Horse (and people) heaven

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All images courtesy of the Dorchester Collection.

 

With Easter just around the corner, the flat-racing season in England is about to begin. And with the season come wonderful names, like the Thousand Guineas, Gold Cup, Glorious Goodwood, Epsom Downs and the Derby (pronounced with its characteristic flat a, dar-bee) to conjure with. But of all this Sceptered Isle’s racing institutions, none is better known than Royal Ascot, the race meeting held over four days each June and traditionally attended by senior members of the Royal Family.

And here’s the thing: Were it not for its racecourse and royal patronage, Ascot itself, just 25 miles from London and with a population of 11,000 would be just another sleepy commuter town. All of which might explain why, despite the hordes that descend on Ascot for those wondrous few days in early summer, the one thing the town always lacked was a really great, really knockout hotel.

Then five years ago, all that changed, when Dorchester Collection — the people who also count the Hotel Bel-Air and The Beverly Hills Hotel in their  portfolio — launched Coworth Park. Just five minutes from the racetrack, 20 minutes from Heathrow Airport and with its own helipad to boot, this exceptional 70-room property has turned the traditional English country house hotel on its head.

I love Coworth. It’s refined and luxurious without being grandiose, a little glitzy but without ever being brash — not always easy to achieve. The furniture in the handsome house is British made, and the delicious contemporary art reflects talent that is all homegrown. Textiles, including wool, cashmere, mohair and linen, imbue Coworth with a quintessentially British feel and the result is a subtle, understated elegance.

And as you would expect, Coworth is horsey. From the get-go, I’m told, it’s been the residence of choice for jockeys and owners from around the world visiting Ascot, and it frequently plays host to some of the world’s most prized Thoroughbreds. The hotel’s “Ultimate Horse Check-In” — at $75, a bargain in my book — includes an assigned stable (with bedding and dietary preferences noted), a personalized nameplate on the door, a “welcome gift” polo ball, carrots from the hotel’s kitchen garden and housemade horse treats. (Molasses, oats and honey prepared by Coworth’s pastry chef, Luke Frost, anyone? Yes please!) And it doesn’t end there, because registration also includes an equine manicure with a special hoof moisturizing treatment and a luxury, post-ride bubble bath, complete with natural equine aromatherapy wash. Well, it’s a horse’s life, don’t they say?

Now, you could get the idea that Coworth is all about the horse, but the reality is you can come here for a weekend — or better still, a week — and avoid horses altogether. This is the Hollywood equivalent of Audrey Hepburn sitting on the terrace of a glamorous ski resort somewhere in Switzerland in wraparound Ray-Bans and Givenchy head scarf — see the 1963 film “Charade” — without the slightest thought of ever actually hitting the slopes.

Then again, horselessness at Coworth somehow misses the point, because the riding experience here is superb. A host of qualified instructors specializes in every area of equestrianism and there are 240 acres of off-road hacking through Coworth’s private estate, with rides taking in views of the main house and estate cottages, the ponds and magnificent woodlands. And kids have a great time of it, too, with riders from the age of 4 welcome, the ponies and horses chosen by Coworth’s resident trainer for their willing temperaments.

If you play polo, or want to learn “the sport of kings,” Coworth is the only U.K. hotel to offer this. The Guards Polo Academy, run by former England team captain and manager, Andrew Hine, is based here, and the estate’s three polo fields are said — by people who know about these things — to be second to none.

Away from the horses, Coworth boasts a world-class spa — which, by the way, has just picked up Condé Nast Johansen’s Best Spa Award for 2015. And as for the food, well, take it from me, it rocks. All too often the restaurants in otherwise perfectly lovely English country-house hotels can be sepulchral, but I ‘m crazy for the casual barn restaurant at Coworth, with its perky “local” menu. And in the gorgeous, light-filled, posh-option Restaurant Coworth Park, where lunch might be scallops with shallots and black pudding followed by loin of venison with celeriac and pearl barley, the food is first-rate and the service is so sweet it positively sings.

What’s more, there’s a very chic, perfectly formed bar, where I recently sat one evening gazing out over the croquet lawn and sunken gardens as the barman mixed his signature Country House Collins and dusk slowly fell. The day’s riding done, horses put to bed, there can’t be a better spot in the whole of the county. Because, as Dorothy Parker might have said, you can lead a horse to Coworth, but nothing beats a well-mixed drink.

Coworth Park is on Blacknest Road, Ascot, Berkshire, England. From £285 (around $425) a night for two, including taxes and breakfast. For more information, call 011 44 144 876600 or visit dorchestercollection.com.

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