Hooray Henley for the perfect weekend
Even if we are still choosing to take our main holidays abroad, lots of us are taking weekend breaks in the UK. And with accommodation of the quality offered by chains of chic boutique hotels and the grander country house properties, you can understand why.
One of the "boutique" brands to have revolutionised our weekending habits is the upscale Hotel du Vin chain, sister brand to the Malmaisons.
I spent a weekend in their Henley-on-Thames property, which is not just perfect for chilling out, but its proximity to London - under an hour's drive from the north of the capital - makes it perfect for an indulgent weekend away, without a long shlep home in Sunday evening traffic. We were particularly lucky to visit the hotel on one of the summer's rare sunny weekends, allowing us to take advantage of the elegant outdoor space at the converted former brewery beside the river.
There's a wonderful courtyard with tables and it was a particular treat to eat breakfast in the sunshine. At weekdays there is also a barbecue complementing the usual lunchtime menu. For winter visitors, the cosy bars with big squashy sofas and great cocktails, make up for not being able to use the courtyard.
The hotel is also perfect for a romantic weekend away. Its 43 guest rooms include five suites - each named after a variety of wine or Champagne sponsors. For instance, Ruinart (named after the first Champagne house, founded in 1729) is a split-level studio suite with a bathroom that takes up the entire top floor and houses an over-sized walk-in shower and a terrace with roll-top bath, outdoor heater and views over the Thames.
La Grand Dame - named for Veuve Clicquot's grand cru - is set on three levels with double roll-top baths and an eight-foot bed.
Other rooms are gorgeously finished with stripped wood, white walls, crisp Egyptian cotton sheets, flat screen TV, DVD player (and DVD library at reception), Wi-Fi connection and a well-stocked mini-bar.
A lot of attention has gone into the hotel's buzzy Bistro, serving European cuisine with an extensive menu which changes daily and includes plenty of non-meat options. As you would expect from a Hotel du Vin, it also has an extensive and well-chosen wine list. After dinner, guests head to the Champagne Bar, the softly lit Snug or the Cigar and Billiard Room with a huge choice for cigar-smokers, as well as an "indoor" smoking room outside.
If you enjoy some pampering, the hotel recommend the Kubu Spa, a few minutes walk away.
It offers a wide range of treatments, including the excellent one-hour massage I had, but some of the pleasure is reduced when you have to walk back afterwards.
If you're lucky enough to pick a weekend when it's not raining, you can use the Bateau du Vin, the hotel's 12-seater restored Victorian barge and take your own picnic or order canapés specially prepared by the chef.
The hotel is just 50 yards from the famous riverside moorings and Hobb's boatyard, so you can stroll beside the river or visit the historic town centre where there are plenty of shops to keep you occupied.
And there's plenty to do in South Oxfordshire, if you choose to venture a little further from the hotel.
Throughout the summer months there are numerous festivals including the Henley Festival of Music and Arts (July), Henley Literary Festival (September), Henley Food Festival (May) and Henley Fringe Festival.
And if you feel like doing some serious shopping, it's under 30 minutes to the designer shopping village at Bicester.
Hotel du Vin and Bistro, New Street, Henley-on-Thames, Oxon RG9 2BP (01491 848400;
www.hotelduvin.com) offers double rooms from £145 per night, room only. Deluxe suites from £295 per night. Continental breakfast £9.95 per person; full cooked breakfast £13.50. Henley Festival July 2009 (www.henley-festival.co.uk);