With a guest list including Winston Churchill, Wallis Simpson and Queen Elizabeth II (who spent part of her honeymoon here), Luton Hoo has a lot to live up to. Yet despite becoming a hotel in 2007, it’s successfully maintained the charm and character that drew such VIPs to it in the first place.
The mansion itself was built in the late 18th Century and sits proudly on a 1,065 acre site of parkland and formal gardens designed by Capability Brown. It’s a grand, regal building with its own green London cabs parked smartly outside and huge, 100-year-old glass doors at the entrance that whistle with the wind.
Inside it’s reminiscent of The Ritz (Luton Hoo’s interiors were refurbished in the early 1900s by the same architects who designed the famous Green Park hotel), complete with elegant curved marble staircase; original crystal chandeliers; plush reception hall; glitzy lounge where guests take afternoon tea; and one of the most beautiful dining rooms we’ve ever seen – more on that later.
Rooms in the mansion are, as expected, utterly luxurious. When Elite Hotels bought the site in 1999 it decided to preserve the original ambience as much as possible – as such rooms look as they might have done a century ago, with ornate ceilings, marble fireplaces and in the case of the Lady Zia suite (wife of Sir Julius Wernher, a diamond magnate who bought Luton Hoo in 1903), an enormous safe originally used to store that lady’s jewellery collection. Beds, often four-posters, are comfortable, and despite modern touches such as jacuzzi baths, bathrooms still suit that decadent feel with their golden décor and double sinks.
This is the kind of hotel you probably wouldn’t leave all weekend. As well as food and drink (the afternoon tea lounge looks over beautifully manicured, precisely symmetrical gardens), there’s a snooker room to play in; walks around the estate (visit the dog cemetery, the surprising spot where Wallis Simpson and the then King Edward VIII apparently got engaged); golf; and the spa, which is a five-minute walk or one-minute free cab ride from the mansion. It’s set in the old stable yard alongside a brasserie and offers a long list of treatments – you can choose your own type of massage oil (“energising, restorative or detoxifying, madam?”) and lie on a heated blanket for the duration, plus there are fresh pots of herbal tea to enjoy in the relaxation room.
The infinity swimming pool looks out onto the estate and there’s also a jacuzzi, steam room and sauna. It’s all free to use if you’re a hotel guest (treatments are charged for), and you can wear your robe from the mansion to the spa if you’d prefer to change in the comfort of your own room – it’s all pretty relaxed, despite the grand surroundings.
The Wernher Restaurant shines with an opulence worthy of the diamond magnate it was named after. Expect marble walls, glittering chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling doors and a view of Luton Hoo’s parkland. Food is presented under shiny silver domes (when’s the last time you saw that?) and the waiters are polite and courteous.
For dinner, a starter of velvety cauliflower soup was made brighter with a vibrant pistachio dressing, while a crab and crayfish salad was plentiful and fresh. Baked cod loin was too salty, but prettily presented and generous nonetheless; it came with curly kale, green beans and a rich black olive jus. Tandoori salmon ‘supreme’ rested on a bed of punchy Bombay potatoes, spicy kale and a wedge of melting coriander butter; very enjoyable. Desserts are traditional (tiramisu, cheesecake) and, again, elegantly presented – but we preferred our board of British cheeses, including a sharp and creamy Somerset blue.
If you’re in need of a luxurious weekend escape, literally fit for a queen, then Luton Hoo is an excellent option. It’s as if time stood still here (a rare quality for a hotel) and you can feel the history of the place when you walk its corridors. Be sure to stay in the mansion itself – there’s more accommodation in separate buildings that, although swish, don’t have the same magic about them – and leave plenty of time for cocktails and dinner. You’ll want to immerse yourself in such opulent surroundings for as long as possible.