The Lakes lead the way in luxury winter breaks
If you're after a winter warmer then look no further than a luxurious getaway cocooned in the Cumbrian countryside of the Lake District.
And for me and my partner, there was no better a first stop than the award-winning Leathes Head Hotel, an Edwardian country house enveloped in the heart of the Borrowdale Valley.
Don't let its grandeur and charm deceive you - for the hotel was also wrapped in a welcoming vibe. In other words, it was a home away from home - only brimming with luxuries. A deluxe room, for example, costs Â£175 for the night and includes dinner and breakfast. While draped in rustic decor, it boasted a generous en suite with both a rainfall shower and a free-standing claw-foot bath.
And so, it was tempting to spend all day indoors snuggled up in the hotel's comforts. But, still, it wasn't long before the Cumbrian landscape drew us outside to enjoy the blanket of countryside surrounding the hotel. A highlight was Cat Bells, a fell with breath-taking views.
Early evening brought canapes and drinks in the cosy conservatory. And while temperatures dropped, our stress thawed away as we watched the sun peel back and the night curl over the Borrowdale Valley.
And of course, the best way to warm the heart is to first warm the belly! Fortunately, Head Chef Noel Breaks offered a stunning prescription of fine dining at the hotel's 2 AA Rosette-awarded restaurant. No doubt the food could lift even the weariest of souls.
Five courses might sound overindulgent but the magic of Breaks' menu was its subtle flavours: unusual ingredients were gently threaded into classic dishes for a unique spin. They were light yet satisfying and wonderfully laced with richness. Take the yogurt and cucumber sorbet, the latter surprisingly exquisite - a delicious and fresh appetiser to wipe our palettes clean. Likewise, the dessert - chocolate orange with a twist - satisfied my sweet tooth without being sickly. The bitterness of the Belgian chocolate tart worked beautifully with the side of yogurt jelly and gorgeous caramelised orange ice cream - delicate pockets of sweetness.
Before a light starter of kale and mushroom ravioli, we spooned up a creamy sweetcorn amuse-bouche, and for mains we enjoyed risotto with garlic, Parmesan and tomato water jelly, which was neither too salty nor heavy.
A night cap in the stylish and newly refurbished Graphite Bar made a lovely finish to an indulgent evening of food and drink. And the fact we met another couple from our home town of Burnley was a reminder that this little slice of heaven - hidden from the stresses of day-to-day life by the valley landscape - was only a stone's throw away from home.
Another beauty of the Lakes is this: there's something for everyone. There's camping in stunning scenery for those on a budget, forests with high-adrenaline activities for families, country walking and hill-climbing for lovers of the outdoors, fabulous shopping for hens or girls on a road trip - check out the cute Peter Rabbit shop - and luxury spas for couples to unwind and peel away their stress.
For us, the Lakes was the perfect spot for a romantic autumn break. We meandered through the Borrowdale countryside in the afternoon and soaked up the views in the evening from the hotel's restaurant.
Morning brought the spa luxuries of Oxley's at Underscar. The woodland setting alone was enough to melt away our stress: sitting on the slopes of Skiddaw fell, the spa boasts wonderful views towards Derwentwater and the Borrowdale Valley. And set in the grounds of a Grade II-Listed manor house at Underscar, it's wrapped in 19th Century charm. But it's also within easy reach of the market town, Keswick, to follow up with an afternoon of shopping.
Any tension we felt was blitzed within moments of using the spa pass, which gave us access to the pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and steam room. Time stretched out over us like a blanket.
We followed this up with fabulous treatments (I enjoyed a Time Precious Decléor Facial while my partner had a traditional back, neck and shoulder massage), the friendly and professional staff putting us at ease from the moment we stepped through the doors.
And if you're thinking of popping the question, make shopping for a ring all the more special by heading to Fultons Lakes Jewellery Works in Keswick. This brand-new attraction, opened by husband and wife, Brian and Zoe Fulton, offers a unique chance to see jewellery being made first-hand and take part in the design process. There are design studios and workshops, visual display screens to watch the jewellery-making process, a gallery displaying hand-crafted products, exhibition spaces, a retail shop; and even a café, Bench, which serves coffee and handmade chocolates.
So there's no doubt we'll be heading back to the Lakes for another winter getaway. In fact, it comes as no surprise that the Leathes Head has been nominated for a Best Loved Hotels Award - it's just one in a growing list of winning accolades for manager Laura Dadulak and her team. Having felt so much at home at the hotel - and in the Lakes - it's easy to feel proud of the staff. Because as cheesy as it is, when you escape the winter chill and slip into the comforts of a Lake District holiday, it's also your heart which comes home a little warmer.