Review: Ilsington Country House Hotel & Spa
Need to calm down? Relax, Muddy has found you the perfect spa-cation in a chilled-out country house hotel on Dartmoor.
Dartmoor is all about breathtaking scenery, cute little ponies and cosy pubs, right? So, hallelujah for a blissful spa worthy of a city-centre among those mountains green. Having reviewed it a couple of years ago when it first opened, Muddy is back to check out the hotel it’s attached to. I know, we’re gluttons for punishment.
It’s oh so quiet – Bjork could have been singing about here, except the bit about falling in love – though you might fall heads over heels with the spa. This family-run hotel on Dartmoor has to be the most serene places I’ve been since – ever. Sitting in 10 acres of leafy grounds with 360-degree views of stunning National Park.
Dartmoor is known for its tors – monolithic granite outcrops – and you can ogle one of the most famous, Haytor, from the restaurant. Yet it’s only 4 miles through the winding hedgerows from the A38. Which means Exeter is a dual-carriage drive 20 minutes away or Plymouth half an hour in the other direction.
The 25-bedroom hotel has been run by the Hassell family for the past 20 years, having had a chequered history since the 1900s as a convalescent home, hotel and a base for American soldiers during the Slapton Sands D-day training. Four years ago they opened the Tibetan-style spa with a sauna, steam room and hydrotherapy pool, as well as two treatment rooms where you can get a lush facial or a rub-down with heavenly scented Caudalie products. There’s a range of room sizes, from standard and dog-friendly on the ground floor to superior and suites for families.
The staff are genuinely lovely without being in your face, and the little touches everywhere – candles lit, date signs changed, numerous waiters happy to bring you cocktails *oh yes* instead of having to queue at the bar – make it a million miles away from those modern hotels where you’re lucky if you can find someone at reception.
Peaceful, country house hotel with a grandfather clock gently chiming the hours away in reception and cosy corners in two lounges, to hideaway, drink tea (and gin) or leaf languidly through the papers.
It’s not slick and glossy, it’s country and homely – with rugs for the dog to snuggle up on, and no-one minds if you waft in from the spa still in your fluffy towelling robe. On sunny days, there’s a big outdoor terrace with heated parasols for night-times, overlooking lawns with its ponds and croquet.
Gorgeous, isn’t it? Upmarket, tranquil with a heated 11x5m indoor pool, a hydrotherapy pool, steam room and sauna with yoga-music and sparkly changing colour-lights, plus a fitness suite with cardio rowers, cross-trainers and treadmills and top-of-the-range equipment.
The spa got a big Muddy thumbs up back when it opened (see the review here) and it has since scooped Gold in the South Devon Tourism & Hospitality Awards 2018. See that bucket suspended above the poolside shower? That is a ‘kubel dusche’ – an elevated bucket of cold water which tips on anyone brave enough to pull the lever. I preferred the warming balm of the hydrotherapy pool with its bubbles and two thalassotherapy style jets just the job for smoothing out aching shoulders.
SCOFF AND QUAFF
The food punches way above expectation, with chef Mike O’Donnell serving up 2-star AA rosette modern British cooking. You can eat in a formal dining room with its floor-to-ceiling picture windows (breakfast is served here) or less formally in the Blue Tiger bistro bar which is where Mr Muddy and I dined. So called, as a pun on the most-used pub name in the UK, The Red Lion.
But first a tipple from a list of local West Country gins as long as your forearm. A big tick for the garnish of juniper berries and cardboard straws, brought to you in a comfy chair next to the games table in the lounge where you can pit your wits at chess, backgammon or solitaire.
We were called through to a reserved table in the bistro to start with a shared Brixham-caught fish platter, smoked in the kitchen’s own smokery. Served beautifully on a large slate with ramekins of kimchi style veg and salad, as big as a lunch, wafting with the scent of the freshly baked half and half brown-white bread.
Mains for me was a meltingly good Dartmoor burger on a toasted bun smeared with a coriander mayo, with sweet caramelised onions and a slice of beef tomato (doing an upmarket version of ketchup) with juicy chunky chips and home-made slaw.
Mr M tucked into a chicken breast with a puree of pea and mint and roasted veg. He said the meat was so succulent that’s why no gravy needed.
For afters, a long slim sliver of chocolate delice: intensely choc-flavoured with a hit of almond from the amaretti base and plumptious blueeberries to mop up the vanilla ice-cream.
Mr M went for two scoops of citrussy sorbet – home-made like the ice-cream – perched on a light sponge and a meringue.
The next morning, having run off, ooh, at least 29 calories on the gym’s treadmill, breakfast was a help-yourself choice of all the usuals, on linen with Denby bowls, fragrant pinks in vases, fresh fruit and yogurt followed by a generous choice of traditional Devon breakfast of local bacon, sausages, fried hogs pudding (veggie options available) or smoked haddock, kipper or salmon with eggs.
We stayed in room 12, a Country Room (a peg above standard) on the first floor which was on the small side with restricted head height, with a hard-to-leave kingsize bed, all the usual TV and tea-making facilities.
Nice touches included the home-made flapjacks, automatic night light in the bathroom and a proper key, instead of a plastic key-card complete with your fob to come and go any time you like to the spa. Soooo peaceful, it was noise-free with nothing but green trees and views of moors stretching into the distance out the sash window.
Yep very, with loads of opportunity for family bonding/squabbling over Scrabble and Monopoly. Kids can use the pool from 8-10am and 4-7pm each day (the rest of the time it’s reserved for adults) and there is a good kids’ menu, and panoramic grounds to go free range, with outdoors games and swing-ball. I’d say this would be good for all ages, except maybe teens at that hard-to-please age of too old for board games, but too young for the spa. But this is definitely not the kind of place where you’d feel okay letting kids go screaming round.
Live locally? How about treating yourself to a bargain spa-cation? Do it, do it! They offer a 20% off PL, EX and TQ postcodes every Thursday, plus loads of other spa breaks and packages.
OUT AND ABOUT
Hills, tors and moors for walking, and all that natural beauty of Dartmoor National park and its ponies. You can park right opposite Haytor and walk up to the base, or if you’re fleet of foot, to its summit, for spectacular views across moorland to the sea – though it does get busy in summer. Closest for retail therapy is Ashburton with its gifts, boutiques and antiques trail and the locals fave The Old Library is a good alternative for eating out, or Rafikis for veggie food. For good quality local art, head to the Devon Guild of Craftsmen at Bovey Tracy, then head on to The Rugglestone Inn at Widecombe for a hot chocolate or cosy pub meal.
THE MUDDY VERDICT
Good for: de-stressing and blissing out, nature fans, walkers and holidaying with dog; families and gals days out. It’s a real chameleon of a place: I could imagine bringing my elderly father for lunch, having a spa away-day with my girlfriends or using it as a base for seeing Devon’s two cities and some stunning national parkland.
Not for: non-drivers, they can book you a taxi but it won’t be instant in this neck of the woods. Nightlife lovers, there isn’t any for miles around but all that fresh air will have tucked up in bed in snod-land anyway.
The damage: very good value: the Country Room we stayed in cost £160 for the night/for two and included all the use of the spa, saunas and gym as well as breakfast. In winter, it would be more like £125.
Ilsington Country House Hotel & Spa, Ilsington Village, Nr Haytor, Newton Abbot TQ13 9RR Tel: 01364 661452