An Eco-Elegant English Hotel, “Downton Abbey” Style

Tylney Hall Hotel in Hampshire, England © Laurel Kallenbach

If you love the early-20th-century glamour depicted in the hit PBS television series Downton Abbey as much as I do, England’s Tylney Hall—an elegant country manor house turned hotel—might be your cup of tea.

Just an hour southwest of London, Tylney Hall Hotel and its 66 acres of Hampshire woodlands, lakes and gardens welcome you in aristocratic style—after all, the estate shares a similar history with the fictional home of Lord and Lady Grantham. Both were the extravagant homes of earls, and both served as soldiers’ convalescent hospitals during WWI.

In fact, the film location for Downton Abbey, Highclere Castle, is just 21 miles away. Though you can tour Highclere Castle (read “My Pilgrimage to the Real Downton Abbey”) you can’t spend the night: it’s privately owned. All the more reason to stay at Tylney Hall Hotel, which features luxurious old-fashioned bedrooms with contemporary bathrooms, indoor and outdoor pools, a spa, and fine dining.

Living Like an Aristocrat at Tylney Hall Hotel

The grand staircase at Tylney Hall Hotel © Laurel Kallenbach

My husband and I felt like Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley—minus the elegant clothes and jewels—during our two-night stay at Tylney Hall.

Our room was upstairs, and every time I regally walked down the walnut-lined staircase with its carved banisters, I felt sure that Carson the Butler was going to offer me a glass of sherry.

Far less portly and stodgy than old Carson, the staff was congenial and ready to answer our questions or requests. They brought us canapés and pre-dinner drinks on silver platters in Tylney’s ornate Italian Lounge, which easily could have qualified as a Downton Abbey set.

Our large bedroom had a private balcony with views over a redwood-lined lawn and the green woodlands. Just below, was a croquet set all assembled and waiting; we didn’t play, as we were far too busy strolling through the formal Italian Gardens. Beyond that, we went rambling down to Boathouse Lake, where we could sit on a bench and gaze at the red-bricked mansion framed by foliage.

Ken and I walked through Tylney Hall’s entryway and felt like a lord and lady. © Laurel Kallenbach

The spa at Tylney Hall Hotel uses organic aromatherapy and Kirsten Florian products and features a full spa menu of massages, wraps, facials and more.

I enjoyed the Garden of Dreams treatment, which started with a gentle exfoliation followed by a lavender-oil massage with warm stones and finished with a relaxing scalp and facial massage. It was the perfect antidote to the stress of our first day of driving on the left side of the road!

Eating Like a King

In the Oak Room restaurant (open to the public with a reservation), we enjoyed a white-tablecloth, candlelit dinner accompanied by soft music played on the grand piano. I enjoyed a filet of sole with caper sauce and new potatoes with green beans. Another bonus was a selection of French wines from just across the Channel.

Both breakfast and dinner are served in Tylney Hall’s Oak Room restaurant © Laurel Kallenbach

The Oak Room’s menu emphasizes local fare, which was at its best on the cheese board that I chose for dessert. I selected a brie, a blue, a cow’s-milk cheddar, and goat cheeses—all from no more than 50 miles away.

Posh, Yet Green

Owned by Elite Hotels, Tylney Hall incorporates a number of sustainability efforts into its operation to ensure that this historic mansion will save this piece of the environment for centuries to come.

In summer, you can play croquet on the Tylney Hall Hotel lawn. © Laurel Kallenbach

  • Recycles glass, paper, batteries, light bulbs
  • Composts food waste
  • Encourages towel and sheet reuse in all guestrooms to save on laundry water.
  • Is investigating the conversion of cooking oil into bio-diesel (to run estate machinery and company cars).
  • Purchases sustainably grown food and locally produced consumables, including Fair Trade beverages.
  • Maintains a zero landfill-waste strategy.
  • Minimizes electricity and heating to unoccupied floors and wings during periods of low occupancy.

England’s Tylney Hall Hotel offers everything a Downton Abbey fan like me could ask for: a luxurious historic house, acres of lush woodlands to explore, and eco-sensibility. Now that’s style of the Downton Abbey kind.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more Downton Abbey posts:

I loved our stay at Tylney Hall Hotel. Our room was in the center above the right arch. © Laurel Kallenbach

Jedi Knights Arrive in Ireland

Little Skellig island viewed from Skellig Michael, an island off County Kerry. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Little Skellig island viewed from Skellig Michael, an island off County Kerry. Photo courtesy Tourism Ireland

Do you watch the end titles of a movie just to see the locations where it was filmed? If so, here’s a news flash: Star Wars: The Force Awakens will treat you to some eye-popping views of a remote, uninhabited island off the coast of southwest Ireland.

Unveiled in the film’s closing minutes, the closely guarded secret ending to the newest Star Wars episode was filmed in September 2014 on Skellig Michael Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Director JJ Abrams—along with cast and crew—jetted into a little village called Portmagee, County Kerry, on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. From there, they traveled eight miles by sea to the starkly beautiful Skellig Michael.

To keep it a secret, locals were told a documentary was being filmed in the area, so they were amazed when it was quietly revealed that it was really Star Wars being filmed in their community.

A press release from Tourism Ireland quoted Gerard Kennedy of The Bridge Bar and Moorings Guesthouse in Portmagee, as saying: “It’s been so hard to keep this secret! It was such a weird and wonderful experience for our small village to be part of the Star Wars story. We enjoyed evenings of music and dance in our bar with the cast and crew. Mark Hamill even learned how to pull a pint with our barman, Ciaran Kelly!”

The monastic Island, Skellig Michael founded in the 7th century, for 600 years the island was a centre of monastic life for Irish Christian monks. The Celtic monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230-metre-high rock became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe's better known but least accessible monasteries.Photo:Valerie O'Sullivan

Starting in the 7th century, Skellig Michael was a center of monastic life for Irish Christian monks for 600 years. The Celtic monastery, which is situated almost at the summit of the 230-meter-high rock, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996. It is one of Europe’s better known, but least accessible, monasteries.    Photo by Valerie O’Sullivan

 

In the Footsteps of the Jedi Knights

Ireland’s County Kerry is one of the island nation’s best-loved destinations—and the first place I ever visited in Ireland. Thirty years ago I was wowed while driving around the Ring of Kerry, a road along the cliff-lined coast with dramatic views over the Atlantic.

If you’re a fan of Star Wars—or of stargazing—this might be just the destination for you. Kerry is one of only three Gold Tier International Dark Sky reserves in the world. The beautiful band of the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, star clusters and nebulas are just some of the wonders you can see with the naked eye in the region.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll even spot Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon as it drops out of hyperspace!

The island of Skellig Michael is accessible only by boat. Today it’s inhabited solely by birds, but monks settled there more than a millennium ago. The stacked-stone beehive huts that the monks lived in are restored and can be visited from May to September each year. (Advance booking required.)

Skellig boats arriving safely after the eight-mile journey to Skellig Michael. Photo: Valerie O'Sullivan

Skellig boats arriving safely after the eight-mile journey to Skellig Michael. Photo by  Valerie O’Sullivan

Traveling with Star Wars

A growing number of travelers choose to visit TV and shooting locations. (See my post about visiting Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed. ),

Locations for The Force Awakens include Scotland, Iceland’s volcanoes, the Abu Dhabi desert, England, and New Mexico. Past Star Wars movies have featured Tunisia, Spain, Lake Como (Italy), Guatemala, Norway, and Switzerland.

Watch a video of scenery on Skellig Michael are available at Tourism Ireland.

May the traveling force be with you!

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read about my travels in Ireland:

Canadian Ski Holiday at Banff’s Eco-Friendly Juniper Hotel

The Canadian Rockies as viewed from Banff's Juniper Hotel. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The Canadian Rockies as viewed from Banff’s Juniper Hotel. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Once in a great while, you find a hotel that seems tailor-made for you—with just the right character, setting, and attitude. I found my kindred-spirit lodging at the Juniper Hotel on the hillside overlooking the lovable resort town of Banff, in the Canadian Rockies.

Casual and relaxed, located in an outdoorsy setting, and environmentally conscious, the Juniper Hotel welcomed my husband and me with open arms. For three nights we were at home in a room with a balcony vista of majestic mountains, frozen lakes, and snow-flocked forests.

Natural Décor in the Canadian Rockies

In the 1950s, the Juniper was the well-known Timberline Motel, located in spectacular Banff National Park. In 2005 it was renovated to preserve its retro style, while using contemporary nontoxic finishes and salvaging original materials.

Lobby at the Juniper Hotel ©Laurel Kallenbach

Lobby at the Juniper Hotel ©Laurel Kallenbach

For instance, the lobby floor is fashioned from broken patio stones, and old slate shingles from the former staff accommodations are reincarnated as room numbers. Most of the wood finishes are done in reclaimed timber.

The Juniper’s owner is an avid collector of First Nations art, and much of it is displayed in the hotel, which is perfect for a property that’s surrounded by nature. Hiking trails begin right outside the back door.

Although the hotel is less than 10 minutes from the heart of downtown Banff, it’s adjacent to a wildlife corridor, a swath of protected land where local wildlife—grizzlies, mountain lion, wolves, caribou, elk—have unrestricted areas to roam and hunt.

View from the nearby Vermilion Lakes ©Laurel Kallenbach

View from the nearby Vermilion Lakes ©Laurel Kallenbach

Native landscaping around the hotel enhances the forest atmosphere, and a vegetative roof—covered with native grasses—is an eco-friendly way to keep the building’s temperatures down during summer.

Sleeping Green

The Juniper Hotel and Bistro is a member of EcoStay, a North American initiative that helps hotels measure their carbon footprint, identify and fund reduction strategies, and balance their greenhouse gas emissions through carbon offsetting. The hotel collects two dollars per night from hotel guests, and these funds purchase carbon offsets, so that basically made our stay carbon neutral.

The program also supports environmental measures, including low-flow showerheads, energy-efficient compact-fluorescent lighting, and recycling.

Panoramic Dining in a First Nations-Themed Restaurant

One of the first things I loved about the Juniper Bistro was its wall-to-wall glass overlooking the Bow Valley. All those windows offer eye-popping views of the glorious Bow Valley and iconic Mt. Rundle, which towers above the town of Banff. Beneath a handmade, birch-bark canoe mounted in the dining area, we ate several meals, and the food was satisfying and delightful—just like the scenery.

A birch-bark canoe presides over the Juniper Bistro ©Laurel Kallenbach

A birch-bark canoe presides over the Juniper Bistro ©Laurel Kallenbach

The menu highlights locally and Canadian-sourced food with international influences. The in-house bakery provides tasty biscuits and breads. (Yes, there are gluten-free options.)

One morning, I opted for a healthy egg-white frittata with roasted asparagus, aged cheddar and pickled shallots served with gluten-free toast and cherry-tomato and arugula salad. Ken dug into homemade granola and fresh fruit to fortify himself for skiing.

Gourmet dining at the Juniper Bistro. Photo courtesy Juniper Hotel.

Gourmet dining at the Juniper Bistro. Photo courtesy Juniper Hotel.

Another morning, we selected the more decadent Roasted Tomato Benny: oven-roasted cherry tomatoes, pumpkin-seed pesto, and poached eggs on a sundried tomato biscuit with hollandaise and brown-butter hash (what we would call “home fries”). This is the way breakfast on vacation should be!

Après ski hot chocolate at the Juniper Bistro. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Dinner was also spectacular; of particular note was the Mushroom Gnocchi (roasted peppers, wild mushrooms, pistachios, goat cheese, romesco sauce, and arugula with brown-butter gnocchi). The wine menu featured many fine Canadian vintages from nearby British Columbia.

In winter, one of the best hours to visit Juniper Bistro is après ski, when the setting sun plays on the surrounding peaks. We arrived just days after the Mt. Norquay ski area opened. Because our stay was mid-week, we had the bar mostly to ourselves—no crowds. We enjoyed a hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps and toasted the sunset and moonrise indoors next to the roaring fire in the bar. The staff offered to build us a fire outside on the patio, around the pit fires, but we preferred to cozy up beside the Christmas tree rather than brave the sub-zero arctic blasts.

Out and About in Banff

Mt. Rundle, photographed from Vermilion Lakes Road ©Laurel Kallenbach

Mt. Rundle, photographed from Vermilion Lakes Road ©Laurel Kallenbach

While the Juniper was our home base for three nights, we did leave its pleasant premises for some adventures. Ken drove up to Mt. Norquay ski area for telemarking the Canadian Rockies.

We also visited Banff Upper Hot Springs  under the full moon. The dash from the dressing room to the outdoor pool was shivery, but once submerged in the geothermally heated, 100-degree mineral water, we relaxed and enjoyed being toasty while surrounded by icicles and steam.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

For visitor information, see Banff/Lake Louise or Travel Alberta.

Read more about Banff and Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada:

View from Mt. Norquay ski area ©Ken Aikin

View from Mt. Norquay ski area ©Ken Aikin

Colorado’s St. Walburga Abbey Offers Contemplative Retreats

Set in a valley in northern Colorado, St. Walburga Abbey welcomes visitors for spiritual or personal retreats. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Set in a valley in northern Colorado, St. Walburga Abbey welcomes visitors for spiritual or personal retreats. ©Laurel Kallenbach

A lifesize bronze statue of St. Walburga in a nun’s habit and long robes gazes serenely over the rocky hills and low pines near Virginia Dale, Colorado. Above the saint, a red hawk dips and dives in the air currents. In this serene Western landscape live 20-plus Benedictine sisters of the Abbey of St. Walburga,  a community devoted to God and the contemplative life.

The nuns observe choral worship seven times a day; maintain a small farm with llamas, bees, and grassfed beef cows; and make handmade cheeses. (And they do all this in full-length skirts and habits!)

The abbey's sanctuary ©Laurel Kallenbach

The abbey’s sanctuary ©Laurel Kallenbach

They also welcome not-particularly-religious people like me who are seeking a quiet place to retreat from the hubbub of life.

Located 35 miles north of Ft. Collins, Colorado, and 30 miles south of Laramie, Wyoming, St. Walburga Abbey is a tranquil spot for people to slip away from the cares of everyday life and retreat into solitude, contemplation, or prayer.

The beautiful, modern chapel and abbey building—created from eco-friendly, climate-efficient building materials—is a breath of fresh air. Here you can spend one to five days getting away from it all in a restorative environment.

And you don’t have to be Catholic. (In fact, I’m told the majority of retreatants are from other belief systems or simply want time to catch their breath in a beautiful setting.)

I’ve come several times to St. Walburga Abbey for writing retreats at the suggestion of writer friends. All of them have gotten their books published, so there must be divine inspiration at work!

Carrying a bottle of healing oil, St. Walburga welcomes visitors to the Abbey. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Carrying a bottle of healing oil, St. Walburga welcomes visitors. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At Home with a Saint

The statue of a serene-faced saint greets me as I drive up, and she sets a welcoming tone. In St. Walburga’s hand is an emblematic bottle of oil. At her burial crypt in Germany, it’s said that drops of oil flow from the saint’s relics, and this oil is used to heal the sick. I’m inclined to believe in this miracle; I know I start to feel better as soon as I arrive in this gorgeous landscape.

Having a set schedule—the same every day—is relaxing for me too. The nuns’ day is centered around the Divine Office—the seven periods of prayer and psalm-singing spaced throughout the day and night. I try to attend one daily, though I’ve never made it to the 4:50 a.m. Matins. There’s a pamphlet with the words that the sisters chant—and visitors can join in. (Just follow the sisters in standing and sitting down at various times. Don’t worry, the liturgy is mostly sung in English.)

I always give the singing/chanting my best shot, even though the pitch is a bit high for me and I’m not always sure when the notes change. But when at the Abbey, it’s nice to join in the culture. And it’s a perfect way for me to break up writing sessions. The words of a psalm sung at morning Lauds (held at a more doable 7:15 a.m.) inspired a scene in my novel.

There are beautiful tapestries to admire in the Abbey, both in and outside the sanctuary. If you are Catholic, you can enjoy a scenic walk around the Stations of the Cross—or you can simply meander the property or sit in the gardens and enjoy the view. In summer when the windows are open you can enjoy the chanting from the garden—or even from your cozy room.

A pastoral setting.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

The pastoral setting is perfect for contemplative walks in nature.  ©Laurel Kallenbach

The history is as fascinating as the place is beautiful. During the early years of the Nazi regime, the nuns of the original St. Walburga Abbey in Eichstätt, Germany (Bavaria), realized they were in danger of persecution, so the Abbess bought farm land on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado, and quietly sent a few nuns to America to establish a new home for them in the event the rest of the order was forced to flee Germany. In the 1990s, the Abbey left Boulder for rural northern Colorado because the area around their farmland was developed and became surrounded by a busy commuter roads and a noisy highway. There, like me, they found peace.

Abbey Habits

On my visits to the Abbey—I usually go for two or three nights at a time—I feel myself exhale and slow down until I’m in step with this tranquil setting. I’m glad there’s no Internet; and I don’t even check my cell phone to see if there’s coverage. Instead, I chant, I write, I visit with other retreatants or a nun—if she’s got the time. (The sisters have much work to do every day, including cooking, cleaning, working in the gift shop, tending the livestock…and praying of course.)

The garden at the Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

The garden at the Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

On my most recent visit, the entire retreat center was full with a group of 18 doing a three-day silent retreat. So meals were completely nonverbal, which I enjoyed. On my first visit, the guests consisted of me and just one other woman who was a little too chatty. No worries, I simply pinned a badge on my sweater that stated I was keeping silence. That kept me in my own space instead of making small talk that distracted me from my writing or that crowded out my characters’ fictional voices in my head.

I’ll pass along a tip one of my friends shared with me the first time I went to the Abbey of St. Walburga: take snacks. The cafeteria-style meals are lovingly prepared, but basic and modest. There’s a refrigerator for retreatants, so you can easily store a few treats for between-meal munching. That said, the sisters make a huge effort to accommodate special dietary needs, and there are often homemade cookies for dessert!

Another thing: attire at the Abbey is casual, even though the sisters are wearing their Sunday best every day—except when they change into work clothes and aprons for chores. Because it’s outdoorsy, you need sturdy walking shoes. And you can wear jeans and a T-shirt into the church (but not shorts or sleeveless shirts).

The bell tower, St. Walburga Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

The bell tower, St. Walburga Abbey ©Laurel Kallenbach

Last but not least, there are bells. Every day, a sister walks to the bell tower wearing noise-reducing headphones for ear protection, and she begins to ring the bells. First, they peal just one at a time. Then the sister gets both going at once. The jubilant bells beckon to all who seek harmony as if saying: “Come to the life-affirming, serenity-inspired sanctuary that is the Abbey of St. Walburga.”

Who the retreats are for: People desiring peace and quiet and open air. The day begins and ends early. (You’re welcome to keep your own hours, of course, but you should respect the privacy and quiet of others both day and night.) There is no WiFi, and cell phone coverage is spotty, which is perfect if you’re serious about unplugging. Three meals a day are provided; the food tends to be simple. Rooms are comfy and modest with a twin-sized bed and private bathrooms. (There is also a handicapped-accessible room, and one with two beds to accommodate a married couple.) A minimum donation/offering of $65 per night is requested. Here’s more information on retreats (either organized through the Abbey or just personal retreats).

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Watch the “Rancher Nuns” video about the St. Walburga nuns.

The sign on Highway 287. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The sign just off Highway 287 between Laramie and Ft. Collins. ©Laurel Kallenbach