For years I’ve planned to recreate my version of The Trip, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s mix of sitcom, travelogue and food porn.
The idea is simple: me and Ian, one of my oldest friends, in a Land Rover; fine dining in the north of England, and talking a lot of nonsense; something we hadn’t done enough of in recent years, living on either side of the Pennines.
So finally, on this crisp winter Sunday, that plan is a reality, though I didn’t expect we’d be in said car at a 30-degree angle, seemingly on the verge of toppling over.
For the first few minutes of our off-roading experience, care of The Coniston Hotel and Spa in Skipton, I fear I’m in over my head as I get to grips with the new world of ’diff lock’ and unlearning 30 years of safe driving habits.
No matter how many eps of Top Gear or The Grand Tour I’d watched, nothing prepares me for being in the driving seat, trying to ignore everything common sense tells me.
Thankfully our instructor, more witty Yoda than Jeremy Clarkson, could not be more helpful, and what he doesn’t know about the Land Rover Defender is not worth knowing.
Ian takes over for the second phase of riding up insane gradients and through seemingly perilous brooks.
As I finish the final leg, everything clicks into place as I realise we’re not driving a normal car but a miracle of engineering. If it was suddenly capable of vertical take off, I wouldn’t be surprised.
That word ’experience’ is over-used and often unworthy in a lot of generic attractions, but this is the real deal. It’s 60 unforgettable minutes.
I think my few hours on site can’t get any better than that.
Thankfully I’m wrong.
But let’s rewind a little.
The trip to Skipton begins with Sunday brunch (a terrific sausage and bacon sandwich with a cuppa) and a chance to soak up the main dining room and that superlative-defying view.
With a roaring fire and a contended dog lolling at the feet of their happy owners, the place instantly puts me at my ease.
We enjoy a tour of the clay pigeon shooting range, and its clubhouse – a stunning Canadian log cabin-style affair which is heaving with punters either relaxing with snacks and beverages, or perusing the guns and merchandise. The whip-crack of gun shots reverberating at the clay shooting ranges is a weird, hypnotic soundtrack to the experience.
This section, like the whole operation, runs like a Swiss watch. Everywhere we go, the staff are amiable, hugely helpful and the facilities are all high end, like they were fitted that morning.
I’m not surprised companies come here for meetings and team-building exercises. All they need to do is study the organisation itself: a model of efficiency.
Later we tour the estate and realise how enormous it is, with standalone residences for those who prefer more seclusion but still want to make use of the facilities.
There’s a wealth of possibilities, from wedding receptions to archery, equestrian or just relaxing in the spa.
And we find out about the latter during a perfectly timed visit before sunset: another jewel in the estate’s crown.
Again the whole thing looks like it was fitted hours ago, with saunas, swimming pool, hot tubs, and an infinity pool looking out over a stunning vista. It’s years since I’ve experienced anything so tranquil.
I enjoy a massage that unknots assorted wound up muscles. Again expertly done, and by the time I emerge from the zen-filled state of dimmed lighting, and transcendent music (as standard), I’m more chilled out than Jeff Bridges’ Lebowski after he gets his rug back.
My room is equally spot on. Spacious and with everything you’d expect from a luxury hotel: comfortable bed; amazing balcony overlooking a breathtaking lake with snow-capped mountains in the distance; tea-making facilities (essential); mini fridge, and a bathroom to die for: heated towel rail, impressive bath and a waterfall shower.
Top tip: set the lever position at 7.05 to get a perfect temperature, unless you like recreating Bill Murray’s icy bathroom scenes from Groundhog Day.
We savour a delicious afternoon tea, with meaty spring rolls, assorted sandwiches and scones, cakes and Eton Mess.
Okay, we might not be your typical afternoon tea types; middle aged blokes savouring nibbles on tiered crockery is no doubt a comedic sight, but I’m always one for bucking stereotypes, and after all, this is not a typical weekend break.
Dinner at the Macleod dining room has a lot to live up to, and as with all hotels featuring stunning food, I expect the ball to be dropped at some point. I think no hostelry, no matter how good, can sustain a level of excellence for the length of my stay.
Again I’m happily proved wrong, as we enjoy a mouthwatering dining experience.
My slow cooked belly pork starter with apple, tonka bean and crackling (£8.50) is a dream, and the fillet of beef at £28.50 is also worth every penny. I treasure each mouthful like it’s my last meal. With Pomme Anna, mushroom purée, spinach, crispy shallots and bone marrow bon bon, it’s exactly the sort of thing Coogan and Brydon would approve of inbetween assorted impersonations.
I do know it’s left a great impression on my taste buds. Everything is beautifully cooked, and mid-meal we order a side of baby carrots, which arrive in next to no time – the perfect addition.
My dessert, A Taste of Mocha at £8.50, is also a delight. A white chocolate and Baileys milkshake, coffee mousse, espresso cookie and churro is an almost a perfect way to round off an outstanding meal. Then the white port dessert wine arrives, and it’s the final piece of the culinary puzzle.
The mix of spa, massage, food, fresh air and pottering around the grounds ensures I’m out like a light.
After a good night’s sleep and that amazing shower, it’s time for more food. Well, you have to keep your strength up for this sort of thing.
Breakfast at £14.50 is a mix mix of fruit juice, cereals and then a full Yorkshire: sausage, black pudding, bacon, scrambled eggs, toast, mushroom, potatoes. All cooked to perfection; that fried bread is especially outstanding.
And this is where you came in.
The 4×4 off-roading experience, as you may have guessed, is phenomenal. And at the risk of sounding like Mr Creosote, it’s time to sample more of that amazing menu at lunchtime.
Over a pot of tea, we enjoy a sharing board of Field Food: sticky sausages with mustard and honey; warm breads, balsamic syrup; devilled whitebait with Tabasco mayonnaise… I could go on but I’m starting to drool again. At £21.95, it’s a perfect tapas-style selection for those who don’t want a full meal.
As Ian (reluctantly) goes back to work, I head to the falconry area, a short drive from the hotel.
Like the 4×4 experience, it’s one of the many attractions I’ve been looking forward to for weeks, and the sight of assorted owls and an eagle soaring over fields to land on my talon-proof glove and wolf their dinner is one of ’those’ moments.
If the 4×4 was the pure adrenaline of a great action movie, this is the ET-style sucker punch at the end of the film that leaves me (almost) speechless.
I think half an hour or 45 minutes will be enough for the experience. Sadly it flies faster than the Bengal eagle owl, just one of the stunning birds who scoffs his dinner from my hand and steals my heart in the process.
I’ve been at one of the UK’s finest resorts and spas for a little over 27 hours and packed so much in to my stay, it feels like days.
I wish I had longer.
Incredible facilities, stunning food, great staff and genuine life-affirming experiences that will live with me for years.
At the risk of sounding like a corny greetings card, I’ll leave you with this rather apt phrase.
’Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away’.
Consider me breathless.
:: With thanks to Eric the owl, and everyone at Coniston Hotel and Spa.