THE WEEKEND: Serious me-time in the UK’s first private member’s spa, handily attached to luxury country house hotel Sopwell House.
You can spend the entire weekend in a dressing gown without skipping the gourmet food, stylish surroundings and decent cocktail menu every suitably indulgent weekend break needs – especially after another month of being confined to the house.
WHERE: Sopwell House is a handsome Georgian mansion just outside St Albans, reached in just 20 minutes by train from St Pancras for a hassle-free getaway from London.
Set in 12 acres of sweeping pristine grounds, the elegant white building was once the country home of Lord Mountbatten, the last Governor of India and the grandfather of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
It’s even believed Prince Philip’s father proposed to his mother in the gardens here.
Surrounded by woodland and unspoilt countryside in every direction, the hotel is remote enough for country walks, deserted forests and traditional pubs, yet also close to trendy St Albans with its boutique shopping, restaurants, historic cathedral and renowned Roman ruins.
But let’s face it, once you discover Sopwell’s gleaming three-storey spa, you won’t want to go anywhere else.
THE STAY: The Mews Suites are the ones to know when booking here. Tucked behind electric gates steps from the main building, the 16 individually designed suites are the most stylish – and exclusive – option.
All are set within a striking secret garden, filled with modern sculptures, manicured hedges and a dramatically-lit sunken hydro-pool for Mews guests only. Several suites also come with their own private outdoor jacuzzi, or other decadent touches including four-poster beds, double-ended in-room baths, high-end kitchenettes or private terraces so there’s no need to leave at all once you’ve checked in.
Mine had chic contrasting wallpaper, slate grey velvet furniture, a dramatic feature fireplace and a sleek spa-style bathroom stocked with Elemis products – plus cosy robes and flip-flops for midnight dashes to the hot tub.
THE FOOD: Unusually, opting for a spa weekend at Sopwell House doesn’t mean surviving on dry lettuce leaves and herbal tea. Unlike most spa hotels, guests can dine in the hotel’s main brasserie whether they’re dressed to the nines on a romantic weekend, or red-faced and still in slippers straight from the sauna.
The lunch time buffet is particularly good and understandably popular with locals too, thanks to its extensive selection of tasty salads (not an iceberg lettuce in sight), cheeses and hearty main courses.
I visited Sopwell House on a Sunday when the chef piled plates high with tender overnight roasted pork shoulder, salmon or roast beef sirloin with giant Yorkshire puddings and all the trimmings, while a dessert table offered exquisite profiteroles, mini lemon tarts and shot glasses of tiramisu.
If you still manage to work up an appetite by dinner, try the hotel’s fine dining restaurant (you will sadly require proper clothes though), or return to the brasserie for a la carte gastro pub favourites including Cajun yellowfin tuna steak, enormous burgers and a surprisingly delicious chicken bhuna.
THE SPA: The Club at Cottonmill is the real draw at Sopwell House, opened last year after a staggering £14 million investment. Though the hotel already offered a 14.5 metre pool with steam room, sauna, gym and jacuzzi, the exclusive new facilities for private members (and hotel guests paying a supplement) have the real wow factor.
All are built round the beautifully landscaped spa gardens, where sofas and private cabanas are set between gurgling water features, private hot tubs and roaring fire pits. A blissfully heated swim-out pool links the outdoors to inside, where plush day beds and swing chairs are made for snoozing or ordering a glass of the spa’s own-brand Prosecco.
Otherwise, while away the hours floating between a panoramic sauna with heated loungers, tranquil relaxation rooms, a salt room, botanical steam room and luxe treatment rooms where I tried a heavenly massage on the innovative tilting amber and quartz crystal bed, a must-try first for UK spas.
NEED TO KNOW: Stays at Sopwell House start from £179 per night in a Deluxe Room on a B&B basis with complimentary access to Cottonmill, or from £509 per night in a Mews Suite on a B&B basis with complimentary access to The Club at Cottonmil. Go to sopwellhouse.co.uk for more information or to book.
TOP TIP: Squeeze in afternoon tea including traditional Battenburg cake, said to have been created to celebrate Lord Mountbatten’s wedding to Queen Victoria’s granddaughter in 1884.