Hidden in the heart of one of the UK's most unspoilt landscapes sits the newly opened Lime Wood country house hotel, a haven of laid-back luxury with easy access to major roads and cities.
The spectacularly renovated 29-bedroom property, developed at a cost of £30m, rises in all its glory out of the midst of the surrounding New Forest. While the location appears to be totally remote, the reality is that it is situated just 10 minutes' drive from the M27, 12 miles from Southampton and about one-and-a-half hours from London.
Guests who walk into the entrance hall with its welcoming, roaring fire, will swiftly find themselves in a retreat of unashamed luxury but without the formality and stuffiness of a traditional country house hotel.
"We are providing a serious depth of knowledge and the highest service standards, while at the same time being very relaxed - something which is very difficult to pull off," says Robin Hutson, chairman of Lime Wood, who is intending to plug what he believes to be a gap in the market between the traditional top-notch country house hotels such as Le Manoir and Cliveden and the more informal approach offered by Babington House.
"I want the hotel to be somewhere guests feel they can crash out with a newspaper, their feet up on the sofa, without a member of staff fussing around them, unless they want it," he says. "Lime Wood is not somewhere with lots of rules and regulations. If a guest asks if they can have breakfast in the drawing room, then of course they can. If they ask for breakfast after the usual time breakfast service has ended or a drink after the bar is closed, the answer will be 'yes'."
To be able to offer super-efficient service, delivered in a friendly and relaxed manner, it is crucial to have the right employees on board. "We have taken on staff who have the right attitude, spirit and personality, as essentially we know nice people give nice service," Hutson says. "We can teach them all the skills and technical stuff."
With executive chef Alex Aitken already in place, the other key appointments have included David Elton, formerly director of marketing and sales at Ritz-Carlton and vice-president of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, as marketing director, and Justin Pinchbeck as hotel director.
Pinchbeck brings to Lime Wood a mixture of traditional hotelkeeping - from his training at Grosvenor House - and contemporary experience gleaned from positions at Firmdale Hotels and, more recently, as general manager at the Zetter hotel in London.
"We want to remove all the boring, predictable stuff about hotels," Pinchbeck says. "So there is no check-in - guests are taken straight to their room where they provide a signature to authorise a credit card payment - or check-out. The bill will be slid under a guest's door the night before they leave to check, so that they can just walk out the door the following morning. We are also not charging for any telephone calls under £2 or for bottled water in the room minibars - something which is so annoying for guests who have spent hundreds of pounds on a room."
The recruiting process is not yet over. Although the hotel welcomed its first guests on 23 November, so far only 50 out of the full complement of 65 staff are in place.
"It has been a long process to find the right staff and once they are all on board, keeping them will become the most important thing," Hutson says. "This we will do by being decent, caring employers, and through motivation, training and development. Above all we are making it interesting for them."
Working within a property such as Lime Wood, where the level of craftsmanship is unlike anything Hutson has seen before, is undoubtedly interesting and inspiring.
The building manages to be both grand in scale - as in the dramatic atrium over the main staircase - and intimate, with a succession of sitting rooms where a guest can happily curl up with a book undisturbed. An interior courtyard, flooded with light on even the darkest winter day, is somewhere to linger over morning coffee or afternoon tea, while the two restaurants offer two very different eating experiences.
In the chic, yet welcoming, fine-dining restaurant, Aitken is replicating the Michelin-starred food that, for 25 years, has been a mainstay in the New Forest at his restaurant Le Poussin. Dishes, frequently featuring the wild foods he gathers himself, include creamy boudin spiked with truffles on wild rice and forest mushrooms; sautéd halibut on the bone with light butter sauce, sweet caramelised onion and bog myrtle; and iced parfait of cob nut and forest honey bee praline, caramel and lavender syrup. The à la carte menu offers two courses at £38, three at £48 and four at £58. The eight course tasting menu is £75.
Meanwhile, in the Scullery, which reflects a country house kitchen with its white painted floorboards and dresser-style shelving filled with plates and jars of home-made oils, vinegars and bottled fruits, a menu offering something for all ages, tastes and occasions is available. Heinz baked beans on toast (£4) and whole lobster and chips (£25) sit quite happily alongside one another. All dishes can be served in half portions, proving that Lime Wood is a country house hotel that very much welcomes children.
"We are definitely not like a lot of country house hotels that merely tolerate children," says Hutson, who then swiftly runs through a long list of attractions which will ensure certain young ones will never want to leave the place. As well as Sony PlayStations and Nintendo Wii machines indoors, outside a tree house is being built and a fleet of top-quality mountain bikes are available for exploring the surrounding forest.
Fun and enjoyment are definitely essential elements of a stay at Lime Wood, reflected in the contents of the room minibars, which offer the kind of treats a guest really wants to tuck into - such as Cadbury's chocolate buttons and sherbert dips - and small detailed touches such as the twig pencils in the bedrooms and wooden toothbrushes in the bathroom, which provide a sense of place, as well as bring a smile to the face.
The enjoyment factor is expected to increase dramatically when the 20,000sq ft Lime Wood Spa - offering a swimming pool, hydrotherapy pool, hammam and eight treatment rooms - opens in summer 2010.
"We expect the spa will become hugely important in driving business and for this reason we have taken the decision to knock out one of the bedrooms and install a mini spa which will be available until the real spa opens," Pinchbeck says.
Initially, guests are expected to be attracted to Lime Wood by a strong PR campaign within the UK market. An application for membership to Relais & Châteaux has already been submitted to help bring in overseas guests, who are expected to account for about 25% of business. Forecast occupancy for the first year is 60%.
"I have been invited to get involved with different hotel concepts in recent years, but none have come anywhere near as close as Lime Wood in ticking all the right boxes," Hutson says. "Here we have brought together good hospitality and hotelkeeping, and combined it with a modern, laid-back twist, which is the way people want to live today. It is a hotel that is absolutely right for the moment."
LIME WOOD: THE BACKGROUND
The property that has been transformed into Lime Wood was originally a three-star hotel called Parkhill, set within a Regency country manor house.
Michelin-starred chef Alex Aitken and local entrepreneur Jim Ratcliffe, who made his fortune through what has become the world's third largest chemical company, Ineos, bought the hotel in 1999.
Initially, Aitken moved Le Poussin restaurant into the hotel, as well as continuing to run Simply Poussin in Brockenhurst. The hotel was then closed in 2004 to be transformed into one of the leading country house hotels in the country, with no expense spared.
Ben Pentreath, of Working Group Design, restored the main house and its extensions, comprising 16 bedrooms, a series of connecting sitting rooms, library, two restaurants, bar, wine cellar and billiard room.
Meanwhile, Charles Morris, whose previous work includes the Orchard Room at Highgrove for the Prince of Wales, designed Lime Wood's ancillary buildings, providing a further 11 suites and two guest rooms. The laid-back, English country house interiors throughout are by David Collins.
In March this year Robin Hutson was appointed chairman of the Lime Wood Group, which operates the Lime Wood hotel as well as Whitley Ridge Hotel in nearby Brockenhurst and Le Portetta in Courchevel, France. By that time, Aitken had sold his 50% share in the business, leaving Ratcliffe as the sole owner.
Initially Hutson was asked to do some consultancy work. "But I quickly realised that although about 90% of the building work had been done, there was a great deal more I could contribute," he says.
"There are few properties that would have got me back into a full-time role but this was one of them. I Live in Winchester, 25 minutes away, so the hotel is very much on my patch. And most importantly, everything about it felt right, bringing together the two past elements of my career."
Hutson is referring to the traditional background he gained at the Savoy Group and Chewton Glen, together with the more contemporary service offering of Hotel du Vin, which he co-founded, and the Soho House Group, where he has worked recently as executive chairman and consultant.
One of Hutson's first decisions on being appointed chairman was to change the name of the property, which was then still called Parkhill.
"I thought it sounded like a block of flats in Croydon," he said. "Instead, I thought the name should reflect the hotel's location in the middle of the New Forest, but the word forest itself has rather dark and scary connotations.
"We eventually agreed on Lime Wood as that is the literal meaning of the nearby town of Lyndhurst," he adds.
Ben Pentreath restored the main house and its extensions, Charles Morris designed the ancillary buildings and Lime Wood's laid-back interiors are by David Collins
Tel: 023 8028 7177