What's behind all the festive magic at Careys Manor
PUBLISHED: 10:57 06 December 2016 | UPDATED: 10:57 06 December 2016
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A Christmas retreat deep in the New Forest sounds idyllic. Viv Micklefield heads to Brockenhurst's Careys Manor to discover the hard work that goes into creating the festive magic and some trade secrets for a stress-free celebration at home
As preparations for December 25 gather pace, some chill-out time beside a roaring log fire, having tucked into deliciously cooked Hampshire fare, or partying the night away only to escape before the clear-up beckons, sounds a welcome respite.
Careys Manor has built its reputation on such indulgence. Yet the hospitality industry is a hard taskmaster and for those working behind the scenes at this four-star hotel, it will be their busiest time in the whole year.
Since welcoming the first paying guests in 1934, this former Victorian country residence has expanded into garden wings and after ‘new’ owners took over in 1975, the following decades have seen further additions and refurbishments to the 79 bedrooms, three restaurants and award winning spa.
So what’s in store this year? And who’ll be sprinkling the seasonal sparkle?
Alistair Craig, Head Chef
If there’s one place the heat is on, that’s in the kitchen. “The chefs are here at 6am for breakfast at seven,” says Alistair Craig, who’s been in charge of the food at fine dining restaurant Cambium since the summer and will be cooking-up Christmas lunch this year. Alistair however, is no stranger to the pressures his eight-strong brigade will be under, having trained at sister hotel, the Montagu Arms, in Beaulieu.
“This is the second winter following the restaurant’s redecoration in 2015, but Christmas dinner can’t be messed around with too much because people expect us to keep it traditional. You just have to cook everything as nicely as you can and there will definitely still be turkey and all the trimmings.
“As much as possible will be sourced locally, and in future years the kitchen garden, which we’re in the process of extending with the help of our gardener, will supply more of the vegetables.”
Despite having up to 150 covers to satisfy each sitting Alistair, a new dad to boot, exudes an air of calmness, insisting that “I just do the food bit”. Although, he’s not underestimating the job ahead.
“The whole of December will be full-on, including leading up to the New Year; it’s like a Saturday night every day. Plus, I’m doing a cookery demonstration for our guests on Boxing Day, so will certainly be taking a week off, after everything’s over.”
Alistair’s tip: have food you can prepare the day before, and save time by part-cooking the vegetables.
Francoise Gysemans and Rachael Knowles, Event Coordinators
“We discuss in January what’s worked well the previous Christmas while it is still fresh in our minds,” says Francoise Gysemans, who having notched-up 14 years at Careys, oversees party bookings in French bistro Le Blaireau.
“These usually start from the first weekend in December, with a three-course menu and a disco until the early hours,” she says, continuing: “I set aside a day to decorate the room, having talked first with the restaurant manager. This year’s theme is a Christmas Jumper; I’m quite a crafty person and don’t mind a challenge.”
“It always looks amazing, Francoise does such a good job” says the other half of the events team, Rachael Knowles. Responsible for the main hotel’s black-tie Party at the Manor, this is Rachael’s third Christmas here and for 2016 she’s introduced a photo booth, for a contemporary twist.
“We keep up with the times and last year launched a relaxing spa break Christmas package. But if people still love the traditional things that we do, why change these? Whatever our guests prefer, I think it’s so important to create a family atmosphere away from home.”
Francoise adds: “We give them a little present in their bedroom too and there’s always a card personally signed by the management.” Wearing her other ‘hat’ as Carey’s wedding coordinator, and with winter nuptials barely allowing for a breather, the little touches matter she says. “We have three weddings between Christmas and New Year alone, so will have already planned everything with the bride and groom.”
Rachael’s tip: pre plan as much as you can and then you can relax on the big day.
Colin Parkes, Head of Concierge
“I’ve had two Christmas Days off in 34 years here,” says Colin Parkes, who’s the ‘face’ of Careys for many guests, as soon as they step through the oak front door. “We want everyone to enjoy themselves while they are with us, and for our department Christmas Eve is by far the busiest day with all the arrivals,” Colin observes.
“Most people begin with the festive afternoon tea on 24 December, which gives us time to get to know them and for them to get to know each other. The next day, I’ll be in for the early shift around 6:15am. We do a nice champagne reception, before Christmas lunch with crackers and hats of course, and the party atmosphere is in full swing by the time it’s the gala dinner on Boxing Day.”
As well as welcoming back returning guests, which he says accounts for up to 50 per cent of those staying, Colin knows that one of his tasks is a particularly tall order.
“I get the Christmas trees every year from Longdown Farm in Ashurst, and the tree in reception goes right up to the landing. It’s also my job to organise a car treasure hunt on Christmas morning around the forest.
“It’s lovely if there’s been a light dusting of snow – but not too much, as I’ll have to clear it away!”
Colin’s tip: it’s a long day so start with a good breakfast; and don’t forget to chill plenty of champagne.
Mark Yates, General Manager
“I shall certainly be here on Christmas morning as the “extra man” who can deal with anything that might crop up,” says Mark Yates, adding: “It’s the role of the general manager to see that everything runs smoothly.
“Because Careys Manor is still a fairly small, privately owned, hotel there’s a great camaraderie. So even those guests here for Christmas on their own, soon link-up with others. Also, being on the edge of the village, you’re not isolated. Our location is ideal.”
As a seasoned hotelier Mark also knows that creating the festive ambience whist retaining the desired level of service, is important. Whether that means putting the right staff in place to cater for up to 1400 party guests pre-Christmas – Careys, he says, recruits additional seasonal staff to support the 168 regular team members, or budgeting for Christmas baubles.
“Our florist Owen Lavin is very creative and across the three restaurants and the hotel we spend in excess of £10,000 on decorations every Christmas. £3,000 is spent on the reception area alone. The Manor and Cedar Suites also have trees and there’s outside lighting too because people expect a hotel like this to be decorated beautifully.
“I joined Careys last year, 10 days before Christmas, and so am looking forward to meeting our regular guests second time around. I hope that we’ll do things just as well as before and better, with our new guests, hopefully, becoming returning guests. For me running a hotel is a bit like being on stage.”
Go on, treat yourself
Careys Manor’s Christmas celebrations during December include a three-course lunch from £27.50 per person, available for groups of eight or more, and a festive afternoon at £24 per person. For an alternative Christmas stay the three-night spa break starting on 24 December costs from £765 per person. A two-night New Year package including dinner at one of the hotel’s three restaurants costs from £485 per person. www.careysmanor.com or call 01590 624467.