What is it? The Belsfield is a boutique hotel in the heart of the English Lake District, an area that was recently awarded Unesco World Heritage status. The property stands in six acres of landscaped grounds in the picturesque village of Bowness and enjoys unparalleled views over the wooded islands and secluded bays of Lake Windermere. Ferries and sailing craft jockey for space on the water, cormorants dive for fish, wild otters forage and, after a long absence, red squirrels have returned to the shores.
Sounds wonderful. Tell me more. If Jay Gatsby had been from the Lake District, he would have lived at the Belsfield. The Italianate-style property was built as a private residence for Baroness von Sternberg in 1845 before being converted to a hotel half a century later by industrialist Henry Schneider. Successive owners have put their stamp on the hotel with renovations, refits and re-launches, culminating in a multimillion-pound Laura Ashley makeover in 2014. Victorian VIPs stare down from the walls, ragtime music fills the air and floorboards yield a reassuring creak.
I bet the soft furnishings are to die for. The Belsfield showcases the kind of calming pastel colour schemes and floral heritage wallpapers the Laura Ashley brand is famous for, not to mention signature curtains and cushions, sofas, mirrors and lamps. However, it doesn’t feel like walking into the pages of a home furnishings catalogue. Guests enter through a modern Louvre-like glass reception area and are greeted by staff who breathe life, humour and professionalism into every corner of the property.
What’s special about the rooms? Thanks to an understated elegance, the accommodation impresses without really trying. All rooms boast the usual modern amenities, minus flashy bells and whistles. If you can, book a suite with views of Lake Windermere and the distant Cumbrian fells. Fire up the coffee machine, pull a chair up to one of the picture windows (below) and watch the ebb and flow of water-borne traffic. (The gentle commotion each time the ferry docks and departs is strangely soothing.) Have a camera handy and make sure dinner plans don’t coincide with those magical minutes when the setting sun drips gold into England’s largest body of water.
Eat in or sneak out to the local chippy? Save the fish and chips for another time. The Brasserie opens out onto the garden and serves as a short cut to the bar, although the air of informality is deceptive. The burgers and hotpots come out of the same kitchen as the venison carpaccio and chargrilled beef fillet being served to diners next door, in the Belsfield Restaurant. I’m not one for photographing meals to share on social media but I almost broke the habit of a lunchtime when the pan-fried sea trout and smoked potato gnocchi appeared. Round off the evening with coffee in the drawing room, decorated in Laura Ashley (or Peter Rabbit) powder blue, or take advantage of those mesmerising vistas with cocktails on the garden terrace.
What is there to do in the area? Get your bearings with a Windermere cruise or hop on the steam train that runs between Lakeside and the preserved station at Haverthwaite. Fans of Jemima Puddle-Duck and Peter Rabbit will enjoy themselves at the World of Beatrix Potter but are sure to be out-shopped by Japanese and mainland Chinese devotees who snap up as many fluffy souvenirs as they can fit in their suitcases. If cute rabbits aren’t your thing, don your boots and waterproofs (this is northern England after all) and head to nearby Coniston, an area renowned for its hiking trails.
OK, so how much? Standard rooms start at £159 (HK$1,600); lake view rooms cost from £199 and suites from £239. All include a buffet breakfast.