By Dennis Lennox
Forget about spending Christmas with your in-laws and that second cousin, once removed. Plan instead to spend the holidays with Queen Elizabeth II.
That could be your experience, if you head to Norfolk, the English county that is to the royals what Hyannis Port is to the Kennedy family.
What to do
While you won’t be able to actually deck the halls and drink a glass of mulled wine with the Queen herself, you can have a holiday experience very similar to the one the royals have on the twenty-fifth of December at Sandringham House.
The house isn’t open during the holidays, but the public does have access to the estate when religious services are held at St. Mary Magdalene Church. The Church of England (Anglican) parish church is where the royal family often celebrates major occasions, including Christmas Day, when the royals traditionally walk over for the 11 o’clock service.
Sandringham is certainly impressive, but the house itself isn’t nearly as palatial as Holkham Hall, the seat of the Earl of Leicester.
And unlike Sandringham, Holkham offers private guided tours when the house is closed to the general public.
Inside one finds a museum-quality collection of paintings — by Ruben, van Dyck and others — and Roman sculptures that were acquired by past earls on their grand tours of the European continent. The Marble Hall entranceway, inspired by the best of classical Rome, is architecturally notable.
Then there is the Holkham estate with its 3,000-acre rolling parkland, where visitors encounter herds of deer and aristocratic follies like the 80-foot-tall obelisk (erected in 1730). The numerous trails for walking and cycling are accessible free of charge; an unprecedented level of access that leaves one feeling like Holkham Hall is actually theirs and not the Earl of Leicester’s.
Unfortunately, access to the interior of both houses is limited in December. Architecture enthusiasts are still able, however, to admire the fine Jacobean exteriors. Among all of the architectural details the extravagant gables stand out.
Felbrigg’s estate is smaller than Holkham, but it still makes for a good way to walk off the big meal. Just watch out for sheep poop. Blickling, which was the seat of the 11th marquess of Lothian, who served as the British ambassador to the United States from 1939 to 1940, also has a wonderful used bookshop.
Where to stay
A short drive from Sandringham is Congham Hall, a classic English country house hotel that blends Georgian style with the conveniences of an upscale, boutique hotel in its 26 rooms.
The hotel focuses on the little things — complimentary wellies for guests to use on walkabouts, in-room Nespresso machines and plush bathrobes and slippers. A three-night Christmas package, which includes afternoon tea, meals, drinks, an “opportunity to wish the royal family ‘happy Christmas’ at Sandringham” and much more, is £1,325 (or about $2,020) per room.
The Victoria Inn sits just outside the gates of Holkham Hall in a small village by the name of— you guessed it — Holkham.
Room availability over the holidays is limited, but rooms in December are listed at from £130 (about $198), including breakfast. You won’t regret staying in one of the spectacularly renovated rooms in the Ancient House, a short block from the main inn. The in-house restaurant, which is more of an upscale gastropub (think good food and relaxed service), serves locally sourced food.
If Congham Hall and the Victoria Inn are sold out try The Buckinghamshire Arms, a 17th century pub on the grounds of Blickling Hall with four en suite rooms (three feature original four-poster beds).
How to get there
December airfares to Norwich International Airport, which is about 45 minutes by car from Sandringham, via a single connection in Amsterdam were as low as $802 on KLM out of New York’s J.F.K., according to a Google Flights search at the time of publication.
A rental car is a must, unless you plan on staying put at Congham Hall and Sandringham. Avis, Europcar and Hertz have rental offices at the airport in Norwich. Be sure to specify a car with an automatic transmission, if you can’t drive a stick shift.