles outside Warminster in Wiltshire. It’s no surprise that this country inn’s interiors exceed expectations, considering the rooms have been designed by James Thurstan Waterworth, ex-European Design Director of Soho House.

Boasting roll-top baths, unique 18th and 19th-century furnishings and roaring fires in the colder months, the 12 individually designed rooms are the epitome of countryside chic, with bold colour schemes and contemporary artwork that offer a modern twist on the traditional cottage-core style.

The Bradley Hare has been open since 2021, located within the grounds of the Duchy of Somerset’s estate. Formerly The Somerset Arms, The Bradley Hare is a somewhat glossier remodelling of the former residence, elevating its offering not only with the swish interiors but also a fine dining restaurant that should be the focal point of any winter break.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the hotel’s open-plan dining room, which offers a more formal restaurant area, cosy snug, a botanical-adorned bar and adjoining reading room, with the spaces warmed by open fires and lit by flickering candles in the evening.

Pascale Vickery, who was previously at the highly acclaimed neighbouring hotel The Newt, is in the kitchen serving up creations that balance comfort food and fine dining. It’s been praised by the likes of legendary London food critic Jay Rayner, providing some confidence that we were in for a real treat of a meal as we pulled up our chairs for a candlelit dinner.

For me, there’s something about eating a decadent meal tucked away in a country pub that feeds my soul in a way that other meals can’t. And The Bradley Hare menu has all the goods; ham hock terrine with apple ketchup, tender shoulder of mutton, whipped cod’s roe, and wonderfully stodgy Ricotta gnocchi. It’s food that leaves you satisfied.

During our visit, we also tried our hand at cocktail-making in the hotel’s adjoining event space. On the drinks menu was a Hare on the Rocks, a delightful blend of Pamplemousse Rose, Campari and Prosecco, as well as, my personal favourite, a Damson Sour, which fuses Damson and Sloe gin with the usual components of a sour. Extremely drinkable! The Bradley Hare prides itself on its unique cocktail menu, which adapts through each season to create the right cocktail mood.

If you do want to venture outside the hotel (and no judgement if your agenda consists of comfort food, cosy reading sessions and decadent bubble baths) National Trust property Stourhead is just a seven-minute drive away and offers 2,500 acres of unspoilt countryside to explore. And, if you want a break from driving in general during your stay, as the property is set in a quiet, rural village, you have access to a countryside walk within five paces of the front door.

If you’re looking to escape to the countryside to a cosy retreat with roaring fires, excellent food and some friendly faces behind the bar, The Bradley Hare is it. Striking the balance between chic interiors and elevated food with good old-fashioned hospitality, it’s the ideal choice for a weekend getaway where you can really unwind.

For more information visit thebradleyhare.co.uk

If you’re looking for a hotel in central Stratford-Upon Avon that goes the extra mile, Hotel Indigo is a boutique option with some fantastic extras. Lauren Kate Hughes checks in for the weekend…

Living in London, I’m used to paying premium prices for hotels – and sometimes ones that don’t seem worth the price tag at all. So it’s refreshing to find a hotel in such a sought-after destination that over-delivers on its affordable price tag, with attractive extras like the free-of-charge mini-bar full of snacks and soft drinks, as well as a mini bottle of prosecco for a celebratory touch.

There’s also the acclaimed on-site restaurant The Woodsman, which is well worth a visit. Chef Mike Robinson works with local estates, food producers and foragers to craft his game-based menu. It’s exactly the kind of comfort food you crave in an old-world pub on a cold winter’s night, washed down with an excellent wine choice from our waiter. The staff were knowledgeable and attentive; I couldn’t fault the choices. This is a restaurant where every last detail has been considered. And, with its low ceilings and roaring fires, it’s a particularly cosy place to go in the winter.

What makes the flavours so distinctive at the Woodsman is that the meat is cooked over oak and alder wood for a deliciously smokey finish. Its reputation speaks for itself, with the venue packed out on a Saturday night. Staying at the hotel, you don’t even need to leave the building to reach this much-coveted spot – and you can enjoy a drink in the adjoining cocktail bar beforehand, too.

Breakfast is also worth mentioning, with a huge buffet packed with fresh fruit, juices, cereal, pastries and cakes, as well as a hot breakfast option included in the price. One of the better hotel breakfasts I’ve tried in a long time (and that’s coming from a frequent hotel visitor).

There’s also free parking available on sight for guests – a rarity for such a central hotel and a great asset when it comes to exploring the local area. If you do want to see the area on foot and leave the car safely tucked away, the front-of-house staff offer a map of the local area as well as advice on some local walks.

The rooms are also very spacious, with big, comfy beds ideal for hunkering down after a packed day’s sightseeing. Rooms fall into three categories of design; Tudor, Georgian, and Contemporary.

The bathrooms are fully stocked with aromatic toiletries that add that extra sense of luxury to a weekend away. Each of the rooms also comes with a Nespresso coffee machine, a kettle, mini-fridge, iron and ironing board, a hairdryer, a 40-inch flat-screen TV, and Wi-Fi – essentially anything you might need to stay comfortable and connected during your stay.

There’s so much to do on your doorstep, with the hotel right in the middle of the small 14km town – you’re just a five-minute walk away from the Royal Shakespeare Company itself. You can also pay a visit to where the women in Shakespeare’s life – Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden’s, Farm are two must-dos on your Stratford list.

stratford.hotelindigo.com

What to do

Wander the sights

Stratford is relatively small and built for wandering, whether that means exploring the famous Shakespeare Theatre Company, taking a stroll along the River Avon, or touring the many historic pubs dotted across the market town.

Visit a butterfly farm

Explore the UK’s leading butterfly farm – Stratford Upon Avon Butterfly Farm – where you can get up close and personal with the beautiful creatures and learn more about their natural habitats.

Explore an award-winning gin distillery

The Shakespeare Distillery is the home of a boutique gin brand crafted on the outskirts of Stratford Upon Avon. Here you can learn about the history of gin, the gin-making process and also take a bottle home with you.

Hyped as one of the stand-out shows on the Edinburgh Fringe, Stamptown has enjoyed a lot of good press. Lauren Kate Hughes went along to Soho Theatre for the variety show’s debut run in London to get in on the action.

Stamptown Comedy positions itself as offering something different from the get-go. Firstly, it has a 10.30pm kick-off at London‘s Soho Theatre; a time late enough to widen the eyes of this morning person. With the later start comes the opportunity for dim sum in nearby Chinatown and pre-show cocktails that act as a little lubrication before a somewhat raunchy assortment of acts (read: full-frontal nudity).

Secondly, it promises a variety show in its truest form. The word eclectic is often banded about, but this time it’s completely appropriate. Perhaps the most recurring theme, at least in my selection of acts (they change from show to show) was a lot of nudity. As stand-up Kemah Bob relays to the audience at the beginning of her set – “Oh, the pressure of being the only fully clothed act of the night”. Each act offers something unique, including Martin Urbano, a critic live-reviewing the show amidst Stamptown’s chaotic line-up.

The show has been much hyped, with sell-out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, numerous accolades on the awards circuit and a stellar review from the New York Times already under its (sequined) belt. Eager to see what happens during a show that promises to be more akin to a wild night out rather than a middle-of-the-road stand-up show, we headed out on a cold January night and settled into the welcoming bosom of Stamptown’s Soho debut.

In essence, Stamptown is a variety show with different acts weaved loosely together by compere Jack Tucker (IRL name, Zach Zucker) a native New Yorker with a style that’s as hectic as its acts and the creator of Stamptown. The crowd was intimate but interactive, with the mood shifting from hushed giggles to full-bellied laughs as each performer took the stage.

Zach, who’s also an award-winning actor and producer, believes comedy always should be intimate, previously telling Vulture: ‘There is nothing inherently cool, interesting, or morally good about selling out a 300-seater. That’s 300 people who you don’t know and don’t care about. A real comic doesn’t need hundreds of people laughing at their jokes.’

If I had to describe the night in one word, it would be raucous. If I’m allowed two, it’s unique. The format is chaotic, the vibe is wild; it offers a smörgåsbord of performance styles befitting of Soho itself.

There’s burlesque, interpretive dance, stand-up, satire, drag, clowns, characters and singers. Each act demands attention; wallflowers and filler acts don’t exist here. Zach’s narration and the acts he introduces are both completely unhinged, but that’s the fun of Stamptown; you can lose your mind a little.

My favourite acts of the night? It’s hard to choose. But I’d say a stand-up act who ranted on the absurdity of sea salt had me chuckling along gleefully (loyal Maldon shopper right here). As well as a burlesque dancer in a sparkling bikini who did hypnotic things with her bottom. A special mention also goes to roller-skating bubbler Dylan Woodley, who managed to loosen up the crowd with some upbeat dance tracks and an unhealthy amount of Jason Derulo.

I won’t spoil the ending, but hold onto your hats. Because our saucy fire-breathing cowboy certainly doesn’t.

To find out more, visit stamptowncomedy.com

Elena Murzello discovers the healing island of Lošinj in Croatia, an enchanting destination that will soothe your soul

Travelling to new places reminds me that not everyone is so lucky to live within close proximity to the Pacific Ocean and the Coast Mountains. I often take for granted the simplicity of nature and its wholesome benefits of being in a healing environment. Lošinj, Croatia, known as the “Healing Island,” is blessed with a similar magical microclimate. While the West Coast of Canada is also known as the “Wet Coast” due to the amount of rain, Lošinj boasts over 200 days of glorious sunshine.  

As a guest of the Lošinj Hotels, I had the opportunity to visit Čikat Bay and experience firsthand the healing surroundings and the wellness of the water. 

Setting

The island of Lošinj is nestled in the Čikat Bay along the Adriatic Sea. After flying on a short two-hour flight from Gatwick Airport to Pula, we then boarded a small, 30-minute ferry to the island of Lošinj. From there, we were whisked away by private car service to the beautiful Hotel Bellevue. Both the Hotel Bellevue and its sister property, Boutique Hotel Alhambra line the bay and ensure that guests have direct, unobstructed access to the crystal-clear waters.

 Arriving in the early afternoon, I immediately went to the oversized balcony in my room to check out the view, overlooking the wispy two-century-old bonsai-like Aleppo Pine trees. 

In the 1800s, it was Professor Ambroz Haračić who established the Association for the Afforestation and Beautification of Mali Lošinj. In the first year, the association planted over 80 thousand pine trees (mostly Aleppo pine and Scots pine) filling the area to prevent excessive soil erosion and unexpected flooding. Today, visitors can admire the remaining pines surrounding Čikat Bay. 

From the time Professor Haračić sparked interest in Lošinj, several studies have been executed to understand the connection between the environment and its benefits on human health. In 2012, Anamarija Margan-Šulc looked at the benefits and the favourable outcomes of the air, and water quality, as well as the surrounding pine tree forest and medicinal plants, with respect to people with chronic respiratory conditions. She published her findings in her book entitled Health Tourism and Natural Healing Factors of the Island of Lošinj. 

We started our trip by taking in the sea air with a seaside yoga class in the early morning. The air smelled fresh and oxygenated versus the smoky, polluted air often found in large, active port cities with large amounts of industrialization. The trees, the clear water and the sun all serve in the ongoing loop for water purification. 

On our final day, we were also treated to a guided tour around Lošinj on a beautiful traditional English wooden sailboat, courtesy of Catriona II. It was a fantastic way to see the clarity of the light turquoise sea and mark the end of the rejuvenating and relaxing trip. 

Spa

Visitors come to Lošinj for the picturesque setting but stay to be pampered and rejuvenated with spa treatments at both the Hotel Bellevue and the Boutique Hotel Alhambra. The treatments are designed under the guidance of international Spa consultant, Melissa Meltzer.

The Hotel Bellevue’s Bellevue Spa Clinic is set in a large modern space and is complete with award-winning clinical detox programs. Nominated for the World’s Best Detox Programme 2023 by the World Spa Awards, the signature Sea-Tox Programme can be joined for a duration of 3,7 or 14 days. Through a combination of wellness activities and healthy superfoods, the program serves guests with both an inner and outer full-body detox. 

I found the most impactful spa treatment at the Hotel Bellevue was the Cold-Water Immersion therapy which took place in the Secret Spa. Outside the main spa, the private outdoor Secret Spa suite has a herbal sauna, jacuzzi, cool plunge, showers, al fresco treatment space and relaxation grotto. I could see it being occupied by a discerning couple or a group of friends celebrating a private occasion. It was the perfect space to test our mental wits and stamina (somewhat physical) while we were immersed in 250 kilos of ice. I managed to stay in the pool for 10 min and then went straight into the sauna for some Qi Gong arm swings to get warmed up.

There has been ongoing research to show the benefits of an ice bath. Health and wellness experts often talk about using it for muscle recovery and soreness, and to cool your body after strenuous exercise. While our ice bath was in the morning, not after activity at all, I found it forced me to focus on my breathing and my thoughts. This, at the core, builds mental elasticity. 

In a course of mental mindfulness, one night, along Bellevue Beach we floated on an inflatable water bed out to sea as we listened to soothing tranquil music under the stars. It was hard not to fall into a deep slumber, especially after our dinner.  

Not directly water-focused, yet still notable, was the Alhambra Spa at the Boutique Hotel Alhambra.  We were treated to the indigenous flora and fauna through the Kurhaus Inhalation Bar. There are 1018 plant species, and over 200 are medicinal herbs found in the area. Using these herbs and plants, we sampled a medicinal inhalation through a ceramic inhalation pot before our treatment.

Mimicking those used in the 1800’s, the steam is inhaled by a glass tube attached to the pot for cough, sinus and nasal relief. Capturing the essence of the islands’ natural setting, the spa suites in the Alhambra Spa had the appeal of an intimate rustic cabin with a warm woodsy atmosphere. 

Seafood

Living on the coast, I am used to the availability of fresh seafood on a whim. I did make an effort to have my fill of the seafood supplied by the abundant Adriatic Sea. Our first dinner at the Hotel Bellvue’s Matsunoki restaurant was a feast for the eyes, as well as the stomach. Awarded with the Michelin Plate, we were served with Chef Orhan Cakiroglu’s finest sushi and dumplings. The re-imagined traditional Japanese fare was served so fresh, it melted in your mouth. Such a special treat to welcome us to the property.

The pièce de la résistance meal was our dinner on our last night at the Michelin-star Alfred Keller Restaurant, located at the Boutique Hotel Alhambra. The nine-course meal was a combination of local Croatian and Mediterranean influences from both sea and land. My favourite was The Alfred Keller Restaurant under the supervision of the two-Michelin Star chef Christian Kuchler and in collaboration with Chef Michael Gollenz. A truly decadent way to end a wonderful stay in Lošinj. 

Gazing across the serene water from the morning ferry departing Lošinj, my conviction about the “healing island” deepened. The secrecy surrounding the enchanting waters of Čikat Bay became apparent, understanding why those privy to its wonders keep it guarded. From the Aleppo pine tree-bordered, crystalline waters to the harmonious blend of exquisite spa treatments and savoury Michelin star meals, Lošinj transcends being a mere hidden gem. Since the early 1800s, those fortunate enough to have already visited Lošinj, know its distinction as a haven of quiet luxury, where rejuvenation intersects with the natural habitat, with wellness woven into the very fabric of its waters.

Looking for the perfect weekend getaway for literary lovers? Lauren Kate Hughes may just have found it in the Warwickshire countryside…

For literary fans, you’d be hard-pushed to find a destination more ideal than picturesque Warwickshire. Billesley Manor Hotel and Spa, nestled in the countryside of this charming county, offers a grand country house retreat that is steeped in history, with Shakespeare’s Stratford-Upon-Avon just three miles away.

The hotel itself has all the hallmarks of a romantic period manor house with its sprawling grounds that feature an 11th-century church and an ornate topiary garden inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It’s a particularly cosy place to go in the winter – wrap up warm and explore the grounds, safe in the knowledge of the cosy interiors that await back at the hotel.

Inside, the architecture stays true to its Tudor roots with original features and wood panelling. The elegant restaurant has retained its old-world charm; dining here feels like stepping back in time. It’s a refreshingly authentic property; Shakespeare wrote As You Like It on the premises and is thought to have married Anne Hathaway in the adjoining All Saints Church.

Billesley Manor Hotel and Spa

We visited Billesley Manor and Spa on a wintery weekend. Approaching the grand driveway, the impressive manor house looked warm and inviting, with twinkling lights adorning the trees outside. On our arrival, the welcome was just as warm, with friendly front-of-house staff who made us feel at home.

Now at this point, you may think that Billesley Manor is a tad… old-fashioned, but it’s quite the opposite. The property has had a lavish £5.6 million refurbishment, adding luxury touches to this 16th-century hotel.

It’s old-world charm meets top-notch amenities, complete with a relaxing spa area where guests can unwind after a long day’s sightseeing. We lazed by the pool reading idly and excitedly chatting about our evening of theatre ahead – the perfect place to unwind.

A visit to the Stuart restaurant should be on your list for a mini-break at Billesley Manor and Spa, with its impeccably presented dishes and friendly service. I sampled the cured salmon, which came adorned with edible flowers, followed by crispy trout on a bed of creamy mushrooms and fresh greens.

The parmesan potatoes also deserve a moment of appreciation. Afterwards, the snug-like bar is the perfect place to enjoy a nightcap. billesleymanor.com

What to do

Watch a play at the Royal Shakespeare Company

At the top of the list is a visit to the Royal Shakespeare Company, where you can watch a play in one of the country’s most iconic theatres. We braved the rain and ventured into Stratford-Upon-Avon, where the historic theatre takes pride of place in the centre of the bustling town. The beauty of Stratford is that it’s so small it’s easy to get around on foot, so you can walk from several charming pubs and restaurants to the theatre.

We were lucky enough to catch Cowbois in the Swan Theatre, which provided a raucous and surprising evening with its contemporary take on a western from Charlie Josephine. The play depicts a saloon bar in an isolated town, populated with only women (along with the town sheriff) whose husbands joined a gold rush months earlier and haven’t been heard from since.

Then Jack arrives, a handsome outlaw looking for refuge who subverts gender norms, and turns things on their head, making the townspeople question notions around their own identities. Fuelled by strong performances and some great vocal talent, it was a highly enjoyable evening.

Forthcoming shows in Stratford-Upon-Avon include the classic Shakespearean comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Ben and Imo, a powerful new historical play.

The Royal Shakespeare Company also offers shows in London at the iconic Barbican Theatre. Current productions in London include My Neighbour Totoro and Hamnet. You can find out more on the Royal Shakespeare Company website.

Enjoy Stratford’s classic pubs

You know the kind of quintessential British pubs you long for in a world of chain pubs, with roaring fires and friendly faces behind the bar? Stratford-Upon-Avon has them in abundance. Perhaps the most iconic is the Dirty Duck, situated right next to the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre, the walls are adorned with pictures of the actors who’ve performed at the theatre over the years.

The One Elm offers warming pub classics in a cosy setting; the perfect place to enjoy dinner before a show. If you fancy a spot by the river, Cox’s Yard is a lovely spot to watch the swans glide by.

Take a walk from Stratford to Shottery

The walk from Stratford to Shottery, the small village where Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is the focal point, offers quaint countryside views peppered with thatched roof cottages and pretty pubs. Take the walk along Scholars Lane and then follow the path across to Shottery. The whole circuit only takes an hour so it’s an ideal morning stroll.

Finding thoughtful Christmas gifts for couples isn’t always the easiest task, but if you start with the idea that whatever you choose would be something they can experience together, you won’t go far wrong. Whether they’re a foodie couple who enjoy the finer things (think recipe kits, restaurant vouchers or fancy glassware) or an adventurous couple who would appreciate an outdoorsy experience or some travel inspiration, finding exciting Christmas gifts for couples can actually be quite a fun task. What’s great about these gifts is that many of the options are virtual, so you order them last minute if the hectic party season is getting the better of you.

We’ve also got some ideas if you’re looking for some inspiration on a gift to give the special man or woman in your life. After all, gifting that special someone in your life isn’t always the easiest – but our guide should spark a few ideas. Lauren Kate Hughes rounds up the ultimate couples’ Christmas gift ideas – we’re sure each one will be gratefully received.

Best Christmas gifts for couples

Poretti x Salvis Hamper, £65: BUY IT HERE

A hamper is a sterling choice when it comes to couples’ Christmas gifts, particularly for those who enjoy entertaining. We love this charming Italian hamper from Italian beer brand Birrificio Angelo Porett, which comes packed with goodies that will help your chosen couple have a little slice of La Dolce Vita on those cold winter nights. The brand has joined forces with Manchester-based restaurant Salvis to craft the perfect hamper, including artisanal pasta, authentic Olive Oil, traditional Italian Christmas cake and Birrificio Angelo Poretti beers, housed in a luxury wicker hamper. You can also purchase Salvis gift cards if your chosen couple would enjoy a night out together enjoying some authentic Italian flavours.

Whiskey Me & Gin Me Letterbox Subscription Boxes, from £53.70 for six months: BUY IT HERE

Whiskey lovers will be overjoyed with this thoughtful gift, which allows the recipient to have some of the finest Scottish Single Malt Whiskies (or if you want to branch out, whiskies from all over the world) delivered straight to their door. This unique gift box service was created by legendary bartenders Tristan Stephenson and Thomas Aske, founders of the iconic Black Rock bar in London, to make whisky accessible to all. Choose from the Whiskey Me Traditional, the Whiskey Me Discovery or the Whisky Me Adventure. Oh, and the brand also does a gin subscription service, if whiskey isn’t their thing.

Sanctuary Spa Signature Collection Tri-Wick Scented Candle, £30: BUY IT HERE

For those looking for an affordable Christmas gift for couples, a centre-piece candle is a great option that will create a relaxing ambience on those cold winter nights. Get that spa feeling at home with this aromatic three-wick candle from Sanctuary Spa, its natural shea wax scented with notes of jasmine, grapefruit & vanilla.

Mixologist Experience for Two at Harvey Nichols (Red Letter Days), £70: BUY IT HERE

The excuse to have a fun date night is a winner for any couple, regardless of what stage they’re at in their relationship. Available at Harvey Nichols branches around the country. Couples can learn the art of cocktail making guided by expert mixologists, taste spirits and craft unique concoctions that will impress future dinner party guests.

Christmas gifts for married couples

Looking to spoil a newlywed couple or mark the marriage of a special couple in your life? These Christmas gifts for married couples will ensure they’ll have a smile on their face come Christmas morning.

Three Course Meal and Sides with Cocktails for Two at Searcys at The Gherkin (Red Letter Days), £139.99: BUY IT HERE

If you want to toast a particularly special milestone for a couple, dinner and cocktails overlooking the London skyline from one of its most iconic buildings constitutes a gift with a real wow factor. Indulge in three mouth-watering courses of traditional British cuisine, accompanied by delightful sides and celebratory cocktails, all while enjoying the breathtaking view from this iconic skyscraper.

The Lost Explorer Curious Copitas Set, £28.99: BUY IT HERE

If you’re looking for something unusual for the home to gift a couple, this cute mezcal set is perfect for fans of the spirit, or for couples who want to try something new. The set features two Lost Explorer ceramic copitas and an adventure-friendly sized 20cl bottle of The Lost Explorer Espadín, all housed in a festive gift box with a recipe and tasting card to complete the experience. You can also add a complimentary gift note.

Christmas gifts for husbands and boyfriends

Seek Self Men’s Wellness Journal, £20: BUY IT HERE

This wellness journal has been crafted with men’s mental health in mind and is a great gift for any man in your life who would like to have a more organised mind in 2024. A handy and practical tool, this journal is full of inspirational quotes and dedicated spaces to track feelings and thoughts, with activities to boost wellness.

PerfectDraft Beer Machine, from £199: BUY IT HERE

For beer lovers, this gift is the perfect choice, allowing the recipient to pour their own high-quality draft beer in the comfort of their own home. Pick their favourite brand from a choice of over 45 beers available, including Stella Artois, Tiny Rebel, Leffe, Goose Island, Lowenbrau and many more.

Christmas gifts for wives and girlfriends

Julique Soaking Relaxing Ritual, £45: BUY IT HERE

Give someone the gift of a relaxing night in with this soaking ritual from Jurlique. Part of the brand’s new aromatherapy range, the formula features a trio of Jojoba Oil, Sunflower Oil and Avocado Oil that helps nourish the skin during a face or body soaking ritual for a heavenly experience that will leave the recipient feeling relaxed and revitalised.

The Flora Lab Trio of Candles Gift Box, £62: BUY IT HERE

Impress your wife or girlfriend with this beautifully presented trio of candles from independent brand, The Flora Lab. Their wintery scents capture the magic of the season and will transform any space with their festive scents. Alpine Air with its fresh notes of pine is our favourite.

Wine and whiskey aren’t necessarily two notions you would put together, but trust me when I say, it’s a partnership that works.

In the last balmy days of Europe’s early autumn heatwave, I travelled to the Douro Valley – about an hour and a half’s drive from Porto – to find out more about a collaboration between an Irish whiskey brand and the Douro region’s famous Ruby Port, experiencing some of the rich flavours of the country along the way, not to mention the incredible scenery of this iconic spot in Portugal.

This is not a new partnership – the relationship between Redbreast Irish Whiskey and the Douro region spans decades, starting 30 years ago when the team travelled to the area to seek out the finest ‘caves’ and find out more about the potential flavours to combine with their whiskey. This was the start of Redbreast’s Iberian Series of whiskeys.

The masters sourced some port casks to house the single-pot whiskey and then left it to mature over 14-25 months to create an exciting new blend. The result is the Redbreast Tawny Port Cask Edition, a single pot still Irish whiskey initially matured in a combination of bourbon and oloroso sherry casks, with the final maturation period taking place in freshly seasoned tawny port casks in the Douro Valley.

So, the important question is, how does it taste? Smooth, a tiny bit sweet and definitely very festive; there are lingering spicy notes to this drink that evoke cosy nights by the fire.

Unsurprising really, as port is often perceived as a classic drink for the winter months and one of the best wines to try during the Christmas period. Though I’d stress that this whiskey tasted just as good in a late-summer setting.

There are aromas of buttery pastry and caramelised almonds, with hints of tart fruits like dry cherries, balanced with notes of toasted oak and salted caramel.

Ruby Port is famous in the Douro Valley. The easy-drinking, sweet port wine gets its name from its bright red hue and fruity flavours, which work perfectly with the more intense whiskey notes.

Sampling this new whiskey was, of course, enhanced by the backdrops provided by the beautiful Douro Valley. As well as having extraordinary culinary prowess (from some of the best pastéis de natas to dishes like ‘Feijoada’, a meat and bean stew, or locally sourced Terrincho cheese) a trip to the Douro Valley is a treat for all the senses.

The region has unique and stunning landscapes to experience, from viewing the winding Rio Douro (or ‘river of gold’ in English) at high altitude, to basking in nature on a scenic river cruise. Or you could try exploring the grounds of the Douro Valley’s grand hotels, like the Wes Anderson-esque Vidago Palace Hotel.

Even if it’s just for a cocktail on the veranda, this picturesque hotel is like something out of a gothic fairytale and will provide an atmospheric backdrop for sundowners amidst the trees.

The sunsets in the Douro Valley are a spectacular affair, the dusky pink sky and matching hotel walls making for a breathtaking backdrop for some late summer cocktails – make ours an Old Fashioned (or two). You’d be hard-pressed to find somewhere for a better culinary adventure.

My whiskey learnings

As someone who enjoys, but is fairly new, to whiskey tasting, these are a few of the pointers I picked up along the way.

  • When at a whiskey tasting, don’t assault your senses by aggressively pushing your nose into your glass (as I seemed to think was the way to inhale the flavours effectively at first). Instead, take your time with the experience and allow the aromas to unfold.
  • There’s no shame in adding a little bit of water to your whiskey if desired – this doesn’t weaken the taste, but can in some instances draw out the flavours.
  • A good whiskey needn’t be enjoyed alone if you prefer it as part of a cocktail or long drink. We sampled a delicious whiskey Old Fashioned and refreshing Whiskey Sour as other ways to enjoy the Tawny Port Cask Edition.
  • Flavours change over time, so keep the whiskey in your mouth for a little while to observe the different notes. Also, take note of the finish – the taste you are left with after you swallow whiskey – as this is an important part of the flavour journey.

Redbreast Tawney Port is available to buy now, RRP £84.99. You can find out more here.

When those overseas imagine the quintessential British town, they imagine it looks a lot like Stratford Upon Avon. Shakespeare’s birthplace has all the hallmarks of a quaint countryside idyll; thatched cottages, gloriously oldy-world architecture, a prestigious theatre as its focal point and plenty of riverside views – the River Avon curls around the small 14km town.

Long gone are the days when Stratford Upon Avon was regarded as a tourist trap – it’s now a rich and varied holiday destination in its own right, with plenty of (both historic and contemporary) cultural and culinary experiences to discover – it’s a particularly cosy place to go in the winter.

Of course, do add some theatre into your itinerary if you can, as the Royal Shakespeare Company must be one of the most atmospheric places to watch a play in the world.

What to do in Stratford Upon Avon

Of course, the top of the list has to be visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace, as well as where the women in his life resided – Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden’s, Farm are two must-dos. There’s so much history to take in, it has to be the most cultural UK staycation destination.

Get up early and embark on the walk from Stratford to Shottery, the small village where Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is the focal point. Take the walk along Scholars Lane and then follow the path across to Shottery – the whole circuit only takes an hour so it’s the perfect leisurely walk. Plus, you’ll be walking in the same footsteps as Shakespeare himself when he went to visit his beloved.

There’s also the UK’s leading butterfly farm – Stratford Upon Avon Butterfly Farm – where you can get up close and personal with the beautiful creatures and learn more about their natural habitats. Look out for a few other creepy crawlies along the way!

If you fancy a tipple, the Shakespeare Distillery is a great way to while away an afternoon, learning more about this boutique gin brand crafted on the outskirts of Stratford Upon Avon. We tried the Rhubarb Gin and liked it so much, we took a bottle home.

What to eat in Stratford Upon Avon

The Woodsman

This former 17th-century tavern is a cosy and relaxed place to enjoy dinner, with an incredible menu that’s inspired by local produce. Chef Mike Robinson works with local estates, food producers and foragers to craft his menu, which is largely game-based, and cooked over oak and alder wood for a deliciously smokey flavour. The whole experience is theatrical, going far beyond a cosy pub dinner (though it ticks this box too). Make sure you try the dirty mash – you won’t be disappointed!

thewoodsmanrestaurant.com

Loxleys Restaurant & Wine Bar

Don’t be put off by its unassuming exterior, this cosy wine bar has a fantastic menu and wine list, serving up one of the best Sunday roasts we’ve had in a long time. The two-floor restaurants feature exposed brick and cosy fires for that ultimate autumn afternoon. Start with a G&T at the bar and settle into one of this charming wine bar’s cosy corners.

loxleysrestaurant.co.uk

Where to stay in Stratford Upon Avon

Hotel Indigo

Hotel Indigo is right in the centre of the action, you couldn’t be closer to the best shops, restaurants and attractions in town. Situated in an old Tudor building with the Woodsman Restaurant on site, this hotel offers everything you need for a successful mini break, with a delicious breakfast on offer, a book-lined snug, super comfy beds, spacious rooms and even a fully stocked mini-bar where you can enjoy snacks and refreshments free of charge (yes, really!)

The hotel is situated on Chapel Street, which is full of historic half-timbered buildings and a stone’s throw away from the Royal Shakespeare Company theatre. Try a drink in the Dog and Duck pub (just nearby) after the show to spot the actors afterwards.

The decor in the hotel is a good mix of traditional and contemporary, always prioritising a cosy feel with sumptuous fabrics and the right amount of mood lighting. If you’re a Shakespeare super fan, book rooms 401 and 402, which overlook the playwright’s former home, his school and the Guild Chapel.

stratford.hotelindigo.com

Billesley Manor Hotel and Spa

If you want to bookend your minibreak with a spa break, Billesley Manor Hotel and Spa is a little out of the way but well worth the visit, with some sprawling grounds to explore if you want an escape from the hustle and bustle.

This traditional manor house hotel was once a favoured haunt of the Bard and the grounds served as his inspiration – he was even said to write As You Like It at the property. Fast forward to nowadays and Billesley Manor Hotel and Spa has had a lavish £5.6 million refurbishment, adding an extra touch of luxury to this lovingly preserved hotel.

The Stuart restaurant on site is well worth a visit, with a delicious seasonal menu inspired by local produce with traditional surroundings. Be sure to also pay a visit to the hotel’s huge swimming pool and spa, with soul-soothing treatments that will ensure you leave feeling renewed. But one of the biggest pulls for this country house hotel has to be its sprawling grounds, which include a Victorian-era topiary garden inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.

billesleymanor.com