The Scandinavians do winter well. With temperatures regularly plummeting below freezing and days when the sun barely squeaks over the horizon, they have little choice but to embrace the inevitable gloom. Head to Scandinavia in the colder months and you'll find window sills perked up with candles, heated bathroom floors and all manner of other cold- and gloom-fighting comforts.
Here in the UK, where our winters are less harsh, we've muddled through in our draughty houses and soggy high streets in the knowledge that, at some point, the chill will ease and order will be restored. For the lucky few, there's the possibility of running away for some winter sun.
Slowly but surely, though, things have started to change. A few canny hoteliers and self-catering owners have cottoned on to the fact that, no matter how rural their location, the season doesn't have to end in October – just so long as you offer guests enough comfort. In this new breed of decadent boltholes, holidaying in the UK in winter is no longer a joke but a serious pleasure.
The Dune House, Suffolk
"The North Sea in winter is actually really beautiful," says the philosopher Alain de Botton. "The colours change constantly, the sky is big and sublime. The view has none of the bleakness of the barren countryside otherwise around." That helps to explain why de Botton has chosen the East Anglian coast for one of several launch properties belonging to the Living Architecture brand. The not-for-profit organisation puts up houses around the UK designed by some of the world's top architects and makes them available to the public. This particular self-catering gem, curled up in the rolling dunes on the North Sea coast, is designed by Norway's Jarmund/Vigsnaes Architects to balance the advantages of modernity with the traditional virtues of warmth and comfort. It sleeps nine and is due for completion in December.
A few years ago, having criticised in print the British tendency towards nostalgia, de Botton experienced what he called "a dark moment of the soul".
"I realised that – a few exceptions aside – books don't change anything. If I cared so much about architecture, the real challenge was to build. We describe [the scheme] as a Landmark Trust for contemporary architecture."
He is particularly enthusiastic about the Dune House: "There is under-floor heating and beautiful big windows that let in no cold. Norwegian architects know all about how to create a beautiful secure warm house for fierce winters."
The Dune House, Aldeburgh Road, Thorpeness, Suffolk IP16 4NR ( living-architecture.co.uk). Rental starts at £21 per person per night for a four-night midweek stay.
Knightsfield, Brecon Beacons
This is the latest self-catering retreat to appear on the books of Sheepskin, which was launched in late 2009 and specialises in promoting properties of distinctive character in rural and secluded locations. It's a stylishly restored, three-bedroom farmhouse set just outside Hay-on-Wye. The company's founders, Adam Lloyd and Helen Howitt, chose the name Sheepskin because it symbolises warmth, comfort and style within a rural environment.
"We've been lucky to stay in all manner of accommodation, for business and pleasure. Our experiences have helped us define what, for us, makes a great place to stay," they explain. "Even if you are lucky enough to find the ideal place, you certainly don't have time to research the area and find the best things to see and do."
Sheepskin does this for you, with a deliberately small collection of properties and honest descriptions and images on its website. "We highlight the idiosyncrasies of each property; what can be an issue for one person is the reason to go for others."
Helen and Adam also travel to each property with a professional photographer to ensure that the images are absolutely honest: "If you can't see another house in the picture it is because there isn't one."
The new Knightsfield farmhouse features a great kitchen, a lounge with open fire, under-floor heating and a decadent bathroom, complete with claw-foot bath. As with the other Sheepskin properties guests can expect such hotel-style comforts as fluffy bathrobes, luxury towels, iPod docking stations, plus a starter pack of fresh roasted coffee, tea, olive oil, sea salt and black pepper.
It would be easy to spend the day in front of Knightsfield's fire, admiring the view, but that would mean missing out on several great walks into the Black Mountains that start straight from the door.
Knightsfield, near Llanigon, Powys (01865 764087; sheepskinlife.com). Rental of the farmhouse (sleeping six) starts at £640 for a three-night stay; if rented together with the adjacent barn (sleeping four), the total is £1,040 for three nights.
Lime Wood, New Forest
Lime Wood may be a country-house hotel but it's a world away from a traditional rural manor. A five-year renovation, completed last year, added to the original Regency house to create a decadent 29-room escape. The contemporary interiors are by David Collins; local, seasonal and organic food is prepared by the head chef, Luke Holder. The changes keep coming; this month the Herb House opens, a state-of-the-art spa with swimming and hydrotherapy pools, eight treatment rooms, saunas, a hammam, steam room and fully equipped gym.
Lime Wood's chairman, Robin Huston, says many rival properties are stuck in the 1980s: "Chintz, formality, rules and precious hotel-keeping still dictate the attitude of many establishments. Lime Wood, however, is a creation very much of its time."
Winter guests will be pleased to hear that many of the rooms have their own fireplaces. When the leaves are falling, or frost or snow cover the ground, the New Forest setting becomes even more magical. "Ask Sophie Dahl how romantic her wedding was last January when the snow turned the estate into a winter wonderland," says Huston.
Lime Wood, Beaulieu Road, Lyndhurst, Hampshire SO43 7FZ (023 8028 7171; limewoodhotel.co.uk). Double rooms start at £170, excluding breakfast.
Boutique Retreats: Mousehole, Cornwall
Philippa Barton set-up Boutique Retreats in 2007 with a plan to shake-up the self-catering market in Cornwall. Her aim was simple: to bridge the gap between boutique hotels and traditional holiday cottages: "Before setting up Boutique Retreats and returning to my Cornish roots, I was a fully fledged City girl so I know how hard it is to persuade V C Londoners to venture further than the Cotswolds."
The company made its name offering cottages for two but this year it launched a range of larger houses: "Boutique Homestays".
One of its newest properties is Cherry Garden in Mousehole, which sleeps up to four. A picture of coastal chic, with a Morso stove, Ren toiletries and sea views, it boasts the company's signature high spec.
"I'm not alone in preferring the wild romance of Cornwall when the summer hordes have gone," says Philippa Barton. "The little touches make all the difference – whether that's the goodies waiting for you on arrival or a freshly laid fire in the colder months. All our properties are kitted out for winter breaks, with comfy sofas, log-burning stoves, a great selection of books and DVDs" – and access to all the coast and countryside has to offer.
Cherry Garden, Mousehole, Cornwall TR19 6RU (01872 270085; boutique-retreats.co.uk). Rental starts from £390 for two people for two nights.
Woodlands Sleep, North Yorkshire
Comfort doesn't have to come with an expensive price tag, as this welcoming five-bedroom Yorkshire hotel proves. Woodlands Sleep was opened in 2008 by Lizzie Clarke. Earlier this year she opened a restaurant called Woodlands Eat, a stroll away along the seafront. The property combines access to the glorious windswept countryside around Whitby (beaches, woods and moors) with refined comforts such as luxury bed linen, White Company toiletries and claw-foot baths. Televisions are out; idiosyncratic styling (African prints, antique beds and Clarke's trademark hand-painted furniture) is in.
"We want guests to feel that they are in a beautiful country house with access to wonderful food. The restaurant uses as much local produce as possible, including catch-of-the-day fish, game from the nearby Mulgrave Estate and Yorkshire-reared meat. As a package we offer a total 'get away from it all' break."
Another unique feature of the Woodlands is that it closes on Sundays. "We took that decision because we need time to step back and re-charge, if only to come back the next day with big smiles and a warm greeting," says Clarke.
Woodlands Sleep, The Valley, Sandsend, Whitby, North Yorkshire YO21 3TE (01947 893272; woodlandshotel-sandsend.co.uk). Doubles from £110, including breakfast.
The Cary Arms, Devon
For a dose of winter warmth, it's hard to beat a hearty meal taken by the fire in a traditional British pub – but pubs were rarely places to dream of staying overnight until the likes of the de Savarys started doing them up. Lana de Savary helped her husband Peter develop such decadent escapes as Skibo Castle in Scotland and Mount Cinnamon in Grenada. She has now revamped the Cary Arms, which opened on the Devon coast last year. There's a traditional English theme downstairs, and a New England coastal feel in the guest rooms and attached cottages. Lana explains that the idea was to "create a unique place that offers a common level of fun to all" – children are greeted with fishing nets, dogs with a personalised food bowl.
Perhaps surprisingly, the economic downturn has benefited the Cary Arms, which has seen a rise in bookings during what were previously out-of-season months, as Brits have chosen to stay in the UK. "During the colder months, the bay quietens down quite a bit, so whether our guests are after a solitary coastal walk or curling up with a good book beside a roaring fire, it's a great place for a cosy winter break," says Lana.
The Cary Arms, Babbacombe Beach, Devon TQ1 3LX (01803 327110; caryarms.co.uk). Doubles from £150, including breakfast.
Simon Nixon is an extremely successful serial entrepreneur. He established moneysupermarket. com and travelsupermarket.com. He then dreamt up the travel-advice site, simonseeks.com. Simon's latest project is an upmarket rental property business: SimonEscapes. Each property boasts a level of hi-tech design and opulent service rarely seen in the UK. "I have a passion for sleek, cool, contemporary design and for travel. SimonEscapes is the perfect way to combine the two."
Borth Cottage in North Wales opened last year. A glass-fronted beach house in Cornwall is scheduled for next year. And the 2010 offering is Elkstones in the Cotswolds. Ten people can sleep deep on Hypnos beds, and awaken to flat-screen TVs, free-standing baths, "double drench" showers, a sauna, a baby grand piano and a ridiculously sparkly chandelier. A concierge service can organise anything from polo lessons, theatre trips and restaurant bookings to massage therapists, yoga lessons or fitness instructors to complement the property's own sauna and indoor heated pool.
Elkstones, near Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire GL55 6EF (01244 784152; simonescapes.com). Rental starts at £2,250 for three nights.
The Spoons, Skye
"A collection of family heirlooms, original artworks, flotsam and jetsam from beaches we love and found objects and treasures collected over the years," is how owner Marie Lewis describes The Spoons. "Even though the building is newly constructed, when you walk in, it is filled with memories and has a sense of history".
Marie and her husband Ian are practised at their craft, having previously run Vanessa Branson's luxury Ardnamurchan retreat, Eilean Shona. "Ian and I met in London 17 years ago," explains Marie. "He was a supermarket manager, I was a teacher. Three months later we got married opposite Eilean Shona and six months later we were sitting on the island's pontoon having been left alone to run the place. Living and working there helped prepare us for starting a business from scratch when we left - and inspired us to do our own thing on a much smaller scale."
Their own thing involves offering three immaculate guest rooms equipped with luxury bedlinen, iPod docks, free Wi-Fi and Nespresso coffee machines. The couple's future plans involve growing as much of their own produce as possible; bees will provide honey by next autumn, lambs are due in spring and a vegetable garden and orchard are underway.
The Spoons is the only five-star B&B on Skye to stay open throughout the winter. "It's just lovely to be warm and cosy inside watching the wildness outside through big draught-free windows," says Marie. "If you venture out there's afternoon tea to come back to and a great drying room for wet gear."
The Spoons, 75 Aird Bernisdale, Skeabost Bridge, Skye IV51 9NU (01470 532217; thespoonsonskye.com). Doubles start at £110, including breakfast.
The Olde Bell, Berkshire
This is a posh pub with rooms, with modern British food and Ilse Crawford-designed interiors. It's one of two contemporary "coaching inns" owned by the Dhillon Group; the other is the Crown at Amersham. Tej Dhillon, the group's chairman, says "They were business investments but also emotional investments. We wanted to create a brand that would combine character and charm with contemporary, stylish and comfortable design elements. With Ilse we found a shared vision of this desire to create a unique brand."
"We stripped the building back to its original form but, rather than creating a quaint image of its past we re-wrote the building's DNA – using English furniture suppliers, tweeds, English oak, pewter jugs but with additional modern design pieces like updated Ercol Windsor Chairs. The coaching inns are perfect for winter holidays, with roaring log fires, a great wine list and hearty and robust British cooking." A new head chef, Warren Geraghty, was appointed last month. He plans to cook simple, British food using seasonal ingredients from local suppliers – and from a newly planted kitchen garden.
The Olde Bell, High Street, Hurley, Berkshire SL6 5LX (01628 825881; theoldebell.co.uk). Doubles start at £119, room only.
Natural Retreats, Llyn Peninsula
The "Natural Retreats" concept involves high-spec self-catering properties set in areas of outstanding natural beauty – with hotel-style concierge services thrown in. A "Retreat Manager" helps provide an in-depth knowledge of the surrounding attractions. The brand started with a site in the Yorkshire Dales in 2006, and now covers eight locations in the UK and Ireland; a new property is due to open in Lanzarote next month. The Llyn Peninsula development, which opened in north-west Wales earlier this year, comprises eight one- to three-bedroom stone cottages, close to Whistling Sands Beach and within reach of Snowdonia National Park.
Matt Spence, the company's chief executive, came up with the concept during a trip to Yellowstone National Park. "We're trying to build a model that works for the convenience of guests, not the convenience of the business". There are no set changeover days, nor minimum stays. He expects winter bookings to rise by at least one fifth this year: "Some of this is down to competitive pricing, but a lot is to do with the change in booking habits of customers. A lot of guests are deciding on a treat for themselves at the last minute."
Natural Retreats Llyn Peninsula, Pistyll Farm, Wales LL53 6LR (0161 242 2970; naturalretreats.com). One-bed properties start at £170 for two nights.
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