The opulent Llangoed Hall is licensed to thrill, Debra Solomon writes.
TRUTH be told, I wouldn't know an Aston Martin if I was knocked over by one. But when two were pointed out to me as we pulled into the hotel car park, even I knew this wasn't the local youth hostel. It was, in fact, the luxurious Edwardian mansion-style hotel Llangoed Hall in the lush Wye Valley in Wales.
Besides the Aston Martins, and imposing grandeur of the hall itself, there were other telltale signs of the hotel's exclusivity.
Two silver Rolls-Royces, a Ferrari and the small matter of a handsome Savile Row-suited guest arriving by private helicopter.
Without so much as a "how do you do", he left the valet to fetch his bags and disappeared into the mansion. This was as close to meeting a real live James Bond as I'd ever been.
My jaw dropped as I stood, trackie-dakked to the nines. And I'd only got as far as the car park. Despite my understated attire, Madam (that's me) and her bags are also fetched by a valet who takes Madam directly to Madam's room. There is no reception area nor formal check-in at Llangoed Hall, the seamless car park to room transition all designed to make one feel at home. But as I ascended the grand oak staircase past the original Whistler artworks, one began to wonder whom one was kidding. This was nothing like this one's home.
Llangoed Hall is owned by Sir Bernard Ashley, husband of the late Laura Ashley. It presides over four hectares of exquisitely manicured gardens in the lush Wye Valley, with the Black Mountains as a backdrop.
Well known as the luxury base for top-end guest authors during the annual Hay-on-Wye Writers' Festival, and as the pit stop of choice for the drivers during the Great Britain rally, it seemed to me also to be the ideal clandestine detour for any self-respecting "double-nought" spy. Each of the 23 bedrooms drip with rich fabrics from Elanbach, Sir Bernard's textile company.
Uniquely furnished, there are antiques such as 17th century mirrors and deep, cast-iron baths. A decanter of sherry, fresh fruit and fresh flowers, all complimentary, await each guest upon arrival in their room. I dived onto the massive four-poster bed smothered in plump, soft cushions before scouring my well-stocked private bookshelves. Minimalist, these rooms are not.
Ornate timber-paned windows afford views of velvet green fields on one side of the mansion, and of secret agents arriving in helicopters on the other.
Downstairs, guests can sink a few in the billiards room, browse in the library, take tea on the garden-view terrace, try their hand at croquet, roam the Edwardian hedge maze or, my fave, sink into a plush armchair by the roaring fire and read the paper. Llangoed Hall is all about relaxing in the countryside, not yahooing with your mates. But for those who do need to let off a bit of energy, the Hall can arrange fishing, rock climbing, clay pigeon shooting, four-wheel-drive, orienteering and white-water rafting.
The refined dining room is formalised with upholstered, high-backed chairs and gleaming silver cutlery. Service, like the architecture, seems Edwardian - fastidious to the brink of subservient. The food is deliciously fresh and stylishly presented. Signature dishes focus on local fare, seasonally highlighting delicious black beef, salmon, Welsh lamb, Breconshire venison and Pant- Ysgawn goat's cheese. A distinguished wine list ranges from the house white at $40 a bottle to a 1959 Dom Perignon at $2000 - definitely James Bond territory, but alas, no James to be seen. In the morning, I woke to the polite knock of the butler delivering the newspaper and a pot of tea.
After a leisurely bath and delicious full breakfast, I wandered through the charming Elanbach shop and printery on the far side of the car park. Housed in the former sandstone gatekeeper's cottage, it's full of sumptuous homewares and pure cotton clothing - all surprisingly affordable.
I packed my scuffed bag and reluctantly descended that grand old staircase one last time. For a day and a night I'd luxuriated in the high life. And just as Aston Martins and youth hostels are worlds apart, so I realised I would never cut it as a Bond woman. One is far too attached to one's trackie daks.
The writer was a guest of Llangoed Hall.
* Rooms in Llangoed Hall start at £210 ($516) midweek and range to £400 for a master suite on weekends. Price includes full Welsh breakfast. Set dinner menu is £45. See http://www.llangoedhall.com.
* Qantas flies daily to London (Heathrow Airport). Llangoed Hall is in the village of Llyswen, Wales, about 10 kilometres from Hay-on-Wye. It's a two-hour drive from Heathrow Airport, or a 45-minute helicopter ride.
* Hay-on-Wye Writers' Festival: May 24 to June 3. Wales Great Britain Rally: November 30 to December 2.