CHELTENHAM -- Did you ever wish you could travel back in time, back to the days of Jane Eyre, Pride & Prejudice or Downton Abbey? Well, you don't need Michael J. Fox's Delorean; just a regular plane, train or automobile can take you to a world that will make you think you've walked into a Jane Austin novel.
Located just over two hours by train or car northwest from London, Cheltenham is one of the best places to start on your trip back through time, crossing through an English countryside where sheep dot the hills, penned in by fences built from stone.
Situated in an area referred to as the Cotswolds, it has been designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Britain, and a conservation board established in 2004 ensures it will stay that way. The result is small villages that look as if they've come straight off the pages of a Jane Austin book.
The Ellenborough Park is a prime example. Located in just 10 minutes outside Cheltenham, this luxury Cotswolds destination hotel's main house dates back to the 1500s. Refurbished in 2011, it won the U.K.'s Leading Country House Hotel and Leading Spa Hotel awards at the World Travel Awards.
Inside, the 62 rooms and suites have all been individually designed by Nina Campbell, and the spa has seven different treatment rooms as well as a sauna, steam room and whirlpool. I opt for the aromatherapy back, neck and shoulder massage and am pleasantly surprised by the professional training of my masseuse. Other treatments such as a wide variety of facials and body wraps are available, as well as a full list of massages, including deep-tissue massage.
Heading out of the hotel looking for something different, I am intrigued by a combination I'm sure you won't find anywhere else. It's called The Guns and Roses Experience where, as it's name suggests, they combine the art of shooting clay pigeons and arranging flowers. Only in the Cotswolds, I'm sure!
Located near the small village of Bourton on the Water, owner Shelley Spencer has found a way to combine her two loves -- skeet shooting and flower arranging, and as odd as the combination sounds, it makes for a very unique and fun adventure.
For those of us who have never fired a rifle before, we're happy for the instructions we're given, and the mood takes on an air of seriousness, realizing we're dealing with potentially lethal firearms. We all take turns cheering each other on. As the only vegan in the group, I get teased mercilessly for having the best shot and the others joke about leaving the job of hunting for dinner up to me.
As for the flower arranging, that becomes a real bonding experience for our group as we laugh at each other's attempts to come up with the best floral arrangments. Having never tried to do more than assemble a backyard bouquet, it turned into a rather comical afternoon as we took turns stuffing roses, hydrangeas, ferns and other greenery into the specially designed base.
Dinner in downtown Cheltenham that night was at The Daffodil, a refurbished old movie theatre with dishes that reflect the locality. Unlike the Ellenborough, The Daffodil's ability to cater to vegan diets isn't quite as good, but they do win points for the great decor and fun ambience.
Driving through the Cotswolds the next day, we stop in small villages with names such as Lower Slaughter, Stow-in-the-Wold and Bourton-on-the-Hill. With sites to see such as the Sudeley Castle, the Stanway House and the old mill at Lower Slaughter, it really does feel as if we've slipped through time to land in a world of cobblestone streets, stonemason-crafted shops, pubs and the kind of houses you could imagine Jane Austin might have been writing about.
One of the highlights of the trip was a stop at The Feathered Nest Country Inn in Nether Westcote. Director Sam Mendes and now ex-wife Kate Winslet bought a large house on the edge of the village a few years ago and Mendes is still an active member of the village cricket team, so you never know who you might find dining beside you.
With only four rooms at the inn, it's extremely quaint and the restaurant/pub takes the presentation and taste of food to a whole new level. As a vegan, this was truly the culinary highlight of my trip. They won the AA Pub of the Year award for all of England in 2011 and 2012.
Wandering through The Feathered Nest, you'll find bookshelves filled with original volumes of classics, a treasure of an old piano just waiting to be played and a couple of saddles for bar stools in the pub.
Our trip was timed to catch the Cheltenham Literary Festival, where guest speakers included Roger Moore and J.K. Rowling. The literary festival is the longest-running of its kind, formed in 1949.
Other cultural activities in the area include the Cheltenham Concert Series, which features such delights as the Philharmonic Orchestra, BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra during the upcoming season.
Sitting inside the beautiful Cheltenham Town Hall listening to the music of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach, you might just believe you did indeed fall through time.
-- The Canadian Press
IF YOU GO
-- Air Canada offers 43 non-stop flights to London per week, departing from Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, Ottawa, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.
-- For information on Ellenborough Park, visit ellenboroughpark.com. For The Feathered Nest Inn, visit thefeatherednestinn.co.uk. For more information on the Guns and Roses Experience, visit their website at gunsandrosesexperience.co.uk. For The Daffodil, visit the daffodil.com. For more information on the Cotswolds, visit costwolds.com. For information on the literary festival, visit cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature. For the concert series, visit cheltenhamtownhall.org.uk.
For more information on travelling through Britain, go to visitbritain.com or visitengland.com