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An exquisite collection of destination hotels

By Paul Knowles

You can check out any time you like, but you won't want to leave.

 

Decisions, decisions...

There is a problem travellers sometimes face... if we are lucky enough. Every once in a while, we check into a hotel, and the place is so, well, accommodating, that it deserves to be a destination on its own.

Our intention is to spend our sleeping time there; maybe even have a meal or two. But the place is just so darned comfortable, so luxurious... in fact, we feel so spoiled that some days, we don't leave the hotel at all. It may put a crimp in our carefully planned itinerary, but it can be a wonderful way to spend a holiday.

There is a group of hotels that clearly fall into that category. Collectively, they are known as Red Carnation Hotels. They were assembled and brought to their present standard by Beatrice Tollman, an exuberant, flamboyant and often controversial figure who brought her own personal touch -­ jungle motifs in the bar and all -­ to her growing chain of luxury hotels.

They are located in several countries ­- one apiece in Switzerland and Florida, two in South Africa, and the rest, seven in all, in England.

I've had the good fortune to spend time in five RCH Hotels, and every one of them presented that 'I never want to leave' challenge. They are, simply, superb.

My British favourite ­- and that seems so disloyal to the others -­ is the Summer Lodge Country House Hotel. Perhaps I like it best because it is located outside London, and I always prefer the British countryside to the city.

Summer Lodge, now completely renovated and refurbished, is located in Evershot, in Dorset. It was built in 1789; the village of thatched cottages seems not far removed from that era. This is Thomas Hardy country, with attractions including Hardy's Cottage (a building that deserves the name, by the way, and is potentially attractive only to devoted Hardy fans), Montacute House, Forde Abbey and Gardens, and Tintinhull Gardens all only a short drive away.

If you ever leave the hotel. Ah, there's the rub. Summer Lodge truly is a destination in its own right. This is a boutique hotel, with 24 luxurious guest rooms and three cottages which typically have fireplaces and conservatories (and, this being the 21st century, thatched cottages or no thatched cottages, each room also has the latest technological gadgetry and connectivity).

Summer Lodge is surrounded by four acres of truly beautiful gardens, which simply trap the garden lover into an afternoon of leisure. And then there is the restaurant and lounge bar. If you escape the clutches of the wingback chairs, you are a better person than I. Summer Lodge ­- like its siblings in the RHC chain -­ is staffed by award-winning chefs and sommeliers. The wine lists are superb, the food exquisite, and the prices... well, the food is exquisite. The meals I enjoyed at Summer Lodge were incomparable.

Sometimes, of course, one simply has to stay in London. The list of Red Carnation hotels in the city has grown in the past few years; there are now six unique and luxurious hotels in the capital, including Milestone Hotel and Apartments, '41', Chesterfield Mayfair, Montague on the Gardens, Rubens at the Palace, and Egerton House Hotel.

Each of these is, again, a destination all on its own. Each is also superbly located, depending on your mission in the city.

I very much enjoy the Montague on the Gardens, partly for its sheer comfort, and partly because it is half a block from the British Museum. If one does leave the hotel, it is awfully nice to walk around a corner and find oneself in one of the best museums in civilization ­- with free admission, by the way. The Montague sits in the heart of literary Bloomsbury, well populated with the ghosts of Virginia Woolf and her contemporaries.

All the Red Carnation Hotels have many things in common ­ superb service, luxurious accommodations, great amenities, marvellous food ­ while still managing to be utterly unique. They are by and large historic hotels, the oldest dating back to 1872, although Beatrice Tollman and the Red Carnation group acquired The Chesterfield Mayfair, the first of what is now a prestigious small chain, in 1984, and four of the chain have only been added since 2000. The company actually does not call its hotels a 'chain' ­- they refer to the 'very special collection.'

It's hard to disagree with that description. Each of the hotels has a number of special, unique things about it. The Montague, in addition to its location, has conservatories and a garden courtyard ­ where it feels a little like its sister, the Summer Lodge. However, the Montague is actually near the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge.

The Milestone's near neighbour ­- just across the road - is the Royal Family's Kensington Palace, which might bring a whole new meaning to the term 'Royal watching.' When you check in, you will not only be asked your choice of newspaper, but your choice of soap and welcome drink.

'41' is a five-star hotel on Buckingham Road, with only 16 deluxe rooms and four split-level suites. Everything here is 'designer', from bath products to furniture to the marble bathrooms. There is an executive lounge with 24-hour dining and guest services, in case one gets peckish in the wee hours. Not surprisingly, given the address, it is near Buckingham Palace.

The Egerton House Hotel is in Knightsbridge; it originally was two Victorian townhouses, although the residents during Queen Vicky's reign would scarcely recognize it today. A speciality is Afternoon Tea, from 3 to 6 p.m. daily. Another reason not to leave the hotel.

Back in the current Queen's neighbourhood, The Rubens at the Palace is a larger facility, with 174 rooms or suites. I love the phrase in the Rubens promotional material: 'For those who must work,' there are several meeting rooms. 'For those who must work' -­ perhaps as you stay in a Red Carnation Hotel, you can forgo such responsibilities for a day or two.

The Chesterfield ­- the original RCH property -­ is in Mayfair. It offers all the usual luxuries ­- now there's an oxymoron -­ including fresh flowers. I am not alone in singing the praises of these outstanding hotels. A web search unearths unending hymns to the hotels. Words like captivating, charming, impeccably maintained and decorated, restful, convivial, classy, beautiful, and ­ one of my favourites: 'The antithesis of the kind of intimidating modern boutique hotels where you need a degree in computing just to operate the shower.'

During my stay at the Summer Lodge, I came in from walking in the gardens in search of a soft chair and a Scotch ­- both readily available, as they would be at any RCH hotel. In the bar sat a couple with two eager little dogs. The lady was immediately conversational, enthusiastic, and eager to talk about the changes she was making to her hotel. Yes, it was Mrs. Tollman, on the spot and ready to renovate.

That kind of attention to detail ­ coupled with her verve and energy ­ has produced one of the most intriguing chains ... sorry, collections ... of wonderful hotels any traveller is going to find, anywhere. Put them in lovely old England, and things could not be better.

For more information about Red Carnation Hotels, visit www.redcarnationhotels.com; for information about visiting the United Kingdom, see www.visitbritain.com/ca.