WITH Valentine's Day fast approaching, choosing a suitable love- inn should be high on the list of lovers' priorities.
Britain may not sound a very likely destination for l'amour, but happily British hoteliers are now changing their attitudes towards sex. They are keen to attract the lucrative wedding and honeymoon market and are no longer inhibited about providing the things that really matter. Out go creaky mattresses and hot-water bottles and in comes the understanding that for good "say-no-more romance" the perfect bed has to be as sensuous as its surroundings.
There is no better place to start than the four-poster bed. The curtains enclosing the four-poster were originally designed to provide sexual seclusion for the medieval lord and his lady in the communal Great Hall. Today they have the handy function of screening guests from inopportune intrusions by maids and mini-bar checkers. My favourite four-poster destination is the Ash Room at Gravetye Manor in West Sussex. The crisply draped period bed is set in a panelled room, which was created in the 16th century by the then owner for his bride. Their entwined initials are carved over the fireplace.
If, on the other hand, sleeping where the stars slept is more likely to turn you on, why not try the Pasha room at Blake's where Liam and Patsy stayed on their honeymoon. The room is styled to reflect a turn- of-the-century Turkish gulet boat and contains a sunken table, with Berber poles for bed posts, beige and white striped hangings, huge white urns around the bed and blinds rising from the floor.
If pop stars aren't good enough, it is also possible to live out your dreams with royalty. At Hartwell House, near Aylesbury, Louis XVIII's splendidly spacious and serene bedroom-in-exile is available, with a bathroom concealed by a fake wall behind the crested four-poster. Louis kept his passion alive by eating so many oysters his subjects called him Louis Huitres. His alcoholic queen's bedroom along the corridor is more feminine with an elegant four-poster and park views from window seats of a big bay window.
Other than its previous occupants though, what makes a perfect bed? According to princess-and-the-pea purists, the heart of the affair is the mattress. Hoteliers seem to agree. Claridges' maids follow a seven- point plan that includes providing separate single eiderdowns, one each side of the double bed, thereby eliminating unseemly middle-of-the-night bedclothes tussles. The hotel has also solved the problem of making twin beds into a smooth, non-dividing double with a shaped duvet-like insert between the mattresses.
As for the Savoy hotel group, it has its own factory in which mattresses are made by hand. They are made of 864 densely packed, individually pocketed springs padded with animal hair and wool. And if the night turns out to be sensationally memorable, it is possible to order a customised Savoy bed for your own home as a souvenir. Blake's will also make copies of their elegant beds for enchanted customers. And at the Sloane Hotel, orientally pillared, pinnacled and canopied Empire beds can be bought for around pounds 20,000 (everything in the bedrooms is for sale - smaller keepsakes are Victorian potties or policeman's truncheons).
Short of pillowtalk? One possible inspiration for couples would be the larger-than-legend white plaster cherub hanging five foot above the bed on the top floor of Prestonfield House in Edinburgh. Peacocks outside and the cherub challenge inside may lead to a lively night in this 17th- century house. The Cherub room was created in 1817 using the ceiling of the entrance hall.
Not so much chat as open-mouthed amazement is more likely to be the response to the magnificent ceiling in the Duke of York's bedroom at the Royal Crescent in Bath. Formerly the drawing room of George III's son (best remembered for marching his 10,000 soldiers up and down hills), it is still hung with chandeliers and has superb mouldings picked out in period pastels, looking down on a high, wide and handsome bed that in turn gazes towards the fire and a portrait of the Grand Old Duke. A full sized dining table enables elegant meals to be taken by the fire.
Talking of fires, there is nothing like the flickering light of a bedroom fire to ignite passions. Hinton Grange, near Bath, a farmhouse with 15th- and 18th-century sections, proposes a lace-swagged Georgian bed as its most romantic while a 16th-century, heavily carved full tester (said to have been a bishop's bed) is the most impressive. The rooms are furnished with antiques and have open fires and some have Victorian baths behind mahogany and lace screens, just the place to come clean with your love over champagne and the warmth of fire and water. After the bath, dine in by fire and candlelight. A champagne breakfast is included in the room rate and candlelit meals (no unflattering electric lights), can also be taken in the dining-room, or underneath banana palms around the conservatory pool. This is one hotel where the owners encourage guests to stay in and enjoy their rooms.
Finally, it might not sound totally compatible with romance, but if design gets your glands up then you should visit Stapleford Park, near Melton Mowbray. This hotel has a fantastic mix of designer fantasy beds in themed rooms: the David Hicks bed is the room's focal point with three posts curving to a ceiling "crown" supporting swathes of opulent striped silks, swagged, tied with bows and sweeping the floor. If that isn't interesting enough, you could try getting shirty with your partner in theTurnbull & Asser room where walls are covered with shirt fabric, curtains are smoking- jacket velour held back with handmade silk ties and from the bed one can admire the pictures of designer shirts held up by silk trouser braces.
And to round it all off, try a 1970s circular bed in room 16 of London's Portobello Hotel. The room also contains Chinese furniture, hand-painted gold wallpaper and a free-standing Victorian bath and multi-shower unit where, legend has it, rock star Alice Cooper once fed his pet python with mice sent up on room service.
Love fact file
Gravetye Manor and Hartwell House are members of Relais et Chateaux, 0171 287 0987; Savoy and Claridges are members of Leading Hotels reservations 0800 181 123; Blakes 0171 370 6701; Stapleford Park 01572 787522; Sloane Hotel 0171 581 5757; Prestonfield House 0131 668 3346; Royal Crescent 01225 739955; Hinton Grange 0117 937 2916; Portobello 0171 727 2777.
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