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September 6, 2011

The English Country Life

Celebrate the anniversary of Southern England's largest moorland in castle-luxe style.

Windswept moors and wild ponies. Thatched-roof cottages and runaway sheep. A sprawling castle with crackling fires on the hearths. These are the stuff of dreams (and Jane Austin flicks).

But they’re also the ingredients of an extraordinary — and very real — trip to Dartmoor National Park in Devon, on England’s southwestern peninsula.

With over 235,000 acres, Dartmoor contains the largest and wildest area of open country in the south of England. This year it’s celebrating 60 years as a national park — though the anniversary belies just how ancient Dartmoor really is (and feels). It has the largest concentration of Bronze Age remains in the country, and a feral landscape distinguished by tors — high hilltops crowned with rock formations dating to the Ice Age.

Unlike national parks in countries like the U.S., people live within Dartmoor. Perfect little postcard villages like Lustleigh offer respite from hiking — or likely, a passing shower — and a chance to sample a quintessential Devonshire cream tea with scones, jam and a scandalous amount of local clotted cream.

Getting around Dartmoor is not for the faint of heart: a network of impossibly narrow, twisting roads, often walled with hedges, can be slow-going. But nothing’s worth more effort if your destination is Bovey Castle (pictured). A Small Luxury Hotel set on 400 acres of Dartmoor, Bovey is a Hollywood-worthy Edwardian-style manor house with 64 individually-designed rooms, 14 separate three-story lodges and an 18-hole championship golf course.

From the antler chandelier in the grand staircase to the 30-foot-high hand-carved Jacobean-style fireplace in the “Cathedral Room,” the hotel drips with class. But the soul of Bovey is really a family resort. You’re as likely to see children and dogs tearing down the wood-paneled halls as you are to see an elegantly dressed couple heading into the dining room for a three-hour, three-course affair.

The menu of activities at Bovey is vast, and there’s a team of young staff eager to tailor your itinerary. Benjamin Ballantyne was our amiable guide to archery lessons and air rifle shooting, whisking us around the estate on a golf cart and stopping to show off the barn where he teaches guests how he makes cider and sloe gin with local berries. Most mornings there is a falconry display on the rear terrace with resident falconer Martin Whitely (whose dry wit and broadcaster’s tone seems made for television — BBC take note!).

For children, there’s the action-packed “Bovey Rangers” program, while dad plays golf and mom hits the spa. Just this summer Bovey became the flagship UK spa for Sundari, an Indian-inspired line co-founded by Christy Turlington. That means your facial will incorporate an Ayurvedic head massage, which for us, made for one of the most relaxing facials we’d ever experienced.

Of course, relaxing is a pastime all in itself at Bovey — best practiced, perhaps, from a cushy chair by a big bay window looking out on the verdant hills.

read more: 02. Sleep | family | historic | resort | romantic | unusual | 03. Spa | 09. Active | golf | walk | 11. Family