It is a region of red soil hills, lush river valleys, squawking gulls and restored Victorian water pumps. Perched at the edge of thatched Thurlestone village, the 68-bedroom hotel commands a priceless view of the rocky South Hams coastline.
The vista is much as it was when the Thurlestone Hotel started up in 1896. Although the building has been expanded and modernised, ownership has always stayed in the hands of the Grose family.
The emphasis at this south Devon hideaway is clearly on tradition. Repeat custom is a big factor in guest relations, and generations of families give the hotel their allegiance, as an occupancy rate of 65% indicates. The new number-plates in the car park show that many of these families have travelled long distances in their Saabs, Range Rovers and BMWs. One elderly, Surrey-based couple jokes that the place is like "Guildford-on-Sea".
Many of these repeat guests have flocked here during 1996, to join in the extended festivities being staged by the hotel to mark its 100th birthday. There are no royal telegrams to pin up, but the Grose family have rooted out for guest viewing a raft of ancient visitor books, faded photos and yellowed documents, which give a musty sense of what turn-of-the-century Thurlestone was like.
But the focus for the centenary has been on food. May, June and September each saw a special three-day centenary package (£495 per head for all meals, drinks and entertainment - including a firework display and day out), which was marketed via mailshot to former Thurlestone guests.
Jazz from Kenny Ball, laughter from Willy Rushton and a day at the races formed the backdrop to three days of partying, fermented by an extensive and impressive wine list put together by one of the Grose family. On one of the evenings, there was a buffet in the outside marquee. On another, diners enjoyed a table d'hôte supper. But the centrepiece was a seven-course gala dinner which cost £49.50 per head.
Its construction fell to newly arrived head chef Hugh Miller, who started work at the 150-seat restaurant in spring and was soon putting together the first in a series of three such gala occasions.
With a brigade of just eight, the first two events wooed 150 celebrants and, although the September dinner was less hectic with 100 guests, the ostentatious menu retained its complexity.
While the summer menus kicked off with fruits, September's version introduced a home-made game parfait, followed by a leek broth with saffron and spinach pasta. With a course of poached fillet of lemon sole, an intermediate raspberry sorbet and a main dish of beef fillet, the seven-course meal took on the feel of a modest banquet.
Desserts varied from a caramelised rice pudding with compote of poached fruits, through an iced orange parfait with whiskey crème anglaise, to a more complex white chocolate and praline cheesecake with redcurrant coulis. Miller says: "The portions were small. It's not chunky food. I'm really into deep flavours and modern cuisine."
Planning for banquets
Logistics dictated brisk planning with strong reliance on mise en place. As Miller explains: "We've had to be really organised, given that we're dealing with 120-150 guests. It's meant, for example, preparing all the sorbets in the morning and then putting them into the freezer. Or it's been mise en place for the hot dishes and then we've put them under clingfilm to keep them warm.
"The feedback has been excellent. I get my biggest buzz from reading the comment cards. The gala events have been a lot of fun. Even the staff have enjoyed them. It hasn't just been a case of sweating your guts out in the kitchen."
Miller spent almost three years at the stoves of the QEII where, he says: "On board ship, you're busy all the time. It's a 14-hour day, seven days a week, six months a year. Nobody shows you anything. You just have to pick it up as you go along."
The rest of the year sees a daily changing table d'hôte menu in the restaurant, where an average of 100 covers are served nightly. Four courses plus coffee are offered for £21 per head.
A choice of three starters includes griddled wild boar and apple sausage served with creamed cabbage and Stilton finished with a tomato and tarragon coulis; and a Parma ham parcel filled with strawberries, circled by honey and mint dressing.
Cräme of vegetable soup or passion-fruit sorbet comes up next, while a choice of four main courses may include fresh pasta bound in shiitake mushroom cream, gratinéd with shavings of Parmesan, or casserole of lamb braised in a light curry cream with mint-scented tagliatelle and golden fried coconut bananas, topped with mango chutney.
Dessert may be Tiramisù with a rich butterscotch sauce, or a selection of Salcombe dairy ice-creams. A selection of cheeses, including Stilton, Brie, Yarg, Windsor Red and Cheddar, is also available.
Thurlestone Hotel, near Kingsbridge, south Devon. Tel: 01548 560382.