Live Like Madonna (for the Weekend)

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No visit to England is complete without a visit to a country house hotel. The suburbs of London are loaded with such places, estates of distinction where you can live out your Gosford Park fantasies in style. Spend your days playing croquet and your nights dressing up for cocktails and gourmet chow. To really fit in, don't forget to pack your wellies and flat cap hat, just like Madonna does when she's at her country estate, Ashcombe House. Here's a short list of the best of the bunch.

Babington House is the country outpost of the Soho Club in London, which means it attracts the media elite as well as plenty of celebrities. The 18th-century home is where Sense and Sensibility was filmed, and the overall vibe is luxurious and decadent (there's a resident swan as well as an on-site helicopter landing pad). If playing cricket or tennis doesn't suit you, guests can hole up in the private cinema or retreat to the Cowshed Spa, where treatments have names such as Pampered Cow and Holy Cow. Guests can choose from 28 individually designed rooms in either the main house or in separate buildings such as the Stable Block or Coach House. The decor mixes modern with traditional, such as attic bedrooms with exposed beams and flat-screen TVs. Rates start at f215. Babington House, Babington near Frome. Somerset. 44 (0) 1373 812266.

Chewton Glen is the gold standard for English country house hotels. Located within the area known as the New Forest, a royal hunting ground, the hotel is traditional, formal, and the service top notch. The main house was once owned by Colonel Ernest Lindsay Marryat. His brother, Captain Frederick Marryat, who lived here in the 1840s, was inspired by the manse to write the novel The Children of the New Forest. There are 58 bedrooms, and though the decor in most is traditional, there are luxuries like Bang Olufsen CD players in the rooms. For unwinding, there's a Michelin-starred restaurant, a nine-hole golf course, tennis court, and a spa with a 56-foot indoor pool. Rates start at f280. Chewton Glen, New Milton, Hampshire. 44 (1) 425 275341.

Cliveden House is steeped in classic elegance. This Italian-style manor home, tucked inside 376 acres of National Trust gardens, is reached via a long, winding road. Upon arrival, guests are ushered into the Great Hall, which is flanked by a gigantic fireplace and filled with suits of armor and oil paintings. Once the estate of the wealthy Astor family, the house has seen its share of posh guests, including Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and Charlie Chaplin. Cliveden House will always have a whiff of scandal -- this is where War Minister John Profumo met Christine Keeler in the 1960s, resulting in the scandal that led to his downfall. All 38 rooms are named after prominent guests, and the decor is traditional English -- plenty of antique furniture and marble fireplaces. Rates start at f295. Cliveden House, Taplow, Maidenhead. 44 (0) 1628 668561.

The Grove is the place to go if you prefer minimalism to chintz and checks. The hotel is the former country estate of the Earl of Clarendon, and although the shell of the 18th-century house is intact, everything else has undergone a 21st-century makeover. Architect Martin Hulbert says the look he was aiming for was groovy grand. Interiors mix the modern and traditional with a playful sense of humor. Public spaces have extravagant chandeliers, Lucite furniture, and art that ranges from a rubber duck display to a huge black-and-white photo of a giraffe standing in a ballroom. The 227 rooms are done up in shades of cream and chocolate brown, or in deep purples to evoke Victorian exoticism. There are three restaurants, a spa, golf options, and there's even a club for kids. Rates start at f250. The Grove, Chandler's Cross, Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire. 44 (0) 1923 296027.

Whatley Manor is a newly renovated and expanded 1920s hunting lodge. Set within 12 acres of English gardens, the hotel's vision is to create a luxurious, cocoon-like atmosphere for total relaxation. Upon arrival, guests are greeted by their own personal manager, who acts as a butler, and a complimentary mobile cellphone allows you the freedom to call for a drink while lolling on a chaise in the garden. The 15 rooms and eight suites are individually decorated, and many offer free-standing bathtubs and exposed beams. There are two restaurants -- one just received a Michelin star -- and for relaxing there's a La Prairie spa and a 40-seat cinema with leather chairs. Rates start at f275. Whatley Manor, Easton Grey, Malmesbury. 44 (0)1666 822888.

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